Admittedly, I haven’t quite lived up to the name of this blog. Despite the “Cinema Rants” moniker, my previous posts could be more accurately characterised as measured discussions, or reflections on my industry news, film history, or my own personal viewing practises. Hopefully the clarity of those posts will run through today’s, but this post should also bring me closer to a rant than before.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending two screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox: Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1949 film A Letter to Three Wives (a film I had been meaning to see for a long time), and Mildred Pierce (1945) by Michael Curtiz (a personal favourite). Both of these screenings were introduced by David Bordwell, a prominent film scholar visiting from his post at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Bordwell, along with his wife and academic partner Kristen Thompson, publish Film Art and Film History, introductory text books used frequently in university film classes. All of this is to say, he’s an expert, and a great guest for TIFF to have. While I love Mildred Pierce and really enjoyed A Letter to Three Wives (which sports a wonderfully absurd soundtrack at certain points in the film), Bordwell’s approach to film criticism, specifically formalism, is not one of my particular interests. That being said, I’m always eager to learn something new, and was nonetheless looking forward to hearing him speak.
Bordwell was great. He gave succinct and insightful introductions to the films, and was more charming than I anticipated in front of an audience. Then came the question and answer period. Having not attended a screening at TIFF in a while, I forgot how bad these can get. Prior to the film, it became pretty clear (from listening into the audience members surrounding me) that most of the people were there as fans of the film and not to hear Bordwell speak. Which is great! Bringing classic and cult films to the theatres and encouraging fans to come out of their homes to attend the cinema, is a great strategy for theatres struggling against new modes of film exhibition. While the Q&A following the first screening went rather well, the second unfortunately fell into the typical pitfalls and became dreadfully boring.
In an effort to avoid this in the future, I have established this handy guide for filmgoers, to help pick better questions and hopefully lead to a more engaging and exciting discussion in the future.
1. Ask a question. Let’s begin with the point that’s so obvious I put it in the title. The infamous and ubiquitous, “this is more of a comment than a question,” or any various thereof. Just so there’s no confusion, Q&A stands for “question” and “answer”. This means the intention of having someone to weigh in on these films, be they the director, the lead actor or actress, a film critic or reviewer, is that they are there to comment on the film, provide their expertise, and clarify. So if you put your hand up, and wait for a microphone to be passed to you, it should really be to ask a question. It is likely that many people in the audience came to see that person as much as they came to see the film. Whereas NO ONE CAME TO HEAR YOU SAY ANYTHING. Except for maybe you. In which case, stop. That’s not to say that some people don’t have insightful comments that may provide really interesting commentary on the film, and sometimes these comments can even result in an interesting discussion between the guest and that person. But if there is no way for the guest to respond to what you said you’re likely falling into pitfall number two.
2. Don’t use your question as an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge. Informing yourself as a film viewer is a great idea. It will make films more interesting, and discussions more fruitful. But once again, NO ONE CAME TO HEAR YOU SPEAK. This isn’t a classroom. People paid their own money to come to the venue on their leisure time to enjoy a film and listen to a hopefully interesting discussion. Using the Q&A period to show off is a complete waste of time for the entire audience, and likely the guest. If you need the commendation so badly, talk to the guest afterward. They frequently stick around, and take their time to speak with the audience. Granted, this is less likely with a famous leading actor than a filmmaker, critic, or reviewer, but in my experience those people are more interesting to speak to anyway.
3. Know the basics. This gets back to my previous comment about informing yourself as a viewer, and not wasting everyone’s time. If you are intent on asking a question during a Q&A, take some time and learn some basic information about the topic. Some people have more patience for this than others, and realistically, the inequality of information between the guest and the audience is necessary. If everyone had the exact same information, then there wouldn’t really be any point to having a Q&A in the first place. That being said, generally speaking, more informed discussions are more enjoyable and interesting discussions. Do not waste everyone’s time (hopefully a trend is emerging here) asking the guest to clarify the plot for you (unless this has become a sticking point for the audience, or there is some purposeful ambiguity left that leads to various interpretations), or ask what year the film was made. These sessions do not go on forever, and if you have a question that could be answered in 30 seconds by looking it up on your phone (AFTER THE FILM HAS FINISHED) then give someone else the opportunity to ask something more thought provoking than “how old was Joan Crawford in this film?” or “who played the daughter?”
4. Wait for the microphone. I know it seems like you can yell loud enough for everyone to hear, but likely you can’t (at least for the entirety of your question), and there are usually people in the theatre who are there for the very purpose of getting the mic to you as quickly as possible. I know the wait seems interminable at the time, but it really only takes a few second and makes things run a lot more smoothly. On the topic of microphones…
5. Relinquish the mic after your question. Some people have really interesting questions that yield great answers, but this still isn’t the time to have a drawn out conversation with the guest. Once again, NO ONE CAME TO HEAR YOU TALK and as I mentioned you can likely follow up with the guest when the official Q&A time is over. If your question really is that good (and they have the time) they will likely be more than happy to continue the conversation.
6. You don’t have to ask a question. Those seconds between the opening of the Q&A and the first question can seem torturous. But there is no pressure on your or any other audience member to ask a half-baked question for the sake of filling out the time. Some films just aren’t that interesting. Or, perhaps they are, but the audience was not especially engaged. Or, more unfortunately, perhaps you need more time than that allotted to collect your thoughts, and develop a coherent question. Either way, forced Q&As are not particularly interesting, and generally the host (be it TIFF, or the university, or the film club) should be prepared with some ideas before hand to help get the discussion going. And honestly, if they fail to do that and a Q&A flops, it’s not entirely the audience’s responsibility to save it.
Hopefully these guidelines help, and lead to more exciting, thought provoking, and challenging (for the right reasons) in the future.