Be An Audience

I’m a filmmaker… but I’m also a guy who loves watching movies. Those are two different things. Because enjoying someone else’s art requires a different part of your brain than putting your own stuff out there. This has me thinking about how we ALL consume art these days. There’s been an unsettling change in the past ten years and I think I’ve finally crystalized it:

We’ve forgotten how to be an audience.

AudienceI could easily blame this on social media or even as far back as iTunes. But it’s a groundswell of numerous factors. About 15 years ago, the biggest media corporations in the world (Yes you, Apple) started catering to our sense of SELF. Technology made it possible to cater to all of our unique, singular, microscopic choices and opinions. Your point of view and YOURS ALONE became the target — not just a wide demographic. You no longer had to buy a whole album. You could make your OWN album of just the five songs YOU liked from that artist. The artist no longer decided what 12 tracks you should listen to, or in what order, to take you from the beginning of that album’s experience to the end. Nope. It’s up to the listener. Hey, you don’t even need a radio station to tell you what the “hit singles” are. You ARE the radio station. You’re the DJ who decides what playlists are playing in your car or headphones. It went beyond making a mixtape. iTunes and Spotify changed our philosophy on how we even consider music. An “a la carte” mentality prizes the individual’s tastes above the general consensus of trends, age groups, social groups, etc. It’s all about YOU and what YOU want.

As consumers, this sounded great to us! And it’s created a wonderful buffet of art and media for everyone. We pick and choose. We take only what we want, nothing more. And not only that, we gained the ability share right back to each other what we chose and why. We could now evaluate each other’s opinions. YouTube and social media came along to allow each and every one of us to have our own “TV Channel,” so to speak. Every single one of us could post to the ENTIRE WORLD what we thought of a show or movie, seconds after we’d seen it. And we got feedback from others just as instantly. WE were the critics now, with our reviews instantly published.

Phone reviewIt felt so good to be heard and validated! If we love something, now we’ve been told it’s good that we love it by lots of others! But the weird thing we also discovered is that, in a sick way, we kind of like arguing with people who don’t like our choices. Sparring in the dusty arena of Twitter and Reddit can be addictive. If someone punches back, it releases a similar rush of dopamine, and makes us dig deeper into our opinions.

So now here we are, a couple decades into this new mentality… a mentality that says that if an artist presents us with art, our immediate response is to evaluate it. To be a critic. To instantly respond with the thought, “Would I have done it that way?” “Is that the best choice for me? For my sensibilities?” “How does this art serve me?

We have forgotten how to be an audience. We’ve forgotten that another way to respond to art is to just… take it in. Listen. Watch. To sit before the storyteller at the fire and say, “What do you have for me today?” Whatever the artist wants to show us, we can receive it as the choice that artist decided to make, even if it is surprising or weird to us, or not at all the choice we would make in that story.

If we cannot accept the contract between artist and audience anymore, we are rarely satisfied. We are disappointed that the artist did not “do what we wanted.”

“That’s not my Luke Skywalker.” “That’s not my James Bond.” “How dare they ruin my childhood with this version of Ghostbusters!”

Dune Scene **This all hit me again as I left the IMAX theater from seeing “Dune.” Denis Villeneuve’s version of this tale feels slightly foreign and strange and off the beaten path from my own instincts. So many moments of the film were entirely at odds with my own sensibilities. He did things I would not have done with this story. And it was great! I sat there saying, “Whatta you got for me, Denis? Hit me.”

Dune DirectorThat’s how I watched “The Last Jedi.” That’s how I went into the last episode of “Lost.” Things happened that I was not expecting or even satisfied with. But I accepted that this particular storyteller wanted to tell me this particular story in this particular way. This is how they wanted it. I am the audience. I am getting hit with this artistic expression solely as a receiver. It’s making me feel things, think things I never expected.

It’s actually a hard shift to make in yourself, especially now. We’ve had this new indoctrination of “catered self” thrust upon us. But try it. Next time you watch a new thing, or listen to a new song, make the conscious choice to BE THE AUDIENCE. Tell yourself, “It’s not my job to be a critic. It’s not my job to weigh this art against my version of it. I am not the artist here. I am the audience.” Allow for the surprise and even alarming reactions that a contrary choice creates in you.

You don’t have to love Rian Johnson’s choices, but respect that they were his to make. Discuss your thoughts on Twitter, sure. But do it as someone completely outside of the decision makers. Take away the smug layer of “He did it wrong” and step into the discussion with “It made me feel ____,” “It made me think ____,” or even “I wonder why the director did _____.”

StorytellerNews flash: Art is not created to cater to your whims or serve you. It’s there to shock and move and surprise you. It might even be there to offend you. And if you didn’t like it, you can certainly walk away from it saying “Not for me.” But try consuming it the old fashioned way… as a pure “audience member.”

As an artist, I am always hoping to have such an open and willing audience before me. And as an audience member myself, I think I’m having a better time at the theater.

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