The Passage of Youth: Endurance or Experience?

April 03, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Full disclosure: I have not seen this movie. What movie? It's called The Passage of Youth, a six-hour picture produced for Italian TV and released in the U.S. in two three-hour installments by Miramax. I can safely say that, if I see this movie, it will not be in a theater. Even if it's the best film ever made, my viewing will wait until it's available on DVD.

Over the years, I have experienced a growing resistence to long movies. It has nothing to do with the quality of the product, but with the quality of the venue in which it is being shown. Sitting in a regular multiplex theater for more than two hours becomes uncomfortable. Three hours is a borderline nightmare. It's not just the smell of fake butter and the incessant noise of inconsiderate patrons, but the lack of sufficient legroom and seats that turn into torture devices past the 120-minute mark. There are some better theaters around - for me, that means the Ritz 16 - but, even there, where the air smells fresh, no one talks, and the seats are as spacious and comfortable as is possible - three hours is a limit. It's not comfortable to be sitting in essentially one position for any longer.

At home, it's a different story. I have watched five-hour productions in essentially one sitting, stretched out on a couch. The variety of positions is almost limitless, and it's possible to hit the pause button to stetch one's legs, heed a call of nature, or grab a snack. In a theater, the projectioninst doesn't stop for such things, and the idea of an intermission has vanished. (It used to be that any movie longer than 2 1/2 hours had an intermission. Now, 3 1/4 hour films like Titanic and The Return of the King play without stopping until the fat lady sinks.

For me, I guess the ideal running time is between 90 and 120 minutes. Roger Ebert is fond of saying that "a good movie is never too long and a bad movie is never too short." I suppose there's some truth to that. When I'm into a movie, I'm more prone to ignore minor physical discomforts and cramping once the length crests the two-hour mark. But when the film isn't working, restlessness can set in after 15 minutes (or 10 if the star is Jean-Claude Van Damme). The bottom line, however, is that a long motion picture that might be an experience to watch at home risks becoming an exercise in endurance if viewed in a theater. And that's just another reason why home theater viewing isn't only the wave of the future - but the wave of today.