Compare film theorists Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and their understanding of the way film addresses the spectator.
In their study The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), particularly in the chapter "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", Adorno and Horkheimer, German Jewish exiles in Hollywood, integrated their critique of mass culture within their pessimistic thesis about the failure of the enlightenment to effectively make humankind free. Yes, they conceded, the enlightenment had rendered people free from superstition and old traditions. Yet, these had been substituted by the cult of scientific rationality, which coupled with a capitalist economy, had become a strong form of domination. The mass-culture films produced in Hollywood were therefore instrumental in replicating and passing off as natural and valid the social relations typical of a capitalist society. By this logic, the studio system came to control not only its employees, but also its audience as they claimed that
the attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually, favors the system of the culture industry, is part of the system and not an excuse for it.
Adorno and Horkheimer's despair over the control mass culture exerts on our lives is very much part of the historical context in which the two intellectuals were writing and the rise of totalitarianism that they had witnessed. Adorno famoudly argued that
the power of the culture industry's ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness.
Adorno and Horkheimer saw audiences as passive recipients of capitalist hegemony.
Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) was also written in exile, an exile that ended tragically in the death of the author while trying to flee from the Nazis. Benjamin conceives the history of art as a process tending to the reproduction of the art object for mass consumption and the loss of its aura of uniqueness. Film and photography represented the climax of this process. Films, in particular, are so expensive to produce that their very existence is premised upon the possibility that they are reproduced for large audiences. Contrary to the passivity of audiences that Adorno and Horkheimer would lament in their later piece, Benjamin argued that
the aucience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing.
By losing their aura of authenticity, artworks become open to the criticism and assessment of the audience.