Do you think most movies these days are way too long? Do they seem to end not once but two, three, four times? Do you find yourself wondering why a perfectly decent 90-minute movie finds itself captive inside a 141-minute behemoth?
Welcome to my support group.
I've tried to be objective about this--I view, after all, more than 200 movies a year in my professional capacity, and I've considered the fact that maybe the overload has gotten to me. But I've spoken to a lot of non-pros in the audience about this, and it's clear I'm not alone. Hollywood movies take a lot longer getting to where they're going than they used to. This is not--to put it mildly--because Hollywood movies have more to offer than they used to.
Entertainment Weekly did a little investigation a few years back that clocked the average running time for Hollywood features in 20-year intervals beginning in 1932. That year, the average length was 90 minutes; in 1952, 109 minutes; in 1972, 113 minutes; and in 1992, a whopping 121 minutes. By my own informal figuring, the average is now a few minutes longer.
This skyward creep is not, by itself, a critical issue. For one thing, a movie doesn't have to be upward of two hours to seem long--there are plenty of relatively short movies, like, say, last year's "Radioland Murders" or "Mixed Nuts," that seem endless. And, likewise, a "Godfather" or a "Lawrence of Arabia"--or even a "Hoop Dreams"--can seem streamlined because it is so compelling. Their epic subjects justify, and make inconsequential, their epic length.
But most of the overlong movies we've been seeing are more the result of epic egos, and epic budgets, than of epic subjects.
Big running times are being clocked so that the puny can seem "important." The high-mindedly mindless 2-hour 21-minute "Clear and Present Danger" crammed subplots about CIA raids in South America into the action like they were circus clowns piling into a VW bug.
Did "Pulp Fiction," which derives from the terse, lurid pulps and \o7 films noir, \f7 really gain by being 2 1/2 hours? Did "Wyatt Earp" need to be 3 hours and 9 minutes in order to elaborate on a story that John Ford, in "My Darling Clementine," told 10 times as well in half the time? Do we really need at the end of that movie an extended flashback inside a flashforward to a sequence--an aborted jail siege--that has no real narrative bearing on the movie's meaning? Or is it just that, because this is a Kevin Costner vehicle, the studio willfully hid its pruning shears?
Come to think of it, \o7 every \f7 Costner movie from at least "Dances With Wolves" on has been a fanny twitcher. In 1994, we had a two-fer: "Wyatt Earp" and "The War," a movie that took as long to end as the Vietnam War it memorialized. (Both films were box-office duds). You could eliminate half of the heart-rending, legend-pumped vanity close-ups of Costner from his films and save a good 20 minutes per movie.
Filmmakers who want to make "important" statements--or at least want to feel important making unimportant ones--often like to log the hours. Oliver Stone and Spike Lee movies, for example, often seem overlong. These directors make Mouthpiece Movies--lots of posturing and speechifying. Stone and Lee want the sheer weight of tedium to certify their seriousness. They like to drub audiences into submission.
One big reason "Natural Born Killers" was actually taken seriously in the media last year is that it kept pressing the same idiot media-bash buttons for all of its interminable two hours. Our cries of "Uncle!" mutated into \o7 "Mea culpa." \f7 The film functioned for a portion of the press like an apocalyptic case of the Stockholm Syndrome: The victims learned to love their attacker.
Much is rightly made these days of how Hollywood is a bottom-line business with executives and agents calling the creative shots. But what is lost in this analysis are the ways in which powerful "talent" can govern that bottom line. NC-17 ratings aside, a truly powerful director or star is rarely overruled by the studios on any substantial creative decision--including the film's running time. Stars who wish to canonize themselves are generally free to do so.
Since, in today's world of high-speed corporate musical chairs, the star's longevity is likely to be greater than the studio executive's, the executive will indulge the star because he wants to lock in a relationship he may need when his golden parachute deposits him at his next way station. And because talent is always at a premium, even the non-star actors and directors may be granted indulgence. Everybody wants to be the exec who coddled in the cradle the next Steven Spielberg or Tom Cruise--or Quentin Tarantino.