Beyond Textual Analysis?

Dr David Forrest

At its heart, Beyond the Multiplex is about exploring the ways in which audiences find meaning and value in the moving image. This naturally requires an interdisciplinary approach: seeking to understand policy and practice, thinking about audiences at scale with longitudinal surveys, and at depth by working with groups of film watchers to learn more about the nature of their experiences. It is this latter area that will be of particular interest to me. One of my main roles will be managing a series of focus groups across our partnership regions to examine the specific experiences and feelings that are evoked by the kind of ‘specialised’ cinema that we’re interested in. In short, this part of the project asks, ‘so, what is it about the films?’

As a discipline, Film Studies has tended towards textual analysis as its central methodology. It’s hard to define, but in broad terms I would say it’s the practice of closely examining film texts with the aim of understanding how meaning is generated and communicated within them. These close readings are attentive to formal patterns, historical traditions and contexts, and the wider theoretical implications of aesthetics, and they should be underpinned by scholarly precision and rigour. One of the interesting things about our project is that we’re not really doing this kind of work, at least not in the pure sense that I’ve described here. In Beyond the Multiplex, the ‘so, what is it about the films?’ question will be answered by the audiences.

This is alien territory for me. Textual analysis is my ‘bread and butter’, and my most recent research has involved the close reading of literary and visual texts in an archival context. The solitary pursuit of exploring meaning through meticulous and sometimes painstaking re-watching and reading will here be complemented (perhaps even replaced) by a far less individualised process that privileges the less academic but more authentic analysis undertaken by communities of cinemagoers. So, we’re interested in exploring the specific points in the films that prompt feeling in audiences and in so doing we’ll be able to understand more about the ways in which the cultural value of cinema might be generated.

We’re working with a very broad definition of ‘specialised’ film (from archive, to foreign language, to artists’ cinema, documentary and British films generally) so it will be impossible to extrapolate broad conclusions about the way meaning is generated in ‘specialised’ film. However, we will be able to learn more about the ways in which specific kinds of ‘specialised’ films operate – understanding their textual characteristics alongside those of their production and reception.

To frame our understanding, we might look to works of established film criticism by the likes of David Bordwell (1985) and Steve Neale (1981), both of whom combined institutional and textual approaches to anatomise, though not without problems, the convention of art cinema, most commonly associated with European New Waves of the post-war period that self-consciously defined themselves against the Hollywood mainstream. ‘Specialised’ film obviously goes beyond ‘art cinema’, but this framework offers us a way of understanding how non-mainstream film texts historically operate. Thinking on the subject has been developed in recent years by scholars such as Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (2010) but something of a common view on the art cinema tradition might be that its films generate meaning for their audiences through a fundamental ambiguity or open endedness, which in some way stimulates thought and feeling. My hunch is that conclusions such as this one will play out when we meet our groups. Audiences will be provoked into discussion and debate by the moments that invite contemplation and perhaps frustration; moments which are by definition more prevalent in the kinds of ‘specialised’ films that we are working with.

Finally, it’s worth considering that this part of the project is about further disrupting the idea of a homogenous audience. The resources of empathy and identification that we channel and exercise through the cinema are specific to us and emerge from our own lives. In essence, the specialised film experience involves us in bringing our own story to the story we see on the screen: Beyond the Multiplex is about recognising and understanding the value of that relationship.