BY PETER RAINER
I recently attended a revival of The Best Years of Our Lives, one of my favorite films, and was struck again by the sequence in which the double amputee, played by Harold Russell, is helped to bed by his father. The soldier’s prosthetic arms are methodically removed and set aside, a cigarette is lit and inserted in his mouth for a few deep drags, and then, as he lies on his back, the scene closes on his defiantly mournful face.
Hardly a word is spoken and the sequence plays out in real time. The director, William Wyler, understood how the slowness of this passage was essential to its gravity. If he had speeded things up, the effect would have been as jarring as a screech in a monastery.
Throughout The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler is equally unhurried by stylistic expediency. He respects the emotional resonance of Robert Sherwood’s screenplay far too much to muck around with cinema pyrotechnics.
The situation is very different with today’s filmmakers, especially the youngish set reared on MTV and video games. These directors have lost sight of one of the prime pleasures of moviegoing: Our delight in the unhurried unfolding of human experience. In our brave new whirligig world, we want it all and we want it now.
Faster and choppier is the reigning aesthetic in Hollywood, just as it is in the world of TV commercials. It’s all about the “sell.” It’s not just the action movies that wear me down; even the comedies are shot and edited as if they were trailers. The Michael Bay-Tony Scott school of filmmaking, with its never-ending barrage of image clusters, isn’t all that far removed from the way a movie like Wedding Crashers is shot.
These lickety-split brigadiers are primarily in the business of keeping us from being bored. Of course, the don’t-bore-me approach is often boring—or exhausting, which is essentially the same thing.
I came of age as a moviegoer in the ’60s, not a terribly exciting decade for filmmaking (although some of Hollywood’s most audacious movies, like The Manchurian Candidate, Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, are from that era). The ’70s introduced a more laid-back, free-form approach to directing (and subject matter) that by now has largely evaporated. Instead, the quick fix is in.
The slow and stately studio pictures from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age once seemed ossified to me, but you know what? Some of them look awfully good now. And the reason has a lot to do with the measured storytelling and the careful, unobtrusive ways in which those stories were told. In the best films of Wyler or John Huston or John Ford (to pick three) or even in the work of many lesser directors, you really experience the grain of time’s passage.
You also have ample time to experience a beautifully composed image. The startling vistas in Ford’s Westerns, so integral to their poetic spirit, can only be appreciated if they are held on-screen long enough to cast their spell.
Many of the great European and Asian directors of the past had a marvelously expansive sense of time. The lyricism of Jean Renoir’s movies, or Max Ophüls’, had everything to do with the supreme gracefulness with which their stories unfolded. The finest films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu had the density and richness, the moment-to-moment meditativeness, of a great novel.
Sadly, the pace of our movies has increased so much that it is no longer possible for many filmgoers to look at these masterpieces without reaching for the imaginary fast forward button. In the moviegoing world, slow and steady has become almost as antiquated as black and white.
The freneticism of modern movies, especially American movies, didn’t just happen overnight. It’s an accelerating trend that can be blamed on the freneticism of modern life and our instant fix culture.
But don’t we deserve more? The directors who ping us with visuals are often attempting to hide the fact that, if they turned down the heat, there’d be no story to tell—nothing to care about. And when there is something to care about, they don’t trust us to discover it for ourselves. How can we? Everything is whizzing by too fast.
I would argue that there is a decline in visual beauty in our films that is directly related to the new-style, rapid-fire stylistics. An image—and consequently, a mood—is not allowed to linger. (John Ford would have a tough time of it now.) Even directors once renowned for the slow-burn expressiveness of their imagery, like Martin Scorsese, have long ago joined the hit parade. Compare the sinuosity of Taxi Driver to the flip-book mayhem of The Departed.
Not every director chooses to work this way. There is a scene in Stephen Frears’ The Queen that stays with me. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II is alone in the countryside of the royal estate when, suddenly, a magnificent stag who is being hunted rears up in the near distance. “Oh, you are a beauty,” she gasps, and in that moment all that she is, all that she fears and holds sacred, breaks through.
The slow sweep of that sequence is indelible because Frears allows us to participate in the discovery. He takes his time and so the scene is timeless.
Peter Rainer is the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor.