Friday, October 7, 2016

The Audience Experience and its Discontents

I see from today’s Digital Media article by Joan E. Solsman on the CNET Web site that Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has gone on a soapbox about how “movie theaters are strangling the movie business” (Hastings’ words). It less provocative words, it would be fair to say that businesses like Netflix have definitely changed the rules of the game as they apply to the distribution of films; and it has probably also followed as a corollary that the rules for film production are at least in flux, if not already metamorphosed. This made me reflect on my own experiences with movie theaters, which seems to have been on a downward slump for at least thirty years.

The first time I felt that cable television had changed my attitude towards going to movie theaters came with the release of Platoon. Because movie theaters operate in chains, this film happened to find itself at a movie house in Marina del Rey, which was a short drive from where my wife and I were living at the time. However, our decision to go to that particular theater was slanted by a report that the venue had become a favorite among Vietnam veterans, many of whom had not really recovered from their experiences and were now venting by shouting their reactions to the movie screen as the narrative unfolded.

About half a decade later, we were living in Singapore. As one might guess, one did not encounter such acts of extreme expression in any public space, including movie theaters. On the other hand it was clear that subtler forms of disruptive behavior were surfacing. Cell phones were just beginning to be ubiquitous; and, as might be expected, Singapore was ahead of that curve. Thus, it was not unlikely that one would find someone in the audience having a conversation on a cell phone while a film was in progress. This marked a metamorphosis in the social contract. The new rule was that you could do anything “within reason” as long as you paid for the ticket; but you could exercise your own judgment over what was “within reason.”

These days I cannot remember the last time I went to a public screening in a movie house. My wife and I compared expenses and decided that we would prefer to pay extra for our cable service and wait for the movies to show up there. Part of the decision came from the fact that movie houses had become more unpleasant, rather than just more expensive. We both felt that any film that deserved attention also deserved a more private viewing setting, and we continue to feel that way.

This then raises the question of “live” performance settings. Even when concerts were the domain of the aristocracy, there was a general acceptance of the premise that the performance of music involved a shared social experience. That premise hit a few speed bumps when performances became more public. Think, for example, of how promoters would hire claques to sway audience reaction in the nineteenth century. However, it would not surprise me to learn that, for the better part of the twentieth century, audiences were better behaved around the world than they had been in the presence of eighteenth-century aristocratic settings. The major exceptions came with rejection of the unfamiliar, usually taking the form of unrestrained coughs that could shatter the spell of the brevity of Anton Webern as effectively as that of a hushed prelude by Richard Wagner.

These days the social contract is in the same sort of metamorphosis that is hitting movie theaters. People are more occupied with their “personal technology” than with what is taking place up on the stage. They can also be less restrained in personal behavior. (The last time my wife and I saw Tristan und Isolde, there was a young couple necking in the box next to ours. Yes, the narrative is an inspiring one; but should it be enabling as well?)

Still, as was the case in Singapore, the bottom line is that bills need to be paid. Ticket revenue still signifies in how budgets are managed. Nevertheless, to the extent that public behavior is not writing itself a new set of rules, it is hard to avoid thinking that, from time to time, audiences are a “necessary evil.”

Clearly this should not be the case. Back when I was writing about the concept of “communion” this past August, I did not dwell on the possibility that the relationship between listener and performer was more than a line with two ends. When the audience is a good one, communion is a shared experience with sharing taking place on both sides of the proscenium. My concern, then, is that, as individuals become more and more occupied on personal engagements through their devices, they will become less receptive to social engagements in which even just the presence of others is a contributing factor. It is not the passing of the concert hall as a structure that I fear as much as the passing of those willing to accept the “concert experience” on grounds similar to those accepted as normative half a century ago.

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