What’s there to smile about?

5 June, 2008

I recently watched O Lucky Man!, Lindsay Anderson’s follow-up to his masterpiece If…. which is aptly featured at the top of the page. This is yet another example of a film that I would instantly fall in love with if it wasn’t so bloody long (Barry Lyndon falls into that category, as does La Dolce Vita.) Does this film really need to be 3 hours? Malcolm McDowell — wonderful as usual — spends the entire movie trying to get by as a coffee salesman while getting himself mixed up in increasingly surreal events, ending with — just like real life — the young man meeting director Lindsay Anderson, auditioning for If…., and becoming a film star. The pieces are great but as a whole I found it very difficult to sit through.

But I wonder if this is a generational problem. On the one hand, I don’t mind slow films at all. And I also feel that there are films that need to be long, even 3 hours if necessary. Magnolia instantly leaps to mind, although I find the last hour deeply flawed. I think The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece and that is the definition of a slow, three hour film. Sergio Leone’s epics also surely couldn’t have been improved by cutting them down. These films just wouldn’t work at the standard 90-120 minute length.

On the other hand, when I watch a film like O Lucky Man!, I see episodes; some great, some not so great. And at 2 hours I think I’d be calling it one of the best surreal pictures ever made. Hell, it might have even topped If…. for me. As I type this, I wonder if the latter would work as a 3 hour film. Definitely not. It would drag and become irritatingly redundant. Or is it just because I’ve been conditioned to think that any film over 120 minuted is somehow an aberration? Then again, I look at most blockbusters Hollywood churns out these days and they seem to be getting longer and longer. My biggest gripe with Pirates of the Caribbean was that it had about an hour and 45 minutes in story and an extra 45 in explosions. That bores me. Even Casino Royale, the best Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, contained action sequences that went on twice as long as necessary. The sole Lazenby outing has plenty of action but plenty of story as well. That’s why it works. But Casino Royale’s story is much more straightforward and the length, while not a huge hindrance, is nevertheless an issue.

O Lucky Man! ends with Anderson smacking McDowell across the head with the picture’s mammoth screenplay after the young actor refuses to smile, because as he says, “What’s there to smile about?” When it comes to most indulgently long pictures, good or bad, I agree with him.

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