ďThe demand of immediate gratification is death for any art which takes place over time.Ē
- David Mamet
Cuts are a necessary part of any filmed work. At their most useful, they serve two distinct purposes: to indicate a shift in narrative time and/or space, or to create the impression of a concept via two different images (successive shots of a clock and fingers drumming a table would suggest anxiety or impatience). These are commonplace and everyone understands their implications.
Something has gone horribly wrong in recent years, in that the cut has become radically abused in movies and in television shows. Cuts have become so easy to make, via computerized editing, that they have become easy to overuse; this overuse has become wrongly construed as style; this style has taken to the air like a fatal spore and infected so much of modern visual entertainment and news. No one seems to recognize the disease for what it is - no one in the vanguard of visual production, at any rate.
We see it in the action film where no shot is held longer than a few seconds. We see it in television, especially ďinformativeĒ or ďrealityĒ television, where multiple camera angles, sped up film, unnecessary pans, and an endless bag of gimmicks fragment whatever content is there. And thatís the crux of the matter - the seizure-inducing cut sequence is one way to mask lack of content. TV must keep your attention, with that remote in your hand, and it wonít stop short of sensory overload - pure hypnosis.
Do we need multiple angles and resolutions for a simple interview? Do we need a montage of shots held for less than a second each to introduce a program? Is it possible for any Hollywood suit to approve of a movie trailer that doesnít end in an orgasm of glimpses? This fragmented presentation is no more an example of style (in any meaningful sense) than smashing a guitar to bits against a howling amplifier is an example of ďcontrolled feedback.Ē The attempt to communicate via the mind is abandoned for an indulgent assault on the recipientís senses.
MTV has cultivated its own audio-visual language, with snippets of songs and disconnected video clips being the main tissue of the channelís reality-oriented shows. Nothing is developed in linear fashion (although it may be edited to give such an impression); no mood is sustained for longer than a few seconds; and Nononono / Time / isallowedfor Re-FLEC/tion or ac.tive. thoughtproc-esses. Itís entertainment for the mentally impaired. (And this same channel presumes to tell people how to vote.)
My question is what the cut-up sensibility (oxymoron) will do, in the long run, to how people receive and process information. I suppose the long run will tell. In the meantime, Iím convinced that jumpy presentation is one way to make the viewer believe in information that isnít there.
Meanwhile, the Internet, for all of its conveniences and expediency, conditions the user as well. We read things online, but unlike a newspaper or book, web content is subject to change at any time, and itís surrounded by ads. News sites, for one, change content all the time, and in that sense, theyíre like television with text. But what strikes me is the sheer number of links that any web viewer looks at. We can say that links are the ultimate convenience of the web, but viewed another way, they are also distractions from whatever weíre ostensibly looking at on a given webpage. Go to any dot-com site and count how many escape routes the viewer has on any page. Thatís what they are - ďnot happy with what youíre looking at? Go here! Or go here!Ē
This contributes to a snowballing anxiety over time. We might be missing something, so we get enslaved to email and what might be new on the WWW today. The most important notion in Neil Postmanís book Amusing Ourselves to Death is that the invention of the telegraph didnít just allow communication between distant locales, it demanded it. Our current technological boom is focused on plentiful modes of communication, such as the electronic leashes known as mobile phones, and the skeptic might wonder how much of the information rush is actually valuable. They might also point out that society hummed at a productive rate long before civilians toted Nextels into grocery stores. People simply planned in advance.
But I digress. Iím aware of the irony in where the reader is reading my words, and Iím not a Luddite, but the web requires some perspective. We should recognize that its audio-visual assault no more represents a continuous reality than does television, and neither does any favors for the attention span. After all, with one click of a button, you can be somewhere else.
So what might any of this have to do with jazz? Well, every so often, someone wonders why the music isnít more popular, and part of the answer is no mystery to me: our jump-cut culture conditions against it. Jazz falls way below the approval threshold of a soundbitten society. ďWhy donít we see more jazz on television?Ē Because the medium outlaws it. I donít mean that we see PSAs warning us against jazz (or classical, or whatever music doesnít fit the Top 40 mold), but that it doesnít play in the format, so to speak, and thus it may as well not even exist. So where does the average person get exposed to it? Itís music that takes time and attention, and so much of popular culture allows us to tune in and tune out with no concern for a real-time continuum. Everything on television or in movies is broken up, cut into pieces that manipulate us. (Iím not saying itís all bad; thatís just how it works.) A lot of Pro-Tools-assembled pop music is the same way. You canít cut up jazz. You canít slather it in unnecessary visuals. You canít dumb it down. You canít go from American Idol or The Apprentice or MTV to John Coltrane. Let alone whatís happening at your club of choice in New York or Chicago.
Iím not a pessimist, though. Jazz (and other absolute music) is far from dead; it knows many musicians and listeners, and it will survive for a time to come, Iíd say. But itís directly at odds with pop culture and media. Some people can cross that divide with no problem, but not the majority. Back to the top: Iíve opened more cans of worms than Iíve dealt with in this essay, and I havenít really connected all the dots. But maybe itís best to let the larger questions sit, for now. Where does society go when itís fully ďconnected,Ē as ad copy insists? What do people make, in the long run, of dislocated, ephemeral information? How will they reconcile the increasingly virtual world with the real one? FLASH-CUT: suddenly, itís Britney.