I rented Bertolucci's 1900 and The Last Emperor (the new Criterion edition) from the library, since I'd been meaning to check out both. The former's been re-released in its full 315-minute uncut edition and the latter I'd seen in theaters — and loved — but was wildly curious about the extended cut as well.
What I saw of 1900, though, was a mess — it barely seemed like the same director as The Conformist. What was I to make of a beautifully-lit and -photographed opening scene where Donald Sutherland's character flees from pitchfork-wielding peasants, only to end up looking like something out of a horror movie that even Troma wouldn't have picked up? What was I to make of scenes that mixed brilliance and incompetence, and interlarded epic vistas with unbearably frothy acting and plotting, often in the same shot? What to say about how Bertolucci took upwards of five hours and change to tell a muddle of a story that barely lent itself to synopsizing, let alone watching in depth?
Ebert was lucky enough (?) to see the "shortened" cut of 1900 — four-something hours — back when it first premiered, and lamented the fact that it got shown at all when it could easily have become a lost classic and been hailed without everyone ever needing to sit through a single interminable minute of it. One of his oft-repeated quotes is that no good movie is ever too long and no bad one ever too short, and if 1900 had been hacked down to ninety minutes I suspect that would have been a blessing.
All this brought to mind a question: what constitutes an epic, and why? From what I've seen it's not just length or scope; there has to be something else, some larger vision that is part of the movie's philosophy or construction. (I'm limiting myself to movies for now.) So to that end here's a quick rundown of the things that I would tag with "epic", or which other people would apply the label to freely:
- I liked The Lord of the Rings as a film without ever really being in love with it, and I am not sure how much of that is due to not having marinated my imagination (so to speak) in the books while growing up. I suspect a good deal of the scope of the films is out of a need — dictated by the fans of the books — to stay true to just about every plot element in the original stories. The books themselves are actually not that long; I'd venture that all three plus The Hobbit are not that much heftier in terms of word count than the first volume of the elephantine Wheel of Time. The movies have scope and vision, but are not terribly sophisticated as storytelling — and perhaps don't need to be, with source material like that to draw on.
- Traffic clocks in at 147 minutes — downright svelte compared to LotR — but deserves the label epic thanks to two things: a) its interweaving of multiple plot lines (always a good way to push a story into epic territory, really), and b) its greater sense of moral ambiguity and ongoing conflict. It doesn't have any one simple, distilled thing to say about "the drug war", and for that reason it becomes that much more expansive and timeless.
- Nobody mentions epics without talking about Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind, and again those two rack up because of their scope, their characterizations, and their degrees of ambiguity. GWTW is a lot more straightforward of a story than LoA, but in my eyes it's held up over time as much more than a glossy soap opera. The former comes across as raw, undiluted experience, thanks at least in part to Robert Bolt's lean and nearly minimalist screenplay, and the single best use of widescreen photography, bar none.
- Kurosawa. Seven Samurai, Ran — there's scarcely a movie of his that doesn't classify as an epic, thanks to many of the factors discussed above. He didn't just fill the screen with things to look at, but people to care about and ideas to contemplate (the latter being something you typically did after it was over).
Sum of comments: Epic is what's inside plus what's outside. When both are big, when we can connect with both of them at the same time, that's what epic is all about.