The great length debate continues over ’92 pix

IS LENGTH IMPORTANT? Along with the raft of biopix, the most notable trend among the year-end film releases was their extended running times, which in most cases were longer than absolutely necessary. The debate over whether length is important seems to be with us forever, but in the case of films I would argue that it is, and that shorter is very often better.

The truth, of course, is that every work of art experienced in linear time — a film, play, musical composition, book, ballet, a great joke — has its own ideal length, the time it takes to properly tell the story and express the author’s intentions. “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Godfather Part II” would have been as absurd at 90 minutes as “Modern Times” and “Kiss Me Deadly” would have been at four hours. Very simply, it’s up to the creator to decide what length and weight his or her story will bear.

Many of the greatest artists of the last century or two–Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville, Wagner, Balzac, O’Neill, Proust–have specialized in works of intimidating length.

There has been a tendency of late toward cultural “events” that derive at least part of their cache from their gargantuan duration –“Nicholas Nickleby, “”Berlin Alexanderplatz,””The Mahabharata,””Our Hitler,” Robert Wilson’s “The Civil WarS,” Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,””The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,””Angels in America” and “Heimat” (the brand-new “Heimat II” runs 1, 532 minutes, a record, as far as I can tell, for any film ever reviewed in Variety).

I am not at all immune from the pleasures of settling in for a nice long sit at a film. But time grows more precious as you sense that there’s less of it, and economy of expression begins to count for more. Now, I automatically perk up upon learning that a film runs just 89 minutes, or a book is less than 200 pages.

Many people have mentioned the protracted lengths of many of Hollywood’s recent films–“Malcolm X,” 201 minutes; “Scent of a Woman,” 157 minutes; “Chaplin,” 144 minutes; “Hoffa,” 140 minutes; “A Few Good Men,” 138 minutes; “Passion Fish” and “Lorenzo’s Oil,” 135 minutes, and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” 120 minutes (there are others). Most observers have agreed that “Malcolm” would have benefited from a 20- to 30-minute trim, while “Chaplin” might have merited a more expansive telling.

TO ME, THE MOST EGREGIOUS CASES recently are “Scent of a Woman,””Passion Fish” and “Home Alone 2.” Since we’re not talking about artistic integrity, the latter’s overlength seems inexplicable. At 90 minutes, it would have been better for kids, more shows could have been squeezed in and it would have cost less if those 30 additional pages of script hadn’t been shot.

Although “Passion Fish” got its share of fine reviews, for me it was a potentially strong intimate drama — and essentially a two-character piece, after all — stretched at least a half-hour too long. I don’t know what compels John Sayles to edit his own pictures–something even one of the greatest cutters-turned-directors, David Lean, seldom did –but it seems less than advisable.

So maybe “Scent of a Woman” is doing business and perhaps it does play better at its current length than it did in test screenings at 130 minutes or 140 minutes. This film is still more indicative of the length problem of current films than any of the others, for the simple reason that there is nothing intrinsic in the story that mandates the indulgent running time. There remains truth in the old adage–leave the audience wanting more.

In an era where, for perhaps the first time in history, the phrase “Director’s Cut” actually carries commercial clout, many directors also have contractual final cut. As long as their films meet a couple of basic prerequisites, a surprising number of Hollywood directors of something less than the first rank possess this long-sought-after power, giving them the upper hand in dealings with producers and studio executives.

And even when they may not have the final say legally, numerous top-salaried filmmakers are sufficiently intimidating to prevail in creative disputes with distributors. Not many “Brazil”-like incidents have erupted in the past few years, for the reason that critical and public sympathy always leans heavily toward the artists and against the supposedly crass, profit-minded executives.

DOESN’T ANYONE KNOW HOW to accurately time a script before greenlighting it for production? If you know in advance you’re not going to be able to force a director to cut a film once he or she delivers it at 135 minutes or so, it would seem incumbent upon you to get the script down, in most cases, to a tight 100 pages before shooting begins (just as it would be advisable for the director to get it as lean as possible). At a time when everyone is supposedly trying to figure out how to cut budgets, this is an obvious place to start.

Speaking of length, it should be pointed out that it’s often impossible for the public to reliably know how long a film really is, for the simple reason that the running times listed in many published reviews are often inaccurate. Since Daily Variety and Variety’s policy is to clock precise running times ourselves, I know of countless instances where the so-called official lengths have been wrong, yet have run in most reviews. Recently, for instance, The New York Times review reported “Scent of a Woman” as running 149 minutes, or 8 minutes too short. Just this week, “Ethan Frome” was mistakenly reported elsewhere as being 6 minutes longer than it is.

I would estimate that the running times supplied by distributors and PR companies — and thus, by most newspaper reviews — are wrong about 30% of the time.

In the end, it’s not the numbers on the clock that matter, but what feels right, and what’s appropriate for the story that’s being told. It just seems, at the moment, that few filmmakers are considering the virtues of getting on, saying what you’ve got to say and getting off before taxing everyone’s patience. I think I feel like a 1933 double bill– maybe William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road” (68 minutes) and Michael Curtiz’s “Female” (60 minutes). And, if I’m up for it, perhaps Woody Allen’s “Bananas” (82 minutes) as a nightcap.

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