(This is Part 1 of a hopeful series of posts on media watching and attention levels)
Forget “quality.” Forget your opinions about what you are viewing. How do you, as a viewer, actually watch movies? Are you sitting up, attentive and eager? Are you sitting in front of your TV tray with a giant sandwich lodged in your mouth? Are you sprawled out horizontally on the couch, with the screen appearing tipped to the side? Are you even awake at all?
The answer to this last question seems self-evident: doesn’t “watching” something imply a certain level of alertness? Perhaps abstractly, but experience suggests that many spectators’ “viewing time” (with television especially, but also with film) is actually spent in fluctuating degrees of consciousness and attentiveness. Put simply, people just fall asleep. I see this everywhere from my mom, who once woke herself up with her own snort during a theatrical screening of Catch Me If You Can, to one of my friends, whose reliable, quasi-narcoleptic ability to fall into dreamland during any film has become a running joke.
Given the gallons of ink that scholars have spilled over the years on (often ill-advised) theories on cinema’s “dreamlike” properties, and the regularity with which we see individual films (often directed by Lynch, Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Chris Nolan) compared to the act of dreaming, it’s rather ironic how little attention has been paid to the fact that many spectators are dreaming while “watching” movies. Even those who study reception usually presume in good faith that audiences for a given film actually stayed awake through the damn thing.
Yet, in spite of this silence, I’d argue that sleeping is a key component of film (if not all media) spectatorship. After all, I can think of few activities that so directly pepper our banal, everyday experience of watching movies. Thus, in celebration of an activity that all of us have done (yes, even you), I proudly present the “Three Shades of Movie Dozing” that structure our movie-watching habits.
1) The Coping Mechanism
This is perhaps the most obvious way of thinking about movie dozing, so I won’t linger on it long. We can use sleep to shield us from cinematic experiences we deem unworthy of our precious time. Stuck in the cineplex with the latest Hollywood stinker, the average moviegoer has the options to either a) soldier on (with great suffering), b) physically leave the theater (but in doing so toss her or his $10 ticket to the wind), or c) use the occasion for some retaliatory slumber. Who hasn’t used sleep as a strategy to turn their noses up to movies that bore or offend them? The culture industry may have taken your dollars, but they will never take your freedom to shut your eyes.
(Note that “retaliatory sleeping” is obviously different than the sorts of “productive” sleepiness incurred by “challenging” art films. In those instances, a Great Auteur has deigned in his or her [actually, usually his] cinematic wisdom that thou shall feel heavy of eyes in order to break out of the spell of commercial or bourgeois ideology. When in these situations, sleeping is not a defense, because that is precisely what they want.)
2) The Scheduling Stimulus
Aside from mood changes and workload levels, there are few factors that affect when and what people watch more than the threat of sleep. The decision-making is typically unspoken, of course, but tell me, why really didn’t you want to start that late-era Godard flick at midnight? In the backs of our minds, we always know that we could be the victims of unwanted sleepiness ruining a film we would may have otherwise loved.
In these instances, we get a clear look at how cultural judgments about cinematic quality and taste really guide our mundane viewing choices. The “quality” picture (often designated as such by hearsay and reputation before we even watch it ourselves) should be confined to those times of the day when one is best able to attentively respond to its greatness. The “throwaway” picture, on the other hand, may be safely viewed at any time or level of drowsiness. After all, you won’t have to justify to your fellow cinephiles later that you slept through a “bad” (or even “average”) film, but you will have to answer for any snores emitted during a culturally-designated good film.
As we can conclude from the above comments about scheduling, movie dozing can be seen as undesirable or socially stigmatizing. Especially with particular films and in social situations (say, group gatherings) where we feel we ought to watch, sleeping during the movie is something to be rigorously avoided and feared.
When I’m watching a movie and start to become tired, my eyes begin to emit a strange clicking noise each time I blink (I’ve never received confirmation whether this is audible to others). Whenever I hear the clicks, I know it’s just a matter of time before I’m out, so I sit up in my chair, lean forward, find something to eat, or contort my body into any number of positions to fight the good fight to stay awake. For to movie doze in social company is also, on some level, to relinquish one’s right to judge the merits of said movie at the end of the screening. Rather than face the stigma of having “not actually watched” the flick, I strain my eyes open to give appearances, even as my mind has long wandered off to other places.
Of course, this also means that if one loses the battle and drifts off, every attempt must be made to deny it at the end of the screening during the post-movie discussion. For those good at faking, this means sampling the bits and pieces of film that one successfully captured in their minds during wake time and using it to fashion a comprehensive opinion of the full work (usually with assistance of judgments they have heard about the film prior to watching it). Sticking with group consensus about the film’s quality is also safe, because nobody will challenge you or force you to reveal that you only have partial-film memory to support your opinion. Venturing out and challenging another’s opinion when you yourself have not successfully completed the movie is always a dangerous proposition, so do it at your own risk.
I like to imagine a scenario where a hardcore group of film buffs watch a prestigious film together and all fall asleep at various times. Would any of them ever openly acknowledge it to each other, or would the ending conversation proceed as if everyone had seen it (with each participant hoping that the others don’t call their bluffs)?
Happy dreaming…err, viewing!