“Sheltering in place” during an epidemic has been a rude wake-up call for many in discovering just how they normally spend their non-working time—and how resourceful they can be if those outlets are suddenly inaccessible.
Needless to say, there’s been a whole lotta TV watching going on. Home improvements have no doubt been a major beneficiary of this time, if only in terms of people cleaning out their closets and such. (But please don’t just put that mess out on the sidewalk—wait till the self-quarantining period is over, then deliver it to a charity or have one pick it up.) Cooking skills have been discovered where there were none before. While those of us who never abandoned the practice are reading more than usual, one hopes some folks who’ve rarely picked up a book “since school” have rediscovered that medium.
Pairing a sense of accomplishment with the need to kill time is always a good thing, so even in the realm of audiovisual entertainment, there are mountains to climb. For many, that will mean binge-watching series both new and “classic”—maybe you never had the time before to wade through the epic entireties of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey, but now you probably do.
For the serious cineaste, however, there are different peaks to scale, many of them considerably more challenging and less populist. So while trying to steer clear of movie serials (like the old Flash Gordon), TV miniseries (a la Roots) and broadcast series (such as the above-mentioned) intended to be watched in uniformly-sized sections, let’s take a look at some of cinema’s longest long-forms: Those movies of daunting length that were ideally meant to be swallowed in one marathon dose, even if audiences seldom got the chance. There’s always something particularly intense and satisfying about wading through a truly massive work of art, and all these works qualify for that category.
Curiously, all the plus-sized cinematic sagas noted immediately below (yes, there will be a Part Deux) were difficult to see in uncut or sometimes any form until quite recently. And as a consequence of their recent restorations, all three had marathon Bay Area public screenings (variously at the Castro, Pacific Archive and Roxie) within the last year. Each has been claimed by at least a few overwhelmed viewers as the greatest film ever made. We’re not going to fool with that level of hyperbole, but suffice it to say, you won’t be wasting your time with any of them. See part two of this series here.
The magnum opus of Hungarian “slow cinema” maestro Bela Tarr, who retired from narrative filmmaking in 2011, this 450-minute dyspeptic dream is adapted from a 1985 book by his frequent collaborator, experimental novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It takes place in a kind of timeless purgatory—or perhaps one specific to the stasis of late-period Hungarian Communism. A pathetic, squabbling “community” of drunks, whores, gossips and layabouts reside in a crumbling rural hamlet isolated from the world, seemingly long abandoned by any natives with a breath of ambition or industry.
Their petty incestuous thieving and infidelity is interrupted by the rumored return of Irimias (Tarr’s usual composer Mihaly Vig), who’d been thought dead. This prodigal son is treated as a savior, but he may (as the title suggests) be working for the “other team.” He might also be a simple con man, or an instrument of the controlling State, or all the above. The “dance” he leads these hapless villagers on at their own expense is senseless, but then Satantango is nothing if not an exercise in the bleakest absurdism.
Shot over nearly two years’ course in the almost featureless landscape of Hungary’s lowlands, its often magnificent imagery not so much B&W as limning infinite gradations of grey, these seven-and-a-half hours are alternately poetical, disturbing, and dryly funny. (Those with animal sensitivities may take major offense at a notorious sequence involving the demise of a cat, although Tarr has repeatedly insisted the feline “actor” was unharmed.) This film’s oppressive universe is a squalorous one of endless rain, mud, black mold, spider webs and falling-apart domestic decreptitude. Its characters enact an existential tragicomedy that’s aptly been compared to both Kafka and Beckett.
Like reading all of Proust, seeing Satantango has been a kind of litmus test for hardcore art-film lovers since its initial festival touring, with screenings rare due to the extreme running time, and a DVD release long out of print. But a new 4K restoration that begins disseminating on various VOD platforms this Friday (beginning with Vimeo, then adding Kanopy, Amazon and iTunes in coming weeks) will finally make it readily accessible for those inclined. Make no mistake, considerable patience is required for this minimalist monolith of cryptic narrative and verrrry long shots (up to ten minutes). But if you settle into its peculiar trance state, the rewards are singular.
War and Peace (1967)
Arriving a decade after Hollywood’s drastically simplified 3 1/2 hour version (with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn as Pierre and Natasha), Sergey Bondarchuk’s Soviet War and Peace was purportedly the most expensive motion picture ever made. It was certainly the longest (excluding anomalies like Andy Warhol’s Empire), at over eight hours. Among the publicity claims were that battle scenes had required up to 100,000 real USSR military personnel—which, if true, would have actually compromised Russia’s entire combat readiness at the height of the Cold War. In fact about one-tenth that number were used, just as the real budget was said to be about one-tenth the alleged $100 million.
Still, ten thousand is a lot of extras, and $10 million bought a lot of spectacle given that the film’s resources were undoubtedly greatly enhanced by full governmental cooperation. This celebration of Russian culture (with a slight edge of modern propaganda, though Tolstoy had already been judged ideologically sound by the Communists) was duly received as a big event around the globe. While not a massive export success in commercial terms (and criticized here for intrusive English dubbing), it did get around, winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar amongst numerous other kudos. Then it more or less disappeared.
For years, the only way you could see Bondarchuk’s grandiose epic was in home-video versions of frequently appalling, third-generation-TV-dupe quality. Even a 1999 DVD restoration was unable to find workable materials in the original 70mm format, forcing a reduced aspect ratio. However, a new restoration (which was a repeatedly sold-out hit at the Castro and PFA last year) somehow overcame those obstacles, so the current version available in home formats from Criterion Collection offers all 422 minutes in gloriously wide ’Scope.
This movie probably hasn’t been seen in any comparable form hereabouts in half a century. What is it like now? Well, over its lengthy span, War and Peace has time to be a lot of things. (Except dull, surprisingly, except perhaps in bits of the final and weakest section.) At times it’s clunky, theatrical, a jumble of strategies that feels like a semi-random compendium of four decades’ Soviet filmmaking techniques. The performances are highly variable, with too-old Bondarchuk’s own Pierre a bore, then-highly-praised Lyudmila Saveleva now hard to take as a wide-eyed ninny of a Natasha, while Vyacheslav Tikhonov is perfect as Prince Andrei.
Yet despite all uneven aspects, the whole is an overwhelming achievement. There are passages of startling grandeur—not just the exciting spectacle of huge choreographed balls or colossal, chaotic battle sequences, but some abstractions such as Andrei’s visions at death’s door. Though at times Bondarchuk barely seems in control of his own vision, the gigantic enterprise’s combination of sheer scale, relentless cinematic virtuosity (the tracking/crane shots remain extraordinary) and thematic breadth do manage to convey a real grasp of Tolstoy’s titanic work, not excluding its philosophical dimensions. As maximalist as Satanango is minimalist, this War and Peace still towers above all other screen versions, and most screen epics in general.
The Human Condition (1959-1961)
Considered by some one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of a brilliant period (the Fifties and Sixties), the late Masaki Kobayashi nevertheless never achieved the international fame of many others, including Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse and Oshima. This despite the fact that he made one of the finest samurai movies, 1962’s Harakiri, as well as arguably the single best entry in the Japanese ghost story subgenre (1965’s color omnibus feature Kwaidan)—both great successes at home and abroad. But his subsequent films grew steadily less prominent, perhaps attesting to the fact that he was already an “old man” (turning 50 in 1966) amidst a new era increasingly fixated on young talent.
It doesn’t help, either, that his most towering work is of a nature that made exhibition difficult in the first place, and renders revival even more so: Based on a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, requiring four years’ production, The Human Condition consisted of three long features released between 1959 and 1961, totaling nearly ten hours altogether. (It’s still occasionally shown in Japan in marathon screenings, and was included in a Kobayashi retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive last summer.)
Not so unlike his pacifist intellectual protagonist, Kobayashi himself was an art and philosophy student drafted into the Imperial Army during WW2, sent to Manchuria, and captured by the Chinese to spend time in a POW camp. The hugely ambitious Human Condition pits the supposed “clumsy humanism” of proficiency expert Kaji (the director’s strikingly handsome go-to star Tatsuya Nakadai) against institutional venality of every stripe. In the first film, No Greater Love, he and his wife are sent to a remote Manchurian labor camp where the cruel officials resist all his attempts at reform, no matter how effective they prove.
In The Road to Eternity, Kaji is rewarded for his idealism by getting thrown into the army. Despite being branded a “red,” his natural leadership qualities inevitably push him ahead—yet again, his compassion and high principles continue to get him in hot water. “No good deed goes unpunished” remains the rule in 1961’s A Soldier’s Prayer, in which Kaji tries to rejoin his wife amidst the chaos of Japan’s final defeat by Allied forces. But his grueling journey through enemy terrain and a POW camp (now as a prisoner himself) again finds scant reward for endless self-sacrifice.
Never ponderous despite its extreme length, superbly crafted, The Human Condition was controversial at the time for showing Japan’s wartime struggles in a far-from-heroic light—slave labor, “comfort women,” executions, torture and sheer dumb meanness are all depicted as routine parts of Imperial Army life. Kaji is a great character, his virtues as credible as his vulnerabilities are vivid in Nakadai’s towering performance. While his saga may be almost unbearably bleak in the end, the trilogy’s visual beauty and stubborn insistence on individual nobility nonetheless provide a ray of hope in this brutal dramatic landscape. Like War and Peace, the trilogy is available in various home formats (DVD, Blu-ray, streaming) through The Criterion Collection.