Luke McKernan (Film Historian) is interviewed about his newly published book, Picturegoers, by Joe Kember (Exeter Studies in Film History series editor and Professor in Film and Visual Culture at Exeter University).
Joe Kember: In another recent book for the University of Exeter Press, your main focus was Charles Urban, the producer of educational films, among other things, in the early British film industry. What do you think is the importance of focusing on exhibition and on how people watched moving pictures, your chief subject in the new volume?
Luke McKernan: I think that for any cultural form we need to think of the audience first. Who saw this at the time that it was made? Why did they want to see it? What were their age, gender, class, purchasing power? Under what conditions was it seen and how did these affect its interpretation? How do we see the object now and how does that differ from how it was understood formerly? Once seen from such perspectives, moving pictures take on a whole new meaning, because of the challenge to our expectations. It is all too easy to assume that people go to a cinema, or other such venue, to see a film and that is all that they see and that is all that is important. They are saying something about themselves, and that is what I find interesting.
W. Stocker Shaw, ‘In the Cinema’, British postcard c.1910.
Can you say a little more about how you encountered so many of these first-hand accounts, and about the role of your ‘Picturegoing’ website? How, in the end did you select the contributions to this volume among so many?
I started collecting eyewitness accounts of filmgoing in 2004 when I worked on a project researching cinemas and their audiences in London 1894-1914. I came across a study that said it was impossible to understanding early film audiences except from a theoretical perspective, because they had left no evidence of their opinions. This I had to challenge. I found memoirs (published and unpublished ones deposited in local archives), oral history interviews, letters, diaries, travel books and sociological surveys which gave the supposedly lost audience a voice. It was frequently a voice mediated by form (interviews, surveys) or time (memoirs), but instead of such mediation being an impediment to understanding, I felt such texts could not help but reflect what was memorable, and hence important, to the person who had been in the audience. Moreover, the individual voices had such charm and character, making the times and the films come alive.
I carried on collecting eyewitness testimonies, looking for them from all periods and countries. The primary rule for selection was that the text should tell us something constructive and interesting about the experience of seeing films. I made intensive use of digital archives such as Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, digitised newspaper sites, plus many second-hand bookshops. In 2013 I launched a site, Picturegoing to make some of the testimonies available to others. In selecting texts for the book I wanted to cover all time periods from the 1890s to the present day, and as many countries as possible. I picked texts for the variety of forms, for the value they had in saying why the person had been drawn to see moving pictures on a screen, and for their readability. I also wanted a mixture of known and unknown writers. Finally, I had to keep to a modest budget. Texts that were too expensive to clear could not be used, while other texts were kept to short extracts under the ‘fair dealing’ exception in UK copyright law.
Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim, stars of The Happiest Days of Your Life (UK, 1950), watching the film with an audience of children (many of whom were extras in the film).
A first-person perspective concerning film might be criticised simply because it tells us things that are personal. What is the importance of the eyewitness experience and the personal view to our understanding of film?
There is nothing to criticise about the personal. The personal is the key to understanding. What I find interesting about picturegoing as a theme is that the viewer is both individual and part of a crowd. There is a collective response, of course, but the viewer will ultimately see things from their individual perspective. I dislike the term ‘spectatorship’, which suggests a uniform reaction, but the response of the individual viewer tells us how wrong that can be. It’s the idiosyncrasy of the first-person perspective that is important.
Your section on ‘Places’ focuses especially on a wide international range of picturegoing experiences, and you note about this that “where we are makes every film different” (p. 7). Can you give an example about what this might tell us about non-Anglophone and non-Western traditions of picturegoing?
I have tried in Picturegoers to get away from a Western-centric view of cinema. This is not easy, as the majority of audience testimony comes from the USA and the UK, and the need to keep to English language texts restricted choice further. Those in the book hopefully provide a refreshing and illuminating view of cinema as a global phenomenon profoundly shaped by place and people. Examples such as Palestinian author Khalil Totah witnessing Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in Damascus amid a noisy audience munching on peanuts and buying Coca-Cola in the intermission; or Park Yeon-mi discovering a taste of freedom by watching an illicit copy of Titanic in North Korea; or American write Edwa Moser having to adjust her understanding of how film works when part of a Mexican audience watching Mexican films, tell us that place matters. We should never consider the territory with which we are familiar as the norm.
Children outside a cinema at Belo sur Tsiribihina, Madagascar, 2008. Photograph by Marco Zanferrari.
What have your explorations revealed to you about the relationship between the spectator (the one who narrates, in this case) and the crowd? What have you learned about audiences and the communities they embody?
No one sees a film alone, though some may imagine that they do. Everyone brings with them the society of which they form a part. That society is not necessarily represented by the audience around them in the cinema – they may be an outsider, visiting a country that is not their own – but it reminds the viewer that they have to belong, and that to which they belong informs how they see what they see. But they are individuals for all that, and therein lies cinema’s unique power. With television or the internet, we know of those others experiencing what we experience, but we do not (usually) see them. In the theatre we see the audience, but the performance is unique to that time and place. Only in cinema do we see what others see, about us and beyond where we are located. But outside place and people there is always ourselves alone.
Discover more about Picturegoers and order your copy here.