Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, June 24, 2016

this is your TV on speed

Jeff Guo watches TV shows really fast and thinks he's pretty darn cool for doing so.

I recently described my viewing habits to Mary Sweeney, the editor on the cerebral cult classic "Mulholland Drive." She laughed in horror. “Everything you just said is just anathema to a film editor,” she said. “If you don't have respect for how something was edited, then try editing some time! It's very hard."

Sweeney, who is also a professor at the University of Southern California, believes in the privilege of the auteur. She told me a story about how they removed all the chapter breaks from the DVD version of Mulholland Drive to preserve the director’s vision. “The film, which took two years to make, was meant to be experienced from beginning to end as one piece,” she said.

I disagree. Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films, but it's intentionally dreamlike and incomprehensible at times. The DVD version even included clues from director David Lynch to help people baffled by the plot. I advise first-time viewers to watch with a remote in hand to ward off disorientation. Liberal use of the fast-forward and rewind buttons allows people to draw connections between different sections of the film.

Question: How do you draw connections between sections of the film you fast-forwarded through?

Another question: How would Into Great Silence be if you took 45 minutes to watch it?

A third question: Might there be a difference — an experiential difference, and even an aesthetically qualitative difference — between remixing and re-editing and creating montages of works you've first experienced at their own pace and, conversely, doing the same with works you've never had the patience to sit through?

And a final suggestion for Jeff Guo: Never visit the Camiroi.


  • I accidentally watched something last night on an unfamiliar playback device at 1.5x speed. I wondered briefly about the Keystone Kops effect of dialogue rushing by before seeing the counter rolling at unnatural speed. I wasn’t at all interested in watching at a more “efficient” speed because it fundamentally alters the experience. Guo’s appeals to personal preference as demonstrated by scientific studies fall into the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category for me. Obsession with efficiency, productivity, and user control ultimately cheat and destroy one’s experience, turning idle entertainments into accomplishments in sheer volume. (I insist TV and cinema are mostly superfluous except in the sense of cultural literacy, which is now so diluted that it's hard to argue for.) Little room is left for tone, atmosphere, consideration, and synthesis in the nonstop onrush of new stimuli.

    Sure, I get that habitual use of computers has made even modest processing delays feel glacially slow. As a result, I’ve found myself in the middle of many experiences longing to already be at the end so that I can turn my attention elsewhere. That recognition all by itself is a signal of something deeply wrong with our emerging awareness of the limitations of cognitive flow, also called the bandwidth of consciousness. We’re increasingly discontented with being human and want instead to have the information processing capabilities of machines. How sad.

  • Guo's article made me think about movies from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which, even when they're wonderfulg, are almost intolerably slow. You watch movies like All the President's Men or Blow Up—really great movies!—and it's clear they came out of a different visual and narrative culture. I think it's fair to say Americans have over the decades "gotten better" at watching movies—keeping up, integrating information, noticing things—and the movies have changed to match.

    Even a movie as recent Alien feels much… too… slow in 2016. Well beyond the suspenseful intent of its art/craft.

    Maybe you could calculate a rate of like "temporal deflation" over the years…

    Anyway, noticing this, I've often wished there was such a thing as a "modern edit"—the remaking of a great movie into a form that acknowledges current visual and narrative culture. This is kinda what Guo is doing for himself, in real-time, with a few additional twists—but certainly you could arrive at a better product (that's more respectful of the original) by stepping back and making the edit into a real creative project rather than a knob-twiddling personal intervention.

  • Robin, this is yet another really thoughtful comment by you, but I think I have to disagree this time. When I encounter works of art from other cultures, whether the otherness is spatial or temporal, I want them to be aesthetically different. That's one of the real pleasures of them, for me. For the past few months I've been working through the major films of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and the very thought of those being re-edited for pace is horrifying to me. Similarly, Miyazaki's films are amazingly slow in comparison to almost any American animated film, but that's one of their chief fascinations. (I think of that scene in Spirited Away when Chihiro/Sen and No-Face take the train, and Miyazaki makes us sit and wait for the train with them, and then wait while they're on the train.)

    I feel the same even about works from Hollywood's past. I felt that way when Ted Turner started colorizing the old black-and-white classics. I like the challenge of trying to adjust my aesthetic responses to the works, to meet them where they are, rather than wanting them to be adapted to where I already am. Because that's how I grow in sympathy and openness to difference.

    All that said, sometimes a remake is a very good thing.

  • Also, somewhat randomly, even people who really struggle with the slow pace of older movies tend to give a pass to one director: Kubrick. And he's the slowest of them all! (I think that's because we have some sense of when slow pacing is just an artifact of the time and when it's a very conscious strategy. But I wonder how good we are at reliably making that distinction.)

  • Points all well-taken; the Miyazaki Defense is strong. But I would say the slowness of Blow-Up is very different from the slowness of Spirited Away or any other Miyazaki movie, because Miyazaki's slowness is always balanced by speed, the dynamic range established clearly. No Miyazaki movie is monotonous. That's not the case for older movies. There is a sense, watching them in the 21st century, of their makers' intent being not served but thwarted by their slowness.

    But then, I am all-in for living, responsive, contingent media. A work of art is a fuzzy cloud, not a marble statue. (This is true even of marble statues.) I lament the passing of a print culture in which the second edition of a novel was different from the first, etc., etc.!

  • Robin, I like your second paragraph a lot. In my own field, I think of the two surviving versions of King Lear that are so different that many scholars think they should be treated as two different plays. Dickens wrote two totally different endings to Great Expectations. Every time Auden published a new version of his collected poems he revised poems in new ways. These are wonderful messes.

    On the first paragraph I still want to push back, though. Maybe it's not the makers' intent that is being thwarted by slowness but your or my intent. And maybe my intentions need to be thwarted, at least sometimes. I think often about a comment John Updike made long ago about certain forms of modern art: "we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence - a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.'' He thinks what makes a novel like Ulysses so great is that it's pushing back against enormous resistance -- the inner world of the mind's resistance to linguistic representation, among other things.

    I think resistance is a great thing for readers and viewers as well. Works of art that push back, that won't be what I'm comfortable with. That's what Marina Abramovich's stuff is all about, right? Maybe we can think of slow-paced movies in the same way. While of course leaving room for an infinite about of non-destructive manipulation, transformation, hacking and redeploying.

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