Friday, August 16, 2013

"I'm Your Shusher-man"

In recent weeks, think pieces and blog posts have spurred each other on in the debate about the cinema as public space. Is it too distracting to have people talking, texting, websurfing, taking phone calls, or walking around during a movie screening? Or is it ineffectual social conservatism to expect that a public audience treat the cinema differently than they do other parts of their lives, i.e., must they be "unconnected"? Contrary to the title of this post, which I just wanted to make a riff on Curtis Mayfield, I am not really much of a shusher-man myself. But as a cinephile, I do understand and empathize with many of the impulses to be a shusher.

The theater is a public space, yes, but it is also a space where people come together to give their attention over to something. (This latter isn't prescriptive, it's descriptive - it's a fact that this is what a lot of moviegoers do, and want to do, and expect to do.) For some of these people, the cinema-experience might have an appeal that means that merely seeing the same film a few months later in the privacy of their own home doesn't provide. The cinema has the bigger screen, the 35mm (well...), and certain elements of audience response, like laughter, that many of the "shushers" otherwise do like and crave. But for others, seeing a movie is a social experience first and foremost and the movie is just one interchangeable part of the equation - it doesn't necessarily even matter if the movie is good or if you see the whole thing, if the people you're with help you have a good time. And the heart of the matter, with these "shushing" arguments, is whose experience should be prioritized at the multiplex and the arthouse.

Take musical performance as a point of comparison. There are some instances whether a piano is just background music, and some instances where it's clear that silence is golden as the audience attends closely to the whole piece. And then there are things in between. A jazz club? You want to be able to listen to the music but typically you expect also to hear some chatter, clinking glasses, etc. Cinema is similar in its variety. An outdoor summer screening of a goofy commercial comedy? Some chatter & texting are to be expected, and embraced. A 16mm experimental film screening? You'll likely expect an audience of quiet, still, appreciative viewers. In the end, circumstances will help us develop the proper expectations for signal-to-noise and we can adjust accordingly. The problems all arise in those middle grounds, the areas where some people want to emphasize a public's capacity to behave as it will, and other people want to emphasize the explicit function of devoting attention to something.

I think that compromises can be met. In fact at the point where so many people at a screening have smartphones, informal etiquette has gotten better. This is just my own anecdotal experience, anyway. Compared to a decade ago, I'd say that implicit etiquette about talking on phones in theaters has improved. Sometimes people text with less discretion then I'd personally like (those white screens are distracting, dammit!), but it's rarely for a whole movie. Personally the thing I find most distracting is when groups of people come into a movie 15-20 minutes late (which, due to previews, is a solid half-hour after the movie showtime) and cause a commotion as they walk around looking for seats that will accommodate all of them. For me, as a punctual person who inevitably starts to wonder why these entire groups would even want to see a movie after missing the "first reel," that's indeed distracting. But I deal with it. Life goes on.

And when it comes down to it, behavior that is truly egregious and distracting is usually an instance of people being assholes (and maybe also using technology) ... not necessarily the routine and momentary behavior of technology-users and talkers who don't share the shushers' same level of insistence upon attention. Sometimes it's the shushers themselves who are egregious. At a MoMA screening of a silent film I once attended, an older woman not far from me had her cellphone set to beep when she got messages. [It was a bit distracting, and in my experience most tech-savvy people (including the ones who prefer to use their tech during films) do as a courtesy turn off such tones.] But a guy sitting somewhere between the older woman and myself had enough after the third or fourth time, and he yelled out loudly, "Aww, would you knock that off!?" That instance of shushing was more distracting than the beeps. I remember it more vividly, and it colored my experience of the screening more fully.

Anil Dash makes the important point that the movie theater, as a public space, is bound to have difference and if you're sharing space with people there's something a little odd about wanting to experience those other people as little as possible. Thus, it might be important to keep that epistemelogical open space for differing cultural norms or individual values. There is room for all kinds. Sometimes it can enhance an experience, even if it's not a "fun" superhero-robot-blockbuster or a campy midnight screening (i.e., the two kinds of cinema experiences that seem to be most often associated with the importance of audience participation). When I saw Gran Torino in a Queens multiplex, the diversity in ages and ethnicities in the crowd - which one can't always count upon these days, given the prevalence of demographic targeting - made the whole experience richer. People interacted with the film, called out, talked to each other, laughed, etc. This experience also colored my perception of Gran Torino, which many people view as a flat-out bigoted movie, but which I saw as a movie forthrightly about a guy who was - among other things - a bigot. As best I could read the audience I saw it with, we were all in turns appalled and entertained by Eastwood's character, but also understood well the narrative and thematic context in which he was placed.

So again, it's a matter for all of us to just learn how to calibrate our own signal-to-noise tools. It's kind of like looking at artworks at a museum. (Art museums, by the way, are places I tend to dislike at least a little, even though I often very much like the art they contain. Too often impersonal; there's a hint of the antiseptic - and too often cleft from history in ways that the well-meaning descriptions can't repair.) People passing by, talking, interrupting my line of sight ... this doesn't feel oppressive to me. It's a reasonable, natural function of museums and comparable institutions. I don't feel the urge to make other patrons behave a certain way. But in peak hours of very famous museums, when crowds become massive, the overall rush of stimuli is so gargantuan that it does inhibit - sometimes ruin - any hope I might have of simply observing something at my own pace and to my own content - i.e., the reason public museums presumably exist. Even the most pro-tech people must admit that sometimes distractions can mount up enough to obliterate one's experience.

I'll end with an anecdote. True story. There I was at Anthology Film Archives. I don't recall which film, but it was screening in the smaller theater. I sat a few rows behind a guy with a flashing bluetooth headpiece. This person is a well-known New York cinephile, in fact a bit of a purist, and yet there he was in the front row, sporting this flashing technology for the rest of the audience behind him to have to see!

1 comment:

Tim said...

Name names!