Following the trail of my previous piece on the logistics of watching foreign films, I want to consider a linked and deserving dilemma. This problem manifests itself as a common annoyance in the cinematic experience in general but particularly with foreign language films: A fellow audience member will not shut up. Although you personally find his restrained volume to be almost excusable, he’s inevitably confronted by hostile others in the crowd. His rebuttal (verbatim, I swear): “Leave me be, there are subtitles one can read to sustain an understanding of the onscreen happenings.”
Most likely, the actions you’ll see taken in response to this argument are an exasperated roll of the eyes or a perturbed folding of the arms. What you might not realize is that your unspoken case is a stronger one than that of the chatty spectator, and not for the reason(s) you think. Aside from just being annoying, external sensations have a pronounced effect on how we experience the work of art, both in perceiving it and in digesting it.
It may seem counterintuitive that the unwanted contributions of other audience members can point towards any sort of an artistic inquiry, but theater chatter illustrates how circumstantial elements existing outside the work of art can infiltrate the audience’s reception of it.
Cinema seems like the most salient and relevant example. First, you must receive the film by way of perception. During this stage of exhibition, you’re a spectator, but you’re also a member of the audience, a body of spectators occupying a shared space. The audience is always external to the film, no matter how involved its constituents become with the film’s narrative or pictorial qualities. The audience’s perception of the film is primarily visual, but sound has an unavoidable presence in contemporary cinema. A fellow audience member’s actions won’t always directly interfere with your reception of the film’s sound, yet this trespassing is perceived nonetheless.
Inside the theater, the audience becomes a kind of group consciousness, a large blob of symbiotic perception. This is not to say that the experience of audience members will be identical. The non-sequitur thoughts of my drifting mind during an especially slow scene won’t be on the radar of the person sitting next to me. The experience we share is then limited to perceiving what’s happening onscreen and the sensory happenings in the theater itself.
If we accept that as a member of the audience you perceive the immediate phenomena in the shared space of the theater just as another member across the room might, then we can think of an audience member’s actions as belonging to the category of immediate exterior phenomena, exterior in the sense that the source lies outside the work of art. I sneeze embarrassingly loudly, and everyone in the theater hears it. This phenomenon is clearly not part of the film, yet it is perceived by my fellow audience members just as the film’s images and sounds are. The dude behind me is whispering to a friend about how baked he got just before coming to the theater. I can hear it with much greater clarity than I can the unspoken messages of the film we’re sharing.
Films lead us to associate meaning and emotion with the images and sounds they’re comprised of. Russian film director/theorist Sergei Eisenstein proposed — and I’m putting it very crudely — that if we consider a film to be an artist’s effort to impress an idea onto its audience, that idea is transmitted not through the individual parts (the film’s shots) but rather the order by which the audience receives them. If you say a film has meaning to you, excluding nostalgia or other sentimental reasons, then chances are that meaning was a byproduct of the film’s sequential architecture. Depending on how people personally conceive the cinematic experience, a minor disruption could sabotage their attempts to receive the film and the ideas embedded in it as designed by its creator.
Does the intent of the artist matter all that much? The answer to that is utterly subjective. In fact, it’s probably trivial to speculate as to the artist’s intentions, even if they state them explicitly. Artists are gifted and easily amused bullshitters (in a pleasant way, I think).
Regardless of whether one cares or not about tainting the director’s vision, one must assume that everyone else is there to receive the film’s statement. External sensations reshape our digestion of the work of art, extraneously contributing to the conversation between artist and audience.
Empathetic consideration then becomes the name of the game. This is not to say one should feel shame if they were to sneeze in the theater; I couldn’t be more disinterested in audience ethics. But a notion of art as a fragile communication might cause a few people to be more mindful of their actions when the lights go down and the artist’s creation is supposed to be front and center.