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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: Your action scene will leave shortly

The week in culture

There's a hypothesis that I think can't be true. It's that directors of an older generation, those who learned their trade long before YouTube and CGI and the internet, find it harder to match their rhythm to that of younger viewers. As I say, I don't think it really makes sense, but I've nevertheless found myself thinking something like it recently. Twice, in fact, and both times with very distinguished directors (directors moreover whose ability in the cutting room is a core part of their reputation).

The first time it was as I was watching Martin Scorsese's film Hugo – his love-song to Louis Lumière and the intricate clockwork of the moving image. The second occurred just the other day while watching Steven Spielberg's movie version of War Horse. And what got me thinking on both occasions were sequences that appeared to be running in slow motion. They dragged – there was no other word for it – and given the skill of the directors involved that seemed hard to explain.

The relevant sequence in Hugo (it actually occurs in two separate versions) involved the hero of the film having to leap down onto train-tracks to rescue an important MacGuffin. It's a classic bit of cinema cutting: shot of desired object, shot of desperate protagonist, shot of oncoming steam engine. Alternate between those three at an increasing tempo until the tension becomes unbearable and then resolve it with some kind of last-minute escape. In Hugo this relatively simple scene is bizarrely stretched. Hugo virtually has time to draw up a pros-and-cons list about his decision before he makes his move, and even when he does commit he dithers on the tracks in a way that begins to look suicidal. And, yes, cinema has always manipulated real time like seaside taffy, but it generally does it in ways that conceal duration: an action takes twice as long as it really would do in life but appears twice as rushed. Here though it feels as if Hugo has all the time in the world, which is mystifying. Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker have forgotten more about editing than most people ever learnt but the sequence here is almost an object lesson in how not to cut for tension.

As is a similar moment in War Horse. Again it's a classically cinematic to-and-fro. Joey the horse is about to be shot, but we know the possibility of reprieve is just out of frame. Basic ingredients: man with gun; Joey's liquid, equine eyes; general shot of apprehensive Tommies. And again everything plays out in slow motion, to the point that you find yourself wondering why the officer who has ordered this dispatch isn't getting a little testy about the delay.

As the man with the pistol slowly pulls back the hammer (in my memory this bit actually is in slow motion) the moment has the awful longueur of a missed cue in the theatre, with some bit of stage business being ludicrously extended to cover the gap. And while Spielberg has been guilty of emotional-milking in the past there has always been an expertise in the way that he tugged on the udders. Here you felt that you were looking at someone who'd only just learned to cut a scene together. Either these are cases of directors deliberately resisting a general rise in tempo in cinema-cutting, I thought at the time, or (a much more awful explanation) cases of directors who are beginning to lose their touch.

Then another possibility occurred to me. Since both films are aimed at family audiences (which effectively means aimed at children) could it be that this was a kind of misplaced condescension? Could it be that Scorsese and Spielberg simply haven't absorbed how practised young viewers now are at parsing a cinematic scene?

Are these moments the visual equivalent of oversized print in a children's book – an imagined concession to a literacy that is not yet entirely fluent? In other words they know perfectly well that virtually every shot in these sequences is a beat or two too long but they think it necessary so that the little ones can keep up.

I can't think of a more charitable explanation, but I'd tactfully like to suggest that, if it is the case, these two have badly underestimated their audience.

Need artistic consolation? This be the verse...

One of the unexpected pleasures of Archie Burnett's new edition of Larkin's poems for Faber has been the juvenilia he's included. And not because it's unexpectedly good, but because it's so consolingly terrible. Larkin agreed about the quality of this stuff, incidentally. "There is not a line of this shitty thing that is free from the most execrable vulgarity or BAD TASTE!!!!" he commented on a poem called "A Meeting – Et Seq", in which he described the sun as "like a scimitar in the hands of a dying sultan". He was almost as harsh about a pastoral serenade called "Butterflies", noting of it that it was written on "a cycle tour. not very good. pretty bloody actually. ANUS". He was, I guess, entitled to dismiss these pieces in a way that we aren't, but what's heartening about them is the sense that while one almost certainly couldn't have done any better at 17, one couldn't have done much worse. The badness of them has an awful familiarity. And that in turn permits the fantasy that if only you'd stuck at it, you might eventually have produced something of lasting worth just as Larkin did. It is a fantasy, of course, but that illusory sense of equivalence is strangely reassuring. It makes me wonder why nobody has ever produced a good anthology of great writers' juvenilia, not so that we can detect the seeds of greatness in their early work, but as a reminder that we did – pretty much – all set off from the same starting line.

Mother, child, and Mr Hyde

There are a thousand ways that films can go wrong, but one of the more intriguing is what you might call the Jekyll and Hyde transformation – when a movie starts out with one kind of character and then mysteriously transforms to become something else. The latest I've encountered is Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child, a multi-stranded narrative about abortion and loss and parental yearning which is very promising at first. It might be more accurate to describe it as a Hyde and Jekyll transformation, because what's initially appealing is it's sharpness and sense of aggression. Annette Bening plays a prickly therapist who can barely utter a sentence without offending someone, while Naomi Watts is a manipulative lawyer who relishes her sexual power over men. It's beautifully acted and intriguingly uncomfortable. I found myself thinking of Altman's film 3 Women. But then a minor character comes out with some sickly truism about love and it dawns that you're meant to take her seriously. Bening's character stops having a psychology and acquires a beatific grin, which accompanies an increasingly implausible and syrupy series of coincidences. It's entirely possible, of course, that there's an audience out there that thinks the second half is wonderful and that it took Garcia an unconscionable amount of time to hit the sweet spot. But it's hard to believe there can be many who like it all, all the way through.