Let’s try not to be a movie theater annoyance — of any kind

When at the movies, try not to be a Gremlin.
When at the movies, try not to be a Gremlin.

Today the cinephile portion of the internet is enraged over a piece by Anil Dash that defends people who talk or fiddle with their bright phones during movies. His argument (or part of it)? That shushers are outnumbered by the rabble, and besides, Americans should see how nuts it is in theaters in India, where such social norms are exponentially more lax.

On that last point: Fair enough — although it’s worth pointing out that Bollywood films tend to be far, far longer and comprised of more filler than their Hollywood counterparts, thus encouraging an “interactive” (or at least multitasking) atmosphere.

In fact, there’s several other false equivalencies running through Dash’s arguments. The most glaring is his conflating people who get loudly and/or physically worked up during movies and people doing anything but paying attention to the films. He cites an anecdote from seeing the first “Transformers” about a guy who, when Optimus Prime first introduces himself — voiced by the same guy who voiced him on the ‘80s cartoon show, no less — jumped out of his seat and shouted “YEAH!” Such enthusiasm is, admittedly, contagious in its naked zeal, and does lend to an exciting, unified atmosphere — even, and sometimes even especially, if the movie’s kind of crap.

But did said guy then start texting or tweeting or playing a game? Did he turn to whoever joined him at the movies to hold a very loud conversation about something unrelated, like sports or Proust? Was he hostile towards people asking him to not be a total and unrelenting distraction? If so, the story would be much different.

A movie theater need not be a monastic haven from noise (that is, the noise not from often noisy films). Hooting and hollering during certain movies is a form of engagement. Talking loudly about things unrelated to the movie — or, honestly, even about things in the movie — is disengagement.

This distinction is understood by the guys who run Exhumed Films, a collective devoted to screening old horror films (on film). Before each screening — double and triple features, plus annual 12- and 24-hour marathons, of history’s finest (and not so finest) genre sleaze — they inform their audience that applauding and hooting is fine, and is in fact encouraged, because that makes for a fun group experience. Talking to each other loudly, or even in loud whispers, is not allowed. Nor is, for that matter, shouting quips at the screen a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. (“You’re not that funny,” they helpfully remind their audience.)

This makes for the ideal movie experience for the kinds of trashy fare they screen — one where it’s OK to join in collective fun, but not to try to make your own self known through bad jokes or audible convos. When it comes to movie theater etiquette, it’s OK to be part of a crowd; it’s not OK to be an individual.

(On the off-chance this isn’t obvious, it’s worth pointing out, as Dash does, that some movies do require the monastic treatment. One shouldn’t fist-pump during Bela Tarr’s seven-hour “Satantango,” though it offers too few opportunities for such behavior.)

One last sloppy conflation Dash makes is assuming that it’s only the two few shushers who are angry at rambunctious movie viewers. This ignores that many people are either willing to put up with annoying patrons or afraid of unpleasant, even violent, backfire from those being shushed. If there was no threat of starting a verbal fight, or that one might only make the situation worse, there might be more people willing to quietly repudiate distracting moviegoers.

One thing no one should do when it comes to battling annoying audience members is yelling at them as loud as possible. Picture the scene: You’re sitting in a theater as a movie runs. Suddenly, you’re shocked out of your complacency by someone screaming at the top of their lungs “BE QUIET!!” or “TURN OFF THAT PHONE!!” Like most of the people in a possibly massive movie theater, you may have had not heard the person making the noise or seen the person with the bright phone screen out in the open. But suddenly you’re aware of it — or, more accurately, aware of some self-righteous hothead screaming. Thanks to this vigilante viewer, everyone, not just a few people, have been taken out of the movie. What’s more, now there’s a hostile element in the atmosphere. Getting back into the movie will likely prove cumbersome for everyone, not just the person moved to taking the law into his or her own hands.

This person has decided to essentially destroy the village in order to save it. If a good rule of thumb in movie theaters is to not be an a—hole, then creating a disturbance bigger than the disturbance that caused it is being an a—hole.

If you must upbraid someone, please keep to shushing. Its effect on those not directly involved in the annoyance is minor and brief, if it’s heard at all. Then again, let’s not pretend it’s not satisfying to fantasize about going medieval on movie theater irritants (clip not quite NSFW).


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