Rambling: On Length

By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer

Last October, I went to the BAM Cinematek to see “Out 1,” the famous, mysterious 13-hour film by Jacques Rivette. Never before released in the U.S., it  received as good an ad campaign as any re-release in the past few years. “The cinephile’s holy grail” said a New York Times critic. It was spoken of as a mysterious mix of Thomas Pynchon and Lewis Carroll, brilliantly conveying the turbulence of France in the 1960s. I came in not just expecting but feeling entitled to a work that would put almost all others to shame.

In retrospect disappointment feels inevitable, but I still can’t believe how much of a bore it was. Entire hours of the film are devoted to showing acting rehearsals in real time. The more plotty parts concern a street performer playing at a cafe and a woman swindling money from her dates. The movie feels like watching all of the footage shot for a documentary that will be worthless even when it’s cut down to 80 minutes. I agreed with the man next to me, who referred to those many audience members who applauded at the end as “the masochist film society.”

Watching the movie, as painful as it was, does serve as a reminder of the perils of extremely long art in any medium. The double album, epic poem, generations-spanning novel and long running TV show are all spoken of in more grand tones than their shorter equivalents. They are not only beautiful, great, entertaining, etc. They are often said to be definitive, both as a treatment of their subject and as a demonstration of the artist’s talent.

They are given the most absurdly sympathetic reviews. Sure, people admit, the white album has five or 10 or 20 bad songs, but that just adds to how “interesting” and “ambitious” it is. Yeah Apocalypse Now falls apart well before it ends, but doesn’t that give it a sense of being “open-ended?”

To call these works more interesting than their shorter, more thought out equivalents isn’t wrong. It is easy to get obsessed with, for example, how the second season of Twin Peaks totally fell apart. More importantly, it is fun to write about. While pretty much everything there is to say about the perfection of “Pet Sounds” has already been said, there are always new ways to speculate about how great “Smile” could have been if it were finished.

Obsession with long, overambitious works is definitely understandable, but it should be kept in check. For the most part these works are interesting failures. They fall well short of their aims, and are at times bad by even a generous standard. What is needed are two sets of standards, considered separately but simultaneously. Yes, the thought process behind “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” is a very interesting thing to contemplate. But as a song, it’s pretty awful.

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