How long is too long for a film’s runtime? Is there even a limit?
I recently watched Edward Yang’s incredible Yi Yi, a lengthy tale documenting an upper middle class Taipei family in the 90’s. For three hours, I was part of the family itself, there to watch their failings and success and personal demons, and when the film ended, I couldn’t help but think—I wish there were another 3 hours left. While this could be attributed to Yang’s masterful work as a director, I think it’s more of a testament to the film’s escapism. With a long runtime, you can settle into the narrative, get nice and comfortable in the fabric of the film itself. It allows for better immersion, makes you eat, sleep, dream the film itself.
The likes of 3-hour epics such as Killers of the Flower Moon and Oppenheimer kicked up some dust last year regarding film runtimes—how long is too long? The answer: never! Do not fear a film’s runtime; it’s just a number and it cannot hurt you. Free yourself from the shackles of 90-minute films, where everything is contained and tied up and neat. Whenever I see a film with a runtime over 160 minutes, I feel like tucking in a napkin and pulling up a chair and pounding my metaphorical knife and fork on the metaphorical table in anticipation. A whole three hours to immerse myself in a film I’ve never seen before is one of the simplest pleasures in life. Another magnificent pleasure in life—rewatching a 3-hour film you have seen before.
Well, is three hours the absolute limit? For general audiences, it seems to be. My screening of Killers of the Flower Moon had numerous walkouts just under 2 hours into the film and other cinemas around the world added an ‘interlude’ into the film (completely defiling Thelma Schoonmaker’s vision). Jo Koy, host of the year’s Golden Globes, even threw in a couple of cheeky remarks about Oppenheimer’s runtime. There’s an entire section dedicated on Netflix to films 90 minutes and under. While I too indulge in a little 90-minute romcom here and there, reducing a film to a number of minutes in it is a terrible way to view art. Could you imagine a voracious reader being told that books over 250 pages are a complete slog to get through?
The realm of long cinema is perhaps cinema’s peak. Bela Tarr’s Satantango is a thing of beauty. With a total runtime of 432 minutes, it’s the longest film I’ve ever seen, and it took 5 sittings to complete. Is it one of the greatest films of all time? Yes, undoubtedly. Yi Yi took 3. I have Sergey Bondarchuk’s complete War and Peace on DVD that I’m hoping to watch in only 1. There’s an entire world of films with gargantuan runtimes (off the top of my head: Shoah, Gance’s Napoleon, The Irishman, Titanic, RRR, The Deer Hunter, Ben Hur). If there is one thing a film should never shy away from, it’s its runtime. A runtime, of course, is just a number but it’s a number that represents how much of a film you’re getting, how long you’ll be entranced into this strange, new world. How much film you’re getting.
Take the plunge. See how far the rabbit hole goes for yourself and become unafraid to hand over 3 hours of your time for a film. It may be the best film you ever see.