(Author’s note: This piece was originally a four part essay that has been joined together here as one)
It’s generally accepted that since the advent of motion pictures, movies have gotten longer the further we’ve gotten away from the first motion picture. However, pinpointing the exact reason for the increase may be impossible, probably because there is no one cause. Still, while it might be impossible to pinpoint exactly why, I’ve been curious to know just how the ‘auteur theory’of filmmaking might have played into the ballooning of run times, specifically, does the more revered a director becomes, either critically or financially, result in longer films?
To answer the question would require a lengthy analysis of hundreds of filmmakers, tracing their pre-breakthrough career to post-critical or box office success, and even from the highs and lows within an individual career. Unfortunately, the author of this blog has a real job and can’t spend all his time doing a complete historical over view, so instead he (by he I mean me) took an alternate path.
Rather than a historical survey I took a more limited approach, looking at a few select filmmakers from different eras and different schools, just to see what the influence a director’s power might have had on his films. While a limited sample size naturally means the results are incomplete, that they are suggestive and not outright conclusive does not render them invalid.
Part I: The Old Guard
This essay was driven by the auteur theory and its implications but unfortunately, this theory was a late-blooming idea, emerging from French film criticism in the 1950’s. Because it was late to the party most of the old guard didn’t have the chance to really be auteurs until after the fact and the influence of the theory on them is negligible. However, that makes their careers all the more instructive. As the studio robbed most of these filmmakers of their pretensions there is a purity in seeing how success effected the lengths of the films of the original auteurs.
Still, while pure and instructive, it’s simply foolish to try to cover everybody and as a result I’ve chosen a few directors, mostly at random. Still, while this was somewhat random I was conscience to specifically exclude two of the originals – Howard Hawks and John Ford. I suppose it is arbitrary but who cares. Additionally, I also overlook Minnelli, Capra, Cukor, Welles, and a host of others, including the post-war Italians, not because I want to, but because I can. Still, even if I were to substitute any of the overlooked into the chosen six – George Stevens, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and the granddaddy of them all, C.D. DeMille – it’s doubtful that the results would change that greatly.
George Stevens may be remembered today for the films he made in the 1950s, specifically Giant and Diary of Anne Frank, but he was actually making films for Katharine Hepburn all the way back into the 30s. Because his early films were made largely within the studio system and subject to that control and push for ultra-economical storytelling it’s no surprise that his first six, from Alice Adams to Vivacious Lady, were the shortest of his career, from 83 to 103 minutes, with most settling in between 90 and 99.
With Gunga Din, though, things began the slow turn. Din, his longest film to date by over 15 minutes, heralded a new phase in Steven’s career where the shortest film from his second six, from Gunga Din to The More The Merrier, were all longer than the longest of his first six. While this uptick may have been a little bit of personal prestige and success paying off in freedom, it was more likely he simply found a producer – himself – who was willingly indulgent
But if Gunga Din was one turning point, the war was the other. After a stint in the European theater during WWII, Stevens returned to filmmaking, but instead of merely flirting with the two hour film, as he had before, he first crept towards the two-and-a-half hour mark, then three, before topping out with the bloated 260 minutes of The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Certainly the fact that his later films were lengthier than his earlier films tells us something but the real measure to be mindful of is this: All told, the length of his final four films, Giant, Diary of Anne frank, The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Only Game In Town, exceeded the combined length of his first seven with 30 minutes to spare. If that fact is indicative of a man using his influence and status to make longer films, I’m not sure what is.
William Wyler may not fit the mold of your typical auteur. Known mostly as being the guy who directed more actors and actresses to Academy Award nominations and wins than any other, his personal style, or personal stamp on a project, his aesthetic choice, may be to do nothing more than to let the actors do what they do and get out of the way.
Early in his career, Wyler was a model of consistency, with the longest of his first eight films clocking in at 103 minutes. However, like George Stevens, the war brought something out in Wyler, namely longer films, and two of his next three, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives ran 134 and 172 minutes, respectively. But the something it brought out was short-lived as he settled back into making films around 115 minutes long. By no means are these films epic in length, it is important to note that they were a good twelve minutes longer than his earlier films.
In the fifties, when studio films had to compete with TV a ‘more is better’ approach took over and Wyler was not immune, going back-to-back-to-back with Friendly Persuasion (137 minutes), The Big Country (165 minutes) and Ben Hur (212 Minutes!). Though at the end he drifted back towards the lengths of the films he made at the beginning, finishing with the 102 minutes of The Liberation of L.B. Jones, it is telling that each of his first eight films were less than 103 minutes while all but two of his final sixteen were at or above 103.
However, given that his longer films came in the 1950s – as did George Stevens’ longest films – at a time when the business of the movies was changing, it might be worth noting that while increased power led to longer films, it also might have been market demands were the stronger influence.
Demille might be the hardest of the old guard to get a head around because it’s not really clear which of his films should be ignored, and which should be considered. The problem is that, because of the way the studio system worked he spent years climbing up the ladder and was making shorts all the way back into the teens. That he was already a major director by the time the talkies emerged questions excluding his pre-sound films but even if it’s arbitrary, I’m going to focus only on his sound films.
It’s no surprise that a man who made films for as long as Demille did would go through several major eras. The first stretched from sound until the 40s, a period in which Demille made 13 films, of between 88 and 135 minutes, where the first four films (Dynamite, Madam Satan, The Squaw Man, The Sign of the Cross) of the era were on average 8 minutes shorter than the final four films of the era (The Buccaneer, Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police, Reap the Wild Wind). However, while the earlier films were shorter it’s tough to draw any conclusions when we note that the second longest of the 13 was Dynamite, the first of the bunch. Perhaps the only conclusion that can be drawn is that, since he was already a major talent by 1940 it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 9 of the 13 films exceeded 113 minutes, with 7 of those coming in over 120. In essence, he was already making longer films when we got under way.
The reason this era of his filmmaking career is so consistent and unremarkable, at least in terms of run times, is that it was missing was the epics that Demille would be known for and which dominate his career from the mid-40s onward. All five films after this point, leading to the end of his career, exceeded 128 minutes – only 2 of his first 13 had – and that four of these films exceeded 140 minutes.
While it is hard to draw many conclusions, when you compare his early career to his later career, the facts become clear. Simply put, the question is asked whether, once they had achieved success did filmmakers make longer films? For Demille the answer is invariably yes and if you need more proof of this you only need remember that his final film was the 220 minute behemoth The Ten Commandments, a film that he doubtful would have been able to make in the earlier stages of his career.
Hitcchcok is somewhat like DeMIllle in that, because both came up through the early studio system – Demille in Hollywood, Hitchcock in England – it’s hard to truly define where he moved from being a hack in the silent’s to his own man. With no other way of doing it, an arbitrary beginning must be picked and because I personally like The 39 Steps and find including anything before simply unwieldy, that’s where we start.
Though saddled with an arbitrary starting point, Hitchcock’s career is the easiest to trace and therefore, the easiest to see the trend and the effect success had on it.
In the beginning, during his British period, everything Hitchcock made was under 98 minutes, with the majority less than 90. This period can best be described as rich with economical storytelling, presumably at the insistence of his studio taskmasters. When Hitchcock came to Hollywood, though, a very obvious shift occurred. Except for Rebecca (130 minutes) and the experiment, Rope (80 minutes), every film for the rest of his career resides in the 95 to 120 minute range, with only the 143 minute Topaz to stand out.
As the average length of 95-120 minutes at the end of his career far exceeds the sub-98 minute length of his early career, there is no doubting the effect success had on him. The point t could only become clearer had he decided to make some sort of biblical epic in the 50s as well, a Vertigo-in-Judea, with Jimmy Stewart as a kind nervous-Jesus and Kim Novak as a cool, blonde, Mary Magdalene. Alas, such a thing never came to pass.
When I was a kid I was always interested in how two guys with such close sounding names – Billy Wilder and William Wyler – could win so many Academy Awards at the same time. I guess my juvenile brain though they were one in the same, which made the accomplishment all the more impressive. Not surprisingly, when I started to actually work my way through their films, they’ve proven to be quite different.
Unlike many of his rivals from the forties and fifties, Billy Wilder never made a massively long films so there are no three hour biblical epics on his resume. Hell, there are no epics on his resume at all. Better still, while others quickly tacked 10 minutes onto the average length of their films the second success was achieved, Wilder seemed almost immune. From The Major and the Minor to The Spirit of St. Louis – his first 12 films – Wilder’s films ran consistently between 96 and 120 minutes. There’s a disparity there, to be sure, but a decent grouping just the same, especially when you consider that 8 of the twelve fell between 101 and 113, hardly a significant variation.
It wasn’t until more than a dozen films into his career and after he’d already won Oscars, that he moved beyond the 120 minute threshold on a consistent basis. For every film between Love in the Afternoon and Avanti, there were but two under 120, with the rest exceeding 125, led by the 147 minutes Irma la Douce, and it was only after he’d lost his touch and thought he had to add profanity and nudity to his films that he finally began to return to where he’d started, with his final three films clocking in under 114.
The trajectory of Billy Wilder’s career, from émigré to genius to old man losing his touch, and the resulting increase and decrease in power might be the best example of what I wanted to look at. The up and down ride of his career is entirely predictable and in some ways it’s kind of sad to think that a man of his stature and individuality, and not some lowly hack, could be the perfect example of any sort of predictability.
Conclusions to Draw From The Old Guard
Clearly, any investigation of the old guard is imperfect and incomplete. How do you account for early studio films when the directors were simply hired guns, and how to you account for the advent of TV and the way it changed the business? In my case you don’t, and if this means the conclusion aren’t all that conclusive, that doesn’t mean they aren’t instructive.
Not surprisingly, the results are predictable. Though only five directors were considered and probably two of the most prolific of the time – Ford and Hawks – were ignored it is clear that, even though the auteur theory was retroactively applied these men behaved in a manner as if they were auteurs and as such we see a direct correlation between their success and the power to take on projects of a larger scope that comes with it.
Part II: The Auteurs and Post-Auteurs
Since it was the Auteur Theory that gave me the jumping-off point for my explorations it seems only proper that somewhere in there consideration is given to the man who popularized the theory, Francois Truffaut.
Given that the thesis here is that increased status as a filmmaker (either critically or commercially) leads to the filmmaker making longer films, Truffaut’s career is confounding. Whereas nearly every other director made steadily longer and longer films over the course of their career, Truffaut seemed to reject this approach. Of his 21 films the majority stayed well within a narrow window, from 92 minutes to 115, which is a tight grouping in itself, all the tighter when one considers that the one film which strayed below this range was an almost-minuscule 83 minutes and that none of the three the strayed outside the high end of the range exceeded 131 minutes.
Considering the general range of his movies – roughly 1.5 hours to 2 – which is hardly outside reasonable bounds, and considering that he made as many sub-100 minute films at the beginning of his career as at the end, drawing any conclusions for Truffaut is difficult. Perhaps the only overriding factors are these: two of Truffaut’s three longest films were in his last six films and that after his breakthrough with The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, five of his next six films were over 105 minutes long, at least six minutes longer than the shortest of the first two.
Based on this it is at least arguable that he used his increase in stature to produce longer films but that if he did, he did not abuse the power. More likely the reality is that as he became a more known and successful filmmaker he just continued making the films he always made, as he always made them and that any resulting change in the length of his films was coincidental and nothing more.
The post-Auteurs are exactly what you would expect them to be: that group of directors who came of age during the period immediately after the Auteur Theory was first bandied about. Unlike the Old Guard these filmmakers didn’t have the same sort of experiences of working up through the studio system until they got to direct their own films. No, many of them went to film school but it was just as likely that they didn’t. The only overriding fact they all have in common is that they decided to make movies and so made them.
The post-Auteurs is a very wide ranging group and was hard to pin down exactly who did and who didn’t belong. In the interest of brevity, and stirring up controversy, I limited my inquiry to but three filmmakers, making sure to pick a diverse trio and these three could not be more different. Not only did they begin making films in three different decades, but also took a different path to start their careers. Ridley Scott came from commercials, The Coen’s were editors on Evil Dead before financing Blood Simple independently, and Scorsese went to NYU and independently financed his first film before making the leap to Roger Corman.
Careful readers will certainly scratch their heads and wonder why I chose those three and not some other three and the answer is simple: each filmmaker hasa distinctive style that they bring to any film, no matter who else was involved, such that the film is by its nature belonging to the director – the auteur.
Careful readers will also wonder why I didn’t include such directors as Steven Spielberg or Francis Coppola and the answer to both is simple. Spielberg is a good director but to say he has a certain style seems a bit of a stretch to me. He is a craftsman, although one can say that being visually bland is something of a stylistic choice as well. As for Coppola, it’s no doubting he used his power to make bigger and longer films. How else to explain The Godfather II and the beautiful monstrosity, Apocalypse Now, which he apparently didn’t think was long enough the first time around and made sure to release Apocalypse Now, Redux, to include all kinds of other bits he left out before.
Ridley Scott is probably the hardest to defend for inclusion here, as he is, in many ways, just like Spielberg, only with smaller box office and less Oscars, but since I recently watched The Duelists on TCM – greatest station ever – and this is my blog, I wanted him in.
If ever there was a man who could demonstrate the power of turning a critical or financial success into longer, broader films, it was Scott, who used the clout from Thelma and Louise to get 1492 going. Although, given the way he’s used duds to set the stage for epics – like White Squall and G.I. Jane for Gladiator – it’s a bit of a head scratcher how he does it. Perhaps an effort should be made to determine what effect a director’s force-of-will has on the scope of his projects, but I digress.
There is one thing to know about Ridley Scott and it’s this: He does not make short movies so any discussion of his films and there length is invariably marred. His two shortest films are The Duelists at 100 minutes and Legend at 94 – though, to be fair, the director’s cut of Legend clocked in at 114 – and aside from these everything else exceeded 116 minutes. However, while long movies are something of his hallmark it is worth noting that his first 5 films (The Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner, Legend and Someone to Watch Over Me) all ran less than two hours, even in director’s cuts, whereas of the following thirteen only two clocked in under two hours and indeed, three of the final eight are nearly two and half hours.
Looking at those numbers it is clear that the more financially secure or capable he has become the longer his films have been, and if there was any doubt of this one need only see how he turned the successes of Thelma and Louise and Black Rain into the disastrous 1492.
The Coen Brothers
If there is one director (as if two people could be one director) who should be held up as poster boys for the Auteur Theory, it is Joel and Ethan Coen. Since the very beginning they have forged their own path, mostly refusing to give in and become big studio slaves, even as they have worked with some of the biggest actors or producers in the business. Indeed, if one doubts their independent sensibilities they need only look at how easily they shift genres for proof – their first three films were the neo-noir Blood Simple, the deliriously-frenetic comedy Raising Arizona and the old world gangster pic Miller’s Crossing.
Because they are and always were so perfectly Auteur, and always done much as they please, it’s hard to judge what effect Auteurism had on their films. Still, a specific sednsibility still must live in the marketplace and it’s no surprise that, as unknown directors, their first two films were sub-99 minutes while the next three, coming after they achieved some success, were all over 111 minutes. Such a fact would lead one to believe that the Coen’s used their power for lengthier pictures, and that failure lead to shorter films. Consider that the disaster of the 111 minute Hudsucker Proxy led to the relatively brief, Fargo, the success of which was immediately followed by their biggest film, at the time, the 118 minute Big Lebowski.
While it is undeniable that their more recent films outstrip their earlier films by at least a few minutes, this extra length is hardly what you would call extravagant and for the Coen’s it is largely inconclusive. Still, one can’t help but wish that just once they would rightfully abuse their power and really dazzle us, just to prove they could. Personally, I’d really like a remake of The Passion of the Christ, Coen style.
If I was going to have to pick a filmmaker who came of age in the 70s, ostensibly during the first go-round of the film school brats, I would have no shortage of directors to choose from. But as I’ve already ruled out a handful of those it leaves me with two choices: Scorsese or Brian DePalma. There is no doubt that both bring a definite style to their work and I’m tempted to choose DePalma simply because Scorsese seems too obvious. But DePalma, with all his Hitchcock touchstones is far too divisive and I’m leaving him aside in favor of Scorsese, who is much less divisive, has a far richer oeuvre and is much harder to assess.
Scorsese has had a very circuitous career since film school. First he made low budget independents – one by himself, then one for Roger Corman – before taking on more personal projects until New York, New York really broke his heart. Because he never really had true box office success it’s no surprise that he spent a period in the 80s as something of a hired gun, biding his time until he could return with the one-two punch of Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas. In the 90s he kind of did it all again, lumbering from one strange project to another, before returning with Gangs of New York.
Though his directorial resume reveals that yes, Scorsese did use what little clout he had to make bigger and longer films – five of his last seven films, including the upcoming Shutter Island, met or exceeded 2 ½ hours – he also used his pull to make riskier, grittier, more daring films that looked into the dark places of humanity. How else do you explain following the success of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore with Taxi Driver or The Color of Money with The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas?
Still, that some of these films happen to be longer is almost beside the point, yet, it is obvious they have been longer. For a man whose first five films were less that 113 minutes, only one of the last 16 have been below that mark. Faced with those facts, there is only one logical conclusion one could draw.
Conclusions to Learn From The Auteur and Post-Auteurs
As with the look at the old guard, the conclusions to be drawn from the Auteurs and the Post-Auterus are inherently imperfect and incomplete. After all, you could imagine how different things might look if I included Coppolla, Spielberg, Lucas, Malick, Ashby and Fosse. Of course, it’s just as easy to see how things would be the same.
The overriding difference between the two sets, the Post-Auterus and the Old Guard is that by the time the Post-Auteurs began making films the influence of TV was complete. Therefore, they had no revolution waiting for them that would force them into making different bigger and greater films simply to compete for an audience. However, as this group straddled the Pre- and Post-blockbuster movie era, and the changes the need for a big opening weekend wrought on the industry, some of the ballooning of their films must be based upon that. In any event, while the change in the industry might have some effect on the results, that doesn’t make them any less instructive.
All four directors across these two groups all made longer films at the end of their careers than at the beginning, but more telling is the fact that in addition to using their clout to make longer films is that these filmmakers used their clout to make bigger and more daring films. One could not imagine Scorsese getting away with Gangs of New York early in his career, and he didn’t. Given that, it’s hard not to see the effect of the auteur theory on filmmaking.
Part IV: The New Auteurs
The New Auteurs is a harder group to construct because contemplating recent history deprives us of hindsight. While one may appear an auteur in the short run, the long run changes everything. For a great example, think of the esteem in which Michael Cimino would have been held in 1979 right before Heaven’s Gate destroyed his career. In order to fairly judge one’s work, we need time and distance.
The job is doubly difficult because while the Old Guard and other’s have lengthy oeuvres to draw from, the contemporary, New Auteurs, have a relatively small sample size. Such a fact obviously precludes talented, interesting directors like Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze, because each have only directed three films. Because there is just not enough data to go on, they must be omitted included.
Lastly, I didn’t include Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez here for a number of reasons. First, Tarantino has clearly used his clout to make bigger and longer films, but his films have also become more daring. There’s no need to consider him because the effect on his career is clear. Second, Rodriguez is sort of all over the place with the films he makes and with box office numbers to match, it’s hard to tell what effect success or failure has. He largely do what he wants, no matter what the movie is, and seems to care less about acclaim.
As such, this has left me with a group of five talent filmmakers, a fairly good collection that nobody could rightfully argue with, though I imagine somebody will.
Cameron Crowe might be a bit of a stretch to count as an Autuer, at least in the visual sense, because aside from Vanilla Sky, they’ve been so straightforward that there’s hardly an visual style at all. But looked at from the overall feeling his movies give, with the music and the dialog and the whole milieu, lend his movies to feeling as if they’re cut from one cloth.
Looking at his oeuvre it’s proper to treat Say Anything and Singles as his pre-breakthrough films because, while Say Anything opened doors for him, the fact that the studio had no idea how to handle Singles until the grunge explosion occurred and made the marketing a no-brainer, makes it a pre-breakthrough film.
Seen through that prism it is clear that success bred lengthier films for Crowe. Say Anything and Singles were both sub-100 minutes and nothing else, from there forward, was less than 122. One need only consider the example of Vanilla Sky, the remake of Abre Los Ojos, which was 20 minutes longer than the original. Only a man with some muscle could conceive of the remake being that much longer than the source.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Unlike other filmmakers, PTA doesn’t seem to have let box office or critical success inflate or deflate his ego. How else to explain the butchered mess the studio made of Sydney (Hard Eight, if you prefer) and how it’s failure was followed first by the sublime Boogie Nights and then the gargantuan Magnolia?
From the beginning grandiosity has been PTA’s stock-in-trade and aside from the butchered Sydney at 102 minutes, and his attempt at an Adam Sandler movie with Punch Drunk Love at 95 minutes, his three other films have topped at least 155 minutes. Given this, it’s hard to say that critical or box office success has had much of an effect. All that’s clear is that he’s had a vision from the beginning and rode it like a broken mule to get the results he wanted. Auteur status: means nothing.
Steven Soderbergh is sort of a contradiction. Early on he was an indie darling that slowly burned himself out of the struggle who turned himself into a master of the studio film before embarking on a ‘one for them, one for me’ approach that resulted in a series of weird, low-budget experiments. But the contradiction isn’t that he goes back and forth freely between the two worlds, it’s that no matter which world he’s working in, the movies all come directly from his sensibilities, such that sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is the studio picture and which are his own.
Given the way his career has shaped up it is impossible to draw any conclusions about him. Certainly he cashed in the credibility from Sex, Lies and Videotape with his second film, but rather that make it longer, he made the dark, almost inaccessible Kafka. It was the same path Nirvana took with In Utero. Lately this has been the trajectory of his career. Certainly the studio fare has seemed to be getting longer but aside from the massive Che, the more personal projects actually seem to be getting shorter and shorter. How else to explain the fact that his last three films were also his longest, shortest and most average? You can’t explain it and that is all the explanation it needs.
Nowhere, amongst anybody else on any of these lists, is there a filmmaker with a more distinctive visual style that Wes Anderson. Sometimes he is derided as creating movies through soundtracks and art direction alone but even if that were true it cannot be denied that he’s brings a certain eye to each of his films. Love him or hate him, he is something of the quintessential, distinctive, auteur.
One thing is clear about Anderson: he doesn’t believe in bloat and his films all adhere to this dogma. The longest film on his resume is his mid-career The Life Aquatic at 119 minutes, while four of the other five are all less than 93 minutes. Based on this it should be easy to say that success has had little success on the overall length of his films, and that might be true, but with Anderson, things are more complicated. Certainly he could not have gotten The Life Aquatic made without the successes of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, even if it is something of a ‘chamber epic’ and clearly the failure if The Life Aquatic must be part of the reason why he returned to the 90 minute film with his next to.
Realistically, this is a tough conclusion to make, especially based on the blip of a single film, and so we won’t make that conclusion and simply leave that aspect as an incomplete.
Nolan might be one of the more interesting filmmakers today, at least to me, consistently turning in tricky and strangely-extreme films (The Dark Knight, anyone?) without really ever leaving the world of blockbuster-size budgets of giving into cartoonish-campiness and without really seeing a hit at the box office.
And how did he manage to do this? Of course by using the success of Memento and Insomnia. And what else did he get with this success? Longer films.
Even if one discounts the two Batman films as being more of the product of a studio system demanding he take a more-is-better approach, the fact that The Prestige, a project of his own conception, topped Insomnia and Memento by a good 12 minutes or more is instructive. But of course, with only a six film resume to his name, the jury is somewhat out on this matter. Maybe his upcoming Inception may settle the issue.
With this group of filmmakers the conclusions to draw are less obvious than with the other groups. Whereas the other filmmakers emerged decades ago and have either reached the tail end of their careers or died, they have a full oeuvre to consider, the New Auteurs have a much smaller sample size to draw from and are therefore more prone to rapid shifts from the highs and lows.
Still, taken as a whole it is clear there is some run-time-creep, but as some of these directors are making far bolder choices later in their careers than they would have been allowed earlier on – at least given the size of some of their budgets – it’s not clear if the run times are a symptom of success itself or if the run times are a byproduct of filmmakers reaching for more daring and cutting edge projects. But even then, the fact is indisputable that run times have slowly crept for them, it’s just that the cause remains somewhat vague.
Part V: The Control Group – The Hacks
As with the other groups of filmmakers considered here – The Old Guard, The Auteurs, The Post-Auteurs and The New Auteurs – the filmmakers standing up when the Hack rollcall is made will not be without controversy. After all, it’s probably surprising for just who is included as much for who was excluded – hellow, Uwe Boll. But even though I’ve limited this final part to but three filmmakers, Robert Zemeckis, Michael Bay and Bret Ratner, the finale is just as instructive as any other, no matter what issues any individual may have with one particular filmmaker or another.
It’s hard to call a guy who won as Oscar as best director a hack, but if ever one fit that description, its Zemeckis. After all, the film he won his award for is maybe his third or fourth best and in spite of this he hasn’t been able to catch Oscar-lightening-in-a-bottle again. As time goes on his Oscar looks more and more like an anomaly – Pulp Fiction was the best picture of 1994, hands down – and because, if we remove Zemeckis from The Hack list simply because of an Oscar then how shall we treat Oscar winner Kevin Costner? At best, Zemckis is a craftsman with pretensions, which for me is the same as being a hack.
For the longest part of his career Zemeckis seemed immune to run-time creep, no matter the success of his films. Between I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Death Becomes her – both of which run 104 minutes – he made eight films, the longest being 116 minutes, with four of the bunch clocking in between 104 and 106 minutes. In other words, success did not jade him. It wasn’t until Forrest Gump that the creep in run times occurred, as three of his next four films topped 140 minutes and even then the short one was 130. Despite getting bigger, three of these four were probably his biggest hits.
Following these successes Zemeckis could be expected to cash in and really big things up, but instead of making longer films he began a retreat. But lest you believe this was a symptom of a new-found economy of storytelling, it probably had more to do with the demands of technology than anything else. After all, his last three films have all been stop-motion-atrocities which, because they are more technically demanding, really make a director question every extra second of film. If it weren’t for the difficulty and expense of animating even an additional minute of motion-capture keeping him in check – thank god on The Polar Express something was holding him back – one would fairly assume that he would be making even more sizeable films than before.
In other posts I’ve talked about the duality of my feelings to Michael Bay, but even as I’m one of his biggest defenders, I’m also one of his biggest detractors and as much as I would love to continue to sing his praises the plain truth is that Bay is not an artist, he is the worst kind of hack to ever come out of the bigger-is-better mold.
Success came for Bay early, with Bad Boys and from there he’s stepped from hit to hit, with only the relative failure of The Island to keep him grounded. Even so, success put him in the mood to expand and one need only to look at his filmography to understand that he has always endeavored to make his next film outdo his previous films in the number of explosions but also in length. Consider, if you will, Bad Boys II running nearly 30 minutes beyond its predecessor and Transformers II outdoing its bloated predecessor by nearly 10. One can only imagine that, if there ever is a Transformers III it might rival Gone With The Wind for length, though certainly not watchability.
People hate Brett Ratner and why shouldn’t they? Most of his films are puerile and clearly go in more for silly action and broad comedy than an actual story or any depth of character, but at the same time he tends to make movies that people enjoy and better yet, he seems free of the same pretensions that afflict others.
Though he is a hack of rather recent vintage and therefore does not have the massive sample size that other filmmakers have, Ratner is the perfect subject o consider simply because he allows clear conclusions to be drawn. Because he isn’t the pretentious artiste that others affect themselves to be the longest of his films is 125 minutes and six of the eight are less than 104 minutes. These are hardly the numbers of a man taking advantage to make longer films. Look at the fact that instead of trying to continue the upward trajectory of the length of the films in the X-Men franchise he brought part three back down to earth, keeping it as long (or short) as the first.
Strangely, looking at Ratner’s career I am drawn to the parallel it has with Paul Thomas Anderson career. There may be some sort of sacrilege here, and I fully expect some heads are exploding at conflating them, but while they clearly have different interests and sensibilities it is pretty obvious that, no matter the success or failure of a given film within their respective oeuvres they are completely unaffected by it and simply push forward to make the films they know how to make.
The Hacks, while a small sample size, are an interesting group and the conclusion is just as interesting. Based on Zemeckis and Bay it’s easy to say that with these filmmakers the films get longer or bigger as they achieve some measure of success, and based on the fact that each is disparate in temperament, it’s easy to argue that nobody is immune. However, throwing Brett Ratner into the mix it’s obvious that not every peg is round, even if I think he is probably the exception rather than the rule.
While the sample size for The Hacks is small there were nearly 20 directors considered for this series and on the whole it is obvious that as a filmmaker becomes more confident, more assured, his films naturally get longer and get bigger and even if a few directors here or there resist the trend that does not contradict the simple fact that films get longer the further along in a career a director gets.