On mobile phones, movie commentaries, Let’s Plays and channel hopping.
Sometimes I neglect to write an essay because my thoughts on a subject are a mess of uncertainties and vagaries. But this does a disservice to the essay form, which is all about vagaries and uncertainties. That is, from the etymology of essay, an attempt. So here is a subject on which I have no fully developed thesis, just musings. And it is something I nonetheless care about. The subject is: the audience interrupting, or otherwise distracting themselves from, films (and other similar art mediums).
I often think about how much Bertolt Brecht cared about the ways in which people engaged with his plays, his epic cum dialectical theatre, but specifically about how atypical his preferences on this subject were. Atypical of artists, at least. Namely, as I recall reading during my humanities degree days, he actively welcomed people talking during performances, engaging in conversation about what is going on in the context of the stage, even interrupting and breaking the illusion of fiction by so doing.
We live in the age of distraction, we are told with a distracting insistence. Although culprits for the decline of cinema are hardly scarce (the rise of streaming as a powerful competitor alongside pandemic conditions and student debt), it is interesting to me that the low attention spans produced by phone culture have been blamed. Interesting because for all the intuitive appeal of the idea, and whatever other mental health consequences might accrue due to online content, it is largely unevidenced.
Nonetheless, and while I have sympathy for Brecht’s perspective, I do personally feel something is lost by bifurcating attention between a film and a phone screen. In fact, I am not so sure that this even contradicts Brecht’s ideas, since he cared about how people engaged with the work even by talking throughout it, whereas bringing a phone to a film (just as much as bringing a book would) is not engaging. Talking over a film to discuss it is still a type of engagement. It can sometimes be annoying or sometimes feel apt.
Putting aside his philosophical reasons for wanting these types of engagements, Brecht was, after all, eliciting something that is desired within the context of performed pieces of narrative fiction. At least since the burgeoning of DVDs and DVD extra feature disks (preluded in video cassette box sets too), people have sought and enjoyed watching films with commentary tracks. Online today, these are produced not just by the creators of films, but by various fans. (A good online friend of mine, Kit Powers, produces a thoroughly entertaining series of these on just one film, Robocop.)
Moreover, even computer games are increasingly enjoyed in this way, with the rise of Let’s Plays whereby people play and respond to game play for their own fan communities. This seems hardly new either, as I recall as a teenager often enjoying merely watching friends play games, often taking turns, and it generally becoming a kind of performance in itself. Not just in how you played, but how you responded to the game. (Another online friend, George Daniel Lea, produces extensive and greatly amusing Let’s Plays.)
So it feels safe to say that we are drawn to engaging with art even in ways that insert ourselves over the art itself. And we are drawn to others doing this for our amusement. But are we done a disservice, even if we do this to ourselves, when we go outside such self-insertion and merely semi-engage with a piece of art? That is, when we flip between it and something else.
The pre-mobile analogue for mobile phone (and similar) distractions seems to be more channel hopping than talking over, Let’s Plays and film commentaries. (A practice that again is not so new, as it surely goes back even to engagements with radio channels.) Are we cheapening our enjoyment with this practice, or engaging with it in a more agentive, self-aware, critical, nay Brechtian mode? (The rise of virtual reality and even more immersive media both preclude looking away, and make self-insertion a direct authorial-medium feature of art.)
I am not so sure on this whole question. When I reflect on what annoys me about people who pay attention to their phones over a piece of media I am watching with them, it is always the sense of a discrepancy in our engagement. Talking over a film is more annoying, too, when I feel the moment of filmic depiction itself is pressing, important, and is not being shared in the same spirit. This is a bit of a selfish instinct, prone to being hypocritical. It is also what I bemoan about the potential of cinemas to decline, the corporate experience this medium produces feels to me to be something precious, and not replicated by streaming services.
Lately I have been watching more films, having found a comrade who shares my taste in them, and neither form of watching (whether talking over the whole of the 2018 Suspiria remake or more quietly watching the unfortunately cut version of the 1971 Ken Russell film The Devils) felt inappropriate. There is an aspect of mood to ways in which we engage with art, shaped by both audience and the nature of the art itself, and no hard and fast rule seems to work in all instances. But by itself that is a cop out, and I have not gone further on this quandary.
Whatever further thoughts I do develop, however, I doubt some unified film etiquette will be all that useful. At least, not beyond some context-specific observations about how to engage in a film with others. What I do suspect is that the whole question opens up a lot of further, even more intriguing questions. What is the role of the audience in the art? Or the creator? What is the steadfastness of the line between the two? And are there answers to such things that cover all instances, or are there many choices (authorial and audience led) to be made along the way?
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