Like many others in my generation, my film watching experience is generally comprised of a very particular scenario: me, in my darkened bedroom, laptop opened to Netflix or some other media platform, earbuds jammed in my ears, isolated and completely immersed in what I’m watching. This is an ideal set-up when you’re a Cinema Studies minor, carefully trying to pick apart every aspect of the film you’re watching. It’s also a great way to get some alone time, decompress, and remove yourself from the rest of the world for a while. Yet, when I think about the best, most enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve had in my life, these moments are not what come to mind. Rather, they are in almost every aspect the complete opposite of what I’ve just described.
I think of the week last spring when a few friends and I marathoned the Harry Potter movies (some of which many of us had watched and rewatched more times than we could count) and performed the dialogue out loud alongside the actors like it was a play we’d learned by heart. I also think of last October when my roommates and I attempted to power through as many horror films as we could and, between mouthfuls of popcorn and organic gummy bears, shouted futile warnings at the characters, shrieked in fear, and groaned in frustration at their actions.
What do these experiences have in common? They’re active, interactive, participatory, and conversational. They encourage reflexivity, creativity, humor, and community. Moreover, they are pretty much guaranteed to make any film more entertaining, good or bad. If the film is good, we can all savor it together; if not, let the shredding begin. Most importantly, though, these environments allow for talking to the film and with one another, even while the film is actually running. I know for some, it’s a shocking, disturbing thought.
But really think about it: why aren’t we allowed to talk when we watch a movie? “Because it’s distracting,” you might say, or “because then we can’t hear the dialogue.” However, this line of reasoning seems less logical when you consider that speaking during an art exhibition or sporting event or concert (or singing along with the lyrics) are generally thought of as perfectly acceptable. While watching a film, however, the rule is: absolutely not. Often, we reason that this difference in behavior originates from the distinction between art and entertainment, but I would like to challenge that assumption.
Even in the age of rewinding, subtitles, and a variety of easily accessible streaming and downloading services online, speaking during or over a film is still thought of as one of society’s greatest cultural taboos. But why? Why do we show a silent, almost spiritual sort of reverence toward some art forms, but not toward others? To whom do we owe this deference? Why are these the established norms, and why is anyone who might deviate from them considered rude and uncultured? And, more importantly, what might be the alternative ways of watching a film, and what might their advantages be over the mainstream?
One wave (though by no means the only) of this kind of free, open, interactive cinema experience came with the underground theaters of the 1950s and 1960s. These theaters were designated as spaces to show films that operated outside of the mainstream and were not allowed in a regular theater (often including content that was taboo, avant-garde, or experimental). They not only functioned as gathering places for those belonging to various subcultures and counter-culture lifestyles, but also encouraged viewing experiences that challenged the conventions of traditional theaters. Academic Janet Staiger details this period of time in the eighth chapter of her book Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception, describing underground cinema as a space for validation, empowerment and resistance. She also relates various instances of how these theaters pushed the boundaries of the cinematic experience, such as one viewing of the horror film House on the Haunted Hill (1959) in which a fake skeleton was rigged to fly across the audience at the climax of the film. Many of my cinema professors have also cited their own stories and experiences as evidence of the underground culture during this time, such as my Queer Cinema instructor, who, when referencing a story one of his own professors told him, explained to myself and my classmates how Andy Warhol’s often unbelievably long and uneventful films were originally viewed in theaters (the answer: with food, drugs, and conversation to keep the audience satiated and entertained).
Though perhaps less common, there are still places today which establish and cultivate similar sort of atmospheres. Two contemporary examples are the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and the undeniably bad but surprisingly popular cult classic The Room (2003). Showings of Rocky Horror, as many fans might be aware, have such long-standing popularity and deeply ingrained traditions that they could almost be considered their own subculture. The film plays in theaters all around the globe on a weekly basis and features, according to Guardian writer Brian Moylan, “actors pantomiming the action and dialogue in front of the screen, with attendees dressed elaborately as characters from the film.” The experience operates on a system of call-and-response between characters and audience, as well as props to be taken out or even thrown at the screen at specific moments, which can include rubber gloves, toast, and playing cards. However, even the Rocky Horror experience changes and adapts itself to a given place, time, and audience. Often, that’s the best part. “The biggest laughs come from those who are making it up as they go along and deviating from the script, and even including topical humor,” explains Moylan after speaking with Eric Garment, director of an NYC organization that puts on regular performances of the film.
As for Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 so-bad-it's-good film The Room? Writer Christopher Ratliff details what you can expect and how to prepare for a screening of The Room in his Methods Unsound post about the film. This includes, but is not limited to, wearing a red dress or an “ill-fitting” tuxedo, throwing plastic spoons at the screen when framed pictures of spoons appear on the walls of the character Lisa’s apartment, yelling “Because you’re a woman!” every time a female character speaks (this is said by Ratliff to make fun of The Room’s sexist attitudes toward women), and counting the times a football is (unrealistically) held or even thrown indoors.
From a more global perspective, there is also a remarkable difference in the way other cultures watch films and the way mainstream North American society does. In Marc Abram’s 2010 Guardian article entitled “Indian Cinema: Where the audience joins the action,” he describes a study by the academic Lakshmi Srinivas in which she details the Indian custom of reacting and responding to films in the theater, often loudly and with a biting sense of humor. It is common, she explains, for audience members to “shout out comments to the screen, talk to characters, give them advice and take sides.” This type of audience participation, she argues, allows viewers to “take over a scene and reconstruct its meaning and impact,” transitioning their role from passive to active viewers and making the experience their own.
The concept of giving the audience a role in influencing and manipulating their cinematic experience has begun to (re) popularize in other ways, too, like in films where a viewer can quite literally and directly intervene and insert themselves into the events of the film, controlling the characters’ actions or selecting different angles they want to see. In this way, and in the many other ways already mentioned, we often already manifest these kinds of participatory cinematic spaces at home and in private, but shouldn’t there be more public spaces in which we can interact with cinema in this manner too? Certainly, there’s still a solid argument for the silent, buttoned-up cinema-going of the past, and I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be a time and place for that as well. All cinema-goers deserve the opportunity to have the kind of viewing experience they want. I just also happen to believe that we should think critically about how we consume entertainment and why. And moreover, I also think that new, subversive forms, structures, and styles of both making and consuming cinema should be embraced — a more participatory, audience-driven cinema being just one way to do this.