What is the longest film you’ve ever seen? How would you describe the film’s effect on your body and on your psyche? Do you shy away from certain films due to their length, or does the prospect of a long movie excite you?
In his Notebook feature on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-hour long Dekolag (1988)
, Forrest Cardamenis points out the essential makeup of our contemporary viewing experience, which looks quite different from the cinematic landscape at the time of Dekolag
’s release. Nowadays, the majority of our viewing is done in our homes, streamed rather than caught in a cinema, and the television season rather than film is our motion picture vehicle of choice. Watching lengthy narratives in the on-demand way is designed not to be particularly challenging. Most of it is laid out in an episodic format, the prime example being the television show with its convenient 20, 40, or 60-minute chunks that allow us to go about our business as we need to, dipping in and out of the story as we like.
This lower-commitment type of watching seems fitting for a speed-dominated world: we prize efficiency and swiftness in our workplaces, in our ephemeral social media interactions, in our news outlets, in our technology. We want information fast. And we don’t want to waste our time on programming that might not be worthwhile. However, this strange affinity for watching hours-upon-hours of story over an evening or two might intimate that many of us are craving art that makes us slow down. Perhaps we are craving a type of extended visit to an imaginary world, which is a type of performance that goes to our roots as spectators.
The history of marathon viewing—that is, long durational storytelling events—is a fascinating one. Extended viewing was the norm for millennia before our current model developed. In ancient Greece, the springtime City Dionysia was a theater festival that held audiences from day to night. This festival lasted a week with several days of tragedies and comedies. Most citizens of ancient Athens spent 100 days out of the year at such events, which were not just entertainment, but had important religious and social functions. The Medieval mystery plays of Europe in the fifteenth century, often called Corpus Christi cycles because they were usually performed on the feast day of Corpus Christi, took roughly 20 hours to perform over a period of a few days. They cataloged biblical events from Adam and Eve to Judgment Day and were performed by local guilds who often boarded decorated carts that moved across a city square as the linearity of performance moved forward. It wasn’t until the Elizabethan era that performance acquired its two to-three hour model. In his Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, performance scholar Jonathan Kalb tells us that a growing Protestant view at the time was that efficiency was paramount in life. Protestant critics viewed “theater as a frivolous and immoral activity,” with its severest detractors arguing theatergoing was a “waste of…time and money.” This perspective fundamentally affected the development of the professional theater. Neoclassical playwrights and many succeeding them responded by holding strictly to Aristotelian standards of unity and succinctness to safeguard against critics who wanted to do away with theater altogether.
In its more contemporary incarnations, a well-conceived durational production, be it a piece of film, theater, or performance art, offers an alternate experience to the episodic binge by altering our experiences of reality and by asking us to commit more of ourselves to the task of viewing. The commitment asked of us has a physical component which is twofold. First, for such an event, we are often asked to enter public space—to view the film or play in a theater, whose seats vary in comfort. Here we must don our public masks (i.e. step out of pajamas and lounge-wear); we are quite literally being asked to show up. The second aspect of this commitment is that in this space, we do not determine the pauses and we generally receive fewer of them. The television series released all in one day and viewed privately can be paused at a whim—even to minimize a window and check an email on the same screen as the media. The episodic binge also features conveniently spaced breaks with the end of each episode. The durational work in the theater will have intermissions, but spectators do not control their viewing experience. The viewer must give up his ability to press play when he sits through a play in a site designed for its viewing.
What is offered to the viewer from making this commitment can be profound. Kalb describes the effect of marathon plays on the psyche: “They were endurance feats for their audience as well as their performers, holding us for whole days and evenings at a time. Sometimes they immersed me in a conjured world so deeply that I felt transported to a different time-space and, despite my muscle aches, I felt truly sorry when the piece ended.” Kalb uses words with alchemical connotations, “conjured world,” “time-space,” “transported,” suggesting that this invented collective space had mystical properties. It transformed him—his sense of time, space and body. Here the endurance of the performer is echoed by that of the spectator—down to the achy bones. This is an extended experience of intimacy and intensity. When Kalb must leave the production’s created world, he feels “truly sorry,” because this universe of solidarity—created by artist, actor, spectator, and time—is impossible to replicate. The long-durational performance event is meant to change our relationship to ourselves and to time, just as a prolonged meditation does.
Kalb’s experience is replicable cinematically as well—I had such an experience while sitting suspended as a viewer in New York City’s IFC movie theater watching Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, when I began to lose track of who and where I was. Floating shapes and images moved over the screen, futuristic Busby Berkeley style musical numbers and shots mixing with strange organic life forms and nightmarish mirages. Long cinematic events often ask us to focus our vision on one object or visual field for long amounts of time; structural filmmakers of the 1960s were masters of fixing our gaze in this way. One could look even to Andy Warhol’s Empire and Sleep for this time-freezing effect, which asks viewers to notice the subtlest of changes to the visual field. By tuning our eyes to minutia, we become truly present, and in so doing, we also paradoxically leave ourselves. Length, then, becomes magnitude.
What differentiates this type of watching from speeding through the 45.5 hours of Breaking Bad? The word “binge,” and the need to write “speeding” as a descriptor. “Binge-watching” is our culturally acceptable and automatic turn of phrase for taking in large quantities of television programs in short periods of time—it is an indelible component of our media lexicon. To binge indicates an “indulgence” or an “escape.” Much of this has to do with pacing and the episodic structure of this type of programming. Episodes of shows like House of Cards are designed in classically addictive fashion to propel us through the narrative to end with shocking, mysterious, or revelatory moments, with cliffhangers that hook us. As we finish a whole season in a few days, we wonder where the time went. These shows help us “kill time.” We seem to want to swallow up these shows, which somehow shorten or quicken our experience of time. On the other hand, making the effort to attend a ten-hour durational film or watching one at home suggests a decision to stretch one’s limits as a spectator as well as one’s sense of time and space, rather than a compulsion to escape these factors. The Greek “festival,” as the word implies, was a “feast.” A feast connotes a conscious decision to celebrate. Dictionaries use the words “abundant” and “sumptuous” to describe feasting—the word has a far more positive valence than the “indulgent” binge. A feast is about pleasure, joy, and passion—it is expansive and shared openly, rather than held shamefully secret like a binge. It is a “fête,” a party, an event.
This is not to say that much of the programming that is released on one day to be watched in episodes is not brilliant, for a good deal of it is. It is rather to say that our way of watching and relating to this material and to time is something different than many of the long form filmic works out there, and even in some ways less challenging than watching a standard two-to-three hour film.
It is true that the availability of on-demand streaming has created a new form of durational binge-watching—an interruptible phenomenon. But durational artwork asks the viewer to commit to viewership, to commit to the story, to commit a physical endurance feat, to commit to the collective. In exchange, the production offers an alternative experience of time, space, viewing, breathing, and even being. It offers an opportunity for the viewer to step out of his mental landscape and into an imagined world, and what is more, if he leaves his home, he may discover feast in good company.