October 24, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Most cinematic horror stories come from unsuspecting movie-lovers who stumble into a Friday night or Saturday night showing of the latest teen-friendly blockbuster only to discover that half the audience is more interested in having conversations and texting absent friends than enjoying (a term I use with reservations) what's on the screen. Movies, especially those that play during weekend prime time hours, are teenage social clubs. When I was 14, I went to the mall, but that was during the dark ages, when malls - bright, shiny, and climate controlled - were cool. Today, it's multiplexes. (It's worth noting that, before malls, one common teen hangout was the drive-in. Many multiplexes are built on the sites of former drive-ins, so there's a strange kind of symmetry at work.)

It's still possible to have a less-than-ideal experience in an almost empty auditorium. This is usually because of technical problems, which seem to be occurring at an ever increasing rate. The most common issues have to do with focusing and framing. Every week, I get an e-mail from a reader who complains about a director's ineptitude when it comes to composition. "I could see the [boom] mikes!" This forces me to patiently explain that the problem isn't with the filmmakers, it's with the projectionist, who is showing things that aren't supposed to be shown.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Saturday evening sneak preview of Sex Drive. The film was sparsely attended. Approximately a dozen of the 400 seats were filled. Perhaps taking the cavernous emptiness as a cue that common standards of decorum did not apply, two teenage girls sitting four rows in front of me to my left slipped off their shoes and planted their bare feet on the head rests of the unoccupied seats in front of them. Seeing this, I instinctively disengaged my head from the fabric behind it, no longer certain what it had been in contact with.

Admittedly, one isn't likely to have a bad experience sitting in a seat that previously served as a footrest, but It's not a nice image (unless you're Quentin Tarantino). Nevertheless, consideration of other patrons isn't something that typically concerns movie-goers. The price of a ticket, in their view, entitles them to do as they please, regardless of whether or not it bothers or inconveniences others. Theaters have turned into living rooms.

The etiquette of the modern-day theater experience eludes me. Talking can be okay as long as it's not too loud or prolonged. Ringing cell phones are largely frowned upon, but they're not as big a problem as they used to be. People have figured out how to use the vibrate feature. Of course, that doesn't stop them from loudly answering a silent ring in the middle of a movie. Texting is okay - the glow of the cell phone screen doesn't seem to bother others as much as it does me. I guess I'm oversensitive.

Fourteen times a year, I host a movie club called "Talk Cinema." Because of past incidents, I have been forced to add the following reminder before every film: "Please either turn off your cell phones or set them to vibrate. And, although this is 'Talk Cinema,' we prefer that you wait until after the movie to express your opinion rather than during it. If you feel the compulsion to talk while the film is in progress, please go out to the theater lobby. You can then have a conversation with yourself without bothering anyone." To me, it's a little sad that I have to say these words. 99% of the people at Talk Cinema would never dream of impeding anyone else's enjoyment of the movie, but there's always that maverick 1%.

Roger Ebert is a staunch defender of the "theatrical experience." He believes that movies should be seen in theaters, project in 35mm on a big screen. In some idealized, frozen-in-time world, that might be the case, but I must admit that I have shifted to a point where I prefer watching a screener at home than a movie in a theater. In my quiet, comfortable basement, I always have top-notch sound and video. There are no feet on seat backs, ringing cell phones, or people sitting next to me with B.O. or bad breath. Try becoming immersed in a movie when the guy near you reeks of garlic and hasn't bathed in three days. In those circumstances, the size of the screen doesn't matter.

Those who romanticize the movie-going experience have lost touch with what it has turned into. It's a case of wishful nostalgia clouding an unvarnished perspective of how things are. For those who still think theaters are superior to a good home setup, here's a challenge: Go to one multiplex screening every Saturday evening for four consecutive weekends and see if you maintain that view. (Attending a specialty house is considered cheating for the purposes of this challenge. That's not an option most people have.) By the end of that period, you'll be buying a Blu-Ray player to go along with an HDTV, and subscribing to Netflix. The age of the theater as a place where adults can be catapulted to other worlds and different realities is at an end. The kids have taken over and turned it into a playground. Big budget blockbusters are their jungle gyms and Michael Bay is their chaperone.