From Spectator to "Differentiated" Consumer: Film Audience Research in the Era of Developed Socialism (1965-80)

Article excerpt

In 1980, the Gor'kii film studio in Moscow released Piraty XX veka (Pirates of the 20th Century), which became the highest-grossing domestic film in Soviet history with over 85 million tickets sold in that year alone. (1) The film's plot, simultaneously simple and entirely unique for Soviet cinema, concerns a group of patriotic sailors experienced in martial arts who defeat a band of AK-47-toting pirates, one of whom also holds a black belt in karate. While audiences and film distribution authorities warmly received Pirates, the film's supposed lack of character development and absence of classical narrative structure appalled critics, who claimed its popularity represented Soviet spectators' lack of taste. The director Boris Durov defended his film, saying, "I feel that the audience wants to see spectacle. A contemporary film about pirates [eases] melancholic [feelings] with romance and adventure." (2) Vladimir Ishimov, a Soviet film critic relatively sympathetic to the film, commented that its creators "understand well the rules of audience perception prevailing in our country, and consequently all the picture's components are strictly measured." (3) This puzzling statement raises several questions, not the least of which include what produced this type of knowledge about audience perception and where such "measurements" were available.

Eight years later, Stanislav Govorukhin, the film's screenwriter and first secretary of the Odessa branch of the Cinematographers Union, opened the proceedings for the first "Golden Duke" film festival, presenting the event as an "alternative" space for producers of popular cinema. The future political documentarist and State Duma member (since 1993) attempted to counteract the newer trend during glasnost" toward experimentation and the melancholy associated with chernukha [dark] films. His speech reads as a legitimating manifesto for what he called the "low" genres. Govorukhin sarcastically labeled them as Soviet cinema's "seven deadly sins," which included comedy, melodrama, musical, detective, adventure, science fiction, and thriller. He later reported in Sovetskaia kul'tura that instead of the usual film critics who presided over the annual all-union film festival and the Moscow international film festival, a "large group of sociologists" were present at the "Odessa alternative." He further stressed the greater need for "contact with the spectator," and the necessity to study viewers' needs, desires, and sympathies/ (4) What did Govorukhin intend with this counterposition of sociology with film criticism? His statement was at once populist, with its predictable anti-intellectualism, and affirming of a different intellectual tradition and particular method of understanding the social work that film does.

Moreover, the article represented Govorukhin's amazing ability to reconstruct the discourse of "cinema and spectator" as it existed in the era of "developed socialism" (1965-85), with its emphasis on gathering "scientific" knowledge about society and its reliance on "objective" technological processes over "subjective" understandings to find meaning in cultural products. (5) "Developed socialism" had less use for the literary or film critic, whose role in Soviet cultural politics was gradually being outmoded by the media sociologist, an individual with a social-science or technical education. Nonetheless, critics at first participated in their own demise, welcoming the "new methods" of sociology for understanding the relationship between media and their consumers. It was only by the mid-1970s that several leading critics began to question the practice of "reducing spectators to statistical averages," which appeared to them as all that sociology had accomplished over the past decade. By this time, however, the sociologist's position had already eclipsed that of the critic, in no small measure owing to the Soviet film industry's greater emphasis on such entertainment films that Govorukhin and Durov had pioneered. …