THOSE of us who live in Los Angeles County take an unusually sharp interest in the upcoming federal trial of the police officers who were videotaped in the act of beating Rodney King. That's understandable, since the outcome of the first trial so dramatically affected our city and our lives. Perhaps more surprisingly, the whole world seems intent on the preparations for the second trial - for the reason, most likely, that nearly everyone has seen that tape on TV and has been shocked and affected by it.
The very issue of the shocking nature of that videotape now appears destined to become an issue in the trial: The attorneys defending the police officers have announced their intention to expose the jury to repeated playings of it in the courtroom, upwards of 30 or 40 times, "to get them past the shock."
It would not be hard to argue, I think, that no one should be deprived of his shock at seeing several armed "peace officers" clubbing and stomping upon a prostrate and unarmed citizen already dazed by the electric shocks of their taser guns.
Outrage at brutality is a humane quality we should not willingly surrender. But the fact is that repeated viewings do immunize us against our own natural reactions - as anyone who has worked in a hospital emergency room knows. In fact, medical students around the country are required to watch lengthy and repetitive screenings of graphic material, in order to prevent them from feeling "unprofessional" emotions in clinical settings. Multiple viewings can rob anything of charm, or of the power to shock - ca n make anything, literally, deja vu.
People are not machines, however, and their reactions are not automatic. The discipline of media studies is predicated on the assumption, quite relevant in this case, that you can become skeptically aware of what you are watching, and so avoid the effects that advertisers, politicians, or lawyers have in mind for you. If the jurors can be put on their guard against the numbing effect of repeated screenings, then there is hope that they can preserve their senses of justice and compassion intact.
But there is another, more insidious way that the videotape can be used to skew jurors' judgments, and that is the use of slow motion. Since the original verdict, I have been trying to bring to people's attention the fact (which I was first alerted to by Marshall McLuhan's landmark study, "Understanding Media") that slow-motion footage distorts a crucial dimension of reality - that is, the temporal dimension. Dr. McLuhan established that retarding the rate at which information is conveyed involves the vi ewers emotionally in what they are seeing. In his "hot/cool" dichotomy, slow motion "cools off" the image, making it almost hypnotic.
IN the first trial (the one that set off the riots), defense attorneys played the tape of the beating at extremely slow motion (at 3 percent of real time, in places), while asking their clients, "Was the suspect obeying your order to lie still here? Was he obeying it here?" Every movement of the victim's body, as the blows descended on him was made to look as if he might get up and charge the armed officers. This was, indeed, the only way in which the beating might have been made to seem justified - and,
as the world learned last year at Los Angeles's expense, the strategy worked.
Advertisers know all about how hypnotic and involving slow-motion can be. Roughly half of nationally broadcast television commercials now use slow-motion footage set to music - as any five minutes of TV-watching will show you if you look for it - with the result that we hardly notice slow motion at all. And yet the temporal dimension is as crucial to reality as the spatial dimensions; it is one of what the ancients referred to as the "unities." But we're so familiar with stretching reality on the rack of
VCR for our own amusement that we forget what's being lost. For, just as you can make a thin person look fat by distorting one of the spatial dimensions, so you can make an innocent person look guilty by distorting the temporal dimension.
Slow motion can be innocent, or even a source of beauty (as in a flock of snow cranes caught in flight), since it tends to estheticize reality - to put it, that is, at a beautiful remove. Slow motion can also be hypnotic - can you think of a single breakfast cereal commercial where the milk does not fall on the flakes in slow-motion, cleverly getting you to look at the product being sold? And slow motion can even be practical, as in a sports instant-replay that can show you whether it was the runner or t he fielder who touched base first.
But in questions of judgment where thoughts and motives are the issue, slow motion is guilty. It is, in my opinion, a form of tampering with the evidence and ought to be ruled inadmissible in courts of law. Rules of evidence exist in order to keep jurors' emotions from being abused. That is why, in a murder case, for instance, it is inadmissible to bring the corpse into the courtroom: the jurors' reactions would be so emotional as to impair their judgment. Slow motion - this is Mr. McLuhan's point - is s imilarly emotional in its appeal because it by-passes the rational faculties. No wonder it is a favorite device in rock videos and among film directors enamored of the irrational, such as David Lynch.
My hope is that the rules of evidence will be updated to take account of our new powers to distort and create visual imagery, and that more people will become aware that real justice can exist only in real time. Whether through a lawyer's manipulative repetition or through the more subtle distortion of a videotape played in slow motion, we must not allow ourselves to be deprived of our natural outrage at the sight of a manifest injustice.