The Practices of Film Reception

Perverse Spectators is an engaging book to read. Janet Staiger’s intellectual concerns are central ones for film study and she describes her own positions clearly and fluently and develops arguments in a thoughtful and considered manner. An attractive intellectual modesty and openness can’t disguise a wide ranging theoretical awareness and critical intelligence. Even when I wasn’t persuaded by some arguments, I felt I was learning something and needed to explore my own position.

The book is a continuation of the work on film reception Staiger began with Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. It brings together articles written over the past few years in which she has refined and expanded her ideas. Her central preoccupation, which gives the book its title, comes from the observation that people frequently respond to films in ways theorists can’t properly account for. She believes that theoretical attempts to categorize people’s responses have been inadequate. As a particularly relevant example, she discusses the characterization of audience response in terms of “preferred,” “negotiated,” or “oppositional” readings, pointing out that, since almost all readings are categorized as “negotiated,” the distinctions have lost their analytical power. According to Staiger, too great an attachment to the text is one of the strongest reasons for the overall failure. She maintains the focus should be more on the context of audience response: “Context is more significant than textual features in explaining interpretative events”.

To articulate these concerns, the book is effectively divided into two. The first part consists of theoretical discussions of her position; the rest is principally made up of case studies in which she demonstrates the potential of her approach. There are analyses of responses to a range of films including Blonde Venus, Clockwork Orange, American underground films of the 1960s, The Return of Martin Guerre, The Silence of the Lambs, Natural Born Killers, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

For a variety of reasons, the study of audiences is now a key area for film scholarship. Janet Staiger’s substantial commitment to this study is important because it helps to keep it at the heart of scholarly discussion. I am sympathetic to the directions she wants to take the discussion and was persuaded by some of her central points. She is surely right that an understanding of audience response has proved elusive for film theorists, though I’m not sure she’s right to describe this response as perverse. And she makes a particularly convincing argument for grounding judgements of those responses, as progressive, resistant, conservative, etc., in particular historical contexts. Indeed, the way she always places responses to movies in particular contexts is one of the book’s great strengths.

Another strength of the book is Staiger’s willingness to acknowledge the problems posed by the study of audiences, and her efforts to think those problems through. Encouraged by her openness, I’d like to describe the issues where I was confused, or where I disagreed or was provoked to think more.

What are the best ways of studying how audiences respond to movies?

Staiger deals with the theoretical issues researchers face by developing two charts that offer a framework for exploring the relationship between audiences and movies. One of those charts accounts for what is going on inside an individual as s/he responds to a movie. The other accounts for what is happening outside, both while watching the movie and afterwards. Here she makes the important point that audience response shouldn’t be considered simply in terms of what happens in viewers’ minds when they are watching a movie, but should also take into account their response to other people and to the overall environment as well as things that happen when they leave the theater.

The difficulty with these charts is that in a laudable attempt to be comprehensive they generate a large number of categories. If the charts are combined (they are described as complementary), there are 7 main categories and 15 subcategories, with each subcategory broken down under a number of headings. But a more manageable and economical framework is needed if a meaningful analysis is to take place. I also don’t think that some of the main categories are commensurate: “Aesthetics” and “Discourse,” for example, are categories of a different kind than “Compositional,” “Verisimilitude,” and “Narration.”

These difficulties arise because of the attempt to highly formalize what is a complex and fuzzy process; it’s probably a mistake to try to capture the interaction between an audience and a movie by way of a chart. Charts are very seductive for humanities academics–they seem to make knowledge precise and to add clarity to exposition–but the precision and clarity often limit their explanatory power.

Closely related to the theoretical problems audience researchers face are methodological ones. What kind of evidence will help our understanding of audience response? How can we collect it? How should we analyse it? Researchers have used a variety of evidence, which can be grouped in two areas: existing materials like reviews and fan letters; and materials generated by researchers through questionnaires and interviews. Janet Staiger uses different kinds of materials, but she favors the first area and makes consistent use of film reviews in her analyses–they fit easily into a research framework, are available in libraries, and their analysis is a familiar operation for anybody trained in methods of critical reading. And they are often the only evidence of responses. Some of the essays in Perverse Spectators, like the analysis of reviews of The Silence of the Lambs, demonstrate particularly well how they can be used. But I remain uneasy about their use as a central tool for understanding audience responses. Reviewers aren’t necessarily representative of audiences; they are, first and foremost, journalists, and their professional position influences how they write. Some are close to academic discussion and write for particular, limited audiences. Others are hostile to theorizing and scholarship and do see themselves as representatives of the broad audience–whether they actually are is another question. It may well be that that reviewers help to shape audience responses, but that needs substantial investigation.

More work is needed to research the second area. The work on film audiences done by Martin Barker and Jackie Stacey has been productive, but so has Ien Ang’s work on television audiences, Janice Radway’s on popular fiction, and Joshua Gamson’s on celebrity. Serious criticisms have been made of the assumptions and methods of this kind of work, and if they are to be properly countered, film scholars will need to better acquaint themselves with disciplines like sociology and anthropology, where many of the problems posed are familiar ones. The audience previews organized by film studios, research done by advertisers, and political public opinion polls would all reveal useful information as well.

Do audiences go to the movies for “meanings”?

Key terms for Janet Staiger in exploring the relationship between audiences and movies are “reading,” “meaning,” and “text.” The essence of the relationship is presented as “reading texts for meanings.” In presenting the relationship in this way, Staiger is in the mainstream of contemporary film scholarship, but within that framework she has made an important move by encouraging a broader interest in reading, one that is less preoccupied with the text. But, important as the move is, it doesn’t alter the basic account of what happens when people see movies.

At the phenomenal level, people do things like laugh, cry, and express involvement, excitement, or boredom when they watch movies. After they have seen them, they discuss their experiences principally in terms of enjoyment or entertainment (or the lack of). None of this is adequately captured by the notion that they are reading texts for meanings, which is what makes Staiger’s account less than satisfactory. It may be that at another level of consciousness, people are acting in ways for which this is an adequate account. If so, that level needs to be properly described and its relationship to the phenomenal level explained. One indication in Perverse Spectators of these problems is the way references to “affective” response are never properly anchored. Staiger is too sensitive an observer not to pay attention to this area of response, but her framework makes it difficult to find a firm place for it.

Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception

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