Screening ReadershipDecember 4, 2013
Ever since the Lumière brothers’ 1895 public film screening, rapid changes have marked the film exhibition and distribution industries. Cinema continues to provide sites for public gathering, even though the experience of film viewing has undergone a significant transformation over the course of more than a century. In order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the changing landscape of film—and a vocabulary capable of expressing multiple perspectives, experiences, and contexts that relate to it—it is necessary to distinguish between the terms viewership and readership.
Given the common understanding of a film’s viewership as including the particular accumulated public, or fan base, of a filmmaker or actor, as well as a larger, more diverse audience united by a film’s genre or intersecting themes, one might easily conclude that a film’s readership refers to its literary content. Yet, perhaps the most widely accepted notion of film readership is one that has been institutionalized within the sphere of academia. Targeting a specific audience, and perhaps excluding many more with its jargon-laden rhetoric, academic film theory dominates one end of the readership spectrum while film criticism maintains an equally strong position on the opposite end. Given the generally limited understanding of what readership can entail, and the few forums in which the term is used with regard to film, it is necessary to work backwards and begin with a closer examination of the reader before one can consider the broader application of film readership.
A passive viewer transitions to an active reader by the act of reading a film
The passive versus active nature of viewers has been the source of consistent debate in film theory since the 1970s.1 Paring down the debate to arrive at a basic understanding of these two positions, the distinction between a passive viewer and an active reader can be understood in terms of how each processes information. That is to say, a passive viewer is defined as one who visually consumes information and accepts it at face value, thereby foreclosing any possibility for its continuation in another trajectory. A passive viewer transitions to an active reader by the act of reading a film, creating a circulation of meaning in the process. An active reader is defined as one who engages with a film—its formal structure, narrative content, context, and mode of exhibition—by ascribing to it personal presuppositions, associations, and lived experiences, as well as bringing critical faculties to bear on it, so that the visual information acquires new meaning. In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes writes, “A text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader.”2 With this in mind, then, the best way to define readership is not through a framework that negates the possibility of meaning being derived from within but rather through an acknowledgment of the multiple ways in which meaning is created.
The formation of both publics and counterpublics—which constitute a film’s readership—rely on the shared interpretation or reading of the film or a shared physical experience of viewing.3 An examination of two projects by the filmmaker and artist Shirley Clarke— the cinéma vérité film Portrait of Jason (1967) and Clarke’s video collective, the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe (1969–75)—will help demonstrate the ways in which these publics and counterpublics contribute to a generative, participatory culture. In Clarke’s seminal documentary Portrait of Jason, framing and camera angles convey the filmmaker’s preferred style of filming. A medium-distance shot of a man, wearing round, black spectacles and talking, slowly zooms in to a close-up. As the subject talks about his love of San Francisco, the black-and-white image loses focus and becomes blurred, as if taking a cue from the slight shift in the man’s eyes, which is followed by a slowed, contemplative pace of speech. The young, gay, African American man lounging luxuriously in front of a white mantelpiece, often with drink and cigarette in hand, is Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne). The carefully considered mise en scène further evokes a documentary or an interview with someone of great importance.
The film was shot over twelve hours in Shirley Clarke’s penthouse suite in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City—where, two years later, Clarke’s Tee Pee Video Space Troupe would organize. While Jason is the only person to appear onscreen for the length of the film, the voices of Clarke and Carl Lee can be heard offscreen, urging Jason to begin his narrative and responding to it with skepticism. Lauren Rabinovitz remarks that, in this practice of revealing truth both in Jason’s performance and the cinematic apparatus of film itself, Portrait of Jason “addressed filmmaking practice and representation processes to identify and denounce the ideological underpinnings of cinéma vérité.”4 In the edited 105-minute film, Jason’s truth gradually surfaces.
An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.
The careful, close reading of a film can produce a counter-reading—that is, a reading that offers an alternative to what is being explicitly expressed. For instance, to queerly read film narratives is to read subtext or code within dominant or mainstream texts and is representative of the ways in which the queer community has asserted visibility as a counterpublic. As Jacques Rancière notes in The Emancipated Spectator (2009), the development of new context and meaning “requires spectators who play the role of active interpreters, who develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story. An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.”5 Portrait of Jason significantly affected audiences in 1967 because the film directly addressed themes of race and sexuality that were generally coded in most other films. At the time of its original release, Portrait of Jason screened for almost three months at the New Cinema Playhouse in Manhattan, while later playing on college campuses and the film festival circuit.6 Recently restored by the Academy of Film Archive and Milestone Film and Video in 2012, the film is circulating once again, more than four decades after its original release.7 Portrait of Jason had already earned an important place in the history of the LGBT community and continues to garner a large LGBT readership through its basis in identity and race politics.
The readership generated from Clarke’s earlier cinéma vérité films differs significantly from the readership of the videos produced by her Tee Pee Video Space Troupe, an early video-art collective, which emphasized real-time experimental video screenings in the form of workshops that depended on participation. Participants would work through the night, spread out across different levels of Clarke’s penthouse studio, utilizing live feeds and Portapaks to create videos that would be screened simultaneously at dawn. A photograph held in the Troupe’s online archive, depicting a rooftop sunrise screening hosted by the collective, taken from above, shows a fragmented New York City skyline. To the right of the image, a wooden fence emerges from an abundance of greenery and vines, while to the left a number of cords lead to a small table with recording devices and power outlets. The triangular peak of the hotel’s façade is central in the picture’s composition, flanked immediately to the left by several variously sized cathode-ray-tube (CRT) TVs arranged upon and around a white table. Clarke is standing in contrapposto, hands resting on her hips, and slightly to the left of the TV monitors so as to not to block the view of others gathered in chairs behind her.
The sculptural or architectonic act of stacking and arranging TVs on top of or next to one another resulted in the work’s engagement with space that was not only interactive but also highly mutable and portable, allowing for changes according to variables like audience and location. In her essay, “Ultimate Participation Video: Shirley Clarke’s Tee Pee Video Space Troupe,” Beth Capper explains, “Clarke and her Troupe would re-create their play space in museums, community centers, and university classrooms up and down the East Coast.”8 The project’s readership has changed significantly since its genesis, when it was defined phenomenologically, through the viewer’s experience of the work; it produced a culture of community while engaging in a new form of video exhibition. Today, the limited circulation and distribution of the Troupe tapes pose a logistical dilemma: there are not enough surviving tapes to circulate among a large public. Furthermore, Capper has suggested that the few remaining tapes are “unintelligible without its context.”9 Though establishing a contemporary readership for the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe seems unlikely under these circumstances, Jacques Rancière’s call for spectators who play the role of active interpreters comes to mind as a remedy. Capper calls for a new intelligibility of the Troupe videos, writing, “The practice of art-historical inquiry engages the interpreter in much the same way that the participants of Clarke’s workshops continually discovered, lost, and rediscovered video.”10 Therefore, it is the continual process of investigation and interpretation—the circulation of meaning—carried out by the active reader that forms the work’s readership. Reading film is an action that extends outward, producing new lines of movement through publics and counterpublics. These readerships exist, as Michael Warner has explained, “by virtue of being addressed.”11