Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Watchmen and the Epic Running Time

This week, Landon explores the world of long movies. Really long movies.
By  · Published on March 14th, 2009

This year’s Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire, ran at 120 minutes long, a modest running time compared to the breath and scope of many epic legacies of this award, including The Godfather: Part II (1974, 200 minutes), Lawrence of Arabia (1962, 216 minutes), Titanic (1997, 194minutes), and many other three-hour-plus butt-numbing films. For decades of American film history, the lengthy running time has come to signify a film whose goals were so high and whose scope of vision was so grand that its brilliance simply couldn’t fit the conventional ninety-minute venture—films that were meant to be an enduring experience where one invests not only time and energy to the epic film experience, but surrenders themselves to a fabricated narrative world whose reaches seem to grasp for eternity.

The epic running time once signaled an epic achievement, one that shows off cinema in its best possible form—not only a great film, but a great film that lasts forever. Oscar-nominated films and Best Picture winners have been characterized by these challenging running times, as the long film is the mark of the “serious” film, only to be endured by serious moviegoers.

Recently, however, films with such running times have proven that length does not necessitate skill of storytelling, and an epic scope does not necessitate an experience worth enduring. Perhaps more significantly, the very length of recent lengthy films do not necessarily denote a brilliant epic achievement, but a confrontation of ideas and approaches to a cinematic subject matter that fail to meter out into coalescence. The epic running time this year did not signal a prolonged and engrossing experience, but the meandering of a story that set out to achieve many things and, in the process, accomplished little, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (165 minutes), Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (160 minutes), and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (166 minutes). All three were made by well-renowned filmmakers whose unique authorial vision and is tenable through their visual style and narrative approach, and for each of them these films were supposed to be their crowning cinematic achievement, or the epic which aligned their established talents to a story whose scope would display those unique gifts to their fullest extent. But this simply didn’t happen.

Luhrmann’s effort tried to grasp the essence of an entire continent in one film, while always nodding back to the great achievements in classical Hollywood history but never displaying the narrative restraint of any of the films it emulated. It felt as if it were at least two films in one, and could never decide which one it preferred to be. Lee’s film was a welcome historical corrective and a story that hds needed to be told on the silver screen but quite some time, but you know a war film has lost its focus when it spends most of its first act showing John Turturro and Joseph Gordon-Levitt chew gum through a 1980s investigative detective mystery—and when you realize that St. Anna is simply a collection of clichés from better war films past, you almost wish you could go back to the Gordon-Levitt story…almost. And while Benjamin Button was an astounding achievement in many ways, can anybody say they were actually engrossed in this film for its entire running time? The film fluctuated too much away from its hints of brilliance to have us endure uninspired and unnecessary lulls between plot points A and Z (the unnecessary framing device of an elderly Cate Blanchett on her deathbed with Hurricane Katrina looming in the background, Pitt and Blanchett spending the entire 1960s in a montage-friendly apartment) and allusions to great storytelling without payoff (the brilliant but unnecessary set piece chronicling the complex process of fate before Blanchett breaks her leg, the interesting but seemingly irrelevant sub-framing device of the early 1900s clockmaker). Once Hurricane Katrina floods New Orleans and drowns the clock, the significance of either event/object is lost to a collection of too many good ideas that never really found a way to get along.

Even the relatively well-paced and excitingly brisk-feeling The Dark Knight overstayed its 152 minute running time for many as it struggled juggling too many plot points at once, finally emblematized in a chaotic third act where Batman’s cellphone-tracking GPS device created utter confusion and dislocation not only for him, but the spectator as well. And seeing both parts of Che as one cinematic venture (an intimidating 235 minutes) shows that a movie that may be epic in length may still be relatively limited in scope, ambition, and stylistic vision (especially in regards to the second part, though its contained style is arguably part of its purpose). Over all, the epic running time in 2008 characterized more a lack of restraint and failed attempt at a uniformly realized vision than the more familiar achievements of yesteryear, and it was the films whose scope were more disciplined that reaped the year’s rewards.

Which finally brings me to Watchmen. While I am admittedly one of those uninitiated who never read the novel, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Although I understand that the story was highly condensed for its big-screen adaptation, this epic film at its daunting length (162 minutes) seemed to both suffer from and exemplify some of the similar ills plaguing last year’s most ambitious works.

The narrative, of course, is meandering, switching freely between what seemed to be the central unifying storyline (a Citizen Kane-like investigation into the life and death of The Comedian) and subplots and backstories galore that seem to come and go with little formal warning or thematic motivation. This created an unpredictability of narrative structure rarely seen in expensive studio films such as these, and I enjoyed spending up to twenty minutes with a set of characters without realizing we haven’t returned to the other “important” storyline for quite some time. But this creates an interesting role for the spectator. I responded to some characters or situations more than others, so while not all the ideas and stories presented in the bigscreen adaptation of Watchmen were constructed together smoothly, such a process did allow me to anticipate and enjoy those characters, situations, and aspects of the film I did like while at other points having to endure those I didn’t.

What Watchmen represents is something of a ‘database narrative’—not a unified narrative vision, but a vast collection of ideas from which the spectator can pick and choose to enjoy or reject. This is a similar experience to watching the other epic films of this past year, as they represent not an autonomous filmic experience but an assortment of approaches without structure—and while these films can hardly be embraced as a whole, we can freely embrace which aspects we choose. After all, how many times can you see a castle on Mars, a caricatured Richard Nixon, an Antarctic journey, a prison riot, and Billy Crudup’s blue penis, all in the same movie? Not many, that’s how. Movies like this would like to offer you everything, but there’s only so much both the filmmakers and audiences can really handle.

This narrative approach of throwing everything at the audience and seeing what they catch is most effectively realized in the film’s use of music.

Most notably in its brilliant opening credit sequence, Watchmen the film, like the novel, tackles many aspects of postwar American culture. Retaining the alternative 1980s setting of the novel but obviously no longer being contemporary, Watchmen seems to grasp at the novel’s assessment and criticism of that culture without a real tenable goal for such appropriation. While the opening credit sequence effectively subverts some of our most poignant cultural moments and sets the stage for the particular world of the film, the rest of Watchmen struggles with such a balancing act. From the Cold War to WWII to the My Lai massacre, the film presents a condensed smorgasbord of revisionist 20th century American history that may or may not have anything to say about what it portrays.

Likewise, Watchmen’s use of popular music crosses eras and musical styles with little regard for the particular song’s historical and cultural meaning within the context of the film’s Cold war-era satire. Bob Dylan’s “The Times are a-Changin’” is appropriate for the theme of the opening credit sequence but a little on-the-nose, while Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” during the Comedian’s funeral or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during Night Owl and Silk Spectre II’s sex scene just come off awkwardly. Jimmy Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” in the Antarctica sequence is cool but doesn’t really have any purpose. The only songs contemporaneous with the film’s temporal setting were Nena’s 1983 “99 Luftballoons” whose Cold War protest seemed fitting for the film’s setting, but it felt thrown away as a between-scene montage as Spectre goes out on a date. The other is the appropriation of Philip Glass’s score from Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi (1983) for the fantastic Dr. Manhattan origin sequence, but, then again, anything sounds cooler with Glass.

Watchmen’s use of music seems intent with meaning, but it’s doubtful that Zack Snyder had anything specific in mind beyond its familiar and pleasing aesthetic role. Like much of the film itself, the music is a confrontation of ideas not really packed with its own message, but bestowed on the audience for them to accept or reject as their own. Like Ozymandias looking at the dozens of television screens at his Antarctica palace, oscillating his attention between First Blood, pornography, the famous 1984 Apple commercial, etc., Watchmen is yet another chaotic epic film which offers far too much to consume at once.

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