Stretching the Movie Experience

Binge-watching is changing how we see movies, for better or worse.

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At the San Francisco Film Festival earlier this year, I gave a talk about the Netflix series “The Crown” and showed 15 minutes of clips. Afterward, several people said that while they enjoyed “The Crown” at home on their TVs, there was an extra thrill in watching these clips on the big movie screen at SFMOMA. On that scale, you could feel the drip of anointing oil in the coronation scene and see fleeting thoughts behind Claire Foy’s eyes that had been vague at home.

We wondered: If the Festival had elected to show all of “The Crown” (so far) in a movie theater — all 20 hours — would an audience come? “How would you do that?” someone asked. I suggested showing it over four days, five hours at a time.

But I thought to myself: Would people really sit for that? Then someone else leaped at the plan. “Bingeing!” she cried, as if that was the richest experience in life. Others nodded in agreement, and I realized how many of us are now addicted to marathon viewings.

I had to admit that the productions that had most impressed me in recent years were Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” (20 hours), Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” (8 hours) and “The Vietnam War” (16 1/2 hours) by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Those television adventures belied the motion picture business orthodoxy that a movie should be just two hours and a bit — because that’s what people are used to.

Of course, there are still good movies made at that traditional length — but the habit of going to a theater for a two-hour block of time has been undermined by ways of life learned from our home screens.

The term “binge-watching” is quite recent. It was inspired by the wave of high-quality long-form TV series that started a couple of decades ago with “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” Our desire to see those series in their entirety made them available first as boxed sets of DVDs and then in the ultimate logic of streaming.

But bingeing is far older. In so many households, TV always was a passive binge experience. We settled around the set in the evening and watched or half-watched until bedtime, never changing the channel. We had not been concentrating for five hours, but the picture had stayed on — like the light or the heating, ever present. TV always has surpassed the conditions of attention we were accustomed to from movie theaters.

The shift to home viewing of long-form series was both different and familiar. From 2008, over five seasons, once a week, I more or less watched “Breaking Bad.” I missed several of the 62 episodes (life intervened) but I thought highly of the series, even if on AMC the 55-minute episodes were interrupted by commercials.

A few years after “Breaking Bad” concluded, I was asked to write about it. I had the complete boxed set (without ads) and I took in all 49 hours in a gulp over a long weekend. All of a sudden, I saw that the show was a masterpiece, a novel delivered as a (long) movie in my home; it was more satisfying than any theatrical film I encountered in the same years. I did not want it to end, and I was moved by the medium’s new capacity to let characters and story unfold at the pace of life itself. Movies in theaters began to seem archaic and cautious. The creative ambition of our screens was expanding.

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There was another consequence to this shift in viewing habits. For decades I had loved the “Begin the Beguine” number from “Broadway Melody of 1940,” in which Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, in black and white, do a fabulous dance routine. I used to watch the film on television, waiting for “Beguine.” I might do other things for an hour or so because the film’s “story” was silly and tedious. Who watched Fred, with Ginger or other dancers, because of the plot? I was there just for those glowing minutes.

Then video let me abandon the rest of the film and watch “Beguine” four or five times in a row. Once you know a film, you can isolate the scene that works for you. It may be a musical number, the moment in “The Godfather” when Michael shoots the bad guys in the Italian restaurant, or Meg Ryan in the deli in “When Harry Met Sally,” or … well, we all have our favorites, in a process in which “cinema” has become an anthology of great scenes.

Again, this was catching up on ways of viewing that had always existed. In a long evening of half-watched TV, Mom would tell the kids, “Fetch me out of the kitchen when ‘I Love Lucy’ starts.” Or Dad might watch TV just to see the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial (1979-80). He never liked the drink, but he relished the ad — it was a small movie. He watched it over and over, and it helped him feel better about life.

A taste for fragments seems the opposite of bingeing, but it is a force in how we use moving imagery. YouTube has been around since 2005 and has become a treasury of bits and pieces that we can browse forever, going from one unknown clip to another, many of which last about as long as a hit song. We have learned from this because we send each other little movies — moments, jokes or love notes — on our phones. That’s how so many of us are watching screens “all the time.”

Why not? In the history of American culture, there is a place for “Citizen Kane” or “Phantom Thread” — dutiful movie-length marvels. But we are equally fulfilled by prolonged experiences — like the four-day commitment to television that came after the killing of JFK, when it felt necessary to watch, passing time to share in the grief, while becoming alert to a moment as startling as Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station.

There’s nothing inherently magical about the two-hour movie. The 16-hour series or the three-minute clip are just as valid. We are ready to watch for the duration of our lives. Truly, life is streaming. Yet we know a moment — a single shot — can change everything.


Three Subtitled Streams to Swim In

  • Dr. Mabuse the Gambler,” Fritz Lang (1922): A four-and-a-half-hour panorama (in two parts) of a criminal mastermind seeking to control Germany after 1919 and reduce it to chaos.
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1980-83): Fourteen episodes, 15½ hours of a riveting account of Alfred Doblin’s novel and the texture of German life in the late 1920s.
  • Babylon Berlin,” Various directors (2017-ongoing): Over 12 hours so far, a dazzling, sexy, terrifying return to the mood of Fritz Lang, as if filmed by David Lynch.

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