IF ALFRED HITCHCOCK were around today to view this year’s Oscar contenders, I think he’d be irate. I cite Hitchcock because he was a firm believer in tight storytelling and, as such, would be appalled by the languid, loquacious styles of many of today’s directors.
Movies are getting longer and longer, but it’s not because their narratives have greater depth or density. It’s basically because the filmmakers can’t seem to edit themselves and no one’s around to curb them.
Some basic data: Twenty films were released last year with a running time of two hours 15 minutes or longer, vs. only four in 1989 and eight in 1979. They were hardly minor films: “Magnolia” ran three hours, eight minutes; “The Green Mile,” three hours, seven minutes; “Topsy-Turvy,” two hours, 40 minutes; “The Insider,” two hours, 37 minutes, and so forth. Even fairly conventional action movies like “The Matrix” or “Fight Club” ran well beyond the two-hour benchmark.
All of which brings me back to Hitchcock, who I got to know during my first tour of duty in Hollywood, writing for the New York Times. Hitchcock was a charming raconteur and gourmand who served great lunches in his suite of offices while he held forth on the precepts of his craft.
The rotund filmmaker always knew what he wanted from a scene and loved to boss around his actors, especially when there was a journalist on hand to watch. Since Hitchcock was particularly critical of directors who kept shooting until they had exhausted all possibilities, imagine what he’d think of today’s crop who not only keep the cameras rolling, but then also insist on using all their precious footage.
SIT THROUGH SCREENINGS of this year’s Oscar-contending films and your rapidly hardening arteries tell you the upshot of this dilemma. Almost every movie seems to outlive its welcome.
Hence Academy members find themselves not debating the merits of the various movies they’ve seen; instead, they’re exchanging survival stories, as though they’d just been freed from internment.
In my later incarnation as a studio executive, I occasionally sought Hitchcock’s advice on various problems, and typically he was both generous and entertaining. He had strong opinions on the care and feeding of filmmakers, reminding me that the vaunted old-time studio chiefs never saw “dailies” alone. Rather, they were accompanied by skilled editors who were on their payroll.
Thus, while the Darryl F. Zanucks and Jack Warners would take their phone calls while scanning the day’s footage, their editors would take notes and growl out their opinions. If a film showed signs of running long, they already knew where to make the cuts, and their bosses would stand behind them.
TODAY’S PRODUCTION EXECUTIVES lack the on-the-set know-how of their predecessors, and in-house editors are a thing of the past. More importantly, most top directors either have final cut or the ability to scare the shit out of any studio apparatchik who would dare propose a cut. The end result: More and more of today’s films are not only long, they’re paralyzingly periphrastic.
Hitch, where are you now that we need you?