Cinema Courtesy and The Knucklehead

When I told The Knucklehead last night (as we were heading to the movies) that I was going to write about movie theater etiquette today, he got this beseeching look on his face. “Please,” he said, “don’t rant.”

“I’m not going to rant,” I told him. “There are some things I want to say.”

“Don’t rant,” he said. As if, somehow, this were already a foregone conclusion. “Just, please, don’t rant.”

So I’m going to open with this story, instead. Then I’ll rant.

When I was in college, I attended a wee liberal arts school that prided itself in its music and religion programs. I was talking one day with a friend, a sacred music major, who offered me this: “I hate it when people talk through the organ preludes at church. That music has a purpose. It’s supposed to prepare you for worship, to give you some ‘space’ in which to leave the secular world and enter the sacred. You should be divesting yourself of the cares of your everyday life, not chatting them up. That music is to aid you to access the sacred, to mentally prepare to invite The Divine.”

I got all excited. “I know exactly what you mean!” I told her. “That’s how I feel when people talk through the trailers before a movie!”

She just looked at me, stunned. Like what she’d just said had been completely thrown away on this… this… yahoo. This troglodyte. As if she’d just cast her pearls before swine. No, no, I could see in her face, you just don’t get it at all.

But what she didn’t understand is that I did get it. I understood her feeling completely. She just didn’t understand that I felt as passionately about movies, in particular the movie theater experience, as she felt about worship. It’s the same reason I like to catch batting practice before the baseball game (but that’s another post). A movie theater is a place where fantastic, dramatic, magical things happen. Movies are not to be interrupted by the voice of the mundane. By going to a movie theater, especially today when so many film-viewing options are available, you are precisely choosing to enter a physical space in which the cares of the everyday are to be forgotten in preference for the spectacular. Common, banal human conversation rips you out of that space you paid to enter.

So, I’m going to rant, and then offer a solution. But I’m not going to rant at The Knucklehead. Nor at his peers, Generation Knucklehead.

I’m going to rant at you. And me. And everyone else of my generation (double-late thirties plus).

Because in general, I will take a movie theater full of teenagers and twenty-somethings over an audience of people my age and older any day of the week. Yes, there are exceptions, but I go to a lot of movies that span a wide variety of demographics. The Youth of Today, the “Kids These Days,” do you know what they tend to do? They make a lot of noise, even during the previews (which I will silently bear). But when the movie starts, they shut the hell up. And, yes, they turn off their cell phones. I understand that they don’t do this in class, or in church, or at the dinner table. But trust me, they turn them off at the movies. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all a civilized society can ask for.

Older folk, on the other hand, tend to talk straight through the film, and that astonishes me. Not because I expect better manners from a more senior generation; 20 years in nursing have taught me that age has no monopoly on either courtesy or churlishness. But I do expect that a generation that has not grown up with readily available DVDs, with the chatter of background television, would have more of a sense of paying attention to the film in front of them. Oddly, it’s the generation that grew up with YouTube and videos on Facebook, they of the abbreviated attention spans that seem better able to sit through a movie without fidgeting. It’s extraordinary! People my age seem to not understand that they are no longer in their own living rooms. They freely offer their opinions, in unwhispered tones, mind you, of how much they think the movie we’re all viewing sucks. Or, they’ll let us know they haven’t been paying attention by asking someone with them to explain each plot point and character as they unfold. Again, in a voice the entire theater can clearly make out. This does two things. It takes all of us right out of the mood, the spell, the world of the film. That we paid $9.00+ for. It also announces to a roomful of strangers that you aren’t quick enough to keep up with the rest of us. Why would you want to do either?

Again, this is not all older audiences, nor indeed most of the people in them. Most people my age and older are as annoyed by Beulah’s commentary as I am. But I am much more likely to hear those voices, and more of them, in an older audience than a younger one.*

I promised a solution, and it is this: When I first took The Knucklehead to a movie theater, he was three. The film and venue were carefully chosen; a matinee of a children’s movie at a second-run movie theater. Not that I expected bad behavior, but at least that was a place were it would be more easily understood, and less egregious. As we did when we went on any outing at that age, before we left the house, we reviewed the rules for behavior in that setting. I also tried to prepare him as much as I could for a new experience:

“The theater will be dark during the movie. It’s not like watching a movie at home, I can’t stop it if you have to go to the bathroom. If you do have to go to the bathroom, we’ll go, but that means you’ll miss a little bit of the movie. There will be other people there who want to see the movie. So we’re not going to talk, so we won’t disturb them. If you need something, whisper it in my ear. If you don’t like something, we can leave any time, but you need to whisper to me that we need to go so we don’t bother other people. You are allowed to laugh if something’s funny. You can go “WHOA!” if something awesome happens. But this isn’t a movie just for us. It’s for everybody. We’ll talk about the movie after it’s over.”

That turned out to be a damned fine speech. I haven’t had to repeat it since.

For people of all ages, give yourself a similar speech before you go to the movies. Prepare yourself to be an audience member in a public place. Emphasize the part where there will be other people there who want to see the movie. It’s not a private viewing. If you find yourself easily confused by non-linear storytelling, avoid the films that are like that. Reading about these films, online or in the newspaper will help prepare you for that, as opposed to picking a movie by its title or show time when you’ve reached the ticket window. If you find yourself in a movie like that, keep your questions to yourself until after the film. Or try to figure it out as you go. Or, leave. Anticipate situations that may come up that would disturb other people.

Perhaps you talk louder than you realize because your hearing isn’t what it was. That’s a common problem no matter what your age. If that’s the case, don’t treat the “SHHH!” coming at you as an attack. It’s not. Your voice is simply carrying further than you realize. Accept that and adjust. If you have hearing aids, but don’t like to wear them, bring them, with fresh batteries. You can slip them in during the previews and out during the closing credits, while the theater is dark, and no one will know. I promise, you’ll enjoy the film more that way yourself.

Here’s another hint for all ages: if you are whispering, the people sitting in the row directly in front of you can hear every word, and it’s immensely distracting.

I’ll make a deal with you. If you stop talking during the film (and I do mean no talking at all), I will grudgingly concede my right to silence during the previews. That’s huge for me. I don’t mean the Coke ads and such as you’re walking in; chat away during them, by all means. No, it’s the previews themselves that I consider to be part of the film experience. The prelude, as I mentioned before. Perhaps it’s because I’m older. When I was a kid, the previews of coming attractions were the first and only look you were getting of what you had to look forward to. It’s where you found out there was a new James Bond or Pink Panther or Burt Reynolds film coming out that you had to see. I still get excited by previews, even if they’re of films I’ve been aware of for a year or more.

But, I’m an adult. I understand that not everyone feels the way I do about previews. I hear people complain all the time about the number of trailers before a film. I do not understand that at any level (if you don’t love movies, why are you at the movies?!). But I accept it as a reality. I understand that I must make concessions of private joys for the greater good. So if you must (gulp!), please, continue your conversation about how the pretzels at this Auntie Anne’s aren’t as good as the pretzels at the Auntie Anne’s at the other mall, and didn’t they change their recipe recently and when’s the last time you saw an Orange Julius at a mall, and OMG they had one over at that other place, it’s right next to the Pottery Barn where that really creepy assistant manager works, you know the one that’s always asking for Fanta for god’s sake at the food court like it’s still 1971 and hasn’t she even heard of caramel macchiatos anyway, right through the new Star Wars trailer. Please. Be my guest.**

But in exchange, please. Kindly. Shut your gob during the movie.

Thank you.


*I have found one exception to the otherwise absolute rule of not talking during a movie. When I was living in or near cities, I’d seek out the small theaters showing Hong Kong Kung Fu movies, which almost exclusively were in the less tourist-friendly parts of town. For some reason, those films and theaters attracted audiences that loved to yell back at the screen. You know, offering characters advice and whatnot. Once I got used to that, it became part of the fun. Oddly, instead of pulling you out of a film, it had the opposite effect of pushing you into it.

**My head just exploded right now, writing this.

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