Monday, February 15, 2010

We're Breaking Up

Film theory has shifted in the last 30 years as it's matured, moving from primarily text-based analysis (what did John Ford really mean?) to unpacking more psychological gender and racial-imperialistic tendencies in certain modes of production (what do John Ford films say about the studios he worked for?). By the '80s theorists are bringing up Lacan and semiological post- modern readings (what is the audience bringing to the text, regardless of what the studios or John Ford intended?)

Now the breaking wave of film analysis seems to be moving towards Reception Studies. Academics are analyzing the ephemera and messages, covert and overt, surrounding a text, a film, a moving image "event" that encode and inflect its address to the audiences. The extra-textural, if you will. Stay with me. Cable specials and star power influence and infect how we like or disregard a film's intentions; what culturally surrounds the experience influences the ways audiences receive and perceive the work. It's impossible for the studios to control and sometimes it's simply hype. (A certain blue cat movie comes to mind.)

"Blade Runner" in 1982 doesn't (and didn't) work after "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But our relationship to Harrison Ford changes after "Presumed Innocent" and "The Fugitive," and 25 years later, even if you haven't seen those, "Blade Runner" is an "instant classic." Hitchcock's "Frenzy" turns our stomachs in 1972 with its droll sick sense of humor, 12 years after "Psycho" (12 whole years!), but when his entire career is all crushed to a convenient weekend of renting on demand and random access, suddenly themes and touches resonate brilliantly all the way back to the original "The Man Who Knew Too Much," through to "Vertigo," as early as "Blackmail" and up again to "Marnie," which may not be so bad after all.

Bowie's "Station to Station" is less discordant and incomplete when it's fit so smoothly between "Young Americans" and "Low," pointing the way to Berlin and later to shiny-chrome disco.

All these attempts by artists to try something new meet with derision and confusion, only to become clearly the first steps in strong and appropriate paths with hindsight of the longer more historical view. "The Cable Guy" still doesn't get a pass.

How does the theatrical experience influence how we appreciate films? It starts with a trailer we see 4 months or so before the movie opens that raises our awareness, in the very theatre where we will eventually see it a season later. We finally go on opening weekend, or at least in the couple weeks before it leaves, firmly in the time continuum and cultural window in which it is born and lives with an audience, all like-minded and motivated to go pay money to see it. The long lines outside "Matrix Reloaded" inflects our experience inside differently than the half-empty "Matrix Revolutions" 6 months later.

Something is irrevocably lost when we chose to watch films at home, later, by ourselves or on our electronic devices. Without the lines, without the need to see it on opening weekend, we lose not only our personal connection to the excitement of the event status of a moving image presentation, we don't get it.

As films become personal, individualized, and casual, we become unmoved by their circumstance. We don't have a community. We don't fall in love with the text because it's a good date and a good night out. The upside is that any analysis of a film must return, by default, to purely textual. But it also strips it of cultural context and important situational meaning.


Bruce said...

I'll argue the merits of THE CABLE GUY when next we drink. (-;

Doug Bonner said...

Damn, that was a good, deep post. As someone who started his love of movies by seeing the original release of VERTIGO as a pre-schooler, my head has cataloged a lot of shifts in cinema. You really crystalized a lot of those shifts in a succinct and readable post!