more on speed

A bit of a follow-up to this post, and to brutus’s comment on it (which you should read) as well: My friend Matt Frost commented that Jeff Guo is the “bizarro Alan Jacobs,” which is true in a way. Guo clearly thinks that his problem is that there’s not enough new content and he can’t consume it fast enough, whereas I have argued on many occasions for slower reading, slower thinking, re-reading and re-viewing….

And yet. I’ve watched movies the way Guo watches them, too; in fact, I’ve done it many times. And I’ve read books — even novels — in a similar way, skimming large chunks. So I’m anything but a stranger to the impulse Guo has elevated to a principle. But here’s the thing: Whenever we do that we’re thereby demonstrating a fundamental lack of respect for the work we’re skimming. We are refusing to allow it the kind and amount of attention it requests. So if — to take an example from my previous post — you watch Into Great Silence at double speed you’re refusing the principle on which that film is built. When you decide to read Infinite Jest but skip all the conversations between Marathe and Steeply because you find them boring you’re refusing the fundamental logic of the book, which, among other things, offers a profound meditation on boredom and its ever-ramifying effects on our experiences.

I think we do this kind of thing when we don’t really want to read or view, but to have read and have viewed — when more than watching Into Great Silence or reading Infinite Jest we want to be able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen Into Great Silence and ”Sure, I’ve read Infinite Jest.” It’s a matter of doing just enough that we can convince ourselves that we’re not lying when we say that. But you know, Wikipedia + lying is a lot easier. Just saying.

Aside from any actual dishonesty, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with viewing or reading on speed. But it’s important to know what you’re doing — and what you’re not doing: what impulses you’re obeying and what possibilities you’re refusing. Frank Kermode, in a brilliant reflection that I quote here, speaks of a threefold aesthetic and critical sequence: submission, recovery, comment. But if you won’t submit to the logic and imagination of the work in question, there’ll be nothing to recover from, and you’ll have no worthwhile comment to make.

All of which may prompt us to think about how much it matters in any given case, which will be determined by the purpose and quality of the work in question. Scrub through all of The Hangover you want, watch the funny parts several times, whatever. It doesn’t matter. But if you’re watching Mulholland Drive (one of Guo’s favorite movies, he says) and you’re refusing the complex and sophisticated art that went into its pacing, well, it matters a little more. And if you’re scrubbing your way through ambitious and comprehensively imagined works of art, then you really ought to rethink your life choices.

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.

imagining Thomas More (or not)

The good folks over at First Things are unhappy with the treatment of Thomas More in Wolf Hall, the TV series based on Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same title: here is George Weigel’s response, and here is Mark Movsesian’s. I offered some thoughts on related issues when I reviewed Mantel’s novel five years ago for Books and Culture:

Much of the material culture of the past can be known. When Cromwell describes for the women of his household the clothing of Anne Boleyn — the fabric of her gown, the cut of her headdress — we believe that indeed it was so. If Mantel did not get these details right, she could have and should have. But people’s inner lives are always constructed in our imaginations, and this is true whether they are our contemporaries or figures from the distant past. The story of the courtier who finds Cromwell weeping, and to whom Cromwell expresses his fear that he will fall with Wolsey, was not invented by Mantel: it’s part of the historical record. Mantel’s contribution is the notion that Cromwell lied about his tears and was really thinking of his beloved dead. And this could have been the case; we cannot know. But that’s not because Cromwell lived half a millennium ago. When Lord Chancellor More adds to the charges against Wolsey one that Cromwell knows to have been fabricated, Cromwell tries to imagine what went through More’s mind when he made that claim — but he cannot do it; More lies always beyond the reach of his imagination, even though the two men are in frequent contact.

Such deep meditations on interior lives are, we have often been told, the fruit of the Reformation. It was Luther and his heirs who taught us to look within and see the baseness there, to be clear-eyed and unwavering in discerning our sin nature, so that we can turn to God and plead only his mercy: “We do earnestly repent, and be heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burthen of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake forgive us all that is past” — so says the General Confession written by Cromwell’s contemporary Thomas Cranmer. And was not Cromwell the effectual architect of the English Reformation, the man whose policies made the emergence of the Church of England possible?

The architect, yes; but — again, this is the conventional narrative — not out of conviction, rather out of mere obedience to King Henry’s wish to be freed from the authority of Rome. But, again, who really knows what Cromwell’s thoughts on such matters were? The Cromwell conjured by Mantel is deeply drawn to Tyndale’s Bible and Tyndale’s Lutheran theology — on the deaths of his wife and daughters, he reaches there for comfort rather than to the Catholic piety of his wife, to which he also publicly assents — but “to be drawn to” is not “to be committed to.” Cromwell’s religious convictions are elusive to us, but Mantel would have us see that they were elusive even to himself. (The same can be said for many of us.) What this Cromwell clearly does believe is that More’s theological and ecclesiastical certainties, and the fierce campaign against heresy that they engendered, are bad policy and immoral besides. He — he who is kind even to dogs and cats — flinches at More’s cruelties, and sympathizes with the Protestants simply because they are hunted down and persecuted. When he rises to be Henry’s chief minister, he becomes a remorseless enemy of the Church’s power not because he hates the Church but because he sees how thoroughly power corrupts, and wants to limit it wherever he can.

Again, in all these ways Mantel’s Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.

What George Weigel, in the first FT piece I linked to above, calls “upmarket anti-Catholicism” is, in my view, simply a failure of historical imagination. Hilary Mantel could only present an admirable Thomas Cromwell by assuming, or pretending, that he’s a lot like people in her social circle: tolerant, skeptical, indulgently affectionate towards children, fond of animals, shy of violence — a typical 21st-century educated Londoner who was inexplicably born half a millennium too early. Having created Cromwell in her own image, Mantel then makes him the proxy for her own inability to make sense of someone like Thomas More.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I seriously doubt that Peter Ackroyd’s beliefs are any closer to Thomas More’s than Hilary Mantel’s are, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing a deep and sensitive understanding of the man in his brilliant biography. Mantel simply shirked the hard labor of trying to understand people from the distant past, and because her readers, by and large, and the people who made Wolf Hall into a television series, aren’t interested in that labor either, we get the cardboard caricature of More that Weigel and Movsesian rightly protest.

TV, still

George W. S. Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context” was a really famous essay at one time, and thought to be precisely diagnostic of a culture shaped and sustained by television, but no one talks about it much anymore because we feel that the internet is the thing now and TV (while still powerful) secondary and dependent on online conversation to sustain it.

But maybe just because of the internet, and before it, for a few years, personal computers, TV is more important than ever. In many countries people are watching more of it than ever — maybe it has new sources of impetus, new energies feeding its energies. The internet is the child of the PC which is the child of television. The PC took hold in large part because it had a monitor and we had already grown accustomed to receiving both education and entertainment via CRT. Perhaps until the internet of things reaches its full maturity we’re all still really watching TV, just with a keyboard attached. That is, maybe the interactive element (the keyboard, or for that matter voice recognition) isn’t as important as the monitor that occupies our eyes. In that case maybe Trow’s essay is diagnostic of a world that succeeded the one he wrote about.

A small thought experiment: What if the PC had been invented before the television? Or no one had thought to use a CRT as a device by which we might “monitor” — the noun has a verb in it — what the computer is doing? Maybe then using a computer would be more like writing a letter and receiving one in return, or using a Ouija board, or sending and receiving telegraphs at the Western Union office. If any of those things had happened, how would we understand our experiences with computers? And what would be our ruling metaphors for mind and thought?

how I horrified Ross Douthat

It was easy. I just confessed that I don’t watch Breaking Bad.

Or maybe the crazy thing is that I don’t watch the show but still read about it, I’m not sure — Ross seemed pretty distraught and I didn’t want to insist on clarification.

But given some of the feedback I’ve received, maybe I should clarify my own position. First of all, an important fact I didn’t mention in my previous post: until I moved to Texas a couple of months ago, I hadn’t had cable TV for nearly a decade. So for much of that time my access to our era’s most-celebrated TV shows (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, etc.) was iffy: only some were available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and intermittently, and at variable prices. But I could have found a way, sure: so why didn’t I?

The answer is very simple: often I would think to myself, Do I want to start watching Show X? — and then my answer would be, No, I think I’d rather read. That’s all. That’s the full explanation. When faced with a choice between watching a TV show or a movie and reading a book or even the articles in my Instapaper queue, I almost always end up choosing to read because, as I noted in my previous post, reading is just what I do.

But I’m not at all sure that my choice is always the best one. The more I learn about Breaking Bad the more I wish I had picked it up somewhere along the way, early enough that I wouldn’t have a great deal of laborious catching-up to do. (And before I read so much about it.)  But that ship has sailed, I think.

I bring all this up because I think it’s worth noting that over time we all develop what I might call a default medium — that is, when looking for entertainment, each of us tends to gravitate towards one medium or medium-plus-genre as the first choice. (So not just “reading” but “mystery novels” or “newspaper journalism”; not just “TV” but “nature documentaries” or “dramatic series” or “sitcoms.”) Defaults can be overridden, of course, but they can be strong, and I suspect they get stronger with time.

the most important Breaking Bad post of all

As the series cranks up the tension and suspense towards what will no doubt be a compelling ending, I can’t help joining in the speculation — which of course feels to me less like speculation than intuition. I’m quite confident in my ability to predict what we’re going to see at the beginning of the next episode, when the outcome of the desert shootout will be revealed. If you want, I can tell you the moment I identify as the tipping point for Walter White — the moment after which we shouldn’t have been able to root for him any more — and I can offer a pretty plausible account of the widespread hostility towards Skyler, along with my own views about whether she is or is not the Lady Macbeth of Albuquerque. I have a pretty solid theory about the whole Star Trek scene from earlier this season, in both its original version and its animated copy. I could make for you a compelling Breaking Bad color wheel. Come on, fellow fanatics, let’s talk.

Oh, one more thing: It doesn’t matter that I’ve never seen the show, does it?

Seriously, I haven’t seen a minute of it. I haven’t even watched YouTube clips. However, I’ve read countless tweets and blog posts, starting about three years ago, so I’ve been following the show in something like real time. It’s been fun and instructive. I read James Meek’s superb essay on seasons 1–4, and this thoughtful reflection by A. O. Scott. And this one by Scott Meslow. And a bunch of stuff on Grantland, like this. Really good writing, for the most part.

And yet none of it has made me want to watch the show. I’ve never even considered watching it. Maybe if someone made a two-hour condensation of the whole series up to the last season, the way ABC did for Lost, I would … Nah. Who am I kidding? I don’t have the time, or, rather, I’d prefer to spend the time I have in other ways, probably by reading books.

The big, sprawling multi-season dramatic series that have received the greatest commendation in recent years — from The Sopranos to The Wire to Deadwood to Mad Men to Breaking Bad — have never seemed to me to be worth the enormous investment of time they require. The one that I followed the most closely, The Wire, is really fantastic — but I have to say, if a genie emerged from the lamp and told me that I could have all the hours spent watching The Wire back, and my memories of the show completely erased, as long as I used that time to read books, I would certainly take that deal.

That’s most emphatically not because I think written narrative intrinsically superior to filmed narrative. I don’t. It’s just that reading is the thing I do. Watching TV and movies, not so much. I’m far more likely to read about a TV show than to watch one; Breaking Bad is just the most recent illustration of than tendency. So sue me.

Oh, and in the end, Skyler is going to be the pivot on which the whole denouement turns. I could give you the details, but really, you should prefer to be surprised.

another kind of scanning

There’s a wonderful article in the new Atlantic by Mark Bowden called “The Hardest Job in Football.” That hardest job is being the director of a television broadcast of a game. Bowden focuses on a man named Bob Fishman, whom he believes to be the best at this job, as Fishman sits in a control room before a bank of TV screens. Each screen shows what one of the many cameras scattered around the stadium is seeing, and Fishman’s job during the game is to scan that bank of screens and decide what the guy watching the game at home on his TV should be seeing at any given moment. It’s fascinating to think what cognitive skills make someone good at this. You have to be able to take in the import of an image in a millisecond — a moving image! — and, in a few milliseconds more, evaluate it in relation to all the other images you’re viewing. But can only do this well not by thinking of the intrinsic visual interest of a particular image, but rather by having in mind a narrative structure, a sense of what the game is about — and not just what it’s about in some general sense, but what it’s about at this particular moment. And that will vary according to whether a team is ahead or behind; whether they are deep in their own territory or deep in the opponents’; whether it’s near the beginning or the end of the game; even what stories have been in the news leading up to the game. The director’s narrative sense, then, needs to govern his visual sense. Fascinating stuff.