Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Five long hours
I don't usually schedule two movies that both run two-and-a-half hours for the same day. If you do cross that 130- to 140-minute barrier on one film, it's much more palatable to keep any other films you consume that day to snack size (85 to 95 minutes). Otherwise you'll burn out.
But it's even worse when you get yourself involved in two long movies with no discernible end -- either because of the way the plot is structured, or because there is no plot.
This is what happened to me yesterday.
First it was The Baader Meinhof Complex. This German language film caught my wife's eye last year, and she had wanted to see it in the theater. Me, I've seen a couple movies about German terrorist groups of the 1970s, and I always find them to be a mixture of interesting and tedious. But I pushed it to the top of my queue as a surprise for my wife, and was looking forward to giving this one a shot.
Knowing it was 149 minutes, we scheduled our viewing for a Sunday afternoon, when we'd be sure to give the movie our full attention, without succumbing to exhaustion if we tried to watch it one night after dinner. The fact that it was in German only made that a smarter decision.
And for the first 90 minutes, I was totally with it -- I was happily nestled on the "interesting" side of the interesting/tedious continuum. Because of this, I wasn't checking my watch, nor did I know precisely how much of the movie had elapsed. (I didn't note the exact time we started watching, either.) This is always a sign of a good movie -- when you note the passage of time not by the clock, but by the events of the script as they reach their natural conclusion.
Unfortunately, The Baader Meinhof Complex continues to exist for almost an hour after it reaches its natural conclusion.
The terrorists we're following are eventually arrested, and in a film like this, we expect that to be the end. Outlaws and others on wild criminal rides always end up either dead or in jail, so when the suspects started getting rounded up here, we were expecting the credits to roll at any time.
In fact, we were both watching the prison scenes and thinking "Okay, this is the last shot and then the credits will roll." When it became clear that this was not going to happen quite as soon as we thought, my wife took the opportunity to go to the bathroom. And I took the opportunity to see how much of the movie had elapsed. Incredulously, I saw the display stopped at 1:32. I thought "That can't be right. This movie is almost over. The display must be broken."
Well, the display was not broken. The Baader Meinhof Complex still had 57 minutes remaining, and we felt every single one of them. The people we were following were still in prison, mind you, so the film gave us a handful of new people to follow, new people to start caring about, in addition to those we were already following, those we were quickly beginning to no longer care about. We started laughing at our own misery, started mocking the movie, first gently, and then not-so-gently. The interminable final hour of The Baader Meinhof Complex ended up driving it dangerously close to a thumbs down for me.
I was reminded of a couple things here. First there was Clint Eastwood's Changeling, which would have been a great film if it had been 45 minutes shorter. That movie reaches its logical climax and then extends on endlessly from there, to the fatal detriment of the film. Then there was the more traumatic experience of horseback riding on my honeymoon in Belize. Having survived several experiences that I considered to be near-death on the back of that horse, I finally couldn't stand it anymore and asked our guide how close we were to getting back. It turns out he had taken us a different way home, and we still had more than an hour left before we'd reach our destination. I wanted to give up right then and there.
Somehow, watching The Baader Meinhof Complex seemed to chew up the entire afternoon, from 2:30 to 5:45, even though we only stopped it once or twice for breaks of less than one or two minutes each. So not only was the movie longer than the story structure called for, and not only did it seem like we'd been sitting there longer than we had, but the movie also mysteriously ate up more of the clock than it seemed like it should have. Overall, quite exhausting.
So you can imagine my concern when I realized I'd gotten myself into a second such situation.
A friend and I had plans to go see Phish 3D, a concert video shot in 3D and playing for a one-week limited engagement at just two theaters in Los Angeles. One of those theaters happens to be a five-minute drive from my house, so my friend met me for a beer at my place an hour before, and then we drove over. We both have seen Phish live several times -- me four times, him between 15 and 18. In fact, he was at the show documented here, which was out in Indio, California over Halloween weekend last year, a festival nicknamed "Festival 8." We both thought this special show would be pretty close to the experience of seeing them live.
Yes, indeed -- much closer than I could have anticipated.
On the drive over, my friend told me that the running time was two-and-a-half hours. Having survived getting beaten up in my basketball game that morning (for which I required a one-hour nap) and The Baader Meinhof Complex, I was a bit taken aback. But I love the band and thought the 3D should be plenty entertaining, so I was only mildly concerned.
Until the movie started ... and it was exactly like being at a concert.
No narrative spine. No voiceover. Just musicians playing their instruments. Musicians I liked playing songs I liked, granted, but nothing mentally to connect to -- which is something you need desperately if you're going to be sitting there for two-and-a-half hours.
The real problem was that although it was like a concert in many ways, it wasn't in others. For example, at a real concert, you can carry on a conversation with your friend. You can wander off and look at the lights. You can go get a beer and still hear the music. You can smoke a cigarette, if that's how you're inclined. You can text somebody who isn't there, to tell them what a good time you're having, or someone who is there, to tell them where and when to meet you. You can check your websites and email on your phone. You can dance.
It's a different story in a theater. You have to observe the rules of theater etiquette. You can't yell over the music to your friend to tell them how awesome it is. You can't dance in the aisles. And if you ignited any substance, you'd probably set off a fire alarm and get arrested.
As I was watching Phish 3D, and decided that it was not going to have any of the traditional narrative aspects of a documentary, I started to wonder what I'd gotten myself into. If the band had just taken a single two-hour-and-thirty-minute set and put it on film, it could be a long night, especially starting at 9:40 after the day I'd had. I'd have to check my watch repeatedly just to figure out when it was time to start expecting it to wrap up, because the movie itself was not going to give me any cues, any build toward a logical climax.
Fortunately, my friends, this story has a happy ending.
I soon realized that the fact that it was like a concert was also a good thing in a lot of ways. It didn't take more than ten minutes before I realized that I could lean over and make comments to my friend, even carry on a running dialogue with him. Our conversation wasn't going to distract other viewers from the band's jamming, any more than it would at a live show. So we talked this way on and off throughout the movie, never concerned that we were bothering anyone. It was liberating, in fact, to be talking during a movie and knowing that it was not considered toxic social behavior.
Another thing you can do at a concert is leave to go to the bathroom whenever you want. You're not going to miss any part of the story. It's especially true with a band like Phish, whose four-minute album recordings frequently turn into 14-minute jams during their shows. I selected one of these 14-minute jams, and not only went to the bathroom, but also updated my facebook status on my cell phone. Didn't matter. With no plot to return to, I could have stayed out for ten minutes and not really "missed" anything. In fact, I thought of going to the snack bar to replenish, except that I'd preemptively stocked up before the movie started, out of instinct.
The atmosphere was fun. People came and went, and there were a couple times when I thought some people might actually start dancing, though no one ultimately did. During one of the slow songs, someone flicked a lighter and held it aloft for a moment, and got laughter from those around them. Another group of people were actually smoking something, passing it back and forth without any response from the theater staff.
And the movie itself was a lot more involving than I originally thought it might be. The 3D wasn't anything special -- it wasn't going to give Avatar a run for its money. But it was nice and consistently engaging to see everything exist with a multi-plane depth, the future direction of 3D as a mainstream entity. What's more, the band did not just include one long set. Parts of three different sets were presented, the middle one being an acoustic set that occurred during the day. The outdoor setting looked especially beautiful here, and the camera took in a lot of crowd stuff, really giving us a feel for the other sights and sounds of the festival. Still no narrative, but at least some variation from four musicians standing on a darkened stage. Though I should say, I found even the four musicians on a stage part engrossing -- I was able to lose myself in the music and remember why I had always liked it so much, in my carefree days of youth.
I did get a little sleepy in the film's final half-hour, and then realized another brilliant thing: If I dozed off a little bit, so what? That's another thing you can't do in a regular movie and still expect to get the full experience of it. But as the clock approached midnight, if I wanted to just close my eyes and listen, and possibly catch a couple Zs, I wouldn't lose anything. It was liberating to just close my eyes in a movie theater without considering it some kind of failure. I could give in to the sleep impulse and not feel like I'd missed the movie.
And then a funny thing happened: The movie ended at only two hours in length, after all.