Screen writer

Fri, Jan 4, 2013, 00:00

Never mind the length – feel the quality, says DONALD CLARKE

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master emerged in late autumn, more than a few punters (many of them keen on the picture) wondered if it needed to be quite so enormous. Two hours and 20 minutes is a long time to spend with a drunken maniac and his messianic mentor.

Ha! The Master is a mere trifle. It barely qualifies as a feature. As the year turns, we are presented with five films that clock up even greater running times: Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables, Lincoln and – longest of the bunch at an absurd 169 minutes – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Add in The Dark Knight Rises and that bunch averages out to 158 minutes. That’s 14 minutes more than Stanley Kubrick needed to explore the entire history of mankind in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Let’s hope the makers of The Smurfs 2 can tidy away their story in fewer than three hours.

Even the least cynical observer would admit that Hollywood is fuelled by money and cheap thrills. The longer a film is, the fewer times it can be exhibited in cinemas. We would, thus, expect the industry to demand that directors keep their films to manageable length. Ninety minutes is generally regarded as the minimum (though family films can run even shorter). Two hours is lengthy. Add another 10 or 20 minutes onto that and you are asking a great deal of the audience’s collective bladder.

So what’s going on? Well, let’s look a bit closer at that list. Of the seven films considered, five were directed by Oscar winners. (True, Quentin Tarantino only won as writer, but let’s not split hairs). The two unrewarded film- makers, Anderson and Christopher Nolan, have both directed best picture nominees.

For all its cynicism, Hollywood enjoys indulging those artists it regards as geniuses. For 30 years, Warner Bros allowed Stanley Kubrick to do whatever the hell he liked with whatever unattractive property he coveted. The studio even continued to finance him after the magnificent Barry Lyndon crashed violently at the box office. The executives like to make money, but they also like to be seen as patrons of “great art”.

As a result, the likes of Anderson, Tarantino, Steven Spielberg and (hem! hem!) Tom Hooper have been permitted to serve their dishes in spleen-busting portions.

We know where this leads. Indulged children grow up to be pompous, flatulent bores.

And yet. Of that list, the only one that seems unmanageably long is The Hobbit. Django Unchained could lose a few minutes. The Dark Knight Rises got a little repetitive. Les Misérables may be lengthy, but it’s no longer than the musical on which it is based.

Let’s set aside the moaning for a week or so. The finely honed novella is no more or less valuable than the vast 19th-century novel. Cinematic gourmands can look forward to a happy new year. dclarke@irishtimes.com

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