OK, let me explain: I’m not talking about the part where going to the movies becomes an almost religious experience, taking us into other worlds and others’ lives. That part has never sucked and will never suck. I’m talking about the part where you want to watch the movie but somebody two rows back won’t shut up and somebody three seats over keeps crinkling that wrapper and OK, who brought the baby?
Yesterday, Matt Singer of IFC.com posted “A Movie Theater Etiquette Manifesto”, and it reiterates that vintage mantra: Going to the movies isn’t as fun as it used to be, so these days I just stay home.
Side note: The article’s most talked-about point wasn’t found in any of the “don’t be rude” points – it was the final point, the maybe-jokey-maybe-not bit about how it’s OK to leave a mammoth mess behind when you leave. As a punchline, it flops. Since the article was posted, debate over proper trash etiquette wound up overshadowing the rest of the Singer’s points, and the author has since amended the article with a wimpy “I want to be a lazy slob but have been shamed into saying I shouldn’t be” apology. (Come on, man, do you really need half the internet to explain to you why not picking up after yourself at the multiplex is a dick move?)
But back to the main points in Singer’s petition, which spring from the basic give-and-take of community, reflecting both common sense (sit down and shut up) and a lifetime of experience in movie crowd negotiation (don’t sit too closely to me unless you have to). Barring point eight, there’s nothing there that will start any arguments. Turn off my phone? I can do that.
A second look at the introduction, however, reveals a tired argument that bores – and irritates – me. “What happened to the movie theater as a haven, a refuge from the problems of the outside world?” Singer writes. “These days going to the movies is a more stressful experience than real life.” Key words: “What happened to” and “These days.” It’s a complaint that never goes away: Going to the movies was never as annoying as it is now. It’s probably the only “get off my lawn” complaint anyone of any age can make and not make it seem like you’re a bitter fogey railing against The Kids These Days. That’s because everybody has a multiplex horror story. You’re not a fogey if everybody can relate.
The latest model of this complaint – everyone’s got their cellphones out during the show, and nobody gives a damn – goes back a decade or so, increasing every time phones are given a new reason to become even more prevalent, what with texting and Tweeting and Angry Birds. The problem’s increase can be charted in the evolution of “welcome to the show” reels: first it was just “shut up,” then it was “shut up and turn off your pager,” and now it’s “shut up and turn off your phone (and your pager, too, if you’re visiting from 1994).” Cellphones’ relative newness provide an easy excuse. After all, they weren’t there when you were a kid, so that must be the problem.
Except, well, the problem was still there when you were a kid, you just didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. Going back a couple decades, we see the theaters are still a little too noisy and irritating, but this time, home video is to blame, right? This excuse remains in use today (updated for modern times, of course; a friend recently blamed Netflix instead of VHS), although not as much as it in the glory days of the video store, that neighborhood scourge that showed people how to watch movies in the privacy of their own homes, which clearly led to people forgetting to be quiet once they’re in public, because everyone who is not you is a dolt who can’t tell the difference between their living room couch and a multiplex chair.
I’ve never bought into that argument. Many of my friends – and, no doubt, many of yours – know when it’s OK to chatter and when it’s not, and they’re adult enough to understand how different social situations call for different behaviors. And watching Top Gun at home instead of at a theater isn’t enough to drastically alter some personalities from mild-mannered to oafish; the folks who ruin the movies for you have a rudeness that’s born, not made. (OK, so rudeness is actually made, not born – bad parenting and bad examples create the hordes of movie texters – but the phrase was too good not to use, and you get my point anyway.)
Granted, watching movies at home (via home video, television, computer, tablet, or smartphone) has diluted the uniqueness of film – it’s something we can see anywhere, any time; a trip to the cinema is not required. Add in commercials before the feature (which threaten to turn the multiplex experience to little more than watching a really big television) and the always fashionable “quest for justice” argument against high ticket and concession costs (“At these prices, I can do whatever I want!”), and rude people can create an excuse to care even less.
But excuses don’t change the fact that rude people always have been rude and always will be, and polite people always have griped about them and always will. And I mean always. Consider this clip from John Cleese’s classic television special How to Irritate People. It’s the grannies, not the teens, causing the trouble this time, but the sentiment is the same: going to the movies is a pain in the ass.
How to Irritate People is from 1968, long before home video dropped in to ruin everything. But we can go back even further, to 1937, and Robert Benchley’s short film A Night at the Movies. (It’s unavailable to watch anywhere online, although you can find it as an extra on Warner Brothers’ DVD for A Day at the Races.) Between ticket troubles, seat-kickers, and a coughing fit (Benchley himself does the coughing, because sometimes in life you get to be the jerk for someone else), the joke remains the same: going to the movies is a pain in the ass, even back in 1937 when talkies weren’t even a decade old yet.
A Night at the Movies was nominated for an Academy Award (for Best One-Reel Short Subject), suggesting that even way back then, it held some serious truths about the ups and downs and way downs of a trip to the cinema. The problem isn’t with cellphones or with home video, it’s with people. Going to the movies sucks because it means doing something in public, and in public is where you’ll run into people dumber than you.
Of course, knowing all of this doesn’t give you the right to send that text. Now sit down and shut up, the previews are about to begin.