Last night, in a rash moment, my wife and I used pay-per-view last night to watch a film called “The Lazarus Effect.” The “effect” seems to be that when you use an experimental medical procedure to bring someone recently deceased back from death, what arrives is not the same person but an altered, super-powered mutation FROM HELL!!!! The movie wasn’t terrible as mad experiments gone horribly wrong films go, but what was immediately impressive about it was its length: the thing was running credits before an hour and fifteen minutes was up.
That’s a movie? In the Sixties and Seventies there were weekly TV dramas longer than that even if you didn’t count the commercials.
Recent studies have documented the diminishing attention span of the average American, with the young leading the way. The reasons for this are a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that the news media, entertainment industry and the arts are both accommodating this disability and contributing to it. The consequences are dire.
The American Century Theater, the intrepid, unfashionable and soon to be defunct professional theater company I have been honored to serve as artistic director for 20 years, goes gentle into that good night in part because of this phenomenon. Our repertoire is neglected 20th Century stage works of importance and cultural value, and one of the main, though far from the only, reasons these great dramas and comedies are seldom produced is length. Never mind quality, depth of thought, complexity of character: what matters most, when it comes to putting “butts in the seats,” is often not quality but quantity, with less being more. The problem is that life is layered and mysterious, and truth and understanding often require more than 140 characters.
When a patron (or board member) would tell me that a play was “too long”—our productions have probably averaged a half an hour or more longer than the offerings of any of our seventy or so professional competitors in the D.C. area—-my answer was usually that a story takes as long to tell as it takes to tell, and if that story is worth telling, it cannot be “too long.” In many cases, what I wanted to say was “The play isn’t too long, you are just too stupid.”
Of course, some plays, like some books and movies, are too long. Some successful novelists need a tougher editor to stop them from rambling (I’m looking at you, Stephen King…), and productions of great plays drag because the actors aren’t skilled enough to do the piece justice, or the director is asleep at the switch. Nevertheless, the trend of sacrificing content, nuance, subtlety and intensity for length alone is a death spiral of the soul and the mind.
Schools, indeed colleges, eschew books for length assuming that the video-game crippled minds of the students—and, I fear, the similarly handicapped abilities of their teachers— can’t tolerate it. Our leaders habitually speak in easily digestible soundbites that result in black and white pronouncements and partisan polarization, or, in the sad cases of politicians like Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry, consistent incoherence requiring translations and clarifications afterwards. News stories in print and on the air are shorter and shorter: I was genuinely stunned to pick up a copy of USA Today after a year of ignoring it to find its content so truncated and minimal as to be virtually useless. This is not good for us, our children, our nation, or anyone.
There is nothing beneficial about a short attention span. Health advocates lecture us about our declining physical fitness, our obesity, and life style choices that threaten our lifespan and quality of life, but I hear literally no one arguing that the culture needs to be improving and lengthening our citizens’ attention spans, and our ability to concentrate on, process, and even enjoy articles, lectures, speeches, books, movies, plays and ideas that cannot be fully developed and conveyed in the time it takes us to brush our teeth.
This is not an argument for bloat, nor a plea to return to the bizarre days when audiences would pay to sit for hours watching a stationary ornamental screen on a stage wondering when Houdini would emerge from behind it free from his restraints (Harry usually was out in a few minutes and then sat behind the screen reading a newspaper until he sensed the moment was right.) I am pointing out that we have an ethical obligation not to allow our society and ourselves to drift into idiocy, and that an inability or unwillingness to accept useful information that requires concentration, patience and commitment will inevitably have that result.
Stupid people make stupid societies, and stupid societies make stupid choices. Stupid choices lead to disaster.
I know: everything in our culture is conspiring to reduce our attention spans to the vanishing point. Well, fight it. Read “War and Peace,or “King Lear.” See an O’Neill play. Watch a TED lecture. Tackle the Sunday Times.
Those of you who made it to the end of this post, that is…
(Meanwhile, here’s a test.)