the irishman runtime

Last night, the New York Film Festival website let slip that Martin Scorsese‘s crime epic The Irishman might be very epic indeed. According to the site, Scorsese’s new film clocks in at 210 minutes, making it over 3 hours long. This news was met with a mixture of glee and derision. But why? When it comes to movies, how long is too long? If audiences can sit through nearly 3 hours of Avengers: Endgame, surely they can stay a little longer for the latest movie from Martin Scorsese. Right…?

After news of The Irishman runtime went viral, the NYFF site has since removed the runtime. This, taken with a disclaimer stating the runtime was subject to change, suggests that the length of Scorsese’s latest is still up in the air. But let’s say it’s not. Let’s say The Irishman really does clock in at 3.5 hours. How does that news make you feel? Do you have a knee-jerk reaction that makes you groan, “Ugh, that’s too long”? If so, you’re not alone. Many people seem to be sharing that sentiment, with some claiming the film wasn’t “edited properly.” Let’s put that claim to bed, shall we? I’m positive Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited almost all of Scorsese’s films, knows more about editing than you (and me, and pretty much everyone). Also: there seems to be confusion about what an editor does.

An editor’s job is not to make a movie shorter. In his landmark book In the Blink of an Eye, legendary editor Walter Murch lays out what he calls “the rule of six” when it comes to film editing. Murch breaks these down in order of importance, complete with percentages:

  • Emotion – 51%
  • Story – 23%
  • Rhythm – 10%
  • Eye trace – 7 %
  • Two Dimensional Plane of Screen – 5%
  • Three Dimensional Space – 4%

Notice “runtime” isn’t anywhere on there. The closest is “rhythm”, which is more about pacing than length. “The values I put after each item are slightly tongue-in-cheek,” Murch says, “but not completely: Notice that the top two on the list…are worth far more than the bottom four…and when you come right down to it, under most circumstances, the top of the list – emotion – is worth more than all five of the things underneath.”

In other words, if the movie is working on an emotional level, it really shouldn’t matter how long it is. And based on Martin Scorsese’s work in general, I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. He can deliver an emotional experience, and if he pulls that off, a 210-minute runtime could breeze on by. In a piece written in 1992, film critic Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly: “Bad movies are always too long, but good movies are either too short, or just right.” Ebert took things further with the following paragraph:

“Of course there is another answer, harder to explain, and that is the particular appeal that longer movies have on you. They absorb you. They isolate you more completely from the real world that lurks at either end of a film. They create a world that you have the time to get to know.”

Who wouldn’t want to be isolated from the horrors of the real world for a little longer than usual? What I’m saying is: let’s give this Martin Scorsese fellow a chance. I’ve heard good things about him!

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