Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)
Vol. 4 No. 26, November 2000
The Audience as Reader is Seldom Caught in the Act?
Martin Barker, with Thomas Austin
_From Ants to Titanic: Reinventing Film Analysis_
London: Pluto Press, 2000
ISBN: 0-7453-1579-8 (pb); 0-7453-1584-4 (hb)
v + 222 pp.
I would recommend this book to film students for its evocative and
sometimes insightful reading of seven popular Hollywood films, together
with its critique of several existing film theories. Martin Barker is a
prolific writer on audiences, and the effects of media on children in
particular. He has been a scathing critic of so called 'moral panics',
which were said to be initiated by comics like 'penny dreadfuls' when the
media was in its infancy, to more recent 'video nasties', and beyond. In
this study of film, Barker lays down the gauntlet against the
straightjacket of conventional theory -- particularly psychoanalytical and
ideological/structuralist criticism -- which became dominant at the expense
of more empirically validated audience research strategies. Attempts to
discover a new focus for film analysis has become a major preoccupation of
a number of recent studies.  At the outset however, Barker's title claim
remains enticing if somewhat over-ambitious.
The author sets out his methodological approach by first of all unpacking a
number of readings of _It's a Wonderful Life_, which becomes a platform for
criticising interpretations by Sam Girgus, Kaja Silverman, Leland Poague
and Robert Ray. In particular I would defend Ray's underused and detailed
analysis of a wide range of films in _A Certain Tendency in Hollywood
Cinema: 1930-1980_, which includes some of the most provocative textual
analysis of film that has been published.  One of Ray's primary theses
is that, because of their immense popularity, successful Hollywood films
can be read from both a Left and a Right-wing perspective, which subverts
much of the one-sided ideological criticism that pervades film studies. Ray
in turn suggests that _It's a Wonderful Life_ is an ambiguous comment on
the optimism embedded within a small town/middle class narrative in the
Andy Hardy tradition. By taking a thematic/structuralist approach, Barker
argues, he 'rescues' the film from 'mawkish sentimentality' and looks for
'implicit meaning', like Bordwell's 'third level of analysis' (20).
However, Barker catches him out on narrative inconsistencies in his 36-page
reading, together with some faulty assertions regarding the implied
Most of Barker's critical vitriol is, however, used against a psychological
approach to analysis, because he believes it refutes any type of empirical
verification. His criticism of feminist and postmodernist theory is also
incisive, but does not take into account how such methodologies could be
applied within contexts other than those intended.
At least initially, Barker does not posit a normative or 'counter critical'
reading but rather illustrates the often well justified 'faults' and
inconsistencies within various other theoretical interpretations. This
strategy is continued at the end of the book when he focuses on Nick
Browne's reading of _Stagecoach_, which hangs on 'identification', and the
choreography of character and subsequent camera looks to infer meaning.
This use of a further case study at the end of the book to critique an
over-mechanistic evocation of identification theory might have been more
appropriate if positioned much earlier to help frame Barker's own extensive
Applying David Bordwell's formalist and cognitive methodology, Barker
convincingly affirms that it is better to look at film sequences in terms
of 'cues' rather than 'definable end processes' when reading the range of
looks engaged by the protagonists within this quintessential Western.
However, I would add that such looks can often oscillate between and within
point-of-view shots, and between audiences and filmic agents, rather than
maintaining strict subjective/objective spectator driven connections.
Barker's criteria for an effective textual analysis strategy draws heavily
on the writings of Bordwell, particularly _Making Meaning_, which
surprisingly remains an under-referenced yet very important film studies
text. Evaluative criteria that underpin all his readings, and on which he
wants an open debate, include: adequacy to the object (research able to
prove conclusions); theoretical transparency (must be convincing and
clear); acknowledging implicit claims; overcoming idiosyncrasy (not
specifically the writing style, but writing which allows others to use and
find similar conclusions); and, research productivity (177-183).
Barker endorses cognitive theory, which expresses the belief that both
thought and information processing involve choices being made by
individuals and determined by certain goals. Cognitive film analysis is
closely associated with Bordwell, who examines the process of narration as
a system of cues for audiences to engage with. Bordwell affirms how the
sensory experience of the text can be more clearly explored as a
'bottom-up' experience rather than a 'top-down' abstract theoretical
application. However, Barker suggests that Bordwell's cognitive theory is
unable to appreciate 'emotion' as part of its strategy and often defers to
psychoanalysis for explanations.
All film analyses, Barker insists, make claims about the 'audience', but
seldom make this explicit. While he does not want audience studies to
replace textual analysis, he suggests that few critical theories actually
look for evidence to explain audience pleasures that could underpin an
investigation of film. Yet an assumption that empirical research would
necessarily anchor, much less determine film analysis is open to question.
 Nevertheless, as Barker quotes Kristin Thompson cogently affirming, if
there is no connection with actual audiences, film criticism remains a
'barren venture' (41). Barker embraces the strategy that 'all story telling
involves *audience responsiveness* because all stories activate us, by the
manner of their organisation' -- cued responses by an implied audience
include: 'guessing ahead', 'taking sides', as well as 'assembling a
construct of the *whole film* from which it becomes possible to ask the
question: what is this story *about*' (48). So often these essential formal
cues are omitted from narrative analysis of film.
A further important question regarding audiences and pleasure which is
mentioned later with a reading of Disney's _The Lion King_, are the reasons
why the general public enjoy such films -- a question which is particularly
denigrated by ideological critics who find it easy to take pot-shots at
Disney's overtly Right-wing agenda. Film philosophers must continually
attempt to understand, even if only at an abstract level, how audiences
find and create pleasure in texts. One could even affirm that new
generations of audiences help to reinvent the study of film.
The majority of the chapters are framed around readings of recent
commercially successful Hollywood films.  Unfortunately, I found some of
the readings, especially _Starship Troopers_, _The Usual Suspects_, and
_Sleepless in Seattle_, less honed and integrated into the book's thesis.
However, the remainder, particularly _Titanic_ which cost over 300m
USDollars and became so successful with box office takings world wide
reaching over 1 billion USDollars, certainly produces a highly rewarding
study. According to Barker, the film's narrative structure has two
processes at work: 'First, as well as witnessing not only Rose's
transformation, there is an invitation to impute the salvage crew's
transformation. At the start of the film they are cynical money-grabbers,
playing at understanding the scale of the tragedy but really in it for the
potential wealth' -- by the end, the way we judge the crew, 'is to join in
a moral consideration of the proper ways to think about our past', and 'the
significance of the film lies in the way in which it invites audiences to
think about historical possibilities' (103). Finally, he concludes the
overall effect of the film belongs to 'the combination of tragedy (epic
scale humbled by nature) and emergence (the birth of the modern woman)'
(104). Such a confident and provocative summary of the film's thematic
thrust nevertheless begs several questions. For example are these elements
equally important, complementary and/or pulling against each other?
He further suggests that the reason we don't weep at the deaths of the
other passengers is because the film has not involved us in their fate:
'[F]ilms are imaginative universes with organising rules and principles;
they generate a role into which audiences may (or may not) enter, which I
call the implied audience; and through the intersection of these, they
generate proposals for how films might intersect with the rest of their
audiences' lives, which I call their modalities of use. And in exploring
these, I aim to show that motives and emotions are natural and inevitable
parts of the invited process of engagement' (37).
Thomas Berry for example, reads Titanic as a 'parable' on humanity's
'over-confidence' when even in dire situations, 'we often do not have the
energy required to alter our way of acting on the scale that is required'.
But many other critics ask why audiences want to experience (and
re-experience) the visceral sensation of a ship going down in all its
awesome horror, and observe its passengers drown or freeze to death,
especially while the heroine recounts her personal epic and fulfils her
destiny with her dead lover by sending the world's most expensive diamond
back to the bottom of the sea where it rightfully belongs. Barker appears
to suggest a straightforward ideological reading, which unpacks the film's
apparent romantic renunciation of materialism in favour of 'love'. 
At the end of the book, the author promotes a most engaging hypothesis for
future studies of _Titanic's_ female-addressed audience by proposing that
the more young people:
'(a) wanted to fantasise Leo as *their* potential lover, and (b) saw him as
quintessentially a 'modern' boy/man, the more they would be disappointed by
_Titanic_, and decline the role that the film proffered. And we now have,
in the developed procedures of discourse analysis, an array of methods for
drawing out those traces, and from them learn much about the social
orientations of their speakers' (187).
This overblown film comfortably fits into the Hollywood disaster sub-genre,
yet the author makes no connection with _Deep Impact_, which has also been
regarded as a 'Pre-millennial tension' (PMT) film.  Nonetheless his
analysis of _Deep Impact_ with Thomas Austin also provides a very
provocative overview of character motivation and apparent Christian
redemption motifs embedded within this otherwise conventional disaster
movie. The film shows us characters making mistakes and learning to correct
them (as also evidenced through the hero in _The Lion King_) just in time
to die, having recovered their full humanity. For example, Fish (Robert
Duvall) proves his worth as a pilot and echoes a 'reworking of the 1986
Challenger disaster as a triumphant, worthwhile and premeditated act' --
the Messiah crew 'is afforded time before their inevitable demise for a
series of farewells transmitted to loved ones back on earth' (166). The
impending disaster becomes accepted which in turn reflects their
(spiritual?) growth as humans. The author insightfully suggests that
spectator investment in the failure of various missions to destroy the
comet is a necessary precondition for redemption; otherwise the learning
process will remain incomplete.
A surprising majority of so called 'invisible' special effects, like the
waves in _Titanic_, are designed simply to simulate and dramatise events in
the actual world and save time and money, whereas only a small percentage
are truly 'visible', like the awesome size of the ship in _Titanic_ or the
destruction of 'civilisation' in _Deep Impact_. Barker's exploration of
special effects, which emphasises how their significance is determined by
their position in the narrative, remains one of the few linking motifs
between many of the films cited. Within film studies recently an
exploration of such effects has become very popular, with special editions
of journals like _Screen_, _Camera Obscura_, and _Convergence_ devoted to
particular aspects of their meaning. Barker affirms how explicit examples
such as _Terminator_ and _Robocop_ are not 'symphonies to technology'
(overly collapsing and conflating critics preoccupations!) but 'visions of
possible futures, that could be simultaneously enjoyed in the spectacle of
the effects, and glimpsed as threatening in what the effects indicated'
(85). With regards to the two animated films discussed: _The Lion King_ and
_Antz_, and by extension _Titanic_ and _Deep Impact_, Barker wonders how
can we have special effects in a film about special effects.
Within _Titanic_, for example, he suggests that special effects:
1) are the primary means by which we experience the ship as epic;
2) give us experience of innerness;
3) provide a range of emotional intensifiers;
4) bridge past and present (104).
However, Barker notices that the ship's luxury is not achieved through
special effects but displayed 'pro-scenically' with the 'high production
values' of the film enabling the destruction of expensive crockery, for
example, to dramatise the ship's crash.
Barker clearly notes the conflation of animal and human qualities infuses
any reading of _The Lion King_ together with _Antz_, with the animals used
for their 'ability to signify appropriately. Lions for their nobility and
hyenas for their scavenging cruelty' (111). However, one could take issue
with his reading of the death of Muphasa sequence, reduced to only three
kinds of emotional engagements. 'We might *care for* Simba, we might *care
with* Simba, or we might *care as if we were* Simba' (113). But what about,
as suggested with regards to _Stagecoach_, oscillating between all three
apparently discrete modes of identification. One form of engagement need
not necessarily exclude the other.
Also the author claims that ideal viewers (can they only be adults?) have
to play a double game which focuses on the need to be cognitively alert to
such things as Scar's deceit and being able to recognise the marks of
villainy through clues of his deceit. Like all the Disney oeuvre, the film
clearly presents itself as a 'teacherly text' which few would disagree
with, but he continues that 'each time an adult explicates to a child the
internal logic of _The Lion King_, he or she *activates its ideological
presence*' (119). Such an assertion presupposes that a child can only
experience the text emotionally and that adults or 'ideal readers' have
much greater overall critical faculties. Is there not a danger of creating
reductive models of childhood innocence and more mature adult critical
faculties, which have implications for audience and effects analysis.
In the final chapter Barker speaks of his hopes of producing an approach
that is useful and productive and respectful, rather than dismissive
towards individual films. Such sentiments are to be lauded within an
academy which often values obtuseness and complexity and which lacks a
necessary humility of engagement. He also calls for a film analysis that
raises and clarifies questions, concepts, approaches, which indicate how
film might be researched in other, wider contexts. In particular barker
suggests that a good place to start focusing research would be on fans and
enthusiasts who care about their films, a strategy he has already begun
with collaborative studies of _Judge Dredd_  and _Crash_.
University of Luton, England
1. One example being the similarly titled _Reinventing Film Studies_,
edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000).
2. For instance Ray's reading of _Casablanca_ is very useful for an
undergraduate module I teach called 'Text, Context and Intertext', which
explores the narrative in terms of Rick's character having to decide
between a selfish individualist position and a more egalitarian one --
thereby reflecting the contemporary political decision America had to make
between remaining 'isolationist' or becoming 'interventionist' and entering
the Second World War.
3. For example, John Hartley recently defended 'discursive' textual
analysis as opposed to the scientific veracity of practical audience or
content analysis in an engaging and provocative review piece: 'Text and
Audience: One and the Same? Methodological Tensions in Media Research',
_Textual Practice_, vol. 13 no. 3, Winter 1999. His primary focus of
attention is the methodologies used by the Glasgow Media Group, who in turn
questioned his 'relativistic discursive textual analysis' for its lack of
rigour. This response was sparked off by Glasgow Media Group's latest book
_Cultural Compliance: Dead Ends of Media/Cultural Studies and Social
Science_ (Glasgow University: Glasgow Media Group, 1998), with Hartley
suggesting that within such empirical research; 'the audience as 'reader'
is seldom caught in the act' ('Text and Audience', p. 495). Unflinchingly,
he added that such partisan research is not particularly interested in
understanding the audience but in changing it.
4. It is important to carry out textual analysis of popular texts which
have a greater resonance with large audiences and students. For example it
was noticeable in a recent conference in Reading, England, titled _Film
Style and Meaning_, that most of the papers focused on (old) classic films
which, at least initially, have little relevance for contemporary
audiences. I would also endorse the greater use of film reviews to help
signify and frame a range of actual audience engagements with films which
would help catch audiences 'in the act'.
5. Thomas Berry, _The Dream of the Earth_ (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club
Books, 1988), p. 210.
6. Peter Kramer, in an essay entitled 'Women First', exposes how Cameron
was looking for an opportunity to do an epic romance in the tradition of
_Gone with the Wind_ -- what _Newsweek_ described as a 'chick-flick period
piece'. 'Women (mature) had become the new target audience, breaking a
trend of addressing blockbuster special effects films primarily at (male)
adolescent audiences. The strategy worked, at least in the short term, with
over 60% of all ticket sales by women -- many for repeat viewings' ('Women
First', _Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television_, vol. 18 no. 4,
1998 , p. 612).
7. My reading focuses on the film's evocation of mythic excess using
primary elements of water/ice to control an overweening capitalism as
evidence of an ecological metaphor at work. While this reading could be
described as tangential and predetermined by an ecological agenda,
nevertheless within the context of exposing a new metaphor/predisposition
embedded in Hollywood texts, which tap into audience 'pleasures' -- it
'works'. This strat