Our Need For Speed

Since the early days of Hollywood, movie editing has picked up the pace considerably:

In the 2007 thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, as the critic Michael Phillips has noted, the set piece in which Bourne must dispatch a rival sent to kill him lasts approximately 109 seconds. From the time he crashes through the window to when he finally subdues the assassin, there are roughly 122 cuts—less than a second per cut.

Still well above the threshold of visual perception, but in filmic terms, it is the kind of pacing we once associated with, at its extreme, the visually and psychically jarring “montage” film-within-a-film in Alan Pakula’s 1974 conspiracy film The Parallax View. “The miracle,” writes Phillips of Bourne, “is that it’s not simply sickening to watch.”

As James Cutting, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, has noted, where average shot lengths during the “classical Hollywood age” timed in around the languorous 10-second mark, today’s films are lucky to hit the five-second mark. The average shot length for the entire running time of Quantum of Solace was 1.7 seconds. … While there are pragmatic reasons Hollywood likes shorter cuts—they are easier to edit, for one—Cutting says they also seem perfectly engineered to capture human attention. “Every time there’s a cut in a film,” he says, “it forces you to reallocate your attention.” With each new scene, the eyes typically move toward the center of the screen: What have we here? It is a virtually involuntary process.