Part 2 in our survey of really, really long films for your sequestrian pleasure casts its big net over films from around the globe, dating back as far as 1923. (See part 1 here.) If you’re wondering where certain famously endless experimental films are, well, they’re not on this list—much as I may value Andy Warhol’s 1964 Empire conceptually, I don’t actually want to spend eight hours looking at a continuous shot of the Empire State Building, and you probably don’t, either. (Trivia note: There actually is a film called Paint Drying, about exactly that, and it is two hours longer than Empire.)
Also, there wasn’t room here for extra-long documentaries (such as Shoah); maybe next time. Among films we tried but were not able to access is Jerzy Hoffman’s 1974 The Deluge, a 17th century historical epic that despite its nearly six-hour length remains at home one of the most popular Polish films ever made. Ditto last year’s The Innocence, a 21-hour Bangladeshi feature from Ashraf Shishir that currently seems to be the longest non-experimental film in existence—though you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence that anyone has actually seen it.
Even more surprising was to learn about the existence of SF native and erstwhile artworld enfant terrible Matthew Barney’s 2014 River of Fundament, which is purportedly based on Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings (a novel I suggested to my book club, which they nearly killed me over) and runs six hours. A phantasmagoria involving such luminaries as Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Giamatti, Debbie Harry and Mailer’s son, it has been variously described as “avant garde scat porno opera with an all-star cast” and “an excrement-filled mythological journey.” Color me intrigued—though probably not six hours’ worth of “intrigued.” (In fact, this eight-minute trailer might suffice)
But anyway, in the less fantastical realm of movies you actually can get your hands and screens on:
The Best of Youth (2003)
Released in the U.S. nearly two years after its Cannes debut, during which time it played numerous festivals (and appeared in several nations on TV as a four-part miniseries), this sprawling modern epic traces its principals’ lives over nearly four decades’ course. En route, it encompasses a great deal of Italy’s ever-roiling political and cultural landscape as those characters move about the country, their circumstances changing with all the high drama that the period 1966-2003 had to offer.
You could call this a glorified soap opera, but that would be drastically reductive. Director Marco Tullio Giordana with scenarists Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli created something both sweeping and intimate, a character drama that constantly interacts with the larger history it sprawls through. While its six full hours of very specifically Italian content might seem an improbable lure—not to mention one very long sit—The Best of Youth became one of those impossible-to-predict arthouse phenomenons, particularly in San Francisco.
Booked at the Balboa Theater in 2005, it looked unlikely to find any significant audience, yet kept getting extended week after week until it occupied one or both of that venue’s two screens for much of an entire year. This is great moviemaking in the mode of something like Children of Paradise or Gone With the Wind: A complicatedly involving, intensely emotional piece of large-scale storytelling that is deeply satisfying in narrative terms.
La roue aka The Wheel (1923)
Abel Gance is remembered today for the 1927 epic Napoleon, which has been much-revived thanks to various restoration efforts over the last 40 years, and for the two versions (a 1919 silent, a 1938 “talkie”) of the anti-war drama J’accuse. Those were huge endeavors, yet between the two silents, the French director created a lesser-remembered film of even greater ambition, at least in terms of sheer running time. Originally shown at a length by some accounts up to nine hours, La roue was drastically cut down for general release, eventually reconstructed at 4 1/2 hours, then very recently restored further to about seven hours.
It’s a florid melodrama involving orphans, quasi-incestuous yearning, blackmail, forced marriage, blindness, trainwrecks and violin-making. Corny as that may sound, it was highly praised, with Jean Cocteau famously saying “There is cinema before and after La roue, just as there is painting before and after Picasso.” What primarily excited spectators then (and remains compelling now) isn’t the histrionic emotions and cardboard characters, but Gance’s remarkably advanced grasp of cinematic technique—he was acknowledged by Eisenstein as an inspiration for the fabled montage of Potemkin and such. Available in its earlier 273-minute restoration at the Internet Archive, on Amazon Prime, on DVD and elsewhere (the 413-minute version is as yet inaccessible outside Europe), it’s a testament to its writer-director’s almost inexhaustible aspirations for the still-new celluloid medium.
Arabian Nights (2015)
The collection of Middle Eastern folktales known as One Thousand and One Nights have provided fodder for possibly that many screen adaptations or more, from dual classic Thieves of Bagdad (see here) to Maria Montez kitsch exotica to Pasolini’s 1974 Arabian Nights—the last entry in that poet-filmmaker’s “trilogy of life,” and probably his best movie. Also going by that last title is this three-part international coproduction by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August, Tabu). But unlike those prior efforts, this is not a costume fantasia.
Instead, it uses the notion of multilayered, Russian-nesting-doll-like storytelling to comment on the chaos of modern Portugal’s political and socioeconomic landscapes, with Gomes himself taking the role of an offscreen Scheherazade. (Crista Alfaiate plays an actual character by that name onscreen.) Comprising over six hours in total, the films (The Restless One, The Desolate One, The Enchanted One) mix fictive and documentary elements in a good-humored if sometimes scathing indictment of a society constantly let down by its own systems. Among the work’s streaming platforms is Kanopy, where it can be accessed for free by those with an SF Public Library card.
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day
After starting out in theater (where he found most of his recurrent acting ensemble), Rainer Werner Fassbinder spent only 13 years on the screen works that made him famous, before dying in 1982 at age 37. But he was so astonishingly prolific during that period that hitherto forgotten projects keep surfacing decades later. One such is this five-part 1972 drama, recently restored and seen for the first time since its original TV broadcast. (It played the Pacific Film Archive almost exactly two years ago.)
Subtitled “A Family Series,” it stars Gottfried John as a factory worker who meets the self-possessed Marion (Hanna Schygulla in a giant mop of Shirley Temple curls) by chance. They set out to make a life together, with complications on both the domestic and labor front. But after the first, each of the five episodes focuses on a different “couple” in those protagonists’ orbit, en route illuminating larger social issues and changes—notably the rising independence of women.
Not the usual Fassbinder tragedy, this surprisingly boisterous and upbeat (if still occasionally barbed) snapshot of working-class life was supposedly meant to run longer, but despite its popularity ended early—the story goes that trade unions objected to the unrealistic portrait of negotiations with management. (The workers here generally come up with clever ways to convince the bosses do what they want them to, rather than going through official arbitrators.) Eight Hours thus doesn’t have a completed large narrative arc to its overall running time—which is, coincidentally, just about eight hours in total.
Yet it’s got nearly all the pleasures of one, plus a warmth and good humor very seldom found elsewhere in RWF’s brief yet intimidatingly large screen oeuvre. (Certainly not in 1980’s nearly sixteen-hour literary adaptation Berlin Alexanderplatz, his most widely seen TV project.) It’s available on disc and via streaming from Criterion.
The Emigrants and The New Land (1971-72)
Much was made recently over Roma and Parasite managing an apparently flabbergasting trick by scoring Oscar nominations in both the Best Foreign Language and Best Picture categories. (Then winning both, in Parasite’s case.) Among other things, this pays depressing testament to the fact that the American audience for subtitled film has been shrinking for a very long time. But in any case, that stunt was also pulled off half a century ago by the first half of a Swedish historical epic directed by Jan Troell, adapted from a series of novels by Vilhelm Moberg. Not only did The Emigrant strangely score those nominations over two consecutive years, but it also managed to elbow onto the big prize’s shortlist alongside such still-revered Hollywood heavyweights as The Godfather, Cabaret, Deliverance and Sounder.
Yet somehow it and equally acclaimed sequel (they were actually shot continuously, then released separately) The New Land gradually fell out of access, at least in the U.S.—until both were finally released as a set by Criterion four years ago. Admittedly slow-moving, but lyrical and with great cumulative power, this simple epic about some simple people stars Liv Ullmann and the recently deceased Max von Sydow (then best known as Ingmar Bergman’s leading actors) as a rural Swedish couple who escape extreme poverty for the promise of America in the mid-19th century. Surviving the grueling ship passage is challenge enough; but once arrived at, the “new world” offers yet more hardship, as well as the hope of ultimate happiness and prosperity.
Far from the exciting, glamorized version of frontier life offered by Hollywood movies like How the West Was Won, this depiction makes vivid just how harsh the reality was for most settlers. (Ullmann said the attention to detail was such that she was required to learn how to launder clothes like a farmer’s wife of 1850.) Illness, hunger, swindlers and death are frequent visitors in this story, which encompasses many years, many thousands of miles, and a large rollcall of characters. Yet there’s a humane serenity at its soulful center, one that Troell and his superb actors make palpable at every turn over 6.5 hours’ course.
Out 1 (1971)
At the opposite end of the scale from those films’ widespread exposure and narrative clarity lies this contemporaneous project, a 16mm whatsit by nouvelle vague iconoclast Jacques Rivette that became a sort of cinematic Holy Grail—seldom seen in its four-hour 1972 edit called Out 1: Spectre, little more than a rumor in the original 13-hour(!) form. Almost no one had ever seen the latter, beyond a handful of festival and cinematheque showings, until a 2015 restoration paved the way for release at last. In San Francisco, a single all-day Alamo Drafthouse screening a couple years back packed one small upstairs house with a who’s who of local film obsessives.
So, what is it? Not an easy question to answer. A testament to the modes of collectivist creation and extreme artistic freedom then in vogue in post-May ’68 France (as well as Western Europe in general), Out 1 is a cinematic invention as sprawling, arbitrary, alternately maddening and exhilarating as Infinite Jest is to literature. You may question its grand design (in particular whether it has any), and the wisdom of some improvisational sequences that seem to ramble without any point—but the film is out to challenge you, not coddle you. Among its very loosely interwoven strands are the psychodramas performed (both deliberately and otherwise) by two separate theater companies, whose members are involved in various intrigues within and outside their groups.
Reeling between elements of documentary, labyrinthine mystery and absurdist comedy, Out 1 (which features such well-known actors as Jean-Pierre Leaud, Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto as well as many others) is a colossal house of cards that might topple at any moment—and still keep going nonetheless. It is not greater than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are pretty great. Rivette made better (as well as vastly more accessible) films in the likes of 1974’s beloved Celine and Julie Go Boating, as well as the 1991 arthouse hit La Belle Noiseuse. Those movies were long by conventional standards, yet respectively only one-quarter and one-third the length of Out 1. Its eight sections comprise something less than a cohesive artwork yet considerably more than a miracle of sheer perversity. The whole project claims to be indebted to Balzac—a notion that in itself demonstrates just how wide-open moviemaking could be in 1971, and probably never would be again.
Norte, the End of History (2013)
Another filmmaker associated with great length is Lav Diaz, the prolific Filipino who’s made another narrative feature (not counting additional documentaries, shorts and screenplays) every year since this international breakthrough. At just over four hours, it’s actually one of his shorter works—a decade earlier, Evolution of a Filipino Family almost made it to the 10-hour mark. A latterday champion of slow cinema in the tradition of Bela Tarr and Theo Angelopoulos and Kiarostami, his movies may be unhurried, and have patience-testing elements of quasi-documentary observation and nonprofessional performance. But they’re also aesthetically precise, with strong sociopolitical commentary regarding the Philippines’ extremes of privilege and deprivation.
Norte tells a grimly realistic tale of an already desperately poor family thrown into further misery when its main breadwinner (Archie Alemania) goes to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Meanwhile the actual perp (Sid Lucero), physically free but tormented by guilt, lives out his own slum-purgatorial version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, witnessing the injustice that benefitted him wreak havoc on society at large. Shown at Center for the Arts by YBCA’s erstwhile film programmer Joel Shepard (a major local champion of Filipino cinema) in 2014, this is a long, challenging film that nonetheless rewards for the sheer seriousness of its observational humanity. It’s also one of the more readily accessible Diaz films on major U.S. streaming platforms.