Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 27, November 2000

 

 

Martin Barker and Thomas Austin

Reply to Brereton

 

 

 

Pat Brereton

'The Audience as Reader is Seldom Caught in the Act?'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 26, November 2000

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n26brereton

 

First of all, thanks to two people: to Pat Brereton for a fair, friendly,

and very thoughtful review of our book, and to the editor of

_Film-Philosophy_ for asking if we would be interested in responding to

some of Pat's comments. We very much appreciated the spirit in which the

review discussed our arguments, and it would be quite inappropriate to grab

space in order just to get more attention -- we can only hope that the

review will stimulate some others to look at what we've attempted. Some of

the points that we could comment on are matters of honest disagreement --

that's fine, that's what reviews are for, among other things. Other points,

if we are honest, we don't quite understand -- for instance, we don't get

the point or see the force of his remark that our critique of

psychoanalytic approaches 'does not take into account how such

methodologies could be applied within contexts other than those intended'.

Still, Brereton's review does raise some issues with real substance which

we think deserve response, simply because they are to us very important.

 

First, a comment on the position our book adopts overall, which seems to us

not quite as Brereton described it. He comments on our endorsement of

cognitive theory, associated with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. In

one respect, this is right -- we do take on board Bordwell's rejection of

theories of enunciation, and his use of notions of 'cueing'. But it would

be wrong to see us merely wanting to try to 'add in', like a codicil, a

concern for emotion. Our goal is much wider: to have an account of the way

films invite us to play a complicated role opposite them which will embrace

not only cognitive and emotional, but also aesthetic and community/cultural

modes of responding. And our critique of, in particular, Kristin Thompson's

_Breaking the Glass Armour_ (a fine and important book, whatever our

criticisms of it) is therefore about much more than the absence of emotion.

We show, we think, the persistence of an elitism in Thompson's account

which privileges certain kinds of films and certain kinds of response to

them. Films seem only worthy of attention to the extent that they

approximate to 'complexity' -- and her interest in popular films is that

they might sometimes have this, unrecognised. Our goal was to begin to

construct an approach to any and all films, but which did not prejudge

which ones are important, by the inclusion in the mode of analysis of a

criterion for determining their 'value'.

 

Brereton is right, though, to say that the core of our reconsideration of

procedures of film analysis is to insist that in the end our claims about

films have to be compatible with what might be learnt from and about

audiences. In the first instance this is because every single example of

film analysis that we can think of already contains within it figures of

the audience: what must be going on as they respond to a film; how they are

potentially influenced by it; and so on. In the second instance this is

because it seems to us that this is not a problem, but precisely what makes

film analysis *worth doing* -- analyses become interesting precisely

inasmuch as they contain possible implications for and about real

audiences. But this is more complicated than at first appears. Brereton

tends to equate this with asking about 'audience pleasures', which in turn

suggests that we might be looking to connect with the recent surge in fan

studies. Though important, these don't do what we are after here. Just as

important, in our view, are audience frustrations and disappointments, or

-- even more complicated -- audience multiple engagements or ambivalence.

This is something each of us has tried to investigate in our audience

researches. For instance, Austin's work on _Basic Instinct_ tracked how

audiences negotiated the commercially motivated proliferation of viewing

strategies proposed through advertising, publicity, and the film's internal

organisation. He shows how, on occasions, audiences oscillated from one

orientation to another. For example, some straight male teenagers aligned

themselves with the Michael Douglas character in terms of his sexual

curiosity and desire for the Sharon Stone character, but were

simultaneously repelled by his *excessive* sexual violence. In certain

social settings, viewers were also acutely aware of the co-existence of

different avenues of access to _Basic Instinct_. Some young women watching

with their boyfriends found that their own enjoyment of the film as a

narrative of female assertion was impaired by their male companions'

appraising looks at the body of Stone.

 

Barker found in his research on responses to _Judge Dredd_ that while it

was possible to identify six separable orientations to the film, in fact

certain combinations were common. But a combination was not like adding

sugar to coffee. People had to live with the consequences of wanting to

combine orientations which put different requirements on them. For

instance, Barker shows how a person following an Action-Adventure

orientation (which is not interested in narrative complexity, and wants to

live the film sensuously 'in the present tense') manages to combine this

with a more 'literary' way of assessing a film's worth (which needs to

weigh the film against criteria of complexity, and to set the film within

continuing frames of that person's life), by carrying out *sequenced*

viewings of the film.

 

These points are very relevant to Brereton's review because of what we see

as a misunderstanding. Brereton refers to our discussion of _The Lion King_

and our discussion of three ways in which audiences might relate

affectively to Simba's suffering: 'caring for', 'caring with', and 'caring

as if they were . . .'. His description of our account of this misses two

vital words: we say these are 'ideal types' of responses, therefore asking

the question: if audiences were to engage in one of these ways, what would

be the consequences for their mode of attention to subsequent elements in

the film.

 

Brereton then asks: what if an audience oscillated between these? Do these

modes of engagement exclude each other? Absolutely not, and that is why we

call them 'ideal types'. But to know that they *might* combine is either

just an abstract possibility, or it is the beginning of a task. Each of

these modes of engagement would have consequences. Therefore to combine

them would carry cognitive and affective baggage. How would we find out? We

are proposing that it will take a certain kind of combination of film

analytic work along with highly targeted audience response to answer these

sorts of questions. Which is among the reasons why we are unhappy with a

good deal of fan investigation, which essentially detaches fans from their

'texts', seeing them as so productive, so creative, and so 'radical' that

the formal organisation of their chosen materials has become almost

unnecessary.

 

Our next-to-last point arises from this in another way. Brereton concludes

his discussion of our account of _The Lion King_ with a comment on our

claim that the film does indeed contain an ideological potential, which

would begin to be activated in any situation in which, for instance,

parents and children discuss the characters and the narrative afterwards.

He comments that this presupposes that 'a child can only experience the

text emotionally and that adults or 'ideal readers' have much greater

overall critical faculties'. This is not what we are saying. Rather, we

would argue that it is quite possible for an adult to play the role of

being a 'child', and to want, hope for, and worry about the outcomes of

Simba's struggle even while s/he is fully aware of the conventions of a

Disney film. Such a dialogue, activating the ideology of the film, could

well happen entirely within one individual's head. But the fact is that,

demographically, a very large proportion of the audience for the film was

in fact parents with children, and the film plays on that fact.

 

Final point: Pat Brereton's title interests us: 'The Audience as Reader is

Seldom Caught in the Act?' Yes, of course. But it seems to us to be an

invitation to paralysis to make this seem a barrier, or an epistemological

limit. Of course audience researchers, except under the most artificial

circumstances, don't get to record audiences' responses as they are in the

process of formulating. But then, neither do friends, relatives, or anyone

else -- this is the nature of the world. We watch, and while watching we

think and feel and wonder. Then we come away and think further and very

often talk to other people as part of concretising our responses. What

audience researchers do is to try to gather investigable quantities of

audience responses, and then use grounded methods of analysis to explore

the patterns and directions of those responses. We often hear this quoted

against our work with audiences as if it either invalidates its claims, or

at least makes it no different from textual interpretation. It is

interesting that Brereton cites a John Hartley essay which makes exactly

this false move.

 

We think it is a particular risky one here, since the core argument of our

book is that *all* film analyses of necessity incorporate *claims* about

the audience, but most are unwilling to take responsibility for them.

 

These are important issues, and we are very happy that they should be

debated. We would very much hope that others will share our determination

to try to build a working relationship between methods of formal analysis

and methodologically sharp modes of audience research. If this exchange

stimulates further debates along this road, that can only be to the good.

Whether we were wise to claim that this could amount to 'reinventing film

analysis' -- for which Pat Brereton mildly admonishes us, and for which

Robert B. Ray recently told off the authors of _Reinventing Film Studies_

-- is not for us to say in the end, although we will stick by our guns for

now!

 

University of Sussex, Brighton, England

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Martin Barker and Thomas Austin, 'Reply to Brereton', _Film-Philosophy_,

vol. 4 no. 27, November 2000

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n27barkeraustin>.

  

 

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