Last night, my wife, her best friend and I went to see St. Vincent, the new Bill Murray dramedy, at a local casino cineplex. (Because we live in Las Vegas, and 95 percent of our movie theaters are inside casinos, which is an annoying topic for another time.) It was a 10:25 p.m. show on a Saturday, and although we didn’t expect it to be packed, we certainly didn’t expect the three of us to be the only people in the theater. (I guess everyone else was seeing Dumb and Dumber To or some other masterpiece?) But we were, and you know what? It was the best moviegoing experience I’ve had in a long time. Not just because the movie was great (it was; go see it), but because not once during the film was our experience marred by other human beings.
Los Angeles Magazine last week posted a “PSA” about good movie theater etiquette in response to reports of a cell phone-abuser macing another moviegoer for daring to politely ask her to turn off her cell phone. It brought to mind the last experience I had in a movie theater, about a month ago, that was the exact opposite of our St. Vincent screening.
I went with my wife and a few friends of hers to see a new movie at a casino cineplex. This time, it was Gone Girl, and the theater was packed, which was to be expected. An older couple in the row in front of us were being pretty chatty during the trailers, but I’m not a total fascist, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they’d settle down once the film proper started. Of course, they didn’t. The husband was the louder of the two, so I leaned forward, tapped him gently on the shoulder, and as politely as I could asked “Could you please hold the commentary until after the film? Thank you.”
They seemed to quiet down after that, begrudgingly so. But somewhere mid-film, it seemed like the wife was now getting louder, asking her husband questions and verbally reacting to every story beat in the movie. (Not a reaction like a gasp or scream or guffaw or any other crowd-acceptable utterance, but straight-up DVD commentary track stuff.) Everyone around me was looking pretty annoyed, but saying nothing, so somewhat infused with the spirit of their annoyance, I blurted out, “Lady, willya shut the hell up?!” They were mostly silent after that, but by that point, I knew I had not made any new friends, and although the delicate buzzy synths of Trent Reznor’s soundtrack were no longer being interrupted every few minutes, my experience was already ruined and my blood pressure was at uncomfortable levels, especially knowing that once the house lights came up, we’d be exiting the aisle at the same time as the loquacious couple.
However, as the theater was full, there was a delay between when their row exited and ours did, so by the time we got out of our seats, down the stairs and into the hallway leaving the theater, we didn’t see the pair … until we emerged from the theater doors to the sound of a gruff older man asking, angrily, “You got a problem with me and my wife?” I looked up, mid-conversation with my wife and her friends, and there were the old man and his wife, waiting for us outside the theater, keeping pace with us as we walked toward the casino, the husband all puffy like he was itching for a fight.
“No problem with you,” I said, trying to diffuse yet remain resolute, “but you two were talking through the entire film.”
The wife responded with something about “it’s a movie theater,” to which my wife said, “exactly.” It was obvious that in their purview, they did no wrong, that a movie theater is a place you come to pay $12 to do whatever the hell you want, and anyone who tries to tell you differently is a jerk. The old couple muttered some other stuff as we respectively departed into the casino and dispersed, me watching my back the entire time, clench-jawed, while my wife and her friends chatted.
We didn’t see our theater “neighbors” again, thankfully, but this kind of thing happens far too often. The reaction from the couple is the same I get when I have to ask people around me to stop talking during songs at a concert where I paid $150 to hear my favorite musician and all of his or her songs, not just the two or three hits during which the cell phone-buried, talkative folks around me take a break from chatting to sing along to. I’m the asshole, and in almost every instance, I put myself at risk of a physical confrontation, because this is America, and that’s just how it is.
I talk to a lot of other people who experience this all the time, at concerts, movies, plays, etc., and the overarching theme is the same: It’s almost not worth it to pay for any of these “experiences” anymore. It’s not restricted to the youth, either. I think just our cultural shift toward being “connected” all the time without actually having to be in the presence of other human beings has deadened our ability to both be fully engaged in any given experience, and to be aware of social cues or mores.
So what’s the solution? Stay at home with Netflix viewing and concert DVDs and further isolate ourselves? Accept that things are different now than they were in the past and just grit our teeth through vocal-fry-laced conversations all around us? Or quit enabling the texters, talkers and obstructionists by just hoping they’ll go away, and actually speak up collectively to let them know we’re not going to back down, roll over, and give up the communal, shared experiences of public performances in which human societies have been engaging for thousands of years?
I’m not sure I know the answer.