Saturday, January 19, 2008

Slowing Down

We were watching my DVD of the 1980 TV mini-series filmed in Japan, Shogun, based on the James Clavell novel, and starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. This was a long TV mini-series in terms of air-time; one of the original mini-series, and one of the longest. I remember how it gripped the nation, people spending a week in suspence about what happened next. It also spawned a new genre, the mini-series itself, leading to other memorable watching events such as Noble House (based on another Clavell novel) and the original version of The Bourne Identity (also starring Chamberlain, the king of the mini-series actors).

Shogun is very long. There is a lot of cultural detail in the epic that would be edited out these days. If it were broadcast now, it would probably only be half as long. Scenes in this long film are themselves often long and detailed, but nonetheless they are carefully edited. Editing during the quiet moments of the narrative lingers on the characters' facial reactions, giving the audience time to keep pace with their emotions. Editing during the moments of battle is faster, without losing detail, and echoes the pace of the action. It's rare to find film editing this careful or slow-paced these days; only one or two recent films come to mind. Everything has to be edited faster, choppier, more frenetically; it keeps us moving briskly along.

This mirrors modern life, of course, which seems to continually accelerate without ever taking time out. When was the last time you got out of your car to watch a sunset, smell the wind, feel the air cool around you? When was the last time you sat and did nothing—with the TV and radio turned off—in silence?

Anything that slows you down is a good thing.

That may seem impossible to believe, or to achieve, but consider this: Life is as much about how you get where you're going as it is about adding to the list of things you've achieved and places you've gone. Life is not a tally sheet of projects to be checked off, unless it is also a narrative of how you got them done. When and how much don't matter as much as how, itself.

Watching a slower-paced, slower-edited, longer and more detailed TV series like Shogun was a reminder of the changes that have happened in the interim. Hour-long TV dramas used to be about 48 minutes long, the rest taken up by commercials; now they're about 42 minutes long, so more commercials can be packed in. So when you watch a program that is commercial-free, suddenly it seems to be longer, and time move differently. I'm not making any judgments here, just pointing out changes. Switching from the DVD to the broadcast TV to catch the weather news was a jolt: a change in pacing that just pointed out how frenetic TV has become. How much louder it has to shout to get your attention. After all, you're reading this instead of watching TV—or perhaps you're doing both, multi-tasking.

Commercial TV is designed to speed you up, to convince you to try to pack more things into your day. (One could begin by questioning what those things are, or why they're so important to pack into your day.)

There was a counter-culture saying that ran around for some years: Kill Your Television! I never took that literally, but as a metaphor for non-attachment along the lines of the Zen slogan: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! Meaning: Don't get attached to forms or goals, and don't make your mentors into gods, just follow the road. These days I take Kill your television to mean not literally destroying your televsion—although you could unplug it—but to detach from its addictive qualities. Sometimes you want it, so you can watch a DVD, or the weather channel.

Or you could just turn it off awhile, and have a conversation. Or sit in silence.

Outside on the lawn deer are grazing peacefully, unconcerned.

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