Cameras roll, the platform shakes and Sharon Stone — her famous face all but obscured inside a black diving helmet — widens her eyes in a simulacrum of fear. Her director, Barry Levinson, is speaking to her in real time through a hidden earpiece: ”Fireball is coming up, coming up . . . coming straight toward you . . . wham! In your face!” She grimaces appropriately as a beam of yellow light flares from somewhere beneath her right foot. One shot completed.
She is sitting with Dustin Hoffman to her left and Samuel L. Jackson to her right, all crushed inside a flimsy plastic bubble elevated high off the floor of a Warner Brothers production set in an old Navy base in Northern California. When the movie, ”Sphere,” is finished, and the green-screen background is digitally replaced with computer-processed rushing water, the bubble will pass convincingly for a miniature submarine. A submarine in a hurry, you can tell: on a panel behind the actors, radiant red numerals flash the passing time in tenths of a second. (Tenths are also the new standard for that when-all-else-fails mechanism of suspense, the bomb with its own handy clock display. This summer ”Men in Black” flashed an end-of-the-world countdown in hundredths of a second, a blur of numerals, with tongue in cheek, presumably.)
The crew sets up again for the shot. ”We’ll go tumble, tumble, tumble, tumble; then suddenly here goes the fireball,” says Levinson. An assistant, counting, notes, ”That’s four tumbles.” One of the two active cameras is mounted on gimbals, so it can spin through 360 degrees, and on rails, so it can rush toward the minisub, creating the illusion of motion at implausibly high speed. Only the most cynical of viewers will consider that a submarine so bulbous and unstreamlined could never cut through the water this fast. ”Stand by for the shaking — hold on, everybody,” the director shouts, and the actors brace their gloved hands and black boots inside the bubble. They speak their lines all together: ”We’re going into it!” ”Pull up, pull up, pull up!” Levinson watches through both cameras at once via remote television monitors — on the modern film set, there is no waiting around for ”dailies.” It’s still not quite right. ”Can we spin faster?” he says. ”Spin faster!”
No matter how fast a movie goes these days — or a situation comedy, a newscast, a music video or a television commercial — it is not fast enough. Vehicles race, plunge and fly faster; cameras pan and shake faster, and scenes cut faster from one shot to the next. Some people don’t like this. ”Shot-shot-shot-shot, because television has accustomed us to a faster pace,” says Annette Insdorf, a Columbia University film historian. ”Music videos seem to have seeped into the rhythms of creativity. It’s rare these days — it’s rare in 1997 — that films afford the luxury of time.”
But television, too, is behaving like a horse with a methamphetaminic driver. A new forward-looking unit within NBC, called NBC 2000, has been taking an electronic scalpel to the ”blacks” — the barely perceptible instants when a show fades to black and then rematerializes as a commercial. Over the course of a night, this can save the network as much as 15 precious seconds, or even 20, but that is not the whole point. The point is that the viewer is in a hurry, or so NBC 2000 has determined. That’s you cracking the whip. Give you a full second of blank screen and your thumb starts to squeeze the change-channel button. . . .
New technologies, in living rooms and in editing studios, are helping to drive the pace of art and entertainment — just as they are driving the pace of virtually everything else in our work lives and our leisure time. Levinson is not a director of action movies — on the contrary, his best work (”Diner,” ”Rain Man,” ”Avalon”) has flowed at the pace of human character growth, on distinctly nondigital backgrounds with rich emotional texture. In these films, the clocks didn’t need second hands. But here he is, in a darkened hangar, shooting the purest action sequence of his career, eyes on the monitors as three fine actors hurl themselves from side to side in the style of the troupers on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. We will not linger. We will cut to: int. the director’s trailer — day where the same Barry Levinson is lamenting the summer of ”Speed 2” — and for that matter the whole notion of bang-zip-pow ”summer movies.” Do our brains stop working in summer? ”It’s not an accident that all the movies of the summer are rides,” he says. ”Adrenaline! Our rhythms are radically different. We’re constantly accelerating the visual to keep the viewer in his seat.” The restless viewer is very much on the film makers’ minds — though at least in the movie theater they can expect viewers to stay in place for the allotted hundred minutes.
”I don’t know that we demand more content — we demand more movement,” says Levinson. ”We’re packing more in, but the irony is that it isn’t more substance. We all become part of that. We all become less patient.” And . . . why? Well, there is television.
”You cannot put a child in front of a television set where he is bombarded by images and not ultimately have an adult who is born and bred to see things differently,” he says. ”How can that not alter us?”
To older critics, who grew up with what now seems a methodical and plodding style of film storytelling, it seems as if we are engaged in a psychology experiment conceived by a slightly sadistic professor who assaults the subjects with visual images at a rate up to and beyond the limits of perception. A generation ago, the word ”subliminal” came into vogue, as in ”subliminal advertising,” with a fear that images could flash by so fast that we might see them, and come under their sway, without quite seeing them. Now we’re used to subliminal imagery. We don’t get scared when a commercial for Nike or Pepsi-Cola goes off on our screen like a string of firecrackers, but still. . . . How much do we comprehend? How do we feel afterward? What will we want next? Reviewers talk routinely now about visual candy and visual popcorn, of the sinews of plot and character melting away amid a boil of visceral gratification. Fifteen years have passed since Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, assailed the turn to hyperactivity represented, for her, by ”Star Wars” and ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” — two films that raised the bar for impossibly fast action sequences. And what a difference 15 years makes: compared with their progeny, these films now stand as classics; they had structure, characters and wit. Now we have what Anthony Lane, one of Kael’s successors, calls ”our own ever-growing predicament: there is nothing so boring in life, let alone in cinema, as the boredom of being excited all the time.”