Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Does good audiencing grant you a gender? I think so, because certainly bad audiencing seems to be a manifestation of masculinity. Last week, on Friday the 13th, I went to my first concert in I don’t know how long: the wonderful neo-shoegazer band Asobi Seksu at the Independent in San Francisco. There, I was treated to some beautiful music and showmanship by the headlining band. But I was also exposed to examples of some irksomely bad audiencing:

-Continuously frenching your boyfriend with your back to the headlining band for 97% of their set.

-Dragging your drunk girlfriend toward the front of the audiencing pit, then elbowing thrashers (i.e. moi) in an attempt to “protect” the lurching girlfriend who continuously whines: “I’m too drunk! I want to leave!”

-Making grabbing motions like you’re trying to catch a wedding bouquet when the lead singer takes off her heavy necklaces to do a nasty turn on the drum kit as the encore.

It seems like not that long ago that I was thrashing against sweaty pudgy white punkers at a Fantomas concert or being mosh-pitted wearing a corset and four pounds of black eyeliner at Kimo’s on Polk Street. The danger of physical injury due to possession by music is preferable to this bullshit. The above acts of bad audiencing were not all done by men, but they are people who value males and masculinity much too much. Why would this girl insist on cleaning her boyfriend’s tonsils with her tongue while there’s a band playing right in front of her? Is she so insecure that she feels a need to compete with the performance for her boyfriend’s attention? And why does this other guy prop up a girl about to fall down, endangering their fellow audience to her boozevomit? Does he think he’s being gallant when he is jutting his elbows out like a bouncer to deflect thrashing long hair away from his precious girlfriend? And really: just because a female performer starts taking off pieces of her costume doesn’t mean that she’s going to throw them at you like a stripper with her feather boa and pasties.

I’m not sure that being a good audience of a performative piece of art is necessarily feminine, although it feels that way. If femininity has been traditionally associated with passive reception, then it makes sense to connect the act of audiencing as traditionally feminine. But for me, the equation is not a disempowering one. To be a good audience to art means that you have to proactively perform a delicate dance of witnessing: you have to be passive enough to let the art seep into the pores of your senses, but then active enough to allow the art to shape an individual and meaningful reaction upon your body. The crime of the bad audiencing I witnessed at the Asobi show was that of indifference. Those male and female criminals of audiencing all refused to acknowledge and respect the spectacle of the performance before them so that they could push forth their own personal egos. That is truly, reductively, masculine, whether you are a boy or not.

Two weekends ago, I had the privilege of witnessing some really great audiencing. It was at, strangely enough, a Sunday afternoon show of “Watchmen.” I’m tempted, but won’t comment too much on the film itself, except to say: I surprisingly liked it—even though I am both a faithful comic book nerd who read the book as a teenager and a passionate hater of “300,” the neo-con homo-fascist film directed by the same man—because “Watchmen” is really a costume drama about the 1980s pretending to be a big sci-fi-action film. There. I won’t say anything more about the film itself because the film’s actual content was enhanced by the great audiencing provided at the AMC multiplex in Emeryville, where I saw the movie.

I’d been editing a manuscript all day, and so around 4 pm I decided to take a break , brave opening weekend lemming masses, and go to a showing of “Watchmen.” Because it was a packed house, I couldn’t really choose my seat (smelly nachos to my left, heavy-breathing popcorn cruncher to the right). As the film began, I found myself sitting behind something I’d usually go to Hell and back to avoid: a group of high school kids. I sat behind a group of teenagers, 15 years old at the most: three boys—two white, one black; and two black girls.

The girls came a bit later than the boys. They waved and mouthed a silent “Hi” to them and took their seats, right in front of me. They were petite, so at least they didn’t block my view. One of them was wearing her hair in a tidy ponytail with a ribbon-bow headband. As the movie progressed, there was the usual, predictable amount of hooting and cheering and hollering by stupid males during scenes of violence. Nothing like heads being kicked in and limbs being torn off to get boys to laugh and cheer like it was Christmas morning. What was beautiful in contrast was how focused these two girls in front of me were. Of course they made appropriate comments of puzzlement and squeamishness, but they were such great, sensitive film readers.

There was one particularly difficult scene: Silk Spectre I (played by Carla Gugino, who embodied perfectly the dark-campy balance of the character in the book) is almost raped by another superhero, the Comedian. When she resists by karate-kicking him down, he responds not only by hitting her back, but proceeding to beat her up with sadistic malice and protraction: punching her face and stomach repeatedly, throwing her against the pool table with a spine-snapping impact. Amid the equally sadistic male tittering that filled the auditorium, the two girls in front of me stayed silent, their gazes fixed to the screen. They didn’t act squeamish, they didn’t move in nervousness. They didn’t talk to each other. They were witnessing a useless male ego at work, expressed in violence against a woman, and as such, they were so appropriately silent and serious. After the movie, they joined their male friends (one of them who said he found the blue nude Dr. Manhattan “sexy”!!) in fast and upbeat dissection of the film. But in those couple of silent minutes, those two girls, one of whom with a ribbon in her hair, exuded a sensitivity that was breathtaking.

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