Film Spectatorship

Something that has always fascinated me is film spectatorship in regards to Slow Cinema. While film spectatorship as a subject isn’t entirely absent from research, it is not as big a subject as it deserves. The problem with spectatorship is that “spectators” are an unknown, unlimited, undefinable mass. It’s difficult to study and easy to generalise. Every spectator is different from another. We’re all individuals, and our perception of certain films is shaped by the way we grew up, where we were born, our life experiences, even our social circle. Spectatorship is multi-facetted, which is, I believe, what makes it so fascinating. It is not something that can be easily defined. Nor, perhaps, for that matter, written about with absolute clarity.

La direction de spectateurs, edited by Dominique Chateau (2015), is an interesting compilation that is the result of a symposium on the subject of film spectatorship held in several places in France, the UK and the Netherlands. There seems to be a habit with good Belgian publishers (and I’m getting more and more interested in them) that they always include film / art professionals in books, so as to avoid selling tough, dry, and theoretical analyses. For them, it appears to be important to bring together the worlds of research and of practice, and this always shows in the quality of their publications (maybe it’s worth thinking about writing my Lav Diaz book in French and publish it through a Belgian publisher).

I don’t want to review the entire book here, even though it is an interesting read and I sure recommend you get yourself a copy if you can read French. I would much rather like to focus on one specific chapter, which made me think a lot about Slow Cinema, contemplation, and my work for tao films. The chapter is entitled Le regard activé – Défis des cinématographies expérimentales and is based on a talk by artist Katerina Thomadaki. Together with Maria Klonaris, she’s been making non-narrative experimental films that have founded and shaped the concept of corporeal cinema as early as the 1970s. Her insights into making those films and her take on the audience is quite intriguing, and I’d like to note a couple of points.

First of all, it is important to note her point that it is common practice to assume that the spectator (or viewer, a term which I personally prefer given the films we’re speaking of which are not at all spectacular) is pre-conditioned. We heave learned “how” to watch a film. We look out for specific characteristics, such as camera angles, changes in colour, etc in order to interpret a film. Thomadaki describes this as “coded learning” and “conditioned expectations”. This coding, this conditioning, is what leads certain viewers to reject certain films. I believe this goes back to a previous post about yes-boredom and no-boredom, i.e. the viewer’s willingness to break through this conditioning and let him- or herself be taken by a work of art. Thomadaki doesn’t mention this in her talk/chapter, yet I see strong parallels between her proposal and the idea of boredom.

This conditioning is not as final as it sometimes seems, however. Thomadaki speaks of the “plasticity of the spectator”, the idea that in talks following the screening of her films a few sentences sufficed in order for some viewers to see the films differently and, most importantly, to open up about what they had seen. While this is an important point to keep in mind while discussing film spectatorship, it needs to be pointed out that this plasticity is not necessarily the norm. To me, plasticity only comes into effect if there is a will on the side of the viewer, which brings me back to the argument above about yes- and no-boredom. It is with films like with everything else. If you’re willing to have your mind changed about something, you walk this way, you open up, and you see where this way might or might not take you. A lot of viewers, however, prefer walking the pre-walked paths, and this is precisely where experimental and arthouse films struggle.

When it comes to experimental films, she argues, one should not speak about directing the spectator, which is the title of the book, and which many filmmakers go for, especially in Hollywood circles. What is most apt for experimental films – and this is where I think Slow Cinema comes in – is that those films disorientate the viewer. It is the aim of the filmmaker to disorientate, rather than to direct. Non-narrative experimental films as well as slow films act against previous conditioning. She writes that in those films it is not the aim of the director to direct the viewer, but to liberate potentials in him/her. The aim is to create such a condition which allows the viewer to find something experimental in him/herself (expérimentale en soi).

I quite like this argument, and I think that this is what a lot of experimental and slow film directors hope to achieve. I, too, as programmer of tao films am very interested in de-conditioning the viewer. If anything, the viewer is hostile to slow films because it’s not standard. If slow films were standard and we would grow up with them, no one would be opposed to it. I mentioned in a post on the book Art and Therapy that what we like depends on what we’re taught is good. As long as no one teaches people that slow films (or experimental films) are good, the vast majority will reject them. It’s a responsibility that institutions, schools, universities shoulder.

Thomadaki suggests that hostility to a genre of film is the first step to acknowledging that there is something worthwhile in those films, but that there is also a creative freedom in the viewer. In this way, her argument continues, the spectator is no longer simply a consumer, which is exactly what especially sales companies are aiming at. The “experimental spectator” becomes de-conditioned, de-programmed, disorientated. While this might feel scary, it is the first step towards a liberated viewing, a kind of viewing that allows one to actually see, to become aware of one’s power as viewer and the power of one’s look. This is at the centre of my work at tao films. I’m hoping that something in the general public can change about the way we see those films. I will never change the world with it, but if I could help some viewers to reach a state of creative freedom, my work has had a point.

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