Beeban Kidron’s new film offers a treatise on the internet generation.
This is a generation of boys who prefer porn to real relationships, it is a generation of youths who will sell their bodies in order to get and/or keep a mobile phone, it is a generation addicted to video games, it is a generation with a short attention span, and it is a generation that is happy to give away all and any information about itself to profiling companies that store detailed records of what they have done online and when.
But it is not all downbeat. We also see that the internet can function as a tool for bringing people together, particularly two young gay gentlemen from opposite ends of the UK, and whose relationship would not have started without the electronic devices that dominate our time in the contemporary world.
Nonetheless, in spite of the upbeat nature of the film’s ending, InRealLife is as much as anything a bit of scare-mongering about the internet generation. It features informed vox pops from the likes of Nicholas Negroponte, Sherry Turkle, Norman Doidge and others who have written about the internet and its effects on behaviour, the construction of one’s own identity and the neuronal connections in the brain.
Indeed, to see so many academics – most of whom are associated with MIT – is pleasing, although also a bit frustrating, in that the film offers us soundbites of their work, rather than any of their work. That is, the film does not allow us to get into depth about the issue at hand.
To this end, the film arguably suffers from the very same things that it seeks to criticise. And this is mainly because the film does not seem to acknowledge its own status as a film – and that cinema surely has a major part to play in the acceleration of the contemporary world, the need for endless visual distraction, and the shortening of attention that seems to accompany these things.
There are several examples of this. Firstly, we see this in the film’s overall structure. We go from the porn kids to the girl, Page, who was raped to retrieve her Blackberry, to interviews with various specialists, to dysfunctional gamers, to the gay gents, to others. In other words, the film does not want actually to engage in depth with any one of these figures, but instead offers them up for easy consumption, gets bored, and then moves on.
This is exacerbated by the film’s parallel editing; we move from one storyline to another, back to the first, start a third, back to the second, back to the third, back to the first, and so on. Again, we have before us evidence that it is pleasing for humans to take on multiple pieces of information via story strands in parallel, but Kidron does not even wonder whether this acceleration – following three stories in rather shallow fashion, as opposed to seeing any one story through to the deepest point one can go – is in fact on the same continuum as the intensified version of this that is the screen-filled culture of today.
Cinema, it seems, is exempt from a role in the shortening of attention spans, while the internet, games consoles and mobile phones are the chief culprits. And yet surely this cannot be the case.
The same problem is manifest in the film’s insistent use of the zoom in order to hone in on its subjects. Obviously the image in long or medium shot is too boring for viewers, and so instead we must move in on a particular detail in order to give the image more focus. Heaven forbid that viewers might apply concentration to watching a film image and visually search it; no, instead it is easier for the filmmaker to tell us where to look. And since we are deprived of choice regarding where in the visual field we might look, and since we are via the cuts and parallel story lines, given more information at once than we would have in the ‘real’ world, then naturally the ‘slower’ and real world seems a bit, well, slow, and thus boring in comparison.
It is not, then, that Kidron is necessarily wrong in the points that she seems to make regarding the negative effects that growing up with the internet might have on society, perhaps even on humans as a species.
It is more that in its own way InRealLife contributes to the very problem that it seeks to expose – and it should acknowledge this more clearly (it does not acknowledge this at all).
When I teach Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941) and students sit through it looking at their mobile phone, it is not simply that they cannot sit through 119 minutes of a film with a slow cutting rate that worries me (the cutting rate is important; they can sit through 201 minutes of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, USA/New Zealand, 2003) – in part perhaps because the film has a much higher cutting rate).
What concerns me is the possibility – unproven – that people today – adults and youths – cannot sit in the real world and engage with it. To concentrate on the world that surrounds us, and to think about it via concentration, this is the skill that is lacking. The Citizen Kane thing is simply a symptom, and teaching students to engage in film is really an attempt to encourage them to think about reality, to think about all things.
One has to put in effort in order to get anything out of anything – and if one is in a state of permanent distraction, with visual onsets coming repeatedly to us via our engagement with ubiquitous screens, then we shall not necessarily put effort in to find anything of interest. Like the cut, like the zoom, the screens do it for us.
Kidron’s film is relatively interesting, but I think she misses the need for auto-critique as a filmmaker before she casts her stones.