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The thrill of breaking the 120-minute barrier

It seems to be written in the subconscious of the world's moviegoers that a feature film should be somewhere between 95 and 120 minutes long. Much shorter, and you don't get your money's worth. Much longer, and you start getting restless. We've been trained to expect two hours.

It was not always so. I grew up on the Saturday afternoon double features, when you got two movies, five cartoons, a newsreel, a serial and the coming attractions all thrown at you. The doors opened at 12:30, the first show was at 1, and you staggered back into the real world at around 5:15, your imagination crammed with images that would last at least a week.

These days, the double feature is a thing of the past. Modern audiences expect to enter a theater at 7 or 9 (or perhaps at 6, 8 or 10) and emerge promptly two hours later. Whenever a longer movie is released, a film like "Dances with Wolves" or "JFK," movie critics know the reaction they'll get if they recommend it to somebody. "But I heard it was really long," they'll say, as if they were contemplating an evening in the dentist's chair.

There is an obvious answer to that statement: Bad movies are always too long, but good movies are either too short, or just right. Besides, with a longer movie, you get more for your money. I try that line on people, and they kind of squint their eyes, trying to imagine the thrill of breaking the 120-minute barrier.

Of course there is another answer, harder to explain, and that is the particular appeal that longer movies have on you. They absorb you. They isolate you more completely from the real world that lurks at either end of a film. They create a world that you have the time to get to know.

I've seen both of the really long films of recent years, "Shoah" (563 minutes) and "Little Dorrit" (merely 357 minutes). I admired them both, although, recently reading Charles Dickens' original novel Little Dorrit, I was surprised to see how much even a long movie had to leave out. In the case of "Shoah," which was a long meditation on the reality of the Holocaust and its perpetrators and victims, the length allowed the sadness and finality of the subject to sink in; you didn't get the feeling that emotions were being cheated of their real weight in order to hurry from one point to the next. In the case of "Little Dorrit," the filmmakers took one of Dickens' devices--telling the story from two points of view--and carried it further than he did, into a two-part film that had the time to view key events from two different perspectives. It was more interesting than a briefer, simpler narrative would have been.

Recently, I saw a four-hour movie named "La Belle Noiseuse," by Jacques Rivette, a French director known for his generosity with running times, and I found myself appreciating every minute of the four hours. As a hobby, I like to sketch and draw, and this was a film about an aging artist (Michel Piccoli) and the young model (Emmanuelle Beart) who inspires him to begin working once again after having abandoned his brushes for many years.

The film is not some dumb, plotted, linear story about romance, seduction and betrayal. It is a smart, unplotted, subtle story...about romance, seduction and betrayal. The process takes place almost entirely in the artist's studio, where his attempts to draw and paint the model mirror the nature of their relationship. One way that Rivette uses his four hours of running time, daringly, is to look over the artist's shoulder for extended periods, while the drawings take shape in unbroken, uncheated long shots. We feel the process of artistic creation; we hear the scratching of a pen on paper, we see the flick of a wrist that places a wash just where it must go, we see how an artist's instincts are more responsible for the placement of a line than any conscious mental process. At the end of the film, we have been, to some degree, through the same experience as the characters.

Oliver Stone's "JFK" is 188 minutes long. I was conscious of the running time only twice, in scenes involving Jim Garrison's domestic life, and his wife's impatience with his work. These seemed like obligatory movie scenes I had seen before. The rest of the film, incredibly densely-packed with a cascade of images--documentary, fictional, speculative--seemed to hurtle forward, and I would not have done without a second. Leaving the theater, I could imaging no possible way that Stone could have condensed his material into two hours and still given us a film worth seeing.

Within the last two years, two French films, both based on works by the writer Marcel Pagnol, have tested the two-hour limit by presenting themselves in two parts. In 1987 we got "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," telling a fictional story of a rural area that is so hostile to outsiders that it drives a hopeful young farmer to his death. In 1991, we got "My Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle," based on Pagnol's memories of his parents, and growing up in the French countryside.

These movies made a particular impression on me because they had the freedom to cover time without seeming to hurry; to show the impact that small events can have on future outcomes. Together, the four films totalled nearly eight hours--and I think of them all together, because in fiction and memoir Pagnol was remembering some of the same people and places. I have seen a lot of French films, many of them memories, many about provincial life, many very good, but none which have created such a world as these four.

I like long books, too. I like Dickens and Trollope and Henry James, and both of the Robertson Davies trilogies, and Balzac when he makes me follow some of his characters from one novel to another. I like Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, The Quincunx. This spring, as I did in the springs of 1982 and 1972, I will read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet again.

I am aware that in books as in movies, the modern taste is for brevity. At some point early in the next century, I suppose, novels will intersect with the sound bites on the TV news and the bright little self-contained paragraphs in newspapers and magazines. All imagination will be boiled down into smug little info-nuggets. Why is it nobody seems to realize how lots of short little things are exhausting? You have to keep setting your mind back to zero. But the long, deep stuff--the long books, the long movies, and even the TV miniseries--are refreshing, because they give you the time to understand other lives and even, for a time, seem to share them.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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