Fuck Off, Shitbag

July 08, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

The era of good manners is dead. I'm not sure exactly when it happened. When I was a kid, people still said "please" and "thank you." They held open doors, relinquished train and bus seats for the elderly and the infirm, and apologized if they said or did something inappropriate. Perhaps in 2014, there are still bastions of civility where etiquette holds sway. Movie theaters certainly aren't among those venues.

"Fuck off, Shitbag." Those words were spoken a few seats to my right at a public showing of a movie less than a month ago. Some kid - probably about 14 or 15 - pulled out a cellphone midway through a film and started texting away. The man behind him leaned forward and politely asked if he could either turn off the phone or take it to the back of the theater. The response is the one I opened this paragraph with. The man, taken aback, left the auditorium. He returned about five minutes later with the manager at his side. The offender, who theoretically shouldn't have been there unaccompanied in the first place (the movie was rated R), was escorted out. The man also left, having missed several minutes of the film.

Events like that happen from time to time, but it was the series of them that occurred during the screening of Transformers: Age of Extinction that provoked me to write this. Keep in mind, this wasn't a public showing of the movie. This was a publicity screening arranged by the studio. All the local critics were there, watching the film so they could write their reviews. These are not the kinds of things that are likely to endear a production to a critic. Yes, we're supposed to be reviewing the movie, not the overall experience. But, unless you're an automaton, there's no way to completely decouple those things. Granted, I believe the review I wrote is a fair assessment of what played out on screen. But what happened in the audience certainly didn't result in a more positive assessment.

The evening started out okay. The theater where the movie was shown has two "decks" - a steeply sloped upper seating area and a more gently sloped lower seating area. The rear two rows of the lower area were roped off for the press. I took a seat near the right aisle in the next-to-last row. Because the screening was only 24 hours before the movie opened, a lot of critics gave it a pass, so two rows weren't needed. The people running the screening opened the last row (the one behind me) to general admission pass holders. I was lucky enough to get a family of four sitting directly behind me: Mom, Dad, and two kids who were probably ages 3 and 4.

I'm not going to discuss the appropriateness of bringing a 4-year old to a PG-13 movie. That's a parenting decision. Nothing to do with me as long as it doesn't impinge on my enjoyment (so to speak) of the movie in question. That point is key. When I took my 4-year old son to his first film, The Lego Movie, I was hyper vigilant that his behavior not be a distraction to others. I waited until the movie had been out for about five weeks. I went to a morning showing. We sat in the last row. My wife and I were quite prepared to leave immediately if Michael engaged in disruptive behavior. (Something that didn't happen.) I expect no less from others. Obviously, I expect too much.

The lights dimmed and the kicking of my seat back began. I did my best to ignore it. After five minutes, the kid stopped pummeling my chair in favor for asking a stream of questions. "Mommy, why is the man doing that?" "Daddy, what's that thing in the ice?" And on and on and on. Eventually, one of the parents went "Ssshhh!" That ended the questioning. The kicking started again. After a little while, my seemingly inexhaustible patience ran out and I turned around, directing what I hoped was a stern glare at the pint-sized offender. He didn't seem fazed but his father caught the look and moved to stop him.

No sooner had the issues with the kids been resolved when something occurred with an adult. 30 minutes into the movie, some guy came in and decided to take the vacant seat on my left. Who comes to a movie 30 minutes late? After nearly stepping on me and not offering an apology, he flopped down in the chair and pulled out his cellphone. I momentarily thought about saying something to him, but I remembered a well-publicized incident in which someone was shot in a theater less than 2 miles away for doing something similar. And I really didn't want to be called a shitbag in front of the kicking twins. So I held my peace that time and the other five times he pulled out the cellphone during the rest of the movie.

From time-to-time, I still hear people rhapsodize about the majesty of seeing a movie on a big screen with hundreds of other people. While not all of my film experiences match this one for incivility and selfishness, it makes me wish distributors would send me more screeners. I find this to be true: The only thing wrong with all these new movie theaters, with their digital projectors and leather recliners, is that they haven't figured a way to hermetically seal off the people.