Book Review

Title: THE AUDIENCE EFFECT: ON THE COLLECTIVE CINEMA EXPERIENCE

Author: Julian Hanich

Review by Bob Lane, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Vancouver Island University

Today in our tech age it is possible to view movies on many different devices: from a cell phone or a tablet, or desktop computer, or (and the numbers of viewers are not declining) in the cinema. In the first the audience is usually just one while in the last it can be hundreds of viewers. We have all experienced the noisy audience member at the local cinema who is talking or rattling his/her candy and popcorn while on a feeding frenzy. We ask for quiet or we move to a different part of the auditorium. We also laugh together at the funny parts, or are quietly moved by the dramatic moments, or gasp with a kind of fear in a slasher film. There are many ways the audience effects our experience in the cinema; for example, several years ago in the Chicago premiere of “Conan the Barbarian”, which I attended with a colleague, we arrived a few minutes late to a darkened auditorium, took our sets and became engrossed in the film. My colleagues’ report:

I don’t remember much. I believe it was an afternoon showing. We were probably relatively sober. During the film I felt that the audience was reacting to scenes in ways that I was “missing”– for example, I just didn’t see why some events were being laughed at or grumbled about etc. It was one of those events where overall I just didn’t feel like I fit in somehow. And, of course, when the lights came up at the end it was obvious: we were among a handful of white folks in an otherwise black audience.

Obviously whites and blacks responded differently to scenes in the film, and for a couple of Canadian visitors to Chicago from Vancouver Island, it was an eye-opening experience.

Hanich’s book helps one understand the many and complex ways in which the audience effect works as a contributor to the cinematic experience. As he points out in the introduction “Phenomenology is a method that examines structures of experience, thus supplanting merely impressionistic, overly subjectivist accounts.” (11). He sets out to theorize and describe “the viewer relations of the cinema as a subjectively lived experience from a social I-You or we perspective.” Phenomenology, of course, is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The important structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object – in this case the film being experienced in the cinema with an audience. The discipline of phenomenology seems the appropriate discipline to employ to study audience effect on the overall personal experience of the film – the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. First comes the experience and then the discussion or critique of the particular film experienced.

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy—as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology. The methods and characterization of the discipline were widely debated by Husserl and his successors, and these debates continue to the present day. (The definition of phenomenology offered above will thus be debatable, for example, by Heideggerians, but it remains the starting point in characterizing the discipline.)

Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something. According to classical Husserlian phenomenology, our experience is directed toward—represents or “intends”—things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Phenomenology”)

In the introduction we are provided the “upshots of this book”: 1. Enriching the viewing experience; 2. Raising media competency; 3. Laying a groundwork for empirical research.

The book definitely achieves these goals.

As one would expect from the Edinburgh University Press the book is a study in professional publishing complete with extensive end notes, clear chapter titles, a useful introduction, acknowledgments, a list of figures (always useful), and a cool cover!

To achieve the goal Hanich has promised the book is divided into five parts:

Part I  Establishing Shot: Definition and History

  1. Introduction
    1. Excavating the Audience Effect: Precursors in the History of Film Theory

Part II  Long Shot: Types of Collective Viewing

                                    Introductory notes

  • Quiet-attentive Viewing: Toward a Typology of Collective Spectatorship, Part I
    • Expressive-diverted Viewing: Toward a Typology of Collective Spectatorship, Part II

Part III  Medium Shot: On the Cinema’s Affective Audience Effects

  • I, You, and We: Investigating the Cinema’s Affective Audience Interrelations
    • Feeling Close: Conceptualizing the Cinema’s Affective We-experiences

Part IV  Close-up: Case Studies of Affective Audience Effects

  • Chuckle, Chortle, Cackle: A Phenomenology of Cinema Laughter
    • When Viewers Silently Weep: A Phenomenology of Cinematic Tears
      • Trouble Every Day: A Phenomenology of Cinematic Angst

Part V  Fade-out: Conclusion

  1. The audience Effect in the Cinema and Beyond

Glossary

Bibliography

Index of Names

Index of Subjects

In these chapters the several goals are (1) to effect our future experiences in the movie theatre (24); to raise media competency in order to “reflect more profoundly on audiences” (25); and (3) to lay a groundwork for empirical research (26). Hanich presents an exhaustive study of audience and the effect it has on our experience in the movie theatre. He provides a complete review of those who have written and studied the topic drawing on those who have contributed to the extensive research on film studies from many different points of view. He is constantly reminding the reader of the “phenomenological fact that we never forget our place in the cinema.” Quoting Edgar Morin’s The Cinema, or the Imaginary Man from 1956 he reminds us that “you, us, me while intensely bewitched, possessed, eroticized, excited, terrified, loving, suffering, playing, hating – we do not stop knowing that we are in a seat contemplating an imaginary spectacle: we experience the cinema in a state of double consciousness. (42)

The glossary provides a wealth of information and definition to help the reader get the most from the discussion. For example, the entry for “Cinema” reads as follows: The minimal, a-historical definition of a prototypical cinema used for the purpose of this book presupposes a dark, public auditorium separated by a threshold from the outside world, in which viewers find themselves in the -> co-presence of other viewers, follow the uninterrupted projection of a film, and are aware of site-specific behavioral rules. Historically and culturally specific movie-theaters deviate from this a-historical prototype. (285) In fact, I would recommend that the reader begin by reading the glossary to become familiar with the phenomenological vocabulary employed through out the book’s many chapters.

Near the end of the book Hanich discusses a situation not unlike the one I mentioned at the beginning of this short review – in a brief discussion of the different responses to a black character in a Tarzan movie – responses triggered by the make up of the audience.

Each chapter is carefully researched. There are many lists which make subtle distinctions. There are references to many films. There are a few pictures.

For those looking to learn more about the complex responses of audiences of cinematic art this is the book you should consult.

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