“Audience participation,” something most frequently thought reserved for Raffi concerts and midnight screenings of “Rocky Horror,” is a much broader concept than generally imagined.
Archaic thoughts of “active” and “passive” viewing are too heavily contingent on the physicality of of the act of viewership, when there are MANY more facets to audience engagement than mere visceral reactions to the stimulus.
Likewise, the “active” vs “passive” debate relies far too deeply on the notion that participation is simultaneous with viewing, which in today’s internet based society, and even in the film reviews and critiques of yesteryear, is just not so. Participation is ongoing and personal. It can be screamed at the top of your lungs, it can be twittered all over the web, or maybe just marinating subtly in the deep dark depths of your mind… in any case, just because we aren’t running away with the film’s lead doesn’t mean we aren’t participants or active viewers.
I break down participation into three categories.
1) The Intellectual/Emotional
2) The Physical
3) The Communal/Cultural
So the intellectual/emotional is pretty self explanatory, these are the wheels that are turning in your head as you watch a film: your understanding of the plot, your recognition of famous actors, your criticisms with dialog… your disdain for dumb jokes or weird plot twists. Whether you LIKE the movie or not, and how it makes you feel. This experience continues even after the film is over, it effects the rest of your day, maybe even your week. Last of all these filmic interactions become a part of your intellectual encyclopedia, forever ingrained and ready for re-assessment.
The physical is related to your emotional response but specific to visceral reactions emanating from surprise, fear, and sadness/joy. This is your scream or seat jump when the serial killer pops up in the mirror behind the pretty girl taking out her contacts. These are your tears at the end of “Toy Story 3” even though you know your childhood toys can’t feel, and that a team of hardworking writers and producers are essentially waving cinematic onions in front of you for those damn tears. Physical participation in the film is primarily involuntary and frequently a little embarrassing (as any boy who cried at the end of “The Notebook” will testify); it is a moment where we, or at least our body, forgets that the film is an illusion.
And then last, but certainly not least, comes the communal/cultural participation. While this type of participation often combines elements of the two previously mentioned viewer-active categories, the essential difference is that communal/cultural participation requires the manipulation and evolution of current and previous film experiences by the addition of discourse or shared activity. It may be a Grease sing-a-long at the Hollywood Arclight, or tweeting for a month about what the hell Inception was trying to say. It can be a film class discussion, or a movie date who whispers criticisms of ScarJo’s acting across the darkened theater. Maybe it’s walking out of a horrible film, maybe it’s going to a film you’ve heard is horrible. In any case communal/cultural participation is the imprint of others on your viewing experience, however big or small that imprint may be.