The long playing record better know as the LP is the definition of restraint. Limited to around twenty two and half minutes on each side there is no room for fillers and no opportunity add a few more minutes on a whim. Film does not have an equivalent, whether digital or film there is no limit to the potential length, Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building, Helsinki) (2011) runs for ten days, yes I di say days. The term epic seems to be tagged onto films simply because they are long. Even the longest of movies can not compete with television for length and yet television until recently was always the poor relation to the cinema. When talking about two movies that came out around the same time the critic Mark Kermode made a very salient point; Killing Them Softly benefits for it relatively short 97 minute run time but within the 131 minute Savages there is probably a good 90 minute movie trying to get out.
I had carried this thought around in the back of my mind for over a year without thinking too much about it until Christmas. I watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy over two days, in the case of the final film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King it was the first time I had seen the film since seeing it at the cinema on release. Despite coming in at a whopping 201 minutes (that’s more than three hours) it never felt that long. Even the bizarre sense that the film doesn’t want to end doesn’t drag out as much as I remember it. However, I wasn’t watching a 201 minute version, I was watching the a 251 minute extended edition. I understand there is an even longer version on Blu-Ray clocking in an arse-numbing 263 minutes, that’s the best part of four and half hours. To be perfectly honest I can’t remember how it differs from the original cut, but know I enjoyed watching both.
This leads to the big question, what is the point of extended versions of movies? I kind of understand directors cuts where a film maker who didn’t have final cut returning to a movie to re-cut it in line with his original vision. However extended cuts are a very different beast, but what is the reason for it? A vanity project of a director who believes his movie is so great and so important that it deserves a longer version. A cynical money making exercise of a studio who promise extra footage or a more explicit cut to temp people to buy the DVD/Blue-Ray.
It would be understandable if length equated to quality, but it very often does not. Many films would benefit from a trim not an extended edition. King Kong (2005) is a perfect example, sorry to pick on Peter Jackson, I do like his movies. The original film is 187 minutes long and to be honest too long, so what did Jackson do? He added another fifteen minutes to the special extended DVD edition. The original 1933 movie directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (both uncredited) is less than a hundred minutes and is a far better film. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a campaign for short movies, I don’t think there is a wasted second in the 200 minutes of The Godfather: Part II (1974). Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) is actually too short, running through the 95 years of Nelson Mandela’s life in 141 minutes. It plays life a movie version of CliffsNotes. On the other hand Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008) splits its four and half hours into to distinct movies.
I’m not sure there is any right answer, Martin Scorsese films are often long but never too long. Films should be the length they need to be, I just can’t help thinking that they often should be shorter than they are. I would also go as far as to say they should also always be the same cut whether they are being shown in cinemas, on DVD or on TV. I know this won’t happen, as long as filmmakers believe their own bullshit the length of films will be dictated by directors ego’s and producers wallets and not the way they should be, by the art.