Reading an audience

The feedback on my Isthmus debut this weekend has been a mixed bag. My mom loved it, but my black lab, Dempsey, rudely declined to comment. One commenter took issue with my factually inaccurate claim that the makers of “The Things We Carry” used the Red One Camera before Steven Soderbergh did in “Che” (which is kind of weird considering how much I dug the more obviously digital half of that diptych, “Guerrilla,” when I saw it many months ago); that’s my bad, though it hardly constitutes “a pretty big error in [my] story […] that [I] base [my] headline on.”

But the comment that most pricked me was a response to my claim that the Cinematheque audience that watched the program of Phil Solomon and Mark LaPore shorts on Saturday was—gasp—into it. I returned her jab and was greeted with a lengthy response that greatly interests me, mostly because it begs the question: can an audience member truly have a sense of the greater audience’s response to a film and yet simultaneously be plugged into the film itself? As the commenter put it, “Honestly though, if you were so sucked in, how would you know the level of engagement of other people in the moment?  Unless of course you were paying more attention to the people around you than I was, which would, by default, imply you weren’t as sucked into the movie as you claimed.  See the conundrum?”

While I do see the “conundrum,” I nevertheless believe that, no matter how engaged one is with a film, the film never ceases to be an object situated in an environment consisting of any number of other objects. “Losing” oneself in a movie is often regarded as the ultimate end of film-watching, but I rarely if ever forget myself when engaging with a film, no matter how intensely contemplative it makes me feel. I once saw an interview with Lucrecia Martel (on the “Holy Girl” DVD, if I’m not mistaken) in which she said that she despises films that seem to be trying to make her forget her ego—I echo this sentiment. Cinema needn’t be an escape to be engaging, absorbing or cognitively immersive; I love picking up vibes in a theater, receiving indirect signals of my fellow audience members’ attitudes toward a film, harvesting the energy that accumulates in the room over the course of a screening and then channeling that energy toward the development of my own impressions about the film.

We must never forget that a movie theater isn’t a vacuum-sealed spaceship bound for some hitherto unexplored planet: it’s a room full of (often annoying) people with images being projected on a big white screen and sounds being pumped through a sometimes sucky stereo-system. In other words, one can easily get a feel for an audience’s collective attitude without “unplugging” from the film at hand; the human brain is a powerful organ, y’know?

As for the commenter’s admissions of being both tasteless (“I was in fact, awake, because I was amused by that and some of the other thoughts going through my head, like jokes I would love to crack would it not be highly inappropriate.”) and a philistine (“I’ve gotten lazy and have the same attitude with film as I do with jokes—if you have to spend a lot of time explaining it, it’s not as good and you should go back and make it better. […]  Some people like having to read paragraphs and do research and watch 800 hours of supplementary material to make sense out of something.  I think of fans of the final two installments of the Matrix trilogy.”), I don’t think either is worth addressing here. I’m kidding, Sheilah!

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