The Context of Consumption

The recent trend in academia, particularly in the realm of film and literature, is to approach works of fiction with the postmodernist stance a work is best understood in relativist terms by examining the author’s time period, biography, and viewpoint in light of our current prejudices and values. What gets mentioned only passingly is the context of consumption—how we actually digest both literary and cinematic works differently even within the same time period, even within the same moral and social value systems.

I’m thinking, less loftily than in the previous paragraph, of the fact that I really want my wife to see Equilibrium, a film I saw earlier today and of which I didn’t have a particularly high opinion. In fact, the more I reflect on the movie, the more I realize it was just horrid—full of plot holes, lacking in character development and proper exposition, among other insufficiencies. Why do I want to see it again? Well, I think a work of art, particularly a film (as we do not often find ourselves reading a book together with several people or even one other person, excepting, of course, the odd chance we might be listening to a book on tape in the car with other passengers or reading a book to a young child) does not create a single experience for its viewer, even if there are “objective” aspects of which the viewer can rightly praise or criticize.

Sometimes, even when I’ve loved a movie, I can watch it too many times. My view of life and my moral values, even my artistic tastes, may not have changed at all, but suddenly the movie’s lost its charms for me “like a worn out recording of a favorite song” (quotation from Rupert Holmes’ “Escape”). Conversely, I can suddenly become excited again about watching a movie that I have seen too many times already, simply because I’m watching it with someone who’s never seen it before. The movie then becomes a sort of show-and-tell, where part of the experience of watching the movie isn’t just in watching the movie itself but also in anticipating the new viewer’s reactions and potential adoption of the movie as a favorite.

I’m not sure, though, why I would want to watch Equilibrium again with my wife, though, as I’m not cinematically “evangelizing” to her—I don’t want her to like the movie, as I didn’t even like it much myself. I have noticed, though, that in what contexts you consume a movie (on the big screen, in a crowded/empty theater, at a premiere, in a tiny room, with a bunch of friends) changes not the content or quality of the movie but majorly the content and quality of viewing experience.

Take, for example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which now has a cult following and has midnight showings at which guests dress up, sing along, and perform various rituals in tune with the movie. The movie is no longer a movie but an event and a community production, with what’s happening in front of the screen creating more of an experience than what’s happening on the screen.

Likewise, when I saw the re-release of The Empire Strikes Back a few years ago, it was hard not to feel a rush of adrenaline at every fight scene. It was hard not to hold back my chuckle amidst others’ roars of laughter when Princess Leia kisses Luke Skywalker. Sure, it’d been a while since I’d last seen it, and I surely must have changed as a person, but the people you see it with make the movie.

Sometimes, it’s not the people. I’ve watched horror movies alone at night in a big house in the suburban wilderness and watched those same movies alone in the day time in the city, and the amount of “horror” in the latter scenario was negligible.

What I find most odd is how we can attach nostalgia to a really bad movie and still love it decades later, even after our tastes have changed, even after our values and appreciation for the arts has changed. I can’t count the times I’ve rented a movie that I absolutely loved growing up, only to watch it with some friends and have them say, “That was utter shit” (or something like that). Meanwhile, having matured over the course of decades, I’m still loving the garbage.

Even with books, I’ve found a similar phenomenon—not so much in reading with others but at least in having the context in which I read a book (Was it recommended to me? Did I find it myself? Am I alone? Is it quiet? Did I read it straight for hours all in one sitting or was it broken up into bits over the course of a year?). I’d like to see a little more talk about this from people reviewing films and reviewing books. The quality may come from the author’s perspective, but it’s also consumed differently by the viewer, even the same viewer, at different times and in different contexts.

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