On Attention, and Great Films.

Last night I decided to watch a movie. I made myself a cup of tea, browsed Netflix for a few minutes, and eventually settled on the 1973 classic The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman.1

About twelve minutes into the film I was startled by a gunshot onscreen. I was startled because I hadn’t actually been watching the film. Instead, I had been: having a text message conversation; sending a few quick emails; checking my RSS reader (twice); keeping up to date with the latest tweets; and trying, without much success, to pass a particularly vexing level in an iPad game called World of Goo.

I looked the film and realized I had no earthly idea what was happening in it. I didn’t recognize any of the characters. I hadn’t consciously processed a single line of dialog. I had actively looked at the screen for perhaps a minute, cumulatively, during the whole quarter-hour that it had been playing.

I like the internet, but sometimes I worry about what it’s doing to me. It’s not like I wanted to be this guy. The guy who responds to a text message while he’s driving, even though he knows it’s incredibly dangerous. The asshole who pulls out his iPhone at the party when everyone else is playing Scattergories. The guy who can’t make it through five minutes of a film without having something, anything, else to do with his brain. A guy who, in short, spends his time hopelessly trying to multitask, flitting, hummingbird-like, from empty task to empty task.

So I took my iPad and my phone and my laptop and I stashed them in another room. I moved the stack of half-read New Yorker and Wired magazines in there too, just for good measure. Then, I restarted the film and tried, for the first time in who knows how long, to really watch a film from start to finish.

And you know what? The Sting is a great fucking film. The Joplin soundtrack fits the mood perfectly. Redford and Neuman are cool, as always. It’s funny and compelling and exciting. And the details are well-done too, the little things, the costumes2 and the set design. I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed any movie in recent memory.

But I was still a little uncomfortable through the whole thing. Still a little itchy. Still felt like there were things I was missing.

I’m not usually much for New Years Resolutions, but I made just one this year. And it was this: be mindful. I want to really think about the things I’m doing, and cut out the things I do carelessly or out of habit alone. I want to stop shoving food into my face just because I’m bored, stop checking my RSS reader or my email just because a little red badge tells me I’ve got unread items out in the ether, weighing down my soul. I’ve only recently begun to realize that my time and attention are only worth as much as I’m willing to invest in them, and that recently I’ve been treating them as though they weren’t were much. Because seriously: is there anything less worthy of your obsession and your constant focus than Twitter?3

But being mindful is hard, and you have to start in little doses. That’s why I’m breaking it down to pieces of media. Every day, I’m going to try to focus for a few minutes on a work of art, whether it’s a song, a film, a novel, a photograph, or even a compelling blog post. Try to give the artist my undivided attention. Try to cut out all the bullshit.4

Try to be mindful.

And if the behavior I’ve described here sounds like you - if you can’t remember the last time you really focused on a piece of art, just because it was beautiful - then I recommend you try it, too.

Because life’s too short for multitasking.

  1. The Sting, incidentally, was directed by the criminally under-appreciated George Roy Hill, who was also responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slaughterhouse-5, and The World According to Garp. The fourteen films he directed garnered 37 Oscar Nominations and 2 Best Picture wins, yet today I’d be surprised if one person in a thousand knew who he was.

  2. Seriously: the costumes. This film is like an ode to the well-fitted suit, in every color, cut, and style imaginable.

  3. Or World of Goo, for that matter.

  4. Maybe this is why people still enjoy movie theaters so much – it’s the last place it’s not socially acceptable to have your face stuck in a screen. Though even those walls are breaking down.