Give us a break!
Modern filmmakers' obstinate refusal to include intermissions for long movies just shows how disengaged they are from the people who actually watch -- and show -- their flicks.
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Let’s talk about my bladder.
OK, maybe not. At least not as our main topic. Let’s at least discuss an uncomfortable subject I frequently encounter as a critic these days: long movies.
It’s no secret that a lot of films in recent years have had stupendous running times — especially high-profile movies striving for awards and attention. From “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to “House of Gucci,” “Elvis,” “The Irishman” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” it sometimes seems like every ‘name’ filmmaker embraces the more-is-better ethos with films running 2½ hours or even more.
This is nothing new. Epics were all the rage in the Golden Age of Hollywood, with “Lawrence of Arabia” cracking 3:42 and “Gone with the Wind” just a tick under four hours.
There is one thing notably different from long movies of yore to the ones today: back then, they nearly always included an intermission.
If you’re under 40, you probably don’t even remember intermissions. It was a 5- to 10-minute break around the middle of a big honker of a flick, enough time to run to the bathroom, maybe have a quick conversation and load up on snacks. You got a static screen and a musical score overture, often written specifically for intermissions.
The last major theatrical release to include an intermission was “Gandhi” in 1981, which for the record ran 3:11. Since then, they’ve become cinematic dinosaurs.
I was dismayed when I learned that “Oppenheimer,” the latest production from Christopher Nolan that many are already calling the film to beat for the Best Picture Academy Award, registers at just over three hours long. And includes no intermission. Which brings me back to a (literally) uncomfortable point:
I’m getting old, and I have to pee more.
These days when I’m heading into a screening, I check the film’s running time so I can start planning. If it’s more than two hours long, I begin restricting my liquid intake starting several hours in advance. And I always use the facilities at the theater right before the show starts, whether I feel I have to go or not.
My two boys, who often accompany me to screenings these days, know dad’s mantra by heart: “Get out what ya got.”
I messed up and downed a protein shake right before the press screening of “House of Gucci” and ended up having to go to the bathroom twice. And I absolutely hate, hate, hate to miss any of a movie, even a bad one, especially when I’m reviewing it. My luck and there will be a major plot twist while I’m emptying the tanks.
Beyond the embarrassment and FOMO, holding it in too long when you have to go is verifiably bad for you medically, leading to not just short-term effects like urinary tract infections but even permanent damage to your kidneys and bladder.
There are various reasons given for the demise of intermissions, but they boil down to two: if a movie is too long, theaters will have fewer showings per day, presumably meaning fewer tickets sold. And filmmakers, particularly those with box office clout and awards prestige, don’t want audiences to be distracted during their gorgeous masterpieces.
As to the first one, I say bollocks. If a movie is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, making it 2 hours and 52 minutes long is not going to suddenly preclude the possibility of four showings a day instead of three. Most movie theaters have gotten rid of the early afternoon showing slot post-Covid anyway.
And I should think theater exhibitors would favor intermissions because they create an opportunity for people to double-dip at the concessions stand, where is where they really make their money anyway.
As to the second reason: I’m bothered by filmmakers’ huffy obstinacy on this issue. Various powerful directors from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Spielberg have talked publicly on their refusal to include intermissions, yakking about their artistic integrity and whatnot. They work for years to create stories that will spellbind us, and don’t want breaks to interrupt the flow of the movie.
James Cameron is perhaps the king of this particular world, exercising titanic dismissiveness about having no intermission in the 3 hour, 12 minute “Avatar 2.” As someone who makes movies about as often as George R.R. Martin publishes ASoIaF books, Cameron has had time to observe the change in people’s viewing habits with the advent of streaming.
“I don't want anybody whining about length when they sit and binge-watch (TV) for eight hours. ... Here's the big social paradigm shift that has to happen: It's OK to get up and go pee,” Cameron said in an interview with Empire magazine.
Dammit Jim, I’m a movie critic, not a doctor, but even I know there’s no pause button at the theater.
And if people feel bad about missing parts of the movie during bathroom trips, Cameron suggested they can always buy another ticket and watch it again. How generous of him.
Similarly for “Oppenheimer,” co-star Matt Damon protested about the prospect of an intermission: “no, no! God no... it goes so fast. It's great.”
I certainly do hope “Oppenheimer” is great, but I’m sure I and millions of others will enjoy the experience more if we’re not crossing our legs and puffing for the last third of it.
For the last few years, I’ve been shouting that more and more movies are too long. Editors, who once were major collaborators with directors, have been marginalized as voices with the power to suggest major trims. Studios, hesitant to alienate filmmakers with solid track records of money-makers, acquiesce as long as the box office is there.
From where I sit — squirming in pain, often — filmmakers’ protests about intermissions interrupting their flow sound tinny and privileged. Frankly, it’s a reflection of how estranged they’ve become from the people who actually watch — and show — their movies.
Not only are intermissions a logistical necessity, I’d argue they actually enhance, not detract from, the cinematic experience.
Studies have consistently shown that most humans are only able to concentrate intensely on something for about 90-120 minutes before they need a pause. People’s minds wander at the movies not just when it’s boring or needs some judicious editing, but simply because we’re wired to need a break. I’ve often said the perfect running time for a movie is about 100 minutes.
If a long movie is really good, you spend the precious five or 10 minutes of an intermission with it replaying in your head, the emotions you felt welling up again, and anticipation building for how it will come together in a (hopefully) grand finale.
It’s the deep breath before the plunge, as Gandalf said. (Who nonetheless couldn’t conjure up one break in 558 minutes.)
I’ll leave it here: if intermissions were good enough for the likes of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, William Wyler and John Ford, they’re good enough for today’s crop of filmmakers.
Instead of mouthing off that the people who fund their careers should just shut it and hold it, how about filmmakers extending a little consideration and recognize that their artistic ambitions and my aging plumbing can peaceably coexist?
Give us a break! …please.