By Cameron Cook | Editor-In-Chief Published: 07/24/2013 9:44 am EST
The Godfather, Part II stands at a towering two hundred minutes. At well over three hours, Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic is one of the longest films to ever win the best picture Oscar, and it’s also one of the most beloved films of that length ever made.
Even people who don’t particularly care for movies are in love with the Godfather films (at least the first two). With their rich characterization, beautiful cinematography, and compelling story arcs, it’s hard to not be sucked in to the deep, involving piece of cinema that series is heralded as.
Even your grandfather, who can’t stand to even sit at a red light for longer than zero seconds, loves the movie. Probably.
But then why do critics lambast some films, like the recent The Lone Ranger, for being overlong, when that film is almost a full hour shorter than one of the greatest films of all time?
With The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and Seven Samurai being released over fifty years ago, and becoming near-universally beloved films in the process, how can some audiences and critics claim that older movies used to “tell a story simply” while “movies today take forever”?
Obviously, runtime has nothing to do with simplicity. Or, to be more specific, runtime has nothing to do with length.
When your grandfather tells you the remake of True Grit is too long, at one hundred and ten minutes, while simultaneously loving the original film (which is over twenty minutes longer), then we’re not really talking about time.
We’re talking about boredom.
Famed film director and filth-monger John Waters says that no movie should be over ninety minutes. It’s a rule that many audience members believe in, including my dad.
If any movie is over ninety minutes, and my dad knows its runtime prior to watching it, it takes him weeks, sometimes months, to get the courage to watch that movie. (Les Miserables has been sitting on his shelf for five months, unwatched, due to this fear).
But what are the movies listed when we’re supposed to name the greatest movies of all time?
Citizen Kane (2 hours)
Vertigo (2 hours, 8 minutes)
The Godfather (2 hours, 55 minutes)
2001: A Space Odyssey (2 hours, 40 minutes)
Casablanca (1 hour, 42 minutes)
Raging Bull (2 hours, nine minutes)
Gone With the Wind (4 hours, 6 minutes)
Of those seven films, considered by many to be the greatest films of all time, Casablanca is the only one that has a runtime under two hours. And even then, it’s still over ninety minutes.
“Yes, but those are great, classic films. What about movies I like to just sit around and watch.”
Point taken. Let’s look at some of the most popular movies ever made.
The Shawshank Redemption (2 hours, 22 minutes)
The Dark Knight (2 hours, 32 minutes)
The Goonies (1 hour, 54 minutes)
The Big Lebowski (1 hour, 57 minutes)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1 hour, 55 minutes)
Star Wars: A New Hope (2 hours, 1 minute)
Back to the Future (1 hour, 56 minutes)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1 hour, 55 minutes)
None of those films listed above come within twenty minutes of the coveted ninety minute slot. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any truly beloved films meeting that criteria.
They exist, of course. Primer is only seventy-seven minutes, and True Stories rests comfortably at ninety minutes exactly. High Noon, Toy Story, and Paths of Glory are all ninety minute films as well.
Did you know that Rashomon is under ninetey minutes? Don’t believe me? Watch it again.
Some of the movies I just listed feel longer than they are. Primer, for example, feels far longer than its seventy-seven minute runtime would have you believe. But it’s still a great movie.
How can that be?
For starters, our perception of time is subjective. The clock may always move at the same speed, but our perception of the clock’s speed can vary wildly.
That’s why that weekend you were grounded felt like three months, and why your summer vacations felt like a weekend.
When audiences and critics complain about a movie being too long, they aren’t talking about fixed time. They’re talking about a subjective perception of time.
At two hours and twenty-nine minutes, Disney’s The Lone Ranger stands at three minutes shorter than The Dark Knight, a near-universally-beloved comic book adaptation superficially aimed at a family audiences. And while The Lone Ranger has been called “too long” by just about everybody for a “family film” based on original material aimed at children, The Dark Knight was not accused of the same thing.
For starters, The Lone Ranger is a convoluted mess of plot. The script introduces too many characters all at once, offers too many strings, and does very little by way of emotive characterization.
The Dark Knight has a very clear through-line. Batman must stop the Joker. There are other plots, but they’re all in some way connected to the main plot, which is quite simple.
The Lone Ranger relies on too many subplots that don’t inform the main storyline, and so the movie feels much longer than it actually is.
The second Godfather film may be over two hours, but the basic plot is very simple: Michael Corleone must figure out how to maintain leadership in a financially unstable America. There are many plots that come out of this, but we never forget the central driving force.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which has a through-line (the world must be saved), yes, but it lacks a character-centered through-line that informs the other sub-plots. It’s not “Sam must save the world” or “Sam must come of age to save the world”, as the first movie was, but it is instead “The robots have to save the world, but one of them dies, and then some other things involving the government happen, and then Sam and his girlfriend break up.” The through-line of the film isn’t strong enough to satisfy its own plot, let alone the thirty others that have nothing to do with the fate of the world. For that reason, the two hour, thirty minute movie is often maligned as bloated and overlong, despite it being roughly half the length of Gone With the Wind.
The rule that films should be ninety minutes is sort-of true, but I’d like to add an important word. All movies must feel ninety minutes.
If you’re not interested in the avant-garde, or in the contemplative silence of a Tarkovsky film, and you just want to have a good time at the movies, don’t judge a movie by its runtime alone. Judge the movie by how that runtime feels to others.
It might be a harder proposition, but it will keep you from missing some of the best movies of all time.
Don’t say “That movie was too long.” Say “That movie felt too long.”
Cameron Cook has been obsessed with, and haunted by, films of all kinds ever since that weird, singing fish jumped out of that pond in The Brave Little Toaster. Now he's all grown up, educated in the ancient art of writing and telling stories, and he's still wondering whose idea that fish was. What he does know is how to find a good writer, and he's spent his life working his way toward CultureMass.