Tagged: This American Life

Speed Doesn’t Always Kill

Yesterday, I linked to a Wall Street Journal article criticizing television networks for speeding up movies and television episodes to squeeze in more time for commercials. While an informed first-impression might react in horror at such a practice, I argued that it’s no big whoop for two reasons.

  1. TV broadcasts and in-class screenings are, at best, proxies for the original work. No one should expect these viewings to be the canonical version of a film or a first-run broadcast.
  2. Whereas time and pacing might be crucial for some films, speeding up a film by 2-4% doesn’t really matter for other works. An educated expert in film history and aesthetics like me should be able to determine when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

All of this was before I had read Marco Arment’s defense of letting people listen to podcasts at whatever speed he/she wants, published on Tuesday. He has an interest in the matter because he developed Overcast), a popular podcatching app for iOS. One of the unique features of that app is Smart Speed, which allows listeners to skip moments of silence to reduce the overall listening time of the program. In his nuanced argument, he distinguishes between certain podcasts, where timing and pauses are essential, and other podcasts where it is less relevant. He notes:

Podcasts (and video) are impossible to skim effectively, but we can vary our listening speed. Just as not every article is worth reading slowly and completely, not every podcast is This American Life. Even most episodes of This American Life aren’t as timing-sensitive as the Mike Daisey retraction. Some podcasts are painstakingly crafted, artistic “storytelling” shows, but most aren’t, by far.

The same is true for most feature films and television programs. There are some works where pace and tempo absolutely matter and others where it does not. As I wrote yesterday, I would never speed up a Hitchcock or Maya Deren film—or an episode of The Wire—because speed and tempo absolutely matters in those works. The same is true for even less artistic works, but it takes a trained and experienced viewer to know when it does matter. For example, in college, a well-respected film professor—I won’t say who—confessed that she “skimmed” certain silent films at double speed because, in her expert opinion, the time saved outweighed the original intent of some long-dead hack studio filmmaker making five films a week (my words, not hers).

One of the unique aspects of Overcast is its approach to reducing listening time. Most other podcatching apps simply allow listeners to speed up playback. For example, Downcast for iOS allows listeners to audition a podcast at 1.5x and 2.0x speed.1 I have used Downcast for years but never used its 1.5x/2.0x feature because it altered the pitch to such a degree that l simply couldn’t enjoy the content. Smart Speed in Overcast, on the other hand, is a compromise. It retains the same pitch, a crucial aspect of sonic fidelity, but also allows listeners to “skim” the content. Reducing the moments of silence might be terrible for a chilling interview on 60 Minutes, but it might not matter as much for a group of journalists discussing the television industry, despite the fact that both are excellent, informative, and well-produced programs.

You can be doctrinal about screening and auditioning things at their original speed, but as with everything good and holy in this world, it is more complicated than you might have initially thought. That’s why we have to make our own decisions about balancing our precious time, in-class discussion (or advertising minutes), and the integrity of a work.

The above links to the iTunes store are affiliate links.

  1. Remember, that I have only sped up fewer than ten screening and only at 1.02x–1.04x. 

Breaking Character: This American Life Retracts Story

Earlier today, news broke that This American Life had retracted the episode “Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory,” because Daisey had fabricated crucial parts of his report on working conditions in the Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products. The immediate reaction on the Mac Rumors message board, for example, has been almost unanimous outrage against Daisey for making false claims. I too am upset but for an entirely different reason: he didn’t break character.

Having studied documentary film at various points in my academic life, you learn that you can communicate truth with fiction. For most of film history, filmmakers such as Robert Flaherty, Chris Marker, and Errol Morris, have played fast and loose with facts to communicate a larger truth to an audience. I think Daisey, who is an essayist and not a journalist, is working in a similar vein. His monologue and performance, which I saw in November at the Public Theater, is absolutely compelling. After hearing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, you leave with a very simple message about how our electronic stuff comes at a human cost.

Daisey’s performance is an excellent example of what art can do. After nearly two years of performing in theaters throughout the United States, January’s This American Life broadcast seemed to have an effect in the world outside of the theater. There was the New York Times series on the iEconomy. There were petitions delivered to Apple Stores protesting the working conditions in Foxconn factories in China. And there was the Nightline investigation into one of the Foxconn factories, which I found as too short and too soft. Whether Daisey was making up the facts in his performance seems almost a non-issue because he had pressed the public into action, which is what great political art should do.

However, I’m upset with Daisey because he used his exaggerated, composite, or even fabricated facts, which made for a great story, and took them to journalistic venues. He wrote an impassioned op-Ed in New York Times. He went on CBS Sunday Morning, on MSNBC on The Leonard Lopate Show, and of course This American Life. Once he leaves the theatrical environment, he’s engaging in a different form of performance. Perhaps he thought that by disclosing that many crucial facts were in fact fabricated, he would undermine the argument at the heart of his performance. Once he went to these non-theatrical venues, he must have faced a tough choice: either disclose that his report was based in part on fabrications or to avoid spreading his message beyond the stage.

Instead, he chose not to break character. He continued performing in public. Now that This American Life has retracted his story, it will sadly set back the cause of justice for the workers who make our stuff. But I don’t know how to get people to actually think about all of our electronic stuff, Apple-branded or not, and the means of their production.