Movies are getting longer and longer, especially in two categories: epic sci-fi/fantasy, and Big Serious Films. At the very least, audiences can start to feel like they’re getting their $18’s worth, at least in volume, if not always quality, of material.
This isn’t the first wave of super-long movies, though. The epics of the ’50s and ’60s could put our super-long movies to shame. But there’s a big difference between Avatar and Ben Hur: the latter had an intermission.
I was watching Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) this weekend, and as usual, TCM charmingly played the intermission and entr’acte music with the original title screens, demonstrating their commitment to showing films as close to whole as possible. As I used the intermission for the same purpose that decades of theater goers before me have — to make a quick pit stop — I realized that the intermission wasn’t such a silly anachronism after all. In fact, it was a sign of respect.
People just aren’t comfortable sitting for three or more hours straight (at least, I hope not). We need to get up, stretch our legs, hit the restroom, get another glass of water. Movie intermissions are a win-win: audiences get to take a quick break without missing anything, and theater-owners have an extra opportunity to push more popcorn and soda on them.
I understand why some filmmakers don’t want to add an intermission to their films. It breaks up the tension, especially if you’re trying to build an inexorable sense of dread in your audience. Some filmmakers might want to make their audiences uncomfortable, as a way to provoke them to deeper thought on the film’s themes. Some of them even seek to disrespect their audiences — to throw the garbage of our society back in our faces and challenge the audience to cope. I just wonder, sometimes, if all of them recognize the difference between making audiences emotionally uncomfortable, and inducing a urinary tract infection.
Sometimes, when I watch a recently-made, over-long movie, even when I loved the film, I’m left thinking that the movie’s length was a little self-indulgent. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was everything I’d hoped it would be, and more (at least, in running time). Sometimes, in very long movies, I find it mildly disrespectful of the filmmaker to make audiences sit through every shred of film he couldn’t bring himself to let go. And The Great Gatsby wasn’t shock-art; I don’t think discomfort or disrespect were Luhrmann’s goals. If we’re going to go old school, go all the way — I probably would have loved that movie, and many others, even more if we’d just had an intermission in the middle, a small sign of respect for the audience