Debates over movie runtime miss the point

By Andrew Benoit

If you’ve seen a movie recently, you’ve probably been confronted with the common complaint that movies are just getting so long these days. Whatever happened to movies being 90 minutes? Plenty of recent long haulers do come to mind, like Scorsese’s “The Irishman” or Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” both of which clock in at over three hours. Critics of these movies’ runtimes ask whether it’s reasonable for audiences to pay attention for such a long period of time. Yet these movies are the exception, not the rule. According to data scientist Przemysław Jarząbek, who crunched the data in IMDB’s database, the average movie runtime has basically stayed the same for the past 60 years. So why do they all feel so long? At least part of it has more to do with the viewer than the movies themselves. We’ve forgotten that cinema is an art form, not just content to be consumed.

Lav Diaz himself reminds us in an interview with Mubi that “cinema can be culture. Cinema is art.” The new tendency to merely consume content churned out by profit-driven studios reveals a culture-wide lack of intellectual and cultural curiosity. The intense profit motive that drives the industry to churn out poorly made, easily digestible content is shriveling our capacity to truly engage in the masterworks of not just our own culture, but any culture in the world. The effects of this process are visible in the growing anti-intellectualism developing among younger generations. Anything critical is dismissed and ridiculed.

But, just like anything worth doing, the soul of art can’t be understood as a passive undertaking. It must be sought out. Art must be engaged with, not just passively consumed, to be fully appreciated. We don’t look at a reproduction of a Basquiat once and feel satisfied that we have fully appreciated its power. We understand that it will take time to read “The Iliad,” and are content to read a chapter at a time. Movies aren’t any different, they deserve however much time their stories take to tell. Going to the movies — just like going to an art museum — isn’t just about being entertained, it is about taking an active part in experiencing the best art that all cultures have to offer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 20 minutes or three hours, because when the movie ends isn’t as important as what is inside of it.

Simple doesn’t always mean stupid; the original “Star Wars” movies are about as thematically and narratively simple as you can get, yet they have been immensely influential on the way we make art. Nor should you feel bad for not wanting to watch the eight-hour silent film about Napoleon from 1927 that your film-loving friend keeps bugging you about. But we rob ourselves of something deeply central to what makes us human when we refuse to engage with art. Art is powerful; it moves us and changes us. In order for it to do so, you have to meet it on its own terms. So do yourself a favor and go watch a movie, in theaters!

As a reminder, the Grand Cinema in Tacoma is showing some of the best movies in the world through its Silver Screen Society in late March. You can even catch “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” which — besides being the British Film Institute’s pick as the best film ever made — is over 3 hours long. Most movies at The Grand Cinema are free to students with a student ID through TacomaCreates.