If you’re reading this and haven’t checked out the film, here’s a brief summary (and afterward, I’ll explain why I think about it a whole lot lately):
The film discusses the effects of meth in the brain. Briefly stated, each brain cell has a supply of dopamine, the pleasure chemical. Normally, a neuron releases a set amount of dopamine, which hops to the next neuron. The next neuron then has a batch of receptors that grab the dopamine.
Once the dopamine has delivered the “pleasure message,” it hops back to the receptors of the first neuron, which absorbs it so that it can recycle the dopamine.
When someone does meth, the meth hijacks the first cell, causing it to release way more dopamine than usual. Then, after all this dopamine floods the next neuron, the meth blocks the dopamine from returning to the first cell...which means that the dopamine just keeps on hitting the receptors of that second cell, sending one pleasure message after another.
After a while, though, that dopamine dissolves, and the first cell hasn’t been able to recycle it, which means that the first cell now has a lot less dopamine. To make matters worse, all this overstimulation of the second cell’s receptors cause the second cell’s receptors to withdraw.
The result is a constant upward treadmill, in which the user takes more and more meth so as to get that first cell to release ever decreasing amounts of dopamine, which that second cell has an ever decreasing ability to absorb. Eventually, it gets to a point where the user is taking meth just to feel the “normal” feeling that was the way he or she felt before doing all this meth in the first place.
I say all of this because when I think of all the sources of entertainment that are out there these days, I feel as if we’ve become a nation of burned-out meth addicts.
I think of the first “Star Wars” movie, of which critic Pauline Kael rightly said “The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes.”
I still remember that when I saw this movie, it was a rush unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There was one amazing thing after another, with no let up.
At the same time, I remember having a conversation with a colleague a few years ago, in which he discussed watching the film the previous weekend.
“It’s so incredibly slow,” he said. “I mean, jeez...there’s just so much talking, and the action doesn’t really kick in until the final hour or so. Before that, it just goes on, forever and ever.”
And he’s right. Though I don’t find it boring, it’s amazing how slow the pace of “Star Wars” is compared to today’s films.
It’s also amazing how primitive the special effects are. Yes, taken in the context of their time, they’re amazing, but if you watch it with a group of kids, they’re liable, with their visual sophistication, to complain that the effects are lame.
And they are. Because after it came out, people soon tired of it. They needed more stimulation.
And so the entertainment industry gave it to them. We’d depleted our dopamine receptors, so it was necessary to make the high stronger.
One of the first things to go was plot development. Many years ago, when I attended a filmmaking class at The New York Film Academy, one of my instructors talked about a concept in films called “the setup.” This is the part of the film in which the writer puts all of the pieces in place, and then sets them on their way.
It used to be that the setup of a film could take thirty minutes or more. That certainly is the case in Star Wars, even with its then hyperactive pacing. No long wait for a setup here...the film begins with that huge Imperial cruiser blasting away at that tiny Rebel craft.
Yet even there, the film spends some time developing the main idea. It’s quite some time before Luke, with nothing left on Tattoine after the Imperial forces leave his home a burned out wreck, joins the Rebel forces.
Compare this to the first five minutes of “Fight Club,” whice came out twenty years later. No wasted time here. The film begins with the explosive sound of The Dust Brothers, while the first shot--appropriately for this essay, considering its brain chemistry analogy--follows the brain’s cortisol stress signals and pulls outward, through the skill, through the skin, and down the length of a gun barrel jammed into Edward Norton’s mouth.
From there, we get the setup in a hyperactive blur of quick cuts, and within two and a half minutes, we know it all.
And that’s the way, it seems, that everything goes these days.
And I find myself, when I read and watch films, deep in the throes of addiction to this kind of pacing.
I see sign of it in my students. No more do most students want to sit and listen to a teacher lecturing or telling stories. No more do most of them sit down and play board games.
Instead, they play first person shooters, where the violence is ratcheted up to almost pornographic levels. A little while ago, I watched a Charlie Brooker documentary on video games, and, not having played a first person shooter in some time (I always found them dull, and some of them gave me motion sickness), and I felt like a depressed old man, stunned at the violence (check out the nine-minute mark of the "Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe" video that I embedded above this essay, and tell me what you think).
When I read, I find it difficult to stay with stories that take time to develop. And, more depressingly, I know that there was a time that these things genuinely gave me pleasure. It wasn’t the visceral, meth-like pleasure of a quick cut action movie; instead, it was this slow, graceful pleasure, one that I could count on again and again.
I see it in old pinball machines as well. A while back, Megan and I went to The Pinball Machine Museum in New York, and I was stunned (and, yes depressed), at how slow and boring the pinball machines of my childhood were. I must have played “Captain Fantastic” hundreds of times; then, when I tried it out in the museum, I played it once, and quickly moved on to the more modern machines, with their ramps and digital sounds and bi-level construction, some of them even featuring a second, miniature pinball machine (“Family Guy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” come to mind).
I used to be so excited when a new comic book movie came out, and honestly, I know that the following sentiment is not just because I’m a lot older now: I’m burned out by them. I’ve lost track of the Marvel Comics films, and feel an overwhelming sense of “meh” at the whole thing.
Yet still, there are these little things.
Every so often, something comes around that reminds me of what it was to get that sort of natural high from a story, in which I felt this calm, lasting sense of seeing something truly great, something that made me simply smile and say “that was...boy, that was something.” One film that comes to mind is “Mr. Holmes,” a film in which Ian McKellen plays not Magneto but an elderly Sherlock Holmes. I still remember, midway through, turning to my father and saying “this is a truly great film; everything is great in this film, everything.”
“Yeah,” my father said, “that’s about right.”
Look, I’m not saying that I don’t like checking out a mindless summer movie every now and then. It’s just that now, mindless summer movies are the norm, and they come out all year round.
And more and more, I find myself retreating from them, seeking to detox myself, and rediscover the calm, quiet pleasure of a story well told at a steady pace. Man, after all, cannot live on meth alone.