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Mark Harris on the perils of epic storytelling

Shows like ”Lost” and book series like ”Twilight” are making films try too hard to be big

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I love the week after the Academy Awards. The race is over, arguments we’ve been having for months are suddenly distant memories, and we all get a chance to reflect on the future of movies before the next Oscar race revs up. Unfortunately, that’s going to happen in about 12 minutes, so I have to hurry. Here’s one thing that struck me about this year’s 10 Best Picture nominees. With the exception of Avatar, which over nearly three hours built a universe large enough to accommodate as many future stories as the marketplace will bear, none of the films hailed as the best of 2009 suggest, require, or would benefit from sequels. (Yes, given the ravenous fan base that dwells within sci-fi, I guess District 9.2 could be contrived, but ”contrived” is the operative word.) For the most part, these films told their stories well, and with no need for follow-ups, in just two hours.

This is not only a big accomplishment but an increasing rarity in an era where, in every medium, we like our narratives supersize. The seven Harry Potter novels have been stretched out to eight movies; on screen, the Twilight Saga quartet may be a quintet; and in some way that would take a far smarter comic-book geek than me to explain, almost all of the big Marvel Comics-based movies over the next zillion years may eventually intertwine in one epic story, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (last seen in Iron Man) as the uniting thread.

It sounds epic! Then again, these days, what doesn’t? Aficionados of Lost don’t see themselves as fans of a TV series but of a single story that happens to be spread over six years and told in 121 chapters. I feel the same way about Mad Men — I could say, ”I’ve seen every episode,” but a more accurate reflection of my feelings would be ”I’m about halfway through,” since I believe I’m watching one massive narrative about how a group of characters and the world they inhabit got from one side of the 1960s to the other. And it’s not just high-end stuff: Starz’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand announced a second 12-episode season before its first one even aired; that’s the equivalent of a handshake with viewers, a promise that the journey is going to be big — the blood may spurt, but the story line will trickle with teasing slowness.

In 2010, ”more is more” has become the prevailing aesthetic. In the 1970s, PBS caused a sensation with the nine-hour Six Wives of Henry VIII. This spring, when Showtime wraps up The Tudors, it will have taken 38 hours to tell the same story. And HBO’s recently announced new series, the dragons-and-dynasties fantasy A Game of Thrones, derives from four (and counting) novels, each of which is so long that I swear they make your Kindle weigh more. Even live theater, which is traditionally limited by simple human stamina, is bursting its seams: In New York, one of the hottest tickets is Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle, which can be seen in one-day marathons that, including meal breaks, clock in at 12 (riveting) hours.

Faced with all this maximalism, movies can seem puny and insubstantial, and when you see enough not-great ones in a row, the medium can suddenly feel insufficient for anything but fleeting escapist adventures or miniature character studies. Which is why when I see something like There Will Be Blood or Zodiac or Pan’s Labyrinth or Children of Men (I’ll skip mentioning some 2009 favorites that I’ve already hyped ad nauseam here), I am awed all the more. Those films feel not only huge but complete — their visions encompass whole worlds and individual psychologies, they are works of airborne ambition that leave viewers both satisfied and provoked, and they all feel like full meals, not first chapters. More than ever, the challenge movies face is to work against the clock in order to create an immediate, intense, deep engagement with consumers of pop culture — to create a vision of the world compelling enough that it doesn’t evaporate the second you’re exposed to sunlight outside the movie theater. That’s a lot to ask — and a year from now, when we’re arguing about a new set of movies we may not even have heard of yet, let’s hope the Academy has found 10 that meet that standard. Personally, I’d still settle for five.