Silence of the Lambs—Janet Staiger argues that all film spectators are more or less “perverse” in that they use films in their own way.

Silence of the Lambs—Every spectator brings her own schemata to the cinema, that is her individual social formation and psychological and sociological dynamics.

The controversy surrounding A Clockwork Orange’s reception illustrates the ideological stakes governing different spectatorial positions.

A Clockwork Orange—Staiger analyzes agendas and strategies that shaped different interpretations of this film. She regards the controversy around it as a battle of discourses.

As Staiger analyzes JFK’s reception, she offers a sobering debunking of the hysterical postmodern readings that the film generated.

For Staiger, JFK’s reception reveals a battle between official and popular versions of history.

An amusing chapter in Perverse Spectators explores how filmgoers carved out potentially alternative spectator positions in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

In a highly speculative chapter Staiger explores how Blonde Venus could have been viewed as a parody, based on public knowledge about Marlene Dietrich.

Blonde Venus —Even in its most speculative examples, reception study attempts to broaden film analysis to take into account diverse audience experiences.

Staiger demonstrates how certain audiences read Blonde Venus in relation to Dietrich’s rumored romances.

Received wisdom:
three reception studies

by Tomas Kemper

Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (New York University Press, 2000); 242 pages

Janet Staiger, Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era (New York University Press, 2000); 221 pages

Annette Kuhn, Dreaming of Fred and Ginger: Cinema and Cultural Memory (New York University, 2002); 273 pages; with illustrations

Increasingly, film scholars are fleeing the dark, murky theaters of pure theory and returning to the illuminating, refreshing air of the archives. By far, the most exciting work in film studies today has been informed by a blossoming of archival work, which combs material documents to shed light on film history. Such activity represents more than a simple return to film history. It expands the objects of study beyond the confines of the films themselves, and it looks closely at the material documents of journalism, legal contracts, distribution patterns, trade journals, and exhibition programs and moves beyond that to explore wider arenas such as the sites of exhibition and contexts of reception. This material documentation offers a balance and tangible support to theoretical speculation and interpretation.

Janet Staiger’s work develops in both of the above directions. Two of her recent books offer a continuation of the research agenda presented in her groundbreaking and influential 1992 book Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. In Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era (New York University Press, 2000) Staiger sets out to examine the circulation of discourses from texts through audiences, approaching an understanding of why certain works prove salient to audiences at certain times.

Her Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (New York University Press, 2000) offers a variety of essays examining various cases of films and their reception by diverse audiences. She wittily summarizes her approach in the “perversity” of the titular spectators, a description that Staiger applies to all audiences. Staiger argues that all spectators are more or less “perverse” in that they “use” films in their own way. Staiger contends that contextual factors, more than textual ones, account for the experiences that we as spectators have watching films and television and for the uses to which those experiences are put in navigating our everyday lives.

Thus, Staiger offers a radical counter-approach to traditional film-centered analysis (from “pure” formalism to deconstruction). In fact, an even more recent example of reception analysis, Annette Kuhn’s fascinating Dreaming of Fred and Ginger: Cinema and Cultural Memory (New York University, 2002), which examines the dialogue between British audiences and cinema in the 1930s, springs directly from Staiger’s work, demonstrating the latter’s important influence in carving out new approaches to understanding the film experience.

Each of the dozen essays in Staiger’s Perverse Spectators centers on a specific historical topic, examining questions that arise out of the particular cases. While Staiger never outlines a general manifesto of reception theory, she proceeds from a consistent set of assumptions or guiding principles that underline each of the essays in this book. First of all, she denies immanent meaning in a film. In other words, the “meaning” of a film is not fixed within the film. Instead, Staiger argues that spectators activate meaning through their interaction with the film. “Pure” spectators do not exist. Social formations offer an explanation of the spectatorial interpretative strategies and affective responses. Finally, spectator response is not unified; the historical context surrounding the reception of a film is heterogeneous and contradictory.

Thus, Staiger works against the idea that form determines interpretation, that certain forms determine certain responses, and that the spectator plays a passive role in this process. Staiger stresses,

Contextual factors rather than textual material or reader psychologies as most important in illuminating the reading process or interpretation. (xi)

Reception study seeks to unravel the assumptions and theoretical tools working within the discourse surrounding reception. Spectators bring identities (consciously or unconsciously constructed) and interpretative strategies and tactics to the cinema. These schemata, social formations, psychological, and sociological dynamics form the subject of reception analysis. Isolating these elements through historical and textual analysis of the discourse helps us to understand the dynamics of the artistic experience.

While Staiger argues against the notion of a fixed singular meaning to a particular film, her approach avoids simplistic relativism. She does not argue, for example, that films produce an “undecidable” infinity of interpretations. Staiger sees a limit to the potential meanings attributed to a film. Any film may mobilize various responses and interpretations, but the historically available parameters of interpretative strategies restrict the range of interpretations. Furthermore, relativism is contained by the fact that the films themselves supply limited variations for interpretative strategies. Therefore, the film itself curbs or limits the set of interpretations.

A key problem for academic critics remains the analysis of artworks from other eras. How do we talk about the films from other eras, given the way meaning is produced through interaction with the artwork? How do we capture the experience of these artworks? In answering such questions, Staiger would theoretically examine a variety of responses, from critical responses to more quotidian sources like spectators’ reactions in diaries, private conversations, and letters. Practically, however, Staiger must work with a limited set of available resources. She generally scrutinizes journalistic responses to films, from reviews to letters to the editor to gossip columns. These documents are used as clues to the general understanding of films from other periods, by examining the discursive strategies governing such sources.

Thus, reception study attempts to illuminate the cultural meanings of films in specific times and social circumstances to specific viewers. Moving beyond film-centered analysis, in turn, allows us to discuss both the film and the spectator(s) in an effort to understand the creation of meaning in art. This dynamic approach (dynamic in the sense that it sets up a relational rather than a simply monolithic approach to art) assumes an interactive play between the film and the spectator, as opposed to positioning the film in a dominant role, solely determining strict levels of meaning.

Staiger’s object of analysis, therefore, becomes an “event” or “experience,” not simply a film. The object of analysis becomes the spectator’s (or set of spectators) encounter with an artwork and the set of interpretations or affective experiences produced from this event within a social situation. This analysis may include those formal elements of the film that might facilitate certain interpretations (for example, character types, casting, editing, narrative acts of violence). But the analysis moves beyond the explication of the function or meaning of the film.

Instead, “traces” of the encounter between audiences and films form the documents for reception analysis. The ready availability of film criticism clearly marks such material as primary sources for research. However, analysis can be extended to include advertisements, illustrations, letters, fan mail—all “traces” of the meaning circulating around films. These satellite texts naturally orbit around a film, so Staiger’s gravitation toward such material seems logical and justified. These “traces” are then described, positioned, dissected, and mined for suggestions. But Staiger carefully avoids merely evaluating the validity of culturally produced meanings. In other words, the “traces”— from fan reactions to critical responses—are not measured against some fixed interpretation of the film. Staiger explores these texts for what they reveal about the significance of a film: not what the text means per se, but what (and why) it means for spectators. Staiger shows no interest in simply declaring the meaning of certain films, but seeks to discover why and how films are said to mean certain things for audiences.

Staiger’s examination of this interaction between spectators and films factors in the following considerations:

1) the address of the film. Staiger acknowledges that different films address spectators in different ways. A particular film expects its audience to apply a certain set of schemata for understanding the film. Staiger encourages a closer inspection of such schemata (for example, a spectator’s aesthetic values, taste, education) as a way of demystifying the artistic experience;

2) the conditions of exhibition. Staiger alerts us to the ways in which the institutions surrounding the presentation of a film elicit a certain understanding of the work.

3) The personal interpretive behaviors of the spectator. Almost a third of the essays in this collection are devoted to exploring how particular audience groups responded to and used films. In such cases, Staiger scrutinizes the roles of the spectator’s race, gender, and cultural identifications and how these factors play a role in a spectator’s interaction with a film.

For example, the controversy surrounding the reception of A Clockwork Orange illustrates for Staiger the ideological stakes governing the different positions in public discourse on the relation of media violence and real-life behaviors. On the one hand, writers argued that the film’s aestheticized depiction of violence would either desensitize young viewers or inspire imitations. On the other hand, feminists attacked the film for its association of violence and sexuality. Defenders of the film either attributed these elements to the novel or positioned the film in a tradition of pure art. As Staiger reveals, all of the critical positions pivoted on the potential significance of the film’s effects.

Staiger’s examination of the critical reception of Oliver Stone’s JFK debunks the mystifying metaphysics of postmodernist academic claims about the fuzzy demarcation between fact and fiction, an uncertainty allegedly symptomatic of contemporary culture. Through her meticulous examination of a wide variety of journalistic responses to the film, Staiger finds that what is at stake in the JFK controversy is not a blurring of the line between documentary and dramatic re-enactments, but the battle between official versions and popular versions of history, or, in this case, between the official Warren Commission story and the widespread counter-histories, the conspiratorial perspectives partially represented and potentially “authorized” by JFK.

I should add here that Staiger does not limit her studies only to films that set off shockwaves rippling through the cultural discourse. In the book’s first essay, she offers a nuanced and useful survey of the speculations on histories of reception presented in the work of Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, and Timothy Corrigan. Staiger’s individual essay topics range from 1960s underground cinema to Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. The former essay explores the American experimental film scene in relation to 1960s sexual politics, examining the discourse of identity politics circulating within the critical reception of these films and how the exhibition sites offered spaces for subcultural community connections. The latter essay offers a highly informative and amusing survey of how spectators might find alternative subject positions and sources of identification in relation to various minor characters in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. In another essay, and an admittedly speculative one, Staiger argues that public knowledge about Marlene Dietrich at the time of Blonde Venus’s release may have contributed to viewing the film more as a parody than a traditional melodrama. In another valuable chapter, Staiger offers a thorough historical examination of how genres were discussed by critics and trade journals in the classical Hollywood period, undermining academic definitions of genre purity.

The essays in Perverse Spectators foreground the “contact zone” between a film and its reception, how films galvanize interpretations like lightning rods; but “shocking” films are only one (however attractive) wavelength on the reception study spectrum. This strategy demands both rigor and nuance. A brief survey cannot do justice to Staiger’s rich, rewarding work. The writing style is refreshingly lucid, even while she negotiates complicated ideas and diverse spectator positions.

Pure formalism (including, for example, the school of neoformalism practiced and proctored by Staiger’s colleagues David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson) focused on the general structure and tools for explaining how an artwork is put together, how its internal mechanics and its various functions work. Proceeding from the principle that the form or structure of an artwork represented a viable communicative instrument (as much as the “content”), the most severe formalists argued that analysis could be (even should be) autonomous, unconcerned with the artwork’s “origins,” its history, or with its surrounding context. From this view, the scholar could ferret out the artwork’s meaning simply by analyzing its internal components and their functions. (Of course, as Kristin Thompson points out, the Russian Formalists were never uncompromising in the way they are sometimes painted. Their analytical tool-kit included such concepts as “norms” and “realistic motivation,” both of which “open” up the text to context.) While neoformalist analysis allows for a wide variety of analytical approaches, including the cultural and historical elements that enter into a work, the artwork is nonetheless viewed as an object, as opposed to an experience or process.

Reception study represents, then, even in its most speculative examples, a radical attempt to expose our analysis of artworks like films to the diverse experiences and schemata brought to bear on the works by audiences. This effort to move beyond autonomous analysis of the text has some precedent in poststructuralist theoretical approaches. Like deconstruction, reception study views the artwork (film, book, painting) as an unstable text; the artwork is not seen as a force which determines a single meaning; it can be unraveled or “read” (understood) in different, non-exclusionary ways. However, unlike the impervious, pan-textual world of deconstruction, reception study roots its analysis in material and historical analysis, supporting its claims with tangible documents.

As far back as 1968’s S/Z, Roland Barthes expanded upon a wide variety of formalist principles in his study of reading. Barthes’ work famously explored the cultural voices informing (infecting) any artwork, unwinding the text’s polyphonic structure and thereby offering an analytical model in distinct contrast from traditional univocal formalism (i.e., criticism which focused on a single unifying thematic meaning within a work). The most pronounced way in which Barthes broke the spell of traditional criticism (or expanded formalism) was his effort to “hear” the reader (so to speak) in the work: “To read is to find meanings, and to find meanings is to name them.” (11) For Barthes the reader is not an innocent subject and is already a “plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or, more precisely, lost.” (10)

While we may not want to move into the “infinite” with Barthes (and fall through the void like some post-structuralist “Star-Child”), we can acknowledge the fascinating question Barthes raises: how do we disentangle the voices in a text when our own reading is mingled with other voices? Barthes failed to pursue his own teasing question; faced with this “infinity” he only saw himself getting “lost,” as revealed in his rather enervated choice of words.

Reception study offers a stronger approach to these questions. Instead of slipping into the vertiginous, despairing relativism of Derrida and Barthes, reception study proposes a rigorous examination of the tangible historical and sociopolitical interpretations surrounding an artwork, rooting its analysis and speculation through a nuanced, demanding methodology (outlined above).

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