The Power Of The Audience

The first film that I can remember paying for with my own money that I walked out of was The Breakfast Club.  I can even tell you the scene where I walked out–it was when the kid is talking about attempting suicide with a flare gun. *

Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about the quality of the film, nor do I want to write a post bashing John Hughes (strike that, I do want to write a post bashing John Hughes, but I’ll restrain myself) I want to talk about the experience of walking out of the theater.

A little background–the 1980’s were not a good time for me.  Due to a string of circumstances that were entirely of my own making, I was homeless for a while at the start of the decade.   I was in and out of a couple of different programs for mental illness, misdiagnosed several times, given several different types of medication, none of which helped to manage what was actually wrong with me.

By 1985, when The Breakfast Club was released, I was self-supporting, but just barely.  I was working temp jobs, most physical labor and most short term.  My two great passions have always been music and movies, and it was hard to indulge either when I was usually able to pay for either food or rent, but not both.

Going to the movies represented a significant investment for me in those days.  It wasn’t something that I could do often.  To be honest, I never should have gone to The Breakfast Club. I do not have what you humans call “a sense of humor”.  If I had seen the trailers or other promotional material, I would have known that this was not a film for me.

However, I went to see it solely on the recommendation of a young woman with whom I worked at the Southern Comfort bottling plant.  We had talked about movies and she said that The Breakfast Club was (paraphrasing here) “like, the bestest movie evah!!” (Sadly, taking her cinematic advice was neither the first nor the worst mistake that I have made while under the influence of a well-upholstered torso.)

In any event, I went, by myself, by bus, to an evening showing since I was working days.  I can recall realizing with a sick sense of horror just what exactly I had just spent my hard-earned money on.  I had a rare evening on which I could free up enough funds to go to a theater and I had chosen this? 

My first emotion was anger, anger at myself.  I had given myself something that was spoiled, and it was own damned fault.  I could have been seeing something that I really would have enjoyed, but I had let my judgement be clouded by someone that I scarcely knew, just because she was pretty. (For what it’s worth, I wasn’t mad at her–she’d given me an honest opinion.)

Then I got angry at the filmmakers.  With all the power and magic that the art of film allows, they had chosen to recreate the most hateful parts of high-school and then pretend that suffering was funny? Very little makes me as upset as gratuitous cruelty, and the people that I saw on the screen were being ugly simply for ugliness’ sake.

I remember looking at my watch (one of those cheap LCD ones with a button that would make the face light up) and thinking I have to endure another hour of this.

That’s when it hit me.  No, I don’t.

I had the power. All of the wealth and prestige of Hollywood, all of the financial might of the theater chain–none of that could make me watch a movie that I didn’t want to see.

I know, it sounds both obvious and puerile when I put it like that, but it was an epiphany at the time.  They had my money (at the time my social anxiety was far too great for me to even try to get my money back from a manager) but they couldn’t take my time and my attention.  That was mine, to give as I chose.

It was about then that the scene I referenced above came around (Oh boy, we’ve tormented this child to the point where he wants to take his own life, hardy-har-har!) and I stood up and walked out of the theater.  Just like that.

The lesson that I carried with me from that moment into my journey as an author is that I, as an artist, have the power to get inside my readers heads and hearts–but only with their permission!

If you read my work you are inviting me into your home.  I am a guest in your e-reader or sitting on your bedside table, and it behooves me to be on my best behavior. Because you can kick me out any time you want to.  You can put down my book and never pick it up again, just like that.  You don’t owe me your time and attention, I have to earn it.

It doesn’t matter if ten people buy my book, or ten million–every reader has the choice to keep reading or not.  Obviously I am happy when people buy my work, but I don’t write to be bought, I write to be read.

I have to remember to treat my readers the gracious hosts that they are. They didn’t have to take the journey through my book with me, they chose to.  That’s something I hope I never forget.

*Before you ask, yes I have sat through the entire film since then, and no, I don’t think it got any better.  I hated the ending, I thought it was saccharine and unbelievable.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Publishing, Who I am and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Power Of The Audience

  1. A powerful message and unique delivery! It’s interesting to hear your perspective on a movie that so many people fell head over heels in love with–failing to really look closely at the content. 🙂

  2. kingmidget says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, once again. And on a lot of different levels. Your issue with filmmaker. The ways in which they make fun of human suffering. And, then the analogy to writing. That it’s not the buying of the story, it’s the reading. When I know that people have done that, that’s what it’s all about.

  3. Sue says:

    Very powerful post. I never saw that film so can’t comment. And your analogy to writing is, as usual, brilliant. Recently I’ve started a book, said this is waste of time, then cut to the ending then tossed the book on the pile for Goodwill.

    I rarely walk out of films. However years ago, decades maybe, we went to see Boys in the Hood with another couple. This other couple hated “violence” e.g. Terminator films, Dirty Harry etc. I love appropriate violence. However I walked out of “Hood” because it was real. Or so I felt at the time. And waited impatiently in the lobby cursing this couple and their dislike of violence used for entertainment. I still get mad but then those two people are another story

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Thank you. There are always going to be variations in tastes, of course, but I do think that acting like a guest in the reader’s home is a good analogy for how I try to write.

  4. Myas says:

    There’s nothing to worry about with the ending. All that was Saturday. There was never a sequel to show anyone what really happened on Monday. John’s abusive dad, and the kid comes home with a diamond earring? Would the jock high-five Brian in the hall because they’re best buddies now as he holds hands with the basket case? Is the spoiled rich kid really going to hold hands with the stoner? Are they going to get stoned together? Are the smart kid’s grades going to drop because he likes getting high?

    What’s reality? Are they going to set example for the entire school? Will it ripple like cheap wine or the Dead? Are they all going to high-five the janitor when they see him?

    Think happy thoughts. Although, I have to say out of all of them, the outcast referred to as the basket case would be the one to maintain friendships – she’s not part of any caste. Even junkies maintain a closed club.

  5. SJ O'Hart says:

    Interesting. I went through a teenage ‘John Hughes is God’ phase, and watched all the movies (and, sorry, loved them); however, I recently re-watched ‘Sixteen Candles’ and found myself going ‘What on earth *is* this?’ There were so many things about it that really bothered me, things I hadn’t picked up on when I’d watched it as a kid. I think, if I’d been watching it in a movie theatre I’d have walked out on it, too – but only as an adult viewer, not a teenage one. I have never walked out on a movie, but there are some I probably *should* have abandoned!

    I really enjoyed reading your take on this from the other side – nobody wants to think about their work being tossed aside, but I guess it’s a reality that anyone who writes has to face. Really great post.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Thank you. I’ve seen a lot of posts that build up a writer’s self-confidence, and that’s a good thing, but I think it’s important for us to remember to be humble, as well. There is a relationship between artists and audiences, and arrogance on either part makes for a shaky relationship.

  6. This is a great piece. I’ve seen writers write about that relationship between the reader and writer before, but not with such a strong example or from such a personal experience. It slams the point home. Well said.

  7. Firstly, I have to compliment you for the phrase “well-upholstered torso”. Brilliant. Okay, now to go back and read the rest of the post …

    You make an excellent point! To build a readership, it’s not enough to just sell books — people actually have to enjoy the books they’re buying. I like what you said about being on your best behavior, because I recently read a book where the author wasn’t on her best behavior. Well, maybe she thought she was, but … I don’t know, killing off your main character at the end in a ridiculous plot contrivance that makes absolutely no sense sounds like not being on your best behavior to me.

  8. tracycembor says:

    I also enjoyed the phrase “well-upholstered torso.” Darn things are a nuisance.

    It sounds like the movie failed you in two ways–it didn’t ring true for you, and the writers/director made a promise that they did not keep. It could also be that the movie wasn’t the right “genre” for you. These are often reasons that have me quiting a book or movie.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I think the genre thing was the problem for me–obviously there are a lot of people who do love that movie, and are willing to accept it on its own terms. I simply wasn’t.

  9. I’m reading this months after you posted it, but I’m glad you wrote this, first, because of “The Breakfast Club” itself — I liked it as a kid but now as an adult and a teacher, I realize the whole thing’s ridiculous: no educator would leave 5 teens in a room by themselves, and thus, there would be no camaraderie developed. (By the way, the only movie I’ve walked out on was “Pushing Tin” and I’ve never been tempted to rewatch it. Something about a bad movie really sticks with a person). Second, I appreciate your point about artists’ works being invited into the readers’ home, and maybe one way to be a good guest is to be honest and not follow trite formulas, as all too many popular works do.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      The thing about formulas, in my opinion, is that you need to make sure that you are using the formula, and not letting it use you. It’s rather like writing poetry in a strict form–once you start putting things in simply to satisfy the rhyme scheme, the whole thing falls apart. Talking about it being June because that month fits the tone of the work is fine, but saying it’s June because you need a rhyme with moon is being used by the formalism.

      I think it’s the same thing with formulaic plots–are you using this series of events because it fits the story you want to tell, or are you making the story fit into the formula? It can be a hard things to see, sometimes.

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