Sunday, October 12, 2008

The dark side of theaters

No, I haven’t forgotten about the 3rd Indy post, nor have I forgotten about and Walt Peregoy101 Dalmatians, or the countless other subjects I wanted to blog about. But…
…ever since the Filmpodium, my favourite repertory programming movie house, started its great Hitchcock retrospective, I have found myself racing there whenever time permits, so in a way, this guy Hitchcock is largely responsible for the latest decrease in blogging here. Fortunately, work does not allow me to become a true cinemaniac (although sometimes, I find myself secretly wishing to be able to organize my life around movie theater showtimes).

Well, anyway. I wanted this to be a column about all the unknown people who sit around me in the dark during many a screening, in short: my fellow audience members. Well, not all of them, just some of them actually… those who kindly prevent me from immersing myself too much in a movie.

I adhere to the notion that the best way to see a movie is by light projected through celluloid onto a large screen in front of a sizable audience that gives it their full attention.
It is one thing to point out Hitchcock’s cameo appearances. And by pointing out I mean – apart from uttering things like: “There he is! Everybody, I have seen Hitchcock!” – literally pointing a finger at the screen. Thankfully these cameo appearances are usually during the first act and they channel all the people with an urge to speak up to one specific scene. Besides, this is not wholly unintended.

Identifying actors can even become a tricky game, intended or not by the director, as I have recently learnt during a perfectly matched double feature. It started with Robert Altman’s The Player (about a sleazy movie exec getting away with murder), one of these Altman movies with overlapping dialogue and long tracking shots, where you meet half the personnel of 1992’s Hollywood. I had the joy of having a young couple behind me with the guy whispering most of the big shots’ names to his audibly impressed girl friend. He did a great job, got it right all the time, so I really can’t complain, can I? Near the end, when Susan Sarandon appeared briefly but prominently, the now familiar female voice behind me proudly cried out: “I know her, there’s Meryl Streep!” Well, needless to say, the screening was part of a series devoted to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon

I know, I know, Sarandon’s face is probably not that well known and after all, the poor girl meant no harm and I better stop being such a smart aleck… At least these people were paying attention to what happenend on the screen. So I didn’t think there would be any guessing games necessary during the second film that night, the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy. Until shortly before the film ended, I witnessed women (and this was no multiplex-teen-crowd) asking each other if the old villain (one of the main characters) could possibly be Paul Newman. Was I accidentally attending a screening for people with agnosia? Hadn’t Newman been all over the papers lately, I guess even the prominent screen credit in the beginning would have escaped the attention of these audience members.

But I’m digressing… all of the above was simply comedy continuing beyond the boarders of the screen. This here is about people talking when they really shouldn’t. During a movie, for example.

"Attention" means silence, however, when the film deserves and earns it.

I may be a little old fashioned but I like visual storytelling and that’s why I go to the movies a lot.
Sometimes I believe there is a strong minority of people living among us who honestly believe that all that constitutes a movie is dialogue and only dialogue. So when they spot moments without dialogue they step into the breach and provide their own chatter. Now, as you know, there are long stretches without dialogue in almost any Hitchcock film. The rest is silence... or rather the lack thereof...

Sometimes I ask myself: “Do people actually think that movies will become interactive by talking to them?”

A subcategory of "attention" may apply to the modern annoyance caused by moronic narcissists who use cell phones or do text messaging during a film. This is growing more common, and recently the Answer Man reprinted an eyewitness account by a writer who sat next to a newly famous film critic who used his cell and processed text messages during virtually an entire movie.

Receptive observers will have noticed that, very sporadically, there are people who don’t believe in the concept of paying attention at all. To them a darkened auditorium seems to be nothing more than an airport waiting hall. In fact, they have found it to be an ideal place to attract attention more than anything else.

Usually I feel like Bob Clampett’s suicidal cat (“now I’ve seen everything!”) having witnessed people picking up their cel phones during The Trial, 80 year olds beating each other with sticks and handbags over a favourite seat (Monty Python meets Cinemania), not to forget the rather clumsy man who was looking for his wife (asking around in a very polite, hushed way “have you seen my wife?”) and then for his coat, the whole procedure twice during Notorious. The Cave of the Yellow Dog in my memory will always remain connected to the marriage problems of two 40-somethings even if I don’t remember what the movie itself was about. By the way, have you ever seen a bald headed man hitting himself over the head with his flat hand every time he accidentally snorted? To me it is Suspicion. You can see, the beautiful thing about paying full attention is that one is very receptive to whatever goes on around him. Moreover, only one single occurrence might trigger an acquired reflex. A learning success only dreamed of in most other situations.

A few weeks ago I had a glimpse of what Tex Avery’s Cat Who Hated People must have been going through: It wasn’t until a recent screening of Fritz Lang’s Fury – yes the one about vigilante justice – that I discovered a secret impulse to take the law into my own hands and strangle a senior citizen who had already made such a racket that a woman had left the auditorium in protest. He not only broke out in laughter every two minutes, he “unconsciously” fumbled with some plastic bag for almost a whole hour until he had to go to the bathroom and never returned. It was the first time I actually screamed at a complete stranger and my pulse was so fast I almost fainted. Needless to say, it took me some time to calm down and concentrate on the movie again. After all, this is about emotions. I'm sure the next time I see Spencer Tracy my pulse will be accelerating.

Don’t get me wrong, I love going to the movies for many reasons, a receptive audience is certainly one of them. There’s nothing like 400 people laughing at Little Miss Sunshine’s final reel or children screaming “NO!” when Snow White is about to eat the poisoned apple. It’s part of the experience and – like the “I have seen Hitchcock” whisper – it is an intended reaction.

And I don’t intend to let a few chatterboxes ruin that for me or anybody else. Come to think of it, it might actually be interesting to make a documentary about what goes on in the mind of someone who is talking during a movie. Or at least such a person would make a believable villain.

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