what benjamin prophesized for film long ago has finally come to pass. audiences are no longer attentively watching films. they are no longer fascinated by images or absorbed in the narrative. in the theater, they eat pop corn, exchange loud comments with friends, or respond to messages on their cell phones. at home or on the move, on large monitors or ipads, they watch intermittently, distracted by this or that. the trend has thus been from a mesmerizing center to a beckoning periphery, from centripetal attention to centrifugal diversion. to combat this turn of events, hollywood has jacked up both the visual intensity on the screen and the audio level in the speakers. the ruckus in other words is counted on to keep viewers absorbed in the film.
instead of knocking audiences senseless through thunder and lightning, it could be more rewarding to recognize that this generation of filmgoers needs to take a breather now and then and incorporate distractions within the project itself. how can this be done? the musical provides the classic model with a protagonist suddenly bursting into a song or when a dance number takes place. even godard did his version of it in band of outsiders. other approaches are possible. in attenberg the two leads provide us with regular interludes, practicing how to kiss, rehearsing quirky leg moves while walking together, etc. another tactic is to make the protagonists rest for awhile while activity takes place elsewhere. in sympathy for mr. vengeance, a detective is interrogating the father of a kidnap victim. they are sitting facing each other in a van. since they barely move during the questioning, our attention is taken up by what we see happening between them through the open doors: an ambulance making its way up a hill, policemen looking for clues, etc. one can also renew the attention of viewers by abandoning a protagonist to his fate and refocus instead the interest on a brand new character. that is the ploy linklater used so successfully in slacker. one can also suddenly shift the story from the events in front of the camera to what is happening behind it, as panahi did in the mirror. finally, if the project is online, one can use hyperlinks to entice viewers to digress and jump from this story to another one. anything really to refresh the narrative and, in so doing, reinvigorate viewers.
instead of bemoaning the audience’s loss of attention, do not shy from disrupting your own work.