Thursday, 9 September 2010

Viewer Authorship

A viewer can always claim a certain amount of authorship over a film. They interpret it in their own unique way, whether reacting idiosyncratically to sights and sounds and events or in the more clearly interactive sense of filling in narrative gaps, bringing together pieces of a puzzle or imagining the past of The Man with No Name. All this is obvious. Opinion and individual experience are authorship as well as viewership or criticism.

In a previous post inspired by reactions to Lars Von Trier's Antichrist I suggested that a work of art, once released to the world, can become as much as ours as the makers'. I also wrote how a Director's intentions may be unknowable and ultimately unimportant, uncoupling the art from the artist (Director, film and viewer as points on a triangle rather than a straight line).

But viewer authorship, putting aside copyright ramifications, can take on a different meaning, with new editing tools available to computer users. Film-watchers can reinstate deleted scenes, or cut away sections they think damage the film. They become authors in its fullest sense. People often think "I wish it didn't have that" or "If only he hadn't deleted..." and yet even if they edit it to their satisfaction the instinctive reaction is still to say "If only he had done it like this".

The fact is the edited version now exists, and can now be called the great film that, in their mind, it was prevented from being. The final shot of The Bourne Ultimatum seemed redundant and too neat. If I remove it (or even just pause the DVD!*) then there is no problem and no annoyance. A confusion over authorship and the rights of people to change and then accept the changes is a block to realising that certain frustrations can be eliminated.

A new deleted scene from Return of the Jedi was recently unveiled and quickly inserted back into (its assumed rightful) place by YouTube users. However, whether it is out of respect for an artist's original vision, or his intellectual rights, these edits are not accorded full and somehow concrete reality by the viewer. Does it need to be slickly put together? Of course the wish would always be there that the viewer's editing be carried out with the same quality as the rest of the film, visually, aurally and so on.

A move towards self-tailored art would seem to fight against the joy of shared experience of a well-known piece. Billions of versions. Think of the outrage at certain modernising edits made by George Lucas himself to the Star Wars saga and you understand both the irritation at not having a single, discrete artefact but also the force of this feeling of viewer ownership. These are interesting thoughts, I think, that speak of the conflicts at the heart of a viewer turned maker. Generally one would only want to change something that is already close to the ideal, the very films that you would be most afraid of touching.

Does the changed film even need a physical copy, given that our experience of a film lives far longer in our minds than it does before our eyes? Perhaps not. In that case, we certainly wouldn't need to worry about infringing rights.

The ideal reader or the ideal viewer describe the man or woman who understands perfectly what the Writer or Director wished to communicate. Yet maybe the ideal viewer, in a new age of art consumption, is the one who understands exactly what he himself wants and is willing to create, or rather sculpt, it.

*Video and even more so DVD has changed the way films are watched. They've given us the option to dip in and out to see favourite scenes are study particular moments (very helpful for film criticism).

It also means that a long and demanding film, such as Satantango or Melancholia, that had to be seen as a whole at the Cinema can be managed at home to keep boredom to bay. What would have to be seen in one 7 hour block can be seen over 7 days. The effect the films have inevitably changes.


  1. I've been thinking about some of these issues as they relate to music. Whenever I listen to a song, I'm aware of the fact that I isolate certain elements, which "catch" my ear and draw me back to the song again and again. But I'm certain that other people focus on different elements than I do. And the thing about experience art that people are reluctant to acknowledge is that any work of art (a song, a painting, a film) is so full of information that it is impossible to perceive and process the whole thing at once (or ever, probably). I value film criticism because I can share another person's unique experience of a film.

    But in these cases, what everyone is experience is their own perception (which is dynamic) of a static object. Bringing into consideration an object which changes forms based on audience interaction is something different altogether. At one point, it ceases to be an instance of relating to the individual mind (or minds) that created the film and becomes instead a relationship we have with ourselves. I value even what I consider "mistakes" or even dull moments in films because they are the choices of the director and his collaborators; as such, they tell me about what this person was trying to say.

    If there is a future for more interactive works of cinema, I would think that they wouldn't be built solely on the premise of tailoring the experience to suit the viewer's tastes and prejudices. I can imagine a filmmaker creating such a film--would it even be referred to this way?--that would gain meaning not in what the viewer chooses to see and not to see but in the implications these choices have. This aspect of cinema has always been present, as directors have interrogated our desire to see lurid scenes, but maybe there's a greater possibility for cinematic art that causes us to become aware of these choices of ours and to interact with this awareness.

  2. Trevor,

    "I value film criticism because I can share another person's unique experience of a film."

    Yes, that is what I seek from film criticism - not to be told whether something is 'good' or not, but to have a different angle and to see as far as possible with someone else's eyes. If I haven't seen the film I'm looking for something that creates a thoughtful reaction.

    "At one point, it ceases to be an instance of relating to the individual mind (or minds) that created the film and becomes instead a relationship we have with ourselves."

    Absolutely. The idea of just speaking over someone else's voice and artistic vision with one's own minor scribblings is a little dulling / concerning. I'm not necessarily advocating a particular approach only suggesting the possibilities and to ask questions.

    That is the joy of art - to connect with someone else through it and not use it only as a mirror.

    Thanks for the insightful comments.

  3. Stephen, I think you're on to something significant here. Lots of points to discuss and fight about - Viewer as author, viewers as author. I've got a feeling that this will make a very good sociological project where the response of each individual and his reaction within a mass can be studied.

    Fabulous post once again! Will try to throw in a few more points if I get to chew on this.


  4. JAFB,

    There is much to think about in the way we interact with film and other works of art. What I've written here is only half-digested and a challenge (to myself as well) to think some more.

    I really hope you can add to the discussion at a later point.

    Thanks a lot!

  5. A 'work of art' should be inviolate. What we bring or take away from the experience is ipso facto 'idiosyncratic'. A slippery slope indeed to indulge in this sort of speculation and ignore the rights of the artist(s). Already auteur theory has appropriated the rights of a director's collaborators. Excuse me while I push you off the fence.

  6. Much to chew on this. But on final analysis, I have to disagree. I'd like to see author's primacy being respected. And Elitism (of one's reading) being preserved in accordance to the author's(!) intention.

  7. Tony,

    I do generally agree with you, but I don't think it's dangerous to 'indulge' in speculation. It's a thought, a suggestion, a question that touches on many aspects of how we create and how the artist interacts with his audience.

    That's what I try to do with pieces like this - pose questions and see where it takes me.

  8. "But on final analysis, I have to disagree. I'd like to see author's primacy being respected."

    Dualist, as I told Tony, this is not an argument pro or con a particular position but a toe in the water. Anyway, one person's violation of that 'primacy' doesn;t mean its ruined for everyone else and for all time.

    I'm reacting to other reactions I have read.

  9. I think this is a great approach, but only one great approach. I think that this self-authorship should not be taken immediately as the end-all, be-all approach, because oftentimes I find myself, on reflecting about a film, taking away a new understanding of elements which I felt incongruous or unnecessary or whatever it may be and discovering another layer, a different perspective from the one that I initially took. In the same way that reading criticism gives you a different perspective on a film I think your own efforts at understanding what is already in the film, in essence by really coming to grips with all of the elements that the artists themselves have presented to you from their own perspective, can provide you with a new perspective. By jumping into your own authorship you can at times sell a film short simply because you failed to grasp the larger context, a context that the authors probably spent a great deal more time thinking about than you have in your immediate after-thoughts (we can only hope, anyway). Or, on the other hand, perhaps the film is the result of a chaotic production process without forethought and without such tidy structure and resolutions as other films, and by authoring them ourselves we are as bad as the studio executives who want to tie everything up in a nice bow, distorting the dynamics of the artist engulfed in chaos.

    For one example of this I can turn to Birth, a film which I was enthralled with the mystery of whether or not he really was who he said he was and grossly disappointed with the way that the story swept the mystery away early on and again toward the end. For me I was looking for a mysterious fantasy and instead was left with a pragmatic explanation of admittedly somewhat bizarre behavior. By cutting out those certain sequences it seemed to me that I had made a more brilliant film, that I was a true artist and the director had sold out to Hollywood's demands. Instead, though, I came to realize that by providing the information required to dispense of the mystery the film dealt with very real psychology, with manipulation, and with the fragile nature of lingering feelings of love and tragedy. It was not what I wanted to see when I saw the film, and thus I did not see it, but I gained this new perspective simply by taking into account that the way I wanted things was perhaps not the only way to see the film. However, I still think that my 'edited' version would be equally interesting, so I find myself endorsing this method as well, but I cannot endorse it as the sole preferred method to be undertaken immediately after viewing a film and destroying all memories of excised scenes. It's just one of many methods of finding new perspectives, for me.

  10. "By jumping into your own authorship you can at times sell a film short simply because you failed to grasp the larger context, a context that the authors probably spent a great deal more time thinking about than you have in your immediate after-thoughts"

    I think you're right and I have had similar experiences to the one you had with BIRTH.

    I do like to give the film as much opportunity as possible to speak to me in its own terms.

    What I was trying to raise here was the possibility of viewers, if they are so inclined, to take a more active role in watching films. By thinking along the lines of how a film is put together, they will more often than not choose not to tinker with it in their mind but be impressed and moved by what has been created.

    Anyway, it is something to ponder as you have done here. Thanks for the great comment.

  11. Another interesting aspect of this conversation is that some filmmakers agree with you entirely, some going so far as to attempt wildly divergent methods from typical 'continuity filmmaking' to allow the viewer more room to author. This can be anything from alternate storylines (choose your own adventure books!) to widespread ambiguity (not merely on the level of 'did this or that happen?' but more on the level of willfully excluding exposition that would commit one truth or one perspective to the film), to certain disruptive editing rhythms (I recall Kluge being very supportive of viewer authorship, and his methods of achieving it result in complete destruction of continuity, cohesiveness, coherence...). Obviously with the wide possibility of options there are vastly different resulting experiences. I would say that with any film you could 'completely re-author it', but perhaps it would take a lot of willful exclusion and such in the mind where a film with absolutely no committed position on anything will require no exclusion at all. On the other hand, watching a film with no committed position on anything will, by most people, be regarded as a 'terrible film' because it makes the viewer do all the work - or allows the viewer to do all the experimentation, to those who enjoy it. Oftentimes in delving into material I look for particular details specific to a certain reading of a film that I'm developing, details that show the precision and care of an author (whether intentionally placed or not), and thus I will extol the brilliance of a film based on these 'available readings', which is in part my own authorship of this reading but I think we can agree that it's to a less intensive degree that complete authorship, whatever that means. Thus, there seems to be an inherent divide between how one regards a film that requires complete authorship, although perhaps some favor these unilaterally, I don't know. I find myself torn, at any rate, in saying, "This was an amazing film!" "What's it about?" "Absolutely nothing! Amazing!" even if I do find something absolutely amazing in the authoring. I'm working in abstract here, but it's an abstract imagining of abstract material, so perhaps it works. At any rate, considering all of the factors involved in filmmakers deliberately crafting films for viewer authorship makes my head hurt. I don't know if I'd be able to make any sense of the concept were I making films in order to create a film in such a manner that I create something that is most able to be creatively adapted in the minds of my viewers. Does this mean I would be a hack Hollywood continuity filmmaker? Probably. This is my cross to bear. However, I'm sure that whatever terrible films I made would be torn to shreds in the minds of my unsatisfied viewers, and that will give me solace. Perhaps I should seek another line of work?

  12. In terms of children's adventure books, I disliked them because I wanted to know what ACTUALLY happened. I thought all pathways being possible made each of them meaningless, unreal, impossible.

    I need to make clear that I am not saying that this is an approach people should take, only one that they could take.

    I'm afraid I haven't heard of Kluge. I'll have to look him up. Interesting thoughts, LEAVES, on how we watch and how a film can change in our minds.