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Can you hear them at the back?

What’s the scariest thing in movies? The audience. Tom Shone reports on the monster in the stalls

Tom Shone | November/December 2015

“I left my audience is what really happened,” Woody Allen once said of the end of the 1970s, when he followed one of the more spectacular winning streaks in American movies – “Bananas”, “Sleeper”, “Love and Death”, culminating in the Oscar success of “Annie Hall” – with the ill-received, Bergmanesque chamber-piece “Interiors” and then the sourpuss celebrity-deconstruction “Stardust Memories”. “I left them; they didn’t leave me,” Allen told his biographer, Eric Lax. “They were very nice and if I had continued to live up to my end of the contract, they showed no signs of wanting to leave me and be anything other than a nice, affectionate audience. I was the one who moved in a different direction, and a good-sized portion of them felt annoyed and betrayed.”

Allen put the change of direction down to the callings of his artistic muse, but his language, with its unmistakable overtones of romance (“a nice, affectionate audience…I was the one who moved in a different direction”) recalls nothing so much as the bittersweet end of “Annie Hall”, when Annie, having outgrown Alvy Singer’s tutelage, departs for California, leaving him to recreate their break-up in his first play: “If that’s all us being together means to you, I guess it’s better if we just said goodbye once and for all.” If Hollywood careers are to some extent love affairs – with a period of courtship, followed by consummation, bickering and break-up – then Allen is the Liz Taylor of auteurs, the serial matrimonialist. His cycle seems to repeat itself about once a decade: first a period of rapprochement in which he rebuilds trust with the audience (is this good Woody or bad Woody?), culminating in an out-and-out crowd-pleaser, a “Hannah and Her Sisters” or “Everyone Says I Love You”. But the warm public embrace is too much, and he retreats to make one of his rattier character pieces (“September”, “Deconstructing Harry”), designed to leave humanity wondering: maybe He’s Just Not That Into Us.

The idea of the audience is, of course, an abstraction, a blank slate onto which a film-maker can project whatever feelings of fickleness or fealty, gullibility or generosity he or she likes. Ask most film-makers to describe their ideal audience, and they will likely say, as Martin Scorsese once did, “When I’m making a film, I’m the audience,” conjuring the image of a theatre full of Scorseses or Spielbergs, munching on popcorn, stewing in their own juices. Nothing could be more revealing. It is this which lends the medium its element of self-confrontation. Ponder the effect, if you will, of the following:

“The form master would tell the pupil of his wrong-doing and the pupil would have to go before the disciplining priest. It was left to the pupil to decide when he would go for the punishment and of course he would keep putting it off.”

Thus prolonging the agony for the young Alfred Hitchcock, who would later put his audience through similar torments, calling it “suspense” and telling Francois Truffaut “the audience is like a giant organ. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. Some day we won’t even have to make a movie – there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘Ooooh!’ and ‘Aaah!’”

The note of schoolboyish braggadocio is unmis­takable. The recent biopic “Hitchcock”, starring Anthony Hopkins, showed the great director conducting the screams of an audience watching “Psycho”, like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and André Previn. But in truth the reaction to “Psycho” – itself conceived in 1960 in fear of a new, changing audience rendered restless by television – left the director unusually flat-footed. “I don’t think he was prepared for the amount and intensity of on-the-spot laughs that he got,” recalled its star, Anthony Perkins, to whom a “despondent” Hitchcock confided, “I’ve always been able to predict the audience’s reaction. Here I haven’t.” Hitchcock begged the studio head, Lew Wasserman, to let him remix the film, and thus keep the audience from drowning out the dialogue, but Wasserman refused, so Hitchcock changed tack and took to claiming that he’d meant “Psycho” to be a comedy all along. “It was a big joke,” Hitchcock told the BBC. “I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.” The only thing scarier than “Psycho”, for its director, was its audience.

The serial matrimonialist: Woody Allen (left) on set during the filming of “Annie Hall”, 1976

That the master of suspense himself should find the very nature of his biggest hit shifting beneath his feet suggests that the relationship between audience and screen is rather more fluid and reciprocal than you might think. Something happens to films on contact with an audience – they change alchemically, shift, reveal themselves. “We’re going to need a bigger boat”; “I’ll be back”; “Nobody’s perfect”; none of these were big laugh-lines until “Jaws”, “The Terminator” and “Some Like It Hot” met up with their audiences. In the script, they weren’t catchphrases, but just passing bits of dialogue; it took the electricity of audience reception to light them up.

“I never thought there would be laughter,” Darren Aronofsky told me when his ballet psychodrama “Black Swan” (2010) started picking up laughs in theatres – partly, one suspects, to release tension from the movie’s sheer gonzo intensity. His picture had gained an unintentional layer of black comedy, and Aronofsky was too muscular a showman not to roll with it. “We knew it was extremely heightened. A lot of the reason the film goes over the top is because of Clint Mansell’s score. The Tchaikovsky with Clint makes the scene go to fucking volume 11. I remember hearing the music and at first I was like, ‘Uh-oh’. And then I thought, ‘You know what? Fuck it.’ Because it was insane. We knew it was going to that next level, that it was going to push people…But in Europe: nothing. No laughter at all, which is interesting.”

American audiences are generally much more rumbustious than their British counterparts. You haven’t really experienced a movie opening until you’ve heard the hoots, hollers and whistles that greet a much-anticipated blockbuster playing to its first 600-seat stadium viewers, on a Friday night in one of New York’s outer boroughs. “I like feeling the heat rising,” says Steven Spielberg, who has a habit of stealing into audiences, baseball cap pulled down, to soak up their reaction. His own film “Jaws”, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year, did much to ginny up the decibel levels of audiences used to imbibing their cinema in respectful silence. He says he could tell which part was playing from the screams spilling out into the lobby. “With every movie, some more than others, you have to make the audience your accomplice,” Spielberg goes on. “That doesn’t mean you’re pandering to them, it doesn’t mean you’re manipulating them. Even putting my kids to bed, when I’m telling a story there’s a lot of power to that, I can either give my kids pleasant dreams or nightmares – you’re pulling their strings. And any storyteller who says ‘I never pull anybody’s strings; I just tell the story from my id, and however it’s interpreted I’m not culpable’ is not telling you straight.”

Great artists are not supposed to think of their audiences – that is one of the signs of their artistry. But film is a mass medium, which puts all film-makers in a relationship of some sort with the audience, be it grudging, respectful, delighted, neglectful. In 1965, the American developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, working off research by the British psychologist John Bowlby, devised something called the “Strange Situation” test, designed to gauge the varieties of attachment between infants and their mothers. Babies between 12 and 18 months old were placed with their mother in a small room, and observed through one-way glass, while a stranger joined the mother and child. The baby was then left alternately alone with the stranger and entirely alone, before the mother returned.

Ainsworth found that the infants fell into three categories. The first, whom she characterised as having a “secure” attachment style, were distressed when the mother left, avoided the stranger when alone, but were friendly when the mother was present, using her as a “base” to explore their environment. This perfectly describes a hit-maker like Spielberg, whose films are an almost exact simulacrum of that mixture of safety and fear a child feels when it is scared, playfully, by a parent. When Spielberg makes a film that doesn’t go over well with the public, such as “1941”, he tends to internalise the public’s reaction: “I’ll spend the rest of my life disowning the movie,” he told the New York Times. But he also recovers quickly: “1941” was followed by “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. His confidence rebooted by its success, he was emboldened to tackle the “whisper from my childhood”, “E.T.”. In other words, Spielberg uses his public the way the secure infant uses his mother, as a safe base to launch further explorations.

Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s second category was “ambivalent” attachment. When the mother departs, this type of child is extremely distressed, avoids the stranger and shows fear; it shows ambivalence towards its mother’s return, remaining close but resentful, maybe even pushing her away. This is Woody Allen, whose antennae are acutely receptive to any conflicts between his own needs and those of his audience. “There’s no correlation between my taste and public taste,” he has said. Indeed, in a variant on the old Groucho Marx gag about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member, Allen often distrusts, or downgrades, any film of his that has gone over too well with the public – whether “Annie Hall” (“nothing special”), “Hannah and Her Sisters” (“a film I feel I screwed up very badly”) or “Manhattan” (“they’re wrong”). He is the infant who makes a show of turning its back on its mother as a statement of independence.

The third and final category was “avoidant” attachment. The babies in this category showed no sign of distress when their mother left, were OK with the stranger, playing normally, but showed little interest in the mother’s return, other than perhaps just a look or a smile. They showed no preference for either their mother, a stranger, or an empty room. One thinks of a film-maker like Kubrick, or the more austere end of the European arthouse – Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noé, or Michael Haneke, whose films “Funny Games”, “The Piano Teacher” and “Amour” intentionally put the audience through the grinder in their unflinching depiction of onscreen cruelty. There are no cutaways, no reaction shots, no judicious framing devices that give the audience an out, just the uneasy prospect of our own spectatorship, reflected back to us.

“By its own nature, film is rape,” Haneke tells me. “You can’t avoid it. Film is always about manipulation. The question is to what end, for what purpose, especially when you come from a German-language background. What is the purpose of my raping them? In my case, to make them aware of how they are being manipulated, to make that manipulation visible so that they can reflect on it and they can become independent, and form their own perspective or opinion. The film doesn’t take place on the screen, the film takes place in the audience’s mind. There’s not a single film that I make, but there are as many films as there are viewers who watch them.”

The extremity of Haneke’s aesthetic is in part informed by his experience growing up in Austria in the guilty shadow of the second world war, where an allergy to mob rule, or political consensus of any kind, soon translated into a carefully maintained suspicion of the demagoguery of cinema. But “raping” the audience into autonomy rather presumes that they lack autonomy to begin with – that entertainment renders us supine. Does it? Certainly, to confront the full sound and fury of a Hollywood blockbuster at full rhino-charge is to face two choices: submit or perish. “The interesting thing to me is it’s not an equal match between a film-maker and the audience,” Christopher Nolan told me as he was editing his most recent movie, “Interstellar”. “That is to say, I have years and years to plan, to figure out, what it is I’m going to put in front of them; and they have two hours, two and a half hours, to catch it as it flows by. I do see it as my job to put all of the things in there that I can. To fine-tune it for that real-time experience.”

On the other hand, when a film-maker gets manipulation wrong, the audience are merciless, particularly given the public megaphone of the internet; witness the complaints about the soundmix on “Interstellar”, or the fan outcry over the “Star Wars” prequels. Nothing supine going on there. “It’s a complicated cultural icon,” said George Lucas when he handed over the reins of the latest “Star Wars” movie to J.J. Abrams, with much of the relief, one imagines, of a parent dropping off an unruly child at school. “You’re always going to be in trouble, no matter what you do.” Perhaps the best analogy for the quick, reciprocal game of pat-a-cake that plays out between moviemaker and audience is just that – a game, one played by two players, using a set of rules, or genre conventions, whose elements are known in advance and which the audience demands be both satisfied and flouted at the same time.

“They don’t want to sit there like stuffed animals. They would like to play the game with you,” said Billy Wilder, who reshot the first scene of “Sunset Boulevard” – corpses chatting in a morgue – after it got unwanted laughs. Wilder was also the man who gave Jack Lemmon a pair of maracas in “Some Like It Hot” so the actor could time out the laughs: he rattled, the audience got a chance to catch their breath. “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark – that is critical genius.”

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