Ideal length for various pieces of art

Richard Brody of The New Yorker is thought-provoking if sometimes cryptic. In a short post on Greenberg starring Ben Stiller, he writes:

I saw Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” again on Saturday and this time, despite the title, saw it less as a portrait of the remarkable character—unusual but exemplary—played by Ben Stiller than as a romantic comedy. It reminded me that the rules of romantic comedy have changed—that the high-concept variety of the genre is more or less dead. The best romantic comedies of recent years are distinguished by their lack of a mainspring; they are, in effect, stories of people tossed together by circumstances who try to cope together. They’re linear films, which build more on character than on situation, and which, theoretically, could run indefinitely long.

There are two ideal durations for a feature film: sixty-three minutes, which is an hour of setup and a brief tag of a wrap-up; and three hours, of which the first hour of setup is followed by two of working-out. The ninety-minute length (or its modern variety, the two-hour version, which includes more backstory) is constructed on the artifice of a plot mechanism that brings lots of plot threads together in an accelerating dénouement. It worked in an age of abstraction—an age when movies themselves, made largely on studio sets with the help of an unprecedented battery of theatrical paraphernalia, achieved an extraordinary simulation of specifics through remarkably artificial means. The stories that studios set in motion were equally abstract, relying on situations that had the built-in necessities of social conventions that themselves ran along more or less unchallenged. Classic Hollywood storytelling bought its efficiency at the price of all it excluded or filtered out, and its ingeniously constructed stories were less the cause of that exclusion than the effect of a society that was hardly inclusive.

In a world where streaming video is starting to become a more accepted distribution method, more TV and film can find its natural running length. TV especially has always tried to adhere to durations that fit into half-hour increments (with or without commercials) since it made it easier for people to remember the start-time of TV shows and because all the other programming around it was scheduled around it.

Despite the lack of such constraints, movies now all tend to run a standard 90-120 minutes long. The run-times in cinema seem to be more of a marketing or economic decision than anything else.

I would love to see more movies dare to be shorter or longer. Many documentaries, for example, would really benefit from shortened runtimes. To reach a 90 minute duration, so many of them layer on heaps of unnecessary backstory and talking head footage; it's a bore.

At the same time, a great movie like the Italian miniseries The Best of Youth would not be the same experience without its six hour running time. On Italian TV it aired as four 1.5 hour episodes, but in the U.S. it played in theater briefly as one six-hour movie, two three hour blocks separated by an intermission. I saw it in NYC with about six other people one weekday afternoon, and it remains one of the memorable moviegoing experiences of my life. Spending all that time with that family, you come to know them as your own, and every emotion you feel has the associated weight of that intimacy.

It's rare to see movies of such length anymore. Would Lawrence of Arabia, with its near four hour runtime, get greenlit today? Perhaps it would, though it would be broken into two volumes, like Kill Bill, and released over two successive winters.