[Update: Some asshole wrote a response to this piece, about "Respecting Cinema in the Digital Age".]
There’s been a delightful debate the last few days about how to accommodate the increasing number of people who want the experience of watching movies in public theaters to fit in with the way they live the rest of their lives: Connected to others, and augmented or even mediated through digital technology.
Interestingly, the response from many creative people, who usually otherwise see themselves as progressive and liberal, has been a textbook case of cultural conservatism. The debate has been dominated by shushers, and these people aren't just wrong about the way movies are watched in theaters, they're wrong about the way the world works.
In any scenario of regressive resistance to cultural challenges, the responses usually cover a few common themes:
- These people are heathens! Why don’t they know how to behave?
- Back in my day, we had some manners!
- This happens because they are of a race/class that does not know how to behave. (These days, people say “acting ghetto” instead of “I don’t like black people and their culture”, or “white trash” instead of “I should be able to tell poor people how to act”.)
- This will lead to the downfall of society, and is clearly not a simple case of evolving social norms, but rather a symptom of moral decay.
- It is not enough that I be able to do things the way I prefer, but others must be prevented from doing things in the way that I do not prefer.
- There oughtta be a LAW!
This list of responses pops up all the time, whether it’s for arguing why women should not wear pants, or defending slavery, or trying to preserve a single meaning for the word “ironic”, or fighting marriage equality, or claiming rap isn’t “real” music, or in any other time when social conservatives want to be oppressive assholes to other people.
It's Not A Church
Did you know: There are millions of people for whom the experience of going to the movies in public is expected to be enthusiastic, not monastic? I’m one of them, and I’ve sat among my kind on the opening night of Showgirls (there were two Prince songs in the movie!) and at the debut of the first X-Men movie.
People who have fun at the movies can make almost any movie better. When the first Transformers movie came out, one of the key moments in the film is the first time the leader of the Autobots transforms in grand fashion from tractor trailer to giant robot, and pronounces “I am Optimus Prime”. At that precise moment, the guy next to me, a grown man in his early 30s, rose to his feet and shouted “YEAH!” while punching his fist in the air. I could see from his sheer emotion that he’d been waiting for this day, to hear this voice say those words, since the moment his stepdad walked out on his mother. This was catharsis. This was truly cinematic.
When I saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi in a theater with only a handful of others in the audience, there was considerably less of that kind of dramatic response, but I liked that film very much as well. It’s fine for there to be movies that encourage quiet contemplation, too. If someone had pulled out a phone during the screening, it wouldn’t have bothered me at all. Maybe someone did, and I didn’t notice.
Concern Trolling For Creatives
Here’s the thing: I get it. I hear the arguments the fussy film people are making. They’re all super, uniquely sensitive to light pollution, and the brightness of the screen is incredibly distracting to viewing the screen. (This is similar to the fussy people who don’t like smoking who can never just say they're annoyed by it, they always have to say they’re allergic to it. Every time. You know why I don't like your smoking? Because it's fucking dumb and terrible.)
The cinephiles apparently never consume any work without devoting every bit of their essence to honoring its creator. Presumably, they’re reading this in a web browser with only a single tab open, so as not to insult the thousands of people who made other websites, or to slight the countless programmers and designers who made websites and web browsers possible.
The shushers claim that not giving a film on the screen one’s undivided attention is apparently unspeakably offensive to the many hardworking scriptwriters and carpenters and visual effects supervisors who made the film. Yet these very same Hollywood artists are somehow able to screw up their courage, grimly set their jaws with determination, and bravely carry on with their lives even when faced with the horrible knowledge that some people will see their films in a pan-and-scan version on an ancient CRT screen of an airplane that has an actual jet engine running in the background behind their careful sound mix. Profiles in courage.
My own experiences of talking to people in the film industry is that they say something like, “there were some really interesting challenges in working on the effects in Iron Man 2, but the script is kind of a mess, so just wait for it to be on HBO”. This must be what it’s like to be on the side of the terrorists!
Caution: Public Spaces Contain Humans
Now hold on, hold on, don’t carefully craft your hate mail in Helvetica yet. Put down your moleskines and your Field Notes. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a way to watch movies in a quiet theater with no other lights or screens on. I think that’s fine. It’d be easier for you to have exactly the hermetically sealed, human-free, psychopathic isolation chamber of cinematic perfection that you seek at home, but if you want to try to achieve this in a public space, please enjoy the Alamo Drafthouse or other excellent theaters designed to accommodate this impulse. Do keep in mind: every other behavior that people want to enjoy without the risk of encountering other humans, we do in private.
The intellectual bankruptcy of this desire is made plain, however, when the persons of shush encounter those who treat a theater like any other public space. Here are valid ways to process this inconsistency of expectation:
- “Oh, this person has a different preference than I do about this. Perhaps we should have two different places to enjoy this activity, so we can both go about our business!”
- “It seems that group of people differs in their standard of how to behave. Since we all encounter varying social norms from time to time, I’ll just do my thing while they do theirs.”
- “I’m finding the inconsistency between our expectations about this experience to be unresolvable or stressful; Next time we’ll communicate our expectations in advance so everyone can do what she or he enjoys most.”
But shushers don’t respond in any of these ways. They say, “We have two different expectations over this public behavior, and mine is the only valid way. First, I will deny that anyone has other norms. Then, when incontrovertibly faced with the reality that these people exist, I will vilify them and denigrate them. Once this tactic proves unpersuasive, I will attempt to marginalize them and shame them into compliance. At no point will I consider finding ways for each of us to accommodate our respective preferences, for mine is the only valid opinion.” This is typically followed by systematically demonstrating all of the most common logical fallacies in the process of denying that others could, in good conscience, arrive at conclusions other than their own.
We Have You Outnumbered
Amusingly, American shushers are a rare breed overall. The most popular film industry in the world by viewers is Bollywood, with twice as many tickets sold in a given year there as in the United States. And the thing is, my people do not give a damn about what’s on the screen.
Indian folks get up, talk to each other, answer phone calls, see what snacks there are to eat, arrange marriages for their children, spontaneously break out in song and fall asleep. And that's during weddings! If Indian food had an equivalent to smores, people would be toasting that shit up on top of the pyre at funerals. So you better believe they’re doing some texting during movies. And not just Bollywood flicks, but honest-to-gosh Mom-and-apple-pie American Hollywood films.
Picture it, shushers: A billion brown people disrespecting gaffers by not staring, devout and mute, at the screen while Grown Ups 2 is playing. The injustice!
And you cannot do a damn thing about it. You can’t. You can’t make it go away, you cannot stop it, you can’t slow it down, you can’t wish for it to end, you can’t deny them the sheer carnal pleasure of straight up talking through a film. I’m not talking about a quick, quiet aside in a moment of duress during a screening, I’m talking about “Let’s discuss cricket scores!” during the baptism scene in the Godfather.
The horse will not go back in the barn.
It's Going To Be Okay
So, what can shushers do about it? First, recognize that cultural prescriptivism always fails. Trying to inflict your norms on those whose actions arise from a sincere difference in background or experience is a fool’s errand. Take a lesson from improv culture: You always have to say "Yes, and..."
Then, recognize your own privilege or entitlement which makes you feel as if you should be able to decide what’s right for others. There’s literally no one who’s ever texted in a movie theater who has said “Every other person in here must text someone, right now!” Because that would be insane. No one who would like to have wifi at a theater has ever said “Those who don’t want to connect should just stay at home!” Because they’re not trying to force others to comply with their own standards.
Surely, those who disagree will appeal to tradition, to convention. Like the flat-earthers or the climate change deniers, they’ll wish the strength of their emotion could overcome the inexorability of cold, hard facts.
But those of us who are okay with movie theaters sometimes having distractions are here. We’re the majority. We’re normal. Your bullying hasn’t worked. The only logical next step is to find a way to accommodate us. Or you could do that thing where you turn around and glare really fiercely—it seems to be working great!