Wednesday, April 20, 2016
You likely heard about the kerfuffle last week when new AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron suggested setting aside auditoriums where texting on smartphones would be allowed. The Internet, as the Internet can, gnashed its teeth, and Mr. Aron retreated to his corner approximately 24 hours later, declaring his open-texting idea, which was merely floated, not truly proposed, never mind enacted, dead. I'm strenuously against texting in theaters; I'm strenuously against smartphones being turned on theaters; I'm so strenuously against this that I thought Mr. Aron’s proposal was actually appealing. Since people are going to use their phones in theaters anyway, giving them their own theaters, or even cordoning off a couple rows in back for the social media addicted, might prevent them from being sprinkled throughout the audience instead and annoying those who would rather watch a movie sans the text message. Nevertheless, texting comes across to me not as the problem, but as part and parcel to the problem.
This whole debate about movie-going etiquette isn’t new. Three years ago David Edelstein wrote a piece for Vulture bemoaning the new normal of texting & talking movie theater patronage which prompted desperate-to-be-a-provocateur Anil Dash to unleash a rickety screed telling movie theater shushers to shut it, and that because a movie theater is a public space it can and should be treated like any other public space, never mind that different public spaces have different societally agreed upon rules of etiquette. Matt Zoller Seitz, along with a host of others, dismantled Dash’s attention-demanding lunacy, writing that Dash “wants the world to be like his own living room, and is petulant that it isn’t.”
Nearly every theater I go to in Chicago anymore has come to resemble not so much movie theaters as I once knew them as living rooms I have to pay upwards of $15 to get into. There are tray tables for treats affixed to black leather reclining seats, often reserved, like you’ve called no take backs on your favorite plush easy chair. Sinking into them feels just like home, so it’s no wonder many people see fit to treat it that way, kicking off their shoes to relax (like the screening of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” I attended), or getting up and leaving and then coming back, and getting up and leaving and then coming back, and getting up leaving and then coming back, and getting up and leaving and then coming back (like the screening of “The Homesman” I attended) or scrolling through their illuminated phone so often they prompt a couple that has been openly conversing throughout to admonish them (like the screening of “Spectre” I attended) which was one of the more surreal WTF? moments in my ample moviegoing history. More than ever before people are clamoring for the home theater experience at the theater, and because more theaters are obliging, the more the once disparate venues have become virtually interchangeable, with people treating a night out the same as a night in.
Movie theaters have never been completely noise-free zones, of course, but all noise is not necessarily a problem. I think of the murmur that went up in the theater where I saw “Big Fish” at the sudden appearance of Steve Buscemi, as patron after patron after patron could be heard to whisper “It’s Steve Buscemi!” I think of the cheer – an honest to God actual cheer – that went up in the theater where I saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel” when Bill Murray first appeared. Even Dash recounts one of these moments, writing of a guy at a showing of “Transformers” who rose to his feet and shouted “Yeah!” at an excitable moment. Dash, however, incorrectly associates this moment with people texting or having running conversations when the “Yeah!” guy actually offers evidence of a movie-goer truly engaging with the experience. Texters and talkers, on the other hand, do precisely the opposite. The theater invites you to engage with the experience, unlike your living room where the lights are often up and distractions abound, and by making the theater more like the living room, the experience is gradually going extinct.
“We are vulnerable when we go to the movies, open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.” That’s how Alyssa Rosenberg once described going to the movies. It’s an eloquent analysis, but increasingly it sounds more akin to an implausible utopia. What Rosenberg depicts is meeting a movie at its level; more and more, people that go to the theater expect the movie to meet them at their level.