Film: How Long Has This Been Going On

So far as I know, the natural law contains no clauses specifying the maximum length of movies. Neither did Shakespeare have anything particularly useful to say on the subject, his passing mention of “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” having nothing to do with the actual playing time of Romeo and Juliet. The reason why most movies are about two hours long is that theater owners insist on it. Once a picture starts creeping beyond two hours and ten minutes, the number of showings that can be crammed into a single day starts to drop, and profits decline accordingly. As Ross Perot likes to say, it’s that simple.

Why, then, do moviegoers start to get squirmy when a film crosses the 120th parallel? Is their restlessness merely a conditioned response to an arbitrary restriction? John Ford thought so. In Print the Legend, his excellent new biography of the director, Scott Eyman retells the oft-told tale of how Republic Pictures ordered Ford to trim The Quiet Man to give it a shot at being booked into Radio City Music Hall, which then imposed a strict two-hour limit on the movies that accompanied its lavish stage shows. Ford dragged the head of the studio into a screening room to watch the final cut, from which he had simply lopped off the last nine minutes— the climactic fight scene. The boss got the point and gave in.

I spend much of my time going to the ballet, where performances usually run about two and a half hours, and the opera, from which you’re lucky to get home before midnight. Hence, the idea of watching an exceptionally long movie rarely fazes me—in theory. But when I first learned of the unusual lengths of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (160 minutes) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (179 minutes), which I happened to see on consecutive evenings, my immediate reaction was to look up the running times of The Rules of the Game (110 minutes) and Citizen Kane (119 minutes). If Jean Renoir and Orson Welles were able to wrap up the two greatest movies ever made in less than two hours apiece, what on earth could Leigh and Anderson possibly have had to say that took longer?

Ross Perot notwithstanding, the answer to this question is far from simple, especially in the case of Topsy-Turvy, an unabashedly leisurely movie from which I suspect 20 minutes or so could have been shaved without fatal damage. Yet when all was said and done, I would have resented the loss of even a minute. While the slowish pacing is not essential to the film’s overall effect, the closely observed period detail is indispensable; indeed, I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to call it the heart of the matter. For contrary to whatever you may have heard or read, Topsy-Turvy is not simply, or even primarily, a backstage movie about the partnership of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and the making of The Mikado. It is, rather, a scrapbook of Victorian life, a miraculously evocative attempt to suggest the tone and texture of what it felt like to live in London in 1885.

This latter emphasis explains why so many smart filmgoers of my acquaintance have disliked TopsyTurvy: It is not plot-driven. We know, after all, that Gilbert and Sullivan will finally overcome their artistic differences and that The Mikado will be a hit, so instead of trying to trump up false suspense, Leigh ambles from vignette to vignette, interested not in the plot but the scenery. We stroll into the office of Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) and notice with surprise that he has a telephone on his desk; we accompany Sullivan (Allan Corduner) to a Paris bordello and gaze with wonder on the elaborate decor. We dine in Victorian restaurants, sit in Victorian living rooms, peer into Victorian rehearsal halls, go backstage at the Savoy Theater and watch a prop man shake a piece of sheet metal to simulate the sound of thunder. Detail is piled on imaginatively recreated detail, and at film’s end, you feel that you have entered a lost world, full of real people who behave in plausible ways.

All this, mind you, is not done merely to charm us but to make a point that turns out to be, not surprisingly, intensely political, as most contemporary British drama is political. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is an artist who has pulled himself into the lower ranks of the upper classes by sheer force of will. To stay there, he must exert iron control over every outward aspect of his existence. He mocks Victorian propriety in his librettos but hews rigidly to its commandments in his daily life; he wields absolute power over the actors and actresses of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, thereby proving that he is not a rackety, flamboyant “theater person” but a solid citizen. Afraid to relax his grip for fear of sliding down the slippery pole, he has been rendered incapable of intimacy, even with his loving wife.

While this class angle will strike anyone who knows anything about British art as painfully familiar, the good news is that Mike Leigh has not allowed his left-wing convictions to overwhelm his desire to make honest, richly complex films. His portrait of Victorian England and its discontents contains as much affection as acid, and neither the tightly wrapped Gilbert nor the frankly sensual Sullivan is made out to be a one-dimensional monster of hypocrisy. I myself take a sharply different view of Victorian manners, but it is impossible to watch Topsy-Turvy without being impressed by the generous moral sense of its greatly gifted director.

Magnolia is quite a different kettle of fish, though it has in common with Topsy-Turvy a narrative looseness that many viewers and reviewers have found exasperating—there are five separate plot strands, all linked by coincidence, which converge at film’s end. The action is played out in the course of one momentous day in the lives of a dozen highly stressed residents of Los Angeles, all of whom have something to hide and most of whom have someone to forgive. (The cast, incidentally, is superlative, with Tom Cruise in magnetically fine form.)

To summarize what happens in Magnolia would take at least another couple of columns’ worth of type, so suffice it to say that the climax is precipitated when the city of angels is visited by a plague foretold in the eighth chapter of Exodus. Yes, you heard right: The maker of Boogie Nights was raised Catholic, and when a reporter recently asked him when he made his last confession, he replied, “It’s three hours long. Haven’t you seen it?” Sure enough, Magnolia turns out to be the latest in a series of American films that seek to give Christian concepts—in this case, atonement—a secular makeover. To be sure, none of the characters speaks the name of Jesus Christ other than in vain, but Magnolia, like American Beauty, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Last Days of Disco, is plainly the work of an artist who, however heterodox his convictions about the actual room temperature of hell, knows the difference between mere naughtiness and mortal sin.

It is tempting to dismiss this over-long, undisciplined movie as criminally messy and terminally pretentious, but I don’t think Magnolia can or should be written off that easily. I do wish Anderson had learned a lesson from the devastatingly concise songs of pop balladeer Aimee Mann on which his screenplay is based—she can suggest as much in five minutes’ worth of plaintively sung rhymed couplets as he packs into a half-hour of churning, overscored camera work—but I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to any ambitious filmmaker prepared to rip his way out of the strangling straitjacket of Hollywood cookie-cutting, especially one who has matters of life and death on his mind.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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