Oct 27, 2015

Attachment theory and the movie audience

'Great artists are not supposed to think of their audiences, of course — that is supposed to be one of the signs of their artistry. But film is a mass medium, which puts all filmmakers in a relationship of some sort with the audience, be it grudging, respectful, delighted, neglectful. In 1970, the American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, working off research by British  psychologist John Bowlby, devised something called the ‘Strange Situation’ test, designed to gauge the varieties of attachment between infant and their mothers. Infants between 12 and 18 months were placed with their mother in a small room, and observed through one-way glass.  Then, 
(1) A stranger joins mother and infant. (2) Mother leaves baby and stranger alone. (3) Mother returns and stranger leaves. (4) Mother leaves; infant left completely alone. (5) Stranger returns. (6) Mother returns and stranger leaves.
Ainsworth found infants falling into three categories. The first, which she characterized 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 almost 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 he makes a film that doesn’t go over well with the public, like 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 upon its release), but he also recovers quickly: 1941 was followed by Raiders of the Lost Ark. His confidence returned by that movie’s 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 and Ainsworth’s second category was “Ambivalent” Attachment. When the mother departs, this type of child is extremely distressed, avoids the stranger, showing fear, and then ambivalence when the mother returns, remaining close but resentful, maybe even pushing her away. This is Woody Allen, whose antennae to the conflicts between his own needs and those of his audience is acute.  “There’s no correlation between my taste and public taste,” he has said.  Indeed, in a variant on the old Groucho Marx gag, quoted in Annie Hall, 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 show of independence.  The  third and final category was “Avoidant attachment”. The infants in this category showed no sign of distress when the mother left, was okay with the stranger, playing normally, but show little interest when the mother returns — maybe just a look or a smile — showing no preference between their mother, a stranger, or an empty room.  One thinks of a filmmaker like Kubrick, or the more austere end of the European arthouse — Lars Von Trier, Gaspar Noel, or Michael Haneke whose films, Funny Games, The Piano Player, 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,” says Haneke. “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.”'  
From my piece about movie audiences for Intelligent Life


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