It could be predicted from the unreality of the digital world, and the phenomenon is already here. Let’s call it ‘fast-forwarding’: the viewing of videos, films and series at a higher speed in order to avoid idle time, alleviate post-modern anxiety and go straight to the point. YouTube has included among its functions an acceleration button and Google Chrome offers now a popular extension that allows you to accelerate Netflix, Vimeo and Amazon Prime videos. You can watch the whole Game of Thrones in a train or plane journey; Hitchcock or John Ford’s complete filmographies in an hour and a half; Lynch’s Inland Empire in only thirty seconds. Quick, quick…!
Invasive licentiousness on behalf of the spectator over an intellectual work that annihilates all respect for the initial plan with which it was created? Or a new evolutionary step in our assimilation of audiovisual culture comparable to the impact caused by books, which liberated the individual to have to listen to stories around a bonfire? It doesn’t matter all too much, when it’s obvious the vast abundance of impacts that we receive daily since we jumped from the TV screen to the absorbing virtual window. The demand generated by this paradigm has duplicated in the last five years the production of TV series, the success of which can be explained in part through their multiple accessibility and the possibility of pausing the image, going over it again, accelerating. We no longer listen to a story, but to hundreds of them at the same time.
“It’s the last turn in a millenary tradition in which technology has transformed narrative,” affirms Jeff Guo in an article published by The Washington Post. “A concept that will be familiar to many. Accelerated rhythm enables the appreciation of plot development and scene structure. And it saves a lot of time because you can skip filling sub-plots and gratuitous violent scenes. If you believe, like me, in the artistic potential of television and film, we might be in the threshold of another cultural transformation in which the spectator might finally be able to gain control of the medium.”
It sounds appealing, but it isn’t quite so, since that interactivity breaks the deal between emitter and receptor. And it proves unsettling for those of us who were educated in the hardworking assimilation of complete works. We accepted the challenge of the slowness of the films of Antonioni, Bergman and similar directors, or the strangeness and absence of classical narrative patterns in experimental films. In the twenty-four hours that the popular Warhol movie lasted we didn’t see exaggeration but the conquest of art over everyday life. We wanted to believe that in the compact impermeability of a work of art, in the difficulties –and the main one was always the time devoted to it– implied in relating to it, there would be a compensation, maybe an elitist one, but still worth the while.
However, Roland Barthes already proposed that we shouldn’t treat a novel in a linear o literal way, but stumble through it following our own meanings. “I see television in the same way in which I read a book,” Guo explains. “I jump from one place to another. I re-read. I sometimes accelerate. Others I stop. I confess that these new viewing techniques have affected my sense of reality in a strange way. I can no longer see real-time TV. Going to the cinema is oppressive. But the more I learn about the history and science of communication media consumption, the more I come to believe that this will be the future way in which we will appreciate films and TV. We will question a video in new ways by using our power to play around with time. Maybe not everyone will watch things in fast-forward, but we will all see things in our own terms. And the medium will get better because of it.’’.
We should welcome spectator empowerment, yes, but what will the parties implied in the project, those who have invested effort and craftsmanship in the consecution of a final artefact, think of it? Author comes from authority and maybe it’s the questioning of the atavistic power of the demiurge what makes accelerated viewing appealing, apart from accentuating its humorous or dramatic potential in some cases. Guo questioned film professors and their responses were critically dialectic. Peter Markham, from the American Film Institute, showed interest in “that notion of privacy, of watching things in private and building your own narrative cathedral.” However, he adduced, it’s basically a brain or intellectual experience: “Dramatic narrative produces an emotional, visceral and unconscious experience. It has its own rhythm, its own insistence.”
Here we should defend seduction over instant gratification, even if it sounds like old-fashioned narrative dynamics. An audiovisual creation is more that a sequence of events punctuated by dialogues; the rhythm with which images follow each other is an elementary part of their impact upon our senses. It is, to put it somehow, the sauce linking all the ingredients. And in the same way that the passing of time is a changing perception because of its subjectivity, the election of a paused or even drowsy time, or of a speed close to paroxysm are elements as basic as the story told or the psychological background.
Obviously, fast-forwarding doesn’t seem so new if we remember skim reading or, now we’re at it, repetitions in sport broadcastings. And it has its origin in the word itself, the first element to tell a story. “We don’t read at a constant speed and we talk a lot slower than we read,” says the downloading page of the Google extension created by Ilya Grigorik. His invention enables reality show and talk show consumers to save time, since it accelerates facts and arguments. “A fast-forwarding viewing translates itself into faster processing and better understanding and retention,” Grigorik says.
As many current behaviours, it seems a symptom and not an illness, the latter being the enormous amount of shite out there that we need to avoid when we surf the net. If knowing how to tell the good from the excellent can take a whole life, why wasting time with mediocrity? as British author Quentin Crisp used to say. Guo, much more pragmatic, compares becoming addicted to watching a TV series to eating shellfish: look for the meat and toss the shell. Forget that a lobster is not the same as surimi. But, oh, these times push us to gobble things down, rather than savouring them…