Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Active Spectatorship: The Relationship between Audiences and Films Part 1


Films can have a huge amount of effects on audiences from simply causing an emotional response to some would argue much worse effects such as causing copycat violence. Audiences however can also affect a film and particularly the longevity of its popularity and its status in our culture. Audiences are made up of individuals however and it is impossible to say that a film will have the same impact on every single viewer and also that a film will be read or understood by each viewer in the same way. It is a complex relationship that deserves further exploration. Over the next couple of weeks I will be looking at active spectatorship, the pleasures of film watching, the effects of films, fandom, different viewing experiences and things that affect our interpretation of films.

Active vs. Passive Spectatorship

 One of the fundamental debates in media theory is over whether audiences are made up of individual active spectators or a passive mass of unthinking consumers who watch what we are told to watch and fail to question what we are told or the messages of the media we consume. Active spectatorship theory suggests each viewer is different and many people in the audience will question the film and react to it in different ways to others, not just blindly accepting the messages. Active spectators do not just consume what they are told to watch by marketing that is aimed at them but instead choose different films to watch for different reasons. The passive spectator theory on the other hand suggests we are all the same and our intelligence, life experiences and everything else that makes us individuals does not affect our reception of the film.


Perhaps it can be argued that some filmmakers try to turn the audience into passive spectators by filling their films with very obvious, unambiguous preferred readings. Others wish to encourage active spectatorship by making their films more open to individual interpretation and making it easier for people to read the film differently and respond to it in different ways. A preferred reading is where the producers of the text encode it with meaning using various codes such as music, lighting and cinematography in order to try and get as much agreement over the meaning of the text as possible. It is made very clear how the filmmaker wants the audience to think and feel about the characters, story and events in the film. Blockbusters generally have a clear preferred reading, so for example in Titanic when the protagonist Jack dies there is very sad music on the soundtrack and he is played by Leonardo DiCaprio who audiences are very familiar with. Everything about the way the scene is shot, edited and scored makes everyone (mostly) in the audience agree that it is sad that Jack has died.


On the other hand some other films encourage spectators to be more active and to have to think about how to feel and respond to the film. For example Pulp Fiction is told in a non-linear fashion and so the audience has to construct the real chronology of the story in their own head. The film does not have heroes and villains either. There is very little that tells the audience how to feel at certain times or what to feel about certain characters. Spectators think for themselves about whom to be sad about if they die or even who is the main character of the story. Similarly the ending of Memento leaves the viewer with a great deal of ambiguity about how to feel about the protagonist. The reverse chronology and the revelations in the final scene reveal that the character is somebody quite different to what the audience had been previously led to believe and it takes a very active mind to decide how to feel and interpret the film by the final scene.

Next up in part 2, I will be looking at the many different pleasures of film watching.

Check out the rest of the posts in this series:

Part 2 on the pleasures of film watching
Part 5 on the effects of film.
Part 6 on fandom.

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