The Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Hollywood: Overlength

08/01/2012 23:39 GMT | Updated 09/03/2012 10:12 GMT

"No good movie is too long just as no bad movie is short enough"

Roger Ebert

When David Fincher's version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo opened in cinemas last week, viewers were sharply divided on its merits. Was it as good as the Swedish original? Was it a worthy screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson's book? Did the sight of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in bed together make you vomit or just feel vaguely nauseous?

My own feelings about the film are that in many respects it's about as good as a Hollywood thriller gets nowadays and that David Fincher's panache as a director shines through even when he's clearly working as a hired gun. But I had one major problem with it, and that's the matter of its length, something which seems to me to be symptomatic of a major problem with mainstream American filmmaking.

The Roger Ebert quotation above suggests that we shouldn't worry too much about how long a film is as long as we're having a good time watching it. To some extent I agree with this - who would want to shade minutes off The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia simply in order to get them under two and a half hours? But too many films in the past few years have been extended beyond their capacity to hold the viewer's interest because the stories they tell simply don't have enough substance to last the course.

It's a sort of storytelling elephantisis, something similar to the disease of scale which overtook David Lean when he turned a potentially beautifully little love story into the epic morass of Ryan's Daughter. Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed the first hour or so of Bridesmaids until I noticed that repetition was setting in and that I still had another hour to go before reaching some kind of conclusion.

Contrived new situations were created and character points were made again and again for no apparent reason other than to add minutes onto the running time. My liking for the film survived this because I liked the people on screen, but I was still shifting about uncomfortably wondering why it needed to be any longer than 90 minutes - at the most.

The same applies to virtually any summer action blockbuster movie you care to name but, Michael Bay's Transformers movies are particular culprits. I should state here and now that I don't really understand anything about Transformers and my viewing was purely for research purposes, but it should be theoretically possible to make a fun adventure film about robots hitting each other without stretching it out to 155 minutes. Instead we get something made with a level of portentous seriousness that used to be reserved for films about Jesus Christ.

In the case of David Fincher's recent film, the story reaches a natural stop - or given that its part of a trilogy, a pause - after the final confrontation with the killer and the final revelation about Harriet's fate at around the 110 minute mark. All we need after that is a brief wrap-up of Lisbeth and Mikael's relationship and a perhaps an ironic little coda about the fate of the Wennerstrom bank accounts. But the film goes on for another 30 minutes taking an age to establish very little, especially since I suspect most of the audience will have already forgotten all about the details of the Wennerstrom case which were introduced in the first ten minutes.

There's some mild amusement to be had in Lisbeth's globetrotting and disguises but, for me, the film was already over.

I don't have any sort of problem with long films in general. Some directors use length to the film's advantage by telling epic stories - like Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in America - or to create a slow pace which is compelling in itself - like the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in films like Stalker and Andrei Rublev.

But modern Hollywood needs to stop confusing length with importance or value for money and realise that nearly three hours of sound and fury isn't necessarily better than two hours. I would suggest a good look at what mainstream American directors achieved in the Golden Age while prescribing a course of Warner Brothers gangster movies from the 1930s followed by some exposure to the classic Universal monster movies, many of which barely make the 90 minute mark.

A good start has been made by Rupert Wyatt whose Rise of the Planet of the Apes was trim, exciting and came in at about hundred minutes. Let's hope other directors learn from his example.