There’s an eight-hour movie coming to the Irish Film Institute

‘Dead Souls’ will be screened over two days. Can something that long be called a ‘movie’?

Detailing Chinese Communist Party atrocities in the 1950s, Dead Souls clocks in at around eight hours

Detailing Chinese Communist Party atrocities in the 1950s, Dead Souls clocks in at around eight hours

 

Thirty-one years ago I spent two successive afternoons in the delightfully old-school (even then) stalls of the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. It was a grim experience, but a rewarding one.

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, running a total of 566 minutes, is often cited as the best documentary ever made. Detailing the experiences of Holocaust survivors across occupied Poland, the film was generally screened in two parts. Some cinemas presented it in one day with a break for lunch (for those who still felt eating appropriate). Others, like the Phoenix, broke it up over adjacent afternoons.

Nobody apart from a few fascist loons now doubts the worth of Lanzmann’s project, but one might reasonably wonder if it can be regarded as a single feature film. Does there come a point at which something is too enormous to fit the definition? Maybe we require a film to be digestible in one sitting?

The question is re-ignited by the imminent arrival of two lengthy art-house titles. For the purposes of this article Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree is a mere trifle, a cinematic amuse-bouche before the main feature. The Turkish director is known for making lengthy dramas during which not an enormous amount happens.

Winter Sleep, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2014, clocked in at three and a half hours. The Wild Pear Tree is a mere three hours and eight minutes. There are Grateful Dead guitar solos longer than that. Right?

The real meat arrives next month with a screening in the Irish Film Institute of Wang Bing’s highly acclaimed Dead Souls. The documentary is very much in the mould of Shoah. Detailing the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities against alleged “rightists” in Gansu Province during the 1950s, Wang’s film clocks in at around eight hours. The IFI will be showing it over two days.

The super-lengthy film can cause attendees at film festivals to get a little smug. At Cannes this year, some critics who shunned a day of movies – maybe three or four titles – to catch the showing of Dead Souls failed to shake off the mantle of martyr. This was the grown-up way to attend a festival.

You got a little less of this when Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth toured the circuit in 2003 and 2004. That Italian epic was two hours shorter than Dead Souls and significantly less gruelling.

The Bravest Cinephile on Earth stuff is more prevalent among those sitting through the longer films of Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr or the less nippy movies of Filipino slog merchant Lav Diaz. Tarr’s (genuinely excellent) Sátántangó will set you back a little over seven hours. Diaz’s (frankly exhausting) A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery is a whole hour longer.

It is hard for any critic to emerge from such a film and not declare it some sort of triumph. To say otherwise would be to suggest you’ve wasted a significant amount of life that you’re never ever going to get back.

Something similar goes on with very long novels. Only a maniac would, after completing all 4,200 pages of Proust’s À la recherche du temps Perdu, fling it dangerously over his or her shoulder and sniff: “Oh, you know, it’s all right. Took a while to get going.”

Readers who have finished Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and found it only so-so are thin on the ground.

One can, however, happily complete a roman fleuve and wonder if the series constitutes one book. À la recherche du temps Perdu almost certainly does. Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels probably don’t (not least because they don’t have an agreed covering title).

The discussion about when a feature film stretches out to become something else can be trickier. That conversation reached a head two years ago when all 427 minutes of OJ: Made in America won best documentary at the Oscars.

The “film” is excellent. Track it down if you haven’t seen it. But come on: if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck then it’s a duck. Dressing it up in a purple surplice and sticking it in Lambeth Palace doesn’t make it the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once the ESPN series (seriously, come on!) screened at the Sundance Film Festival it became eligible for the Academy Awards, and it duly slipped past the competition to triumph a year later.

The rules were later changed to exclude “multi-part” entities. That seems to be the deciding factor. Shoah and Dead Souls can be broken up into two sections, but they remain, at their core, continuous entities that have a notable cinematic presence. If Sátántangó is not a feature film then what is it?

Where you see an alleged film does still matter. Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a dazzling 24-hour-long montage, probably counts as something else because it plays in galleries. You can catch it until January 20th if you are near Tate Modern in London.

But endless Andy Warhol projects such as Empire (485 minutes) and Sleep (480 minutes) really have played in lucky cinemas.

We know that Charlie Lynn’s infamous 10-hour Paint Drying is a feature because it has a cert from the British Board of Film Classification to prove it. Doing exactly what it says on the (paint) tin, Charlie’s film was devised purely to protest the existence of the BBFC. I trust they got their own back by enjoying it.

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