Live lassoing at Glasgow Film Festival's screening of Thelma and Louise

Live a little

Last week started and ended thinking about liveness and cinema. At Stirling, the symposium on Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound traced the gradual fracture of the link between live music and the moving image; then, in London, the Live Cinema conference traced its re-emergence. The histories are, of course, much less linear than this curve suggests. The Live Cinema conference marked the launch of a report on the state of ‘live cinema’ in the UK, based on research conducted over the past year (with last summer snappily identified as ‘the summer of live’), and a themed section in the current issue of Participations bringing together a series of case studies around ‘secret cinema’. The Illuminations blog has a perceptive blow-by-blow account of the day, with reflections that resonate with my argument here.

Back at Stirling, Trevor Griffiths showed how the Musicians’ Union membership had shrunk dramatically at the turn of the sound era, as cinema musicians everywhere lost their jobs; now, according to the report, film exhibition is a growing source of employment for some musicians, engaged to create and perform music for silent and classic films. Stephen Horne offered an astonishing demonstration at Stirling with his live piano accompaniment to A cottage in Dartmoor (1929), which amplified the film’s gut-wrenching emotional power, its vanguardist montage and meticulous cinematography. The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema has made a name for itself as a commissioner of new scores and prime location for silent film music. However, the report also suggests that some of the exhibitors that put on silent film with live music are hesitant to be brought under the banner of ‘live cinema’.

Here we come to the matter of definitions, which was at the heart of the discussion during the conference at King’s College. One of the aims of the Live Cinema in the UK report is ‘creating a common definition’. But common to what? Throughout the conference, different people had different visions of what the term meant, or whether a term was needed at all. That the proposed moniker refers to the concept of ‘liveness’ further complicates things. The romantic associations of liveness critiqued by Philip Auslander (magic, energy, authenticity, community) keep appearing in exhibitors’ discourse.

“Live performance […] has become the means by which mediatized representations are naturalized, according to a simple logic that appeals to our nostalgia for what we assumed was the im-mediate: if the mediatized image can be recreated in a live setting, it must have been “real” to begin with”. (Auslander, Liveness, p. 54)

From a media theory standpoint, we’ve been here before and had this conversation already, though it is by no means a closed case. What was more interesting about the panels was the evidence of how ‘live’ works as a marketing category. While some academic participants felt there could have been more reflection, the conference offered a privileged opportunity to hear about how the idea of ‘live’ is being mobilised in relation to screening events by a growing industry.

One key distinction that the report, and the conference, alternatively drew and blurred, is that between the terms ‘Live Cinema’ and ‘Event Cinema’. This is in part because there is already an Event Cinema Association, and they have positioned that term in replacement of the too-vague ‘alternative content’ to mean, essentially, livecasting: the presentation in cinema venues of live transmissions of events. Siding with Rick Altman and many other exhibition/audience scholars, I would say ‘event cinema’ is tautological, as any instantiation of cinema takes place somewhere, sometime, and is therefore an event. Pedantry aside, however, I take more issue with the notion that this is ‘cinema’ because it takes place in a cinema auditorium. The medium is, plainly, television. And the mode of spectatorship and context of performance, according to Martin Barker’s research, are completely different from those associated with film. For instance, livecast opera audiences, according to Barker, book their tickets differently, interact differently with the front of house, and expect people to be quiet and not munching popcorn. People attending a big-screen transmission of a football match will behave more like they would at a stadium than at a movie, and so on. The cinema-ness is decentred from the cinema space; as Barker said, these opera audiences feel they’ve ‘reclaimed’ the cinema space.

But for the sake of argument let’s let livecasts be called Event Cinema, and take that out of the equation when we talk about the other stuff. In the report, the researchers advance a definition of Live Cinema as “a film screening utilising additional performance or interactivity inspired by the content of the film.” (p. 4) This is an odd definition because it only mentions two of the three categories that Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy have also outlined in their introduction to the Participations dossier. This is a very useful opening contribution to a research field that is only getting established, and as such I have some respectful disagreements with this taxonomy. The ‘participatory’ category is fairly self-explanatory, including singalongs, cosplay, and dancing, for instance. The ‘augmented’ category covers live or mediated performances, or exhibition contexts, that ‘add a further dimension to the filmic text’ (live music being an example). But then there’s the seemingly more modest ‘enhanced’ category, in which ‘the physical experience is enhanced but this is not relative to the story of the film’ (p. 141). Outdoor screenings are given as an example, but more often than not these are arranged with some attention to the film content. A question emerges later over whether Q&As are to be considered Live Cinema (I don’t think so). As Atkinson and Kennedy point out, theirs is a pioneering incursion into the field, and their taxonomies are meant to be tested and refined. At the moment, they perhaps try to account for too much diversity, in order to justify the inclusion of such disparate experiences in the strange agglomeration of Live Cinema.

So we come back to the question of definition. Over on Twitter, the Events Cinema Association, who are anxious about the proliferation of terms, claimed that labels are not important for audiences (while defending theirs…)

Indeed, the relatively small surveys conducted for the report show general confusion or vagueness between both exhibitors and audiences about the term ‘Live Cinema’, but then concluded that this could be resolved by educating the audience, “informing them that live cinema is a unique brand proposition”. (p. 17). And this is a crucial insight.

Responding to repeated claims for the novelty of participatory screenings, Matt Jones reminded the panel that none of this is actually new. Atkinson and Kennedy fully acknowledge this, citing ‘expanded cinema, happenings, ballyhoo’ amongst the genealogies of the phenomena they study (p. 148). What seems to have changed is, on the one hand, the commercialisation of previously marginal practices (non-theatrical exhibition, fan/cult expression), and on the other, the centering of previously ancillary promotional practices: Ballyhoo as core experience, served up by dedicated producers. The preoccupation with terminology is understandable, because, as quoted above, the term Live Cinema is intended as branding. Branding, in this case, creates differentiation and manages audience expectations, as well as helping justify increased ticket prices. As Auslander says in relation to 1990s ‘interactive theatre’,

“the ostensible evanescence and nonrepeatibility of the live experience ironically become selling points to promote a product that must be fundamentally the same in each of its instantiations” (Liveness, p. 61).

If I was asked to come up with a marketing term, however, I would propose ‘extraordinary’ or simply ‘special screenings’ (Glasgow Film Festival brands its strand simply as ‘Special Events’). Liveness is not their essence; liveness is sometimes their method, a way to create artificial scarcity in a market in which consumers are supposed to have instant access to everything everywhere all the time. Site-specificity is another way to make a screening special, and it is not covered by ‘liveness’. It is important that the events in question are ephemeral and not easily scalable; they must be exclusive in some sense, and the audience must believe their experiences are unique.

These audiences are courted and placated, engaged and reassured, allowing them to enjoy the thrills of riskless discovery. Precisely a month after the Radical Film Network weekend, this narrow devotion to pleasure and ‘fun’ rang a bit hollow. This is confirmed by the statistics included in the report, which, although preliminary, are informative. There are no indicators of socio-economic status, but 100% of the people surveyed at live cinema events claimed to be ‘frequent cultural events attendees’. When asked whether the market might have reached saturation point, panellists rejected the idea, claiming that ‘people want options’. This foregrounding of choice and consumer ‘power’ (somewhat reminiscent of the more sinister Higher Education White Paper released this month) is part of the positioning of this sector as a commercial alternative to the multiplex. More often than not, this is a choice of distinction, in the Bourdieusian sense. The motivation for ever more inventive ways to capture our overstretched attention seems to be to capture premium customers, those privileged enough to be bored of the multiplex. Interesting tropes of controlled playfulness, connected to gaming, also inform the sector’s ideology of ‘fun’, as Atkinson and Kennedy have shown elsewhere.

The attention economy is cut-throat, and there is a huge amount of creativity and hard work going into the planning of very complex ‘total artworks’. Some event producers are thriving, and good luck to them; some are surviving, most are still doing and depending on lots of unpaid labour. Commercial viability has been achieved by adopting mass-media/bourgeois aesthetics: nostalgia, novelty, lack of dissonance, comfort, etc. As the Radical Film Network attests, a critical underground continues to pose a DIY alternative to this appropriation, but it is also often subsumed in the seemingly apolitical variety of cultural consumption. The mainstreaming of non-theatrical, participatory forms, in particular, makes them available to a broader audience, but erodes their oppositional potential. The degree to which there is indeed an oppositional potential in any of these phenomena (whether mass-mediatic or not) depends on the extent of your cultural pessimism, but I remain unconvinced that ‘more stuff’ is necessarily the best use of our energies. Then again, I would say that. Discuss…

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