A few years back, the jerk sitting in front of me at the second Kill-Bill film announced a surprise plot point to the theater before it happened. I still loved the film, but his talking ruined a moment for me, a moment that my favorite working director Quentin Tarantino was building towards. And years later, I've never forgotten it.
I buy into the Academy Awards and their "movies are magic" sentiments. This year, it seemed like the Academy made a concerted effort to remind us that attending movies is a communal, quasi-religious experience. Actor after actor recounted the thrill of seeing a film with a large audience. In the past six months, my movie-watching experience has deteriorated so much that I feel the need to challenge the Academy's love of community. What happens when going to the movies makes me hate people?
Don't talk during the movie. Don't talk, don't talk, don't talk.
My wife and I went to the Sundance Theater in downtown Houston, arguably the best, most artsy, most high class movie screen in town (you even have the option to pick your seats out online before hand). We went to see the Iranian film A Separation; Ebert gave it best film of the year, and at the time it was up for Best Foreign Film (which it won) and Best Screenplay. The theater was partly full. Since it was subtitled, many audience members felt the need to read the subtitles out loud or comment on the movie as it went along. And this was a theater of older people; no way can we blame this on the teenagers. There were none there.
When an older couple starts reading the subtitles out loud to A Separation, I'm at a loss of what I do beyond whispering "Shhh!!!" frequently, increasingly in volume, as well as the occasional turning of the head and silently staring to indicate, "Are you kidding me?" I'm a high school English teacher, as is my wife, so we are accustomed to having to wait for our students' attention. In the classroom, I can use the silent stare, heightening the awkwardness of the moment, or sometimes I can use the power of peer pressure with others at that table. I cannot do those things in a dark theater. In talking about this annoyance after the film, I wondered if there is a fundamental ignorance about behavior at foreign films with subtitles. Do some people generally think that since the film isn't in English they do not have to be silent? That it is okay to read the subtitles out loud to their partner? That they can have conversations about the plot while I'm trying to read the subtitles, listen to the actors' tones, processing the action and camera movement on screen ? I love going to the movies, and I always have. However, at what point does my enjoyment of the movie disintegrate because of the distracting behavior of others around me?
Last night, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, seeing Turner Classic Movies' presentation of Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront introduced by the luminous Eva Marie Saint. After a tepid banter from the TCM host and some engaging, wonderful stories by Mrs. Saint, a gorgeous black and white print was projected upon the big screen at the MFA-H. This screen has been rated the number one screen in Houston. However, the audience was generally older, and the couple next to me had to continually interrupt the film to nudge each other to ask "Who is this? Is that Charley's brother? What is going on?" throughout the movie. A gentleman behind us towards the back row spent several minutes rustling through a loud plastic bag during Brando's infamous walking through the park while picking up the glove sequence, snapping my concentration and forcing me to look back multiple times. Phones only went off twice, which I guess is a pretty good record in a movie theater in 2012. At one point during the interview before the film, an older gentleman clearly unfamiliar with his iPad was using it to film the interview and then proceeded to accidentally play the video while Mrs. Saint was still speaking, only to endure the wrath of those around him with a plethora of "Shhh!"' and requests to "Stop that!" Yet, when the film started, the noises increased, and those people who were so bold and quick to police the audience during the interview portion of the evening melted away into the darkness and said nothing.
Where does this come from? Does some of it arise from our culture's increasing technological
fragmentation? Meaning, I'm writing this column right now with two computer screens open, iTunes running behind this screen, my facebook page and my goodreads page both open in case I choose to take a break. I've got headphones in as well. There are some movies at home that my wife and I make conscious efforts to watch without our laptops open or the newspaper spread before us, but I know that my viewing of Margin Call yesterday was partly limited because I didn't give it my full attention. Emailing, adjusting excel spreadsheets, and typing Spring Break assignments means that less of my eye is watching the screen. When we need to interrupt, we pause the movie, and we always have the ability to go backwards if we need to repeat something. As a society, are we so unfamiliar with focusing on just one thing (not checking our iPhones with a thousand things to distract us: sports scores, email-both work and personal, imdb, blogs, games), that when a movie in a theater dims the lights, commands us to power down our phones, are we really unable to focus on just one thing? Does the intensity and singularity of that focus make us uncomfortable?
I don't want to stop attending movies. I don't want to create scenes that get me kicked out of my favorite theaters. I don't want to only watch film at home by myself or with my wife on our television. I like the ritual of the movies: the previews, the popcorn, the comfortable seats (at least at Sundance), the staying until all the credits are done, the sight of Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis's face on the gigantic screen. And part of the joy of seeing a film in a theater for me is that I know that I am dedicating the next two hours or so to immersing myself in this world completely. Like it or not, I'm going to live in Scorsese's vision of Paris while watching Hugo; there is no escape route or screen to look away at while watching the film. Like it or not, a film like A Separation is going to put me into the grueling judicial, class, religious, and family systems of modern day Iran without a breather, without a break or intermission, and that relentlessness is part of the method and meaning behind the film.
So, my push for the Academy next year is to repurpose their message to American audiences. Instead of trying to build up a non-existent (or seldom existent) communal experience of watching a film on the big screen, they should rather promote the idea of watching movies as a sacred experience, comparable to attending the theater, the ballet, an interview, a lecture, etc... Audiences need to be reminded of the decorum of attending a film; with prices skyrocketing for tickets and so many options for viewing at home, the focus needs to be on the experience being pristine and unpolluted by talking, cell phones ringing, texting during the movie, or other distracting noises. My wife and two close friends saw On The Waterfront for the first time last night, and that's an amazing cinematic experience. I saw it in 1994 in Mr. Wetta's Composition, Literature, and Film course at York High School as a junior, on a tiny screen on laserdisc, and the class of juniors and seniors were silent during it, though my teacher did have to break it up into 4-5 parts to show on different days, as well as have brief discussions, things to look for before or after viewing. We were trained to write during the film, take notes, and then to have the discussion afterwards. I saw the film the first time in silence with solemn appreciation. My wife and two close friends had to fight the distractions all around them: talking, rustling, phones, etc... In short, the audience polluted Kazan's classic film for them.
I hate people who talk during the movie, and this isn't a diatribe against teenagers. How can we educate America (especially grown-up America) that reading subtitles out loud, informing your spouse who is who, answering your phone, texting, and the various other indignities are ruining the film going experience? And how do I do it without getting thrown out of a theater?