The night that I went to see Les Miserables is a night that will live in infamy. Not because of Russell Crowe’s total lack of emotion, or the fact that the movie went on, and on, and on, and ON. No, it was because of the people behind us. A pack of teenagers who felt it necessary to talk, sing, and stamp their feet, throughout the ENTIRE film. Who laughed when Javert committed suicide, and found the scene where Fantine turns to prostitution and has sex with a sea captain hilarious (because forced sex is so effing funny?). One of my friends happened to draw the seat nearest to these underaged dingbats, and so was forced to listen to most of what they felt like sharing. Not only were they behaving totally inappropriately for the subject of the film, they were behaving totally inappropriately as human beings in a civilized society.
This worrying trend in cinemas has been remarked upon before. Some movie theatres have taken steps, establishing a no-tolerance policy on talking or texting. Most major cineplexes do not crack down on these self-important assholes who think that their enjoyment of the film can come at the cost of everyone else’s. I have never witnessed cinematic-related violence, although there are always those stories of people who have told others to shut up, only to get into fights. I did once tell a group of teeny-boppers to ‘shut the fuck up’, but that was very ineffective. The fact is that there’s very little we can do about these people if cinemas don’t want to enforce their silence by ejecting them. No one wants physical violence, and calling them names only gives them the attention they so badly want. The most success I’ve ever had was when I actually went off on one of my friends for talking to me during Super 8. And really I just wound up feeling very, very bad.
But here’s the horrible part – the one that I don’t want to admit to, and that will undoubtedly horrify some of my readers. Those teenagers? I have been them. When I was a teenager, I laughed uproariously all the way through Van Helsing, commenting on the film with my friend as it happened. During Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I’m fairly positive that my entire group of friends sounded high. I groaned through Season of the Witch, and that was just a bit more than a year ago. I now realize that perhaps my behavior interrupted other people’s enjoyment of the film
Movies used to be very much about audience participation. The earliest film houses were basically free-for-alls, a place for the community to meet after dinner; to talk to your neighbors, discuss the films being shown, get your news, see some cartoons. Places of relaxation, as well as places to pick up guys and girls. People would comment on what was happening on the screen – howl with laughter, hoot with derision, walk out if it got boring. No one sat down and watched a film in dead silence. It was an active, communal event.
Communal film going can still be found, but it has become an increasingly personal experience. The Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showings are all about audience participation. One of my favorite cinematic experiences was in a showing of Fast and Furious in a Brooklyn neighborhood theatre. There was a lot of advice being shouted at the characters on the screen and it was more entertaining than the film itself. But I was likewise impressed by the reverent silence that accompanied a pre-release screening of Shutter Island to a gaggle of film students and critics.
Movies are neither meant to be enjoyed in a vacuum, nor are they meant to be wholly interactive. The point is to gauge the audience. To not be selfish. To not assume that our running commentary gives others the same enjoyment it gives us, but equally to accept that people will laugh, scream, shout, even applaud. I have to admit that teenagers tend to catch the brunt of public anger – we were all obnoxious little bastards, once upon a time – but I have been in movies where the rudest people were adults, constantly checking their iPhones or asking their neighbors to explain salient plot points they missed when they were checking their iPhones. There is no place that that is acceptable.
The key word in all of this is respect. When my friends and I went to see Finding Nemo for the first time, we were the only ones in the theatre actually laughing at the jokes. Leaving, a mother made a lovely passive-aggressive comment about ‘respecting others’. I don’t know if we really were all that loud, but we were expressing honest emotion at the events unfolding before us. We were laughing at something that was funny.
Laughter should not be frowned upon in comedies, screams should not be frowned upon in horror films. Film is an emotional medium as much as music or theatre, and when we’re in a cinema we are sharing an experience with other people. Those other people will eat, laugh, talk, get up, walk around, scream, gasp and stomp their feet. But we should expect them to as respectful to us and our enjoyment as we are of theirs.
A friend of mine once said that the cinema is a sacred space and needs to be treated as such. As far as I’m concerned, she’s right. Sacred services can mean total silence, it can mean call and response, and it can mean a revival meeting. But I don’t go into your church and talk on my phone, now do I?