Monday, December 13, 2010

A Philosophy on Movie-Going

I should have known better than to go to the Friday night 10:35 showing of Black Swan.  I really should.  It overall was a tolerable experience in the theater, packed to the gills with people awaiting the latest from Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman.  But it was another in a long, frustrating line of movie-going experiences tarnished by another patron sitting behind me.  Talking.  Mouth moving.  Nothing but words coming out for the duration of the running time.  Wrong movie time to go to, wrong night, wrong crowd?  I don't know, all of the above probably.  Or it being a cineplex in a mall in New Jersey doesn't help matters, either.

To be fair, this girl, probably on a date, wasn't as bad as I have come across.  Her principle crime was not the volume of the voice, she was mostly in hushed tones.  It was the duration.  I could count almost every or every other scene a comment from her mouth to her boy-man's ears that I had perked up right just so.  I did ignore her through the movie- my ire was not raised to the point where I had to comment- but in a way it just made it worse.  It wasn't the words but the repetition, knowing there was always something she would say just around the corner of a scene, like about Portman this or Crazy that or Perfect Whatever.  It was one specific word that I would say applies to all movie-talkers: obtrusive.

Let me make this clear, though I'll probably repeat this again: A movie theater is not, NOT, your living room.  It is not your kitchen.  It is not your frat house.  999.999 times out of a million, to quote the masterpiece The Room: keep your stupid comments in your pocket!

Sorry, that goes for you too guys
I can count the number of times, mostly in recent years, that a movie experience has been sullied to varying degrees by other people in the theater on more fingers than I could clone hands for.  So many memories come back, sometimes even more vividly than the films themselves.  One such memory going back to January of 2007 was at the good ol' Tenefly Clearview theater where two old people - oh, the old people, a VERY underrated lot in the theater-talking crowd - wouldn't stop talking through the running time of The Last King of Scotland.  At the end of it my wife (girlfriend at the time), bless her, told them in her angry little way: "Thanks a LOT!" As she walked out of the movie at the end.  Sarcasm, sadly, doesn't really prevail over time.

There was a time very recently during a screening of Unstoppable, actually at that same theater I saw Black Swan, with a more extreme case of negligence.  Maybe it's another case of not expecting the expected, given that it's a stupid Tony Scott/Denzel runaway-train flick on a Sunday afternoon with a full house.  A rather nasty looking Hispanic gent sitting behind me with his girl (who didn't say much, either it's one doing most of the talk or the both of them back and forth), talking with a regular speaking voice.  Not even hushed tones, and in Spanish, and without much regard for what was going on on screen.

That there was yet *another* couple a few other seats to his left talking I just had to let go.  For this one, however, I got agitated enough (and the movie was distracting enough) that I had to raise my voice to him.  "Shut up!" I turned to say.  "YOU shut up!" he said back.  Schoolyard playground, huh?  "Fuck you," I said back. "Fuck you," he said right back. Finally off to see an usher - oh yes, of course, an adult!  By this time the person wasn't talking, so the usher had to leave.  The Vato gave me a rather nasty look as I sat back down, and there was silence for the rest of the running time (trying to focus on the silly runaway train was difficult as a portion of my conscious mind kept wondering if this man who got "busted" to a small extent would try and bust my ass after the screening).

I *wish* we left Kevin Home Alone!
Experiences with old people, I have to note again, are actually more frequent in movie-going terms than young people.  Or rather, to put it another way, old people talk the most, young people talk the loudest or most obnoxious game.  When one goes to a local art-house theater, or even just a Woody Allen movie or something period-looking, it's a game of chance as to whether there will be a decent screening to attend to with total focus on the film at hand.  Sometimes if you get two really old, senile fuckers they'll sit through a subtitled foreign film and one will say what is being said on the screen!  There comes a point, dear civilization, when you have to bite the bullet and stop going to the movies if it gets to that point.  If one has to do such a thing, do it once, in a very hushed tone.  Don't do it so I can hear every syllable, sans your teeth.

Other times it's stupid bullshit like commenting on a scene or an actor, or a dress.  And these aren't the robots from Mystery Science Theater talking.  It's the old fuckers who run the convenience store.  I get reminded with such incessant talking - and this includes after telling them to shush up, repeatedly sometimes -  of the Chris Rock bit about there never being a reason to hit someone "There's a reason to hit anybody.  There's a reason to knock an old man down a flight of stairs.  Just don't do it."  Oh, Chris, but it's so hard sometimes, so, so hard.

This isn't to say sometimes its not altogether unexpected: for a midnight screening of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, for example, I might expect a couple of rowdy people for a trip through Gilliam's Gonzo Journalism.  I didn't expect that a girl would sneak in an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, guzzle it through the early part of the movie, and go 'blurp-blurp' and ramble on throughout the running time, going "Aaaah!" when Raoul Duke takes his adrenochrome, and going on with all odds and ends of obnoxiousness.  Even her boyfriend seemed embarrassed and left midway through the movie and never returned, probably more of a douche-bag thing to do than to stay there.  Another case such as this occurred at a screening this past summer at a Midnight showing of Toy Story 3, where a group of three or four drunk (or just crackhead) degenerates kept going on through the movie - yes, even during that scene where we all teared up when Andy gives his toys away.  It would have been prudent of me to pick up some dirtbags by the shirt-collar, but by the end as they staggered out they were falling over one another too much anyway.

Perhaps these sound like extreme examples, but really I'm just scratching a surface.  I could even go on about this pervasive attitude of talking during a movie spreading out into professional quarters.  At a *critic screening* of the Woody Allen comedy Whatever Works last year, two girls showed up a few minutes late and didn't stop talking throughout the screening.  Once again my wife, bless her, had to say a few words after the movie ended, such as "Thanks so much for ruining our movie," along those lines.  The woman's response? "Oh, lighten up!"

Lighten up... that's stayed with me for a while now, even a year or so later.  How does one lighten up by being disrupted by the flow of a movie-theater experience?  Sometimes it can be more of a subtle approach at being an asshole.  If one hears someone making a snide remark behind one's back, perhaps mocking one's own laugh (this actually happened, the fuckers at a special Three Stooges/Looney Tunes screening over the summer).  Or if one hears a baby.  Oh, baby baby, baby baby, the Supremes would sing.  Hell, you might get a good baby.  Or you get the baby that is not wailing and howling too much (though on occasion there is that, and the abortion of a parent who won't get up to take the little fucker out of the theater), just enough that it's an annoyance.  This, admittedly, is acceptable for such G-rated fare that one might expect babies and little kids.  It's something else when it's during The Social Network.

I may have gone on too long about these personal experiences, but I have to try and direct a point somewhere.  It's not a singular, once-in-a-blue-moon thing.  And forget the texting and forget the cell-phones for a moment, it's connected with this but not quite as abhorrent (I would prefer my eyes being darted away from the screen by a little blue light than my ears getting interference from an old woman with her better senses left in Poughkeepsie blabbering on about this and that and the other bullshit).  With only a couple of exceptions, which I'll get to in a moment, there really is no excuse to talk during a movie.  If you have to laugh,  or cough, or gurgle, or must make a comment if all else has failed in your mind, fine, go ahead.  But the general rule, or at least the strict guideline is simple as this: Shut the fuck up.

Now pay attention class, you will get an oral exam.  Huh-huh, oral. 
I wish I could be more courteous about this, but the time has come my friends to talk of this.  Why does this go on?  Is it general inconsiderate tendencies in human beings?  Or is it a loss of general etiquette?  Why might a person who is perfectly capable and bright and maybe has degrees and a good job and kids lose their better senses and not know how to function in a setting?  This is a rash comparison, but what if someone in a restaurant just started to strip down and beat off into their Lemon Merengue Pie?  It would frighten the children, and no way that could happen!  Sure, that might happen in a movie theater for all we know, but at least it's dark and one has to look towards the uh... alright I'll stop.

Here's a bottom line on it, to reiterate: a movie theater is not your or your friend's living room.  And one of the reasons I so love going to a movie theater to see visions from filmmakers projected up high and with surround sound is that it's a controlled and darkened environment.  It's meant to be a space almost like a dream, and, for me anyway, more sacred than a church.  For some movie buffs (and I might as well include me) it is a church.  It can be very hollowed ground to step in and atune onesself for a couple of hours into a story.  The darkness of the setting is contrasted with the light and images cut together with sound, dialog and music to create an environment.  I'm reminded of the dream part after watching a documentary on the DVD for Inception, where this is discussed as part of the thing; you're there seeing a dream unfold, and it might be good, might be bad, but it's all a process.

And I expect that quiet, that connection like an umbilical chord when I'm with the movie there.  A living room or a bedroom or another place like that, even a more public outdoor place like if, say, a movie plays in Central Park or something, that's a different thing.  I'm in a mind-set and comfort zone that is different.  I have to expect disruptions to the experience, and I may cause them myself.  The phone might ring and I can't not answer it, as I could leave off (and should) in a movie theater.  My wife or on occasion my mother will come in to the room and ask for something, or I may have to go out and run an errand.  Or if it's late at night and I want to be stretched out in my underwear on the couch with my movie, only to have to be interrupted by the raccoon scurrying through the garbage.  Is there a choice to get up and clean it all up (after, of course, trying my best to hurl the rock at that cute little fucker), or just stay put and finish the movie?  The choice, ultimately, is mine.

And as a social experience it's different as well, however this is where some exceptions could come in.  During certain midnight movies - not the ones I mentioned precisely but others - it's almost an expectation that people will talk, to each other and back at the screen.  That's a different kind of church, it almost becomes like going into the black side of town and getting the Reverend Cleophus James from Blues Brothers and 'seeing the light' as it were.  When I go to see The Room, I want to have a good time as it's such a shitty movie other people will be the only way I can get through it.  When most people go to Rocky Horror Picture Show it has to be a communal experience, again, since the movie isn't very good but it's catchy and fun with the people singing along.  Or, in those exceptional cases, like a Ghost Rider or Wicker Man or any of those Nicolas Cage movies that have hilariously sucked shit through a straw the past several years, or other bad times like a Twilight movie or the first half of 2012, some talk to one-another's friends is... well, I don't know allowed, but I do it anyway.

But these are cases that have designated circumstances, and it's kind of required in a bizarre way by the nature of the film being projected, the time its playing, and the crowd.  The big problem, the elephant in the room, is perhaps conditioning over time.  As home-movie-going becomes more and more the order of the day, and as streaming and VOD gains popularity and (for some) the availability and price-range of making a home video system that is quite bad-ass and big and loud and like having a small movie theater in the home becomes more of a possibility, going back to that small dark room you've paid to enter with popcorn or drink or chicken and fries becomes a blurred line.  Why act different in one place from another?

Well, here's the difference: If you want to be completely silent during a movie in the comfort of your own home, fine, whatever, it's your home, your rules.  If you bring the same lack of respect, for other patrons and, 999.999 times out of a million, for the movie itself, into that theater, you've lost understanding of what it means to be in a theater like that.  Haven't commercials featuring adorable characters who melt in your mouth and not in your hand taught anyone anything (see below for more)?  It's never spoken or written, but entering in that theater, unless under such special circumstances, is like entering into a trust with the movie and the theater and other patrons.  You're here for a story to be told, for characters to be present.  You're entering into (forgive the pretentious Inception comparison again) a shared dream-space of a movie.  It's unqiue among experiences communally in human civilization- again in church you can speak (though usually it's frowned upon), or in court you can speak to one another in hushed tones, but in a movie it's something else.

And as Dog as my witness, I will not stop going to the movies, an experience that overall I prefer, even during the shitty times at low-rent theaters or ones with bad projection, over most times at home where I can be myself in full speak or interruption to the flow of things.  I've been going too long to change, and it's an experience that is dearer to me short of time spent with my wife.

Don't let this happen to you
So, what to do?

Well, a few tips:

1) There is a kind of level of ascension you can have when personally, one-on-one, telling someone to shut up.  Seinfeld on TV actually had this down, but only up to a point.  Yes, there is the half-turn of the head.  Or if the person persists, the full head turn.  I would add that by that point if talk persists (and it's more than likely as they're not looking at you looking at them unless, and I've fantasized about doing this, turning around completely and just staring at them staring at the screen), then it's time to break out the "Shh".  A simple "Shh" will do at first.  Sometimes, in fact, that does work.  If it persists, then it's time to break out a "Please!" or "Please keep it down", in a hushed tone for others convenience.  The aforementioned Unstoppable story was an extreme case, but if it does have to get to that, then it must be done.  Most hopefully if it persists one can see the scene from Scary Movie (yes, I'm quoting from that) will occur (also see below).

2) Get an usher.  This is a tact I don't do super-often as I a) don't want to step out of the movie if I don't have to, and b) regrettably they're not the most reliable lot.  They'll many times be off to the side somewhere or in their own conversations with their fellow employees.  I have friends who have worked as theater employees and do, in such cases, do come to see what's going on (sometimes they'll just randomly come in to the theater anyway, either to check on something, or very sometimes to check if someone has snuck in) and to possibly tell the person to be quiet.  But sometimes just getting up (as in the case of Unstoppable) to bring someone of good authority in is enough.  I've rarely seen it get so far to the point of it, but it's been said that an usher can in fact escort people out of a movie if they're being way too rowdy.  Such a scene did happen once at an AMC Empire- 42nd Times Square screening that is, ah, the redone Grindhouse circuit- where a whole bunch of asshole youngsters kept talking, and were finally escorted out of the theater, which only uh, fifteen minutes left to go in the run time.  But it did work.

Don't make me grape you out of this theater.  I am licensed.
3) Um... If that first tact doesn't help, you might have to resort to what this gentleman did during a screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where gunfire was resorted to.  Other acts of very rapid violence to happen, though one wouldn't want to be in a situation where it gets that far (my father in law tells stories of such things happening, though usually it's due to the Grindhouse-nature of the theater itself).   There have been times, such as the Toy Story 3 incident, where I've come close myself.

4) If you have friends who are talking during the movie, well... you have to handle this a little more delicately, and one of two ways.  First, let them know in a very nice over hot-cocoa chat that they need to stop doing what they're doing.  Say something dramatic, Jewish, like "You're killing your father doing this!"  Maybe they'll at least be courteous when they go to the movies with you (and in this case this is most embarrassing as *you* are the one who is being talked to and the persons in front and/or behind you can hear your friend and you're part of it now).  The Second thing is, more drastically, to just shush them during the movie.  Your friend may even be one of the wittiest, funniest people out there, a regular Crow or Tom Servo form MST3K (I have a friend who is just about the best person to watch movies with... at home, for example).  But if someone has to school them, it might as well be you.  As for the ultimate state of friendship, well....

5) There is a more realistic or pragmatic-sounding tip, which is to just do one's best to go to see a movie when one is least likely to have someone sitting behind or close-by who has the gift of badly-timed gab.  And yet I can't prescribe too highly to this one since one can't ever know when a talker will be around.  It could be a first showing of the day on a Tuesday, when most people are at work or at school, and there's still a chance there could be a talker, or a howler, or someone who is a blight on the scale of evolutionary biology.  There are, at best, times when it's lessor likely, and more likely, such as the first case of the Black Swan screening.  When one is in a packed house, all bets are off...

... and yet, those can be some of the most rewarding times at the movies, on the flipside of the coin.  I do love to be in a good crowd at a movie theater, and you know good crowds when you're with them.  Sometimes the packed-house ones can be the best, and people will know good theater etiquette (or the best they can have in this cell-I-pod-balls world), and it will be a fun screening due to an upbeat atmopshere, or if everyone clicks during a horror movie (one of the most unironically pleasing times in recent memory at a movie was the first Paranomal Activity movie last year, packed to the gills, everyone keyed into the movie, having fun with it, but not going so far over the line into the obnoxious realm.

I don't want to sound paradoxical when talking about talking at the movies.  Hell, there may have been times I've been guilty of it myself, but in such individual cases I can't even recall them here.  What has to be sought out, if movie theaters are to be kept with their unique place in the realm of the human experience, is something that works.  Maybe it's a manner of just simple ethics, courtesy, good manners, good taste, shit that needs to be burned into children's heads when they're young and to stick.  Or for the old, maybe there needs to be designated times for old-people-movie-going the way the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin has Baby-Movie-Days where it's all babies all the time... and no other time EVER at that theater. Smart bastards they are.

Bottom line, the last bottom line of this long-ass screed against this problem that is very important.  If you know your doing it, you need to just stop.  Hold your tongue.  Shut your trap.  Keep all of your thoughts in that stu-... no, wrong word, your lovely, intelligent, ham-sized pocket, so that when the movie is over, *then* you can speak to your heart's content.

So there.

1 comment:

  1. This was a fun, funny read... that runs opposite to my own thinking for the most part. At churches people respond to what's happening, they chant, it's a spiritual community thing going on. And more and more, with the growth of home DVD, that's how people have come to see the theater--as a separate experience from being alone at home, a place you go to be heard and hear others. This has its upside and downside, as you understand when you distinguish between the usual jackass audiences and "good audiences." But, ya know, that could just people. (Just a thought.) I love hearing others respond, especially friends who are into it the same way I am. You're right that there's a narcissistic aspect to all this though.

    Furthermore, the introduction of online talk has led to the mindless literalism and neurosis that is "LOL" and "LMAO" and "hahaha" that we invented as kids when we were young, insecure kids that needed to know how the other person responded. We should really be growing out of now but, like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, most of us grew up more tone deaf than previously generations. Or maybe it just shows a desperation for real connection with others that's lacking in contemporary society. (Or maybe that's assuming too much.) I don't know but I think the chatty theater is here to stay and the silent types will be banished to waiting for DVD or catching uncrowded matinees... or risking it with a live audible audience.