Don't Overstay Your Welcome In My Mind

Whether it's a movie or a jazz tune, shorter is usually sweeter.

 

By ERIC FELTEN

May 7, 2010

New to American theaters is "Harry Brown," a movie in which Michael Caine plays an emphysemic codger living out his days in a London housing project terrorized by feral youth. When the drug-dealing nasties kill the last of his old pub-mates, Mr. Caine gives them what for.

As grimly satisfying as it may be to watch the punks get what's coming to them (Mr. Caine is aided in his endeavors by the opiate stupor in which most of his targets languish), the best thing about the film is its length. At 102 minutes it is well under two hours, a vigilante tale as efficient as it is ruthless. Mr. Caine may not move very quickly, but the picture does.

 

A number of new releases are clocking in with running times that barely qualify them as feature-length films. "The Good Heart," in which an old man befriends and rehabilitates the sort of youth Harry Brown would have dispatched, lasts only 95 minutes. And "Please Give," a chatty exercise in Manhattan neuroses, crosses the finish line at a nice, clean hour-and-a-half.

 

Some may complain that such flicks are a bit slight given the prices at the multiplex, but I'm all in favor of it. Rare is the movie (or book or musical performance) that couldn't benefit from one more snip of the editors' shears.

 

Yes, there have been epic entertainments ruined by aggressive editors hacking a picture down so that theaters can fit in more showings a day. But for every "A Star Is Born" there are a dozen films like last year's "Funny People," a comedy that, at 146 minutes, was the better part of an hour too long.

 

Film critic Roger Ebert's mantra is that, "No good film is too long; no bad film is short enough." Perhaps it's a comment on the quality of today's pictures that most feel about two hours too long.

 

The same principle applies with books and music. There is so much to read, so much to hear, that it almost feels impertinent when an author takes up more than his share of one's time. I expect a book to justify every page it goes beyond number 250, which is the limit of my indulgence. I'm with Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to a friend that he did "not feel like reading books that are too long or too serious unless they are also very interesting."

 

The desire for more concise literature and entertainment isn't just a function of our hyperactive, Internet-accelerated age. A century-and-a-half ago, French writer Paul Lacroix (who went by the nom de plume, Bibliophile Jacob) noted that,"We are all frightened by long books," and he singled out histories as the worst offenders.

 

They still are, though biographies also are responsible for felling more than their share of forests. Even less forgivable are novelists who succumb to narrative sprawl.

 

Take John O'Hara, one of the great 20th century masters of the short story. When he first turned his hand to the larger canvas of novels, his efforts —"Appointment in Samarra," "BUtterfield 8"—were admirably brief, yet with all the room needed for characterization, atmospherics, and the twists and turns of plot.

 

But O'Hara was nothing if not ambitious, and his outsized desire to be recognized as a great novelist pushed him later to write books that were great primarily in length, such as "From the Terrace," a novel of Michenerian heft.

 

It will be objected that any number of canonic masterpieces are gargantuan. Yes, of course. But even many of those could stand a trim. Did "Moby Dick" really need the chapter called "Cetology," Melville's rambling effort to prove that whales weren't mammals?

 

Pop music, mostly constrained by the 3-minute restrictions of commercial-radio airplay, has maintained a remarkable discipline (though, on the Ebert scale, almost all of it still seems too long). By contrast, artistic ambition in jazz has led to a certain lack of focus, a tendency to go on and on like Hugo Chávez at a microphone.

 

A generation or two of jazz musicians have labored to rediscover the art of the short, improvised solo. During the swing era, solo spots were often as brief as a mere eight bars. Come the 1960s, John Coltrane was regularly blowing for over 20 minutes a tune. And though ' Trane may have had something to say that needed saying at that length, musicians who are mere mortals are well advised to spare the audience such Herculean listening tasks.

 

Either that, or audiences might start adopting strategies commonly used by Italian operagoers of the 18th century, who, according to Daniel Snowman in "The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera," regularly played cards or chess to get through the tedium of overlong recitatives. When your audience starts to text, maybe it's time to wrap up the tune.

 

Filmmakers, authors and musicians might want to think of themselves as houseguests of our minds, with the attendant obligation not to overstay their welcome. I could go on, of course, given the abundance of examples and counterexamples to consider. But perhaps it's best just to keep it brief.