Long and boring art movies (Guardian)

Are all art movies long and boring?
At three and a half hours, Warhol's Chelsea Girls, definitely goes on a bit. Are there any films in this œuvre which don't?
By: Lisa Drysdale (3 Oct 2007, The Guardian)

Any film that pushes the 120-minute mark better have something worthwhile to say for itself. But did you ever see a long, drawn-out art house movie that was utterly compelling to the last?

Last week I managed to catch a rare screening of Andy Warhol's avant-garde epic Chelsea Girls. Set in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, the audience plays voyeur to 12 distinct 30-minute scenes played out behind eight different hotel room doors. The Warhol twist? The episodes are double projected alongside one another onto a split screen.

Just as he did with his pop art portraits of the recently deceased/newly idolised, Warhol captures the spirit of the times: Chelsea Girls is New York in its patchouli-scented, drugged-up, backcombed heyday. Thanks to Giuliani, New York is now clean and serene, and even the future of the historic Chelsea Hotel itself is currently under debate.

Warhol's Factory entourage are the stars of the show: Nico trimming her "bangs", hair by hair; Ingrid Superstar taking time out from her trip under a dressing table while Mary Woronov and International Velvet spar above her; Brigid Berlin's junkie character, The Duchess, injecting herself through her trousers; Ondine holding court as the "Pope of Greenwich Village"; Eric Emerson waxing lyrical about the taste of his own sweat.

The short stories weave in and out of one another, with characters frequently appearing on the opposite side of the screen to play in a new scene. And I felt it was this overlap that gives the film its real story: we are all very much the product of our social interactions. This is particularly apparent in the case of sometime-sadist Hanoi Hannah (Mary Woronov), subdued into subservience in the company of her lover.

But while I certainly found parts of Chelsea Girls engaging, the novelty of watching Warhol's split screen storytelling wore off around eight episodes into the full dozen. (And judging by the number of walkouts during the 3 1/2 hour screening, I wasn't alone.)

Action is scarce, dialogue sparse. While there are some cracking put-downs throughout the film and some hearty laughs here and there, the individual scenes drag on. What Warhol takes 30 minutes to say could easily be fitted into 10. And while playing the two reels simultaneously certainly brings home the difference between seeing and observing, I felt it added little else. (Except, perhaps, that had they been played consecutively, I could have reached New York myself in the same time.)

So, when it comes to movies, how long is too long, and can artistic ploys really hope to save an otherwise mediocre film?

see other posts on this debate : 1 (Flanagan) - 2 (James) - 3 (Shaviro 1) - 4 (Shaviro 2) - 5 (Thoret) - 6 (Guardian) - 7 (Boring is not an argument) - 8 (Lavallée) - 9 (Frieze) - 10 (James 2) - 11 (Romney)