One of the knocks against the millennial generation — and there are many — is its slavish devotion to all things smartphone, reducing lives to an endless series of interruptions via a continuous stream of texts, tweets and snaps, so that people are left with a virtually nonexistent attention span. An unfair generalization, to be sure. While there’s an undeniable effect of digital media, and particularly smartphone culture, on our ability to maintain focus, I’ve seen it affect people aged 50 as well as 20. We’re all changing.
As a result, we’re seeing a gradual reformulation of our entertainment toward bite-sized portions of instant gratification. Record labels used to give musicians two or three albums to find their groove (no pun intended) before getting the payout they hoped for with a No. 1 smash. Comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby could spin long yarns in their standup routines, with audiences understanding that a big laugh was coming. And TV and movie productions would invest a good portion of the program in a lengthy setup before knocking ’em down with the car chase or fight scene. No more. If there isn’t an explosion, a viral one-liner, or instantly catchy pop hit from the get-go, people have moved on.
Whether this is a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder. I understand that there’s a new bargain taking place between entertainer and audience: give me something that mildly distracts me for awhile, only to be forgotten as soon as the next mild distraction comes along. Some people are OK with that. But what’s lost is the deeper experience, one that I’d argue is richer but requires some work from the viewer or listener.
To see how drastically things have changed, check out any movie made before 1980 (the dawn of the music video era, which profoundly influenced the aim and scope of music, television and cinema projects). I remember rewatching “Airplane!” a few years ago and thinking, “Come on, when are the laughs gonna come?” It struck me as incredibly slow-moving. Of course, the movie is a comedy classic, and once I readjusted to its natural rhythm, I was able to appreciate it as I always have. But two films in particular illustrate the stark difference between how a story unfolded then vs. now. If you’re not used to the pacing, they will test your patience. And it’s a good way to gauge where you currently sit on the instant-to-delayed gratification scale.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”
Though artfully shot with breathtaking sequences of cinematography, this Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western actually moves along at a pretty good clip. There are some interesting interludes, mostly involving the intrusion of the Civil War into what’s otherwise a classically constructed Western. But in the end it comes down to the hidden loot, the dizzyingly large cemetery that contains it, and the three men who intend to claim it. This is a final showdown unlike any done in film, and it takes FOREVER. For the record, the clip I’ve included below clocks in at 6:16, which is an eternity by the standards of any film era. But a funny thing happens as the scene unfolds — our breathing slows, almost stops as the tension has us begging for something, anything to happen. And when it does, it knocks us over. It’s a remarkable thing, to be transfixed not by action, but a distinct lack of it.
“Bridge on the River Kwai”
This David Lean masterpiece takes the excruciatingly slow buildup of the Eastwood shootout and stretches it for well over two hours. I’d venture to say few viewers conditioned to today’s multiplex lineup would be able to stick with it. There are masterful acting performances, notably by Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, and a few tense moments, but most of the film consists of innocuous slice-of-life scenes held together by the story of World War II British POWs building a bridge for the Japanese while Allied forces stage a sabotage effort. That’s all that happens. For hours. Until the final few minutes, during which the ever louder whistle of the approaching Japanese train signals a frenzied descent into absolute chaos. Like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” natural breathing goes on hold as the ordered world of the prison camp that we’ve come to know— through Lean’s painstaking efforts — like a second home, abruptly collapses. And then we understand what the previous 2½ hours was all about.
It’s safe to say these movies would not be made today — at least not as major studio releases. I’m not going to get into what we’ve lost or what needs to change. You can’t re-engineer a society that’s accustomed to Googling immediate answers to any of life’s questions rather than taking a few minutes to sort them out from the recesses of the brain. I’m well aware that showcasing Youtube clips 6-7 minutes in length is even asking a lot these days. Art is crafted to meet an expectation of how it will be consumed, and a model that deliberately holds back has no place in today’s culture.