Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

How long is a feature film?

Well, some are two-hours long. Others are three-hours long. Films featuring Adam Sandler last about two and a half days (or so it seems). That’s a pretty stupid question, buddy. You want to pull yourself together. Let’s start again. How …

Tue, Jun 14, 2011, 23:04


Well, some are two-hours long. Others are three-hours long. Films featuring Adam Sandler last about two and a half days (or so it seems). That’s a pretty stupid question, buddy. You want to pull yourself together.

Let’s start again. How long does a film have to be to qualify as a feature? The question is prompted by a tiny controversy concerning the latest film to be directed by that great film-maker Madonna. WE, a study of Mrs Wallis Simpson’s adventures with the Duke of Windsor, has recently been acquired by the good people at the Weinstein Company. Announcing their coup, Bob and Harvey explained that they now had the rights to “Madonna’s debut feature”. Those words appeared above several reports in the trade press. But wait a minute. Didn’t Madonna, in 2008, direct a panned, almost unseen picture entitled Filth and Wisdom?

The Weinsteins quickly explained that, as that picture was only 81 minutes long, it must be regarded as a short film. WE was thus, indeed, her full-length debut. Reports such as that at Entertainment Weekly were quickly amended.

Sorry, what now? It is true to say that we generally expect features to exceed an hour and a half, but an 81-minute picture does, surely, still deserve to be regarded as a full-length entertainment.

Happily, my good friend Dr Wikipedia was able to offer some firm definitions. Apparently, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Film Institute, and the British Film Institute all define a feature as a picture with a running time over 40 minutes (a tad too lenient, methinks). The Screen Actors Guild — presumably working hard to gain its members full rates — strays too far in the other direction by setting the lower limit at 80 minutes.

At any rate, it seems that, applying even the most unforgiving definitions, Filth and Wisdom qualifies as a feature. By the Weinstein’s reckoning, at 75 economic minutes, Tod Browning’s 1931 version of  Dracula must be regarded as a short. The same director’s Freaks was originally released in a 65-minute cut. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup runs to 68 minutes. Mervyn Le Roy’s Little Caesar is 79 minutes. Have the Weinsteins suddenly reclassed all these great films as shorts? I knew they were powerful. But really…

A question requiring more nuanced answers is “How long should a film be?” There are plenty of long films that we wouldn’t wish a minute shorter. The huge version of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is notably superior to the edited cut. Mighty works by Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky thrive on leisurely movement towards an obscure objective. Length is, you could argue, a defining characteristic of such films. You may as well ask Van Gough to paint in acrylics as ask Tarr to trim his pictures.

Equally, there are many brief films that — noting their perfect balance — you would never wish a moment longer. Who would tamper with the perfection of Robert Bresson’s 75-minute Pickpocket (now a short, according to Bob and Harvey)?

Notwithstanding the danger of such generalisations, I would venture that a worrying giganticism is creeping into populist cinema. Who in their right minds wanted each of the last three Pirates of the Caribbean films to exceed two and half hours? The last few Harry Potter films have all been around the same length. The bagginess is unforgivable.

Maybe we should be urging the Weinstein Company to put an upper limit on the length of a feature. Such films could then be given another name. I know what I’d call Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Oh, never mind.

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