This Is A Longreads On The Internet: The Inroads Of Slow Art In A Fast Culture
by David Zweig
The British documentary 56 Up, the latest installment of the renowned 50-year-long Up Series, had its stateside theatrical premiere earlier this year. The Up Series has followed the lives of the same 14 Britons since 1964, revisiting them every seven years. This “remarkable” and “ever-evolving masterpiece” has a fervid and growing international following, and the past several installments that PBS aired after U.S. theatrical runs garnered viewerships in the millions. Every new Up installment is not just a window into the subjects’ worlds, but a powerful, ruminative event, forcing us to reflect on the passage of time in our own lives in a way that no single film could ever achieve.
The series is unique for the sheer expanse of the time it covers, but it’s only one example of the way other long-term or “slow art” — where either the creation or reception of the work is a purposefully slow process — is taking root across our culture. At first this trend seems surprising. We live in an ephemeral time, where obsolescence — of news, devices — is ever quickening, and quarterly-results-type thinking pervades our expectations in economic and political spheres. Or as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose forthcoming book Present Shock deals with this subject, described our circumstances to me: “the relentlessness of the immediate, simultaneous, always-on society we live in.” Yet as the natural order always seeks balance, an era of impatience demands a corrective. More and more, it seems, people are seeking permanence from art both as a reaction and remedy to the anxiety imbedded in our culture of impermanence.
The slow movement as a whole — slow food, fashion, parenting, etc. — can be seen in this counteractive light. But there is a specific importance, a spiritual and emotional power of art — which I’m defining broadly to include any media that strives to enlighten — that has the capacity to steady our psyches in a way that other experiences and behaviors do not as often or as easily. After all, how many of us have the financial or logistical means for an Eat, Pray, Love-style transcontinental journey into the self, or for harvesting our own dinner? But slow art, if you’re willing to look for it, is but a click of the remote, trackpad or, for the diminishingly outgoing among us, trip to the theater away.
One of the hotly discussed cultural shifts in the past decade has been the resurgence of singles as the dominant musical format. In the early years of rock and roll, singles — sold as 45s — were the marquee format. From roughly the late 60s through the early 2000s, however, albums reigned supreme. The reasoning behind this, from the record labels’ perspective, was of course monetary: records, and later CDs, generate bigger profits than singles. But for artists and fans desiring a more complete and complex statement than what three-minute songs typically embody, albums offered the possibility of a more sophisticated narrative — either thematically speaking, or literally, in the case of concept albums — to become immersed in. Today, though, due to several factors, including the ease of file sharing; the dominance of digital retail structured around per-song sales/downloads, most notably iTunes; and the multi-artist song-focused formats of the Spotify playlists and Pandora stations that monopolize how many of us listen to music today, the cultural pendulum at large has swung back toward experiencing music on a per-song basis, not 45-minute artistic statements.
And yet despite the discouraging techno-cultural environment, not only has the album not died, there’s much evidence of a hunger for it. It’s almost obligatory now for a certain type of trend-setting band, such as Death Cab for Cutie or The Flaming Lips, to release new long-play albums on vinyl. The format has seen a massive sales uptick, more than quadrupling from 2007 to 2012. Part of the vinyl sales can be chalked up to a faux-nostalgia of millennials seeking a perceived “authentic” format for their music, as well as to fidelity aficionados who seek vinyl for its believed sonic superiority, but these reasons hardly can account for sales growth charting at a 45-degree incline.
Alec Bourgeois, of the legendary D.C. independent label Dischord, talked about his label’s exploding vinyl sales in an interview with the Washington City Paper, where it was suggested that there is a continuing allure of full albums for serious fans [emphasis mine]. In an article on vinyl’s resurgence among millennials in The Daily Universe, a BYU college paper, Corey Fox, an owner of a live music venue and a fixture of the Provo music scene for decades, put it well: “Most bands have a purpose to what they’re doing. I mean you’re supposed to put [the album] in and listen from beginning to end and it takes you on a journey. Now, it’s an industry of singles. I listen to music to get an emotional connection and I don’t think you get that from the ‘hot single.’ It’s fun to dance to, it’s fun to drive to and if that’s all you care about music for, that’s one thing. But there’s a lot of people in the music industry and fans of music that want more than that from their music.”
Length in and of itself has virtue. Vinyl strongly encourages one to listen to a side at a time. When you put an album on a turntable you submit to a different experiential frame — one that positions you for a 20-plus-minute commitment to one artist’s vision. The technology itself fundamentally changes how one experiences music. Often you listen to tracks you may not love because you’re too lazy to get up to lift the needle to the next track. (Even with CDs, where it’s easy to advance tracks, this can happen. There’s something about knowing the song you’re listening to is part of something larger that encourages one to take the format on its terms.) And an interesting thing happens — songs that at first were a bore or even objectionable, sometimes, magically, reveal themselves to be the best tracks. This approach to music listening offers an instructive corollary to the much-lamented dangers of our a la carte, personalized news consumption today. It’s critical for both our spiritual and intellectual well-being to be exposed to stuff we don’t immediately want to be exposed to. In the right circumstance, this is one of the virtues of slow art.
In this sense, your Spotify playlist or iTunes shuffle, in all their scattershot glory, fit under the umbrella of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, a treatise on how the interface and vastness of the Web encourages “shallow” rather than deep thinking. But something strange has been happening in the shallows of our Internet media consumption, as we restlessly click from blog post to charticle to HuffPo “quick read”: long-form journalism is thriving. Interestingly, links to in-depth pieces, via sites like Longreads, are particularly popular on Twitter. It seems an engaged minority are harnessing the connective power of social media, that too often is so shallow and disjointing, to promote and celebrate in-depth writing. As BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith suggested in an AdWeek piece (one of a wave of articles covering the trend), “People like sharing things that reflect well on them, and there’s a prestige attached to the longform hashtag.” His point indicates there is an inherent acknowledgment that long-form pieces offer not just more quantity, but quality as well.
But it’s not just about an intellectual putting on airs; people really are reading the pieces. In the AdWeek article, James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic, noted that Longform, a site that links to excellent current and old long-form articles, “has had a very powerful effect on our overall audience in the last year.” In fact, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?”, a nearly 10,000-word, 30-year-old article, regularly appears “at the top of TheAtlantic.com’s traffic reports.” In an interview on AllThingsD, New Yorker editor David Remnick talked about how there is still a “human hunger for deep information, real examination, and the kind of reporting that takes time.” And, he mentioned, to that end, the Web has been a “godsend” for his magazine. The structure of the Web, so oft-noted for its bias toward brevity and encouraging users to flit around, also is proving to be a terrific platform for advancing in-depth writing. Clearly, readers are increasingly seeking a nutritious complement to all those sugar-pellet news bits.
Perhaps most insurgent is the variety of ways slow art is flourishing in visual media. It’s cliché at this point to deride YouTube as the land of inane cat videos and the like, and not without reason. But long-term projects, with intentions of being more than just entertainment, abound on the site. Among the more fascinating examples of these are the “picture of myself every day for X number of years” time-lapse montages. In turns tedious and recondite, over the minutes they allow us to watch the human face incrementally morph as it ages over the years. While these video projects highlight the profound, and potentially worrisome solipsism required of their creators, they also betray an extraordinary dedication and time commitment to one idea rarely seen, not only in the art world but in any endeavor in our culture. (If it hasn’t been done already, someone should be writing a dissertation on them.)
“Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years” has been viewed over 24 million times. And amidst the ocean of obnoxious and glib comments that populate YouTube, these videos also elicit an unusual number of earnest reactions. “This video makes me so sad! it’s like time is passing us by, and we all age so quickly, and before you know it, life is over” remarked one commenter under Noah’s montage. In his follow-up, the near 8-minute-long “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 12.5 years,” enhanced by an eerie, spare electronica soundtrack, the work takes on additional gravity. These types of videos don’t get circulated as widely as the one-minute silly stuff, but they are having a deep effect on many who come across them, including pushing some to embark on creating their own montages. One recent comment, of the over eight-thousand for this sequel, is “I remember watching his 6 year video 3 years ago and being inspired by it. I’ve now actually made a 3 year everyday video!” Photo-a-day videos of children (a related genre, presumably created by the subjects’ parents), have their own, in some ways wholly different value. “Natalie Time Lapse: Birth to 10 Years Old In 1 Min 25 Sec,” maybe because of the speed of its time-lapse, feels whimsical at first. Yet, ultimately, proves more affecting than the self-pic videos made by adolescents and adults. At first I wasn’t sure why. But scrolling through the comments it became clear. Many of them noted how Natalie smiled less as she got older. The top comment at the time of this writing is, “When she started school, she became sad :))” The inexplicable inclusion of the smiley face emoticon adds an extra dimension to the whole topic that warrants an analysis all its own.
Another area of filmed slow art gaining traction is the proliferation and acclaim over the last several years of long-arc TV series, where plotlines extend throughout a season or multiple seasons. This runs in contrast to the episodic plots that dominated highbrow television for the past 30-plus years. Instead of everything predictably being wrapped up in an hour, scripts and characters are given a chance to breathe, and richly develop, at their best more closely resembling and reflecting life. When the long-arc is done superficially like a soap opera, the narrative merely functions as a cliffhanger device to keep viewers returning. One can feel the contrivance of yet another melodramatic plot twist in an attempt to keep us hooked. This frustratingly became the case with “Downton Abbey,” as more deaths, miraculous paralysis recoveries and the like occurred with increasing regularity. But when done with nuance, such as the complex ebb and flow of character growth, regressions and stasis of “Mad Men” (anti)hero Don Draper over the course of a season, even multiple seasons, entertainment is elevated to art.
What may turn out to be an amalgamation of the time-lapse video montages, Up Series subject revisits, and long-arc fictional narratives, is Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood. A twelve-year project, which will wrap shooting next year, Linklater has been filming the same core group of actors, shooting them for a short stretch once each year. The film, starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, chronicles the life of divorced parents and their son, who we will watch grow from age 6 to 18 during the film. Most affecting will certainly be the young boy, played by Ellar Salmon, as we witness him age on screen during those formative years. As Hawke — whose work with Linklater on the Before trilogy became another long-form project — said in an interview with IndieWire, “About 20 minutes, your eyes just start tearing up and you don’t even know why. It’s about the nature of time and how it’s crashing into us all.” In a separate interview on the movie blog Flixist, Hawke elaborated, “In just the period of a two-hour movie, you watch a human being grow up. It’s almost like watching a flower bloom in time-elapsed photography. For one minute you’re watching a six-year-old boy, and it’s so beautiful what Richard does with time: you don’t ever see him go from six to seven, to seven to eight, to eight to nine.” He added, “I think it’s the greatest thing that Linklater’s ever done. It’s mind-blowing.”
So perhaps it is with a lack of awareness, rather than hubris, that director Michael Apted, who has been with the Up Series since its first installment, 7 Up, in 1964, said to me, “My feeling is no one is ever going to do this again.”
Apted, who has shot classics like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist as well as blockbusters like The World is Not Enough and a Chronicles of Narnia sequel, has a long history with the powers and purse-string holders of the movie business. He explained that unlike when he began in the 60s, when there seemed to be more stability with the companies that make film, today “it’s so fragile. The ground is so uncertain underneath in broadcasting and communications that no one is going to say ‘let’s invest in this for the next 50 years.’” And beyond financing, Apted noted, there are the insurmountable copyright issues that would occur if a long-term production switched from one financier to another, as each would retain the rights to the earlier material, making it impossible to use in subsequent installments. Of course Boyhood is twelve years in the making, not fifty, and it’s not a documentary, but its longitudinal nature ties the projects together. And so one can’t help but be slightly more optimistic than Apted about the possibility of other long-term film projects, perhaps not done quite like the extraordinary Up Series, but in different and still powerful ways, like Boyhood. Linklater, thus far, has found a way to finance the film and retain the actors for the duration.
There’s no doubt that the viewership of “Mad Men” is, of course, limited relative to “Big Bang Theory”-type ratings. However, it’s fair to say that the show’s cultural impact is larger than its viewership because of its amplified media coverage. And, yes, more people are spending time on banal Facebook updates than in-depth articles and essays. But I suggest that the people who are engaged with these slow-art projects — the Up Series viewers, the Longreads followers, whoever is going to watch Linklater’s Boyhood — include many of the same influencers who launch cultural trends, and so we’ll be seeing more of this work making inroads into the larger populace. This isn’t to claim that slow art will ever be the cultural ethos, only that it will persist, and perhaps grow, as a critical reaction to, or even refuge from the sped-up culture at large.
Rushkoff, the media theorist, concurred: “The art and media many of us are attracted to these days helps serve as markers in the timeline.” Adding, “It’s the way a roadside billboard can actually help you on the highway, creating a singular point of focus as you drive.” As the technologically-induced speed of everything continues to exponentially increase, people will desire, indeed, require, time-slowing havens to ground us, let us pause, and reposition how we experience and interpret the world.
If you don’t catch 56 Up in theaters this spring, you’re in luck — PBS recently purchased the US television rights and plans to air the film next fall.
David Zweig is the author of the novel Swimming Inside the Sun, and the forthcoming Invisibles (Portfolio/Penguin), a book about the power of anonymous work. He writes regularly about the intersection of technology, media, and psychology for a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Atlantic, among others. His website is here.