Thoughts On: Cinema & Its Audiences
Today we will be looking at ourselves as those who consume film.
Who Is Cinema For? This is a question I’ve been asking myself quite a bit recently, and whilst there is one definite and obvious answer (everyone), this question opens up many avenues of thought which ultimately have us turn to the century-old question: what is cinema?
The invention of moving images is for everyone as a consequence of it being a commercial, mass produced art of engineering born out of an industrialised age. However, whilst cinema was born as a commercial trick and a feat and tool of scientific interest, it became an art. But, in becoming an art, cinema did not, and could not (for films are too expensive to make), become an entity for the privileged few. The cinema of common definition – the films that could be seen in theatres or at festivals – has then always bore a tension between art and entertainment. And thus cinema has conservatively evolved, by virtue of its capitalist features, as a somewhat democratised art, fuelled and funded by audiences, culture, studios and artists. This does not mean that all audiences see all kinds of films, however. Rather, a person’s view of what cinema is is often defined by genre preferences and marketing; we seek out the films that we think we will like and we watch the films we are put into contact with. This may leave the average person having seen all of the films they thought to be interesting on Netflix or in the theatre whilst they are in a constant search for the next cult horror film. (‘Cult horror’ can be replaced with any niche genre that people who have an interest in films form an affinity for).
If this rings true, if people only look for specific films they like and watch what is put in front of their faces, the cinematic diet of the average person who loves, or just likes, film is a microwave meal with a weird concoction of their own design on the side. So, if cinema is for everyone, and most people see cinema through such a lens, what is, speaking generally, cinema?
It would be pointless to try and construct a specific definition whilst we are speaking so generally, but it seems quite evident that cinema is defined by pleasure and attraction. In such, the democratic answer to what is cinema? would fall somewhere along the lines of: cinema is moving pictures of various genres, but mainly the ones you like, starring the actors you know and like, that form stories that transport your imagination or rattle your senses a little. This is the kind of cinema that you will see reviewed across the internet, on television, in magazines, newspapers, etc. As we all could recognise though consuming this content, films are judged on their predictability, actors and how they make us feel. There are probably a few more specifications – many reviewers will delve into direction and aesthetics also – but these are what most reviews hit upon. This implies that cinema is generally judged and perceived as basic entertainment that can sometimes strike you with whispers of profundity, but is mainly centred around ideas of celebrity and sensory manipulation.
There are two key problems with this definition of cinema. The first concerns scope. For most people, all the films they see are pretty familiar; almost all will come from Hollywood and/or their own country of origin. But, when cinema is allowed to be defined by often one culture, for example, American culture – more specifically, American culture as filtered through Hollywood studios – it becomes very easy to see it as one specific entity. And in regards to the prevalence and influence of American culture on cinema, with cinema as a Hollywood product, there is no wonder why most people see it as just plain entertainment. Though this isn’t universally true, the American film industry has always operated as an entertainment business. Great art has come from American cinema, but often under the guise of being entertainment. For example, we could look to the films of Disney and Pixar – which we have delved into in almost exhaustive depth with the Disney series. Though there is depth in the stories that are told by these companies, these films are generally considered family movies that entertain. At most, people will know of ‘hidden meanings’ in these films (as well as a plethora of other Hollywood classics), but, the idea of a ‘hidden meaning’ in a film is itself a mere novelty – at least, this is how its presented and consumed. When cinema is defined by one culture and its perception of film – as is the case in the modern day with Hollywood largely defining what cinema is – the idea of cinema, film or movies becomes watered down to a useless dogma.
The problem with familiar film consumption is then that, simply put, the potential of cinema is not demonstrated or realised. If you then put a Russian silent film, a 50s Swedish picture, a Bollywood and a Nollywood movie in front of a cult horror purist, their idea of cinema would be challenged greatly. This is because they’d see a kind of cinema defined by vastly different individuals, cultures and time periods than that which they’d be use to. Resultantly, they’d have to alter the way in which they watch these movies and so would also have to alter the way in which they see cinema. If anything, questioning cinema in such a way would provide the opportunity for a more genuine general definition of cinema to be formed, one that would ultimately reflect the potentials of cinema, not just our expectations. And this itself (if the average audience member saw film with more scope) is so important because we would give cinema and filmmakers the opportunity to evolve and expand within the ever evolving definitions of cinema; we’d, in all hope, get films born of a much more vast set of rules and conventions: unfamiliar and new films.
There is nonetheless another problem with the way in which cinema is perceived. Whilst the virtues of widening the scope of cinema are limited to an idea of greater freedom and potential in cinema, seeing greater depth in moving pictures would transform the whole art (as we consume it, not necessarily as it is created) into something far more profound. As a result, we’d not just get new films, but see film to be so much more than entertainment; we’d see cinema for what it truly is and can be.
Art, if we were to squeeze out as simple, yet accurate, of a definition as we could, is communication that requires some kind of window or frame to occur. For many arts, such as dance, opera, theatre and stand-up comedy, this frame is a stage and a crowd of sorts. Other plastic arts, such as painting, sculpture, architecture and film, need specific materials like stone, wood, canvas, celluloid or a virtual version of these things manifested with a computer. With these tools or environments as frames for communication between and artist and their audience, we can understand art to merely be an exchange of ideas. When we come to cinema and consider that this communication is mainly perceived as the exchange of fun stories or stories that emotionally effect you or liven your imagination, we can see little meaning attributed to the communication. In such, the art, the communication, of cinema is only defined be its ability to waste time. However, by changing the way in which we see the depths of cinema, we can see the art to fill time with more than emotional experiences, but genuine and articulate experiences of meaning.
To see cinema as a medium of storytelling in which the communication is meaningful heightens the importance of the form. And, through this, films would not be judged by their ability to waste time or fill it with various forms of emotional masturbation, but actually say something of worth; not something we think needs to be said or would like to hear, but something that is determined and given worth by the film’s artist, culture and temporal context.
Before we go into unnecessary depth, it should be simply stated that there is a problem with the way we generally see cinema as entertainment that comes out of Hollywood. It is because we don’t see cinema with some understanding of its genuine scope through seeing films from different cultures, time periods and of different or experimental forms, that cinema is defined as basic entertainment. And it is because we do not see depth and importance in cinema’s ability to tell stories that this entertainment is primarily reduced to meaningless emotional manipulation. However, why, if cinema is so vapid and masturbatory and we – people in general – are not so simple-minded, should so much money and time be spent on its consumption?
This question can be perceived as a rhetorical one that would grant the assumption that I think we should all spend our lives watching every film ever made and contemplating their infinite depths endlessly. This would be a rather pointless assertion to make as most people don’t watch that many movies and haven’t the time to study them. This makes it acceptable to a degree that people perceive cinema as entertainment. However, if it makes sense that cinema should not be defined so simply, we are left turning back to our initial question of: who is cinema for?
If cinema is more than basic entertainment, then is cinema just for the few who go to university or college to get a Phd in the subject? Is cinema only for those who have seen 100s of movies from all over the world? Is cinema only for those that have made films? Is cinema only for those who can write about its depths? Should there be tests put in place to question our film knowledge before we are allowed to see movies unsupervised?
These are all terrible questions. Cinema’s virtues are found in its ability to entertain and appeal to endless cultural and individual sensibilities. Cinema should not just be a form of intellectual and historical expression – at least, I wouldn’t be too interested in cinema if this is all that it was. Cinema, in my view, is the greatest art people have yet invented because it is one that is so naturally consumed, yet, with time, patience and attention, can also be incredibly profound and an effective educational tool. As a result, cinema can and should be for everybody. There is nonetheless the issue of ‘everybody’ defining cinema as a lesser than it is.
To see cinema as ‘just entertainment’ is like using the internet to just watch porn and fail videos, using fire just to destroy stuff or using wood just for toilet paper. Using the internet I assume that practically all people (whilst they watch the odd fail video or bit of porn) educate and better themselves – even if this is just Googling the definition of a word you didn’t know, finding a news article or reading a paragraph from a Wikipedia page. So, just like we use the internet as an multifaceted tool, just like we use wood to make books, buildings, furniture and a plethora of other constructs and just like we use fire to melt metals, cook food and create a myriad of other things, we should be using cinema as a tool to better and expand ourselves. People already do this in some way or another with documentaries and television shows that teach them something. However, generally speaking, TV and the internet – whilst they are moving picture machines and where we watch many of our documentaries – aren’t cinema. Cinema is a term we reserve for narrative and non-narrative moving pictures–films or movies–not singularly attached to the internet or TV (this means that TV moves and Netflix originals are still cinema – even if they are usually pretty bad examples of the form). Not utilising cinema – the things you see in a theatre – as you do the internet, wood or fire is the precise issue which I’m attempting to detail. In short, the ways in which we generally interact with cinematic stories is too simple. We often do not use cinema to better or broaden ourselves. This is because most see cinema as without much scope and with almost no depth.
To reverse this is simple. Almost no one uses libraries like Will from Good Will Hunting; we all have the resource, but fail to use it optimally. This is ok – we’re all only human. However, most still perceive, and maybe sometimes use, libraries as important tools; we see books as culturally and intellectually important artefacts. As a result, we think of books as things we can learn from – whether they are narrative or non-narrative, fiction or non-fiction. Why do we not see cinema in the same respect? Why do we not generally see cinema to have an inherently powerful capacity to teach and communicate before accepting its entertaining and more basic features as we do with books? Is it because films are so affecting and intoxicating to the point that all we consider them to be is pleasure things? If so, does it not then makes sense to again ask the question: Who is cinema for? Without wanting to say everyone and thus demean cinema, and without suggesting any laws or actions be put in place, shouldn’t cinema be for, and thus be defined by, those who make some attempt to see its wider scope and greater depth; who, even on the odd occasion, take it seriously and defy the demeaning definition of ‘just entertainment’?
Without wanting to meander on, I’ll leave this subject with you and your thoughts. Is there more to be seen in cinema than what is generally perceived? Can you, yourself, better use cinema as a tool that, whilst it entertains, also gives insight into history, culture and more general ideas of humanity?
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