Conventional limitations on cinematic runtimes, often driven by basic practical and commercial concerns, are at once arbitrary and enduring. Under 90 minutes is short; over 150 minutes is long. Short films lie on one end of the spectrum and Andy Warhol on the other. But even limiting discussion to non-experimental feature films reveals a wide variation in the use of massive duration, discussions of which tend to be obscured by the hyperbole (in both directions) that such films often elicit. (This hyperbolic tendency also extends to trilogies, multi-part films, or even novels and literature in general. Just ask anyone who’s seen Sátántangó or read Infinite Jest.) Nonetheless, such films tend to be fascinating opportunities for exploration, both in their justification for and use of such length. And on the occasion of MUBI’s retrospective of Lav Diaz’s filmography (the body of work that most consistently makes use of duration), three vastly different 2016 films, including one of Diaz's own, provide ample opportunity for an exploration of movie duration.
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
The most basic advantage of an expanded run-time—so obvious that it barely bears repeating—is a level of breadth and depth that simply wouldn’t be possible in a shorter film. Ezra Edelman's widely acclaimed seven-and-a-half hour documentary, commissioned for ESPN's 30 for 30 series, certainly demonstrates this. It’s astounding not for its narrative subject or the specific events depicted, both of which are public knowledge, but for the sheer scope of its assemblage.
The film’s atypical length is not unprecedented. Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity come to mind, as do recent entries such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke or Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley. But Edelman’s film is unique in that it’s not an act of witnessing or a sweeping exposé; for those already familiar with the details, there’s no sense of discovery and thus only limited drama. Its primary sensation is that of pure information. To watch the film is to see a piece of history given shape and form, to witness innumerable fragments of archival footage and present-tense testimony definitively ordered. Favoring more traditional documentary techniques over any stylistic artifice or formal self-reflexiveness, Edelman doesn’t so much contribute an authorial voice as facilitate an overall shape. The film feels less like a statement and more like an object—a documentary in the most basic, etymological sense. It’s not just a document about the O.J. Simpson case; it’s the document—a sweeping compilation of what, as Edelman demonstrates, is one of the defining sagas of twentieth century America.
The massive runtime, then, is interesting in that it’s practically immaterial as a (conscious) cinematic tool; its justification is not directorial, it’s axiomatic. Truncating the runtime would be akin to archiving only an interview soundbite, or a snippet of a newspaper article; it would be insufficient.
Happy Hour (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Long fiction films, though, are an entirely different matter. And if "novelistic" is a term that's too often bandied about when it comes to such films, it's because the qualities associated with novels aren't immediately (or necessarily) associated with cinema, which, more often than not, tends towards Aristotelian unities. (There's an argument to be made that short stories make for more natural source material for films than novels.) That's not to say that films can't successfully translate novelistic effects within more traditional runtimes, much less that cinema should aspire to approximating the virtues of a different medium. But there's something to be said for what only non-traditional lengths can achieve, as demonstrated by recent literary adaptations such as Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce or Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon.
Lengthy films that are less strictly (or not at all) indebted to literary source material, though, are arguably more interesting, since they often achieve more singularly “cinematic” effects. (One thinks of the paranoid web of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 or the emotional and sociopolitical sweep of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day.) In that sense, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour (which premiered at Locarno in 2015 but had a recent run at MoMA) certainly fits the bill. If the narrative, which centers on the everyday lives of four female friends in their thirties, doesn’t initially seem like a film that would (or should) run over five hours, that’s not just because of its ostensibly modest scope. It’s also because Hamaguchi forgoes the sort of capital-A art film tendencies typically associated with massive runtimes (extremely long takes; static camera shots; minimal narrative incident) in favor of more traditional, but still effective assemblage—better to disguise the film’s narrative ambition and visual sophistication.
Hamaguchi’s first gambit is the inclusion of two major scenes that, in an ordinary film, would either be judiciously trimmed or excised entirely: a thirty-minute workshop sequence, during which the various attendees engage in various “communication” exercises; and a book reading (and accompanying Q&A) that plays out in something close to real time. Like the improvisational acting scenes of Out 1 or, say, “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches” story in Miguel Gomes’ recent Arabian Nights trilogy, these scenes push the bounds of what audiences are used to seeing (sometimes deliberately trying a viewer’s patience), which is itself of interest. But Happy Hour does even more.
Aside from laying down crucial thematic groundwork (the workshop establishes the film’s concerns, like those of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, with the imperfections of communication—whether physical, emotional, or artistic; the book reading expands these concerns while doubling as self-reflexive commentary), these scenes also manage to highlight Hamaguchi’s fascinating use of relative runtime. It’s revealing that the trip the foursome take to a nearby hot springs, which initially seems of primary story significance (it’s introduced in the very first scene), plays out far shorter than the two lengthy scenes discussed above. If the workshop and book reading scenes are intimate epics of connection and disconnection, the central scene is an unexpectedly quiet turning point.
Critical shorthand (read: laziness) often zeroes in on how long films capture the "pace of life" and allow the director to “patiently observe” the characters. While that isn't altogether inaccurate in this case, it gives short shrift to Hamaguchi’s precise, judicious rhythms, which are what make Happy Hour such an interesting film. A casual drinking session takes up more screentime than a divorce court hearing; a conversation over dinner is given just as much space as an entire teen pregnancy subplot. The film is distinctive not simply for its total length, but for the way individual scenes are either elongated or abbreviated, which seems dictated less by their ostensible interest to the audience, than by their emotional and philosophical import to the characters. If that seems unusual, it's because more typical runtimes can't ordinarily accommodate such a generous approach on such a scale. In another film, the forty-minute workshop would likely be the entire show, or else overwhelm the film completely. Happy Hour uses its space to do more. It's ambitious storytelling of a different form.
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Lav Diaz)
Compared to both Edelman’s and Hamaguchi’s films, Lav Diaz’s latest (pending the release of his newest film, The Woman Who Left), which won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, has an entirely different approach to its duration. Running a little over eight hours, A Lullaby is the longest of the films discussed here, but in terms of absolute length, actually lies somewhere in the middle of Diaz's filmography. If Diaz’s films are more difficult (indeed, all but impossible) to discuss without mentioning length, that's not just because of the sheer number of minutes, but also because their dialectical nature is fused to his use of duration.
A Lullaby, which deals with events during the Philippine revolution following the execution of Jose Rizal (the country’s national hero), certainly fits the mold. Unfolding in largely static, black-and-white, Academy ratio compositions, the story flows along two main strands. The first largely follows the journeys of Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz), an idealistic student, and Simoun (Piolo Pascual), a vengeful revolutionary (both characters drawn from Jose Rizal’s novel El filibusterismo, which along with Noli me tangere, are two of the most significant works in Philippine literature). The second, loosely drawn from real historical events, tracks a group of women led by Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio) in their arduous search for her husband, Andres Bonifacio, a revolutionary hero captured and possibly killed by another rebel faction.
Diaz’s dramaturgical approach is largely straightforward. Apart from the intermittent intrusion of three tikbalang (half-horse, half-human creatures of Philippine folklore), there are no surrealist flourishes or structural feints; the majority of the film simply cuts between the two groups and their respective journeys. But Diaz isn’t really concerned with narrative incident in and of itself. In keeping with his other films, A Lullaby is historical reenactment as a kind of exorcism, an investigation of a nation's lingering trauma via a trek into the film’s psychological and temporal space, particularly the unnamed forest in which the two narrative strands converge. As the narrative unfolds, the forest—replete with burning brush, rolling mist and ghostly light—becomes the stage for various unmaskings: the role of Caesaria Belarmino (part of the second group) in the defeat of the revolution’s forces at Silang; Simoun’s duplicitous identity as Crisostomo Ibarra (again drawn from Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo); and the Colorum, a cult that worships a kidnapped virgin, who await the return of their savior, Bernardo Carpio. It becomes a space where betrayal, trauma, guilt, sickness and violence are given free rein. Only at the end, when an identity is reclaimed and a truth confronted, does emancipation come, the film's haunting final images—a hut left burning by the seaside; a raft borne along by a windswept river—offering uneasy release.
A Lullaby isn’t so much a retelling of history as it is a filling in, a reclamation—revisionist in that it presents a thornier, more challenging portrait of the revolution and its heroes than what conventional knowledge would indicate. If Diaz’s mode of delivery can sometimes feel didactic, that’s because the film’s dialectic is inextricably tied to its often trying duration, as if forcing the audience to reckon with a nation’s suffering via an eight-hour plunge into the story’s heart of darkness. (“Freedom requires long discourse,” says a character in a self-reflexive bit of dialogue.) Whether that approach is justifiable, or whether Diaz's other talents are compelling and transportive enough to compensate will likely depend on a viewer’s predilections. And if this formal tendency is more difficult to accept than that of other filmmakers, it might be because of some perceived arrogance or pretension on Diaz’s part; after all, time spent watching one film is time not spent watching another. But as Simoun assures Isagani: “One can possibly perceive an artist as selfish, but art itself—never.”
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery is an undoubtedly arduous experience, the cycles of trauma and untruth taking their toll both physically and psychologically. But its primary concern (as is that of Diaz’s entire filmography) is freedom. There are few things more necessary than that.