(On the advice of one of my readers, and just for the hell of it, right, I’m going to mess with the established Cracked/Gawker media bullet-point format and write an essay. Since I’m too lazy to properly draft it and find appropriate pictures, I’ll just shoehorn in whatever images I’ve found this week, and we’ll see if it holds together).
In 1968 my paternal grandfather went to the Edinburgh Odeon to see Tony Richardson’s The Charge Of The Light Brigade, expecting it to be a documentary-style film or perhaps a faithful reconstruction. This was an era when people still made documentary-style films that were intended to inform the public about things like Asbestos and the Vietnam War and whatever else they had in 1968. Rationing? I’m not good at history. By all accounts my grandfather didn’t like it much, and his chief complaint was the sheer noise of the performance. 1968 was the year Dolby started pushing the Type B system, after which the world was never really the same.
These days my father makes the same complaints. The last movie we went to see together was 2008’s The Dark Knight, and I remember one particular scene where a trailer truck is flipped onto its back and lands with an incredible noise on the street. I thought my father was going to tear the armrests off his chair.
And, in fact, sensitivity to noise is just one of those things that happens to you – I fully expect, when I take my son to see Dredd 3D XV – Dredd Dispenses A Parking Ticket With His Fists (sons and Dredd 3D sequels are significant parts of my ideal future) I’ll spend most of the flying-car ride home bitching about how the Dolby made my cybernetic lungs twitch. And so the wheel turns. Plus ca change.
I include that little segment to illustrate an important point : in every generation, people complain that movies are becoming too loud. There are two answers to this, and one of them is shut up, no they aren’t. The other is that nostalgia is heroin for old people and things were never quite as good as they were. Regardless of that, it could be said that the quiet moments are often neglected in modern films. This is not – I repeat, not – a consequence of changing tastes in the public. People like much the same thing they’ve always liked : they want a heroic plot, they want violence, and they want tits and ass.
In fact, people have liked what they’ve liked since Euripides put enough sex and death in my tragedies to ensure a comfortable profit margin. If anything has changed, it’s the business. Studio executives live in fear of audience’s waning attention spans for reasons I’ve never been able to pin down. Are our attention spans waning? In a pig’s arse they are. The attention and the fear of it being lost form a mutual feedback loop – if you make a film with a slower pace that’s nevertheless sufficiently interesting, people will hang on. If you create a shorter, crappier film attention spans will be commensurately reduced. The only cause of shorter attention spans is shittier media.
So it’s studio executives who are hamstringing directors with clauses in their contracts like “minimum number of fistfights per hour” or “least number of explosions expected in a summer blockbuster”. For some hacks (Michael Bay) this isn’t a problem. We don’t expect to see a director’s cut of Transformers any time soon. Ask yourself this, though: do many of the classic movies seem slow-paced in comparison to modern films, in which something happens every three minutes?
I was thinking about this because I’ve recently had cause to watch two of the greatest movies of the sixties: 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia and 1968’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey. Both are obviously classics in every sense of the word : gripping, majestic, magisterial, gravid and complex. They are both, in every sense of that over-used word, epic movies. And nearly every one of my peers considers them a boring movie. They are, in short, slow-paced and, unless you’re prepared to wait for something to happen, you won’t get far. Trying to explain this to someone recently, I finally clarified the difference between “gripping” and “being gripped”. Terminator is a gripping film. Lawrence of Arabia is a film you can be gripped by.
The distinction is one of character- a gripping film will use steam, smoke, dramatic music and gunfire to arrest your attention and keep you interested. That is a gripping film, and there are many great and wonderful masterpieces of gripping film. A film you can be gripped by is a film that sets up its characters, plot, and scenario with the finesse to maintain your interest despite very little happening. If you want the perfect example of this, the scene in 2001 where the astronauts go about their daily routines to the strains of Khatchaturian’s Gayne Ballet Suite (Adagio) is a scene that you are gripped by. Nothing is happening. Yet you are drawn in.
The difference, if it can be quantified, is the same thing music masters tell their pupils : don’t play the notes. Play the spaces between the notes. Play the pauses, because the pauses make the music. If you compress Beethoven’s Third into two minutes, it makes a really great dance track, but a terrible symphony piece. It is the spaces that make the music.
If I can approach my point for my remaining readers who haven’t wandered off, it is the quiet moments that give the loud moments their intensity. The difference in mastery between Alien and Prometheus, to use two Ridley Scott films, is down to two things, and one of them is Damon Lindelof (damn you). The other is a relative absence of dead time in the latter. In Alien we have the establishing shots, as the camera travels through the spaceship Nostromo to end up in the stasis rooms where the crew sleeps. This scene is of paramount importance because it defines the parameters of the scenery, so to speak. We know there’s a spaceship and a crew. We know there will be an alien later. And now we know where all of this will happen. Prometheus, by contrast, has some very important establishing scenes where the android David-8 (Michael Fassbender at his creepy best) takes care of the sleeping ship and the crew, plays basketball and watches (of all things) Lawrence of Arabia. This is the closest we get to mood setting in this film, and already plot threads are being introduced for little apparent reason. The failure of Prometheus is a failure to allow a movie to breathe, or to respect the pauses in the music. Prometheus fails because it is so desperate to leap into the plot that it skips over the important spaces.
Life, in essence, is made up of moments, and most of those moments are unexciting. The intensity of life’s bright moments is catalyzed by the dull moments that surround them. They are given their intensity by contrast. The intense battle sequences of Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator or Apocalypse Now , the creeping evil of Alien, Jaws or 2001, and the sweeping romantic majesty of such films as Out of Africa, The English Patient or Doctor Zhivago are as a direct consequence of the bits where nothing much happens.
If I can give one example of this, it would be from Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence and his Bedouin guide are drinking from a well in the middle of the desert. A figure approaches through the mirage on the back of a camel, taking forever to approach. We, the audience, strain forward to see the figure. Is it a friend or an enemy? The moments tick by. Sherif Ali finally rides up and, without much introduction, shoots Lawrence’s Bedouin guide for drinking from his private well. This scene, which lasts for only a couple of minutes, crystallizes the intense danger Lawrence is in: now alone in the desert, many miles from western civilization, he has to fend for himself and contend with men like Sherif Ali, who obey a different code of conduct. If anything, it underlines how far Lawrence is from green old England, where men do not get shot for drinking from wells. It also underlines how slow confrontation can be in deserts of that size and how swift justice is in arriving. If anything, this quiet moment creates the tone and theme of the film.
So here’s to the quiet moments and how they effect the film around them. If I can return to my opening comments about loud movies and fathers, and to The Dark Knight in particular, I will just say this: it was the moment of silence before the crash that made my father grip the arm rests. It was the space in between the noises that made the noises all the more intense.