I wrote the following essay, “Dealing With Talkers: A Modest Proposal,” in 1999 for a now defunct website:
It happened again.
The joy of walking into a movie theater, of sitting down with overpriced Jujubes in hand, ready to be humbled by flickering shadows in the dark, was disrupted by two entities who saw fit to talk and react loudly at every opportunity.
The film was Boys Don’t Cry, which I finally managed to catch after missing two press screenings. (While I positively enjoy the honor of seeing many movies in advance for free, certain economic factors prevent me from seeing everything.) Greater critics than I have already informed you of the merits of this wonderful movie, so I won’t bother to repeat them here.
What I will relate, however, is one particularly moving scene in which the protagonist Brendan Teena (played by Hilary Swank), a twenty-year old young woman disguised as a man finally consummates with Lana, another young woman with whom she has found love (played by Chloë Sevigny). The tormented struggle of Brendan to keep the disguise, while also attempting to provide her love, is powerfully depicted by Brendan carefully disrobing her main squeeze.
“Eeewwwww! Two girls kissing! Gross!” exclaimed the two creatures of the dark.
The scene is executed by director Kimberly Peirce in the form of a particularly effective flashback, with Lana relating the joy of becoming carnal with Brendan to her friends the next day. But she doesn’t relate everything to her pals, as we see when Peirce cuts to a brief subjective shot of Lana noticing the upper portion of Brendan’s taped breasts in flashback. The shot represents an internal struggle within Lana, foreshadowing a crucial development in her character. It is an effective use of nudity that also reminds the audience of Brendan’s own internal sexual identity crisis and whether such a match made in an intolerant heartland can be.
Most of the audience viewed this moment with maturity and I’m sure that many of them were as moved as the Designated Moviegoing Associate and I were, save the two above-mentioned vermin, who proceeded to overlook the carefully executed poignancy of this moment and laugh uproariously like a pair of junior-high school hooligans the minute Hilary Swank’s tatas appeared.
Years ago, I was disturbed to read of the high school kids who guffawed with delight at the sights of Jews being mercilessly shot down by Nazis in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. But I was willing to give them a mild benefit of the doubt, given their age and the growing inadequacy of public education.
But the difference with this particular situation was that the two loud figures in the dark were grown adults — an affluent couple in their early thirties. That they were unable to watch a film playing in an art house theatre and show the same quiet courtesy given to an orchestra filling a hall with the majesty of Gustav Mahler or actors performing their guts out live on stage, that they knew exactly what they were getting into (a film about a young woman undergoing a sexual identity crisis) when they slapped down eight bucks a piece for something that clearly offended them, and that they felt the need to break into idiotic convulsions angered me.
But it also saddened me. The advent of MST3K’s talking robots, digital cable, inexpensive DVD players and talking morons who see no difference between a movie on HBO and a banal installment of Must-See TV has seen a rise in recent years of these same obnoxious creatures that inhabit movie theaters. They glare their laser pointers at the screens in theater and prattle on boisterously during a pivotal moment.
And now they have crossed over into the art houses.
It doesn’t help that the underpaid ushers of the movie theaters quite justifiably don’t give a shit. (Who would care on minimum wage?) Self-policing has little effect and only creates more calamities. And excluding these people from entering would be carrying on a horrible elitist tradition already in practice by most governments and prevent new moviegoers from discovering the wonder of a little known film.
In a perfect world, some staff member would eject one of these talkers and prevent the destruction of a moviegoing experience for the rest of us. But certain irreversible realities prevent the world from being perfect.
However, there is a solution.
Given that distributors take 95% of the theater gross on a film playing on an opening week (forcing movie theaters to earn most of their profits through the snack bar) with a slightly decreasing majority cashed in as the run of a title plays out longer, and given that theaters are being forced to get expensive upgrades to their sound systems to remain competitive for hot titles, the message seems clear. The film distributor, which receives the most spoils, is responsible for this unfortunate side effect of moviegoing, in addition to the underfunded movie theaters ill equipped to deal with the situation.
So when some schmuck decides to talk during a movie, don’t complain to the overworked and underpaid theater manager. Write a letter to the studio demanding that this problem be taken care of.
If we’re going to pay eight bucks for a movie, the same entry fee to see a live local band playing at a club, then the economic powers responsible should ensure the same safeguards.
Relinquishing five percent of a $20 million opening weekend gross will give $1 million to theatres to deal with these problems. And if $1 million is too much to ask, the film distributors can cut corners by saying no to actors who insist on $20 million a picture or cutting down the astronomical $100 million-plus budgets for summer blockbusters.
Film distributors can sponsor a moviegoing orientation course for people who find themselves unable to refrain from talking despite all attempts to remain silent. We can recruit Deepak Chopra to teach a meditation seminar on self-discipline in a movie theatre. National legislation can offer a tax incentive to movie theaters who meet the relentless standards imposed to extirpate the obnoxious from the civilized.
In this way, we just might be able to reclaim the moviegoing experience.
Eight years later, the situation has become even worse. Recently, my girlfriend and I, both of us David Fincher fans, attempted to take in an evening showing of Zodiac. It was bad enough that we had to settle for second-row seats. But since this was Fincher, we were prepared to deal. And all was okay on this front, until three noisy kids shuffled in to our right during the trailers and carried on talking as the film began.
I said politely, “Excuse me, but my girlfriend and I are trying to watch the movie. Could you keep it down?”
Not only did these kids comment at the loudest possible levels throughout the duration of the movie, but they proceeded to laugh uproariously as a couple was stabbed in broad daylight. Fincher had filmed this scene from a medium shot. And he had shot this scene no different from a medium shot of two people talking, making it more menacing than some by-the-numbers slasher flick, with the knife entering the frame, stabbing these two characters as they screamed in pain.
You have to be a pretty atavistic life form to not recognize this as horrifying.
But these kids thought it was hilarious.
What was even creepier is that this laughter caused the rest of the audience to laugh. And I was utterly convinced that we were surrounded by human slime. Did these people not realize that this was based on a true story? That this was a dramatic recreation of actual people who were killed by a lunatic while trying to enjoy an afternoon?
And, of course, the kids kept right on talking, bragging about how they wanted to be the Zodiac. Empathizing with the serial killer. It was safe to say that our moviegoing experience was shot.
I was disheartened. Even though I knew that any chances of appreciating Zodiac were gone, I had to do something. So I walked into the lobby and demanded that an usher remove these kids. You’d think this would be no problem, right?
Well, you’d be wrong. Because these kids were African-American and the usher was a pasty-faced Caucasian. The minute this usher observed these three African-American faces, all of them continuing to talk in his presence, he froze up. If anything, his considerably pallid face became even whiter. And there wasn’t a chance in hell of this frightened usher doing a damn thing.
So we left, with the kids actually thanking the usher for causing us to leave — as if we were the ones who were the problem.
I was so angered by this injustice, by the way my polite efforts at common courtesy had turned into some kind of bullshit racist accusation residing beneath the seams, that I demanded more. My girlfriend tells me that I frightened the hell out of the employee at Guest Services. But you have to understand. I was prepared to go as far up the managerial food chain as I could to exact justice. Plus, while I’ve logged many movies over the years and experienced this boorish behavior in the past, my girlfriend hadn’t. And she was shaken up. Nobody gets away with that.
In the end, I received a refund and additional movie tickets.
But here are the additional factors.
1. The kids weren’t removed from the theater. And the usher’s failure to remove them encourages their behavior. So who knows how many additional movies they’ll disrupt? Assuming an usher doesn’t freeze up in the future, will the kids prove more recalcitrant?
2. It will be some time until I will be able to see Zodiac without the laughter associated with the killings. This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill Will Farrell comedy instantly forgotten, but a David Fincher movie. David Fincher, one of the few Hollywood directors one can declare something special about.
3. Because of (2), the studios in turn lose money because people who expect a quality cinematic experience are disinclined to frequent a movie theater and suffer these savages.
Only a movie, you might say. Well, is a symphony only a symphony? Is theatre only theatre? Expected audience reactions, such as the guys who always yell “Yeahhhhhhhhhhh, kick his ass, motherfucker!!!” during opening weekend at an action movie, are acceptable. But when people go out of their way to sabotage the moviegoing experience, with an audience complicit in its silence, it’s no particular surprise why the American moviegoing experience, once a great thing, is about as pleasant as walking barefoot in an exposed septic tank.
While my 25-year-old self might have been idealistic enough to concoct a crazy solution, since movie theaters and the studios are unwilling to address this problem, I’m thinking the only way to solve this is to have some municipal division fine people $500 for disrupting a movie. Of course, the minute you do that, the ACLU will file a lawsuit. Really, the only way to solve this is for ushers to kick ruffians out of the theater. Because as a business, a movie theater is entitled to refuse service to anyone. Even so, why should a movie theater care about maintaining a quality cinematic experience when the real money comes from selling overpriced popcorn?
Of course, I remain fairly stubborn-minded about a remedy. And I will be sending a copy of this post by mail to the manager of the theater, the head of the theater chain, and to the heads of Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Phoenix Pictures (the three companies who made Zodiac) asking them what they intend to do about this. If the studios, in particular, are concerned about dipping revenue, one would think they’d be interested in this problem. Should any of them reply, I will report here.