Wednesday, December 31, 2008
At The Movies
Watching WALL-E in Blu-ray on a 42-inch HDTV is enough to make me consider giving up seeing movies at the theater. But only momentarily. Sure, the modern home-theater experience provides a lavishness of detail that goes beyond the local multiplex, but there’s still something to be cherished from the communal experience of the theater. Comedies are made funnier by laughter, thrillers are made scarier by screams, adventures are made more exhilarating by cheers and dramas, almost invariably, are intensified by silence. Had I waited to see WALL-E on DVD, I suppose I might have been even more wonderstruck at the apocalyptic beauty of that little trash-compacting robot’s dusty tread-prints. But in the process I would have missed out on the thrill of feeling a packed theater struck still with angst over the fate of the main character.
That brings me here: We often pretend that the movie-going experience is universal, but the truth is otherwise. The first 2008 movie I attended was Rambo on a Sunday at 10 am – the movie, day and time selected precisely because I was curious to see what kind of person goes to see Rambo on a Sunday at 10 am. The answer, it turned out, was this kind of person; I was the only one in the theater. Had I seen Rambo amidst a packed opening-night crowd, I doubt that Sylvester Stallone’s ignominious victory lap (what do you call an encore that no one wanted?) would have been elevated to high art. But it might have been made rousing thanks to a chorus of cheers or jeers. Instead, playing merely for little old me, the movie seemed as unnaturally large and limp as Stallone’s HGH-mangled face. Believe me: unless you saw Rambo on the big screen in a theater populated only by you, we didn’t see the same movie.
I mention this today because of James Joseph Cialella, the 29-year-old Philadelphia man reported to have shot a fellow moviegoer for talking during a Christmas Day showing of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. I hope I needn’t make it clear that Cialella’s actions are indefensible at least, and possibly also genuinely deranged. But I’d be lying if I said that the headline “Man shoots talker at movies” didn’t tickle me. Year after year, audience misbehavior and inconsiderateness seems to increase so that now I almost exclusively attend movies at times unlikely to draw a crowd. Most often, the strategy works. The downside is that in a sparsely attended screening, it only takes one asshole to ruin the entire experience, and there are fewer people in the audience to hush the person into respectfulness. Alas, some people seem to confuse an empty seat next to them with a sound barrier.
Before I go on sounding all uptight, I should mention that two of my all-time favorite movie-going experiences involved college-town audiences that were positively raucous. In 1995, it was seeing Four Rooms and feeling the audience’s initial fidgety boredom shift into full-throated cheers by the end – a heroic effort by an audience that was determined to be entertained. In 1997, it was seeing Scream 2 at a free on-campus screening during finals week and hearing cheers of approval over the opening scene (two friends heading to see a scary movie, with one of them complaining that he’s supposed to be home studying), which inspired participatory yelling the rest of the way (“Don’t go upstairs!”). In these instances, the crowd got so loud that I often couldn’t hear myself laughing, never mind the movie. But that was the point.
Other times, not so much. There’s no reason anyone should ever get shot at the movies, sure. But there’s also no reason anyone should ever talk on the phone, even if it’s to answer a phone that should have been turned off in the first place by saying: “I can’t talk! I’m at a movie!” There’s no reason anyone should ever send or read a text message. There’s no reason anyone should ever tear open a box of candy during the opening credits when there have been 30 minutes of noisy ads and trailers beforehand. There’s no reason why anyone who misses one line of dialogue should cause his or her neighbors to miss five lines more by loudly asking: “What did he say?” There’s no reason why anyone should attempt to show off by announcing who the killer is five seconds before the detective is about to tell us (guess what: we all figured it out 10 minutes ago … shut up!). There’s no reason why anyone seeing a classic movie at a revival house should recite the dialogue along with the main character. And if any of these things happen, there’s no reason I should have to tell you to shut up once. And there’s certainly no reason I should have to tell you to shut up twice.
Poor movie behavior is sometimes as memorable as the film itself. I still haven’t forgotten the dolts behind me at Forrest Gump who talked through the movie as if it required footnotes (“It’s the Watergate break-in!” “Those are the letters from Jenny!”). Nor have I forgotten the disruption caused by a woman at Schindler’s List who got up from her middle-of-the-row seat halfway through the film to go get her popcorn bucket filled. If a Holocaust movie can’t make you lose your appetite, what can? Then again, Schindler’s List also provided me with my most cherished movie-going moment: watching perfect strangers hug one another after the credits. Over the years, I’ve sat with countless audiences that have been reduced to tears, but that’s the one and only time I’ve seen a movie inspire immediate acts of compassion. It was touching.
I know all movie-going experiences can’t be special. (This year my favorite, beyond the aforementioned WALL-E, was the supercharged atmosphere of two opening-weekend showings of The Dark Knight.) But I’d settle for uneventful. So if you’re an obnoxious movie-goer, please stop. And if you’re not sure whether you’re an obnoxious movie-goer, consider what The Office creator Ricky Gervais said about Michael Scott, the tragically self-unaware boss played by Steve Carell: “Everyone has known a Michael Scott. If you haven’t known a Michael Scott, it means you are Michael Scott.” Indeed.
Put in movie-going terms: If you’ve been to the movies lately and haven’t been entirely appalled at the behavior of someone nearby, you might very well be part of the problem. Or else you’re just far more patient than I am. And I think I’m pretty damn patient. Still, it’s probably a good idea that I don’t start carrying a gun, for everyone’s sake.