Or, Why Lousy Theater Etiquette is My Biggest Pet Peeve.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Odds are you caught wind of a story back in June about a woman in Austin, Tex. who was kicked out the city's Alamo Drafthouse movie theater for texting. Using her phone as a flashlight, then incessantly sending messages well after the film began, the woman (whom we'll just call Buttons) ignored repeated warnings to stop before finally getting the boot. Her retaliation is what made national headlines, even popping up on “The Ridiculist,” a segment on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 bemoaning asinine behavior. Buttons left a voicemail on the Alamo Drafthouse answering machine that was rife with curses, third-grade English and adamant defenses of her actions. Some choice excerpts:
“I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to text in your little crappy-ass theater...So excuse me for using MY phone in USA, Magnited States of America, where you are free to text in a the-a-ter...I've texted in all the other theaters in Austin, and no one ever gave a f—k about what I was doin' on my f—kin' phone...You guys, obviously, were being assh—s to me, and I'm sure that's what you do, you know, to rip people off: you take my money and then you throw me out...I will never be comin' back to your Alamo Drafthouse, or whatever; I'd rather go to a reglear theater where people are actually polite...And I'm gonna tell everyone about how sh—y you are...So thanks for making me feel like a customer...Thanks for taking my money, assh—e!”
I've been attending advance press screenings and theater events in Philadelphia for the past four years. And, oh, do I have stories. The way it works with most of these events is, members of the press are invited alongside members of the public, who get free, first-come-first-serve passes via web sites, promotions and giveaways (they used to hand them out at my college). Many of these guests kindly appreciate the privilege, while others grossly abuse it as if they just waltzed into a frat party, a daycare center or a school cafeteria. At film screenings in particular, there are regulars who cart in plastic shopping bags loaded with goodies and god-knows-what. I've seen some people settle down with foot-long hoagies and cheesesteaks, the aroma of onions and marinara wafting through the entire space. There are countless others who have no concept or concern of plastic-wrapper noise levels, crinkling their Twizzler bags like they're the only souls in the building. A colleague of mine once asked a woman behind him to keep it down with the candy, and she proceeded to spend the next 15-odd minutes loudly rummaging through her wrappers out of spite – right up against his ear. She was eventually removed.
In my experience, the sense of selfish, it's-a-free-country entitlement among theater- and film-goers is disgusting. Aside from the fact that our gluttonous society has convinced them that they need entire meals to make it through a measly two-hour presentation (popcorn is fine; cheesesteaks are not), there's a dishearteningly rampant assumption that rudeness is within their rights wherever they go. I can't tell you how many times I've been told “No,” or “shut up,” or “f—k off” after asking folks to be quiet. One of the absolute worst noise disturbances I've ever encountered was during a showing of The Last Airbender, the M. Night Shyamalan one about little kids with magic powers. It was the worst movie of 2010 by a mile, but it still couldn't best what was happening off screen: a woman decided to bring along her infant, who was so pitifully irate about being there that his wails were deafening (naturally, they were sitting right behind me). People began to rapidly lose patience: “Get out!” “Have some respect!” But no dice. The woman stayed put, as god forbid she miss her chance to see a reviled egotist's take on a Saturday morning cartoon. The crying got progressively worse, and as my guest pointed out, the key question became whether or not someone should call child services. After what seemed like years, suited men came in to escort her out, and as she left her seat, baby in arm, every other word out of her mouth was “f—k.” The crowd went wild.
Other offenders might not be as shocking, but they can surely be just as grating. One of my favorites to bitch about is the Jabbering Commentator, an ignorant ball of insecurities who's usually a nerdy young male or a middle-aged woman. Terribly uncomfortable with silence, and thoroughly convinced that they must prove their worth by sharing constant, needless insights with their friends, these are the people who broadcast unwanted tidbits about each actor's filmography, who try to outwit and out-joke the script, who offer their opinions as the show unfolds, and who rustle up anecdotes because, like the cheesesteak guy, they simply can't wait until the lights come up. Where's a taser when you need it? Who raised these people? Even worse than the Pavlovian Gigglers (infernal, inappropriate laughter in theaters is its own essay topic), Jabbering Commentators are incredibly transparent, attempting to cope with their character defects at the expense of poor bystanders like me. Nobody cares how much you know about Daniel Craig, not even your friends. Nobody cares if you have a better punchline than Adam Sandler (chances are we all do). Nobody cares about how this precious scene with Abigail Breslin makes you feel, or if it reminds you of something you did with your niece last weekend. Put a sock in it.
Which brings us back to the Alamo Drafthouse, a place that admittedly serves beer to its customers, thus creating a looser atmosphere and somewhat inviting a little theater malfeasance. It's a mixed-message situation, to be sure, and I can't say I condone it. But isn't it a shame that a venue can't introduce a fun novelty without suffering the consequences? I'm not a total fuddy-duddy, I swear. I understand and value the fact that theater-going is a communal experience, with shared reactions and collective feelings. But, more often than not, instead of folks who can handle it, we get people like Buttons, who haven't a care in the world for anyone in the the-a-ter except themselves. Well, guess what, Missy: this is the Magnited States of America, and I actually do have the right to watch a movie in peace and quiet. You turning up with your cellphone and your offensive lack of education is like unloading a dumptruck in the middle of my workplace. I don't unload dumptrucks at your workplace, and I don't push your buttons, Buttons. So keep your dirty fingers off mine.
Postscript: The Alamo Drafthouse has since parlayed the Buttons incident into a PSA that's now played before every screening. Here it is:
*This article previously appeared in the September 2011 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been republished with permission.