The audience has gotten more sophisticated

7Over at MTV, they don’t seem to feel terrible about this. A company fact sheet asserts, as a kind of slogan, ”MTV zooms by in a blur while putting things in focus at the same time.”

Music Television began broadcasting in the summer of 1981, with the Buggles singing, appropriately enough, ”Video Killed the Radio Star,” followed by the Who, the Pretenders, Rod Stewart and others in hybrid blends of music, images of musicians performing and other rapidly intermixed images, real or surreal, related to the music or not, but always cut to the music. The basic MTV unit was a three-minute movie created around a song. You might have been forgiven for thinking it was meant as a sort of wallpaper, something to put on in the background when you didn’t want to watch television. Wasn’t it really a descendant of television’s Yule Log, burning away eternally at Christmastime before a fixed camera while carols played on the audio track? Certainly the music video was premised on short attention spans. It is a three-minute format within which no single shot is likely to last more than a second or two.

Now MTV is one of America’s foremost cultural exports, playing to 270 million households, including those reached by the Palapa C2 satellite over Southeast Asia, the Morelos 2 satellite over Mexico and Panama and the Sat 3 over South America. Besides music videos — which have evolved into a fantastically crisp and artful genre — the network has sent out its own talk shows, pick-a-date game shows and, most intriguingly, animated cartoons, like the famous, dimwitted, superironic Beavis and Butt-head.

The not-so-hidden premise of Beavis and Butt-head is that even music videos are slow-paced and boring, so you need an overlay of comic commentary. In their own way, though, Beavis and Butt-head are painfully slow — MTV going conventional and letting story, rather than music, dictate the pace. The MTV animation style is deliberately static; it makes the typical Disney feature look like a madcap action film. The dialogue staggers along as if through dense mud, and the comedy relies heavily on pauses and reaction shots (so standardized that the animators call them by name: ”Wide-Eyed 1,” ”Wide-Eyed 2,” ”This Sucks”). ”We love pauses. Pauses are like, hey!” says Yvette Kaplan, the supervising director, as a bit of tape makes its way through the editing room, a segment involving an impotency clinic.

”Oh, yeah,” Butt-head is saying in the sequence now running over and over again through the editor’s screen. ”Huh-huh. Me, too. Huh-huh. Maybe that place can help us score.”

Of all the visual arts, animation takes the tightest control of every fraction of every second. On carefully diagrammed sheets, each consonant and vowel of each word is assigned to its precise one-twenty-fourth-second frame. The characters’ mouth movements have been reduced to an essential grammar of just 7 to 10 basic positions, enough to cover all English speech. This particular joke strikes the team in the editing room as . . . slow. There seems to be a lag in the line. ”The pacing is everything,” Kaplan says. ”When it’s flowing, it’s just safer — you don’t have time to drift away and miss the humor.” They delete the ”me, too” and nudge the pace forward a bit more by deftly overlapping the final fraction of a second of the soundtrack with the visual track for the next scene. Alternatively, they might have jumped to the next scene’s dialogue before cutting away visually, or they might have started the music for the next scene early — clever pacing techniques that viewers have learned to interpret automatically and unconsciously.

”The audience has gotten more sophisticated, and you can take certain leaps without people scratching their heads,” says Abby Terkuhle, the president of MTV animation. And of course, we’re starting young. ”It’s intuitive,” he says. ”Our children are often not thinking about A, B, C. It’s like, O.K., I’m there, let’s go! It’s a certain nonlinear experience, perhaps.”

Problem for the next generation: ”Movies at a theater take FOREVER to watch — no fast forward,” says a character in ”Microserfs,” a 1995 novel by Douglas Coupland. ”And VCR rental movies take forever to watch, even using the FFWD button.” The solution: ”This incredible timesaving secret: foreign movies with subtitles! It’s like the crack cocaine equivalent of movies.” You can watch even an art film in less than an hour. ”All you have to do is blast directly through to the subtitles, speed-read them, and then blip out the rest. It’s so efficient it’s scary.”

And some of the power of these bits of video lies purely and simply in their speed

4One shocking piece of news turned up by NBC’s research was that, as a typical show reached its end and the credits began to roll, one viewer in four would find better things to do. ”You had 25 percent of our audience flipping around to see what else is out there,” Miller says. That was clearly intolerable. A 25 percent drop in market share in return for gratifying the egos of the cast and crew?

The NBC 2000 unit solved this problem by creating what is known as the squeeze-and-tease: the credits are compressed into one-third of the screen (carefully tested for borderline readability) while the remaining two-thirds is used for ”promo-tainment.” This, in Miller’s words, is ”interstitial programming” with ”attitude.” You might see stars bantering about and around the peacock. If you actually take in the screenwriter’s name on the right and chuckle at the wisecrack on the left, you are multitasking in yet one more way. Anyway, every network has quickly adopted the same technique, because it is just enough, it seems, to hold your attention for the critical 10 or 30 seconds that would otherwise loom before you like an eternity.

The salient piece of technology in this equation is the one you hold in your hand. When the first remote controls appeared, they seemed like innocent devices that would save viewers several trips each evening from the bed or sofa to the television set — how wonderful to be able to turn up the volume or change the channel without walking across the room. No one imagined the full power inherent in the remote control; no one thought in terms of hundreds or thousands of channel changes per evening. Now every television programmer works in the shadow of the awareness that the audience is armed.

From one point of view, the remote control is a classic case of technology that worsens the very problem it is meant to solve. ”The ease of changing channels by remote control has promoted a more rapid and disorienting set of images to hold the viewer,” says Edward Tenner, the author of ”Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” ”This, in turn, is leading to less satisfaction with programs as a whole, which of course promotes more rapid channel surfing.” If only the programmers could tie your hands . . . for your own good! Still, isn’t possession of the remote a form of power? It is a weapon against boredom or against bad programming, even if the audience does not always use it wisely.

The networks’ time obsession has changed the basic structure of standard shows like the 30-minute (23-minute, really) situation comedy. Network programmers feel they can no longer afford the batch of commercials that used to separate the end of one show from the beginning of the next. So those commercials have moved inside the shows, creating little islands of program at the beginning and the end, cut off by several minutes from the main body. Clever writers use these for stand-alone opening jokes and codas. ”It’s jokes and story right from the git go — jump in and go,” says Skip Collector, the editor for ”Seinfeld.” ”That kind of relates to our life style and our pace. Everybody’s rushing and going, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

”Seinfeld” is one show that uses the split-screen closing-credit time for a final joke rather than give it up for promo-tainment. It has also dispensed with the traditional half-minute or so of opening titles: Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air week after week, or Cosby’s family dancing around. More and more sitcoms just start with running story and flash a three- to five-second art card with the name of the show. ”We’re trying to pack so much information into so little time,” Collector says, ”that it doesn’t make sense to give up 30 seconds just to flash somebody’s face in the title.”

To fill the countless little gaps that used to be dead air or a still picture over an orchestral signature, there are promos, opens, bumpers and channel ID’s. NBC alone commissions 8,000 different promos a year. They range from 10 seconds to the two-minute ”long form,” and they represent an astounding deployment of technical sophistication — products of a marriage between computers and the visual arts. In the early 1980’s, designers with new computer-graphics systems, a Paintbox and a Harry, could suddenly produce complex animated effects in an hour that had previously taken a full day. ”Now you could start doing all sorts of wacky things,” says Laura Tolkow, a New York-based broadcast designer. ”Then you could hook up a K-scope, a Kaleidoscope, and see things flying at you, distort things, make things turn around. You started seeing these effects everywhere.

”Supposedly, we as designers have a reason for doing what we’re doing,” she says. ”It’s not just pizzazz. But the fact is, the tools do affect what you’re doing, and all this stuff keeps improving and getting better. If you know you can do something, you want to give it a try, right?”

With the ability to compose effects frame by frame, to create multiple layers, images dissolving into new images, designers know that the viewer cannot always keep up. ”There’s a lot of intense stuff going on there — a lot of multilayering, a lot of compositing,” says Tom Ohanian, the chief editor at Avid Technology, a leading manufacturer of digital editing systems for the film and television industries. ”The technology encourages experiment.”

And some of the power of these bits of video lies purely and simply in their speed — the length of time between cuts steadily decreasing, to the point that we routinely absorb sequences of shots lasting eight frames, a third of a second, or less. For someone creating a 10-second spot that will be seen over and over again, an effect that cannot be parsed on first sight by a typical couch-bound viewer — a nearly subliminal effect — is not necessarily a bad thing. ”Sometimes I don’t even know if I care if they’re seeing it,” Tolkow says. It’s an impression. Maybe they’ll see more on the next viewing. A flashed image can be like a subtle allusion in a long poem, resonating just below the threshold of comprehension.

People who revile the evolution of a fast-paced and discontinuous cutting style — and, for that matter, people who like it — have a convenient three-letter shorthand for the principal villain: MTV.

Twenty-five years ago that seemed finicky

3Instantaneity rules, on the screen and on the networks as in our daily lives: instant replay, instant coffee, instant intimacy, instant gratification. The changing pace of media from films to television commercials, from broadcast news to music videos, both reflects and conditions a changing pace in our psyches. No wonder we complain — yet we have chosen this, as individuals and as a culture, and perhaps we thrive on it more than we admit. We are filling a hunger. The faster we jump from scene to scene or from channel to channel, the more we get — if not more quality, then at least more variety.

Robert Levine, a social psychologist, cites studies that find ”grazers” changing channels 22 times a minute. ”They approach the airwaves as a vast smorgasbord, all of which must be sampled, no matter how meager the helpings,” Levine notes in his new book, ”A Geography of Time.” He contrasts these frenetically greedy Westerners — Americans, mostly — with Indonesians ”whose main entertainment consists of watching the same few plays and dances, month after month, year after year,” and Nepalese Sherpas who eat the same meals of potatoes and tea through their entire lives. The Indonesians and Sherpas are perfectly satisfied, Levine says. But are they? Will they spurn that remote control when it is offered? Or is the accumulation of speed, along with the accumulation of variety, along with the accumulation of wealth, a one-way street in human cultural evolution?

Levinson’s own television series, ”Homicide: Life on the Streets,” grabbed the attention of critics with its frenetic, jittery camera style — so extreme that he sometimes had trouble getting his editors to cut scenes the way he wanted. ”We jump the screen constantly,” he says. ”Sometimes we double-cut or triple-cut a moment; you see it quicker and you see more variations of it.” In ”Homicide,” this style is meant to convey a kind of gritty true-life realism, but the style can be completely divorced from any particular tone or mood. Watch a talk show like ”Loveline” on MTV and you see the same uneasy visual style, cameras constantly on the go. The content is nothing but people talking, but no shot seems to last more than a second. If it did — if the camera actually settled on one person’s face for the time it takes to speak a full sentence — would we change the channel?

This is a matter of visual language evolving into something new. Not everything is faster. Hardly any modern film features the kind of exhilarating machine-gun dialogue that filled the screwball comedies of the 30’s, by Howard Hawks and others. The camera’s eye remained more or less fixed — it had to, with all the bulky apparatus of talking pictures — while Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell volleyed repartee across the screen. The new technology of radio forced briskness and brevity on speakers like politicians, who were accustomed to orating on the stump for three hours at a stretch, or preachers, sometimes drilling words into their listeners at speeds that historians retrospectively put at a remarkable 200 words a minute.

But even the rat-a-tat-tat of Walter Winchell on the radio and the breakneck wordplay of Groucho Marx (”You can leave in a taxi — if you can’t leave in a taxi you can leave in a huff — if that’s too soon you can leave in a minute and a huff”) lag when compared with any modern comic monologue of Robin Williams — jokes, allusions, personas flying past the ear at nearly subliminal pace. Williams set some sort of manic speed record as the voice of the genie in the 1992 ”Aladdin.” The Disney animated feature of this summer, ”Hercules,” trying to raise the ante again, has a half-dozen characters imitating Williams in raw speed, but lacking the substance, the quick differentiation of voices, that keeps him on the high wire.

Psychologists note that, while a normal fast-talker speaks at up to 150 words a minute, listeners can process speech at three to four times that speed. Can and, these days, want to. This gap accounts for the fast-playback button on telephone answering machines and for auctioneers and racetrack announcers and for the fast-talking shtick of John Moschitta Jr., who reached his summit of popularity, appropriately enough, in his famous Federal Express commercials. The gap also creates an opening where ennui creeps in. A normal human being speaking at normal speed — the President of the United States, say, taking a full hour to deliver the State of the Union message — is less likely than ever to deliver the constant punch needed to hold our attention. Our minds race on like runaway conveyor belts while hapless Lucy Ricardos struggle to grab the chocolates. Mere conversation, in front of an inert camera, doesn’t seem to do it.

Boredom and efficiency are fueling the engine. That is, fear of boredom (yours) and the hunger for efficiency (theirs). Just as the technology of remote control has made it possible for you to run from boredom without leaving the couch, the technologies of market research have made it possible for television programmers to detect the first glimmerings of ennui, apathy and listlessness, almost before you yourself become aware of them. It was not always so. Until 1973, television shows estimated their share of the audience program by program. In that year, Nielsen Media Research brought a new technology on line nationwide: the ”Storage Instantaneous Audimeter,” measuring minute by minute.

Twenty-five years ago that seemed finicky. Today it’s just quaint. A minute is an ocean. Researchers now take sample audiences and place buttons or dials in their hands so that they can offer reactions in real time — that is, in the most herky-jerky, visceral fashion, without even a second’s worth of processing or reflection. Was that remark funny or dull? Quick! Is this slow passage perhaps a setup for something different? We’ll never know. Adagio is not a permissible tempo for a test audience spinning dials.

”Every station looks at every second of air time and uses it to the best of its ability,” says John Miller, executive vice president of advertising and promotion and event programming at NBC. ”We’re all bound by the laws of physics. There are only 24 hours in a day and 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute. Everybody looks at their time with a microscope to get the best utilization they can. It is the only real estate we have.”

Citizen Kubrick

101996 I received what was – and probably remains – the most exciting telephone call I have ever had. It was from a man calling himself Tony. “I’m phoning on behalf of Stanley Kubrick,” he said.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Stanley would like you to send him a radio documentary you made called Hotel Auschwitz,” said this man. This was a programme for Radio 4 about the marketing of the concentration camp.

“Stanley Kubrick?” I said.

“Let me give you the address,” said the man. He sounded posh. It seemed that he didn’t want to say any more about this than he had to. I sent the tape to a PO box in St Albans and waited. What might happen next? Whatever it was, it was going to be amazing. My mind started going crazy. Perhaps Kubrick would ask me to collaborate on something. (Oddly, in this daydream, I reluctantly turned him down because I didn’t think I’d make a good screenwriter.)

At the time I received that telephone call, nine years had passed since Kubrick’s last film, Full Metal Jacket. All anyone outside his circle knew about him was that he was living in a vast country house somewhere near St Albans – or a “secret lair”, according to a Sunday Times article of that year – behaving presumably like some kind of mad hermit genius. Nobody even knew what he looked like. It had been 16 years since a photograph of him had been published.

He’d gone from making a film a year in the 1950s (including the brilliant, horrific Paths Of Glory), to a film every couple of years in the 1960s (Lolita, Dr Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey all came out within a six-year period), to two films a decade in the 1970s and 1980s (there had been a seven-year gap between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket), and now, in the 1990s, absolutely nothing. What the hell was he doing in there? According to rumours, he was passing his time being terrified of germs and refusing to let his chauffeur drive over 30mph. But now I knew what he was doing. He was listening to my BBC Radio 4 documentary, Hotel Auschwitz.

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“The good news,” wrote Nicholas Wapshott in the Times in 1997, bemoaning the ever-lengthening gaps between his films, “is that Kubrick is a hoarder … There is an extensive archive of material at his home in Childwick Bury. When that is eventually opened, we may get close to understanding the tangled brain which brought to life HAL, the [Clockwork Orange] Droogs and Jack Torrance.”

The thing is, once I sent the tape to the PO box, nothing happened next. I never heard anything again. Not a word. My cassette disappeared into the mysterious world of Stanley Kubrick. And then, three years later, Kubrick was dead.

Two years after that, in 2001, I got another phone call out of the blue from the man called Tony. “Do you want to get some lunch?” he asked. “Why don’t you come up to Childwick?”

These Boots Are Made for Walkin

9You feel the real question lurking behind all the verblage is “What does this new movie mean?”
Exactly. And that’s almost impossible to answer, especially when you’ve been so deeply inside the film for so long. Some people demand a five-line capsule summary. Something you’d read in a magazine. They want you to say, “This is the story of the duality of man and the duplicity of governments.” [A pretty good description of the subtext that informs Full Metal Jacket, actually.] I hear people try to do it — give the five-line summary — but if a film has any substance or subtlety, whatever you say is never complete, it’s usually wrong, and it’s necessarily simplistic: truth is too multifaceted to be contained in a five-line summary. If the work is good, what you say about it is usually irrelevant.

I don’t know. Perhaps it’s vanity, this idea that the work is bigger than one’s capacity to describe it. Some people can do interviews. They’re very slick, and they neatly evade this hateful conceptualizing. Fellini is good; his interviews are very amusing. He just makes jokes and says preposterous things that you know he can’t possibly mean.

I mean, I’m doing interviews to help the film, and I think they do help the film, so I can’t complain. But it isn’t…it’s… it’s difficult.

So let’s talk about the music in Full Metal Jacket. I was surprised by some of the choices, stuff like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” by Nancy Sinatra. What does that song mean?
It was the music of the period. The Tet offensive was in ’68. Unless we were careless, none of the music is post-’68.

I’m not saying it’s anachronistic. It’s just that the music that occurs to me in that context is more, oh, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.
The music really depended on the scene. We checked through Billboard’s list of Top 100 hits for each year from 1962 to 1968. We were looking for interesting material that played well with a scene. We tried a lot of songs. Sometimes the dynamic range of the music was too great, and we couldn’t work in dialogue. The music has to come up under speech at some point, and if all you hear is the bass, it’s not going to work in the context of the movie.

Why? Don’t you like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”?

Of the music in the film, I’d have to say I’m more partial to Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully,” which is one of the great party records of all time. And “Surfin’ Bird.”
An amazing piece, isn’t it?

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No matter how fast a movie goes

8The audiences, though, have themselves been altered. We are different creatures, psychologically speaking, from what we were a generation ago. ”If you look at a one-minute commercial from the 50’s,” says Barry Levinson, ”it seems forever. It seems so long it’s like a show.” Impatience that breaks out inside a minute-long time frame seems pathological. Certainly some psychologists and social critics worry about information overload, just as cardiologists worry about Type-A hurry sickness — supported by plenty of anecdotal evidence and not much conclusive research. It seems that we, as viewers of mass entertainment, have lost some of our ability to sit on the porch and daydream as the clouds float by. It seems that we have gained an ability to process rapid and discontinuous visual images. It seems that we are quicker-witted. But have we, by way of compensation, traded away our capacity for deep concentration? No one knows for sure.

”We do suffer these days from a little bit of attention-deficit syndrome, whether it can be diagnosed or not,” says Rick Wagonheim of R/Greenberg Associates, a leading creator of digital effects, from commercials to film title sequences. ”Are we smarter? Probably not. Are we able to absorb more information in a short time? Probably.” Like it or not, commercials, combining 20 or 30 or more individual shots in as many seconds, are a caldron of new techniques. It’s no wonder that so many film directors and editors are emerging with a background in both commercials and music videos: from Michael Bay, for example, the director of ”The Rock,” and Hank Corwin, the editor for ”Natural Born Killers” and other Oliver Stone films. Corwin, whose experimental style has given some critics headaches, dismisses them. ”They’d better get with it, because that’s the way of the world,” he says. ”There’s a lot of crap out there, and you can’t disregard that. But we’re going into the millennium, and things are always moving, things are always changing, things are very kinetic.” It’s almost a matter of brain chemistry, he says. We’re more sophisticated. We’re like fighter pilots doing a panel scan, absorbing data from all our instruments at once.

”Our eye has quickened,” says Michael Elliot of Mad River Post, who has edited groundbreaking commercials for Compaq, MCI, Reebok, Epson and others — commercials with fast pace as a running theme as well as a technique. As you watch the quick montages, the shotgun blasts of shots from different angles, you can’t help noticing the pathos of the soundtracks: men and women, at home and in the workplace, talking about their hectic lives, their need for timesaving, their hunger for speed, their fear of overload. ”It’s always easier to back off from the velocity,” Elliot says. ”It’s easier to take your foot off the gas than put it on.”

Photos: No matter how fast a movie goes — here, one second of the trailer for ”Men in Black” — it’s not fast enough. Scenes speed by so fast they’ve left the laws of physics behind. (Photographs from RIGA, Los Angeles); Even the languid movie ”The English Patient” relied on tricks of pace and time, moving backward and forward in the characters’ memories, as in the frames shown above. (Photographs copyright $; 1996 Saul Zaentz Company); The Electronic Gallery: Vito Acconci — Assuming that the technology of the late 20th century has devalued material space; assuming that space, in the early 21st century, is not ”in place” but ”in mind”; assuming that computers and E-mail have reintroduced and revised and revitalized ”writing” — what we have produced is a page that becomes building, lines of text that bend and fold into buildings, a city built up out of words. In the beginning there was the word, but then again, it’s only words. (Acconci Studio: Vito Acconci, Celia Imrey, Dario Nunez, Saija Singer and Luis Vera)

Technology Makes Us Faster; Addicted to Speed

2Cameras 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.”

Kubrick moved to England in 1968

6 He lives outside of London with Christiane (now a successful painter), three golden retrievers and a mutt he found wandering forlornly along the road. He has three grown daughters. Some who know him say he can be “difficult” and “exacting.”

He had agreed to meet and talk about his latest movie, Full Metal Jacket, a film about the Vietnam War that he produced and directed. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches, and Gustav Hasford, who wrote The Short-Timers, the novel on which the film is based. Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s first feature in seven years.

The difficult and exacting director returned from the bathroom looking a little perplexed. “I think you’re right,” he said. “I think this is a place where people stay. I looked around a little, opened a door, and there was this guy sitting on the edge of a bed.”

“Who was he?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing. He just looked at me, and I left.”

There was a long silence while we pondered the inevitable ambiguity of reality, specifically in relation to some guy sitting on a bed across the hall. Then Stanley Kubrick began the interview:

I’m not going to be asked any conceptualizing questions, right?

All the books, most of the articles I read about you — it’s all conceptualizing.
Yeah, but not by me.

I thought I had to ask those kinds of questions.
No. Hell, no. That’s my … [He shudders.] It’s the thing I hate the worst.

Really? I’ve got all these questions written down in a form I thought you might require. They all sound like essay questions for the finals in a graduate philosophy seminar.
The truth is that I’ve always felt trapped and pinned down and harried by those questions.

Terminator role

11990s moviegoers who have sat clutching their heads in both awe and disappointment at movies like “Twister” and “Volcano” and “The Lost World” can thank James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” for inaugurating what’s become this decade’s special new genre of big-budget film: Special Effects Porn. “Porn” because, if you substitute F/X for intercourse, the parallels between the two genres become so obvious they’re eerie. Just like hard-core cheapies, movies like “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park” aren’t really “movies” in the standard sense at all. What they really are is half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes — scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff — strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative.

“T2,” one of the highest-grossing movies in history, opened six years ago. Think of the scenes we all still remember. That incredible chase and explosion in the L.A. sluiceway and then the liquid metal T-1000 Terminator walking out of the explosion’s flames and morphing [1] seamlessly into his Martin-Milner-as-Possessed-by-Hannibal-Lecter corporeal form. The T-1000 rising hideously up out of that checkerboard floor, the T-1000 melting headfirst through the windshield of that helicopter, the T-1000 freezing in liquid nitrogen and then collapsing fractally apart. These were truly spectacular images, and they represented exponential advances in digital F/X technology. But there were at most maybe eight of these incredible sequences, and they were the movie’s heart and point; the rest of “T2” is empty and derivative, pure mimetic polycelluloid.

It’s not that “T2” is totally plotless or embarrassing — and it does, admittedly, stand head and shoulders above most of the F/X Porn blockbusters that have followed it. It’s rather that “T2” as a dramatic narrative is slick and cliche and calculating and in sum an appalling betrayal of 1984’s “The Terminator.” “T1,” which was James Cameron’s first feature film and had a modest budget and was one of the two best U.S. action movies of the entire 1980s [2], was a dark, breathlessly kinetic, near-brilliant piece of metaphysical Ludditism. Recall that it’s A.D. 2027 and that there’s been a nuclear holocaust in 1997 and that chip-driven machines now rule, and “Skynet,” the archonic _diabolus_ ex_ machina_, develops a limited kind of time-travel technology and dispatches the now classically cyborgian A. Schwarzenegger back to 1984’s Los Angeles to find and terminate one Sarah Connor, the mother-to-be of the future leader of the human “Resistance,” one John Connor [3]; and that apparently the Resistance itself somehow gets one-time-only access to Skynet’s time-travel technology and sends back to the same space-time coordinates a Resistance officer, the ever-sweaty but extremely tough and resourceful Kyle Reese, to try desperately to protect Ms. Sarah Connor from the Terminator’s prophylactic advances [4], and so on. It is, yes, true that Cameron’s Skynet is basically Kubrick’s HAL, and that most of “T1″‘s time-travel paradoxes are reworkings of some fairly standard Bradbury-era science fiction themes, but “The Terminator” still has a whole lot to recommend it. There’s the inspired casting of the malevolently cyborgian Schwarzenegger as the malevolently cyborgian Terminator, the role that made Ahnode a superstar and for which he was utterly and totally perfect (e.g. even his goofy 16-r.p.m. Austrian accent added a perfect little robofascist tinge to the Terminator’s dialogue [5]). There’s the first of Cameron’s two great action heroines [6] in Sarah Connor, as whom the limpid-eyed and lethal-lipped Linda Hamilton also turns in the only great performance of her career. There is the dense, greasy, marvelously machinelike look of “The Terminator”‘s mechanized F/X [7]; there are the noirish lighting and Dexedrine pace that compensate ingeniously for the low budget and manage to establish a mood that is both exhilarating and claustrophobic [8]. Plus “T1″‘s story had at its center a marvelous “Appointment-in-Samarra”-like irony of fate: we discover in the course of the film that Kyle Reese is actually John Connor’s father [9], and thus that if Skynet hadn’t built its nebulous time machine and sent back the Terminator, Reese wouldn’t have been back here in ’84, either, to impregnate Sarah C. This also entails that meanwhile, up in A.D. 2027, John Connor has had to send the man he knows is his father on a mission that J.C. knows will result in both that man’s death and his (i.e. J.C.’s) own birth. The whole ironic mess is simultaneously Freudian and Testamental and is just extraordinarily cool for a low-budget action movie.

Its big-budget sequel adds only one ironic paradox to “The Terminator”‘s mix: in “T2,” we learn that the “radically advanced chip” [10] on which Skynet’s CPU is (will be) based actually came (comes) from the denuded and hydraulically pressed skull of “T1″‘s defunct Terminator…meaning that Skynet’s attempts to alter the flow of history bring about not only John Connor’s birth but Skynet’s own, as well. All “T2″‘s other important ironies and paradoxes, however, are unfortunately unintentional and generic and kind of sad.

Note, for example, the fact that “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” a movie about the disastrous consequences of humans relying too heavily on computer technology, was itself unprecedently computer-dependent. George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, subcontracted by Cameron to do “T2″‘s special effects, had to quadruple the size of its computer graphics department for the T-1000 sequences, sequences which also required digital-imaging specialists from around the world, thirty-six state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics computers, and terabytes of specially invented software programs for seamless morphing, realistic motion, digital “body socks,” background-plate compatibility, congruence of lighting and grain, etc. And there is no question that all the lab work paid off: in 1991, “Terminator 2″‘s special effects were the most spectacular and real-looking anybody had ever seen. They were also the most expensive.

“T2” is thus also the first and best instance of a paradoxical law that appears to hold true for the entire F/X Porn genre. It is called the Inverse Cost and Quality Law, and it states very simply that the larger a movie’s budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be. The case of “T2” shows that much of the ICQL’s force derives from simple financial logic. A film that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make is going to get financial backing if and only if its investors can be maximally — _maximally_ — sure that at the very least they will get their hundreds of millions of dollars back [11] — i.e. a megabudget movie must not fail (and “failure” here means anything less than a runaway box-office hit) and must thus adhere to certain reliable formulae that have been shown by precedent to maximally ensure a runaway hit. One of the most reliable of these formulae involves casting a superstar who is “bankable” (i.e. whose recent track record of films shows a high ROI). The studio backing for “T2”’s wildly sophisticated and digital F/X therefore depends on Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to reprise his Terminator role. Now the ironies start to stack, though, because it turns out that Schwarzenegger — or perhaps more accurately “Schwarzenegger, Inc.,” or “Ahnodyne” — has decided that playing any more malevolent cyborgs would compromise the Leading Man image his elite and bankable record of ROI entails. He will do the film only if “T2″‘s script is somehow engineered to make the Terminator the Good Guy. Not only is this vain and stupid and shockingly ungrateful [12], it is also common popular knowledge, duly reported in both the trade and the popular entertainment media before “T2” even goes into production. There’s consequently a weird postmodern tension to the way we watch the film; we’re aware of what the bankable star’s demands were, and we’re also aware of how much the movie cost and how important bankable stars are to a big-budget movie; and so one of the few things that keeps us on the edge of our seats during the movie is our suspense about whether James Cameron can possibly weave a plausible, non-cheesy narrative that meets Schwarzenegger’s career needs without betraying “T1″‘s precedent.

Dr. Strangelove (1963)

5He didn’t bustle into the room, and he didn’t wander in. Truth, as he would reiterate several times, is multi-faceted, and it would be fair to say that Stanley Kubrick entered the executive suite at Pinewood Studios, outside London, in a multifaceted manner. He was at once happy to have found the place after a twenty-minute search, apologetic about being late and apprehensive about the torture he might be about to endure. Stanley Kubrick, I had been told, hates interviews.

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It’s hard to know what to expect of the man if you’ve only seen his films. One senses in those films painstaking craftsmanship, a furious intellect at work, a single-minded devotion. His movies don’t lend themselves to easy analysis; this may account for the turgid nature of some of the books that have been written about his art. Take this example: “And while Kubrick feels strongly that the visual powers of film make ambiguity an inevitability as well as a virtue, he would not share Bazin’s mystical belief that the better film makers are those who sacrifice their personal perspectives to a ‘fleeting crystallization of a reality [of] whose environing presence one is ceaselessly aware.’ ”

This article appeared in the August 27, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

One feels that an interview conducted on this level would be pretentious bullshit. Kubrick, however, seemed entirely unpretentious. He was wearing running shoes and an old corduroy jacket. There was an ink stain just below the pocket where some ball point pen had bled to death.

“What is this place?” Kubrick asked.

“It’s called the executive suite,” I said.

“I think they put big shots up here.”

Kubrick looked around at the dark wood-paneled walls, the chandeliers, the leather couches and chairs. “Is there a bathroom?” he asked, with some urgency.

“Across the hall,” I said.

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The director excused himself and went looking for the facility. I reviewed my notes. Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928. He was an undistinguished student whose passions were tournament-level chess and photography. After graduation from Taft High School at the age of seventeen, he landed a prestigious job as a photographer for Look magazine, which he quit after four years in order to make his first film. Day of the Fight (1950) was a documentary about the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier. After a second documentary, Flying Padre (1951), Kubrick borrowed $10,000 from relatives to make Fear and Desire (1953), his first feature, an arty film that he now finds “embarrassing.” Kubrick, his first wife and two friends were the entire crew for the film. By necessity, Kubrick was director, cameraman, lighting engineer, makeup man, administrator, propman and unit chauffeur. Later in his career, he would take on some of these duties again, for reasons other than necessity.

Kubrick’s breakthrough film was Paths of Glory (1957). During the filming, he met an actress, Christiane Harlan, whom he eventually married. Christiane sings a song at the end of the film in a scene that, on four separate viewings, has brought tears to my eyes.

Kubrick’s next film was Spartacus (1960), a work he finds disappointing. He was brought in to direct after the star, Kirk Douglas, had a falling-out with the original director, Anthony Mann. Kubrick was not given control of the script, which he felt was full of easy moralizing. He was used to making his own films his own way, and the experience chafed. He has never again relinquished control over any aspect of his films.

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And he has taken some extraordinary and audacious chances with those works. The mere decision to film Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1961) was enough to send some censorious sorts into a spittle-spewing rage. Dr. Strangelove (1963), based on the novel Red Alert, was conceived as a tense thriller about the possibility of accidental nuclear war. As Kubrick worked on the script, however, he kept bumping up against the realization that the scenes he was writing were funny in the darkest possible way.