Roughly ten hours into Wang Bing’s 14-hour documentary Crude Oil there’s a single shot that runs 107 minutes – longer than the entirety of Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove or Annie Hall. And what does this almost unbroken segment, filmed from a single tripod-fixed camera-position, depict? A bunch of blokes watching films from DVDs on a bedroom telly, during a break between their punishing shifts as Gobi Desert roughnecks. They trade occasional small-talk (“The Sword of Justice – more boring shit”); colleagues come and go; daylight slowly fades; not much happens; illumination is elusive; the drillers’ zonked-out lassitude osmoses its way steadily through the screen and envelops the viewer in a miasma of torpor. Dozens of minutes ebb into the void.
In what our culture regards as a conventional narrative film (like the Oscar-winning Hollywood pictures mentioned above) the inclusion of such an episode would be unthinkable; a gross dereliction of duty on the part of director Wang and particularly his editor Guo Henqi. But there’s the rub! Crude Oil isn’t a conventional film at all. It wasn’t even made with the intention of ever being projected in a cinema; rather it was commissioned as an installation (initial provisional running-time… 70 hours) by Rotterdam Film Festival, where it was unveiled in January 2008 at the city’s former Fotomuseum. (Neil Young’s Film Lounge)