The long documentary isn't only for music, and it's hardly a new trend of the streaming era: think of the basketball portrait Hoop Dreams (170 minutes) or Shoah (566 minutes), the acclaimed study of the Holocaust. Also, let's not forget the role public broadcasting has had in bringing documentaries to viewers. In the 1990s and beyond, PBS became the de-facto home to the sprawling, sepia-toned movies of Ken Burns, the filmmaker behind lengthy historical works like The Civil War (680 minutes), Baseball (1,380 minutes), Jazz (1,095 minutes), and The War, (900 minutes) which, coincidentally, is now available to stream on Netflix. On the BBC, there's dizzying films of archival footage wizard Adam Curtis, who has also seen a rise in mainstream press coverage just as many of his films have discovered a new audience through the legally murky backwaters of YouTube. I watched his latest movie, HyperNormalisation (166 minutes), in one brain-scrambling sitting.
Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone who sped through all 10 episodes of Making a Murderer will immediately order a DVD of Jean Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma (266 minutes) or attend a Frederick Wiseman rétrospective. (But, really, they should: Wiseman movies like the 244 minute At Berkeley might blow them away.) Nor am I saying that the recent glut of streaming-exclusive documentaries are on the same level of quality as the classics of the genre. Though Slate may have argued a few years back that we're living in a "Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking," there's certainly an argument to be made that the rush for streaming content has had a negative effect on the actual aesthetics of nonfiction cinema. If you're watching a movie on your phone, like a podcast with pictures, then the director is less incentivized to impress you with bold visual choices.
But, even as we drown in viewing options, the appeal of the long-ass documentary is real. The feeling of total immersion that arrives after the first hour of Long Strange Trip is hypnotic, like you've been given a secret decoder ring that let's you understand a subject that moments before felt incomprehensible. It's not that dissimilar from reading a long book: the text teaches you to read it as you go. The internal logic and narrative rhythms work their way into your brain's synapses via prolonged exposure. It's a narcotic.
Like the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh says in the documentary when talking about the band's notoriously long jam sessions, all you've gotta do is "open the valve." Or fire up that Roku.