On Artistic Pacing


Pacing is a favorite criticism of art critics. This topic is very relevant to me right now. The past two movies I saw have been heavily criticised for being too slowly paced (Moon and Departures). Two of my favorite albums from this year, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimist and The Antlers’ Hospice, are very slowly paced. Even I criticized the last book I read on these grounds. It is also Infinite Summer, and certainly Infinite Jest has come under this criticism.

But upon reflection, I don’t think there is any good objective way to evaluate pacing. As I’ve stated in the past, I think there are lots of objective criteria for evaluating and criticizing art (did the person play in tune and in time? how original is the work? did the person make a strong statement? etc), but this definitely seems to be different somehow.

First off, I thought Departures had perfect pacing. When we say something is too slowly paced, really what is being said is that you were bored or there wasn’t enough action for you. Things didn’t change quickly enough to keep your interest. Now worded this way, we see that this really is a fault of the viewer not the artist.

It seems that any reasonable artist will be aware of pacing and will have chosen a certain pacing because they feel it fit or is necessary. David Foster Wallace thought the pacing of Infinite Jest should have been even slower than it was. It wasn’t some accidental misstep or flaw of the artist.

My main guess for the prevalence of this criticism is that our current culture is very much influenced by TV. Pacing is such that you get a full dose of entertainment in one quick sitting. Nothing can ever be fast enough. Things are flicking by so fast that I often become disoriented when I see a TV (I haven’t watched TV in any real sense in over a year). So it is hard to adjust to different pacings of works of art (which must be slower in order to achieve some sort of meaning that is beyond just entertainment). Just because someone is bored easily, shouldn’t mean that there is legitimate grounds for criticism.

Now that being said, the real question I’ve been pondering is just how slow can something be before there is a case to be made. There is a song on Veckatimist that is quite tedious for me to listen to (and in fact was the immediate cause of this post). It just repeats a little too often and I want to skip to the end. But the end, when it finally changes, just isn’t as good without the tedious build up. So in some sense the slow pacing of the song must have been intentional. But was there a way around this? A more interesting way to build maybe?

I’m not sure I explained the issue as thoroughly as I would have liked, and it still remains highly unresolved in my mind. Any thoughts? I feel like any pacing criticism can be converted into a reflection on how patient the viewer is combined with some legitimate criticism in some other area.

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