If Only We Hesitated

“Do not move, let the wind speak.” -- Ezra Pound.

It’s not so much that we live speeded-up lives, but that technology has made it impossible for us to live any other way. If the nineteenth century ended when the airplane was invented, the twentieth reached its nadir with the computer. In the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over because it took more than a week for news of peace to reach the armies. We saw 9/11 on our computers as it happened. Increasingly, the premise of film – thirty frames per second per second – is the story of our lives. Computers give us answers faster than we can come up with them. Cameras preserve memory better than we can. Instant replay permits us to see what our eyes cannot assimilate. Remote controls lower our threshold of boredom, or distraction.

Speed kills, goes the slogan, and, in fact, it does. It shortens time, our time, and our experience of it is transformed. Before a spectator can think about what he has seen in the theater, the image on the screen has changed and he must run after it to catch up. “The principles of journalistic information (newness, brevity, clarity, and, above all, lack of connection between individual items),” Walter Benjamin argues, “isolate events from the realm in which they could affect the experience of the reader.” We assimilate data and information in newspapers, but rarely understanding. (We are a nation increasingly trained to compete on Jeopardy.) We may put a book down for a moment to think about what we have read, but the only way to do that in front of a television is to turn it off.

To shorten or lengthen time changes how we live and what we understand. To sit in front of a painting for a half hour changes how we understand it. Walking permits us to see things that driving causes us to miss. If we live moment by moment (which is how the media conditions us to live), the past is lost and the future always changes.

I am reminded of an experience I had watching Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son. In the last minute of the film, the screen went dark, and we heard birds singing, the rustle of wind in the trees, the memory of the intermittent chug-chugging of a laboring locomotive fading in the distance. At the same time, in the theater, I became aware, suddenly, of a cough, a seat creaking, my own heartbeat. No one said anything, and the silence was palpable. In this silence, I thought, we know what stillness is, and what it is like if nothing follows.

These thoughts were triggered by my assessment of the best films I saw this year. I realized that the films that affected me most strongly were those that went against Hollywood in slowing time down. Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, his film about the impact of Katrina, was more than four hours long and needed that time (if not more) for us to make what happened part of us. In I Don ‘t Want to Sleep Alone, a group of young men take a half-hour to lug a mattress they have found in a dumpster across Taipei to their loft. At first, I became restless as they crossed town, but the time it took underlined what they needed (and we all need) – that we have a bed to lie in and that there be someone alongside us – and what it is like without it. It needed that half-hour to make its impact. Andrea Arnold’s Red Road is a film about a woman whose job it is to watch surveillance cameras, hour after hour, day after day. And yet drama rises out of this most tedious of jobs, as drama rises out of each of our lives, if we but slow down to see it.

Miles Davis once advised musicians “not to play all the notes you could play, but to wait, hesitate, let space become part of the configuration.” He was leading us back to what we have lost, what we might gain, if we only hesitated, waited.

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Volume 3, Issue 2, Posted 1:01 PM, 01.18.07