Suspending Suspense

Curator's Note

In the introduction to her excellent “In Focus” dossier, Tina Kendall advocates “analyzing speed as part of cinema’s long and varied history…including the interactive role of the spectator in fast-forwarding or slowing down the flow of images.” [1] The essays she collects consider accelerated and slow aesthetics and production across live action and animated films, but they never return to the issue of viewers’ temporal control.

To be fair, many critics have commented on the sovereignty that home video offers its user-viewers, such as enhanced powers of close reading. [2] Less commented upon are the ways that disrupting films’ rhythm and pace alters the affect, or “zones of intensity,” they create. [3] Cinematic suspense typically results from the careful sequencing of visual and auditory information. Dread similarly requires the deliberate construction of an impending threat. Both are at play in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), and both can be undermined with the push of a button. Sarah (Stefania Casini) is running away from the witches at her ballet academy. After hiding in a closet, she watches in terror as a witch slips a straight razor beneath the door’s latch and begins the inexorable process of lifting it. Spotting a window, Sarah hatches a (doomed) escape plan, and—wait, I’m out of popcorn. As this clip demonstrates, pausing a movie for even six seconds abruptly disrupts its affective grip. Argento leads his spectator slowly into the crescendo of horrific violence, but speed does matter. Douglas Gordon demonstrates as much in 24 Hour Psycho, but there again the viewer submits to another’s manipulation of time. Pausing Suspiria, I impose my speed—be it that of my kidneys or my attention span—onto the movie’s. I reshape its zone of intensity.

Such incursions into filmic pace and rhythm may be lamentable, but they are also ubiquitous. Playback encourages us to privilege our rhythms over those of the film, to permit where we used to submit. On-demand culture only encourages this custom; in transforming film from an event to a whim, we alter its capacity to affect us. But what of films that are not transformed by home video, but made for it, such as Breeders (dir. Tim Kinkaid, 1986)? How do directors continue to produce suspense or dread when what is about to happen can always be postponed?


[1] Tina Kendall, “Staying on, or Getting off (the Bus): Approaching Speed in Cinema and Media Studies,” Cinema Journal 55.2 (Winter 2016): 116.

[2] See Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006) and Caetlin Benson-Allott, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 203-208 -- among many, many others.

[3]Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 274.


A really compelling point, Caetlin: the spectator's self-denial of sensation. Do you think the effects and implications of playback morphed when online viewing became so prevalent? Viewing this clip online, I would otherwise assume that what is clearly referred to here as a pause would otherwise appear as an instance of buffering. Whether we choose it or not, we now expect pauses in the action with online viewing. We've become accustomed to it. So, along with the ability to halt the suspense to get a snack or use the bathroom (which became more pronouned with the turn to home viewing), our separation from the event of cinema becomes even more pronounced through online viewing.

Yes this is a really interesting question Caetlin and James. I am thinking about the fact that in a domestic setting, that decision to pause may also not always be your own, as James' example of buffering illustrates. The home video setting is also now a social media setting where films recirculate 'piecemeal, fragments, in clips on the Internet' (Nick Rombes, 2009: 24) - or at least, this is one endpoint of the logic of pause/rewind. To pick up one of the points you end with, Caetlin, is your sense that pausing (and clipping) begins to produce a different aesthetic in the texts themselves? A preference for bursts of affective intensity, for example, rather than the slow buildup we see in the Suspiria example? Does a text's offer of a slow buildup provide a kind of challenge to the home viewer, to sustain attention in an environment where pausing is the norm (producing cultural capital when it is successful)?

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