The reason I bring this up is that originally this column was going to be about Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and the themes and depiction of big business in Hollywood films like Wall Street, Boiler Room, Other People's Money, etc. However, I decided to change the topic after having one of the worst times at a movie theater ever while trying to watch The Wolf of Wall Street. After getting my $7 medium popcorn and $5 medium Coke, I entered the theater and experienced a trifecta:
- People who thought it was a good idea to bring their crying infant to an 11 PM screening of a three hour long film.
- Cell-phones ringing during the film, since it's the year 2014 and some people still have not mastered how to put their phone on vibrate.
- Talking during the movie that eventually ended when punches were thrown at the people who wouldn't shut up.
Issues surrounding movie theater behavior have been around for a while, and I feel safe in saying that a vast majority of society thinks that anyone that talks in a movie or needs to use their phone in a theater is an asshole. However, believe it or not, there are some that think "shushers" lack cultural sensitivity and are "social conservatives" that are the true "oppressive assholes" that are being disrespectful of others. Moreover, this issue get into larger questions about selfishness in social interactions. For example, one of the beliefs about social networking is that it allows for a more transparent and interconnected society. The flip-side of that argument is that it has also created a society that feels compelled to check its phone every 15 minutes for the latest notifications, and expects social interactions to occur the way they happen online (i.e. on the individual's own terms) instead of dealing with the societal norms in the "real" world.
More on social etiquette below the fold.
The larger question: Has our culture become so private that no one knows how to behave anymore in public? Is selfishness the rule rather than exception? Are people who say, "Shut up and turn off your phone" today's version of "You kids get off my lawn"?While the film industry had a record year in 2013, in terms of revenue ($11 billion), that only occurred because of increased ticket prices. Movie attendance over the last decade has largely been declining to stagnant year over year.
-David Edelstein at New York Magazine's Vulture
In addition to the above, another factor cited by many is a decline in the theater experience. Some theaters have experimented with bigger, more comfy seats, alcohol and better food. There's also been calls to get tougher in enforcing movie theater behavior, since who wants to listen to people have a conversation over a movie, or sit next to someone that feels their text messages are so important that they can't put away their phone for two hours? If you want to talk with someone, go to a restaurant, go to a bar, hell go sit in the park. Why are you in a movie theater having a conversation? And if your life is so hectic and busy that you can't put away your phone for two hours because you can't miss an "important" message that might come through, maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't be in a movie theater.
Moviegoers above 30 are weary of noisy fanboys and girls. The annoyance of talkers has been joined by the plague of cell-phone users, whose bright screens are a distraction. Worse, some texting addicts get mad when told they can't use their cell phones.However, there are some people who don't see it this way, and think the selfish behavior actually runs the opposite direction. Some months back, blogger Anil Dash caused a bit of a stir and flame war when he published an essay titled "Shushers: Wrong About Movies. Wrong About The World." Dash argues that instead of the people talking and texting being the ones who are insensitive to others, it is the "shushers" in a movie theater that are being oppressive bullies to other human beings since they want a theater to behave like it's their living room instead of a public space.
-Roger Ebert, December 28th, 2011
Interestingly, the response from many creative people, who usually otherwise see themselves as progressive and liberal, has been a textbook case of cultural conservatism. The debate has been dominated by shushers, and these people aren't just wrong about the way movies are watched in theaters, they're wrong about the way the world works.While most of the reaction to this article was extremely negative, there were some that came to Dash's defense and agreed with his belief that shushing was a symptom of "cultural hegemony" of privileged classes. However, the problem is that Dash twists himself in knots trying to justify his words, since his argument basically boils down to something along the lines of "I don't like your societal norms, I don't have to respect them, but you should respect mine." People go to the movies because they like the communal experience. I love listening to and watching the reaction of an audience at a horror movie. I love hearing people cheer and clap at action movies. But those experiences are people interacting with a film. It isn't two dickheads sitting in a movie theater talking about the party over the weekend, and the misspelled text they just received from Jenny.
In any scenario of regressive resistance to cultural challenges, the responses usually cover a few common themes ... This list of responses pops up all the time, whether it’s for arguing why women should not wear pants, or defending slavery, or trying to preserve a single meaning for the word “ironic”, or fighting marriage equality, or claiming rap isn’t “real” music, or in any other time when social conservatives want to be oppressive assholes to other people ... Shushers say, “We have two different expectations over this public behavior, and mine is the only valid way. First, I will deny that anyone has other norms. Then, when incontrovertibly faced with the reality that these people exist, I will vilify them and denigrate them. Once this tactic proves unpersuasive, I will attempt to marginalize them and shame them into compliance. At no point will I consider finding ways for each of us to accommodate our respective preferences, for mine is the only valid opinion.” ... So, what can shushers do about it? First, recognize that cultural prescriptivism always fails. Trying to inflict your norms on those whose actions arise from a sincere difference in background or experience is a fool’s errand. Take a lesson from improv culture: You always have to say "Yes, and..."
Then, recognize your own privilege or entitlement which makes you feel as if you should be able to decide what’s right for others. There’s literally no one who’s ever texted in a movie theater who has said “Every other person in here must text someone, right now!” Because that would be insane. No one who would like to have wifi at a theater has ever said “Those who don’t want to connect should just stay at home!” Because they’re not trying to force others to comply with their own standards.
From Matt Zoller Seitz at New York Magazine's Vulture:
Strip away Dash's implicitly comparing himself to abolitionists and such, and you're left with a much simpler message, a variation of what pretty much any rude person might say in a theater if you asked them to quit kicking your seat, or try to go five minutes without talking, or to turn off their iPhone and emotionally engage with the movie: "I paid for a ticket, I can do whatever I want." Dash knows, or should know, that that sort of "defense" doesn't really fly in a world where adults have to share space. To return to his use of his word "bullying," this is actually the bully’s justification for doing as he pleases, a less belligerent version of responding to "Can you be quiet, please?" with "Make me." In the adult world, we make compromises, but at the same time, we try to respect baselines of what's considered acceptable behavior, because when we stop doing that, we're endorsing anarchy, and the notion that might makes right. What's happening in Dash's piece is a very deliberate attempt to move the baseline in a direction that redefines rude behavior as acceptable.One proposed solution to this problem is to accommodate people who want to talk and text by treating them the same way we treated smokers. Instead of smoking and non-smoking sections, segregate the audience into theaters that allow talking and texting, and theaters that strictly enforce a no-talking and no-texting policy. This is already being done when it comes to children and babies, with some theaters offering specific "baby day" showings.