OPEN MIC: In the Company of Strangers

Erin Buckley—current film student and former GFI intern—discusses watching movies through the eyes of a collective audience

A few years ago I found myself sitting in New York’s Battery Park watching an outdoor screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with hundreds of strangers. The film had long been my favorite, first seen on AMC with my parents and later becoming irresistible due to the great mustaches and charm of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I loved it well and thought I knew it the same, but sitting there hearing roaring laughs, gasps of held breath, and deeply appreciative applause at the climactic ending, the film became something completely new to me—it came to life.

From then on, audiences became the vital ingredient of my movie going. Others might go to see movies for the timeliness of opening weekends, to find an escape, or for affordable entertainment. Unlike home viewing, the dreaded “reformatting” is avoided and the cinematography remains exactly as it was intended. Surround sound in theaters is pretty fantastic. There are no interruptions from roommates, scratched DVDs, stalled “instant” streaming, or commercials. Really, seeing a movie on a projection screen is a sacred experience of sorts. But what about all of the other people there? There are countless merits to seeing a film in theaters and the strangers in the darkness are one of the greatest.

If you find yourself in the company of a good audience, what do you get from it? Heightened laughs, deeper sighs, a collective investment, and in many instances, catharsis. Comedies are markedly funnier with full houses. In numbers there is safety to laugh at the silly, the vulgar, and the unbelievably clever. In dramas, there is a shared sadness, understanding, and relief. Whatever you might see or feel when alone is intensified when the other people around you are feeling and reacting to the same events unfolding on screen.

In a “Films of Alfred Hitchcock” course I took, this theory was put into practice. The professor strongly encouraged our weekly screenings to take place with classmates, friends, and roommates, so that the master of suspense’s work would be intensified through the shared anxiety that developed. In a discussion after screening The Man Who Knew Too Much, the class was split between those who found it to be one of Hitchcock’s lesser works, and those who thought it was one of his masterpieces. The difference? The company kept during the screening. For me, the famous eighteen minute Alfred Hall sequence without dialogue was almost too much to handle sitting in shared silence (just as it was supposed to be) and the humorous ending surely would not have elicited a laugh were there not five of us in the room!

While the college classroom nearly guarantees an engaged audience, the general public, not so much. What if the audience is lousy, un-responsive, or disinterested? I saw Terence Malick’s critically acclaimed and commercially controversial Tree of Life a few weeks ago. It took me 40 minutes to decide that it was one of the most moving pieces of film I would ever see, and the same amount of time for the audience to decrease by a third. Thinking back on the mass exodus the next day, I wondered why they left when I stayed, probing me deeper into thought on why I liked the film, and why others might not. Was it the story? Was it the execution, the artistic ambiguity? Whether the audience is “good” or “bad” holds immeasurable influence over the way in which you watch and interpret a film, but in the end, isn’t this internal dialogue what every filmmaker ultimately hopes—essentially, that their stories will find resilience in their viewers’ minds?

In coming to The Global Film Initiative, the connection between these films and the audience has been one of my biggest intrigues. Global Lens doesn’t just give international films exposure to broader markets, it gives unique and varied stories a chance to come to life. What one person might find slow moving, another might see as their new favorite film. It furthers the dialogue between the audience, the films, and the social and cultural issues presented, especially because not everyone enjoys every film. What’s moving them is not just the stories presented on screen, but the shared experience in watching it the film with others.

Erin Buckley is a senior at Fordham University in New York, studying Communications and Media Studies with a film concentration and a Women’s Studies minor. She has previously interned at Tribeca Cinemas and the Hamptons International Film Festival. At Fordham, she serves on the board of Global Outreach, a service and cultural immersion organization. She volunteered at The Global Film Initiative during the summer of 2011.

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