Attention Span Theater
The Gnats Appear To Be Winning

It’s hard to pay close attention when you’re sick.

I attended a recent press screening of Vantage Point with my editor, Jenn—who also happens to be my wife. I was scheduled to review the film, and Jenn was prepping for a feature article. Halfway through the film, Jenn started to become ill and had to make a trip to the bathroom. (She has since been hospitalized, and I am actually writing this article while she is off having a CAT scan.)

When she returned—having missed almost the entire segment of the film that shows events from the perspective of the character played by Forest Whitaker—she whispered, “What did I miss?” Oddly, the answer was: “Nothing. And everything!”

Richard T. Jones as Holden in Vantage PointAs I remarked in my review, getting to the bottom of Vantage Point is ultimately as rewarding as getting to the bottom of your popcorn bag: you find it empty, but you’re glad you ate your way through the buttery kernels. So ultimately, what do you miss when you step out for ten minutes of Vantage Point? Nothing more than a couple of handfuls of popcorn.

Still, as Jenn and I would agree after the screening, Vantage Point represents an increasingly rare breed of film—one that actually demands that you pay attention. If you so much as blink (or glance down to jot notes for your review), you’re likely to miss some salient clue or detail. You might miss, for instance, the subtleties of the glances between two of the plot’s assassins—and, as one local reviewer did, misattribute that relationship as some moon-eyed romantic misstep. You also might miss an entire shot in which one of the traitors shoots his partners in the back. Kinda important.

Now, it would be very hard to argue, empirically, that films have actually dumbed-down or assume that audiences no longer have attention spans longer than gnats; but a lot of industry insiders have strong impressions along those lines. Jenn started noticing the trend herself after interviewing Billy Bob Thornton almost exactly a year ago.

As Billy Bob Thornton noted, “We used to see a double feature, and we were so happy we saw two movies for the price of one… Now, to get somebody to see two movies in a row, you have to chain ’em to the wall.” His comment made me reflect on my own mindset as I enter a theater, which is often “this-better-be-good.” He went on to explain: “First of all, it’s a movie… and when I used to go to movies, I went to like the movie, and not to pick it apart and to be cynical…” As he expounded on the shift from wide-eyed to cynical, I knew where I stood.

Cynicism, Jenn observed, wasn’t the only problem. DVD and Internet viewing practices are a huge factor, too—and studios know it. How many of us, after all, keep three or four movies in our Netflix stable? When the first ten minutes of a given movie don’t pan out, we switch to the next one in the queue. Instant gratification is becoming the rule—and if a film’s style demands that you don’t have noisy kids, a grumpy gut, rambunctious pets, or other made-to-order instant distractions, the gratification meter can dip pretty quickly.

Arguably, that’s why three of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture have less combined gross receipts than Juno. Like Vantage Point, Michael Clayton is a classy, old-school, empty-headed film than nonetheless presumes a lot of intelligence on the part of the audience. There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men both feature time-warp shifts of tone and pace that alternately tax patience and make heads spin.

But if we go back to the heyday of William Wyler, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, or even Francis Ford Coppola, we can see that serious films of this sort used to mean not only awards but Big Boxoffice, too. Since Jaws, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, though, dollars usually just mean bubblegum and froth. Audiences even had huge problems with At World’s End because it was too hard to follow. Yes, even a Pirates movie can seem too taxing!

In a way, it’s indicative of a cultural sickness. We’re losing our ability to pay close attention to films.

So where does Vantage Point fall on that spectrum? Certainly, it’s no Lawrence of Arabia; it has more in common with Jason Bourne than Yuri Zhivago. But it does hearken back to certain films like The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate—if spiced up with lowbrow touches of Memento and No Way Out.

One thing is for certain: for ninety minutes or so, your enjoyment level will fare directly in proportion to the amount of time your eyes can stay glued to the screen…