Skip to content

Hard Time for the Hardcore

The pleasures and punishments of long-ass films

Faces of Death IV came through Cincinnati sometime in the early 1990s. A preadolescent at the time, I didn’t get to go see the movie in my hometown, it being age-inappropriate fare, one in a series of scurrilous shockumentaries stringing together gruesome footage—some real, some rather obviously staged—of vignettes of workplace accidents, an Indonesian family preparing puppies for dinner, deadly bungee jumps, and other assorted curios. I do, however, vividly recall the radio advertisements for the movie, because they promised every paying customer who stayed to the bitter end of its litany of horrors a “Certificate of Survival,” which would allow you to prove to whomever would be impressed by such a thing that you had, indeed, watched the whole thing. I always did want one of those certificates.

That ever-vigilant enemy of anything that smacked of the arty or over-reaching, the film critic Pauline Kael, put forth the rhetorical question: “If art isn’t entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?” But without meaning to suggest that Faces of Death IV is a work of art, per se, that ballyhooed “Certificate of Survival”—which has its precedent in William Castle’s handing incoming viewers of his Macabre (1958) a $1,000 Lloyd’s of London life insurance policy that would pay off should they die of fright—suggests another model of confrontation with work. Beyond entertainment we enter the rarified realm of art as ordeal, cinema as self-administered punishment.

Recent films have offered a number of “Certificate of Survival”-worthy experiences, though the cinephile endurance test is best defined not by the presence of stomach-taxing content—the province of the horror movie—but by that of patience-taxing duration. The latter aspect is unique to art and avant-garde traditions, and it’s the one I would like to examine more closely, though the two are by no means mutually exclusive. The Hungarian director’s Béla Tarr’s 1994 Sátántangó is, yes, a touch over seven hours long, but it also contains an extended scene of a cat being manhandled and poisoned, which, Tarr’s insistence that the animal wasn’t hurt notwithstanding, makes for viewing that’s discomfiting in the extreme.

Beyond entertainment we enter the rarified realm of art as ordeal, cinema as self-administered punishment.

Sátántangó is a forbidding film, based on an equally forbidding 1985 novel by László Krasznahorkai, who writes every chapter as a long, monolithic paragraph unrelieved by the comforting presence of paragraph breaks, making most every turned page a chucked brick of text that smacks the reader between the eyes. This is not to say that both are without their perverse pleasures—that is if you, like myself, find hysterically funny the prospect of casting a hippopotamus-sized Peter Berling as a nosey and sedentary village drunk, and of making an epic event of that drunk’s journey into town to refresh his exhausted stock of plum brandy, watching him in an uninterrupted tracking shot on an interminable trundle, huffing-and-puffing along the miserable, sodden, muddy road that leads to the local tavern. This is an experience that, by its nature, has a niche appeal, and between those who submit themselves to it, there exists a sort of camaraderie, a knowledge of belonging to the ranks of the hardcore.

Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli Me Tangere was for years another cinephile Holy Grail, touted as a career-defining work by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who had the benefit of belonging to an elite cadre who’d ever seen the thing in full, the nearly thirteen-hour version that’s an intricately interwoven wickerwork of characters and subplots and that makes overt reference to Honoré de Balzac’s multi-volume novel cycle La Comédie humaine. Today, Rivette’s counterculture epic is easily accessed via home video, but on the occasion of a one-off 2006 screening at the Museum of the Moving Image it had scarcely been seen in eons, and those who were there to watch and to eat the drab box lunch remain forever bonded by the experience, as though we’d together done hard time.

For the writer David Thomson, the importance of Rivette “rests in the uncompromising way that he has identified the future of film as something other than the two-hour work shown to paying audiences in special buildings, and telling tidy stories.” Thomson may have been more right than he suspected, though Rivette would not be the model for the future superfilms. When the grand narratives of Quality Television emerged to pose a threat to traditional cinema-going, American movie studios began to gravitate toward a model that owed much to TV—multi-film franchises that would be overseen by a showrunner-like figure such as, for example, the overseer of the X-Men properties, Simon Kinberg. Directors, meanwhile, would come in as hired hands for individual films. Studios went into the business of cultivating not individual talents but franchises that required the attention of a larger managerial team, franchises in which films would represent not freestanding units and self-contained stories, but interlocking pieces, units in a narrative compound. The most impressive of structures thus far erected along these lines has been the cathedral-like edifice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its grandest spire to date the 181-minute Avengers: Endgame. In advance of the film’s opening, AMC Theatres announced a fifty-nine-hour Marvel marathon in limited theaters, a prospect that even the most battle-tested cinephile must blanch at. Altogether, this extreme form of “binge-watching” may be said to represent the mainstreaming of what was once obsessive, isolated behavior—perhaps charming as a minority subculture activity, but chilling as a social norm.

The fifty-nine-hour superstructure of the MCU is only admissible as a movie if we dispense with certain ideas that have been foundational to cinephile culture, the auteurist idea of a single abiding creative intelligence leaving its stamp on a film. The concept comes to us in its essentials from a group of postwar French writers who, looking to their classical educations, sought to establish a cinematic canon equivalent to that which had been impressed upon literature, all the while operating under the assumption that a film’s director could be as much its author as, say, Balzac was the author of La Comédie humaine. The MCU, conversely, imagines Balzac doing the plotting and establishing a style template for his chef d’oeuvre, then farming out the writing work to pliable contemporaries happy for the paycheck—more of a James Patterson model. The fact that these criteria of auteur authorship apply comfortably to the eighteen hours of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), broadcast on Showtime but screened in toto at the Museum of Modern Art, or that Out 1 was conceived initially as a TV serial, only serves to further muddy already unclear distinctions between mediums. One result of this has been a reconsideration of certain auteur television work—Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s television output, for decades treated as largely secondary to his “proper” theatrical films (with the possible exception of his Berlin Alexanderplatz), now stands alongside them in estimation.

Avengers: Endgame doesn’t feel like three hours, which isn’t a compliment—it defies the weight of time as its characters confound physics and even the finality of death, save in cases when contracts have expired, resulting in a remarkably frictionless, bureaucratically punctilious dramatic experience. As for the Rivette tradition, defined by an interest in exploring immersive effects relating to duration and a heightened attention to performance, it continues today to flow along several subterranean tributary routes; in his 317-minute Happy Hour (2015), for example, Japan’s Ryūsuke Hamaguchi put himself forward as a possible heir. An advocate of a cinema of plenitude, Rivette once said of he and his fellow filmmakers that “It seems that Scheherazade is our patron saint”—an utterance taken up by Miguel Gomes’s 2015 triptych of Arabian Nights films, belonging to the subcategory of “chaptered” epics in which the subsectioned parts premiere separately. Another is Sergei Bondarchuk’s ponderous 1960s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of the more inexplicable rediscovery revival hits of recent memory—as home viewing takes ever greater precedence over theatrical releases, sheer largeness of one kind or another seems to be one of the few remaining factors to distinguish a moving-image experience as “cinematic.”

Though a lone wolf in life, Rivette was in the 1960s and 1970s participating in a groundswell of experimentation that was looking to expand cinema in every direction, including pure runtime—think of the manic marginalia of the late Jonas Mekas’s sprawling diary movies, or the Michael Snow of the four-hour La région centrale (1971), or the films of Andy Warhol. Writing of Warhol’s Sleep (1964), a five-hour-and-twenty-one minute long-take document of Warhol’s lover John Giorno, a young Thom Andersen claimed that Warhol “reduced the cinema to its simplest possible manifestation—a single image that moved.” This flowing single image, Andersen continued, was at the origin of cinema itself:

This was also its first manifestation historically: Muybridge’s trotting horse, Dickson’s sneezing man, Lumiere’s decelerating train. But where these primitive films lasted only a few minutes Warhol’s first film Sleep lasted eight hours in its original version. By this radical elongation of filmic time, Warhol succeeded in duplicating the shock that met Lumiere’s train and those other earliest reproductions of the natural world on the motion picture screen, and in restoring to film its original irrational function of presenting things to look at without any comment or artifice. To dramatize this regression, Warhol chose to show objects in repose instead of rapid motion: a man sleeping, a man eating with exaggerated languor, a man sitting in a barber chair being given a haircut, a man lying on a couch smoking a cigar.

In identifying a continuity between Warhol’s activity and that of primitive filmmakers, Andersen was pursuing a line that would be expanded on by his later collaborator, Noël Burch, who in his Life to Those Shadows identified a resurgence of the primitive in avant-garde works like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), with its “sophisticated return to an ‘archaic’ frontality and the quasi elimination of shot-reverse shot.” Writing about Akerman’s 201-minute immersion in the daily domestic rituals of a single mother played by Delphine Seyrig, Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson diagnose that “the A-1 intent of this fugue-like movie is to divulge the molecules of moment-to-moment existence, the repetitious conditions of life: eating, sleeping, cleaning. Both Seyrig and Akerman nail this single-track woman in her condition of doing and redoing; her elevator trips, dishwashing, rising from bed in cold pre-dawn are magnificently fulfilled by a performance that doesn’t obfuscate the movie’s routinized, repetitious mise-en-scene.”

Faced with a distribution system that has standardized runtimes, within a certain range that can maximize daily showtimes and therefore profits, these are films that opt out.

Burch’s attraction to what he called the “primitive mode of representation” is inextricable from his Marxism—parsing approximately the first fifteen years of cinema, he seeks signs of a medium made for and in some cases by the working classes, before it was harnessed to a language meant to appeal to a better class of bourgeoisie moviegoer. The durational film has its own ideological aspect; faced with a distribution system that has standardized runtimes, within a certain range that can maximize daily showtimes and therefore profits, these are films that opt out, effectively curtailing their commercial possibilities. They are follies, impractical in the extreme—witness Peter Watkins’s Resan (The Journey) (1987), ostensibly a work designed to awaken viewers to the horrors of nuclear warfare, though at over fourteen hours unlikely to reach more than a tiny few.

Many moving image-based durational epics, made without possibility of traditional theatrical distribution, bypass the theater for the gallery’s white box: examples include 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Douglas Gordon’s daylong two-frames-per-second taffy-pull of Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960), or Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010). These Everest-like peaks can in theory be scaled, unlike multi-screen installation works that are by their nature incompletable, presenting as they do to a spectator an inexhaustible number of vantages, of entrance and exit points—take for example Albert Serra’s 737-minute Singularity, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2009’s Primitive, listed by the Tate as “duration variable: 1 min – 29 hours, 34 min.”

The current champion of heavyweight cinema, who vacillates between gallery and traditional cinematic presentation, must be the Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, who broke out internationally with his first film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) and has subsequently produced the fourteen-hour Crude Oil (2008)—premiered as an installation at the 2008 International Film Festival Rotterdam—as well as the nearly nine-hour Dead Souls (2018). Andrew Chan, writing for Film Comment in 2016, distilled the role of duration in Wang’s work, writing, “Wang’s durational extremes do not just carry with them the weight of history and the inertia of the present; they also suggest that we as viewers might repay the gift of his subjects’ nakedness with our own sustained submission.” Chan is writing specifically about Wang’s 2013 ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, a nearly four-hour film that takes place almost entirely inside a dismal, crumbling mental institution doing double-duty as a lock-up for political undesirables. “Time in these films does not embrace, it provokes,” Chan continues, with further reference to West of the Tracks. “It’s felt as sacrifice and labor. And the aim is to make us earn, as if such a thing were possible, the right to lay eyes on humiliations that are at once collectively borne and unbearably private.” The price of admission, in other words, is far more than what you pay for a ticket.

Wang, born in 1967, came of age in a China where foreign influences were narrow but profound: the esteemed American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who toured Mainland in the 1990s, and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose 1986 volume of musings on the nature of cinema in general and his cinema in particular was tellingly titled Sculpting in Time. For critic-cum-filmmaker Paul Schrader, returning in a recent revision of his 1972 study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer to survey the evolutions in cinematic duration that have been unappealingly lashed together with the catchall “slow cinema,” Tarkovsky is the pivotal figure, his films marking a dividing line of sorts, taking techniques of withholding and distancing which had previously existed within the context of commercial cinema and emphasizing and extending them to such an extent as to produce works suited only to the film festival or gallery.

For Schrader, post-Tarkovsky slow cinema follows three trajectories in its retreat from a popular audience, and to these dead-end trajectories—labelled “The Surveillance Camera,” “The Mandala,” and “The Art Gallery”—he consigns the work of, among many others discussed here, both Wang and his friend Lav Diaz, the contemporary filmmaker who gives Wang a run for his money when it comes to day-dominating runtimes. Each man’s career is as good as impossible to imagine without the coming of the digital revolution, which removed even the expense of film stock from the filmmaking equation. Working in both cases with skeleton crews and without stars, the only resource the filmmakers are extravagant with is time—their own, and that of their audiences.

Which brings us back to the question posed by Pauline Kael, Schrader’s mentor in his critic days: “If art isn’t entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?” It’s a pithy and memorable epigram, but it starts to buckle under scrutiny. Entertainment, to begin with, is an irreducible concept, like comedy. What entertains me —Peter Berling plodding along on his way to pick up more plum brandy in Sátántangó, for example—may not entertain you. A neater formulation wouldn’t be an opposition between punishment and entertainment, but punishment and its true antonyms, acquittal or amnesty. Despite her emphasis on the libidinal draw of cinema and habit of giving horny-punny titles to anthologies of her work, Kael was quite vanilla in her tastes for the cinematic erotic. She rarely engaged with films that didn’t surrender their surface pleasures smoothly, and when she did, as when writing about Marguerite Duras’s Le camion (1977), she could only imagine Duras as playing a game with the viewer, leading us along with a carrot-on-a-stick both promising and withholding a narrative cohesion that never comes. In point of fact, being so insistently entertained can produce an enervation close to punishment, whereas the punishment that Duras metes out, paradoxically, can be quite entertaining. Some of us, in other words, like it rough.

To be truly in the cinema is to be off the grid, removed from the matrix of always-on-call productivity.

The pleasure of submitting to the role of captive audience to one of these cinematic behemoths is one peculiar to cinema, though to spend a dozen hours with a work of art is not unheard of. We do so routinely with novels, though usually not uninterrupted, and not isolated from the world, as with the theatrical experience. And though certainly one can watch a six- or eight- or thirteen-hour movie in the comfort of one’s own home, and many cinephiles will be forced to if they are to see these movies at all, I find it difficult to imagine doing as much, so intrinsic to the experience is the discomfort of being locked into the experience and thereby forced to reckon with the fact that a movie has, for the foreseeable future, become your universe. There is a level of self-inflicted punishment in this, for human beings are not, I would maintain, meant to sit still for eight hours—not in an office, not in a cinema.

And yet, we do, some of us, volunteer to be put under lock and key at the institutions that provide this experience, profit motive-defying for both exhibitor and viewer—for to be truly in the cinema is to be off the grid, removed from the matrix of always-on-call productivity. At one such place, Anthology Film Archives, the recently departed co-founder Jonas Mekas programmed a series labelled “Boring Masterpieces,” films that, per the catalog copy, assert “boredom as a positive quality, in opposition to empty distraction or mindless sensationalism,” in search of which are presented “films that challenge you to adjust yourself to their rhythms, to penetrate more deeply into the nature of things—films that expand your mind rather than numb it.”   

Not every durational epic follows the route described by Mekas—the path of boredom leading to the palace of wisdom. Gomes’s Arabian Nights or the Argentine Mariano Llinás’s La Flor (2018), a clutched-together bouquet of disparate storytelling strategies, for example, don’t yoke together maximalist runtime to minimalist content, per Warhol, but rather use their time to pack in more stories, more cinema—to borrow from the title of Joe Dante’s ever-expanding compilation collage, seven-and-a-half-hours at peak runtime, theirs is the way of The Movie Orgy.

As diverse as these behemoths of durational cinema may be, the inveterate patron of these films may recognize certain familiar sensations in submitting to the successful of their number: the initial antsiness when faced with such a vast expanse of movie, the gradual acclimation to the atmosphere of the film, the eventual subsuming and acceptance in which all thought of the world outside disappears, as though a switch has flicked and one feels finally that oh well, I guess this movie is just my life now. Imprisoning one’s self with a film, one is thrown back on one’s own resources, and the results may be enlightening. Apposite is a line that recurs through the filmography of Michael Mann but first appears in his 1979 prison-set TV movie The Jericho Mile: “I do the time, I don’t let the time do me.”

Durational epics may be prone to overestimation. As self-justifying creatures, we don’t confess to having wasted eight hours as readily as we would two. But where the durational epic often withholds the more traditional cinematic come-ons that Kael called “entertainment,” they can offer other pleasures in its stead. Individuals who’ve been confined at great lengths in darkness have reported seeing a show of colored lights, some of them resolving into recognizable shapes and patterns, that appear from out of the black. The phenomenon, born of isolation and deprivation, is called Prisoner’s Cinema, and it might be borrowed to describe something that I have found in the best of these megalith-movies, and the confrontations that they provoke between the viewer and work, between the viewer and themselves. For it describes the pleasures that can be found in not only going to the cinema but sentencing one’s self to it—the pleasures of punishment, of confinement, and of the disorientation of inevitable parole.