The Art of Pacing in Film
Factors that make a good move, great
Films that stumble along with no dramatic buildup bore me into gloom and discomfort.
I do not claim to be a movie buff or an expert. But it is safe to say that it hurts my soul to watch a poor film.
I now know the reason why most films fail to move me. The issue is pacing—the rate of movement and progress.
Pacing is an important tool in art. When I write columns, I try to make my words sing. I want reading to feel like a breeze. That means that I attempt, and sometimes fail, to use shorter sentences. I play with my structure and I work with my diction.
Novels have pacing. Some novels move more ‘slowly’ and develop characters more delicately. Others move at a brisk pace. But the best, the ones that stick in our minds most, are the works that incorporate both.
In film, I think this makes all the difference.
A proper pace is essential. A great film will move in my mind as if it were suspended in air. My eyes are fixed on the film. My mind is entrenched in the world of the film. I ‘oooo’ and ‘ahhh’ at every turn.
Too many films are in a hurry. They want to bombard me with the characters, the action, and the plot. They want me to know that the child has been kidnapped. They want me to know that the diamond thief is missing. They want me to know that the husband has committed adultery.
A rushed film fails to grip me by the arms. In the end, I don’t FEEL much of anything.
Regretfully, many movies are designed for the purpose of money only. This is why things move so quickly. There is no pace because they feel that we cannot handle an interesting buildup. They feel that we are too stupid to be patient. They are probably right so I cannot blame them.
But in the end, those movies are not ultimately satisfying.
For example, let us contrast two recent films: Prisoners with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Snitch with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
I enjoyed Snitch although it wasn’t praised by critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 56% percent rating which is considered a ‘mixed’ review.
I felt that Johnson’s performance was convincing. I am biased however because I like him as an actor and I grew up watching him as a wrestler. Take my praise of him with a grain of salt.
But the film probably received ‘mixed’ reviews because it failed to get the message across. I feel the issue was pace. The film felt rushed.
The audience is presented the conundrum and many subplots. We quickly know that the protagonist is a divorcee. He is now wealthy, owns a business, has a new family etc. He also feels guilty that he lost touch with his only son from the previous marriage. This leads him to rush and save his son who has been placed in jail for drug possession. He could end up in jail for 10 years.
You see that infodump? I presented you a bunch of knowledge with zero pace and flow. That’s the problem with the film. We are given everything and we have no time to react or even think about what is going on.
Contrast that with a film like Prisoners. Wow. That film gripped me. We are shown the status quo. Hugh Jackman plays a family man of Christ. He is a so-called ‘good American.’ The film didn’t have to tell me that. But with all the symbolism presented, I felt that.
On Thanksgiving Day no less, his daughter was kidnapped. I could feel the fear he felt. I am no parent. I simply work with kids as a camp counselor. But I realized that I had felt that fear before. When you lose a child, even for one second, your mind pulsates. You can almost feel your cortex bubbling in pain.
The film had great pace. It gradually gave me the bits and pieces I needed. I must also add that Gyllenhaal and other actors performed marvelously. Please, go see that film.
The classic films, the ones that stick in my head, have great pacing. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring Sidney Poitier and Katherine Hepburn is one example. Yes, the move focuses on a controversial topic and that adds to its acclaim. But the pacing adds to the experience.
Other films that effectively manipulate pacing are Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, Saving Private Ryan by Spielberg, Platoon by Oliver Stone, American Beauty by Sam Mendes, Pulp Fiction by Tarantino, and another favorite of mine, The Godfather.
The Godfather is actually the film that led me to this epiphany. I was lying down, watching the film at 5:14 in the morning. I hit pause and fell asleep at 6:30 as my eyes could no longer bear the fatigue.
Awoken, I looked at the clock and saw that it read 11:48 am. I could not fall back to sleep so I hit play once more. I left off at the scene where Michael Corleone offers to kill Sollozzo.
Something clicked for me that moment. The film was paused right in the middle. How could it be that I didn’t feel like I missed anything? The answer lies within pace.
The film made me feel that I was in New York, personally watching those gun battles and crime talks. The film moves me because it does not try to rush anything.
A good film will have an interesting plot with conflicting characters. But a great film, the classics in my mind or yours, will move as if time is suspended. Nothing else will matter.