Read Old Man Scanlon

Real Time

12 August 2013

Movies allow us to perceive discrete static slices of time as a continuous flow, an artifice in which our brain conspires. Slow motion, ubiquitous in sports television, expands minuscule pieces of time to a more humanly perceptible span, just as time lapse photography compresses long periods. The camera is a time machine of sorts, and not just in the sense of retrieving and refreshing old memories.

Digital technology makes it orders of magnitude easier to create, store, disseminate, and find video. We have a virtually infinite supply of reeking video offal: in the age of YouTube, Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" of 1961 television pales. Yet the competent can also use digital tools, and have created a corresponding plethora of competent, even breathtaking, video. The Gregory Wilson/National Geographic video, "Cheetahs on the Edge," is such a specimen, an antidote to the usual YouTube cute kittens and grotesquerie, an appropriate and not at all flashy application of technology, a sign of hope that the power of the internet can do more than make us stupid. Its slow-motion camera serves as an anti-gravity device as well as a time machine; by definition it lies, and we revel in it. In life we see a flash of long, lean, muscular legs, a hint of amazing power. Through the lying camera we see the cheetah glide through a world where the clocks are slower by a factor of fifty and there's only enough gravity to keep us from flying off into space. We can see everything: a stride that just won't quit, terrifying intensity, and grace that intoxicates.

This example reinforces my appreciation of slow motion over time lapse. You may well guess that I sympathize with the school of thought which holds that the typical modern attention span is a disgrace. I suspect that recalcitrance in the face of speed is the natural effect of a phlegmatic personality, but I just don't think there's much that needs to be speeded up, including even major league baseball.

Sometimes I like to give my attention span sanctimony full rein, so I deliberately indulge in events the benighted consider insufferably long and boring. From the vantage point of a grand porch looking west over a valley toward the Catskills, the widest porch on which it's ever been my pleasure to park my sorry butt, my niece and I are going to spend an hour of our vacation watching the sun set. We have only our unaided perception, with no artificial compression or expansion of time. This is not a movie.

real time

This evening my grandchildren, their mother, and Gram are off in our resort's gift shop. The porch is not crowded, so we can reasonably expect, if not solitude, some calm. The resort's motto, after all, is "slowly and quietly, please." Even at our modest altitude the horizon extends halfway to forever. The color palette is muted, no gaudy spectacle, just pastels merging into each other barely fast enough to be noticeable. As the sun recedes the varied greys of stacked Catskill ridges fade to a single black silhouette, and in the valley points of sodium light prick the darkness. There is no flat-screen TV wide enough, nor hand-held device smart enough, to capture the essence of this. With the safe well-lit comfort of the hotel at our backs, our hearts are easy; the night holds no terrors.

But tribulation does arrive in the form of an extended family encroaching upon us on our left. Loud rapid voices betray elevated spirits. They don't strike us as ordinarily low-key, though, and one guy in particular—the loudest—fails to show the proper reverence in the face of natural grandeur, and just won't shut up. I can't close my ears like I close my eyes, and I unwillingly eavesdrop on inane family minutiae. They're here because they've attended a wedding. The man inflicts some sort of stomach-tickling child abuse he calls "horsey bites" on a youngster protesting in full voice, and delivers to all in earshot a heinous load of contemptible braggadocio about his intimate familiarity and fearless dealings with the putative water moccasins that frequent his neighborhood.

Soon my niece and I can't help diverting precious brain resources away from the horizon to plot a tragic accident for this bozo. Maybe a lingering thunderbolt from earlier storms will strike him down. Maybe the porcupine we saw in the parking lot will savage him and deliver us from this sonic nightmare. Our greed for an undisturbed sunset idyll has driven us to this alarming extremity. Soon enough, though, my bile ebbs and I soften. A good wedding excuses a lot of exuberance. I reflect on recent weddings I've partaken of and find some fellow-feeling despite myself. Perhaps, I think, there is sunset enough for us all.