By Paula Marantz Cohen
Recently I’ve been working on a documentary film about university students in China. Eight or nine students are the principal “talking heads,” and the film editor and I have honed their remarks to a few minutes each, which we then cut to serve the various topics the movie deals with. This means that I am viewing these students in small snippets over and over again as I construct the final film. In some cases, I have seen the same bit—a 10-30 second statement or an interactive sequence of the same length—more than 50 times. I’ve now come to feel that I know them. I see how their eyes widen, their mouths move, the hesitation in their voices, the gestures of their hands, the way they hold themselves. Some of them I’ve learned to like more, some less.
This method of insight strikes me as new. We are used to duration—getting to know people over time. One of the great innovations of film during the silent era was the close-up. Directors used the facial expression of a character the way one might use an interior monologue in a novel. But it was always shown in some sort of larger narrative context. Now, DVDs, the DVR, and YouTube allow for piecemeal and repetitive viewing. In editing my film footage, for example, I am seeing these students without a larger context, and yet I still feel I am learning something significant about them. We require so little—a gesture, a word, a simple facial expression—to form an understanding, or the illusion of an understanding, of another person.
This kind of learning is perhaps not unlike practicing a small physical movement—a tennis swing, for example—repeating it over and over again until it has become automatic, embedded in our muscle memory. But I am inclined to see it as something altogether different: a new cultural paradigm, associated with the abbreviated attention span that the Internet encourages (the subject of an earlier column). This paradigm may be shaped out of the ability to gain insight based on the smallest possible amount of information. Repeated viewing of a 10–30 second clip—the sort of thing we can watch in between doing other things—may become our new means of knowing our fellow humans—or at least of feeling that we know them.
I say this with some degree of skepticism. Even with lengthy encounters and extensive narrative assistance, we sometimes fail to know other people. How much more unreliable might be these byte-sized, uncontextualized encounters? Still, as we adapt to a world of more abbreviated access, perhaps we will get better at relaying information about ourselves and extracting more information from less with regard to others. This is a topic for another column.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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