Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-Going, Exhibition and Receptionby Albert Moran
Whether we stream them on our laptops, enjoy them in theaters, or slide them into DVD players to watch on our TVs, movies are part of what it means to be socially connected in the twenty-first century. Despite its significant role in our lives, the act of watching films remains an area of social activity that is little studied, and thus, little
Whether we stream them on our laptops, enjoy them in theaters, or slide them into DVD players to watch on our TVs, movies are part of what it means to be socially connected in the twenty-first century. Despite its significant role in our lives, the act of watching films remains an area of social activity that is little studied, and thus, little understood.
In Watching Films, an international cast of contributors correct this problem with a comprehensive investigation of movie going, cinema exhibition, and film reception around the world. With a focus on the social, economic, and cultural factors that influence how we watch and think about movies, this volume centers its investigations on four areas of inquiry: Who watches films? Under what circumstances? What consequences and affects follow? And what do these acts of consumption mean? Responding to these questions, the contributors provide both historical perspective and fresh insights about the ways in which new viewing arrangements and technologies influence how films get watched everywhere from Canada to China to Ireland.
A long-overdue consideration of an important topic, Watching Films provides an engrossing overview of how we do just that in our homes and across the globe.
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Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-Going, Exhibition and Reception
By Karina Aveyard, Albert Moran
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Cinema, Modernity and Audiences: Revisiting and Expanding the Debate
I was struck by how little the audience or even exhibition featured in the received film history ... film history had been written as if films had no audiences or were seen by everyone and in the same way.
(Allen 1990: 348)
Introduction: audiences and the institutional turn
In his frequently cited Screen article on audiences and film history, written in the early 1990s, Robert C. Allen makes an appeal for a more thorough and empirically oriented inquiry into film audiences and reception. Hoping that 'no film scholar would write a serious film history with the near elision of the audience', Allen perceived reception to be more than merely including references to audience figures or exhibition contexts (1990: 348). Reception encompassed the confrontation between the semiotic and the social – or, in a similar phrasing, the tension between the film text on the one hand and the historical conditions and mechanisms of reception on the other. For Allen, this dichotomy implies that film historical scholarship requires the acknowledgement of 'what generalizable forces help to account for the unstudiable and for any individual investigator, incomprehensibly numerous and diverse instances of reception' (1990: 355–56). Likewise, scholars such as Janet Staiger (1992) and Michèle Lagny (1994) compellingly voice this necessity for a more ambitious research agenda on historical audiences, and their interrelationship with broader societal forces. Lagny insists on the importance of conceiving cinema as an open field, 'where different forces (economic, social, political, technical, cultural or aesthetic) come into being and confront each other' (1994: 41). Although film is 'an essential tool' for understanding the 'period ranging from the end of the 19th century and the time in the 20th century during which it had been the most important form of visual mass entertainment', Lagny argues that 'political and social conflicts, economic structures and circumstances leave institutional traces which are more relevant than film' (1994: 26). Lagny's ideal conception of film history, which leaves ample space to wider institutional histories, includes 'an articulation among three types of analysis, dealing with cultural objects, with the framework of their creation, making and circulation, and finally with their consumption' (1994: 27).
Two decades later, one might assert that this call for a more zealous and empirically grounded research curriculum on audiences and reception has been heard. Over the past 15 years, a wide range of studies on historical film audiences appeared in journals, monographs and edited volumes, all explicitly aiming to get beyond the screen and textual interpretations of films in order to understand cinema as a more complex social phenomenon (e.g. Biltereyst et al. 2012; Fuller-Seeley 2008; Kuhn 2002; Stokes and Maltby 1999). In the introduction to a recent volume on 'new cinema history', Richard Maltby argues that in recent years a shared effort has engaged 'contributors from different points on the disciplinary compass, including history, geography, cultural studies, economics, sociology and anthropology, as well as film and media studies' in order to examine the circulation and consumption of films, or cinema 'as a site of social and cultural exchange' (2011: 3). Other recent volumes, which aim to display ways of conducting film history and film historiographic methodologies, now clearly contain sections on audiences, reception or consumption (e.g. Chapman et al. 2007; Lewis and Smoodin 2007).
This emerging international trend of historical film audience and reception studies encompasses the usage of a wide variety of methods, theoretical underpinnings, temporal and spatial limitations. In an attempt to grab the historical audience, scholars make quantitative analyses of box-office revenues (e.g. Sedgwick, 2011); they use corporate reports or other recordings and testimonies on the audience coming from the industry (e.g. Sullivan 2010); researchers turn to programming analyses in order to understand what cinemagoers saw in what kind of theatres in what kind of locations (e.g. Biltereyst et al. 2011); they examine letters and other traces left by historical film fans; they use questionnaires or started to interview older cinemagoers (e.g. Taylor 1989). There has been a move away from the idea of the nationwide survey or the mass audience, stimulating the examination of more local forms of film culture or city-related social experiences of movie-going (e.g. Moore 2008). Research into film audiences and reception now includes the examination of top-down institutional and corporate strategies, as well as bottom-up experiences, reminiscent of the intellectual tradition of cultural and memory studies, thereby using sophisticated oral history methods (e.g. Kuhn 2002).
This redirection of film studies has brought forward many new insights on exhibition, distribution and programming strategies, as well as on different levels of the social experience of cinema-going and audience engagement with films. Besides difficulties related to multi-methodological work, one could raise the question of how these case studies on all those levels can be integrated into a more coherent explanation of some of the key issues within film history and theory. One of these issues relays to the connection between cinema, modernity and the experiences of metropolitan urbanity (Gunning 2005). As well as addressing questions about the temporal and spatial confines of the cinema-modernity debate, this chapter will revise and expand this debate by bringing in some of the insights coming from recent historical audience and reception research. Questions of audience engagement with cinema, we argue, are crucial to better understanding the socio-historical and cultural role of cinema in mediating modernity. When discussing cinema's role in modernity and the audience's engagement with it, it is also necessary to relate questions of audiences or human agency to broader issues of structural determinacy and institutional control.
Revisiting the cinema, modernity and metropolis debate
Since the end of the 1980s, an interesting debate has emerged within film studies on the intertwining of the cinema and modernity. Drawing on the work of Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and other early writers on everyday life in modern society (Schwartz and Przyblyski 2004), a whole series of film scholars – including some of the most prominent writers in the field (e.g. Casetti 2005;Charney 1998;Charney and Schwartz 1995;Doane 2002;Gunning 1998, 2005, 2006;Keil and Stamp 2004; Singer 2001) – has claimed that early cinema embodied the idea of modernity produced by urban cultural change. Arguing that cinema emerged as a technology and grew as a popular mass medium at the time of massive technological and societal change (mediated communication, urbanization, transportation, electrification, commodification, the growth of consumer capitalism and society, and individualization), scholars tried to understand this interrelationship in terms of a similar experience of modernity. As a new technology of reproduction, representation and perception, cinema was not only a contingent part and a consequence of modernity, it was also a vital component of modernization – an emblem and a catalyst of modern life characterized by a culture of novelty, shock, distraction and thrills (Singer 2001). Tom Gunning suggests that early films reflected modernity's disruption of social order by representing 'the experience of urban life with its threats and danger', embracing 'modern technology or new environments', focusing on 'female subjectivity' and emphasizing 'the heightened involvement of a viewer in a visual illusion combined with motion' (1998: 266). Referring to modernity as a culture of shocks and cinema as a reflection of this, Gunning's understanding of the cinema of attractions identifies a type of filmmaking that solicited spectator attention through visual curiosity, exciting spectacle, surprise, fragmentation, speed, shock, brevity and confrontation, promoting a particular gaze or perception.
In the 1990s and 2000s, this body of work stimulated a debate on the characteristics of early films, the kind of spectatorship they included and the perceptual changes they might have stimulated. Many of these arguments were heavily criticized – also by some of the leading scholars in the field, like David Bordwell, who identified the position as advancing the 'modernity thesis' (1997: 143). One level of the criticism relates to the thesis's thoughts about changes in human perception brought about by the condition of modern life and the role played in this process by motion pictures – matters, Noël Carroll argues, that are 'better left to experimental investigation rather than to armchair speculation' (2001: 16). Questions were also raised about the attempts to tie modern experiences and the fragmentation of urban life to stylistic aspects of early cinema (Bordwell 1997: 143–46). Claiming that the advocates of the thesis tend to exaggerate the reflection of urban modernity in movies and pay less attention to alternative styles of film, Joe Kember provides examples of early film-makers demonstrating a 'fascination with bucolic rural life', with 'exotic locations' and with 'the wilderness' (2009: 18). In his exploration of an institutional account of the early film industry, Kember forcefully argues that film institutions tended to market modernity and otherness by explicitly promoting cinema's capacity to offer spectacular and disruptive material. Early film shows, he maintains, tried to stitch themselves 'into the fabric of everyday life', and a 'substantial part of the enterprise of such shows involved a revalidation of existing concepts of selfhood and community on behalf of audiences'. Rather than breaking down traditional notions of community, Kember proposes, the film industry 'participated fully in modernity's fascination with, and repackaging of, very traditional social forms' (2009: 213–14). As a result, 'early cinema needs to be seen as a dynamic, responsive environment which developed multiple relationships – sometimes at the same time – with its varied audiences, and which therefore proliferated experiences of intimacy, empathy, curiosity, reassurance and mastery for individual spectators in place of those it was widely accused of undermining' (2009: 213).
A key topic in the cinema-modernity debate, which is central to this chapter, relates to the audience. One might argue that, in general, the modernity thesis starts from an apparatus-led and textually constructed spectator who, according to Francesco Casetti, is absorbed and 'immersed in the spectacle and the environment' (1998: 166). The cinematographic apparatus 'encourages a fusion between subject and object and between subject and environment', so that it renders 'subjects – particularly their bodies – "docile"' (1998: 176). This conceptualization of the spectator and the new sensory and bodily experiences of cinema is mostly closely linked to the metropolitan experience of speed, surprise, visual curiosity and the practice of seeing without being seen (Charney 1998: 75). It is also connected with Baudelaire's view of the flâneur in the city, so that the 'perfect flâneur is the passionate film spectator' (Bruno 1999: 49).
It is precisely here, at this level of the emphasis on the urban environment – the apparatus-inspired conception of the spectator and the cinematic experience – that recent empirical film audience research brings in more nuanced and critical insights. A first criticism relates to the urban environment where, as Allen (2006: 64) argues, film historians tend to be obsessed 'not just with the urban experience of cinema but the metropolitan experience'. This 'Manhattan myopia', as Allen (1996) calls it, ignores the fact that most Americans in the early period 'lived in rural and not urban settings' (Allen 2006: 63). In recent years, a large number of studies have examined the emergence of cinema in non-urban and rural areas; these have mostly reached the conclusion that the metropolitan experience is unique rather than prototypical, and that the canonical views of early cinema are not applicable to the majority of smaller cities and rural areas. The centrality of the metropolitan experience, so to speak, denies the cultural and social geographies that existed and that were related to regional and local variations. There is a recognition that, next to metropolitan versions, there were also substantial processes of modernization in non-metropolitan areas, and that cinema played a role in them (Allen 2006; Fuller-Seeley 2008). Exploring cinema's role in mediating, marketing and informing audiences about provincial and rural modernity contains the acknowledgement of specific societal configurations here, in terms of political-economic, demographic, class, race, gender and other differences (Meers et al. 2010). Apart from the examination of specific rural, small-town and regional-town geographies of film culture, a more dynamic view on a situated social history of cinema was also developed within the big city, where conditions of film consumption varied widely according to the venue and the neighbourhood, and where class-related differences played a key role (e.g. Biltereyst et al. 2011). Finally, the relationship of exchange and mutual influence between the metropolis, small towns and rural environments might offer a more nuanced view of the 0different particularities of local film exhibition cultures and consumption patterns (Jernudd 2012).
Another key criticism of the cinema-modernity thesis deals with its conceptualization of spectatorship – which, as Kathryn Fuller-Seeley and George Potamianos (2008: 5) claim, tends 'to transform viewers and their culture, the surrounding theaters and streets, into a vast, anonymous, homogeneous, mass audience'. Even in relation to the early period, contemporary observers underlined the more competent, active, selective and even sometimes rebellious character of film consumption. A case in point is the way the French surrealist writer André Breton gives a description of early cinema-going in his landmark novel Nadja (1928). The image Breton offers of movie houses in popular areas of Paris is one where people went to the cinema without really looking at what was on the program, where people talked loudly, gave their opinions about what was happening on the screen, and where cinemagoers could openly eat and drink while consuming a picture. This view, which is far away from grand theories on spectatorship, corresponds to recent research on spectatorial practices and the cinema as a lively and interactive social space, where cinema-going was very much part of the social fabric of everyday life. Cinema-goers were not only active and selective, they even became self-confident film connoisseurs who, as Andrea Haller argues, interpreted films according to their own preferences, 'laughing when others were crying', while they playfully 'embraced the various attractions on offer without fainting or becoming hysterical' (2012: 134–35).
Excerpted from Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-Going, Exhibition and Reception by Karina Aveyard, Albert Moran. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Albert Moran is professor of media studies in the School of Humanities at Griffith University in Brisbane. Karina Aveyard is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University.
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