Author: M Sellers Johnson (Victoria University of Wellington)
How to Cite: Johnson, M. (2022) “Caetlin Benson-Allott, The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television”, Film Criticism. 46(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.3615
In The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television, Caetlin Benson-Allott contends the importance of material culture by addressing socio-political contexts surrounding television and film screenings, deteriorating media formats and their effects on media engagement, concessions culture, ingestible intoxicants, and the value of materiality in shaping our experiences as spectators. She argues that spectatorship is significantly informed by material objects and environments, and that the recognition of these forces often goes unacknowledged. Therefore, she examines the various stuff of spectatorship, arguing for its saliency in film criticism and scholarship. Benson-Allott offers readers an enjoyable, even provocative read, as she examines subjects of curated media culture surrounding streaming services and television channels like TCM, cannabis culture, alcohol’s illicit history and growth as a concession, and apparent racial disparities in panicked reactions to theater violence. She addresses these subjects in an engaging manner that is both erudite and casual in its diction. Stuff presents a valuable academic monograph with wit and charisma that is also very palatable to the general reader.
Stuff contains six chapters. The first three of these “consider how viewers’ perceptions of television and film history are affected by various commodity forms, from (deteriorating) home video formats to branded merchandise and consumer experiences.”1 Chapters four and five deal with alcohol and cannabis, their history in relation to film and television spectatorship, poetics of inebriation, their role in industrial economies, and how these psychoactive consumer goods can create an elevated viewing experience. These chapters are lighter in tone and are ostensibly more pleasurable reads, given their (at times) illicit, indulgent consumer content. Snappy chapter titles such as “Spirits of Cinema” and “Blunt Spectatorship” invite fun, yet thoughtful considerations of these topics. The final chapter explores consequential forms of material influence on spectatorship with violence surrounding film screenings, as well as the reception cultures generated by the press, which contribute to racial disparities between Black and white assailants.
The first chapter in Stuff explores recollection and memory by discussing the political implications of television in relation to historical events. Textual analysis of Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and its thematic similarities to the concurrent signing of the Camp David Accords imbues this specific media with an undeniable historical-political context. Chapter two studies deteriorating media of video and 35mm film print by analyzing Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), and its relation to larger commercial economies of cinema, as well as its metacinematic depictions of loss. Chapter three considers lifestyle branding and monetized reputations of goods and experiences, by connecting Turner Classic Movies and its intentional encouragement of consumer identity with brand affiliation.2
Chapter four discusses the history of alcohol in cinema through legal and illicit consumption. Benson-Allott analyzes the changing material presence of alcohol in both niche theaters and commercial cinemas, and how this concession is part of a larger trend that frames moviegoing as a specialized experience.3 Chapter five investigates cannabis culture and examines the “construction of distracted, hyper-focused, and paranoid spectators through poetics of inebriation” as a mode that informs spectatorial subjects.4 Moreover, she acknowledges that US television producers began to capitalize more on inebriated reception around the early 2000s. Benson-Allott concludes “Blunt Spectatorship” with an acute analysis of Donald Glover’s Atlanta (2016-). Through the show’s use of inebriated poetics, she suggests Atlanta’s Afrosurrealist aesthetics help express politicized paranoia and a de-privileging of the white gaze. Radicalized depictions of cannabis culture function as both an anesthesia for cultural disparities, systemic discrimination, and subversive reflections of the Black experience that challenge appropriation and commodification.
In her final chapter, Benson-Allott contends that cinema violence (while ephemeral) is one of the most consequential forces of material culture. Using comparative case studies of The Warriors (1979), Boyz N the Hood (1991), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and others, she examines differences in panicked reception to violent incidents occurring around film screenings, and how press responses inform racial biases. She argues that more tragic emphasis is placed on white violence as random, whereas Black violence is mostly regarded with dismissive attitudes that blame cultural environments and film content as indications (even inspirations) of such violence, even when the films themselves resist such logic.5
Benson-Allott notes media studies scholars are often narrowly perceived as expressing interest only in media culture and content analysis, whereas material culture is undeniably tethered to media culture and spectatorship. Of material culture, she writes that “It reveals that the meanings audiences attach to texts come not from the texts themselves but from a vast network of physical objects and forces, none of which are ideologically neutral.”6 Benson-Allott invites us to reflect on the physical conditions which characterize the audience’s relationships to their consumer media habits. Her case studies, while heterogeneous and varied, could certainly use more expansion and textual analysis. But like any worthwhile scholarly read, this is at once didactic as a singular text and a springboard for further discussion. Given the sensitivity of its content, chapter six warrants more analysis to further clarify its contentions of how panicked reception cultures act in ways that perpetuate a white cinematic hegemony. However, ending this text on the topic of cinema violence keenly shows the consequences and effects of material environments, and how physical context can literally affect spectatorship, for better or worse.
The Stuff of Spectatorship presents insightful considerations of how material culture functions in relation to media culture and deserves further scrutiny as an integral part of media studies. Moreover, Benson-Allott heeds this discipline’s physical relevancy against growing pressure from STEM fields at tertiary institutions, where value in the allegedly non-practical humanities has come into question. Benson-Allott defends the practicality of media studies, while bringing conversations of consumer content further into the fold of the material world.