The Death of the Audience
We are all succumbed to advertisements and various images on a daily basis: on the bus, on the walk to town, on our computers and even in our mail. It has become so commonplace that we now fail to see it. Images are for the best part, totally ignored. I don’t blame us. But, what does this mean for cinema? My primary focus here is audience attention spans getting lost and the proliferation of online media becoming so vast that we can’t watch anything anymore.
Lets begin with a theory that if there is so much content to choose from and it is so readily available then how does one manage it? It becomes less valuable, less important and ultimately loses meaning. This is the nature of human interaction. We become accustomed to things, we need more or we need a higher dosage, but when this becomes to high it causes all sorts of problems and we don’t know where to begin. Is this happening to the film audience?
I am certainly spoiled for choice when I go online and search for a movie. Yet, I will still pick whatever grabs my attention first. There will be thousands of other films, independent and foreign, that exists online, but they may never make it to the limelight. If this film doesn’t grab my attention, I may begin another, and another, this brings a whole new dimension to the experience of film watching. The audience can actively engage with the films they seek, they can slice them up and choose exactly what they want. There is no need to fully engage with one piece of material when thousands attempt to surround it and move in front of it. Online media gives the audience a reason to loose attention; we have other options.
One used to sit down to watch a film and be entirely devoted to that picture for the next 2 hours or so. There is no way out, there is only the way in, into the movie. I speak for the mass audience here, people who are intrinsic about film and the filmmakers will of course still shut themselves out and focus on the picture. But even cinephiles attention spans will have been numbed by the invasion of our digital world. It is inescapable, unless you lock yourself in a basement without a mobile.
Obviously, exhibition plays a big part in this. Thank goodness the cinema is still there. It is the one place that we can become totally immersed, or is it? Have a read of Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex. It will highlight how cinemas are still places of distraction; the popcorn munchers and whisperers will certainly get your blood boiling. Home cinema systems attempt to offer a similar experience, perhaps an even more immersive one, in the light of your own home. That is until the landline goes off or your wife gets up to have another glass of wine. Or, on the verge of abiding boredom, you may have an earnest painting hanging on your wall that becomes far more appealing than the slew of images on your TV set.
I can certainly speak of personal experience over audience disruption. I love to watch films with my girlfriend and share our journey, but this journey is inhibited by mobile phones and iPads. If she loses attention for less than five minutes, she will be on her iPad checking emails or playing with her various apps. The patience of modern audiences is a contributing factor to the decline in attention spans. Modern audiences simply aren’t patient enough to realize the full potential of a film; most of us need guns and explosives to keep us going (the lady needs kisses and clichés). Our lives are active with images, media, work, family and whatever else, and to sit down in front of a screen for two hours can, at times, be extremely agitating.
The instant connectivity of our networked world has undoubtedly caused humans to be less patient. I will curse if I can’t connect to the Internet or if a web page won’t load in under five seconds. We expect instant connectivity, and the result is a higher expectance of entertainment, entertainment that needs to instantly grab our attention. I love to see a filmmaker use a shot over a minute long, it is there for a virtuous reason, though I can be sure that the eye of a modern audience would start to waver until being reawakened by a fresh cut. The movies, over the years and in most cases, have become faster and faster (narratively and technically), it is no wonder then that when a modern audience watches an old film they begin to coil at the edges.
Earlier, I made the anomalous comment that we can’t watch anything more. Focus on the watching aspect; are we really watching, or are we simply receiving images? We are faced with pictures moving at 24 frames per second, a common occurrence, but when do we really watch the image, scan it from right to left, top to bottom? Arguably, there isn’t the chance (and this is the filmmakers magic), but our mind can reflect on the entirety of moving images if we really focus it. For most people, the story remains at the centre of the frame, their eyes are followed by the technique of the filmmaker, yet what if they ruled against convention, and looked beyond the image. The filmmaker is confined to a rectangular frame in which to show his world of reality, but the audience isn’t confined to believe merely within this boundary. This would truly be seeing, there has to be an element of imagination to fulfill our sight.
This way of watching is to be wholly engagement, interactive and imaginative by way of sight. The filmmaker is inviting you to explore their world, don’t be limited by the lens. Different filmmakers, of course, have different demands for their audience, but the best directors always lure you in and invite you beyond. This is my argument for film watching in our age, it is inextricably linked with the distractions of constant connectivity, expectancy, patience and proliferation of imagery.