Originally published on Sumner Newscow on February 29, 2020
This week, I had a couple of friends over and we watched the Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 hit, Black Swan. Apart from earning him a Best Picture nomination and Natalie Portman her only (and well deserved) Oscar, there was something even more excited about this movie that I had forgotten: it’s short.
It got me wondering about whatever happened to the classic 90-minute movies that I grew up thinking were the norm? In fact, I’m so used to long movies that I envisioned the title of this article to be “I watched a 90-minute movie” when Black Swan is actually 110 minutes. I could no longer distinguish an entire 20-minute time-span.
We’ve become so used to three-hour “good” movies that we don’t even notice when something is dragging the hell out of its feet. I think there are two main culprits to this phenomenon: the Godfather and television.
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is technically only 2 hours and 58 minutes, but at that time few people had the guts (or material) to make a three-hour movie. The only commercially successful blockbuster of that length before 1972 was Gone With the Wind (1939) a truly horrible film that people seem to love.
There were a few three-hour epics in-between both films, but nothing that long had ever been a hit. Coppola proved that you could force people to sit in one place for 3 hours and not only make one of the best movies of all time but make a ludicrous amount of money in the process.
After the first Godfather, three-hour movies steadily grew in popularity with big names like James Cameron (a total hack), Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick getting in on the action. Finally, today it seems like if your movie doesn’t break 2.5 hours, why’d you even release it in the first place?
Filmmakers like Kubrick and Coppola used needed the extra minutes because the tempo of their films demanded a longer runtime to adequately tell such a long story, they didn’t do it just to prove they could. Now I’m forced to sit through 2 ½ hours of Ford v. Ferrari because we couldn’t get enough of what amounted to a Top Gear episode? Ridiculous.
The second offender didn’t do it on purpose, but the recent explosion of long movies squarely rests upon television’s shoulders. I’ve written myriad articles on the so-called platinum age of television that we’re going through right now, but it started in the golden age of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
My generation grew up with better television than any before us (MASH and Cheers weren’t good, you just didn’t have anything else), and one of the things we didn’t even realize was relatively new was the hour-long TV episode. We became so used to hour-long serials like House and Burn Notice, that we didn’t even notice when streaming shows like House of Cards and Game of Thrones started shirking the hour limit altogether. TV started taking its time to tell a story at its own pace.
It’s called long-form television and because of it, filmmakers are starting to slum it down with the TV people and when they return to the big-screen they realize they can’t dissect their characters nearly as well. TV gave writers a chance to milk out storylines and bury twists 15 hours into viewing and the movie people noticed how well they were doing.
This doesn’t mean films are any worse than they used to be. Movies like the Irishman and Avengers: Endgame are over 3 hours and I don’t think they wasted their time. What I’m arguing is movies like Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 could’ve both shaved 45 minutes off their runtime and been better for it. If you watched each Best Picture nominee end-to-end this year, it would have taken you “21.25 hours.”
There’s a certain skill needed in movies to tell a complete story in under 2 hours and it hasn’t gone out of style just yet. Movies like Inside Out, Moonlight, and Get Out all prove that you can still make a great movie that doesn’t make the viewer take a break halfway through in order to stay interested. To prove that thought, I’ll end this essay, having made my point, in under 730 words.
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