The hard-sell: Turn off your cell

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com

Shane Danielsen, a film­maker who has worked as a film jour­nal­ist, critic and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Scot­land’s Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, has spent a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of his life in movie the­aters. His mother has long pre­dicted that he will meet his death in one of these the­aters.

That’s be­cause in the 12 years I’ve known Danielsen, he has been a vig­or­ous and con­sci­en­tious shusher. For him, the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing a movie in a dark­ened the­ater or screen­ing room is pred­i­cated on an un­spo­ken but bind­ing so­cial con­tract. And when you light up your phone mid­movie to check Face­book or send a text mes­sage, dis­tract­ing your­self and those around you from the im­mer­sive and dream­like power of the cinema screen, you are in vi­o­la­tion of that con­tract and should be rep­ri­manded ac­cord­ingly.

For Danielsen’s sake, I hope his mother’s dire pre­dic­tion is wrong, though there’s cer­tainly enough ev­i­dence out there to sup­port her the­ory. Sto­ries about phys­i­cal vi­o­lence erupt­ing in the­aters, of­ten trig­gered by some­one’s ex­ces­sive talk­ing or phone use, have be­come trou­blingly com­mon­place — and usu­ally (though not al­ways), the vi­o­lent act is com­mit­ted by the shushee, not the shusher. I’ve never for­got­ten the trou­bling story of a 2010 in­ci­dent at a Lan­caster the­ater, where a man asked a woman to turn off her phone and wound up get­ting stabbed in the neck with a meat ther­mome­ter by the woman’s boyfriend.

By all ac­counts, the of­fend­ing party had to leave the the­ater to fetch said meat ther­mome­ter, which did give me some small mea­sure of re­lief. As tempted as I of­ten am to en­sure that my con­ces­sion-stand hot dog has been cooked to the rec­om­mended 140 de­grees Fahren­heit, I still be­lieve that movies are best en­joyed with one’s food tem­per­a­ture-mea­sur­ing im­ple­ments left safely at home. I’d go a step fur­ther and say the same rule holds true for cell­phones.

I don’t go as far as Danielsen some­times does — mean­ing I have never ac­tu­ally snatched a phone from some­one’s hand and chucked it an­grily against the the­ater wall. (I wasn’t there to wit­ness this par­tic­u­lar al­ter­ca­tion, but even af­ter mul­ti­ple nudges, ap­par­ently, the guy re­ally, re­ally wouldn’t put his phone away.) But I fully share his views on the sanc­tity of a dark­ened the­ater and the need for bet­ter the­ater man­ners, some­thing that can change only if peo­ple are in­formed — not just re­minded — that what they’re do­ing is not ac­cept­able in the first place.

Even now, some 15 years or so into the era of ubiq­ui­tous smart­phones, it sur­prises me how many movie­go­ers fail to rec­og­nize the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the the­ater and the lobby and the dis­re­spect in­her­ent in an ac­tion that all of us, of course, per­form mul­ti­ple times a day in nonthe­ater set­tings.

Have these in­di­vid­u­als never en­gaged so fully with a film or felt pulled so deeply into a story that they haven’t felt a mo­ment’s re­sent­ment when some­thing rang or vi­brated or lighted up a few seats away, shat­ter­ing the spell? Does the prob­lem be­gin with a lack of re­spect for their seat mates or a lack of re­spect for the en­ter­tain­ment medium it­self?

Be­fore it stoked con­tro­versy re­cently by an­nounc­ing womenonly screen­ings of “Won­der Woman,” Alamo Draft­house, the Austin, Texas-based na­tional movie the­ater chain, was known pri­mar­ily for its ex­ten­sive in-the­ater din­ing menu and its in­sis­tence on preach­ing a high-minded gospel of film­go­ing eti­quette. In 2011, a woman was fa­mously ejected from an Alamo Draft­house for vi­o­lat­ing its “if you talk or text dur­ing a movie, we kick you out” rule. When she called the the­ater and left an an­gry voice­mail, the com­pany re­sponded by putting her mes­sage on­line, to the glee of many anti-tex­ter schaden­freud­ists like me.

In the most telling snip­pet of that woman’s voice­mail, she rants, “I’ve texted in ALL the other the­aters in Austin, and no one ever gave a .... ” Therein lies the prob­lem, of course: The Draft­house pol­icy is an out­lier when it should be stan­dard pol­icy na­tion­wide.

The scourge is not lim­ited, I should add, to a slovenly and self-en­ti­tled Amer­i­can moviego­ing pub­lic. I am writ­ing these words on my way back from the just-con­cluded Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, and I can at­test that even in a place that pre­sumes to hold the cinema sa­cred, there is no es­cap­ing the glow­ing lights that pop up pe­ri­od­i­cally through­out the the­ater if not from the seat right next to you.

Some­times at fes­ti­vals, mid­movie phone use is de­fended as a pro­fes­sional ne­ces­sity, es­pe­cially at screen­ings held for jour­nal­ists and film buy­ers. What these ex­cuses re­ally mean, of course, is some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent: My busi­ness is more im­por­tant than your busi­ness, let alone your view­ing plea­sure.

For what busi­ness rea­son, I won­der, did the gentle­man seated sev­eral rows ahead of me at a 2014 Cannes screen­ing of “Force Ma­jeure” take out a cam­era — not a phone, mind you, but a cam­era, with a very large, very bright viewfinder — and start tak­ing pictures of the screen? I try to keep an even tem­per in most sit­u­a­tions, but it was the most egre­gious of sev­eral of­fenses that day, and some­thing in­side me snapped.

“Turn that off!” I yelled, loud enough for the man (and doubt­less the en­tire the­ater) to hear me. He turned it off.

Erup­tions like that can be sat­is­fy­ing, ad­mit­tedly, if also self­de­feat­ing. They run the risk of caus­ing a much big­ger and more hos­tile dis­trac­tion from the movie (and, of course, beget­ting vi­o­lence). Po­litely ask­ing peo­ple to re­spect their fel­low movie­go­ers shouldn’t be a dif­fi­cult mat­ter. Most of the times I’ve done it, the in­di­vid­ual has quickly com­plied and even apol­o­gized, which I al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate. Much more than I ap­pre­ci­ated that one woman who, af­ter be­ing asked to turn off her phone, smiled and said, “In a minute.”

I’m no longer as ve­he­ment as I used to be about shush­ing my fel­low movie­go­ers, more out of fa­tigue than any­thing else. Phone use at the movies is so preva­lent and un­avoid­able now that I my­self of­ten give it a pass, de­pend­ing on how long the de­vice is out and how bright the screen is. We all have to choose our bat­tles.

But at the heart of these ex­changes and con­fronta­tions is the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of ex­actly who’s both­er­ing whom. Is your idle Twit­ter ses­sion an in­fringe­ment on my view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, or is my ques­tion­ing you about it an in­cur­sion into your pri­vate busi­ness? Does it mat­ter that my best ef­fort to lose my­self in the movie be­fore us — re­gard­less of whether the movie de­serves it — is not be­ing matched by your own?

There are all sorts of rea­sons we can cite for the on­go­ing de­base­ment of moviego­ing as a pas­time, all sorts of rea­sons we no longer care to buy a ticket for an evening’s en­ter­tain­ment (the price of tick­ets not least among them). Hell is other peo­ple, af­ter all, specif­i­cally peo­ple who talk back at the screen, peo­ple who step on your foot as they make their way to­ward their seats, who spill pop­corn and leave their trash ev­ery­where.

But be­ing on your phone is a dif­fer­ent kind of in­sult. And that’s be­cause, un­like the other of­fenses — and I would ar­gue that talk­ing back at the screen is vastly prefer­able, in­so­far as it re­quires a level of en­gage­ment with it — it’s the only one that sig­nals a com­plete dis­con­nect from the rea­son we’re there in the first place.

It’s not just the in­con­sid­er­ate­ness but the in­dif­fer­ence that ran­kles, be­cause it flies in the face of what we film crit­ics of­ten wax po­etic about, a touch too earnestly, per­haps, but with com­plete sin­cer­ity: the com­mu­nal power of the movies. And in­ten­tion­ally or not, us­ing your touch-screen de­vice dur­ing a movie is a re­jec­tion of that power. It’s a ges­ture that says, “This ex­pe­ri­ence doesn’t mat­ter, my pres­ence here doesn’t mat­ter, and your pres­ence here doesn’t mat­ter, ei­ther.”

The re­al­ity, of course, is that all of it mat­ters. At a time when we are for­ever con­sumed by our per­sonal tech­nol­ogy, the the­ater can and should be our last pub­lic refuge, where we are in thrall to the movies and the movies alone. And if that vi­sion comes from a place of nos­tal­gia or naiveté, then it’s a place where there is still room for all of us, proudly and de­fi­antly in the dark.

Be­ing on your phone sig­nals a com­plete dis­con­nect from the rea­son we’re there in the first place.

For The Times

Peter and Maria Hoey

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