Monday, September 5, 2011

Shut the Hell Up

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!”

Sadly, Buttons is no anomaly, and to be perfectly frank, if you're anything like her, you and I can't be friends. As someone who spends an average of six hours per week inside crowded theaters, and who attends out of passion but, very realistically, to make a living as well, I'm all too familiar with the sting felt by those who had to show Buttons the door, and I wholeheartedly join Cooper in hailing them as American heroes for doing it. There's no excuse for lousy theater etiquette, and the fact is, if you insist on talking above the occasional whisper, offering play-by-play commentary on the film or performance, bringing your screaming kids into the theater, laughing excessively like a goon, gossiping about bullshit that has nothing to do with the show, unloading a noisy smorgasbord of outside food, or, indeed, dicking around with your electronic device, then there is something seriously, fundamentally wrong with your manners, your social skills, your personal pride and, certainly, your intelligence level.

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.

This whole issue begs the question of why all these people are even in the audience in the first place. Why bother to come if the last thing you care about is the film or performance? I once attended a concert at the Mann Center where Wicked star Idina Menzel performed with a symphony orchestra. It was a pretty breathtaking show, and the seats were packed with classical buffs and theater geeks. Also present was a girl who opted to bring her dinner and her homework. After she polished off a salad and a basket of fries, she whipped out a hardback novel, attached a booklight to it, and began reading. You read right. I don't know what stopped her from booking a front-row seat, so she could easily reach out her arm and give Idina a smack on the face. It's the same with people who insist they've arrived for social hour. Somewhere along the line, theaters became mistaken for lively public activity spaces – dark rooms full of people where any chatty, half-witted Joe Schmo could simply pop in to pass his Thursday night hours. Joe forgets: there are bars for that.

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.


Jason Bellamy said...

This weekend I managed to see the Senna. It's a documentary. It's art house fare. It's the kind of thing that tends to draw Washington, DC's more intellectual crowds. And, in large part, it did. The movie has been out here for a few weeks, and yet the 1:45 showing was well attended. But there was this one family.

Yes, a husband and wife brought their two children, the oldest of which could have been no older than 3. They didn't scream. They didn't cause a huge disruption. But they were never silent. The mother spent more than half the movie standing in the back corner holding the youngest child. The father held the other on his lap for most of it. If you were sitting next to them on a flight, you'd be fairly pleased that the kids held it together. But in a movie theater? It was annoying.

But just as remarkable to me as the family itself was the reaction of those around them. From what I could tell, not a single person told them to be quiet or to take the noisy kids outside. Sure, a few people in the rows ahead gave them the turn-around stare, which was ignored. But that's it.

I'm not shy about telling people around me to shut up. (My younger brothers love to laugh about the time I turned around to a family that I'd already asked to be quiet and said, "I'll give you $20 if you leave the theater right now.") But I'm not the type to scream "SHUT UP" across a theater. And as these people were sitting on the opposite aisle from me, that's what would have been required.

There's no question in this scenario about who deserves the blame: the family. But, wow, we sure enable this kind of behavior when we fail to act on it, don't we?

Kurtis O said...

It's true. We do enable. The incident at the "Last Airbender" screening was one of the few times I've truly seen people come together as a group and stand against the noisy party. It was kinda refreshing.

Now, you see, at the risk of sounding coldly insensitive, I don't know what universe these parents think they're living in if they believe it's okay to bring three-year-olds to a screening of "Senna." Unless you're attending a Saturday matinee of a kids film, where it's 100 percent understood that kiddie pandemonium is par for the course, I firmly believe that attending movies is one of the things you sacrific when you become a parent. If you can't find a babysitter, you shouldn't be going to the theater. Bringing your young kids to a film with a serious audience is all kinds of selfish (and that says nothing of bringing your kids to a hard R-rated film, which I'm shocked to see quite often).

I hear you about speaking up, and good for you with the $20 offer. I won't soon forget that. In general, I'm an easygoing guy, and not one to voice my opinion if it means roughing the waters, but bets are pretty much off when it comes to movie theater noise. I don't care if you're seven or 70. I'll tell you to can it.

Liz said...


I would really love to read your essay on the Pavlovian Gigglers. I honestly wondered if I was the only person who noticed this increasingly bizarre trend. And some of the stuff they laugh at! I sometimes have trouble telling if they're trying to be above-it-all jerks, or if they truly do not understand what is happening onscreen.

Grumpy Guy in Seat 17G said...

I've sometimes asked offenders if they could hold their conversation til after the movie ends.
This compulsion to interact with the person you came with is very annoying. It's a symptom of the epidemic of American self-importantism. I think an audience member should behave has if s/he came to the theatre unaccompanied. Maybe theatre tickets should bear the message: "This ticket allows you keep your eyes and ears open but not your mouth" or something like that.
I went to a performance of Brahms Requiem (full chorus and orchestra -- very weighty stuff) and some young woman brought a 4-year-old. It was open seating (unassigned seats); they chose to sit in the front row right behind the conductor. Needless to say, Junior just could not be quiet or sit still and distracted not only the audience but the conductor and some of the orchestra players.
At one B'way roadshow I went to, a couple with their small daughter had the seats next to mine. The little girl was miserable the whole time and made it known, yelling "I wanna go home," "I gotta go potty," etc. Finally, I told Mom, "I paid $75 bucks to hear THEM (pointing to stage) not HER" (pointing to child). Fortunately, they didn't return from intermission.

Amir said...

The worst I've experienced is at TIFF every year with sleepy people. I'm not kidding. I understand that there are a lot of films at festivals that film nerds want to watch, but it's most surprising to see the festival annoy other film-goers.

At the screening of A Screaming Man last year, I got to talk to the man sitting next to me before the movie started and he told me it was his fifth film that day and he had taken in the same number in the last couple of day, and going on like 4 hours of sleep or so. Then the film starts, this guy is fast asleep and snoring the entire two hours away.

The best part is that he complained about how he didn't like the film when it ended.

Arkaan said...

I will shout shut-up to people. They have ten minutes after the film starts before I do.

Laughter, inappropriate or not, doesn't bother me.

I remember seeing an eight year old at Black Hawk Down. He behaved all right, but I was judging the parents more harshly than I was judging Ridley Scott.

Jae Ly said...

I usually don't mind laughter too, b/c some movies are just unintentionally funny at how preposterous or awful it is.

I contribute audience laughter sometimes as the movie-going experience.

I usually go out and have people who are talking escorted out too. The bad thing about that is I miss a part of the movie; the theaters should have a button or something we can press to have someone come in to throw an offender out!

I'm sure nobody will run into any problems if they attend a Gold Class Cinema show though. There's only 24-some seats and they do have a button to call an employee in! It does come at a price though.

Kurtis O said...

Thanks to all for chiming in. Nothing like a big middle finger to bring the community together.

Grumpy Guy -- I love your ticket idea and your Brahms Requiem story had me cringing.

Amir -- I'll admit I have been guilty of the sleep thing. Not anytime recently, mind you, but when I was in film school, I was a commuter and also working two jobs. Sitting down for screenings in class were some of the only times I actually got to rest and, god help me, try as I might, I did doze here and there. It sucked, because the films were the key reason I was there, and though these episodes were few, I hate to think what of I missed when my body shut down on me. (On a similar note: one of my favorite new anecdotes is how I recently sat next to a major critic in a screening of a major film, and the critic slept soundly through a third of it, yet wrote a very glowing review. But that's all I'll disclose about that...)

Jae Ly -- the security button is a good call, and the security guys, in turn, need ejection-seat buttons.