It seems to me that going to the movies might be instructive for a growing number of people in the U.S. I don’t necessarily mean the movies themselves, I mean going to the movies: leaving one’s house, going to a movie theater, and settling into a seat—as the house lights dim—for a few hours of entertainment. I’ve got nothing against seeing movies at home, but most of us know it’s not the same as going to the theater. First, most movie screens are larger than life in a way a TV screen simply isn’t, allowing one to experience, at least when the quality of the movies induce it, the dream-like state described by early devotees of cinema. Equally important, though, is the roomful of others with whom one shares that experience, dwindling though their numbers might be.
True, some of those others can be jerks, but that’s the point. I recently learned of a woman in Austin, TX, who’d attended one of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters, which have strict no talking and texting policies. Apparently, despite this policy and several warnings from the Drafthouse’s staff, she persisted on texting until she was kicked out of the theater. In retaliation, she left an angry, inarticulate rant on the theater’s voice mail. I don’t think, as Jesse Eisenberg suggested in an interview touching on the incident, that she was texting in the theater because the movie bored her. Rather, she did it because it’s what she felt like doing and nobody was going to tell her otherwise. She lives, after all, as she proudly announces in the voicemail message, in the “Magnited States of America, where you are free to text in a theater!”
Now that anecdote might actually persuade you not to go to the movies. You might conclude that the only thing to be gained by going to a movie theater is inconvenience—staying at home is cheaper, more comfortable, has better snacks, allows you to pause the movie when you go to the bathroom, and the only person being a jerk is likely to be somebody you know, to whom you can say whatever you like. But in my opinion, the incident points to the fact that people need to go to the movies as a relatively cheap and potentially entertaining way to help them learn how to act in public again.
I’m sure by now everyone has heard how—especially with the popularity of social networking sites—there is no more privacy. Our private spaces, the understanding goes, are vanishing. But in a recent essay titled “Tact in the Age of Wikileaks,” philosopher Slavoj Zižek asserts that the problem is actually that there is a growing scarcity of public spaces. These public spaces, Zižek argues, are where people act with at least a modicum of tact, sensitive to the feelings and needs of others. It’s far more common now, in “public,” to be faced with a gathering of people where a significant portion are acting as they would in private, attentive only to satisfying themselves and getting hostile when others—even if unintentionally—impede their efforts. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t been a stranger to engaging in such behavior myself, though I’m more aware of it now than I was even a few years ago, and I try to be a bit more sensitive to those around me, as I certainly am when sitting in a movie theater.
Perhaps repeated exposure to seeing movies with strangers will help us remember what it’s like to behave in public, and we’ll see less of the obliviousness I saw in a couple who attended a screening of Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip that I was at. They were a bit older than me, so middle-aged, and walked into the theater about five minutes after the movie started. In unhushed tones, they talked to one another as they seated themselves and got comfortable. They eventually quieted down, though as the film progressed they exchanged comments as if speaking at a table in a restaurant. At one point, the woman, who was seated directly next to me, crossed her legs, kicking me in the shin. I was a bit surprised, but those things happen. Still, it’s common—at least in Minnesota—for the kickers to apologize and the kickees to assure them it was no big deal, an exchange that didn’t take place this time around. More unusual, though, is to be kicked two more times with not one scintilla of acknowledgment that I existed, let alone that my shin was being used as—if such a thing exists—a kicking post.
One more kick, I decided, and I would have to say something. Given the film we were seeing, I wanted my riposte to be witty, yet I didn’t want to miss any of the movie by coming up with something. So I was relieved when they left shortly afterward, though not before sharing this with all who sat within earshot: In the movie, Steve Coogan—purportedly playing himself—had been whining that he wasn’t being offered the film roles he thought he deserved. At one moment, standing among the Yorkshire moors where the novel Wuthering Heights is set, and in spite of being in his early forties, Coogan fantasizes playing Heathcliff in a film adaptation. He rhapsodizes at some length to the woman he’s with about the idea before tentatively, and clearly fishing for a compliment based on the obviousness of the statement, suggesting that he supposed he was too old to play Heathcliff. “No kidding,” the woman next to me loudly rebuffed. The man she was with leaned over and said something to her, and she replied dismissively, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Then they got up and left.
Let’s face it. These people need training. They could stand a lesson or two in how to behave in public, and what better place to do it than at the movies? Sure, I was annoyed with them. Until they left, that is. Then, for some reason, a movie I had already been enjoying only seemed that much better, an experience I most surely would never have had at home.