I went on a meditation retreat this past weekend: Three days (plus change) of unplugged time out from everything: Trump, Twitter, must-see movies and TV, Trump, deadlines and breaking news and to-do lists, the hectoring roar of our culture that comes blaring out every time I pick up my phone. Traffic jams. Trump. It was quiet. It was good.
I’ve written every so often in this space about the value to be found in slowing it down, and I do so again now if only because our culture and the ways in which we inhale it seem to increase in pace and tempo with each passing day. It has to if we’re to process all the stuff shoved at us: the programs on every TV in every restaurant, waiting room, and gas station; the sinkhole churn of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat; the ads and clickbait in each corner of our electronic reality; the notifications pinging on your phone alerting you to look! Right now! Or you’ll miss this, and this, and this!
Not only has the amount of information hammering at us spiked, but the speed of dissemination within each digital blurt has ramped up. It’s hard to find data on the number of shots and cuts within a given movie, let alone how that might have changed over time, but the dominance of CGI-heavy comic book action cinema and other franchise properties has without question led to a more frenzied film experience, one that has carried over to television and the Internet. (There’s one statistic that shows how the average shot-length in the “Iron Man” series has shrunk from 3½ seconds to less than 2½ in a mere five years.)
Watching any movie or TV show from earlier than the 1980s with anyone born after 1990 is a grinding, grueling experience: The pace is so slothful compared to what they’re regularly served that you can almost hear their skin twitch from the need to goose things along, see their hands yearn for their iPhones so they can divert themselves with nano-amusement.
Who has the patience for a two-hour movie or even a 30-minute TV show? Not anyone under the age of 18, for whom YouTube is the primary portal through which their world comes streaming, good or bad, enriching or PewDiePie. For anyone younger, under the age of 10, YouTube is it — the unfiltered media chum bucket with which they’re growing up, just as the three-channel wasteland (plus Willie Whistle on UHF) was the electronic playground for those of us over 50. I know college students, old souls at 20, who freak out over the video slurry their younger brothers and sisters watch every day, all day.
But even they fall prey to one side effect of our rocketing modern infospew — the slow disappearance of cultural memory. I always used to have a handful of students in the classes I teach who were classic movie junkies and could name-check Bogart and Jimmy Stewart and both Hepburns. The other week, two confessed they had no idea Marilyn Monroe was a movie actress. They knew her only as some passing pop-culture referent — a sound-clip of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” a jpeg of the subway-grate photo, a hyperlink to somewhere else, somewhere more interesting. These were smart kids too busy struggling to keep their heads above the water of Now to ever take time to investigate any of the Thens.
There are exceptions, of course, but this is the new norm. We have more storage on our devices and faster pipelines to fill it, but the internal bandwidth we possess to take in all that information hasn’t increased. We’re just chopping it into smaller and smaller pieces so we can cram in the latest Outrage of the Day. Because if you’re not up on that, how can you function in this society?
For me, the retreat was a reminder that it’s necessary, occasionally or often, to say the hell with all that. You know what happens when you unplug the screens for 3½ days? Of course you do. Time slows down. It takes a while but your metabolism relaxes to an amble. You see more things, and you see more deeply into them. Mondays and responsibilities eventually yank you back into the slipstream, but it’s good to remind yourself — to train yourself — to shift down and out of our 200-Mbps Babel.
If nothing else, it’s a fresh reminder that time is relative, that humans process it differently from hummingbirds, and that one generation of humans often experiences it differently from another. Also, that it can be reverse-engineered and played with, tweaked until the focus shifts and broadens. You can do that with meditation or helping others or walks in the woods or time with a dog. Plenty of you already do. And you doubtless know what I’m talking about.
As a movie critic by profession, I would like to offer a modest training routine: Try some Slow Cinema. The kind of artful dodge you may usually avoid because you just know nothing’s going to happen and you’ll end up chewing your arm off in frustration. This time give into it. Log out of everything; toss away all expectations. Watch some filmed something that moves at the speed of life.
Try one of Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests”: Four-minute close-ups of famous and not-so-famous New Yorkers that urge you to consider the human face and its subterfuges at length. (A lot of them are on, um . . . uh . . . all right, they’re on YouTube. So is Warhol’s “Empire,” his eight-hour single shot of the Empire State Building from dusk to dawn. Have at it, kids.)
You could dial up the acknowledged classics of Slow Cinema: Tarkovsky’s 1971 existential sci-fi “Solaris” (not the George Clooney remake, please) or Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels” (1975), which is 201 minutes of one woman’s daily routine, minutely observed. You could spend time with the entire rapturously humane work of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu: Start with “Tokyo Story” (1953) or — my favorite — “Late Spring” (1949), a gentle heartbreaker about a widower and his daughter. Not much happens in these movies, yet, believe me, everything happens.
“Into Great Silence” (2005) is a documentary about Carthusian monks that’s as silent as the monks; it’s the next best thing to a meditation retreat. “Le Quattro Volte” (2010) finds the cosmos in four seasons of a small Italian village; it creeps along at the pace of the snails that cover one character’s kitchen table. Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse” (“The Beautiful Troublemaker,” 1991) is 238 heady minutes of aged Michel Piccoli painting ageless Emmanuelle Béart, brush stroke by brush stroke.
You’ll find a lot of these on Amazon Prime or Kanopy. You’ll be hard pressed to find my favorite downshifting movie, Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” (2002), anywhere except (cough) on a certain popular video platform where unauthorized movie streams sometimes pop up. When I say this plotless epic about Matt Damon and Casey Affleck getting lost in the desert is like watching paint dry, I mean it as a compliment. “Gerry” plays like a lost Samuel Beckett koan, and allowing your heart rate to slow until the movie comes into focus — until you can breathe at its pace and the nothing that’s happening seems like an oasis in a storm — might be what you need.
Think on this: In a culture that demands we be entertained around the clock, when was the last time you dared yourself to experience boredom?
Or you might be bored to tears. But think on this: In a culture that demands we be entertained around the clock, when was the last time you dared yourself to experience boredom? To explore it, listen to it, see what it’s telling you? You might even find things there you’ve forgotten about — things you’ll only truly see once all the screens are off.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.