I could use any old film I watched on television for the point I’m about to make.
Last night Erika and I watched Being There (1979). Hal Ashby’s film is based on a best-selling novel from 1970 by Jerzy Kosiński who co-wrote the screenplay. Watching it in 2022 I swear it’s under-rated. I recall the conversations it provoked.
Do you know the film? It’s full of fascinating commentary on media and the way our minds work, that has aged well in a world full of people who seem ready to believe conspiracies, to put political leaders and pundits on pedestals.
And I think it would be received very differently if it were released now, because of the way audiences have changed. That brings us to the idea I was alluding to above.
First off: I don’t think it’s a radical idea to suggest that the public reception to a work changes over time. We assume that there’s something cumulative at work, that people remember seeing the first Star Wars film, when they go see the next one, and that at least some of us would be comparing and building on that.
But in addition to franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are genres where we absorb codes and tendencies. If you’ve seen science fiction, you are prepared for the usual signals built into costuming, plot construction, music, and anything else that is associated with a genre.
We become sophisticated: to use a word we toss around often without thinking about what it implies or where it comes from. I think it’s reasonable to say that we become progressively more sophisticated in our film watching through experience, building upon what we’ve seen. Some of this is simply our development, the way we grow in life. I’m not the same as I was as a child, for example.
All fair and good. But what I want to propose is something I haven’t seen in discussions of cinema, that I will illustrate by analogy.
I’ve heard it argued that the composer Gustav Mahler wasn’t properly understood before the advent of long playing records. Yes one could experience a symphony through a concert or by studying a score.
But the breakthrough for Mahler came via a new kind of relationship with music.
I know how it worked for me. I would listen to a Mahler symphony, and then buy another one, and listen over and over. I didn’t really get his middle symphonies on first hearing. I believe the argument goes that few of us really did, that it was an exceptional person who really appreciated Mahler simply by going to hear his music in a concert hall. The complexity of his works required multiple listenings, to discover the depths of his music.
The listener who explores music this way has the opportunity to become more sophisticated.
Just as the LP gave the world a chance to change how we listen to music, so too with the Video recorder. In my childhood it was uncommon to watch the same movie over and over. Yes we saw Wizard of Oz over and over, via regular annual broadcasts,, and yes we saw A Christmas Carol every year in December. Those were exceptions, before the advent of the VCR and later personal digital devices.
In 1979 it was still uncommon to see the same film over and over. I recall feeling strange when explaining my enjoyment in going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times, although the usual conversation concerned whether or not we were stoned (and yes we often were) when we went as the film was understood to be “a trip”.
But in 2022 that’s all changed. We binge watch series. We see films over and over, because of course cinema is now seen as art, and that means we watch a great film multiple times.
So to get to my point, I think we see film differently now because we’re all more sophisticated in 2022. Sophistication entails a kind of literacy. If you’ve seen episodes 4 and 5 of the Star Wars franchise, you’ll recognize the themes in the music, you’ll have expectations of the plot trajectories for any of the later episodes.
And that’s merely the most basic kind of literacy. I heard a discussion on tv after the film ended last night, as we heard that Peter Sellers didn’t want the humorous sequence in the closing credits, fearing it would undermine the illusion of the film.
It is true, this bit of film deconstructs the illusion by making it crystal clear that we are looking at something artificial, something being filmed rather than “real” (whatever that means). Nowadays it’s not uncommon to watch bloopers in the closing credits.
But it was brand new in 1979, or at least something uncommon for a mainstream film.
Are we different now? Surely. We have seen this often enough to know what it is.
Of course, sophistication is not necessarily a good thing, as it comes with expectations attached. We don’t experience the kind of surprise we’d feel in 1979. There are always trade-offs.
But today’s audiences have certainly changed.