One of the great social experiences encouraged in the discursive space of a film festival – last month’s SFF being, of course, no exception – is the emergence of an open forum for viewing recommendations. Gathered in cinema foyers and between-screening gözleme joints, cinephiles can rave about their favourite directors, or excoriate their pet hates, with relative impunity. It’s a deeply revealing process for all of us, and a wonderful example of the intellectual and cultural pluralism at the heart of screen culture. Or so I thought. While my recommendations to friends, family, and even fellow cineastes have typically been well received, there were a few metaphorical thumbs-up I offered to films in the SFF program which met with reactions ranging from polite – and poorly-feigned – interest, through raised eyebrows, all the way to something that looked uncomfortably like pity. Specifically, admonishing people to watch Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery and At Berkeley and Wang Bing’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part gained little traction.
What was the problem? Of the three, I only caught National Gallery, but recommended At Berkeley on its strength, and the Wang film based on his previous effort. My papers were in order, so to speak. They are all documentaries, but so is Manakamana, a challenging formal experiment that almost everyone I met was anticipating gleefully. A quick trip to IMDb gives the answer: the three above films are one-hundred-and-eighty, two-hundred-and-forty-four, and two-hundred-and-twenty-seven minutes long respectively. Watching all three would eat up the best part of eleven hours. Ultimately, there is something about long films that is often distasteful or off-putting, for even the broadest-minded of film viewers. It seems that this prejudice – no, I’m not being overwrought – is a pretty common one, but oddly extends only as far as the medium of film. Sixteen hours spent binge-watching Game of Thrones is a Sunday well spent, and staggering bleary-eyed from one’s bedroom having conquered a David Foster Wallace novel earns begrudging respect. In my view, a defence of films of extreme, unwieldy or downright absurd duration is in order. Furthermore, I think that a discussion of the historical context and industrial and stylistic approaches of such films can reveal some surprising common threads. The positions that long films have held, and do hold, at the heart of – and light years away from – the critical canon, reveal aspects of the nature of film viewership whose importance to modern screen culture is undeniable.
Par example: who has actually seen Les Vampires? Made long enough ago, in 1915, that its native France was still just about the world’s leading producer of narrative films, it’s one of the forefathers of more or less any crime film made for the following half-century, at least until its New Wave compatriots did their best to unmake and then remake the entire genre. It’s all here – nefarious baddies with underground lairs, moustachioed policemen who are always one step behind, poison gas, opium dens, impossible safe heists, and, in arch-villainess Irma Vep (not the most challenging anagram in history), a femme fatale beguiling enough to renew my everlasting regret that all of the women who appeared in silent films are now dead. It is routinely cited as a prototype for the lightning-fast Thirties thrillers of Fritz Lang, the endless twists, turns, revelations and comic-horror McGuffins of Fifties Hitchcock, and the macabre sensuality of Buñuel at his most impetuous. Les Vampires’ narrative form, though, has left it criminally underseen, a casualty of its own duration: a serial film in no fewer than ten parts, it clocks in at a weighty sevenish hours. Louis Feuillade, the film’s director, is most renowned for his wartime productions of these twisty serials, with the equally enjoyable Fantômas, Judex and Tih Minh (1913, 1916 & 1918) under his belt; the shortest of which runs to five-and-a-half hours. Don’t misunderstand me here: Feuillade’s serials (and, to a lesser extent, some American examples from the period, such as The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine [both 1914], and other inexplicably alliterative twee titles) are highly critically regarded: Vicki Callahan wrote in Sight and Sound of Feuillade’s tentative establishment of a “cinema of fluidity and uncertainty,”1 which intentionally highlighted the fledgling form’s ability to create sites of contested meaning by juxtaposing realist and formalist elements. Academic writing on serials, though, always seems to be composed to champion a wily and misunderstood underdog – Callahan herself concedes that “it was years [after their release] before Feuillade’s films escaped the label of aesthetic backwardness.” To many critics, their very exhibition method, as a centime-a-pop serial in ten instalments, gave these crime films an air of proletarian classlessness; the great unwashed could teem in mid-series, get their on-screen fix of sex, drugs, murder and moustaches, and discard any remaining amount of the story like a dime-store novel.
While this reputation has been mostly rehabilitated thanks to a marginally less pretentious French critical establishment, I think it’s clear how closely entwined the Feuillade serials’ underappreciation is with their inaccessible duration. Which is grossly unfair: Callahan even observes how the lengthy serial format adds to Les Vampires’ smart exploration of the cinematic mode, noting that “the serial form means that the pursuit of criminality or evil is essentially an ongoing saga that can never be completed; the capture of the criminal is not a moment of closure but rather an opportunity to start the narrative anew, since capture is invariably, and sometimes immediately, followed by escape.” Within a diegesis whose stylistic elements are already subversive and interesting, repeating the cat-and-mouse narrative over an unfamiliar and uncomfortable period of time transcends ad nauseum and becomes ‘ad insaniam’ – to the point of a calculated and pointed madness. While I may be biting off more Latin than I can chew there, I think it’s an important idea. While, yes, the serial form of these early long films is tied in a major way to economic, industrial, and exhibitory practices of their time, the notion that extreme duration can be attitudinally significant rather than just self-indulgent allows us to cast new light on later long films. Oh, and literally every one of these serials is now in the public domain; their easy availability means there is no excuse not to spend this weekend with Irma Vep and a bucketful of opium, instead of that little whiner Bran Stark.2
The modernist trend of far later decades saw its filmmakers’ predilection for subverting generic constructs find its match in the film serial, with the great Jacques Rivette’s gigantic, thirteen-hour – yes, thirteen-hour – opus Out 1 following a similar episodic form. Centred on two Parisian theatre troupes – if you’re not familiar with the film, think drama undergraduates, complete with all of the weird sex and shoddy Marxism – the work painstakingly traces the descent of several characters into a shady secret society which may or may not exist. The Harvard Film Archive characterizes Rivette’s films as exploring “complex interplay[s] between fiction and reality in which his layering of a world within the larger world of his films is both reflexive and magical.”3 It’s clear, then, why the critical establishment’s resident Francophile Jonathan Rosenbaum, an Out 1 fanatic, draws explicit parallels between the film and the Feuillade serials, concerned as they both are with the absurd illogic which underpins the real world. Rosenbaum argues further that Out 1 deploys its threatening duration to timely and meaningful ends: “By the end, the paranoid fiction that the actors have generated has almost completely subsumed the documentary, even though the implied conspiracy continues to elude their grasp as well as ours. The successive building and shattering of utopian dreams — the idealistic legacy of May 1968 — are thus reproduced in the rising and declining fortunes of all the characters.”4 France’s quashed philosophical revolution is replayed, laid bare, and amplified down to the tiniest everyday detail by Out 1’s baker’s dozen of intense, perplexing hours. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose daily intake of various stimulants rivalled that of the entire Tour de France, is consequently hardly known for his introspection. Nevertheless, his nine-hundred-plus-minute made-for-TV Berlin Alexanderplatz, completed in 1980, takes a similar approach, employing its length to dissect, minutely and resolutely, the zeitgeist of Thirties Berlin, whose pervasive ideas would of course lead to the greatest of horrors. What is easily seen as a logical extension of the desire to portray ‘epic’ or historically important subject matter can in fact be traced, then, to the modernist paranoia evoked even by Feuillade. But beyond this, the long film – as concept – has uses outside narrative, within the firmly non-narrative possibilities of experimental film.
It’s no surprise that a subset of films so often cited as ‘difficult’ or viewing endeavours has a major association with the avant-garde. Of all the multi-hour behemoths one may encounter in the threatening swamp of experimental cinema, it is Andy Warhol’s maddening, obtuse 1964 work Empire that invites the most hostile reactions – an eight-hour static single shot of the Empire State Building, no cuts, no movement, no interjections, is surely the pinnacle of effete wankery. Warhol has form, too, also helming Sleep, Eat, and Kiss, whose subjects should not be difficult to infer.5 It’s fair to perceive many of the long films of the avant-garde movement personified by North American alternative art cinema in the Sixties and Seventies as legitimately challenging, with Warhol’s oeuvre complemented by the Canadian Michael Snow’s 1971 work La Région Centrale, a three-hour computer-controlled autofilm documenting a few square metres of Quebec wilderness; doyen of US avant-gardery Stan Brakhage’s The Art of Vision, itself a grossly expanded rehashing of his own seminal state-of-nature drama Dog Star Man, and several others since. However, these films’ denseness belies the fascinating and provocative approaches to filmmaking that underlies them. Fred Camper, the revered American critic of the avant-garde, writes persuasively that “the best of the so-called ‘structural’ films of the American avant-garde are surprisingly total works, films which despite their often minimal appearance manage to include much of human consciousness in their making.”6 This is the project on which films like those above embark. Empire, for example, was designed for projection on non-traditional surfaces such as building walls. Warhol’s Factory clique and assorted New York artistic types would look at the film rather than really watch it, perceiving the film as an art installation to be experienced as part of the social and spatial milieu of the gallery. The very quality of basically passive viewing, which led critics to deride the French serials, is transfigured into a space of reflection for the viewer. Warhol famously described Empire as an exercise in ‘watching the world go by.’ To my mind, he meant for us to watch the film no more than he meant for the film to watch us. La Région Centrale, whose dearth of human input is consciously intended to evoke a similar void, creates a physical space in the natural word that feels wholly alien. The daunting length of the films exacerbates their sense of distanciation, and forces us deeper into ourselves.
Other long films of the avant-garde take the opposing tack, of all but forcing the viewer to engage actively with their mammoth size, complex form and content. As – the admittedly totally biased – Camper argues, experimental filmmakers “determine the length of their films based on the amount of time needed to properly explore their subject matter, rather than on any arbitrary limits such as feature format,” and as such it is non-commercial cinema which seems to attract directors willing to run up seriously long minute counts. To my mind the greatest and most important long film to have ever been made, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah epitomizes this notion. It’s no coincidence that the Second World War and its concomitant histories of Nazism, Fascism and collaborationism have engendered multiple long film treatments: Marcel Öphuls’ intense four-hour examination of France’s role in its own downfall, The Sorrow and the Pity, and the markedly more radical Hitler: A Story from Germany, a mad and unsettling seven-hour-plus docufiction by the German Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, are two of the most renowned. But it’s Shoah that remains most powerful. It is exactly as long as it needs to be, agglomerating and unifying all of the themes I have discussed. Its repetitive structure and Lanzmann’s piercing interrogations of Jewish survivors, local witnesses and even implicated ex-Nazis give a sense of obscene recursion, as if we are descending into the same madness implied by Les Vampires’ and Fantômas’ endless cliffhangers – only this time, it’s real. When Lanzmann’s subjects’ agonising stories are set against the film’s many non-narrative interludes, its characters revisiting the sites of the terrors they suffered or merely going about their days, the viewer is left in a state of limbo, neither able to use the film’s deceptively peaceful images as a Warholian tableau nor to be entertained, but instead trapped inside a work which promises more suffering, on and on and on. The end result is an implacable and penetrating monument to the dead, and Shoah’s subject matter requires a damn huge monument. Shoehorning it into a palatable feature-length format would be little short of appalling.
OK, I know. This is all history. Silent film serials? May ’68? The kids these days are into Middle Eastern social dramas, abusing Woody Allen on Twitter, and ironic midnight screenings of The Room, right? Well, lend me your ears, citizens: the dark magic of the really long movie is still intact. Since the early Nineties, the trend towards ‘slow’ cinema from our most prominent auteurs, no doubt aided by the scintillating international flavour of post-DVD film culture, has been using both actual duration, and, excitingly, the illusion of duration, to explore radical ideas about national cultures, postmodernity, and the digital age. While using the words ‘excitingly’ and ‘Tsai Ming-Liang’ in the same paragraph was always going be a bit of a stretch, filmmakers like Tsai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Carlos Reygadas of Mexico use stillness, silence, and rigid composition to create deeply reflective works, while rarely actually exceeding usual film duration. And radical filmmakers are keeping real duration alive: ‘Til Madness Do Us Part is dwarfed by its predecessor, director Wang’s gripping nine-hour dissection of post-Xiao industrial China, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, and the Philippines’ Lav Diaz makes long, tough films about Philippine history and the plight of the country’s poor and disenfranchised.7 In an age where viewing alternative films is, for the first time, undertaken primarily in film fans’ own homes and in digital format, on laptop screens and barely-legal Chinese Region 0 releases, the relationship of cinema with real-world time is naturally changing. I think there’s great potential for it to be for the better: to democratise duration, if you like. The episodic origins of the super-long film are well suited to a viewing public that has only recently become attuned to episodic television whose production values and thematic interests are basically cinematic. Seven hours with Sátántangó, five with Fantômas or even eight with Empire can, and should, become the catalyst for a renewed approach to film discussion that considers duration as a vital element of mise-en-scène. Long films, far from laboured, arthouse pretention, have endless inventiveness and depth to offer.
Except Ben-Hur. I have no excuse for Ben-Hur.