The pace in movies is like the old analogy of the frog sitting in a pan of water. The first time I saw it was in Bob Roberts about twenty years ago, but I’ve seen it a dozen times since, recycled whenever someone wants to make a point about gradual change.
If you drop the frog in boiling water, the frog gets understandably very upset. It tries to jump out of the water. But if you put the frog in the water at room temperature, and then slowly increase the temperature, the frog boils alive, oblivious.
I’ve never tried that, and I don’t know why anyone would. If you’re going to eat the frog, for crying out loud give it a quick killin’ first. And if you’re not going to eat it, then quit screwing around with it and let it go. Who boils a frog for the hell of it?
All of this occurred to me last night while I decided that a fun thing to do would be to get on Netflix and make it show me an episode of the old Doctor Who from the seventies, with Tom Baker – the tall, frizzy-haired, bug-eyed guy. It occurred to me while I was watching the show because there was plenty of time to think.
I remember the show only vaguely; it was on PBS and not very often. Also, it was a bit over my head, and anyway, you couldn’t record things very easily back then. You had to be sitting there and watching them when they came on, run into the bathroom or kitchen during commercials.
Me and the entire population of the U.K. love the new version of Doctor Who. In London they play it on the side of a building like it’s a college football game or something, and I’m pretty sure the last guy to play the Doctor got to meet the Queen.
You don’t have to know anything about the show, I’ll just tell you – the episode I watched from the seventies last night was a two-hour special, and not very much happened. Not very much at all.
A couple of mush-mouthed lighthouse watchmen took up the first fifteen minutes or so, their accents so thick I tried to turn on subtitles. Then the Doctor showed up with his lady friend, and they walked around the fog asking questions for about an hour. Once in a while, a glowing ball outside would float around for a minute, and they’d all spend a very long time asking each other what it might be.
I didn’t catch the end. That’s the kind of thing I’m going to have to watch in pieces.
They had a different idea about exciting back then. Not a lot to work with in terms of visual effects. Just seeing everyone walk around on a dark set, and then occasionally seeing what looked like a black velvet oil painting of a lighthouse at night, with a light bulb sticking through it at the top, a sound like a fog horn – that was enough.
These days the Doctor is flamboyant and full of energy. Baker’s Doctor keeps his hands in his pockets a lot, and seldom smiles, and appears decidedly stoned. Not a big shock, but a far cry from today’s version, who might be on something, but certainly not marijuana.
There was a Robert Redford movie from about 1974 called Three Days of the Condor. Now, since it’s based on a novel entitled Seven Days of the Condor, we might guess that the idea was, let’s pick up the pace on this thing. And it was in fact billed as a thriller at the time.
Go on back and try watching it now. I mean, Robert Redford’s dreamy, sure, I get that. But it’s like just seeing people on the screen doing something – anything – that was exciting at the time. Those people aren’t really here and they aren’t really doing that.
That was enough.
When is the last time you watched the car chase scene from Chinatown? It might be blasphemy, but it seems like a bit of a snooze to me. That’s because Die Hard was like a bit of free crack the movie industry gave me back in the day. Now it takes a lot of stuff blowing up to excite me.
Die Hard was really the first wall-to-wall action flick I can think of, and I’ve been spoiled by modern editing and camera work ever since. It’s not enough that some guys are trying to kill the protagonist. I need an army of guys trying to kill him, and it has to be because he’s trying to stop them from blowing up something ginormous, and I’d prefer it if he stopped them by blowing up several other smaller things, and then by blowing up the ginormous thing anyway.
I’ve seen practically every major landmark you can think of explode in a mushroom cloud of fire and two-by-fours, just as a comically fit action star dives out of it. I don’t know what you have to do to excite me now, but I just got out of Inception the other day – which by everyone’s account is action-packed throughout – and I though, eh.
Just like every other aspect of modern life, technology is speeding up our fiction, too. Look at James Patterson and his two hundred-chaptered books. Short chapters make a novel fly along, let’s get this thing moving.
As a writer attending seminars and conferences, I hear the same piece of advice all over the place. These days, you get three sentences to hook your reader, unless they’ve already set out to buy your book. They have to pick it up, read for ten seconds, and be immediately engaged, or into the pile you go.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing – just art imitating life. Impulse buys make the world go around.
But I sort of envy the gang from the seventies, sitting around with their lava lamps and elaborate collars, enthralled by actors in costumes, putting on stage plays in a box.
Not because I wasn’t bored last night, watching the shows they watched back then, just because I wish that I could slow down, too.