Sitting in the Dark among Anonymous Strangers
Tiago de Luca, University of Warwick
To write about film spectatorship is a dangerous affair. One always risks oversimplification through generalization. Since the ‘ideal’ or ‘transcendental’ spectator formulated by psychoanalytic and ‘apparatus’ theories was debunked in the early 1990s with the rise of film-phenomenology and empirical audience approaches, spectatorship has been deconstructed as a flexible, shifting and subjective activity, and one that is equally determined by culturally specific and historically situated conceptions of class, gender and ethnicity. On the other hand, the avenues opened up by these new theoretical paradigms have not gone by without raising their own conundrums. For if every viewing experience is purely subjective, then one either is doomed to speak of one’s own impressionistic experiences in anecdotal fashion (as many phenomenological approaches have been accused of), or else spectatorship is reduced to numbers and statistics which, while certainly useful from a variety of perspectives, say very little about the experiential dimension that is at the heart of any viewing situation.
In thinking about these questions when writing my Cinema Journal article, ‘Slow Time, Visible Cinema: Duration, Experience, and Spectatorship’, I was especially inspired by Miriam Hansen’s reflections on the cinema in terms of its public experience, even though engagement with her work turned out less substantial than I would have liked. I will therefore take this opportunity to rectify this and probe a little more on some of Hansen’s ideas with a view to furthering the theoretical discussion initiated in my article. Already in 1993, Hansen alerted us that ‘even if we situate reception within a specific historical and social framework, and even as the category of the spectator has become problematic, we still need a theoretical understanding of the possible relations between films and viewers, between representation and subjectivity’. My article takes up this proposition and examines slow cinema spectatorship from a theoretical standpoint that considers the parameters set by film style (mode of address) in relation to the ones determined by spaces of exhibition (mode of reception). My aim was to propose that one can speak of spectatorship without falling into essentialist traps provided that one adopts as a frame of reference the viewership which any given film will anticipate, together with an understanding of the ways in which spaces of reception enable or constrain particular viewing modes. That a film may well not have its mode of address acted upon by the viewer, and that the codes associated with a specific reception setting may be ignored or even transgressed, is of course always a possibility. In fact, it is impossible to determine how a film will affect its viewers. But this does not preclude one from exploring the wider aesthetic, cultural and political stakes inscribed in spectatorial practices that are always already envisioned by the virtual space of the film and cultivated by the physical space of the exhibition before the arrival of the spectator.
Hansen purported to examine the changing landscape of film spectatorship in the early 1990s resulting (among other things) from the introduction of home-viewing technologies, which, she contented, had even occasioned changes in spectatorial behaviour in the film theater. She wrote: ‘there have never – not since the days of nickelodeon – been as many complaints about people talking during the shows as in the American press of recent months, with pundits charging that the vulgarians simply cannot tell the difference between watching a movie in the theatre and watching a video in their living-rooms’. Today, the theatrical experience is yet again the subject of much talk – not so much threatened by talking but texting in the cinema, which has once more raised the question of what is socially acceptable within theatrical premises. And this question gains in significance when we consider the now ubiquitous presence of moving images within gallery settings, which, unlike their theatrical counterpart, place hardly any restrictions and may even encourage patrons to use their personal technologies in a bid to attract public attention.
Of course, as I mention in my article, the idea of a silent and immobile audience is a socio-cultural construct that is not universal. In fact, in much film theory, the silence and immobility of the theatrical experience have been charged with negative connotations, whether we think of the ‘apparatus’ theory mentioned above, or indeed Hansen’s own work, which ascribed an explicitly positive value to the lively and interactive mode of spectatorship of early cinema owing to their ‘margin of improvisation, interpretation, and unpredictability which made it a public event in the emphatic sense’. For Hansen, this was in direct contrast with the passive and absorbed experience of theatrical viewing, a certain distrust of which she maintained until her last published article, in which she welcomed digital and public transformations against the idea of cinema ‘as an antidote, refuge, or even counter-public’. This idea gains special relevance when it comes to slow cinema insofar as its defense has been often articulated along these lines (my own work included). And it is an extremely valid point as it points to the risk of qualifying film forms and experiences in essentializing terms.
Yet one must be equally wary of not falling back into the reverse side of this idea and reinforce a schematic binary division according to which interactivity, improvisation and unpredictability are seen as inherently better, and thus equally essentializing, categories – an accusation that could be leveled at Hansen’s own work. In fact, spectatorial improvisation and interactivity have become the buzzwords of new cinephilic discourses, many of which are often formulated with a clear enemy in sight: Susan Sontag’s much vilified article on ‘The Decay of Cinema’, originally published in the New York Times in 1996. According to these discourses, Sontag’s article embodies at best a limiting and limited view of what cinema is, at worst little more than the nostalgic fetishizing of a ritualized public experience whose heyday is gone. It is not my intention here to rehash these counter-arguments, many of which are certainly useful. Yet, beyond nostalgia and value-laden judgments, I still think that Sontag’s underlying idea is hard to refute. Yes, films and cinema live on in a wildly exciting constellation of forms and settings, but no one would contest the fact that the phenomenological experience of watching a film is necessarily diminished when such a film is watched outside the film theater – an experience that is as much the result of certain physical characteristics of the film theater itself, as it is connected with the fact that, in the cinema, you are ‘seated in the dark among anonymous strangers’.
Slow cinema directly intervenes in these debates because the films with which the trend has become associated are predicated on a self-reflexive awareness of the sensory-perceptual spectatorial process that demands the film theater for its activation. To be sure, the experience of any given film will be impoverished when such a film leaves the theater. But as any attempt to watch a Lav Diaz or Carlos Reygadas film in distracted conditions will forcefully attest, the stakes are much higher when it comes to slow cinema because these are films whose proposed spectatorial contract is primarily based on the aesthetic appreciation of sensory configurations of images and sounds, mood and atmosphere, time and space. In turn, these features translate into a renewed cognizance of the time spent watching the film and the spatial arrangements of the film theater. As such, slow cinema carries within itself the idea of a spectator who is acutely aware of the collective spectatorship of cinema. The fact that three of the most important directors associated with the trend made films about this collective experience evidences a very concrete formulation in terms of how the trend once defined itself in relation to its attachment to the cinema as the enabler of a specific mode of spectatorship.
True, as a tendency that was heavily constituted in journalistic discourses, it is worth noting that attention to slow cinema has fizzled out in film criticism in the past years. The untimely deaths of Chantal Akerman and Abbas Kiarostami, together with the announcement that Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang would stop making feature-length films, have further contributed to the sense that the cinematic trend is no longer at its zenith. As my article notes, however, the situation is more complex, for a durational aesthetic has made its way into the gallery with remarkable vigour and ease, evidencing that it is ready to thrive in other settings. In historiographic terms, slow cinema’s critical usefulness thus resides in how it sits at the interstices of two different conceptions of cinema and social spheres, one pointing to its traditional past within the theater as a single fixed screen within a single space, and the other to its uncertain future within the gallery as simultaneous multiple-screen displays within multiple spaces. But this move into the museum raises important questions precisely as it makes visible the discrepancy between slow cinema’s aesthetic project and the viewing modes encouraged by gallery settings, thus offering a timely opportunity to reassess the question of collective experience in the cinema.
What do we lose when a collective experience in the cinema theater is gone? For all the wonderful work that has been carried out on spectatorship over the past decades, I think this question still needs answering and that slow cinema may help us answer it. In fact, as Julian Hanich has recently suggested, the fact that the silent theatrical experience is collective has to be argued for, given that the general assumption is that collective in the cinema can only mean a socially interactive audience along the lines theorized by Hansen. Leaving aside their divergent theoretical groundings, however, both Hansen and Hanich contribute to a conceptualisation of the cinema in terms of publicness and experience which is extremely useful, especially as cinema undergoes momentous institutional and technological mutations. As film history turns into ‘media archaeology’, and as the genealogies of cinema are splintered into a dizzying number of directions, so too is the collective, public experience of moving images projected onto a single screen – what marks the beginning of cinema in traditional film histories – seen increasingly in bracketed and relative terms. All the more reason, then, to reflect on what it is exactly that we lose if this intersubjective experience is gone, and what kind of effects and affects might be at risk.
 Miriam Hansen, “Early cinema, late cinema: permutations of the public sphere,” Screen 34, no. 3 (1992): 197-210, 206.
 Ibid., 198.
 Ibid., 208.
 Miriam Hansen, “Max Ophuls and Instant Messaging: Reframing Cinema and Publicness,” Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, and Simon Rothöhler (Vienna: SYNEMA, 2012), 22-29, 26.
 See, for example, Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, eds., Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005); Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb, eds. Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 1. (London: Wallflower Press, 2009); Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema,” the New York Times (1996) [online], available at https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/12/specials/sontag-cinema.html
 Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema.”
 Julian Hanich, “Watching a film with others: towards a theory of collective spectatorship,” Screen 55, no. 3 (2014), 338-359.
 Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017).