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.


Jess said...

I know what you mean! I've never enjoyed a movie experience more than seeing "There's Something About Mary" with 200 other classmates at college. Helped even more when they actually mentioned the college name in the movie. The place went nuts. Oh, and seeing "The Santa Clause 2" on a Saturday at 2pm by myself but with a theater crowded with the pre-teen set.

Richard Bellamy said...

Glad to see a new post on the cooler! I've missed you!

I certainly share your rage against the current barbaric behavior of people who go to movies - I won't call them movie-goers, for that is a term reserved for cinephiles. Last night at my second viewing of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" a guy in the front rows (he thought he was far enough away) carried on a cell phone conversation in a normal tone - no attempt at a whisper - and then he got up to continue his conversation closer to the screen - as though that would help.

As for the home theater versus going to the movies - I'm too addicted to the big screen; there's something Pavlovian in the peaceful state that is elicited in me by a big screen filling up with the production logo that starts a movie. It's a peaceful withdrawal into the world of the movie that isn't completely captured for me at home. As for Blu-ray clarity; I'm fine with the clarity of a Terrence Malick image cast on the big screen. I made a point of looking at Blu-ray in the store and then going to the movies and really scrutinizing the image. Not the same. Not as clear - not like an HD image on a Mac. But I don't need it to be clearer than the big screen can produce.

I need the escape of being locked into watching a movie once the film starts rolling. I've been to the movies six times since 12/25 and it's been great therapy. I know no family member will interrupt me. I know I won't be tempted to pause the film to check my e-mail. I know the dog won't bark. I know at least my phone won't ring.

Craig said...

I keep experiencing a phenomenon that I'm inclined to think the Fates have directed solely at me: Every time I go the movies, there is always a loud person or couple who shows up late and takes a seat directly behind me. Naturally, arriving 10-15 minutes after the movie has started tends to confuse the average moviegoer as to what's going on, and these people express their bewilderment audibly. It doesn't matter where I sit; I even once claimed a back-row seat and ended up with a person standing behind me for most of the showing. This always happens. It makes me feel magnetic, and not in a good way.

That said, I do prefer seeing comedies with a crowd, for the reasons you mentioned. Dodgeball was a lot of fun. I also remember an incident before a showing of Hulk (not intentionally a comedy) where a kid maybe about 10 years old freaked out during the Coming Attractions and his parents had to take him out. He was terrified, and the Hulk hadn't even showed up yet.

There's a classic Simpsons episode where Homer talks throughout a movie: "What'd he say?....What'd he say when I said 'What'd he say?'...."

Jason Bellamy said...

Jess: It really is amazing how a good audience can elevate just about any film into a good time. I also remember seeing "Hard Target" with Cooler buddy Brew. It wasn't supposed to be a comedy, but we laughed our asses off. Good times.

Hokahey: That story is unreal. Honestly, why do people go to movies if they plan to sit and talk on the phone? And why can't people check out for a while? I've watched some people with their phones silenced let a call go to voicemail and then check the message afterward. I mean, really, it couldn't wait? Pathetic.

Craig: You and I must be made of the same metal. I always tell people: "If someone walks in just after a movie has started, he/she WILL sit directly behind me and he/she WILL be a total asshole." Never fails. I mean, except for the cases when the asshole sits down right next to me, like the parents who took their not-ready-yet daughter to "Doubt." They were five minutes late, spent the first 10 minutes after that explaining the movie, and then 10 minutes later the mother leans over and asks: "Do you like the movie?" Well, what if her answer had been, no. Would they have left?

Ed Howard said...

This is why I don't get out to a theater very much. It doesn't help that the one and only decent arthouse theater on Long Island seems to attract, for unfathomable reasons, an audience with a median age stretching into the mid-80s, who will seemingly go to see literally anything playing there regardless of what it is. The result is packed theaters filled with people who have no idea what odd, unsettling, or difficult movie they're about to see. Sometimes this is amusing, like the old lady who stormed out of The Last Mistress in a huff, dragging her disappointed husband behind her, after seeing Asia Argento lick blood off her lover. Other times, the perpetual talking and confused mumbling is simply annoying.

My favorite bad moviegoing experience of the past year, though, was seeing Be Kind Rewind with a group of teenage girls behind us. One of them must've had the mental fortitude of a particularly slow-witted rodent, because she just could. not. understand. ANYTHING. about. the. movie. Seriously, if you have to keep asking your friends to explain things to you every two minutes during a totally straightforward silly comedy, how do you go about the rest of your day? How do you tie your shoes in the morning for God's sake?