click to buy "The Place of the Audience" at Amazon.comThe notion of “place” in The Place of the Audience: Cultural Geographies of Film Consumption revolves around two sites, the architectural site of film consumption, the cinema, and the geographical site of the city of Nottingham in the UK. The book is the outcome of research undertaken into film consumption in Nottingham by a research team led by Mark Jancovich, Director of the Institute of Film Studies at the University of Nottingham and editor of the online film journal Scope. Given this remit, the book, with its clear objective and tried-and-true ethnographic methodology, seems to fit well with the current climate of research in academic institutions in the UK. (A major research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board funded the project.)

Within the discipline of film studies, the book signals a move away from dense theorising, embracing an ostensibly democratic historical narrative mainly derived from local and national newspaper archives and from a questionnaire designed to elicit oral histories of local cinemagoing and film consumption. A note in the acknowledgements page categorically states that Part One of the book, “From Spectatorship to Film Consumption”, is written for a largely academic readership and advises that those interested in historical material on cinemagoing and other types of film consumption may wish to skip this more theoretical section.

However, pedantry aside, theory is not absent from this book. Pierre Bourdieu on taste and capital is cited intermittently and ideas of cultural resistance endemic to film studies as a historical discipline in Britain appear in the emphasis on how the local allows for a different telling of film history. For example, histories of the talkies focus on one event and one location, the release of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) in New York in 1927. Jancovich, Faire, and Stubbings, referring to Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery’s Film History: Theory and Practice, an industrial history of the processes through which technologies were developed, tested and disseminated in different localities, look at the specificity of how the talkies came to be diffused in Nottingham. The first talkie shown in Nottingham was Lucky Boy (Norman Taurog) in 1929, an event that was preceded by numerous reports of the talkies, which of course changed the way that they were perceived by Nottingham audiences. Moreover, the talkies as such had been preceded by exhibitions of sound experiments which despite their technical inferiority with regard to sound synchronisation and quality meant that “audiences for the ‘new’ talkies were not unsophisticated ones that simply marvelled at the talking images” (p. 93).

The authors examine Nottingham as a site of film consumption as a way of exploring how the local is shaped by the national and international, and celebrate its divergences from the official homogeneity of a history based on the metropolitan cities of New York and London. It is this ethos of attending to the local in terms of its relation and resistance to global histories that make this book of interest to readers unfamiliar with and perhaps not that interested in Nottingham as a city per se. However, while the authors claim that Nottingham is not typical or representative, the history of film consumption in this city affords a picture of urban development that is proximate to other British cities. It is a picture that enables readers, particularly those in the UK, to reflect on current trends of consumption and regeneration in recently developed cities and their status as centres of culture in an era in which production has been exceeded by pure consumption. Tracing this history in relation to Nottingham is particularly apropos given that the city did not have the heavy industry characteristic of other British cities in the 19th century and therefore had to rely somewhat on its position as a place of leisure and consumption.

In a sense, The Place of the Audience is as much a book about a city as it is a book about film consumption. In fact, the dialogical relation between these two phenomena is enforced throughout the book. Part Two of the book looks at cinematographic theatres’ derivation from fairground bioscopes and the forms of audience regulation around these phenomena, from the crowded chaos of the Old Market Square to the issues of health and safety surrounding the enclosed spaces of purpose-built cinemas. Town planning in the early 20th century changed the face of Nottingham, as it did other cities in the UK, the impetus being towards creating an image of the city as an epitome of modernity. In spatial terms, this translated into redevelopment of the city centre around a monumental council building, out from which radiated new commercial buildings, including a new cinema, the Ritz.

Part Three of the book looks at this regeneration and how it was made possible by city centre slum clearance, a development that worked in tandem to the development of suburbs. In Nottingham in the late 1920s and 1930s most cinema building occurred in the suburbs. Part Four looks at the post-war period, which saw a decline in cinema attendance and the closure of numerous cinemas, re-examining this phenomenon in the light of changing notions of leisure, which centred around the home and the car. For Jancovich, Faire, and Stubbings, this shift affected suburban cinemas rather than city centre ones, as people were willing to travel for leisure purposes; thereby the authors avoid the usual narrative of blaming television for cinema closure, insisting instead that television redefined the value of cinemagoing in city centres.

The most interesting section of the book is Part Five, which looks at a range of film consumption from video and DVD, satellite and cable television, and the Internet, but more importantly, given the pervasiveness of the image of the city in contemporary culture, at the increasing Americanisation of British cities outside of London. Given the ubiquity of car culture and the infrastructure of the motorway that cuts through cities, a new type of cinema grew up on the outskirts of Nottingham in the late 1980s, the multiplex.

The Place of the Audience generally gives a positive slant to these cultural shifts. While some respondents to the questionnaire are referred to as mentioning the alienation of multiplexes and lack of choice under the illusion of multiple choice – the Showcase, Nottingham’s first out-of-town multiplex, had eleven screens – Jancovich, Faire and Stubbings largely document the social meanings of the multiplex in terms of how they provide safety for family outings and allow families to go out together yet see different films. The emphasis on the positive aspects of choice and agency in the face of encroaching homogeneity is in keeping with current trends in cultural studies that focus on the material practices of consumers/audiences as an alternative to the pessimism of the Frankfurt School and theorists such as Jean Baudrillard.

Undoubtedly, the insertion of agency into consumption is crucial as an antidote to its erosion in 1980s theory given that consumer choice is how “we” currently define our identities. In the light of this, I would have liked the book to document the responses to the questionnaires more fully, as their “evidence” only tended to be brought in to illustrate a point in the last sections of the book. But on the other hand, as a reaction perhaps to the absence of a subjective point-of-view in the book – the tone is of balanced reportage – negative images of film consumption sprang to mind as I read these final sections on the Americanisation of the cinematic experience in the phenomenon of the multiplex. A case in point is the scene from the recent film Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke, 2003) in which the mother, played by Holly Hunter, and her boyfriend take her troublesome teenage daughter and friend to a multiplex where they decide to see separate films. As soon as the couples part, the teenagers escape the auditorium to hang out in the shopping mall to score drugs. However stereotypical this film, the image of family togetherness that large multiplexes, as part of larger shopping malls, are marketed as providing, is rarely the case in reality, although Jancovich’s respondents largely affirm this image.

More insidious, in tandem to the sprawling urban mass of many British cities, is the regeneration of city centres as sites of culture, which has resulted in the building of new media centres such as the Broadway Media Centre in Nottingham. These brightly-lit iconic buildings become signs of culture as capital, the exchange value of cities residing in their interchangeability as sites of leisure, a necessary tool to boost their economies in the face of collapsed labour industries. Mainly frequented by trendy young things with cash to spend and families drawn by the marketing of interactivity, this type of development is not a feature just of Nottingham, but of global capitalism generally – other examples can be found in British cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Birmingham. Many respondents reported feeling excluded from the Broadway. While this isn’t evidence of the erosion of place per se, it relates to the contemporary phenomenon of how the imagined community of film consumption is increasingly more virtual rather than stemming from the attachment to place, which featured in respondents’ memories of cinemas now closed. While at times, the local as a site of divergence from the official story focuses on minute rather pedantic details, Nottingham’s divergences mostly portray a picture of a community imagined or otherwise that strongly identifies with place, which Urban Entertainment Centres such as the Broadway seem to be eradicating.

The phenomenon of virtual community seems to be at odds with the context of The Place of the Audience that going to the cinema has always been about more than going to see a particular film. In fact, most of the respondents do not seem to remember what film they went to see, remembering instead particular buildings and their personal associations. This emphasis is of course partly determined by the structure of the questionnaire and the authors’ desire not to engage in textual analysis. Most of Part One of the book is devoted to examining the methodology of ethnography in film studies, critiquing reception studies such as Janet Staiger’s work for not attending to the particularity of film audiences. Although favouring Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship where she devised a questionnaire to analyse female audiences reception of and resistance to the generic category of the spectator in film theory, Jancovich, Faire and Stubbings want to shift the emphasis to the sites and technologies of film consumption in the way that television studies has attended to the meanings of the technology per se rather than the watching of programmes.

One of the strengths of The Place of the Audience is the way it reads activities in relation to one another rather than being diametrically opposed. For example, as I mentioned above, rather than accepting television as the ruination of cinemagoing, the book looks at how these technologies work in relation to one another to reframe meanings. Hence, the authors claim that television renewed cinemagoing as a special activity, television being framed in terms of staying in with a movie, either broadcast or video, and cinema being framed in terms of going out to a movie, the latter occasion being reserved for family celebrations and soldering relationships in dating.

In fact, the cinema as a site of dating is one of the key social relationships that features in the ethnography of film consumption, introduced here via Kevin J. Corbett’s work and reappearing at intervals throughout The Place of the Audience. For Corbett,

all the couples recognised the importance of what many of them referred to as “making a night of” watching movies together and of the act to their relationship. Watching movies became a way of celebrating or – recalling Gerry Philipsen’s definition of ritual – “paying homage to” their relationship (p. 10).

I cite this as it epitomises the predominantly celebratory tone of The Place of the Audience, which emphasises consumer choice and control and positive emotions in relation to forms of social entertainment.

However, in the same way that the book’s rather benign tone in relation to multiplexes conjured up negative images in my mind, less wholesome aspects of consumer choice surfaced in relation to this point. While undoubtedly the cinema has traditionally been associated with dating, being both a place to escape parental eyes and also a place for couples to share common film interests, which, as one respondent stated, was crucial to fostering a relationship, a large factor of why dating couples go to the cinema has to do with boredom: not necessarily boredom with one another, but the boredom endemic to consumer time. A differently designed questionnaire might elicit a different set of responses from consumers/couples about cinemagoing as a way of filling in time, particularly during bank holidays when they are one of the few things open. I wonder how many dating couples would admit to catching the six ‘o’clock matinee to fill in the empty hours until the next consumer experience, dinner or the pub or club, regardless of what film is showing? The Place of the Audience avoids discussion of subjectivity, the different rationales for cinemagoing being considered in terms of class.

The discussion of class is at its most interesting in Part Two, which makes distinctions between different portions of the middle classes using Mike Savage’s model of three forms of capital: education/culture, property, and organisational assets. These distinctions usefully break with a number of myths that circulate in film and cultural studies. Early forms of cinematic spectacle that preceded cinema such as the nickelodeon and the market place fairs are seen as predominantly lower class forms of entertainment and are consequently idolised for an intrinsic resistance to middle class or bourgeois culture. However, using Savage’s three forms of capital, along with newspaper archives, Jancovich, Faire, and Stubbings show how early cinematic spectacles were attended by and had meaning for a middlebrow audience who were excluded from dominant symbols of high culture. The tendency to present film audiences as essentially working class in nature and to situate cinematic spectacle as resistance to dominant forms of culture mistakenly celebrates these spectacles’ supposed freedom from the constraints of identity, a freedom epitomised in cultural studies by the figure of the flaneur. Jancovich, Faire and Stubbings show that this freedom from identity was mythic, audiences always occupying the public spaces of cinematic spectacle in terms of social position and stratification: some viewers were aspirants, others were slumming it. Modernists such as Eisenstein who incorporated the sensibility of fairground attractions into the supposedly anti-bourgeois aesthetics of avant-garde film, were from bourgeois culture and were using these forms to resist the managerial middle classes rather than the middle classes per se. In acknowledging the fairground bioscopes’ courting of the middle classes, Jancovich, Faire, and Stubbings assert that the design and development of the cinematographic theatres was a legacy of, not a break, from fairground bioscopes.

The myth of Victorian naivete in relation to early moving image experiments is also exposed. Jancovich, Faire and Stubbings show how Victorian audiences were sophisticated and used new technology to create class distinctions between themselves and those, usually country bumpkins, who were portrayed in films as being incredulous viewers. Early film consumption was undoubtedly linked to the sophistication of the urban – think of the intertitle in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) luring the farmer to “Leave all this behind…come to the City!”. Victorian audiences were also very interested in seeing scenes of everyday life projected on screen and, contrary to the view that claims that these audiences were spellbound by movement per se rather than content, Jancovich, Faire and Stubbings assert the popularity of street scenes over and above an interest in conventional narrative. A reporter in the Nottingham Daily Guardian from 29 July 1896 states that

The pictures that found favour with the large and enthusiastic audience last evening were those of everyday scenes, such as street traffic near the houses of parliament, with its constant succession of vehicle and pedestrians; the arrest of a street betting man; and a domestic quarrel between a jovial husband and an irate wife (p. 58).

An interest in the projection of everyday life is prevalent today in the renewed interest in documentary forms, for example reality TV and some gallery film installation, a form of cinematic spectacle The Place of the Audience does not address. Perhaps the contemporary interest in seeing ourselves projected has to do with the encroaching virtuality of imagined communities? I am reminded of Stanley Cavell’s phenomenological observation that “movies reproduce the world magically by permitting us to view it unseen” and that, rather than this being a case of unwitting voyeurism, we need the presentness of the world screened in order to be convinced of a reality outside of private fantasy (1). At the risk of sounding nostalgic, one of the most interesting theoretical points that The Place of the Audience makes is in relation to nostalgia. Rather than nostalgia being simply a desire for a return of the past, it has an aspirational aspect which projects a past reconstructed by the present as an ideal for the future. Film consumption has extended into new technologies but cinemagoing still offers us the nostalgia of and for future imagined communities.

The Place of the Audience: Cultural Geographies of Film Consumption by Mark Jancovich and Lucy Faire with Sarah Stubbings, BFI, London, 2003.

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Endnotes

  1. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Enlarged edition, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1979, p. 40.

About The Author

Maria Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in Art History and Theory at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. She has published essays on the moving image in Screen, Angelaki, Senses of Cinema, filmwaves, and COIL. Her research interests include artist’s film and video, performative writing, feminisms and film phenomenology in a post-Deleuzian framework.