Interactive Spectatorships

Media Viewing Practices in the Digital Age

Project Blogs

The 'problem' of the screening

Posted on March 29, 2012 at 6:00 PM

Why don’t film students attend screenings and when they do what form of spectatorship are they expected to adopt? Perhaps these questions hold an implicit generalisation about the practice of certain students, which of course doesn’t apply to all. But as a film studies lecturer in higher education one is always reassessing the organisation and delivery of film in light of every changing attitudes to spectatorship and the very culture of cinema. The raison d’être of the screening, and its position in the structure of a module, may seem rather obvious. A lecture is given followed by an indicative screening at which students watch through the prism of specific critical/contextual tools. In subsequent seminars students synthesise their ideas about the film with core readings for the week, which become the basis for an open forum of discussion and debate. Sounds logical and relatively easy and is perhaps the most used pedagogic blueprint. This standard structure, however, comes up against a range of difficulties when the significance of the screening, as a key part of the learning process, is misunderstood or perhaps summarily rejected. This may be an underlying issues which affects the attendance of screenings and their usefulness as part of the overall learning process.But there are many other contributory factors.

Assessing the viewing practices of students has always been an interesting by-product of teaching film. While acknowledging the dangers of falling into overt generalisation, I am always struck by both the lack of cinematic vocabulary and the unwillingness (or inability) of many students to engage with films that are not very narrowly defined as mainstream. Perhaps it is indicative of the total saturation of Hollywood movies; the cultivation of a homogenous teen market means that anything outside a very limited purview is treated with disdain. Arguably the huge dissemination of television broadcasting on multiple digital platforms has created a generation of televisual spectators. Also emergence of computer game suggests an era of interactive audiences. But this activity is perhaps only superficial, fostering a greater level of distraction rather than critical thinking. The availability of high quality, low cost technology for viewing at home (or anywhere) perhaps makes the small screen intrinsically preferable to the large screen. DVD, and now Internet streaming, arguably make sitting in (an often uncomfortable) cinema something of a chore. It seems there is a fundamental rejection of the value of the ‘cinematic experience’. Is the notion that watching in an auditorium on a big screen is quintessential to the concept of film now somewhat archaic?

But there is also an issue with regards to ‘how’ students watch a film. The ethos of film studies is predicated on what might be termed engaged critical spectatorship. This is something I reiterate time and again. Yet I am often surprised how so few students take notes on the film as they watch it. Few arrive at seminars with a set of ideas that were triggered by the film; they often wait for prompting as to what are the salient points they should be concerned with. At times I feel such a high level of ingrained passivity that is difficult to break through. Tellingly one of the most revealing comments I have heard regularly from students is, “you have ruined watching films for me because I can’t watch now without analysing everything”. When I have heard this I feel as though I have done my job properly. However, the very fact that an analytical mindset is lamented suggests that escapism and apathy is seen as preferable to a forensic critical spectatorship that interrogates film on multiple levels.

Undoubtedly one can postulate the influence that social media has in atomising spectatorship requires a reasonably long period of uninterrupted concentration. There is an established scientific and media discourse which suggests that human attention spans are being shortened by the technological matrix of immediacy. But even if this is true does this inhibit the ability to learn? Certainly within lectures, screenings and seminars the use of laptops, tablets and mobiles is already reaching the point of ubiquity. Of course it is doubtful that all these devices are always being employed for educational purposes in this context. However, I have found myself telling students to stop texting when in fact they are going through the reading or searching for relevant information using their phone. Whether one likes it or not digital technology and social media is here to stay and will be increasingly prevalent in the education environment. The development of the research model for this project will seek to explore these questions, and postulate the possibility of social media as a pedagogic tool for enhancing the critical abilities of the students through a greater level of engagement with film screenings. 

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