As discussed in my previous entry (About A Boy, 2011), reception studies has been influenced by Hall’s encoding/ decoding model of audience interpretation. However, in Making Sense of Cinema (2016), CarrieLynn D. Reinhard argues that this can go further. With reference to Janet Staiger (1992; 2002), she raises issues with Hall’s “spectator-activated approach” in which viewers act as “representatives of a larger group and are expected to enact universal interpretations due to their group membership” (2016, p.9).
Reinhard identifies a “context-activated approach” on the basis of empirical research, which takes account of individual experiences and the “historical period” in which a film is watched (2019, p.9). Drawing on the ideas of German reception theorist Ingarden, she points out that media and filmic texts “contain gaps where the reader supplies their own information” (Holub, 1984, cited in Reinhard, 2016, p.216). She also outlines the “minutia reception method” (2016, p. 217), which has been used to gauge group reactions to a set of superhero films; she cites a Danish study which analyses viewer reaction on a moment-by-moment basis, rather than through a summarising appraisal of the whole film.
Reinhard divides audience response into two main categories: entanglements and detachments. She characterises entanglement, as the sense of being “engrossed by the unfolding of the film,” and detachment, as a certain “disengagement with the film," when a viewer might step out of the narrative to consider technical or other aspects (2016, p.222). This entry will address the entanglement/ detachment paradigm with regard to my own reactions to a first viewing of Hancock (2008).
The opening sequence depicts Hancock, hungover, flying across the city to intercept criminals opening fire on the freeway, but causing his own brand of anarchic chaos as he arrives. Having watched several of the recent superhero films, each solemnly portraying a complex universe, it felt refreshing to watch a twelve-year-old film, which is therefore indifferent to modern incarnations of the Marvel canon. However, cheap special effects, such as medium shots of a wasted Hancock chugging beer against CGI-generated skyscrapers, distracted me from the action because I found them amusing!
In contrast, the major plot ‘twist’ juncture, when Mary reveals her own superpowers to Hancock, was a moment that fully ‘entangled’ me back into the story with still, lingering close-ups foreshadowing potential romance between the two characters. This was hinted earlier in the narrative, when Mary is captured in several protracted close-ups, staring watchfully at Hancock. The brass instruments in the film score building to a gentle crescendo also prepared me for a mild twist - such as a kiss – to occur, and so it was satisfying when it did.
However, the frenetic shot sequence that followed, as Mary suddenly throws Hancock through the wall, caught me off guard; although I wasn't fully immersed in Hancock's world for the first half of the film, this unexpected development harnessed my attention effectively, with the intriguing question of Mary’s connection to Hancock.
As seen here, a context-activated analysis of audience reception might invite precise and more reliable information about factors influencing individual bias, than an encoding/decoding reading could elicit.
Reinhard, C and Olson, J (2016) ‘Introduction’, in Reinhard, C and Olson, C (eds) Making Sense of Cinema: Empirical Studies into Film Spectators and Spectatorship. 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
Reinhard, C (2016) ‘Making Sense of the American Superhero Film’, in Reinhard, C and Olson, C (eds) Making Sense of Cinema: Empirical Studies into Film Spectators and Spectatorship. 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.