Sunday, October 14, 2012


Ladies and gentlemen, for those who mourn the continuing degradation of the communal movie-going experience in the age of the multiplex, I offer this, yet another eyewitness battle report from the war on cell phone usage in movie theaters. And this one may feature the most brain-dead exchange yet.

The girls and I were watching Frankenweenie last night (no 3D, thank you), and 15 minutes into the movie, right after the dog is killed, a woman who was sitting with her husband and two kids whips out her cell phone (a.k.a. The Device We Just Can't Seem To Do Without These Days, or How Did We Ever Get By Before Verizon Became Our Most High God?). Of course she starts texting, as bright as you please. I tried to ignore it for about 30 seconds but became so distracted from the movie, during a crucial scene no less, that I just couldn't let this miscreant's rude behavior slide any longer. Using a tactic  I adopted from a friend, I leaned as far forward as I could from my seat so that I was hovering over her left shoulder, well within her peripheral field of view, and starting staring at her screen, saying nothing, as if I were trying to read what she was typing. Remarkably, even though I could practically breathe into her ear, it took her about another 30 seconds to notice me. And when she did, she turned back fully toward me, blinked slowly, looked up and inquired, "Um... whut?!"

I responded as politely as I could: "Ma'am, can you please put your phone away? You're distracting me and probably others who are trying to watch the movie." What she said next is something I have not ever heard offered by a text maniac before:

"Oh, it's okay. I'm not watching the movie."

Since this woman was clearly incapable of the act of rational, considerate thought, let's think about this for her for just a second. She moved her mouth, words came out, and they were quite remarkable, incredible (as in credibility-defying) words to say to someone who just called you out for passive-aggressive disruptive behavior in a movie theater. I think this is true for a couple of reasons.

1) Those words suggest that, even though the woman was there in the theater with her husband and two kids ostensibly taking part in a family outing, in her mind it seemed perfectly reasonable to pay $13 for her ticket alone just so she could sit in the dark and ignore the very thing she paid to see.  It obviously never occurred to this woman, if she really wasn't interested in Frankenweenie, to do like my wife did and stay home! No, it's more important to feign interest in taking part in a (rather expensive) family event and then utterly disregard the opportunity to bond with her kids over a movie they might possibly enjoy together and find worth talking about afterwards. (Really, you should try it, lady. My kids and I had a great time on the ride home recounting what we loved about the movie, as well as what we thought didn't work-- it's called encouraging critical thinking.)

But the second reason why her response was so dumbfounding is even more self-centered and awe-inspiring.

2) Remember, she said to me, "Oh, it's okay. I'm not watching the movie." So when I asked her-- and asked her politely-- to shut off her lifeline to the outside world for just 90 minutes, her tiny little mind started firing its short-circuited synapses and she ended up processing my request like a meat grinder turns beef into burger, until the meaning became something akin to:

"Ma'am, I'm concerned you may be missing an important part of the movie. Perhaps you should pay a little closer attention, lest you lose track of the plot and your experience with us here in the theater end up being far less rewarding than it could be."

Because, really, what other possible meaning could my request have to a woman whose immediate gratification and unwillingness to allow herself to shut out the outside world even for the length of a relatively brief movie are quite clearly the only things that matter?

After she said this to me, I feel like I must have stared at her blankly (in much the same way she was looking at me) for much longer than I actually did, so startled was I by the ginormity of her clueless-osity. But in fact I took probably only about two seconds, quickly adjusted my slackened jaw, regrouped and then stated plainly, with a lot less politeness than I used the first time, "You are not supposed to be texting in here right now. You are distracting people around you from the movie."

Her solution to my relatively in-her-face behavior was to turn slightly to the right, away from me and her husband, and try to hide the light of the phone from my field of view. But she must have eventually judged this taxing physical act of contortion to be just TOO inconvenient for her ease of thumb-typing words like "wat yu duing rite now?" or "Im havig bad gass hows yor rash?! LOL!" because after about 30 more seconds she gave up, put the phone away and remained blessedly dark for the rest of the movie.

And during this whole exchange, her husband, who was as close to me on my left as she was to me on my right, said not a word. He was either absorbed in the movie, or he was secretly enjoying the spectacle of watching (while pretending NOT to watch, of course) his serial-texting wife get bitched out by a total stranger during a movie he probably wanted to watch in peace himself. It might have been more satisfying, not to mention a much more entertaining finish to the story, if I’d taken out my cell phone, which was switched off, and clonked her on the head with that, causing her to flee the auditorium in fear of what I might do next. But I’ll definitely take whimpering resignation and compliance and call it a small victory.

What the hell is wrong with people? I sincerely want to believe that there are more smart, considerate people in the world than dumb, rude ones, but moments like this really make me doubt it. Back in the day, in my hometown, the owners of the local movie theater, Bob and Norene Alger, were widely disliked by the general populace, or at least the ones who went to the movies every week, in part because they tended to put on airs—they owned a shiny Mercedes in a town where most folks couldn’t be bothered to keep their beat-up pickup trucks clean, they seemed comparatively humorless (the fact was that their perhaps overly dry humors again just didn’t mix well with a town full of belly laughers), and they were bad at masking their disdain for those who seemed beneath their station. But they were known throughout the county for their attempts at strict enforcement of behavior rules in the movie theater, which was certainly their prerogative as the owners and operators of the establishment.  I often wondered if bringing movies to our little cow town really meant all that much to them in the grand scheme of things, and there certainly were plenty of other facets of the actual presentation of the movie that could have been improved that, for one reason or another, never really were. But at least the Algers took the experience of the audience seriously, on the level of simple courtesy toward others who were trying to watch the movie in relative peace. They cared at least a little about making the customers who may have had few entertainment options (and in Lakeview our choices were definitely limited) actually want to come back. 

In modern multiplexes like AMC, where we were last night, there is typically a very big to-do made before the trailers come on with PSAs and disclaimers about their sacred stadiums being "no talking/texting zones." But just try to find someone to enforce that rule when you need one. In actuality, when the rubber meets the road the audience is on the honor system, and it seems there's damn little honor to go around these days when it comes to watching a movie in a big room with a bunch of strangers who, under normal day-to-day circumstances, we're not encouraging ourselves to really give a damn about. (Imagine if the thought had occurred to last night's cud-chewer that, hey, maybe I should set a good example for my kids, not be myopic and selfish and inconsiderate for once, leave the phone in my purse and model for them a little courteous, attentive public behavior.)  And I wish there was some way the Alamo Drafthouse could bless and anoint a version of the famous phone message left by an irate customer whom they shushed for cell phone abuse during one of their screenings and make it available to show in all multiplexes.

But at the very least, multiplex chains like AMC ought to stop paying lip service to discouraging cell phone use during movies if they are going to simultaneously screen ads from Verizon and Sprint and every other carrier during the endless pre-show distractions, many of which are devoted to selling you on how much fun it is to sit around and diddle with your smartphone. (God help us if theaters actually start to follow through on the absurd suggestions of some that texting actually be encouraged by the big theater chains.) But then again, integrity is the last thing I’d expect from these faceless entertainment corporations when it comes to making sure the right hand doesn’t know or care what the left hand is doing. It’s enough to make you want to call in the ninjas.



James said...

Got to say, the multiplex owners are doing the best job at screwing the customers all by themselves.

Lasso The Movies said...

I love this! Well written and so true. Cell phones have ruined more movies for me than I can to remember. I feel that going to the theater is a great family experience and this lady was obviously missing the point.

Andy M said...

I had a similar (but very different) experience during a screening of Looper, where the guy two seats away pulled out his phone. I immediately (because the longer you wait, the harder it is to say something) whispered, "could you please put that away, it's distracting." He said, "ok, sorry" and left it in his pocket the rest of the movie.

Hope that restores a little of your faith in humanity.

Alex said...

My first line is, "The movie started, could you please turn off your flashlight?"

Alex said...

(By the way, "Frankenweenie" is stunning in black-and-white 3-D.)

Scott Nye said...

My experience has almost unilaterally been the same as Andy's - most of the time, people really are just dense and don't realize the distraction they're causing. Sure, some have been pretty rude in response, but they do shut it off.

Now, if it's somebody several seats or rows away, there's little I can do without causing an even greater disturbance (as when I saw The Punisher (2004 edition) and a guy in the way back of the theater was yelling at a guy in the first three rows, "Turn off your cell phone! Yes, it's that shiny thing in your hand! Put it away!").

So yeah, I could do with more enforcement of that, and other offenses, than what they're too often on the lookout for. This past weekend, a theater employee pulled a man out of Seven Psychopaths for (it appeared) not having a ticket, but did nothing about the guy who was pretty loudly narrating his view on the events and characters in the film. Theater's gotta protect its interest, I get that, but one of those interests should be its customers.

mike schlesinger said...

I saw FRANKENWEENIE this afternoon at the Burbank 16 FauxMax. Good news: only two other people in the theatre. Bad news: only two other people in the theatre.

Anonymous said...

I tried the 'lean over and watch what he/she's typing tactic' this weekend when the lady next to me was texting during "Beasts Of The Southern Wild". I don't think she even noticed what I did, but it ended fairly soon.

What's worse: earlier this year my wife tried to persuade me not to tell someone to put their phone away during Nuit #1 - she didn't want 'trouble'. But the texting meant to me there already was 'trouble', so that point ws moot.