At the movies: Looking past the Popcorners and Noiseites

A recent article in a blog or newspaper (I can’t recall) on the social etiquette of cinema-going started me thinking about my own views on what is or is not acceptable within the realm of the movie theatre. It quickly became apparent to me that my views on the subject were militant to the point of absurdity, and I would have to review whether or not:

  • It was safe for somebody as authoritarian as myself to be allowed into a cinema;
  • It was worth my time going to a cinema at all, seeing as though I was bound to end up being violently enraged by some innocent human being who had the poor fortune to cough on an un-popped corn kernel during the most pivotal (and silent) scene in a film I’ve been waiting a year to see.

I started off by making a mental note of some of the worse offences that can possibly occur in the cinema, some of which fit into the normal cinematic code of conduct, and some which most certainly do not. I chose the stream-of-consciousness rule here, and have attempted to catch my immediate emotional reactions to these violations. Here are three main categories of offences that I came up with:

  1. No talking. This seems like a simple rule, but a simple scratch of the surface reveals that there are a multitude of subcategories here:
    1. Obnoxious teenagers sitting at the back of the cinema that talk and laugh loudly through the movie between engaging in acts barely known to those of us born before the death of common decency. A lack of even the most minimal empathy with fellow human beings mean violence is the only solution here.
    2. Plot talkers who haven’t developed the normal cognitive ability to follow a film’s narrative. Usually of a more senior persuasion, these people are innocent of consciously violating cinema-etiquette. However, senility and ignorance are no excuse. These people should be banned from cinemas and all other cultural events that require the capacity for lateral thinking.
    3. The guy who uses sighs, seat-shuffling, and the “humph” sound to indicate that he believes the film you are watching is boring. In this situation, the movie is almost invariably a masterpiece and the culprit should be considered an enemy of the state… of EVERY state. (The other version of this is the giggler, who must laugh ironically at every scene that is not funny, just to ensure that their fellow audience members understand that they find the film to be ridiculous).
    4. People who need the film translated, or blind people who need to have the visual elements of the film described. These people are rare, and usually show up primarily at film festivals. In the presence of such individuals, all cultural sensitivities must be way-laid, to be replaced with a momentary contempt for everything that is different. (Keep writing Jim, confession is part of the growing process)
  2. People who eat instead of watch. These individuals most likely eat normally in every other situation in their lives, choosing only to move to feed-bag mode when in your auditory proximity. Whether they’re rustling through an obscenely sized bucket of popcorn, shuffling about in a deep packet of chips or slurping desperately on the last few drops of a two-litre Coca-Cola (half a gallon to my North-American cinephilic brothers and sisters)) like they were lost in the desert. I dream longingly of such an offender being found slumped in his chair, post-film, the world’s first victim of soft-drink (soda) drowning.
  3. People who invade my bubble. If you sit next to me in a movie theatre and feel that it is okay for us to be touching legs, arm, shoulders, or even clothing apparel, then it’s quite likely I’m already considering the possibility of pressing charges. Take note if you don’t want to be banned from walking within a hundred feet of your local primary (grade) school.

Having completed this list I then had to answer the question: “Why do I go to the movies?” What is it that could possibly make me go through this process over and over again when with the slightest provocation the experience could be entirely ruined for me.

The reason, of course, is simple. While I am prone to an excess of outrage every time I step into a movie theatre, there is an ironically social element to viewing a movie and enjoying it with a room full of human beings. When everything goes right, the big screen and surrounding darkness catch the audience and immerse them totally in the cinematic experience, elevating it beyond anything that could be experienced within the comfort of your own home. Comedies become funnier, thrillers become intense and horror becomes scarier when we are merged into a cohesive mass.

There are few experiences like it, but the whisper of this social element can be seen elsewhere. Consider the moment when you realise that one of your old favourites is airing on television. You know that you’ve got it on DVD, you know that if you watch it on TV it will be interrupted constantly by commercials, but something about watching the movie on television and knowing that thousands, perhaps millions of others are sharing that exact experience at the same moment can become quietly comforting.

So while I may moan constantly (and sometimes unfairly) about the inconvenience caused to me by individuals with whom I have shared the movie going experience, this is truly only because I find the experience to be so rewarding as to verge on perfection. Hundreds of strangers in one room, focused on one work of art, thinking and feeling together. Just don’t order the popcorn…

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

40 thoughts on “At the movies: Looking past the Popcorners and Noiseites

  1. The worst for me is when it’s not silent in the theater, so a group of people will start talking really quietly thinking that because the sound is increased to an almost deafening level, they won’t be heard. However, for those (like me) who have functioning ears, their whispers act more like whistles being blown right in my ear, distracting me from the loudness happening on screen.

  2. #3 really pisses me off. I go to a theater to see a movie on the big screen. Most people go to a theater, because the movie won’t be in a red box for a few months. They wiggle, they chatter, they comment, they get up every eleven seconds to go to the restroom (I will defiantly hold it, because I don’t want to miss anything). Sometimes it gets to the point that every movement by my idiotic neighbor totally distracts me from my movie. It makes me want to hit them with my shoe. I’d pay extra for my own booth.

  3. Hey, thanks for subscribing! This post is absolutely correct; I agree wholeheartedly. Going to the movies makes watching movies a bit more special :D

  4. Here in the states, a growing trend was to act in the movie theater the same way you would in your living room. In fact, it was getting quite out of hand. Then there was the birth of the somewhat easily-accessible “art house” theater in every major city (i.e. Angelika Film Centers and Sundance Cinemas). They are typically located in the heart of the urban area and their tickets are a bit on the expensive side (as their 2D screenings are comparable to the 3D screenings of the major theater chains). These places are havens for people who don’t mind paying a little more to enjoy the artistry of film away from the living room crowds. Furthermore, these theaters typically feature and champion films that do not get widely released. Yet, I see that the living room trend is dying down some (at least in the Greater Houston area). Theater companies like Cinemark and AMC are now willing to remove patrons for texting during the presentation of the movie. Other distracting behaviors can result in expulsion as well. As movie ticket prices have gone up everywhere, it seems that people are listening to the warnings. After dropping almost $17+ a ticket just to get in the door to take to see the next big 3D film and then spending $17+ on concessions, people are actually clamoring to enjoy the experience free from distractions. All of this is to say, that at least in my area, the grievances listed in your post (that I agree with) seem to be lessening now, and I sincerely hope it stays that way!

    • Yeah, it definitely sounds like the noise/texting situation got a little out of hand there. Here the tickets have always been very expensive – about $18 (Oz dollar buys $1.02US right now – so pretty much at parity). I suspect the cost has prevented things from getting too casual.

  5. Texting offenders have dropped off dramatically at our local Super-Mega-Multi-Cineplex since they started running screen admonishments before the start of the picture advising the audience that you WILL be removed from the auditorium. Last two movies I went to had NO ONE challenging that policy.

  6. Great post!! There is nothing worse then people talking in movies.

    Nearly 80% of friends I bring to movies either talk to me during it or get there phones out and reply to texts. I couldn’t believe it. I’m down to like 5 people I’d be happy to take to a movie now!!

    Luckily for me my local cinema is dead (so dead in fact that I worry it will be closed soon) but perhaps it’s just not many people go to the 9PM+ sessions. I’ve been alone in a cinema 3 times in the last year. Bliss!

  7. I also can’t stand when people bring babies to the cinema. The sound is too loud for the little ones, and when they cry sometimes the parents won’t even remove them from the theater! Poor kids. Thanks for stopping by my blog and subscribing. I look forward to more of your interesting posts..

  8. My thoughts exactly, including the seemingly contradictory enjoyment of a shared cinematic experience. How I miss some of our city’s older theatres that were jam-packed on the opening night of a blockbuster. Sometimes, a well-timed comment shouted out adds to the experience for me… buuuut that depends on whether I’m watching Frankenhooker or Winter’s Bone. These megaplexes are so often half-empty and depressing.
    Thanks for visiting/following my blog… I’ve fallen way behind on movie watching over the last many, many years. I think this blog will be a fine source to help me catch up. Keep up the good fight against all that is bad in movieland.

    • There are a couple of fantastic old cinemas on the verge of bankruptcy in my dear city, drowned out by the multiplexes of course. But they won’t show Frankenhooker at the multiplexes :-)

      Thanks for following! Looking forward to keeping the dialogue going!

    • You make a good point about (cinematic) context. Given time, place, and film, audience participation or uncouth behavior may be understandable. Bringing the family (baby and all) to a noon showing is different from bringing them to a primetime showing. The T.V. series Seinfeld raises a similar point in an episode where Jerry (the title character) makes out with his girlfriend during Schindler’s List. That being said, my misanthropy becomes apparent when I get upset by audience laughter during comedies. For those with similar leanings, daytime screenings are a good way to avoid crowds and people altogether. Tickets are also cheaper!
      (P.S. In the USA we also eat (potato) chips. I think it is only the Brits who eat crisps.)

      • Yep, context is key. Never gone quite so far as being anti-laughter in a comedy though :-D

        My apologies – it’s FRENCH FRIES you guys don’t call chips. Will change accordingly. Thanks for the spot!

  9. A movie goer after my heart. Think I am going to enjoy your blog. Many centuries ago I took a series of film courses in university and enjoyed them – I think your blog is going to uncover this old interest. Your sense of irony? humour? is great.

  10. Did you mention mobile phones? Most people are polite enough not to sit there having an entire conversation but nearly everyone is happy to light up the cinema like a Christmas tree as they text, browse, and idly flick through their menu’s.

  11. I’ve seen an increase in the number of Unrepentant Texters at the movies lately, those who can’t keep their hands off their cell phones AND don’t even have the decency to mute their notifications, they just turn the volume down low. Hello? I can STILL SEE YOUR SCREEN LIGHT AND HEAR THE NOTIFICATION PING. I try to be all about peace and love and joy but man! When someone starts texting during a movie it is only due to a miracle of self-restraint that I don’t explode in violence. If only they had the decency to focus on what they’ve paid to theoretically focus on…

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