people who complain about fast edits in modern films need to know this

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.

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Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton
Sun, Feb 02, 2014 2:24am

The thing is, that’s all well and good, but movies and TV are supposed to immerse you in the world they’re creating. Not jerk you out of it. Film editing is supposed to be invisible, where the story and characters engage you.

There’s a time and a place for rapid-fire editing (if it’s done well I don’t notice it), but I find it mostly takes me out of the film. Longer cuts maintain my attention (what I loved about Gravity is that Alfonso Cuaron used long takes to keep you engaged), and show you what the director wants you to see. I can’t see what’s going on in ADD-edited action movies like Fast & Furious 6 or the Greengrass-directed Bourne movies.

It just seems counterintuitive. Our attention span may be growing shorter, but it shouldn’t justify fast-edits just because of that.

Karl Morton IV
Karl Morton IV
reply to  Matt Clayton
Sun, Feb 02, 2014 10:53am

“Film editing is supposed to be invisible, where the story and characters engage you.” Do you also think that music in films should not be noticed?

reply to  Karl Morton IV
Sun, Feb 02, 2014 12:52pm

I think it can work both ways. The music in the first X-Men film was so bombastic it took me out of the movie, but the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence in Apocalypse Now worked precisely because the music called attention to itself.

David C-D
David C-D
Sun, Feb 02, 2014 3:57am

Wow that magazine is awesome. At the bottom are linked articles on how you relate to your future self, and how listening to music changes your perception of time, both of which are very cool.

Sun, Feb 02, 2014 5:18am

Interesting. But while faster edits and quicker cuts may try to approximate our perception of the “now,” the fact is that, in our real lives, the “now” happening all around us is essentially one long scene that is never cut. The “edits” and shifts in attention happen inside our heads (as part of the article points out). To me this means that we’re perfectly capable of processing long scenes for ourselves, without hyperkinetic edits always micromanaging our focus for us. That’s why live plays and musicals still work, as well as older movies with longer scenes; as long as they’re written and performed well, they’re still utterly compelling, and not boring at all.

I don’t mind fast edits if they’re skillfully done and judiciously applied. But I hope filmmakers also continue to appreciate the value of longer, well-constructed scenes that aren’t afraid to let the viewer’s own internal editor do some of the work.

reply to  Bluejay
Mon, Feb 03, 2014 6:46pm

So a film with short shots does the mental processing for you, while a
film with long shots trusts you to cue in on the things that are

Fri, Feb 07, 2014 6:20pm

There might be an important error in the “At the height of the silent film era, shot lengths were about as short as they are today” idea, though. We sometimes forget that “silent” films actually weren’t – they were accompanied by music, and the speed of the hand-cranked projectors varied accordingly.

“Speeds ranged from about 18 frame/s on up – sometimes even faster than modern sound film speed (24 frame/s).”

Maybe the writer is accounting for this, but if not, viewing silent films at a constant 24 frames per second would definitely give you a false impression.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  David_Conner
Fri, Feb 07, 2014 10:25pm

Because filmmakers were experimenting with the medium? Because there were technological limitations on what cinema could do? Because filmmakers were mistaken about what audiences wanted or could tolerate?