Decline and fall of cinema etiquette: a personal journey

I’ve been going to the cinema a long time – probably since I was five years old, so well over thirty years now, and with serious intensity and frequency over the last fifteen or so.

I still feel like this every time I see a film so please don't ruin it for me.

As I’ve said before, for me, nothing compares to the experience of watching a film on a big screen with the house lights down, knowing I can’t get up to get a drink or visit the toilet (except in the most desperate of circumstances) or hit the pause button and walk away or I’ll miss something. I adore that feeling of surrender, immersing myself in the sound and vision, going on a journey with it, and coming out on the other side of 90-120 minutes or more, a slightly different person. I am an informed viewer – I know a bit about cinema and the people who create it so I pick my movies carefully, with interest and enthusiasm. Every film I pay money to see I know something about so I really want to be there. When the curtains open and the trailers start (or adverts start, depending on whether its arthouse or megaplex), I am still filled with giddy anticipation. I still feel like that five year old being led by mum to my first Disney film.

For some reason, I’m fool enough to believe that other filmgoers – those at the arthouse in particular – are actually motivated by the same things as me; are feeling the same excitement. And that when I go see a film they will afford me the same courtesy and respect that I’m giving them.

But this is not always the case. In fact, it’s becoming a rarity.

It’s hardly earth shattering news that cinema etiquette isn’t what it used to be. Recent research has shown that up to 70% of us believe things need to improve.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, but there are some things I just don’t do. Here’s a short list of some behaviours I am sure you have experienced that highlight a decline in standards:

  • Coming in late (buy a watch or stay home)
  • If the cinema’s close to empty don’t sit yourself down right in front of me (this is an unspoken rule amongst those of us in the know, so get with the program)
  • Chair kicking or pushing (what have I done to deserve that!)
  • Talking but especially asking questions and repeating dialogue (why are you showing off your memory skills, no one cares)
  • Older people talking very loudly (oh dear)
  • Kissing and fondling by the couple in front of you at highly inappropriate moments (inappropriate and often cringe worthy, save it for later or stay home)
  • Mobile phones beeping or ringing (more on that below)
  • Snoring (more on that below too)

Once upon a time, I think people felt some shame about treating the cinema like their own private living room. Today, it seems people want to behave like they want to behave wherever they are and fuck you if you are going to try and tell them otherwise. And anyway, I’d really rather not cause a scene – rather not have to tell you to stop whatever it is you might be doing that’s annoying the shit out of me and ruining my experience with this film. You’re not a child and I am not your parent.

There’s always been the rustle of potato chip packets, the shuffle and crunch of popcorn, the slurping of soft drinks up straws. There have always been couples whispering to each other and others hunching past you to visit the facilities. You put up with these things because the cinema isn’t filled with automatons after all.

But there is something else going on, I think.

Do people – now so accustomed to ‘free’ downloads and lounge room screenings – no longer know how to behave in a public cinema?

I think the answer to this might be yes based on some of the things I have had the misfortune to witness over recent months that have shocked me so much I just have to share them with you here.

Am I pushing the envelope too far to say that mobile phones should be surrendered at the door? At the arthouse cinema at which I see 99% of my films, they screen a still ad prior to the trailers that tells you that all of humanity will thank you for turning off your phone. This request is routinely ignored. Like most signs, people simply don’t read them. Thanks for trying guys, but I am sorry to tell you that once you come and check that the resolution of the screen and the sound are okay and close the doors behind you, you have no control over how people behave.

Case in point.

During a screening last year of The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney) some very crazy shit happened that made me think I was seated in the midst of a strange sociological experiment. Suggesting this is the only way I can explain what I am about to recount here.

Things started off okay. Then about halfway through the film, and at a pretty crucial moment, a phone beeped in the row immediately behind me. I heard the culprit shuffling around. You would think some of that shuffling included switching the damn phone off, but alas no. A couple of minutes later that same phone rang and the culprit proceeded to answer it, stand up to walk out and then start talking, loudly, ‘Oh, hi mate, I’m at the movies.’ No shit.

Ryan Gosling making a call to someone to come confiscate your mobile phone.

It gets better. It really does.

A little time passed. Things got a little messy for Ryan Gosling up on screen. Someone walked into the cinema. It was a woman, who I am pretty sure wasn’t returning from the toilet. I’m not going to judge her for skipping from one cinema to another. But let me just say, she should have left her phone wherever it was she came from.

Not long after her entry her phone started to beep and several text messages later a frustrated patron, sitting behind me, lost it and yelled out, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ You would think that would have done it. But no – she still sat there in her seat (which she probably didn’t pay for) and sent text message after message. While this was at least a silent act, the light from her phone was a constant distraction, flickering away in the corner of my eye. And I am pretty sure she wasn’t interested in anything happening up on the screen. When it was over, she sat through the credits, thumbs working overtime. As I left, all I could do was glare at her. She glared back. I was stunned. I really didn’t know what to say. Who behaves like that? And more importantly, why? Was I part of some Lord of the Flies style social experiment designed to see how much film audiences can take before losing it and turning on each other? Who knows?

Now to story number two.

An early Sunday morning screening of Shame (dir. Steve McQueen) with my brother takes the cake so far in 2012 for the buffet of bad behaviour it served up. A bleak, beautiful serious film (see my post entitled ‘Le petite mort’ for more on that), the cinema was full of over 65s, well actually, quite a few over 75s. Some men were alone (probably playing ‘pocket billiards’ as my brother informed me), others with women. I asked my brother, do they know what film they have come to see. It seemed like a strange choice. Did they realise that it didn’t star Judi Dench or Maggie Smith? That it contained no Tuscan vistas? Or poodles?

This probably sounds ageist – like I think older people should only see certain types of films (plus I really like both Judi Dench and Maggie Smith). I certainly hope that when I am into my 60s and 70s I’m still a passionate cinephile, still enjoying challenging material. But it’s what happened at the end of the screening, from the particularly old couple sitting to my right that has helped to strengthen my belief that knowing a little bit about the film you are going to see instead of playing Russian roulette with your hard-earned cinema cash is really a very good idea.

But let’s go back a bit.

During the screening itself, this older couple spent a lot of time talking to each other like they were at home. The female of the couple, in particular, was clearly not happy. She sighed and moaned (not with pleasure at the sight of Michael Fassbender’s loveliness) but in a way that suggested the whole experience of being there in that cinema was ponderous and painful to her in every way.

Disruptions during Shame were not limited to this twosome. In front of us, were a young couple, feeding each other salted snacks and crunching down on them so hard you’d think they were breaking concrete between their teeth. In case you don’t know, when people crunch in unison it’s very loud – surprisingly so. They were ravenous. Eggs Benedict at one of the nearby cafes might have been a better way to spend the morning.

In the final quarter of the film, as things really take a turn for the worse for our protagonist, a young man who had come in late decided now was as good a time as any to have a nap. His head dropped to his shoulder. And then he started snoring. He was extraordinarily loud. I wanted to kick him. He finally woke once the film was over and proceeded to ask for a rundown of what he had missed (like I said, probably the most significant scenes in the film) from the two dudes to his right. If he was that tired, why attend an 11am screening?

When Shame ended, ambiguously, but beautifully with Fassbender’s Brandon at a critical turning point in his life, the older couple to my right let out great, brash sighs and the female, again, feeling the need to let the entire cinema know just how she was feeling about things, screamed out, ‘Thank god that’s over … that was dreadful!!’

My brother and I were sitting there, still a little shell-shocked by the film, processing what we had just seen, and we had to listen to that. Nowhere on my ticket did it say that the price of admission included spontaneous eruptions of misery from three seats down.

Your bad behaviour makes Michael Fassbender want to cry. Shame on you.

I wonder what you are taking away from these little tales of mine apart from the fact that people’s dependence on mobile phones may be a sign of the coming apocalypse. What has struck me most about recent experiences in cinema etiquette decline is that this bad behaviour is not limited to the young, but seems to be coming from the middle-aged and elderly who, frankly, should bloody well know better. And if they don’t, they should please fondle their phones and complain about how terrible the film is in the privacy of their own homes. Where I don’t have to see or hear them.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t get any worse than this. A girl can dream, right.

Regardless of my bitter whine here, I solemnly declare that I won’t stop going to see films where the filmmakers intend their films to be seen – in a darkened cinema. It’s still one of my favourite things to do. With time, I assume I will evolve; I’ll learn to shut the distractions out. Or I’ll yell, hysterically. See you there.


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