Nightmare on Elm Street—Traditional formalism haunts Carol Clover’s audience analysis in her key work, Men, Women, and Chainsaws.

Nightmare on Elm Street—Classical film theory dreamed up an ahistorical, immaterial film spectator.

Staiger’s Blockbuster TV analyzes the phenomenon of unusually popular television sit-coms within the context of U.S. entertainment media.

Controversies surrounding All in the Family illustrate how public commentary stimulated interest in the show.

The Beverly Hillbillies—Staiger links the controversy about the show’s “hayseed wholesomeness” to early 1960s critiques of television as a “vast wasteland.”

The Beverly Hillbillies is one of four televisions shows that met the criteria of blockbuster status.

Happy Days’ producers made decisions about future programs in the series in response to audience feedback. By analyzing this process, Staiger links reception, formal analysis, and industrial practice.

Happy Days’ producers restructured the show around Fonzie and Richie.

Laverne and Shirley ran in prime time from 1976-1983. They had been friends of the Fonz on Happy Days and the show first aired on Wednesday nights after Happy Days, jumping to the top of the charts.

“Surrogate consumers” (TV critics and journalists) recognized class issues in Laverne and Shirley.

Public discourse surrounding The Cosby Show questioned the show’s realism and its usefulness in addressing contemporary race problems.

The Cosby Show—Minor characters demonstrate fiction’s multivalent interpretations. Producers exploit a character’s potential multiple readings to broaden a show’s audiences.

Denise Cosby, played by Lisa Bonet—The Huxtable children changed in characterization almost every season.

Annette Kuhn’s new book seeks to conjure British filmgoers’ experience in the 1930s, a period in which their attendance per capita ranked highest in the world.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat—Of his 1930s filmgoing, a British spectator recalls: “After you’d watched Fred Astaire and Ginger, you wanted to go to’t palais and you thought you could do eh, you could twirl about. You couldn’t. [Laughs]”

Top Hat—With Proustian reverie, a British woman fondly recalls her experience of the slippage between the screen and the audience as she “danced with Fred Astaire while Ginger Rogers watched.”

Reception study applied to
film and television analysis

Most of the theories that dominated film studies in the 1970s and 1980s— from structuralist/formalist criticism to psychoanalytic criticism— assumed homogeneity amongst audiences, even when they raised the issue of the spectator’s experience. They tended to represent the spectators ahistorically (if and when they addressed this issue at all). To take but one fairly recent example, Carol Clover’s fascinating, and indeed ground-breaking Men, Women, and Chainsaws (UC Press, 1992)— an examination of audiences drawn to slasher films—betrayed the author’s formalist (and folkloric) roots in her attempts to explain the psycho-dynamics of adolescent male spectators by focusing her analysis almost exclusively on the formal structure of slasher films. In other words, Clover’s conclusions about spectatorial desire were based entirely on textual analysis, creating a theoretical/ahistorical model of a teenage boy.

In contrast, Staiger’s methodology offers a way of confronting the problematic issue of textual interpretation. As stated earlier, Staiger assumes that an accurate translation or reconstruction of the immanent meaning of an artwork is questionable or impossible. Instead, an analysis of the creation of meaning in response to the artwork becomes the object of study. But this shifting of the object of analysis raises a question: How can a reception study be certain of the validity of interpretations of this new object of study? Responding to the reception theorists in literary studies (a trend preceding its development in film studies and one whose key proponents influenced Staiger’s work—see the bibliography below) is Dominick La Capra with his stunning book Madame Bovary on Trial, a work imbued with the dialogue between artworks and their reception. La Capra articulates the above paradox with cunning table-turning precision:

In elaborating the conditions of possibility that prefigure a given range of interpretations, [a reception study] specifies the shared assumptions that may underlie divergent conclusions…But it should, I think, be supplemented and contested by attempts at critical reading that actively enter the lists of interpretations with all the risks and the political implications this mode of argument entails. The danger [of reception studies] is the confinement of critical inquiry to metacriticism that politically and socially neutralizes itself by placing the analyst in a deceptive position above the conflict of interpretations. (9)

In the particular case of film studies, it seems to me that Staiger has only altered her focus to another mode of interpretation by literally moving from film analysis to literary analysis. In the end, she is really performing a kind of literary analysis of discourse, a literary analysis of film criticism and other modes of reception. I can see how this shift would be tempting to academics.

Film analysis has raised many difficult questions. Many of the theoretical models that dominated early film studies (1970s) have been questioned if not discarded. Analyzing the texts (essays, journalism, press releases) circulating around a film allows an academic to employ traditional (and therefore comfortable) tools and approaches from literary criticism and rhetoric, fields with established, “reliable” methods.

Nonetheless, Staiger’s approach remains valuable and powerful. In contrast to the dogmatic “High Theory” that once dominated literary and film theory in the 1970s/1980s, Staiger’s studies prove liberating and refreshing; they open up scholarship to the world outside the texts and embrace a more expansive view of film culture, thereby embodying the inter-disciplinary spirit filtering through and enlivening contemporary academic culture.

But reception study does not simply replace formal analysis of texts. (Perhaps I am also misreading Staiger’s attack on formalism. She may allow for a greater degree of formal analysis than indicated in my brief overview.) Furthermore, her attack on formalism is unrelated to the argument for her overall approach. We can agree with her methodology and approach for studying artistic “events” (how artworks are received) while still employing certain other modes of interpretation (from neo-formalist analysis to feminist analysis) to approach the artworks themselves.

Close examination of the reception surrounding certain artworks can help bolster certain interpretations: Did audiences truly struggle with certain radical aesthetic techniques? Was a film truly “subversive?” If so, where is the evidence of subversion? Such questions force us as critics and scholars to examine our claims and how we justify them. If our conclusions are only based solely on the text vis-à-vis some obscure theory, then what exactly is being “proven” or “demonstrated” about the text? Reception study at least raises material-historical questions and forces us to question hermetic approaches to art, approaches that seem to only work within their own interpretative vacuum.

Indeed, Staiger’s Blockbuster TV artfully balances formal analysis, inflected with and informed by various theoretical perspectives, of four different sit-coms with an examination of their reception. Blockbuster TV seeks to explain the phenomenon of unusually popular television sit-coms within the contexts of American entertainment media. Staiger’s efforts in this regard rely on formal analysis of the television shows, examination of the fluctuations of Nielson ratings, and media reactions to the shows. In fact, this latter component of the book provides one of the more interesting strains running through Staiger’s study, a factor accounting for, in part, the various shows’ growth and their role in broadening and even focusing their audiences.

Media coverage of the shows, whether through public commentary, journalism, letters-to-the-editor, and opinion pieces, represent what Staiger calls “surrogate consumers.” She demonstrates how journalists and public discussion of the shows stimulated surges in their ratings. Thus, Dan Quayle’s notorious mealy-mouthed critique of Murphy Brown as a show promoting a single mother as a role model marked him as a surrogate consumer, drawing attention, and viewers, to the show.

In fact, Staiger’s definition of blockbuster television shows is yoked to peculiar audience ratings, a fact that seemingly registers the need for some sort of reception analysis. Blockbuster television shows constitute shows that rate significantly higher than those of their nearest competitors and maintain these ratings for over a year. Surprisingly, only four shows met such criteria: The Beverly Hillbillies [!], All in the Family, Happy Days, and The Cosby Show. Staiger manages to navigate her multiperspectival approach, which jumps from industry reports, Nielson ratings, demographic analysis, producer’s commentary and production practices, mainstream and alternative journalism, formal analysis of the shows, and analysis of various historical contexts, with grace and dexterity.

Despite an overwhelming amount of material, Staiger skillfully hones it down to a lucid presentation and clearly articulated argument, pared further down to crisp sentences and spiced with a tasty absence of jargon. For example, Staiger’s discussion of The Beverly Hillbillies examines questions of class, nostalgia, high and low culture (in both the content of the show and in journalistic responses to the show), and the public debates surrounding the institution of television in the early 1960s (the notorious “vast wasteland” debates), as well as industry strategies relating to the show. Blockbuster TV offers a breezy read, clocking in at barely over 170 pages (particularly if one channel-surfs over a chunk of lengthy, awkwardly formatted charts, rather carelessly inserted in an early section of the book).

A good example of Staiger’s deft demonstration of the interaction between formal structure and audiences can be gleaned from her analysis of the changes in sit-com’s minor characters. In the cases of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley producers tinkered or reworked the show by altering the role and personalities of various characters and such retooling subsequently escalated the shows’ ratings. In fact, minor characters, as formal elements of these texts (sit-coms), allow for multivalent responses to the shows (as Staiger demonstrates in an examination of their reception). The minor characters allow for various modes by which different audience members relate to the shows, thereby potentially broadening the appeal of the shows. Here formal analysis dialogues with reception analysis as a strong explanation for the appeal of sit-coms in general.

Minor characters, a key formal element in most sit-coms, allowed producers to respond to audience feedback and tweak their creations, calibrating the shows to the Nielson barometer. Thus, while major characters lent the shows stability, All in the Family’s Edith became less of a dingbat over the years and The Cosby Show’s Huxtable children changed with every season. Minor characters, then, as Staiger demonstrates, represents a formal trait exploiting the polysemic dimension characterizing all texts, exploiting the fact that different audiences consume texts from their own perspectives and that a text engages with multivalent responses.

Given the nature of our contemporary media landscape—Internet, Tivo, cable, satellite, VCRs, the VHS (and, now, the explosive DVD) rental market —Staiger notes that the era of blockbuster television has effectively waned. However, given the conglomerate nature of the contemporary media industry, the vertical-horizontal integration of companies like Time—Warner—AOL, it would interesting to study how corporations can control and exploit the kind of buzz surrounding television shows (just how linked are these “surrogate” consumers?).In fact, it is the kind of buzz Staiger treats as autonomous responses on the part of journalists and audiences.

Some critics have complained that Staiger’s reception studies mainly focus on journalists as audience members noting that these media professionals fail to accurately gauge the responses of mass audiences. These wider audiences, admittedly, do not constitute Staiger’s field of study; she herself acknowledges film and television critics as a different species of audience, even if they often help to focus the reception of the media texts for wider audiences.

Annette Kuhn’s Dreaming of Fred and Ginger addresses this limitation. Staiger, in fact, provides something of an inaugural epigram on the book’s frontispiece, declaring Kuhn’s work,

An exceptional example of the value of ethnohistory and psychological theory combined with speculation about the meanings of cinema in lives.

Kuhn sets out to explore the shadowy and ephemeral phenomenon of how we experience cinema; specifically, Kuhn’s book seeks to conjure the experience of British filmgoers in the 1930s, a period in which their attendance per capita ranked highest in the world. Her analysis reveals how films engaged with other aspects of their daily lives: school, work, leisure, friendships and courtships. In other words, like most film scholars, Kuhn is interested in examining how films impact spectators.

Yet, unlike most film scholars, Kuhn takes an unusual approach to answering this question about film spectators: she asks the viewers. The main spine of this book stems from a comprehensive series of interviews with subjects recalling their experiences of 1930s cinemagoing. You feel the breath of life in these spectators, a rarity in film studies, thanks to the painstaking work contacting the interview subjects and recording and tabulating their testimony.

Moreover, Kuhn treats these interviews not only as data but also as material for interpretation. To capture the milieu of British cinemagoing in the 1930s Kuhn practices a kind of methodological triangulation, angling historical, ethnographic, and formalist prisms to conjure composite images of the era. The results can be interesting, and surprisingly charming, as subjects recall the randy innocence of cinema dates and relationships. Kuhn uses her subject’s memories to explore the work of cultural memory as force sharing and shaping audiences.

A chapter relying on subject’s memories of horror films relays some amusing anecdotes of children hiding under theater seats. Yet Kuhn frequently interrupts their testimony to place their statements within a wider historical context, drawing on both psychological theory and sure-footed historical work, relating her subject’s experiences to political discourse surrounding the British authorities concern over film’s impact on children.

Ranging through her subjects’ personal testimony, Kuhn is able to cover a wide range of ground on this era. For example, some of her interview subjects reveal that as children they were frequently accompanied to the cinema by their maids, perhaps revealing that cinema remained rather déclassé in 1930s British culture. An extended chapter—a tour de force of theoretical footwork—analyzes a sequence from Top Hat in relation to numerous accounts of Astaire-Rogers pictures by some of the subjects, suggesting

The characteristic organization of spaces in the integrated musical proposes particular modes of spectatorial engagement is endorsed by 1930s cinemagoers’ recollections of their own responses to Astaire-Rogers films during the act of spectatorship. (182)

By allowing interviewees to testify to a wide range of experiences, Kuhn opens up the notion of spectating as an activity ranging beyond a purely visual experience. Instead we hear reports on the experience of entering the theater space, the sounds, the smells, and the sensation of an embodied audience. Kuhn analyzes memories of the theaters themselves and the topography surrounding them, the neighborhoods and the other patrons.

At times, the book feels rather awkward, as when strains of old-school Althusserian-Lacanian phrasing juts up rather clumsily (and rudely) against the common-sense testimony of an interview subject. Another time, Kuhn’s discussion of the Orientalist strain running through 1930s horror films fails to register in any way with the interviews in that chapter. Yet despite these minor missteps, Dreaming of Fred and Ginger should inspire future scholar’s footsteps down this arena. A useful appendix describes Kuhn’s methods in locating subjects, the general format of the questionnaires, the general practice governing the interviews, statistics drawn from the pool of interviews, as well as sources cited and a discussion of the theoretical approaches guiding aspects of the book.

The introduction to Kuhn’s book offers a very stimulating and diplomatic survey of the limitations of traditional text-centered analysis, while surveying the important questions and models offered by the burgeoning field of reception studies, as well as the influential work in ethnography —crucial to Kuhn’s own book—by Clifford Geertz and James Clifford. Taken together, the three books discussed above suggest the rich material to be mined by examining films in relation to their reception. Reception study obliges scholars to maintain a certain material credibility in their efforts to explain and/or understand films, rooting their claims in suggestive or illustrative testimony from a variety of historical-material documents.

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