The Whats versus Hows of Film Spectatorship

[What follows is a 2007 paper I wrote for a graduate level course on film studies.  It was this paper that started me thinking about what I’ve come to term minutia reception studies.  I’ve edited the paper for length, and I’ve included a picture of the reception worksheets my brother filled out as part of this “study”.  The full paper can be found here.  I hope to be able to start doing more research on this topic soon, starting with a paper using part of the Virtual Worlds Entertainment project to do so.]

Since the arrival and construction of the “new” media, it seems that the variety of disciplines that have at some point in their history theorized and researched the relationship between human beings and works of fiction and nonfiction are converging.  However,  from social sciences and the humanities there still fall two different dimensions that dissect the fields on how they approach the study of the person-text relationship.  The first dimension carries the active-passive debate.  While few see the person as always active or always passive, the variation along this dimension still serves to separate research.  The second dimension carries the implied-actual debate; simply stated, this dimension concerns the extent to which research focuses on the reader as implied by the text versus the actual reader who exists external to the text.

The purpose of this essay is not to further differentiate how these dimensions are at work in the variety of disciplines studying the reader-text engagement.  This essay takes such distinctions as the current state of affairs and operates instead from a particular position on both dimensions to further an argument about the reader-text relationship when the focus of the research is the spectator-film engagement.  I shall stake my claim on being further into the always active and actual reader approaches, which places me in a camp surrounded by “uses and gratifications” media scholars, information scientists, cognitive scientists, new media scholars, and cultural studies scholars.  It is from this position that I shall argue for the need to understand the actual reader engaging with the film text in order to expand the ways in which this engagement can impact overall reception of the text.  My thesis will be supported by a preliminary empirical study that is also intended to promote a possible means for studying moment-by-moment spectator-film engagement in order to see the process of reading and its relation to overall reception.

A brief history of the Spectator

Prior to the 1970s apparatus theories, there was no systematic theorizing regarding the role of the spectator in film reception.  This does not mean there were no attempts to account for and include the spectator when discussing what films are, either as an aesthetic piece and a “new” medium.  Janet Staiger’s thorough accounting of spectator theory demonstrated how more classical film theorists conceived of the spectator.  Both formalists, who desired to elevate film as an aesthetic piece separate from reality, and realists, who desired to develop film as an avenue to knowing reality, constructed the spectator as a passive participant, who receives either the unreality or the reality of the film.

However, not all classical theorists saw all filmgoers, and thus potential spectators, as passive recipients.  Sergei Eisenstein was worried that a potentially active spectator may misread the sociopolitical commentaries of films if they were not of the same historical and contextual background.  Hugo Münsterberg took a semi-cognitive stance, seeing the film as supplying data that each spectator will differently interact with based on their innate individual experiences and contextual background.  Thus, we have theorists who argue for the passive recipient where no spectators are different in how they will receive the film, whereas we also have other theorists who were arguing for a more active individual who brought some kind of “interpretive baggage” into the role of spectator.  How then did the active trajectory become trumped by the passive trajectory in the 1970s?

The impetus lay with two theories that developed during the 1960s: Althusserian structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis.  Film theorists became concerned over how films could act as one of Althursser’s Ideological State Apparatuses, owning to the capitalistic industry from whence the majority originated, and thereby could turn spectators into subjects.  Collaborating with Lacanian psychoanalysis (which was also one of Althusser’s inspirations), with its focus on how subjects are created through symbols, theorists such as Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen focused on analyzing the textual cues of films to interpollate what would be the spectator’s position and thereby reaction to the text.  As the camera provided the means by which the spectator entered the diegesis of the film, camera position became a focus of analysis.  Hence the term for this trajectory of theories was “apparatus” — if the medium was different than the visual primacy of the film camera, the supposed impact on the spectator’s reception would be different.

But in empowering the camera by suturing it with an actual person, the spectator was not conceived as an active individual who brings in her “interpretive baggage” into the viewing — outside of the baggage allowed by Lacanian psychoanalysis, that is.  The spectator became an “ideal reader,” constructed by the text of the film and existing no where but in the moment(s) of his engagement with that particular text.  Thus spectatorship was presumed to be a universal and ahistorical matching with the ideological intentions of the film, as “revealed” by academic critics, who somehow managed to not be the duped passive spectators everyone else was.  Indeed, the theorizing about how the “ideal” spectator is expected to respond to the text probably said more about the “interpretive baggage” of the critic insisting upon this reading than the proposed “ideal” spectator.

Although apparatus theories continued into the 1980s, with theorists like Mary Ann Doane claiming the only proper analysis for spectatorship was the text, it did meet with criticism.  Part of the criticism arose from another theory of reception from the 1970s: Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding.  Hall’s theory allowed for the ideological construction of texts that concerned the Althusserians, but it also gave the spectator the potential for being an active, actual reader who had individual differences brought into the engagement with the film that could allow them to resist the dominant meanings of the film.  The research following the encoding/decoding theory grew in the 1980s to focus on ethnographies that analyzed the spectator as part of a larger, contextual social group, such as gender, class, and ethnicity.  While these researchers focused on television texts, film studies researchers appropriated the theoretical and empirical approach to challenge apparatus theories by examining how film-goers actually respond, and the extent to which their different circumstances impacted their reception.

However, such contextual theories were not without their own problems.  While the “ideal” spectator was no longer presumed to be created by the film text, it was presumed to be a product of social and historical factors outside of the filmgoer’s control.  The spectator was then conceived as being an “ideal” representative of the social category to which the researcher placed them.  Thus the “actual” spectator’s engagement with the film text remained elusive.

While the contextual trajectory was gearing up in film studies, another trajectory grew from cognitive psychology’s rise, coincidentally also in the 1970s.  In the late 1980s, theorists such as David Bordwell, Noel Carroll and Edward Branigan turned to cognitivism to outline the specific meaning-making strategies spectators employ to comprehend and interpret the film.  A basic assumption of this trajectory is that the meaning of the text is not something contained within the text that needs to be uncovered by the spectator; rather, the meaning must be constructed by the spectator, built upon the cues provided by the text.  According to Bordwell, the spectator thus must be active, an architect of sorts, who searches for information to complete the task of reading the text and thus achieve the goal of having the text make sense.

A third trajectory, related to cognitivism, focuses not on the specific cognitive processes the spectator engages in, but on the pleasure received by watching the film.  Part of this trajectory can be found in the realm of how psychoanalysis treats the spectator’s fantasy, which removes the problem of fixed positions that plagued apparatus theories.  Pleasure becomes something the “actual” spectator constructs from the text by being able to identify with other positions than the one dictated by the camera’s placement.  Another part of this trajectory is closely aligned with the cognitivist approach.  Carl Plantinga outlined five sources for spectator pleasure: orientation and discover; visceral experience; empathy and character identification; narrational structure; and, reflexive criticism and appreciation.  His discussion as to how these pleasures occur aligns him with Bordwell’s discussion of meaning resulting from a reading of the textual cues.  Here pleasures can result from cognitive or affective reactions to the film, from the meaning-making Bordwell outlines, to the emotional reaction to the narrative, and even to the recognition of the film’s intertextuality.

Both the cognitive and affective trajectories, while they do account for the active role of the spectator in engaging the text (for understanding and/or pleasure), still assumes that all meaning-making will be relatively similar due to the features of the text.  Again we find a text-centric theory of spectatorship, where Martin Barker argued cognitivists like Bordwell are only interested in the formation of the film and “the conditions of comprehension” or, in the case of the affectivists, the conditions of pleasuring.  The “implied” reader becomes a “competent” reader, and loses the variety of factors brought into the engagement by the spectator that may account for the response and reception.  The sociohistorical context and other “interpretive baggage” disappear as the filmgoer is presumed to be able to make sense of the text using what the text provides for this purpose.  Thus while focusing on the spectator as an active sense-maker is a commendable theoretical advancement, the problem with this approach is the failure to empirically test this approach with actual audience research.  The question then becomes, if the cognitive/affective approach is coupled with “interpretive baggage”, which can be translated to a spectator’s “evaluative criteria”, then how can we best go about empirically testing this theoretical approach?

Method of the project

Jackie Stacey may have fingered the reason there is not more empirical research of the type Judith Mayne desired: academic critics are concerned that their position as the “expert” researcher does not allow them too reliably and ethically interpret the interpretations of the interpreting filmgoer.  While an admirable concern, it is nonetheless a shame, because when such research is conducted, it does show the complexities of reception.  Of course, this is always a concern, whether the approach a researcher takes is qualitative or quantitative.

My goal was to pilot test a possible self-interviewing method to measure how a spectator engages with the text, per the theories of the cognitive/affective theorists, by comparing:

  1. One spectator across two texts that share structural cues due to their belonging to a specific genre; this was done in order to ascertain to what extent the spectator’s evaluative criteria interacts with these textual cues; and,
  2. Two spectators across one text to ascertain to what extent two different spectators’ evaluative criteria interact with the text’s cues.

To do this, two films were chosen from the American Western genre, from two different time periods in film production, and both spectators watched one of the films.

A specific genre was selected because of the relative stability of genre conventions across time period and texts; thus, a filmgoer who is familiar with the structure and presentation of one genre film can expect the relative same approach when viewing another of the ilk.  Thus one could expect similar narrative elements, such as type of protagonist, and even similar presentation elements, such as editing style or special effects.  However, just because one has an idea of what to expect, that does not mean the viewing of a genre film will be passive.  Deborah Knight cites Noel Carroll’s work on “junk fiction” in arguing for the active genre spectator who may know what to expect, but is nevertheless actively engaging in how the text is presented.

However, it is possible for a genre that spans time periods to be impacted by differences in film production and structure as different styles are introduced.  Bordwell has argued that films produced by Hollywood during the classical studio system were structured differently than films produced by the French and Italian art cinema directors of the 1950s and 1960s.  According to Bordwell, films made in the studio system had their narrative and stylistic choices in a symbiotic relationship for the purposes of establishing cause-effect logic.  Studio films had a tripartite narrative structure, with its “psychologically-defined, goal oriented characters,” where stability is challenged and ultimately resolved in a happy-ending.  Stylistic choices were to reify this logic through such “unseen” techniques as the 180-degree rule, 3-point lighting, sound bridges, cross-cutting, and so on.  The spectator is thus constructed as undergoing a series of expectations and gratifications, ultimately believing that their engrossment with the narrative will not be disrupted by the portrayal of it.

In comparison, then, what unified art cinema films was their oppositional stance to the traditions of studio films.  According to Bordwell, art cinema films, regardless of who produced it, were explicitly crafted to be against the cause-effect logic, but this opposition was again embodied in the symbiosis of the narrative and stylistic choices.  Instead of this logic, their narratives were motivated by subjective or documentary realism and/or authorial expressivity.  These narrative choices could then motivate disruptions of studio stylistic conventions (i.e. 180-degree rule, 3-point lighting, etc), which could then be argued as a result of an active directorial expression or an “authorial commentary.”  How does a spectator negotiate these texts?  Bordwell argued they first seek out realistic motivations for stylistic choices, and, in failing to accept that argument, they seek out authorial motivations.

If Bordwell is correct, we may anticipate the genre conventions to have changed in ways that aligned with the overarching influences of the time period.  Thus, comparing two genre films from two different time periods would not be expected to result in the same type of reception by the spectator as the spectator is expected to construct meanings for two different textual structures.

For this project, two well-received American westerns were selected, one from the classic studio system and one from the post-studio system.  John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach has been hailed as the film that ignited the American Western as a genre film, while Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven has been labeled as the film to reignite the same genre.  Stagecoach represents the classic American Western, complete with white hat good guys and black hat bad guys, while Unforgiven represents what happened to the American Western when it matured, thanks to the timespan that saw the influence of the art cinema.  With this cursory recognition, nothing more will be said about either film as the participants in the project, myself and my brother, wanted to remain as uninfluenced by other’s response to the films as possible.  It was our goal to not have our reactions, which would be measured moment-by-moment, influenced by coming across any spoilers on about what to expect.

While Waldron’s qualitative analysis relied on recall in interviews and focus groups of the text, this project intended to see the actual rhythm of reactions on a moment-by-moment level.  This level of analysis was sought to interrogate the assumptions of the cognitive/affective approach — if texts were constructed with specific cues that would direct the spectator’s meaning making, then these reactions would be best measured as they occurred, moment-by-moment.  Such a minute analysis would also allow the comparison of each spectator’s reactions to the textual cues to each other and to their overall reception of the text.

To accomplish this moment-by-moment recording, a record sheet was constructed.  The record sheet consisted of rows, one for each specific reaction, that asked the participant to fill out the following: time code for when the reaction occurred; a description of the cue; what type of reaction it was (thought, question, emotion, and/or identification); how strong the reaction was; and, a description of what the reaction was. Each participant was asked to watch a DVD of the movie and to pause the movie when he or she experienced at least one of the four reactions listed on the record sheet.  Thus the number and placement of the reactions was completely under the power of each spectator.  I completed two sheets, for each of the movies, while my brother only watched Unforgiven.  These specific reactions were then compared against each both quantitatively and qualitatively.  Below is an example of the worksheet as completed by my brother.

Across time periods genre comparisons

In comparing my reactions to Stagecoach and Unforgiven, despite their differences in running time, I had basically the same number of moment-by-moment reactions to each: 32 for Stagecoach and 31 for Unforgiven.  In addition, I had about the same amount of type of reactions, especially when they are divided into cognitive versus affective reactions.  I had 26 thoughts and questions when watching Stagecoach, and 23 of the same when watching Unforgiven.  This comprised of 81% and 74% of all my reactions, respectively.  And it means for both films, my affective reactions were low — only 6 for Stagecoach and 8 for Unforgiven.  Based on these two films then, it appears I may have attended more to the cognitive cues provided in the film and less to the affective cues.

That being said, the nature of thoughts and questions I had did differ between the two films.  With Stagecoach, my cognitive reactions focused more on the progress of the plot; I was concerned with what was happening with the characters, their backgrounds and secrets, and what was going to happen next to them as they made that perilous stagecoach ride.  However, with Unforgiven, while I still had some of the same cognitive reactions, some of my thoughts and questions were more directed at the film as an artwork then being attuned to the plot as it unfolded.  I found myself being more self-reflexive.  With Stagecoach I did that once, when lamenting the stereotyping of the “Injuns”.  With Unforgiven, I was questioning the inclusion of the storytelling scene between Little Bill and Beauchamp, as I commented on how it appears to be a commentary on the genre itself.  I noted the techniques used to make the shooting of one of the cowboys by Munny very uncomfortable.  And at one moment, I even emphatically complained about how boring the film was:

(When Ned and the kid are nursing a hallucinating Munny, 1:22:28): Ok, I am getting so bored!  There’s like nothing happening!  It’s all character revelations and relationships!  And so slow!  I don’t even think there are any questions left except when will Munny die?  I so don’t care about any of them!

Of course, there were other plot questions and thoughts to bring me back in to finish the movie, but the point that I would actually have such an active, critical reaction to the movie highlights my overall differences in how I received the two movies.

I liked Stagecoach, even if I recognized its problems, and while I thought Unforgiven to be the better film, I didn’t like it as much.  As evidenced by my comment above, Unforgiven was less engrossing of a film than Stagecoach.  I felt I could definitely see the impact of the art cinema films on Unforgiven, such as the rambling plot full of psychological and visual realism.  On the other hand, Stagecoach was more concerned with action, with being a ride.  The good guys won, normality was restored, the prostitute with the heart of gold secured the love of the angelic outlaw.  With Unforgiven, I was torn over who to root for — was Little Bill the good guy or was Bill Munny?  The only one I liked was the young cowboy, and he bled to death.  Even the prostitutes left a bitter taste in my mouth.  Unforgiven felt more like a piece of artwork that was intended to be looked at and contemplated while Stagecoach was constructed like a themepark ride to be pulled into and pushed through.  And when it came to that particular genre, I liked the action over the contemplation.  Even though my reactions were largely cognitive based, in Stagecoach they were focused on the suspense and thrill of the ride — I felt I had a reason to keep watching so that my questions would be answered and my thoughts validated.  This did not happen with Unforgiven.

What could this mean?  It appears from this preliminary exploration that the spectator (me) had the same evaluative criteria going into each of these film engagements.  However, the texts, while having similar generic conventions (untamed west, longer cowboy, gunfights) had different overall structures, owning to their being produced in two different time periods.  Thus, while Stagecoach met my evaluative criteria because its textual structure focused more on the causal logic, while Unforgiven was not as good of a match with its rambling that left me bored.

Across spectators specific text comparisons

In comparing my reactions to Unforgiven to the reactions of my brother, the differences became immediately apparent in the number of reactions recorded.  My brother had fewer overall reactions at 20, compared to my 31.  Even our types of reactions differed.  When broken down to cognitive versus affective: I had 23 (74%) cognitive reactions compared to his 6 (30%); and, I had 8 (26%) affective reactions compared to his 14 (70%).  We were complete opposites of each other in the types of reaction we had, perhaps indicating the different types of evaluative criteria we brought into the engagement.  I attended more to the cognitive cues while my brother reacted more to the affective cues of emotion and identification.  In fact, he had 3 identification reactions whereas I had none.

As we had different amounts in the types of reactions, we naturally also had differences in the quality of our reactions.  That being said, we both did engage in the type of contemplative or referential reactions Bordwell (1989) and Plantinga (1995) discussed.  My brother twice engaged in the type of “looking at” reactions I had to the piece: one was of the theme of the film and the other was about the film’s treatment of the hero archetype.  However, unlike my boredom rant, his were positive.

(In response to Munny talking about being afraid of death, 1:23:35): This is something you’d never see in a “traditional” Western, and to hear it come from Eastwood, one of our tough-guy archetypes, is powerful!

What is fascinating is that our two “looking at” reactions occurred during the same scene within 67 seconds of each other.  The same point in the film when I was bored, he was thoroughly engaged and marveling over the construction of the modified conventions.  His “reflexive criticism and appreciation” brought him pleasure, while my “symptomatic” reaction brought me out of the diegetic flow of the film, which annoyed me.

Indeed, there were other times in the film when we reacted to essentially the same moment — sometimes in similar ways, oftentimes not.  For ease of reading, I’ll list these comparisons rather than group them in paragraph form:

  1. We both reacted emotionally, with the same relative strength, to the younger cowboy’s attempt at apologizing to the prostitute his brother cut up by offering her a pony.
  2. When Munny and Ned are reminiscing about the past around the campfire, my brother commented on how sad Eastwood looked, which caused him to think about how much Munny regretted his past.  On the other hand, I focused on Munny’s repeating that he was a changed mind, and I wondered if he was trying to convince himself, his friend, and/or me the spectator?
  3. Whereas I wondered about the purpose of the scene of Little Bill recounting the story of English Bob to Beauchamp, my brother mused on it being a way for the writer and us to realize the unromantic nature of the Old West.
  4. My brother reacted emotionally to Ned’s failure to shoot the younger cowboy, whereas my reaction was a thought about how reluctant they seemed to be to kill now.  When the kid freaks out about shooting the other cowboy in the outhouse, my brother identified with the kid’s torment whereas I passed a moral judgment, saying he should feel guilty.
  5. And finally, at the end, after Munny arrives and shoots everyone and talks to Beauchamp, as we the spectator see Little Bill stirring, my brother reacted emotionally to the tense scene whereas I just wanted to know if Little Bill and Munny were going to end up killing each to end this film.

Mostly my brother was responding emotionally to scenes I was responding to with questions about what would happen next.  When the film did not offer me an answer to my questions that I found interesting, I again was put off.  By not having these questions and just experiencing the emotions of the film, my brother did not have this criticism.

As is probably apparent by now, my brother liked Unforgiven much more than I did.  After we both had seen the movie, we discussed our differences in overall reception.  As mine are recounted above in comparison to Stagecoach, I’ll focus here on my brother’s overall reaction.  He said it was a very engrossing film, with a good story, well-flushed out characters and interesting twists.

I thought it was a powerful piece of work…with what it had to say about the power of myth versus the complexity of reality. … I guess because it moved me, it made me feel sad, but happy that it was able to affect me so strongly. …Well, it also made me think about the myths we hold about history and the capacity for good and evil in everyone.  So maybe it was 60% emotional, 40% intellectual. (personal correspondence, 3/4/07).

It would appear, then, that the “looking at” aspects I found to be so distracting, that caused me to have an overall negative opinion of the film were what made my brother have a more positive opinion.

What could this mean?  As spectators, my brother and I appear to have different sets of evaluative criteria.  My focus is more on the progress of the plot, as evidenced by my thoughts and questions, whereas my brother prefers to focus more on the meta-text issues as well as the affective dimensions of the text.  I should qualify this as being a highly preliminary assessment, but I did halfway expect such a difference.  My brother and I often differ on our overall receptions of films, as he has a preference for more independent and drama films whereas I like genre and action films.  The moment-by-moment reactions and how they cumulate into the overall reception illustrate these differences between us.  Thus, in the case of watching Unforgiven, the structure of the text either met or did not our different evaluative criteria.  Even when we were attending to the same textual cue, we were responding to it in different ways.

Concluding thoughts

In examining the results of this very exploratory pilot study of a potential method to investigate the cognitive/affective approach to spectator theory, there is both support for this approach as well as preliminary evidence to show the necessity of its modification.  By examining our responses to these films on a moment-by-moment basis, it became clear that there were text cues telling us what to attend to, and in some cases they may have also implied how we are expected to attend to them, thereby supporting Bordwell and colleagues.  The reaction of the kid to his first killing was expected to make you consider what he did.  The long battle between the stagecoach passengers and the Apache was expected to make you cheer the arrival for the Calvary.  However, as clearly evidenced by the differences between our reactions to specific cues, such as the kid’s freak out, a text cannot completely dictate how a spectator will attend to the cue and the aspect of the film the cue alerts you to.

The spectator will bring into the engagement with the film a set of evaluative criteria as the why that determines how they attend to the cues, which may also be connected to what they ultimately attend to, whether or not the text calls for it.  The fact that my brother and I differed in our amount of reactions shows that I was attending to more whats than he was.  I went into the film wanting to know about the progress of the plot, so the whats I attended to were those that elicited questions and thoughts, whereas my brother was more attentive to whats of an affective nature.  The whats were not supplied by us — they were constructed by and integral to the text.  Our awareness of them differed based on our evaluative criteria similar to how our interpreting them were likewise different.  While the text may bring into the engagement a series of whats, with some indication of how to interpret them, the overall hows of engagement (what cute to attend to, how to attend to the cue) are at the discretion of the spectator.  Now the whys of the spectator’s evaluative criteria are not being addressed here, as we did not go into deeper analysis to determine why we saw each reaction the way we did.   Such a step will have to be left to future research.

As for the method as it was applied in this project, I would argue it does show its usefulness in addressing the problems for which it was designed.  It serves as a tool to addressing the “actual” spectator as s/he experiences the film as well as providing evidence for the amount of activity with which the spectator engages the film.  The method does illustrate the type of cognitive and affective processing the spectator actively undertakes with the film in their moment-by-moment reaction to the text’s structure.  However, it also illustrates the need to be aware of the “actual’ spectator who enters the film engagement with “interpretive baggage” that influences how the text is engaged.  Adding an additional phenomenological level to understand the ways in which the evaluative criteria interacted with the cues, in order to get at whys, would be a means by which to better understand this “interpretive baggage” and thereby strengthen the overall approach of the cognitive/affective theorists.

In the end, I feel this approach to conducting empirical spectator research, as called for by Judith Mayne in her Cinema and Spectatorship, could be useful for furthering the theoretical develop begun by the cognitive/affective theorists by looking at real filmgoers and their reactions to films.  If we consider that the text can only provide half of the puzzle for the reception of a film, it behooves us to explore the other half of the puzzle that is carried by the filmgoer whenever they engage with a film.  For truly, one brings the cues, while the other brings the meaning.

About CarrieLynn D. Reinhard

I am an explorer of pop culture, technology, mass media, and human nature. I want to make sense of how we all make sense of the mediated worlds that surrounds us.

Posted on June 25, 2012, in Audience/Reception Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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