I’ve saved my humbug until the holiday season was over. I hope the restraint is appreciated. What was humbugging me is the vast media output — lists, bests etc. — during the holiday, regarding film: surely the most over-hyped, self-congratulatory cultural form ever.

The tipping point for me was Gail Singer’s new documentary about filmgoing, Watching Movies, on CTV’s W-5. I tuned in hopefully. I’ve always been engaged by audiences. In fact, I often try to find a seat from which I can watch both the audience and the show, whatever it is. Audiences seem so integral a part of public cultural events, as opposed, say, to reading a book. The audience ought to count as at least half the event; it certainly does from the performers’ standpoint.

Alas, it was a mere string of interviews, mainly with minor media figures like reviewers and academics, burbling over why they love going to movies: the thrill when the lights go out, being enveloped by darkness; figures on screen larger than life, who fill a need for heroes; a gestalt that makes things make sense, movies helping us decide who we are, and a long bit on sex in the seats (holding hands, copping a feel).

To linger with the latter, it seemed pretty time-bound. For an earlier generation movies were a setting for sexual exploration, but that hardly applies to youth in recent decades, when bisexuality, group sex and even sanctimoniously opting for virginity became standard options.

Oh, and “the communal experience” of watching a movie. That one struck me as pathetic, a pathetic substitute for community, that is. Just think about the real community that can develop in live theatre or music, where the performers react to the reactions of the audience, gaining energy, or despairing and growing frustrated, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby. That’s community.

Movie watching has the opposite effect, it isolates people, de-communalizes them, like the guy on the plane guffawing bizarrely at the in-flight film you aren’t watching. It’s the exceptions that prove this rule. A semi-retired teacher from Jamaica in the documentary tells how surprised she was that Canadian audiences don’t talk to each other during movies. Or picture the cultic quality at the recent premiere for part three of Lord of the Rings. Such collective reactions are precisely what is normally disallowed at films: You may not speak to each other or yell at the screen. NO community, please! That is why films are essentially a demobilizing, anti-political force, no matter how earnestly they take “political” positions. In their experiential effect, they separate people, make them feel passive and acted on, or acted at, and subject to despair, control and manipulation.

The sense of detachment, of being unmoved, must have increased with the rise of pseudo-insider knowledge on how films are made via the-making-of features. The sense, for instance, that camera and crew surround each intimate scene. Or the manipulation of crowd scenes. I recall wondering as a kid whether the mobs in, say, The Robe, had been staged just for a camera, then dismissing the ridiculous idea. Now almost everyone knows someone who has been directed as an extra.

A shrink in the Singer film spoke interestingly, I thought, on movies as a regressive experience because the figures on screen are larger than life, just as one’s parents were. Norman Mailer has put the same point more broadly by arguing that film belongs to neither literature nor theatre (an old debate), but instead to the “existential river which runs into ultimate psychic states.” It used to flow sex-memory-dream-death but now it runs sex-memory-film-dream-death. “Film is in the physiology of the psyche,” he adds. That gets nearer to giving film its due.

Let me say a word for viewing films on video, which gets a lot of putdown in Watching Movies. I’ve done a huge amount of this in recent years, mostly of kids’ films. It gives you a chance to talk about what you see (as in the Jamaican theatres), and thus creates a certain community, the way fans do at a ball game, but not at movies. You can also re-view the tale dozens or hundreds of times, focusing on its details and nuance, as one did in the oral tradition, where the epics were retold, often in tune with the seasons, so that cultural sensitivities got built up not by adding to the quantity of products but by gaining depth in a limited few.

As I say, audiences are one of my obsessions. I’ve long wanted to write a play called The Audience, in which the (real) audience watches an audience onstage watching an (invisible) play between them — a conceit I snitched from George Luscombe’s bottomless bag of theatre tricks. Or maybe we should just start by adding to the entertainment pages some reviewers and critics of the audience, giving them their due.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.