Time, May 14, 2015
In 1976, while a group of us struggled to keep the doors of a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, open, we feared all the while that movie-going as an American social activity was going, going... Gone? But we would never have blamed attention span. There were understandable reasons for our fear of the movies’ demise, back in the seventies: low box office revenue, empty seats. Our cantilevered balcony was almost permanently closed, the home of random kids who snuck up there, hoping to do some drugs, do each other, or just go unnoticed until we’d closed down and left for the day. Movies that drew an audience in our troubled urban neighborhood were hard to find and difficult to book, and the distributors of those flicks typically took two-thirds of the meager receipts. However, what was actually done-for in the mid-seventies wasn’t movies per se; it was single-screen theaters, especially palaces. We learned that lesson the hard way, losing money hand-over-fist and closing just shy of the one-year anniversary of our opening.
A lot of things have come and gone since I sat behind the bars of a box office or shoveled popcorn into buckets: VCRs, for one thing, and video stores for another. Network television, the snake that seduced our audiences away, has been flattened in its turn, by streaming services and cable networks.
Are the movies themselves really wasted this time? A group of directors, producers, actors and etc. in Sunday, June 23’s New York Times seem to think so, or at least they’re very confused. The fault, according to actor Kumail Nanjiani lies in YouTube and other platforms, since teens and slightly older young adults usually can’t devote time to a two-hour narrative in a communal setting. Implicit is the suggestion that platforms deliver in bite-size morsels millennials are used to. Or does low movie attendance (the average American sees a movie in a theater four times a year) have to do with content itself?
When I was a Girl Scout, we made fun of the Brownies, the (then) youngest members of GSUSA. We fourth graders in green uniforms accused our peers who were not paying attention of having a short “Brownie Interest Span,” a phrase we’d picked up from our troop leader who’d received it in G.S. training. It really meant, “She’s just like a Brownie — can’t follow the plot of a long story, can’t take directions, can’t even sit still.”
So what makes a number of us adults, these days, less attentive than a goldfish? It isn’t attention span we’ve got to worry about, but (Brownie) interest span. Robert McKee, a prominent teacher of screenwriting, reflects on interest, “...story has the power to silence the chatter in the mind and lift us to another place.” He also credits “empathy” for getting us to pay attention.
How many narratives have you watched lately which stir feelings of empathy? Even when trying to find something to binge-watch at home these days, my husband and I go through ten or fifteen serialized narratives before we find one that can make me forget I’m in the bedroom watching on a flat screen.
Attention span or interest span? What about the fact that the CDC, in a 2015 report, notes Americans (adults as well as children) with ADHD are increasingly more numerous, rising from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 in 2007 and 11 percent in 2011. As a former tutor of learning disabled children, and an unofficial (never diagnosed) member of the ADD community, I can say that all of us — attentionally challenged and otherwise — share the problem of too many things vying for our attention. For some of us, it is harder than it is for others, to cope with a fragmented, high-pressure world, that makes too many demands on attention; and if you’re not interested? Well then...
Going into the lobby of a movie theater, paying for a ticket, buying a popcorn and surrendering to a mutually-shared dream in the dark (when it’s a well-crafted movie) is an excellent way to train the muscle of attention, or the elastic band of interest span, that needs to be stretched by stories that juice empathy.
In the future, will all movies go directly from Sundance to streaming? Will binge-watching a story in small segments on an iphone or laptop replace the pleasures of watching a screen larger than the poster cases in the lobby of the St. George Theatre?
“If I had grown up watching YouTube, I don’t know if I would like movies,” Kumail Nanjiani admits. But we aren’t goldfish; and Americans still go out to specific movies, or theaters, like one of my beloved haunts, the United Palace of Cultural Arts in upper upper Manhattan. Roughly once a month, it shows a big-screen wonder, like Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz, or (coming soon) The Matrix.
Paul Feig, in the NYTimes piece that sent me off on this chase, gave my tear ducts a workout by evoking that great moment in Lawrence of Arabia when a tiny dot on the horizon slowly becomes a man on a camel. It takes at least a minute, perhaps a minute and a half. That’s one of my favorite moments ever in film; you need a wide, wide screen to show it. As a director, Paul observes, “there are moments when you want to do a cool shot like that, but you go, When people end up watching this on their phone, they’re not going to see anything.” Being forced to think that way is, I think, very much the tail wagging the dog. Fortunately, there are movies like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight still coming out, and how about the one that almost won the Oscar that same year (2016), La La Land? Dunkirk was built for a large screen too, so it ain’t over, not yet, and maybe never will be. We are, after all, human beings, whose DNA came from storytelling around the campfire’s flame. Campfire, cave: what else is a darkened theater?
1. Try this interesting read on big screen movies.
2. I mentioned “cantilevered” balconies, of which the St. George’s balcony is one magnificent example. Here’s a little more on what that’s all about.
3. Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru mentioned in the NYTimes panel, is an interesting dude: get a taste here...