Real Justice Exists Only in Real Time : Video: Slow-motion images should be barred from trials.

<i> Stonehill, an associate professor of English and coordinator of media studies at Pomona College, is completing "What to Watch For: A Handbook of Visual Literacy" in print and CD-ROM versions</i>

The jurors who delivered a verdict of “not guilty” in the case against the police officers who beat Rodney G. King were quoted afterwards as saying that the slow-motion replays of the taped beating in the courtroom “made all the difference.”

As the images progressed in super-slow motion, the defense attorneys asked their clients, the police, over and over, “Was he complying here with your order to stay down? Was he complying here?” Every little jerk of King’s elbows evidently looked to the jurors as if King were making yet another effort to stand up and charge the armed officers.

Slow-motion imagery is, in this setting, a manipulative abuse of jurors’ emotions and should be barred from evidence. We’ve forgotten the importance of preserving the integrity of the dimension of time because we’re so used to stretching it on the rack of videotape for our own amusement. Many ads now are compilations of shots that are all in slow motion.

Especially when we’re unaware of it, slo-mo can be powerfully hypnotic. Marshall McLuhan paved the way for the discovery in the 1960s, with his distinction between hot and cool media.


The distinction was based on how much each medium saturated a single sense with information. Compared to the “hot” movie screen, TV is the essence of cool: involving because it’s full of gaps.

The distinction works as well for hosiery and eyewear. Fishnet stockings are “cooler,” more involving than sheer nylon, McLuhan points out. The gaps snare your attention. Clear prescription eyeglasses, meanwhile, magnify the eye and slightly repel us with too much information. But shades are “cool” because they retard the information and draw us in.

Slo-mo is used to cool off a broadcast image that has otherwise been getting hotter, more filmic in its visual quality and density. To slow an image is to estheticize it without ruining its verisimilitude. David Lynch’s style reflects that fact.

Slo-mo looks like life, but we lose what the ancients embraced as the unity of time. In real time, there’s no question what’s happening on that tape.


Monotonously repeated viewings and the back-and-forth “toggling” of videotape further contort the linear dimensions of life. Manipulating, stretching and deforming what we once respected as the unity of time, these familiar devices tamper with the evidence. After the Rodney King beating trial, we can all see why slow-motion ought to be inadmissible in a court of law. Justice can exist only in real time.