The Film Forum consistently has brilliantly curated film series. Currently playing: NYC Noir. The commonality being people behaving badly in a dark & seedy New York, in films made anytime from the silent era of Von Sternberg on through the 70s renaissance of films like Midnight Cowboy and Mean Streets.
Two classics from the true noir era, I Wake Up Screaming (1941) & Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), attracted a large crowd, probably due to some recent coverage in the Times. The theater was filled with a mix of serious film buffs and folks just out to see an ole-timey black and white movie. It created what I thought was an interesting dynamic.
The unfamiliarity of the past got big laughs. (In a movie theater, the more vocal audience members sort of overrule the subtler watchers.) When Burt Lancaster said, "On the level" or "It's curtains for you," laughter killed the emotion. It seemed a shame that mere novelty was the draw when there was so much more to appreciate. Okay, it's funny when Barbara Stanwyk is diagnosed as a "cardiac neurotic," but let me sincerely experience the suspense of her potential murder instead of being interrupted by giggling at the first sign of melodrama. I couldn't help getting the feeling that these films were being made fun of. And that made me mad.
My urge to rant aside, there were a couple interesting things at work:
1. How an emotion by proxy can color your own. As in, oh everyone's laughing at the silly archaic language so even though I'm feeling a sincere emotion because I am allowing myself to be absorbed in the story, I will distance myself like everyone else and have a good, knowing chuckle at how dated the actors sound. Ironic distance. What's up with this? Emotional peer pressure?
2. The two levels (for argument's sake, I am not saying that there are ONLY two) one can experience/appreciate these films. Ironically or sincerely. What is the value of each? Obviously, I'm in the sincere camp. I don't think it's possible to ironically appreciate the beauty of the filmmaking. Can one appreciate the cinematography ironically? The craft of the storytelling? And if we make a distinction between visual and cerebral, does one category lend itself more readily to ironic interpretation?
Isn't part of the emotional peer pressure you talk about the public production of taste, the culture of review & judgement with a bit of popcorn? Recently I fell in love with a book, Dorothea Lasky's Awe & I keep talking about how much I am "in love" with it to people & when they write me back (talking equals email to me now) they concur that they love it as well. Would they say they "loved" it necessarily if I hadn't? Maybe, maybe not. It's a bit of pressure, but also the way we contextualize things. Someone defines a category that allows for a reinterpretation of a book/movie/sculpture & broadcasts it through a review or critique. If it works for us we adopt that category. The obvious difference between reading a review & the laughter in the theater is that a review allows for a different engagement. You can stop reading. you can mock it, you can rebut in your head. In the theater I guess you could have yelled at everyone to stop laughing but I doubt that would have been effective. So I think the emotional pressure toward a recontextualization is implicit the texts social nature.