By Vidit Singh
The Indian audience is what the Indian citizen ought to have been like. Galvanized against the PR-fueled serenading of the corporate, extremely critical of performance, and unflinching in holding the powerful accountable. The makers of a film can’t mask its true mettle with a flashy item song (a rather dreadful terminology), nor can they manipulate the reception of their film anyhow and above all, they cannot, even if they tried to, ignore that very response of the audience. They have to comply with the demands of the patrons. Everything is public and barring a few exceptions, everything is sacrosanct tangibly and otherwise. Note that I don’t claim the absence of malignant attempts to cover these honest responses. But the audience always triumphs unlike the citizen. I can’t help but look over at the citizen, in contrast to the empowered audience and wonder: what went wrong with it?
But that’s a piece for another day.
What’s peculiar to me is that the individual cohabits the audience and the citizen, both of which become so polarising despite the similarity of their roles and actions. It’s unsettling because this simultaneous, polarizing existence of the two identities exposes the dual moral commitments of an individual. And if this contradiction sits over one person, one unit of a large, encompassing crowd that the makers of art call the ‘audience’, then how absolute or credible is the phenomena of ‘word of mouth’ itself? Is it just a conspiracy to nurse the egos of artists?)
I’m sorry, I guess that too is a piece for another day.
What is the audience? Or more precisely, how does the existence of an audience come into question? They’re statistics, numbers that make the reception ‘favorable’ or not. You’re a part of these evaluations and so am I. But when an identity, especially that of an ‘audience’ is made so collective, does it eradicate the space for the ‘personal’? What does a constituent of it, a mere unit in all their contradictions, think about the state of the movies that forms the macro sect of an ‘audience’? Are contrary opinions allowed to have their day in court like approved opinions are? There probably is no way to materially know the answer to this. But I can speak for myself since my individual identity as an audience and its constituent isn’t contingent on it. For you thus, it shouldn’t make a difference to regard me as a cog or the entire wheel itself because dare I say, there’s something eating the audience inside me.
(I want to apologize and comfort myself with the postponement of this fizz eruption again. But I guess I my appetite for art is growing insurmountably and I only have a meal of criticism to satiate it with.)
If I may give myself the license to indulge rather narcissistically, I would like to cite Ray Bradbury’s classic short story ‘The Pedestrian’ to explain my position. The story, set in AD 2053, is about a night in the life of Leonard Mead, who ventures out to walk alone on the streets every night.
“Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows.”
These lines were written in 1951 to paint a dystopian picture of the future – a television-centered society with no detachment from their respective screens. Sound familiar? I guess Mr. Bradbury’s expressionist view has never hit closer home than it does today, in 2020. In the midst of a global pandemic that has inevitably unfastened us from society, what’s left are our screens to comfort and torment us. (Truth be told, for some of us that’s what it has always been like). But even apart from a 2020 version of the above lines, our cinema viewing habits have been historically altered by these screens. With the advent of multiple streaming platforms and new releases upon them every day, our screens have made sure we stay true to Bradbury’s words.
The late American author David Foster Wallace similarly critiques the Television and popular modes of entertainment in an interview with ZDF. He expresses his resentment for TV viewing by stating that the liberty to switch channels convinces the mind that there’s something better running on another channel. So the act of TV viewing only becomes toggling back and forth to find this “thing” that the mind thinks it wants but doesn’t know what it is. He underlines, “too much good stuff combined with my sick little head that thinks there’s always something a little better on the next (channel)”. This combined with the prowess of the remote that keeps everything a thumb-press away (as opposed to physically getting up and approaching the TV) is the reason why he never owned a television set.
From when both of these assertions were made, it is undeniable that we have entered a whole new realm of viewing all-together. It’s like Bradbury and Wallace’s greatest fears have bulked up on steroids in the form of smartphones, tablets, computers, next-gen televisions and other modes. Such variety, on the surface, seems intended to celebrate the audience but in actuality, it gluttons them with access. What I aim to get at is that while it might seem obvious for authors to criticise the poppy, visual form of entertainment owing to their mass appeal, I urge you to look beyond the assumption that this disapproval arises from their unabashed allegiance to literature. At the risk of sounding self-obsessed, I do admit that in this viewing landscape, I feel a lot like Leonard Mead, Mr. Bradbury’s protagonist in ‘The Pedestrian’ and that may have something to do with why I relate to both the authors. In congruence with them, I too believe that there is something irrevocably lost from humankind in such worship of content. And it dies a cold, slow, silent death.
The screens are multiplying, so are the platforms and don’t even get me started on the amount of content being generated. And while we continue to live in a pandemic, even our appetite remains a perpetually hungry beast. Hell, the only class of people who can complain are the critics who have to respond to the onslaught for their daily bread:
And there is no stopping it; with the apprehension still in the air and theatres functioning only selectively. There is a clear lack of alternative to watching films. Streaming is the new Godzilla and without people noticing, it will have repercussions on our perception of cinema at large.
I’m at the behest of a screen-machine that is a tool for my work and pleasure, for hours every day. And with each passing day, I grow slightly more sick of it. Sick of the convenience of such a machine that limits the oysters of the world to me within 13 inches of a frame. It’s not as escapable as an occupational hazard. It is a 2020 lifestyle hazard. Since everything that I do and see is confined to these 13 inches (my classes, my assignments, watching videos or browsing the internet), I’m looking desperately for a way out rather than a way in. And I’m conscious of the knowledge that spending time away from it will cause me to feel more relaxed. I’m unsure if most others are conscious of it, or even want to know it in the first place.
Which is precisely why there is an insurmountable splurge of the ‘meh’ sentiment inside me whenever a new film/show drops on the internet. It’s a pity since the wonder of cinema, that drew me to the medium at first and kept my love alive for it, has died an inconsequential death. I don’t even know when it died and if anyone even attended its funeral. Its absence was only noted when after a long, hard day of work, rewarding myself with a good watch felt like another task on my to-do list. And with every swipe of a thumb over my twitter feed that is unanimously raving about a new release, I alienate myself from my identity as an audience.. With every new release, a part of my brain goes to sleep and I’m left to wonder, “Can someone ever stop being an audience?”
When cinema occupies such a territory inside my mind, everything becomes the same then. A new release doesn’t matter to me anymore since there is no palpable sense of wonder or uniqueness to it. It forgoes its own unique qualities and is reduced to a mere tactic that would keep my ass on the chair and eyes on the screen for a longer time. The bottom line is, being an audience isn’t the experience that it once used to be. Mind you, the problem isn’t the screen. There was still a cathartic wonder in watching movies, even if it were only between me and my screen. But when your entire world is the screen, cinema ceases to be cathartic.
What do we make of this artform then? What void in our life does it fill now? In my opinion, it only appears to compensate for contained agonies of our daily lives. It does not release them. And in my case, it adds to them. Easy access becomes easy viewing, or if I may dare to call it that, lazy, passive viewing (Yes I am very tempted to take a jibe at ‘online watch parties’ here but I refrain since I guess my nosiness is far inferior than the contentment it provides to people). The paradise for the viewers that we celebrate in the multiplicity of options results in what I personally call “Good movie, what’s for dinner?” syndrome. No effect persists (that otherwise would) as we delve into our self-devised cycle to pass the day. The film experience, regardless of the quality of film is passe, passe, passe.
Such an unconscious temperament can only produce brain-dead viewers that won’t linger over art and hence the art won’t linger over them either. It shouldn’t be hard to get to this point, but the fact that now I’m expected to try is a product of the times capitalised by enormous access. The lust for engagement despite the death of patience defines the benchmark of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. This temperament, enhanced by the machinery, will ultimately dictate what we see. And the works have already begun.
The acclaimed auteur, David Fincher recently pulled the plug on his show ‘Mindhunter’ owing to less viewership for the amount it costs to get made. An easy reading of this statement can be that people didn’t like it and hence it was frozen. I don’t dispute that position and I can’t question facts: enough people did not watch it, period. But I beg to ponder why? The show has an 8.6 IMDb rating which is greater than some of its running contemporaries. It isn’t a remotely bad show and neither am I so naïve to have just discovered the disbalance between critical rating and commercial appeal. The answer lies in comparing how many other slow-burn crime dramas like ‘Mindhunter’ that avoid gore and grit to delve into a psychological study of serial killers can one see around? I bet none.
But things change if I throw the words ‘suspenseful’, ‘thrilling’ and ‘exciting’. You could spew multiple titles and even sing ‘Bella Ciao’ while at it. My problem isn’t with those tags, but with their lonely presence. I opt for a similar enquiry into the show ‘BoJack Horseman’ that was cut short by the streaming giant, Netflix. (For starters, it can easily fit in the genres of ‘adult-animation’, ‘sit-com’ and ‘tragic-comedy’, among others)
The results of my speculation are simple: The ‘lust for engagement/death of patience’ temperament detests any diversity since it threatens to alter the very temperament. The result is a brutal squashing of experimentation and the soft ensuing of the Media McDonald’s’ enterprise that will soon, if it hasn’t already, overtake our screens.
But why should anyone care? It’s only TV for heaven’s sake! Here’s my hypothesis in as unambiguous a fashion as I can possibly muster (Note that this is mere conjecture from personal experience and in no way a psychologically approved conclusion): The above temperament and it’s encouragement via streaming services is making us accustomed to garnering returns without an investment. Their prevalence is preventing us from cultivating any amount of patience or tolerance and even rewarding us for it. It’s only a matter of time or circumstance when such habituation to instant gratification spills outside the realm of the screen and into our daily lives. It’s very much analogous to the reason why children are generally discouraged from playing too many violent video-games.
The triumph of this system is empirically designed. It never fails to amaze me that in the content that is so widely viewed, the characters’ stories are simply devoid of any screens, around them that occupy a major chunk of their lives, like us (except seldomly when the film is about the addiction to these screens). Sit down and really think: when was the last time a key character in any show or TV ever seen ‘binge-watching’ or just squandering their time away on a cell phone screen? It is undeniable whether intended or not, that through suspension of disbelief, our content keeps us away from the grim realisation of this reality. In the words of Roger “Verbal” Kint from ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995), “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Evan Puschak, who runs ‘Nerdwriter’ on YouTube has even done a critical analysis of this phenomenon:
The final nail in the coffin that our viewing habits can install (or they already have) is better understood in a world where theatres continue to function. And even if that feels like an age ago, it remains important if one were to cling to the optimism of things returning to normal. Our viewing habits thrusted upon us by studio and streaming giant executives have caused cinema to be unequally compartmentalised, similar to a caste or class division. Let the big theatres with big screens and surround sound be for the heavy, multi-million dollar, grand tentpoles and shove the ‘alternate’ or ‘parallel’ films that lack superstars over to the streaming platforms. The executives celebrate a new avenue where new filmmakers and new voices can get an audience which they wouldn’t have otherwise, in a theatre. And that claim holds true, there’s sufficient examples to prove it, no doubt. But nobody seems to acknowledge or mourn the sacrifice of an age-old cinematic experience of the theatre. Its business model is valid and viable but incredibly reflective of the chicken-and-egg relationship between the audiences and the studio heads.
I wouldn’t complain so much had I observed that the streaming culture is probably helping to grow an alternate audience and shift the audience’s gaze away from the mainstream cinema to an extent that they may actually go out to the theatre to see a new indie. But I think I have sufficiently debunked the façade of this utopian statement, above. Under the promise of homing a diverse platter of films at an equal wavelength, the platforms contradict their own word by synthesising a new mainstream through their rigid moulds. It becomes the very thing that it promises (if it really does promise and intend) to counter. At the end of the day, capitalism becomes the fresh pantheon of ‘art’, puts a price tag on it and the cash-registers ring so…who am I kidding?
All said and done, the world is not a fair place. And I may sound like another barking cinema purist (*cough, cough* Scorsese) but I seem to be standing on a crossroad, at least personally. I yearn to either cultivate a cold audience inside of me that, irrespective of the medium and despite the ongoings of the world, continues to live and thrive like a kid in a candy shop, or I just aim to be back in the cinema theatre like before to lose myself in the dark so I can laugh and cry with people unknown to me. The former seems to be more of a compromise, and the latter hits closer to a beaming desire of my heart. And if cinema has taught me one thing, it is to always strive for the latter. To be an audience is probably one of the greatest, unadulterated joys in life. Celine from ‘Before Sunrise’ (1995) would probably concur, after all she’s the one who said – “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”
[Edited by Tanvi Achwal. Originally published in The Navrang Journal, Ashoka University’s Film Society]