A piece in Nautilus by Tom Vanderbilt called “The Pleasure and Pain of Speed” isn’t just about movies but our perception of what measure of time “now” encompasses. But movies are a part of it:
Whatever protests we have made to the march of modernity, notes the historian Stephen Kern, “the world opted for speed again and again.” If Kern is right, and we do like it fast, then there is a natural place to look for evidence: film. It is consumed for pleasure, and therefore a direct indication of our tastes; and also readily quantified, recorded, compared, and reexamined.
If we take the human “now” to be, metaphorically, an individual cut of a film—a temporal interlude representing some kind of aesthetic consciousness—life is getting vertiginously fast. In the 2007 thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, as the critic Michael Phillips has noted, the set piece in which Bourne must dispatch a rival sent to kill him lasts approximately 109 seconds. From the time he crashes through the window to when he finally subdues the assassin, there are roughly 122 cuts—less than a second per cut. Still well above the threshold of visual perception, but in filmic terms, it is the kind of pacing we once associated with, at its extreme, the visually and psychically jarring “montage” film-within-a-film in Alan Pakula’s 1974 conspiracy film The Parallax View. “The miracle,” writes Phillips of Bourne, “is that it’s not simply sickening to watch.”
As James Cutting, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, has noted, where average shot lengths during the “classical Hollywood age” timed in around the languorous 10-second mark, today’s films are lucky to hit the five-second mark. The average shot length for the entire running time of Quantum of Solace was 1.7 seconds.
Ugh. I mean, Hollywood, amirite? Ruining our attention spans and won’t someone think of the children. Except:
At the height of the silent film era, shot lengths were about as short as they are today. Long before MTV, or even television itself—a time when other indices of life were less rapid—audiences were being exposed to the same rapid-fire imagery they are today. Cutting suggests that modern films, rather than being exemplars of some winnowing of attention, may simply be returning towards some natural kind of pacing, featuring “shot patterns that mimic the attention patterns endogenous in our minds.”
Then Vanderbilt goes on to wonder if technology, rather than overtaking the capacity of our brains, isn’t in fact catching up to the natural speed of our thoughts.
It’s a long read, but a provocative one. Go check it out.
Also: the guy talking about movie editing is called Cutting. Beautiful.