A Brief Essay on Overlength
This weekend, I have seen three different things that were far too long. Here they are, in the order I enjoyed them. (Spoilers ahoy.)
TOO MANY COOKS
What is it? An 11-ish-minute long segment on Adult Swim’s bizarro 4 a.m. slot, “Infomercials,” where the network (already fairly free-form and lenient in its demands on artists in terms of structure and subject matter, though it seems to require quite a bit of rigor from its creators) allows its talented directors to run riot. Here, the “Infomercial” in question is eleven straight minutes of the opening sequence to a 1980’s-ish sitcom called “Too Many Cooks,” over the course of which a murderer straight out of “Twin Peaks” begins killing the stars.
Why is it too long? By design. After a moment or two, you either think it’s funny and accept writer-director Casper Kelly’s challenge, which is to see how long it will take you to get bored with/violently angry at (more than one person has said this to me!) the conceit, the answer (for me at least) being “never,” given how quickly and subtly it changes.
Is it good anyway? Not only is it good anyway, it invites multiple rewatchings and has already spawned online catalogs across social and entertainment media of its various quirks—what shows it pays homage to, where the murderer can be spotted before he starts killing people, who from the cast has done other work on the network’s shows.
Is it virtuosic, or just pleased with itself? The former, definitely. Possibly also the latter.
What is it? A nearly-three-hour “realistic” film about space travel, written and directed directed by Batman and “Inception” one-man blockbuster factory Christopher Nolan, starring a half-dozen recent Oscar winners and made at obviously tremendous expense. Nolan’s shaky-cam aesthetic is very much an homage to the flashy crime movies of the 1980’s and ‘90’s, particularly the work of Michael Mann, and his conceit here seems to be to pay homage to the great science fiction films, notably “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with the same faux-verité style.
Why is it too long? Because Nolan’s cranky attention to detail sets him back two paces for every three. He sees characters not as webs of complex, sometimes unknowable motivations but as collections of plot points. Because he has so many balls in the air here, his characters aren’t very complicated at all and so (if you’ve seen a Nolan movie before), it becomes depressingly easy to solve for X as soon as one pops up on the screen. There’s a VERY famous cameo in the middle of the film; more or less as soon as the actor opens his mouth, I thought, “Well, don’t go anywhere with that guy. He’s crazy and will try to kill you all.” (He did). I’m not congratulating myself here—more or less everybody else I talked to after the movie was like, “Yeah, I saw that coming.” There’s a moment at the end of “Too Many Cooks” where the world of the sitcom is so badly broken that the title cards themselves take the place of the actors, with text pretzeling itself into humanoid shapes and spiking the camera or taking a plate of burnt cookies out of the oven. You get the impression from Interstellar that this is basically the way people look through Nolan goggles.
Is it good anyway? Your mileage may vary. If you like space porn, which I do, it’s terrific, mostly in spite of itself. A naked singularity! P-branes! The bulk! All this theoretical physics hooey is on ostentatious display here, even though a good 90% of it is faked and the other 10% has been discredited. The schematic stuff is annoying—Nolan always substitutes plot for character, which is one reason the mean-spiritedness of “The Prestige” is so unbearable—but you get the sense that Nolan thinks of the various plot threads as the really urgent stuff and the big shots of floating land-masses crunching together like mountainous teeth are indulgent. The reverse is true—who gives a toss whether our hero is actually communicating with himself from the future? There are giant waves to look at—but it’s his movie, not mine, so I’m content to suffer through the enthusiastic ticking of plot-hole boxes in the name of accretion disks in IMAX 3D.
Is it virtuosic or just pleased with itself? 100% self-pleasure. Why Nolan is so often worshipped as an auteur is utterly beyond me. Stephen Spielberg is ten times the director this guy is and he gets ripped as a sellout more or less hourly.
THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER
What is it? A three-hours-and-change opera about the hijacking of a cruise line in which Palestinian terrorists killed a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jewish man. The opera, by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, has attracted protesters of every shape, size and description, including Klinghoffer’s children and grandchildren, who hate the work and have accused it of being anti-Semitic.
Why is it too long? Because it’s been wilfully restaged by director Tom Morris more or less contra the obvious intent of the text, namely to suspend politics in order to explore the inner lives of the various actors in this incredibly evil, hate-filled moment, which has the effect of flattening it out into something with absolutely no dramatic movement or narrative, because it offers as literal backdrop international events that Adams and Goodman are trying to divorce from the decisions being made by people in the moment. It’s okay to have theater with no narrative! I am not opposed to work that doesn’t tell a traditional story—that’s why “Too Many Cooks” is great. In fact, it’s also why “Interstellar” kind of sucks: less traditional storytelling, Christopher Nolan! Maybe don’t explain everything with flowcharts! But it does need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or else it’s false advertising to dim the lights at 8 p.m. and bring them back up at 11:15. Anyway, Morris has staged the whole thing in front of giant replica of the West Bank Barrier (it’s a very nice replica of the West Bank Barrier, as replicas of the West Bank Barrier go, by designer Tom Pye. At one point there’s a little faux Banksy on it, so points for detail work there, at least). I have to ask: who thought the director of “War Horse” had interesting opinions about the two-state solution?
Is it good anyway? The voices are stupendous. Paulo Szot in particular is just stunning as the captain of the ship, who makes a *very* ethically suspect decision and sings its justification. The staging is totally, utterly, fatally inert, but if the Met puts out a recording, I’ll buy it.
Is it virtuosic or just pleased with itself? It’s almost inarguably virtuosic, it’s just pointedly no fun at all.
BONUS QUESTION: Was the Met wrong to stage it? No. It is boring to reduce a really complex opera to a sermon about the plight of Palestine, but it is certainly not immoral.