Thursday, 28 March 2013

The long films' Good Friday

Easter weekend's here, so what better time for me to rework this piece I did for Little White Lies (Feb/Mar 2007) ahead of a lengthy visit to the cinema...

During my university finals I stayed in every Saturday night, but not because I was swotting for my exams. For 13 weeks, in a quietened house, I sat in front of the television for the second part of Edgar Reitz's Heimat chronicle - all 25-and-a-half hours of it. On its Munich premiere, in 1992, it broke the record for the longest film ever screened commercially. And that’s after the first Heimat (pictured), which was also broadcast on BBC2, came in over 15 hours long.

You’ll have guessed that for me, length does matter. Some films are long because of the tradition they come from - Bollywood in the case of popular crossover film, Lagaan (2001), which is nearly as long as the cricket match at its centre - or their source, although in the case of Sergei Bondarchuk's eight-hour War and Peace (1967), reading the book might be quicker. Lost in Hollywood history is Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) - reputed to run up to 10 hours but cut by the studio to something nearer two and never seen in its intended glory again.

The master of the extended film is French director Jacques Rivette. His 1961 début, Paris Nous Appartient (1961), a tale of paranoia among avant-garde types that plays like a zombie flick for intellectuals, is 140 minutes long. By 1971 he hit the big time, literally: Out One runs to 12 hours, cut to a relatively prolix three-and-a-quarter hours in 1974. The same year's Céline and Julie Go Boating positively fizzes along and is the unlikely inspiration for Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (pictured, 1991) is a ravishing portrait of the relationship between the artist and his muse. For pretty much four hours you get to stare at a naked Emmanuelle Béart. It's certainly one of her best roles, as it makes the most of her incredible beauty and a steely, defensive, character beneath. Michel Piccoli is the artist with whom she shares this watchful dance; the passions may be muted but what emerges on screen is absolutely devastating. And this is the glory of long films: to get as much under the skin of something as you ever can; this is cinema where viewers are afforded space to think.

In Beyond the Hills, currently showing in cinemas, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu builds up a claustrophobic picture of life at an isolated, orthodox monastery using repetition and long takes. Hungarian director Béla Tarr is celebrated for his long takes: for the first 17 minutes of his seven-hour magnum opus, Sátántangó (1994), you don't see a human face - only a group of cows in a farmyard. It's an opening that could be said to be reflected in Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' wonderful Post Tenebras Lux - 25 scenes over two hours, and a dog called Bela, coincidentally.

None of these directors expects you to watch without a break, as attested by screenings of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - late last year at the BFI Southbank - or four and a half hours of Rauol Ruiz' The Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) - at the Curzon Soho. I watched Beyond the Hills and Post Tenebras Lux at London's Renoir cinema, in the Brunswick Centre, the same place I saw a revival of Jean Eustache's three-and-a-half hour The Mother and the Whore (1973) a generation ago. The Renoir also hosted the final part - thus far - of Edgar Reitz’ Heimat trilogy.

Heimat (1984) is a tightly controlled family drama spanning Germany's 20th-century experience set in the north-Rhein region of Germany: the Hunsrück. Eight years later, Reitz turned to the youngest son of the clan’s university years in 1960s Munich; the memories of friendships and adventures are so strong that I’m sure they’ve even replaced some of my own student time.

Like Wolfgang Petersen's five-hour - in its uncut version - Das Boot (pictured, 1981) and contemporary Italian family drama The Best of Youth (six hours), which won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes in 2003, Heimat was made for TV - as was Lars von Trier's brilliant, lengthy hospital-set spooker, The Kingdom (1994) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-and-a-half Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), adapted from the book by Alfred Döblin.

In 2004, Reitz felt there was enough left to explore in his overarching theme of belonging to make the whole a trilogy. Heimat 3 - six full-length features - begins with the fall of the Wall but is strangely depressing, perhaps mirroring the writer-director's difficulties in getting it made. 'It took five years of fighting for the funding,' he told me at the time, 'and now it probably wouldn’t work at all.'

Despite this pessimism, Reitz is said to be working on a fourth instalment in the Hunsrück, but what he has already achieved has left an indelible mark: these places, faces, even accents will stay with you forever. It is already over 52 hours long - or an hour a week for a year. That’s as much as I do yoga. Mind you, I could do with a stretch now.

Related post: diving into submarine movies

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