Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 26, November 2000

 

 

Pat Brereton

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. [1] 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. [2] 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

audience.

 

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

readings.

 

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.

[3] 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. [4] 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'.

[5]

 

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'. [6]

 

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. [7] 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;

and

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_ [8] and _Crash_.

 

University of Luton, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

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 strategy also satisfies Bordwell's criteria for a theoretical

model which he claims is like a 'black box'; if it works, you don't always

have to look that closely inside!

 

8. Martin Barker and Kate Brooks, _Knowing Audiences: Judge Dredd, Its

Friends, Fans and Foes_ (University of Luton Press, 1998).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

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>.

 

 

 

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

  

Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact: editor@film-philosophy.com

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage