“The poor man can’t concentrate for more than an hour. YOU gave him four.”

The title quote comes from Amadeus, when Mozart protests to Salieri that his new opera, The Marriage of Figaro, has closed after just nine performances. The opera’s fate, according to the film, was doomed when Emperor Joseph II of Austria yawned during the fourth act.

Demands upon audiences have been a concern of artists for…well, pretty much forever, I suppose. When an orchestra puts, say, Mahler’s Third or Bruckner’s Eighth on the program, those symphonies take up the entire evening’s work. Do the performances include intermission? I honestly don’t know.

I’m thinking about this after reading Mark Evanier’s post about the new Martin Scorsese movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, which has a running time of 206 minutes: almost three and a half hours. The question is simply: Should movies like this have an intermission?

I remember having an intermission during a three-hour movie a handful of times in my life. I recall one during Gandhi, way back when, and during Dances With Wolves. In both cases, neither film was made with an intermission in mind, so the projection simply stopped around halfway through and a theater employee called out, “Intermission!” In each case, the stoppage was artificial and might have even hurt the story: Gandhi‘s came right after the harrowing sequence of the massacre at Amritsar, and the Dances one came right before the buffalo hunt. Neither film really suffered, exactly, but a much better experience came with My Fair Lady, which we saw a few years ago via Fathom Events. There was an intermission there, too, but the movie was made to end on a full stop before the intermission (it’s an adaptation of a Broadway show, after all), so the story reaches a satisfying point, goes to intermission, and then gets the ball rolling again once the intermission is over.

Mr. Evanier says the following:

In other words, my options are to experience it exactly the way Martin Scorsese would like it to be seen or to see it (1) the way its director wants it seen or (2) missing one or more chunks of the movie — including possibly key, important scenes — entirely or (3) seeing it on a smaller screen without the same undivided attention we muster in a movie theater but not in our dens and inserting pauses anywhere I, not Mr. Scorsese, would like. And let’s not forget (4) don’t see it at all.

Option #1 gives him close to total control of how I see his film.  Option #3 gives him absolutely none.  I don’t think Option #2 would please him.  If he thinks an intermission would distract from my enjoyment of his film, how would he like the fact that my bladder or I pick a random time to miss fifteen minutes of it?  And distract other audience members in the process of exiting and re-entering?

That seems to me a pretty accurate summation. He’s actually responding to an earlier article in Salon in which a writer specifically argues against intermissions:

One common argument in the pro-intermission column is that three-hour movies simply require breaks because people need breaks from long movies. I find that argument to be flimsy at best because why even go see a long movie in a theater if you already know you will need a break from it? If you know a film that long is being shown at a theater, maybe you should wait until the film is released on streaming so you can watch it in chunks. Is it normal to want to get up after sitting for a few hours? Absolutely, but does that mean you should go to a three-hour-long Scorsese film? I vote nah. Sometimes it’s easier to pick your battles instead of fighting to change a well-oiled machine that seems to be working for most moviegoers.

I may not be the biggest fanatic of three-hour-long movies, but I go to see them in the theater because I want that immersive moviegoing experience. I watched “Killers of the Flower Moon” this past Sunday and, yes, I did become tired after the second hour of the film. Yes, I did close my eyes for a short break to collect myself. But that’s OK, because it’s a long movie. Nobody is denying that. Let’s be real, I did it for “Oppenheimer,” too. But does that mean I need an intermission for a break to get a snack or go to the bathroom? Honestly, no. I never felt the need to get up out of my chair and take myself out of the insanely intense and heightened atmosphere that Scorsese masterfully crafted in this film.

If we are discussing the moviegoing experience entirely, some say that intermission will only increase the audience’s positive experiences at theaters. Intermissions will further prepare the audience to be more engaged in the film. To that, I argue that it will actually do the opposite — it has the potential to be detrimental to the moviegoing experience. Firstly, wouldn’t an intermission just make a three-hour moving-watching experience even longer? Secondly, filmmakers are against it because it may have the potential to alter their artistic vision for their films. To me, an intermission would interrupt the rhythm and flow of a perfect film like “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Directors, like Scorsese, have specific visions for how a film should be seen and if they don’t want intermissions we have to respect their artistic vision, because maybe they know what they’re talking about.

The Salon article is, I submit, deeply weird, in a lot of ways. The idea that an intermission is “detrimental to the moviegoing experience” just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Seeing My Fair Lady on the big screen was a revelatory experience for me, almost an exercise in pure joy. How was it lessened by having an intermission, especially since the film was made with an intermission in mind? For that matter, how were the other films I saw with intermissions artificially shoe-horned into the experience by the theater lessened? They weren’t.

You know what does detract from the experience? All that squirming as one realizes one might need to go relieve oneself. All that wondering: “Can I make it to the end of this?” That’s an actual breaking of the “immersive experience” of moviegoing, not to mention the actual act of finally getting up and going to the rest room. The rhythm and flow of a “perfect film” is interrupted anyway, so why not just build it in?

For that matter, are we seriously maintaining that Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest cinematic storytellers in history, can’t structure his films to accommodate these simple needs? Especially when just about every other art form out there does? No Wagner opera is played without break. You can pause a movie at home at will. In a follow-up post, Mr. Evanier posts a comment by a correspondent:

As you are well aware, it is the rare stage production that does not have an intermission. I have never been to a professional performance that didn’t have one and in my amateur acting career, appeared in only one show that was done without an intermission — and that one was only about 75 minutes long. If stage directors and playwrights can keep the audience’s attention enough to have them come back from a 15 or 20 minute break, I fail to see why their cinematic counterparts cannot do the same.

Sports have half-times (even baseball has the seventh-inning stretch).

What the hell makes movies so special that they must be consumed in one singular and unbroken sitting? Seriously, literally no other art form or past-time makes this demand. What’s so sacredly immersive about seeing a movie that doesn’t apply to watching a television program, or attending a classical music concert or opera, or watching Shakespeare in the Park?

Further, why are movies the one art form where we put such primacy on “how it is meant to be seen”? That ship has pretty much sailed, right? Let’s be honest here: artists don’t really get any say at all in how we experience their work. If they did, the only way to hear Wagner’s Parsifal would be to go to Bayreuth. If they did, Shakespeare would only be done in a theater on the Thames. Am I going against the artist’s intent when I listen to music on recording as opposed to a live performance? How about if I read a novel on a Kindle by an author who died in 1952?

The artistic vision in a movie is what’s on the screen. Nothing more, and nothing less. How far does this go? Does Scorsese get to tell us not to see his movies in modern theaters with reclining seats?

These objections may sound extreme, but really, I do not get for the life of me why the moviegoing experience is so sacred, especially now that our living rooms are getting better and better at presenting movies. No, I don’t have a full size 32-feet-by-18-feet screen, but what of it? One of the best movies I’ve watched in the last year is Hugo, by none other than Martin Scorsese. Am I to believe that my experience watching it was so much the worse because I didn’t see it in a theater but in my own home? And when I hit the ‘pause’ button at home, am I really disrespecting the artistic intention of the filmmaker?

Anyway, yes, I feel that long movies should have intermissions, and moreover, that they should be constructed to put the intermission in a good place, story-wise. If they don’t want to do that, fine…but then I’m almost certainly not sitting through a movie that long at the theater again. For me, biology tends to trump artistic vision. Movies are an art, yes, and they are a wonderful art. But they are not an art that demands a unique degree of unbroken immersion in the experience, any more than one must read The Brothers Karamazov in one sitting to get the full Dostoevsky experience.


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2 Responses to “The poor man can’t concentrate for more than an hour. YOU gave him four.”

  1. Roger says:

    I can only remember one movie I’ve gone to that had an intermission, Reds, and I think it worked.
    I sat through The Irishman but the last 20 minutes was… difficult. I’m currently disinclined to see Killer Moon for other reasons, but I think the artificial insertion of an intermission by the theater seems wrongheaded too.

  2. Lee McAulay says:

    How can we be expected to sit through any long performance in a venue that also sells tempting drinks? Hmm…

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