20 June 2010

A Film Cut in Two: Create Your Own Intermission

To quote French & Saunders: "cut it in half and call it Regrets."

Unwrapped and unseen (as yet): Sátántangó

I've had Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr's eight-hour epic from 1994, Sátántangó, sitting on my DVD shelf for about three years now. I bought it knowing that having liked three of his previous films I'd relish the opportunity to one day sit back and let all that contemplative cinematic slowness infiltrate my brain (in the way that only his films can). Ah, lovely. If only - untouched, it's still in its wrapper gathering dust in between my dust-free copies of Ruthless People (1986, 93 mins - yay) and Scanners (1981, 103 mins - ooh), both of which I've watched numerous times. Fickle? Double standards? Laughs over length? Exploding heads over expanding run-time? Nah. Yeah. Well, maybe. But what's wrong with wrapping a film up in a tidy 90-to-100-or-so minutes?

Due to Sátántangó's gargantuan duration I've consistently put off watching it. Bad, BAD film watcher. But I simply haven't found the time for it yet. Where does someone find eight hours straight - or more precisely, because it sounds longer this way, 450 mins - to watch a film? That's longer than some international flights; it's practically a day's work. If someone paid me to watch Sátántangó, I'd pop it in the DVD player right now. But until that happens it will just have to wait. It'll have to abide by my film-watching clock. But what if I were to watch it in - gosh, shock - segments? This could the best and only way to digest it. Most others who've seen it on DVD in recent years must have broken it up into bite-size chunks when they watched it, surely?

Bette Midler & co. get the job done in 90 mins: Ruthless People

Of course, many times during watching a film at home we all hit the pause button for loo, snack and cup of tea breaks. Telephones go off; doorbells ring. Watching a film on DVD can often be a staggered affair at the best of times. Films often end up consumed piecemeal, viewed in small nuggets, more like adverts. Then there are channels that show films with adverts dotted throughout them - this I can't tolerate: I once caught an airing of Hitchcock's Psycho on TV and the channel thoughtlessly wedged an ad break in the middle of the shower scene!

One minute Norm-in-mother-drag pulled the shower curtain across, knife in hand; the next, poor Janet Leigh was slumped on the bathroom floor, her eye dissolving into the plughole. Annoying huh? But that's what you get for watching films on ITV, I guess. But controlling the pauses, managing your own film stop-gaps, can yield great results. I should add - just to keep up the appearance of being a Serious Film Buff - that the ideal is to see a film through to the end in one long stretch, as the directors intend. I don't like to do these things by halves ultimately. But where this isn't possible, create A Film Cut in Two*.

Shower scene sacrilege: TV Psycho is a no-no

Anyway, some films are better divided in two, or quartered, eigthed, whatever. I know this may sound scandalously sacrilegious to many a cinema buff, and I had to get over the idea of it myself at first, but a break, of no more than, say, 24 hours - 48, tops - can allow time for a film's first half to nicely percolate in your mind. It's a think space, a gap to let the film's magic continue to work its spell on you in its absence.

I know why films used to have intervals. Sure it's to grab a bite to eat or take a toilet break, but it also created anticipation for what was to come next. But on occasion 5 or 10 minutes isn't enough. And anyway, that was just for cinema releases - and those days have passed. Although, my copy of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963, 154 mins) contained a handy caper-free intermission; so, too, did the DVD copy of Funny Girl (1968, 151 mins) that I watched recently with friends - time enough to top up on some Streisand-watching snacks; and the lengthy, purely intentional prologue (ill-placed interval?) at the beginning of Dancer in the Dark was more like a get-out-early clause. Sometimes a longer intermission is required. So do it yourself...

Inland Empire's imaginary hookers are on a break

...or someone else will do it for you. Or not. Three years ago when I travelled 30 miles to see David Lynch's 180 min Inland Empire (hey, I'm a devoted Lynch fan) there wasn't an interval, despite vague and hazy rumours that there may be. (Lynch would've gone apeshit; apparently he hates any stoppages in his films; he doesn't even allow chapter breaks on his DVDs.) But two months later, when it played at a cinema nearer to me, I went again, and, whaddayaknow, they put in an interval (sloppily I might add, at two-thirds of the way in - I could see Lynch's point).

But what I most remember most about that Film Cut in Two were the expressions on the faces of a few not-as-mad-on-Lynch-as-I-am friends who I'd dragged along. They took the opportunity during this particular gap to not run for the exit as I might have expected, but to shoot me time-worn glares, brought on by its mammoth length: if looks could kill. Inland Empire wonderfully made not a lick of sense in its full form; a break just creates further confusion.

Streep on The Cobb: The French Lieutenant's Woman

In the late '80s I had a mad Meryl Streep phase (a marathon of 13 of her films in about two weeks) where I sat down to watch The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981, a snip at 124 mins - standard length now really). Halfway through I hit pause, inadvertently creating a sudden static snowfall over Streep in her cape on The Cobb, down Lyme Regis way - this was, of course, thanks to the trusty old VCR's wonky, fuzz-heavy pausing function back then. I sat for a moment, then decided on... a short walk. Streep and Jeremy Iron's love affair swirled around in my mind during my leg-stretching exercise. I felt slightly wistful. Sarah's (Streep in the film) melancholy was mirrored in my own. It was a good way to digest what just happened in the film, and gear myself up for what was to come next.

[If you think this piece is getting a tad too long, why not take a break, have a little walk, blink for a bit, before you read the second half]

The impromptu break allowed me to mull over many aspects of The French Lieutenant's Woman: what it meant so far, and to ponder what might happen to these characters in the second half. I'd devised my own self-created buzz at the halfway mark. I wanted to know if the rest met the high expectations conjured up in my mind, so I sped up my walk and trotted home. I hit the play button and let Streep and Irons resume their bouts of lustful longing for one another.

Just walk away (for a bit): American Gangster

I remember liking the film quite a bit back then, after it finally ended. But I'm hard-pressed to remember much about it now - apart from Streep's melancholic gaze out to sea. And not because that was the film's most iconic moment, mind you - it was likely due to having stared too long at the paused screen: the video cassette static and my hazy memory blurred into one.

Over the last year or so I've watched several halves of films, separated by a day or two. Spike Lee's American Gangster (2007) benefitted wonderfully from a spot of respite. It was tense and gripping for the first half of its 157 mins, so I allowed the tension to build up more so in the interim, ready for the next 78½. Also, it allowed me, after work, to get the other stuff done I needed to that evening, and still have time left over for other things. I like to think practically in these matters.

Banish it til tomorrow: The Banishment

Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment/Izgnanie (also 2007, also 157 mins) became more fascinating than it probably actually was in my mind thanks to a temporarily forced Ctrl+Alt+Pause. The film is full of brooding, doom-laden imagery, and is all the more mysterious for it. The suspense resulting from cutting it in two sent my brain into art-film appreciation overdrive, and, as a consequence, a far more mysterious and evocative film opened up... for a while. The film was now in two parts, but I was still in two minds as to what I really thought of it. The same went for another '07 arthouse heavyweight: Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light/Stellet licht (145 mins), albeit with a less enthusiastic feeling.

In fact, some films could benefit from a permanent pause. I could have easily left Twilight (2008, too many goddamn minutes) stranded at the halfway mark, never ever to see its dire conclusion. And I surprised myself by making it all the way through The Kite Runner (2007, 128 mins). Marc Forster should consider himself lucky that his ingratiating prestige pic didn't get halted before 15 mins. These two prove that the pause button is boredom's best friend.

One moment out of 15½ hours: Berlin Alexanderplatz

If your film has a length issue just cut it in two, I say. Create your own cliffhangers. Build up to your own dramatic pause (literally). Be a sofa editor and freeze the film for later. It'll still be there, fresh as ever. Increase your expectations. Stack all that momentum up for tomorrow night. You never know, you might turn a good film into a better one; or a mediocre film into a great one. Or just one long film into a makeshift TV series.

And God forbid I get a hold of a copy of Fassbinder's 931 min Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). It's nearly 15½ hours of visionary filmmaking. (Admittedly it was originally serialised for German television.) I'd need to take a fortnight off work just to see it, cut into manageable chunks or not. But now, how about that eight-hour Hungarian epic? An hour a day over the next week and a bit should see to it.

It seems I do do things by halves. Or, well, eighths.

*The title of this post has been shamelessly cribbed then paraphrased from the title of Claude Chabrol's 2007 film La fille coupée en deux/A Girl Cut in Two for no other reason than I just thought it sounded good.


  1. Oh, I remember that Inland Empire interval! Mainly because I went to the loo and it was full of girl guides in rabbit ears. I was too busy being freaked out to notice that people trying to kill you with their eyes.

    I'll pay you 50p to watch Sátántangó. But you have to do it all in one go.

    (Great post).

  2. Thanks Sheldrake. I think you were one of the only ones to NOT shoot me a deathly glance.

    Give us a quid and I'll watch it all in fast forward. In one sitting.