Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fast Entertainment

N interesting thought struck me today. I'm trying to remember where I read it now -- it might have been C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, or it may have been somewhere entirely different -- but the author was making the logical suggestion that the human sex drive has grown progressively stronger thanks to simple genetics. The argument goes that, over generations, people with a strong desire to have sex as often as possible are much more likely to pass on their genetic traits than those who are indifferent to or repulsed by sexual intercourse. (This might also explain why the upcoming generation seems drenched in sex, and why the trend only seems to indicate more of the same in generations to come -- but, as always, I digress.)

Anyway, I began thinking about the basic concept of specific qualities magnifying hugely over time, but with regard to another phenomenon entirely -- American feature films.

If you've watched any movies made in the U.S. prior to about 1980, you know that the structure and pace of mainstream movies used to be very different. Films from an earlier era, for the most part, take their time getting to the point. There may be a great deal of suspense, there may be a lot of things going on at once, but there's also a certain amount of downtime built into most of these films. Directors of this era seemed to want to give the audience a chance to pause and reflect, to enjoy the beautiful cinematography, maybe to appreciate a song or two. The journey was important.

I can guess at what's changed, and it's not solely modern audiences' tastes. I can imagine that, back in 1972 or so, some teenage kid at the matinee was wiggling around in his seat, thinking, "This is SO boring. I could make a much better movie." And his fertile, quick-moving mind was instantly a million miles away, blasting at aliens or forging an enchanted sword or swinging from webs above the streets of New York City. In other words, doing the kind of thing he usually got in trouble for doing in class -- daydreaming, because he had little or no tolerance for boredom. And that same kid, with his intolerance for boredom, his imaginative thinking, and his ability to hyperfocus, grew up to direct feature films.

Now I'm not suggesting that every director in Hollywood has ADHD. But certainly at least some must -- if for no other reason than that the filmmaking business tends to draw creative talents like moths to a flame, and people with ADHD seem to possess more than the average share of creativity. In that sense it's likely to be a self-selecting process. And I believe that as these young creative talents were unleashed on Hollywood, they began radically changing how films were made. They sped things up, adding quick cuts, more action, more believable special effects and more suspense, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats -- and audience reaction to this new, intense filmmaking style was extremely positive. And so more high-intensity movies got made, and made gobs of money, creating a feedback loop of sorts.

We don't often consider just how much moviemaking has changed since its inception. But Captain Midnight and I have sometimes said that if we were to travel back in time, select at random an ardent film buff from the early 20th century and take him to a modern sci-fi or suspense film, the poor schmo might suffer a heart attack in the theater. There's been a huge shift to movies that are bigger, brasher and faster than life, and ever more intense.

A great example is the directorial career of Steven Spielberg, whose filmmaking style has changed a great deal over the years. His earlier films like Close Encounters and E.T. were relatively slow-paced, compared to the frenetic style of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. When it was first released in 1984, this movie contained so much over-the-top action and gore that it prompted the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating. I remember people talking about Temple of Doom when it first came out, about its relentless intensity and how they felt they hardly had time to catch their breath before they were hit with the next big thing. But I wonder how the intensity of Temple of Doom, 25+ years on, would stack up against current films.

I'm not suggesting that the era of the slow, introspective film is over, though I do wonder whether these films will become more and more a niche market as audiences are trained to expect films with big-boom. But I wouldn't be too quick to despair. The new filmmaking style has helped create some fantastic, highly worthy movies. Further, just because you've been raised on big-boom doesn't mean you can't come to appreciate other filmmaking styles. Miss V, who has very little tolerance for boredom, loves and appreciates a number of classic films -- and current technology makes it possible to introduce new filmgoers to a huge catalog of stories, both old and new. Overall, it's a great time to be a movie buff.

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