Quicker, Faster, Better? Or Lesser?

I was at a birthday party the other day, and got to talking about art, and media with Sarah Walker. We talked about the current state of the economy and the effect on individual shows, and also about Marshall McLuhan (one of my favorites.) Media, Media, Media. Over the course of the afternoon and amid the screaming kids we started to discuss visual acuity as opposed to attention span.

I hear all the time about the diminishing attention span of the modern generation. Quicker cuts because we are being trained to have less attention span. I’m not so sure about that. I do have a short attention span, but I think there are other things at play as Sarah and I discussed.

1. Boredom – the “content” of the media is just not engrossing to us. Believe me, when you are exposed to media with a high amount of content (as opposed to style – but that is a separate discussion.) it is engrossing, the audience is captivated.

2. Pacing – We’ve become conditioned to watching quicker cuts, and there is a physiological effect on us when watching media. The more cuts the more excitement, we become used to the faster pace, and so start to become uncomfortable when we are given something we are not used to. Today’s audiences aren’t really trained to watch slow paced movies anymore.

3. Visual Acuity – which for me refers to how quickly you get information visually. There is a standard theory about showing images with a canted or “Dutched” angle allows you to leave an image on the screen longer. Because if the image is different than what the viewer is used to,  the longer it takes for the audience to “see” or understand the image, the longer it can stay up on the screen holding the attention of the audience. As soon as the audience “gets” the information in the image, the audience starts to get bored. So you need to cut, transition, or otherwise introduce new information. So a shot of a building straight and plumb s fairly quickly recognized, Cant or Dutch the image 45 degrees, and it takes the viewer a longer to to “see” or comprehend what the image is. The Visual Acuity of the viewing audience is increasing – that is getting better, so the audience is recognizing the content of images faster. HOW CAN THIS BE????? The thing to remember is that sight, vision, what have you is a learned skill.

What is that you say? How can it be? You see with your eyes. Well that is not quite correct. Your eyes capture images on receptors, which convert those images into electric signals which your brain then interprets into images. You are always interpreting how you experience the world, it isn’t just with sight. Did you know that you have “Blind Spots” Places in your field of view that you can’t see. Your brain fills that area in, so you don’t go around seeing a black hole in your vision. Now we are bombarded with images almost from birth. Compared to someone from the early 1900’s (the dawn of cinema) we can recognize the content of the images so much quicker than they could back then. So it isn’t that the attention span is dropping, it’s that the audience gets the information from the images much quicker than before.

When I go to a museum, to look at “art” – Paintings, sculptures, what have you. It has often been very difficult. In some ways it has to do with personality, when I’m out of my comfort zone I tend to be very driven to get back there, so easily identifiable milestones become important. Go look at this painting, then that painting, then the next, etc. and get back to comfort zone. I’m only uncomfortable because I have no access to the paintings, I don’t know what it takes to “appreciate” the work. I have learned, through taking classes that deal with art, discussions on how to “enter” the painting – which does not mean physically jumping into a painting – and a force of effort, to study and “eat” the art. By eat, I mean I look at the painting or the sculpture. I move far away, and then move as close as possible. I get low, and look at it from different angles. I search for something in it, some way to find something more in it, be it the brush strokes, the color palette, the light reflecting off the surface. I train myself to invest effort and time in the study of the work of art. I find the content within the art.

Audiences today aren’t really trained for that, even though the visual acuity, the ability to do it is so great. The audience isn’t trained for it, because for the most part the content of the films isn’t there to be found. Instead of be challenged, audiences are fed the simplest of imagery and content, the most easily accessible, most commercially viable. Woohoo the images/content are cool, even stunning, but they lack depth of content. Watch Coppola’s Dracula – The lightning in the beginning of the film, it is in the shape of a claw, and the claw is grabbing at Keanu Reeves, threatening him. Do you get it when you see it. Do you have to watch it a few times to see what is happening. Depth of content, which is being lost in more modern films.

So the Audience can see more information, faster, but the content of the films is lesser, so quicker cuts and faster pace or the audience just gets bored. It isn’t the audience getting a shorter attention span, it the audience getting more capable, and being given less to work with.

Thanks for reading

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3 Responses to Quicker, Faster, Better? Or Lesser?

  1. Marc Baron May 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    I also blam this on what I call the MTV generation. It was the music videos of that began these rapid cuts 15-20 years ago. As that generation became the movie-going generation, filmmakers reacted with those same cuts. If you time them, you rarely see a shot for more than 5 secs….what is known as the MTV cut.

    Fortunately, some directos know the value of long shots lasting way more than 5 secs…such as Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and the late Sindey Lumet. I was very pleased that in “The King’s Speech” the director got out of the way and let his actors act. He didn’t use 5 second cuts to fix shortcomings of his acotrs, or his story.

    One thing so many filmmakers of today forget that the camera is an active participant of the story. In addition to the actors, the script, the music, it’s the camera and editing that make the story come alive. The length of a shot affects to emotional output of the scene.

  2. Chaz Shukat July 17, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    I agree with Marc 1,000% MTV style editing has it’s place in music videos and such (although it’s gotten to be too much even for music vids) but not in films. A feature film is not the same as a music video and should not be treated the same.

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