I know nothing about the technical side of film. On the (very) few occasions that I actually write about film I do so purely from the point of view of the consumer, what comes across to me. I can say nothing about filters used or angles chosen or whether that piece of music would have been better than this, because I don’t have the technical knowledge to analyse a film that way. So I was intrigued to come across something called ASL (average shot length) as a way of explaining the success of American cinema over European in the early days of the medium. [And yes, I am still reading Donald Sassoon’s The Culture of the Europeans, why do you ask?]
Anyway, ASL is the length of the film in feet divided by the number of shots. Sassoon cites the film historian Barry Salt who ‘found no film in Europe with an ASL shorter than eleven before 1917, while he found no American films with an ASL longer than ten’.
In other words, American films won out because of editing. European films came across as ponderous, American films as tight and dramatic. (Okay, there are many other reasons why American films achieved dominance, ranging from the economics of distribution to the nature of the star system, but this is the one that caught my eye.)
I assume that there are still ways of measuring ASL even in our digital age, so I began to wonder if this distinction still holds. I know European films (and films from a lot of other origins outside the Hollywood machine) can seem slow; is this why? Is there a difference in the ASL between what we consider serious drama and popular drama? Does it affect the way we read film? I know, brought up in Britain, I have throughout my life been fed a fairly indiscriminate mix of American and British TV and film, but there are many American shows, ranging from ‘The A-Team’ in my youth to various episodes of ‘CSI’ that I have caught, that irritate me because of their restlessness, while I like the patience of many British shows. Can you imagine what an American TV company would have made of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, which needs to unravel at a very leisurely pace.
And does this mean that whenever I am watching a film from now on I’m going to be more concerned with how rapidly it cuts from one scene to the next rather than with what is actually going on?