This week Chicagoans have the chance to see not one, but two four-hour-long movies on the big screen. Hu Bo’s Chinese feature An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) is in the middle of a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) screens at Doc Films on Thursday at 5 PM. These works are superb—and very different—examples of what filmmakers can do with the four-hour running time. Hu’s film, which takes place over a single day, burrows into its milieu until the conflicts seem overwhelming. Yang’s film, on the other hand, uses its extended duration to create a panoramic sense of the setting and period in which the story takes place.
Movies often get dubbed “epic” when they run over two-and-a-half hours; when they hit the three-hour mark, critics practically feel obligated to apply that term. A four-hour movie, then, might be described as more than epic—where three-hour movies are comparable to large canvases, four-hour works are like murals, providing their makers with the room to consider a wealth of narratives, characters, and themes. In the case of Hu or the great French auteur Jacques Rivette, the expansive run time allows for a deeper consideration of subjects than a more standard duration affords. These filmmakers also use the four-hour narrative to play with viewers’ sense of time by granting more temporal space to events that other filmmakers might gloss over or condense.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that consider movies that run four hours, more or less. (Gone With the Wind lasts a little under four hours, while Doomed Love lasts almost four-and-a-half.) Conspicuously absent from these selections are any films from India, which has probably produced more four-hour movies than any other country. If we had reviews in our archives of Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964) and Mera Naam Joker (1970), I would certainly have included one of those.
Gone With the Wind A critic-proof movie if there ever was one: it isn’t all that good, but somehow it’s great. The first part, in which the gracefully moving camera of George Cukor (soon to be replaced) establishes the ordered world of Tara in elegant visual terms, is really very fine. But the last half is all slow, desultory denouement, and the death of the little girl is the dirtiest kind of screenwriter’s trick. No one I know of has yet solved the secret of this 1939 film’s apparently timeless appeal, though I’d guess it has something to do with the elaborate mechanisms of fate, history, and sex brought to bear on Scarlett, whose overweening libido must be punished as magnificently as it has been celebrated. The striking color overlays, which are the film’s sole stylistic eccentricity, were the contribution of that cryptic auteur, production designer William Cameron Menzies. Victor Fleming signed it, though there were many, many fingers in this particular pie. —Dave Kehr
Doomed Love Manoel de Oliveira’s 265-minute adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s 19th-century romance contains virtually every word of the source novel, played out in perfect fidelity to the text (1978). The result is a striking, eccentric film that finds its meaning in the rupture between a 20th-century medium and an antique rhetoric, measuring the passage of time through the modulations of human thought. A wealthy young man falls in love with the daughter of a rival aristocratic family; kept apart by their parents, the two lovers communicate through long, impassioned letters. Oliveira constructs a temple of words against a deliberately stiff, theatrical mise-en-scène, yet for all its abstraction, the film is astonishingly immediate and moving, driven by a prickly obsessiveness and a swooning romanticism.—Dave Kehr
La Belle Noiseuse Winner of Cannes’ grand prix in 1991, Jacques Rivette’s absorbing if leering four-hour free adaptation of Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” concerns the work of a painter (Michel Piccoli) with his beautiful and mainly nude model (Emmanuelle Béart), plus the input and pressures of the painter’s wife and former model (Jane Birkin), the model’s boyfriend, and an art dealer who used to be involved with the painter’s wife. The complex forces that produce art are the film’s obsessive focus, and rarely has Rivette’s use of duration to look at process been so spellbinding; hardly a moment is wasted. Rivette’s superb sense of rhythm and mise-en-scène never falters, and the plot has plenty of twists. With exquisite cinematography by William Lubtchansky, beautiful location work in the south of France (mainly at an 18th-century chateau), and drawings and paintings executed by Bernard Dufour. The title translates roughly as “the beautiful nutty woman”; it’s also the title of the masterpiece the painter is bent on finishing. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Belfast, Maine Frederick Wiseman’s patient, four-hour unpacking of a small town in Maine confirms the impression of his previous masterpiece, Public Housing: that the masterful documentarian of High School (1968) and Welfare (1975) has now become a masterful essayist. Or maybe he’s been an essayist all along but has lately begun exercising his intelligence and organizing his documentary materials in increasingly subtle and nondidactic ways. What seems different and special about his recent work is its avoidance of easy theses. He picked as his subject this seaside community of 6,000 inhabitants, 99 percent of them white, because he lived a few miles away. He explains his approach as follows: “To document both change and continuity brought about by economic pressure on everyday life in Belfast, I examine its institutions and everyday practices. I also take a look at places where people interact: family life, commerce, public services, and public places.” My favorite scene is a high school teacher’s brilliant lecture on Moby-Dick that throws a great deal of light on everything else, but a lot of what I remember most vividly is the documentation of the daily work involved in preparing and packaging seafood—none of it boring to watch. Released in 1999, this went pretty quickly to PBS, but a big screen gives it the monumentality and weight it deserves. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Woman Who Left Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s story “God Sees the Truth, but Waits,” this extended 2016 drama is set in 1997, when the Philippines were plagued by economic and political unrest and rampant kidnappings. A schoolteacher (Charo Santos-Concio) returns home after serving 30 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, only to learn that her husband has died and her son has vanished. Setting out to find him, she lingers in Calapan City, where she spies on the ex-lover who framed her; now wealthy, powerful, and heavily protected, he’s the polar opposite of the brutalized transvestite (John Lloyd Cruz) whom she nurses back to health. Shooting in wide-screen black and white, director Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History) keeps the pace deliberate, favoring long takes and a fixed camera. His luminous, crystalline images, combined with a meticulous sound mix in which every background noise is seductive, pull the viewer into the heroine’s experience of profound loss and regeneration. —Andrea Gronvall v