On a quiet Tuesday night, in a beautifully restored “art” theater in the Philadelphia suburbs, I went to see a screening of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science fiction film 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe.
I was not the only one sitting in that art deco treasure of a movie house, wanting to take a second look at this complex, challenging film on the big screen. There was an audience of 50 or so others who paid their $9.50 for the privilege, even though it was readily available for $2.99 on demand or reasonably for sale or rent on DVD or Blu-ray.
It was a good thing that people still wanted to see “old” films in the theaters, and they would go out of the way to do so, I thought. In fact, this particular theater had done quite well in the past, showing Laurel and Hardy movies, Three Stooges shorts, Hitchcock classics and past summer blockbusters like Jaws and Aliens.
The composition of the audience was a generally well-balanced group of college-aged kids, young professionals, middle-aged couples, thirtysomethings and a few senior citizens.
Shortly after I nestled into my comfy seat, next to two co-workers also attending the screening, the film started. A loud rustling of a plastic bag behind me became an intermittent annoyance throughout the film, as well as the occasional tapping of feet at the back of my chair. It was coming from two women sitting behind me. No talking, thankfully, but acts still equally verboten in movie theaters.
In addition to these aggravations were the glaring cell displays from people texting during the film. These were not as consistent, but certainly enough to divert my attention away from the screen nonetheless.
These people obviously wanted to see 12 Monkeys on the big screen, just as my friends and I did. So why were they doing this? Along with pre-film, on-screen slideshow reminders to turn off cell phones and avoid texting, several signs posted throughout the theater reminded people of proper theater etiquette. My disappointment was obviously compounded by the fact that, if you can’t watch a film in peace at 7:30 on a rainy Tuesday night in this theater, with this audience, then when and where can you?
Um, how about at a critic’s screening? I had been lucky enough to attend these from time to time in order to prepare for people coming to town for interviews. Over the last two weeks, I went to see an early showing of My Week with Marilyn so I could interview Simon Curtis, the film’s director.
The screening was taking place at 1 pm in the afternoon. Perfect, I thought. No zoo-like atmosphere, like those you can encounter at the nighttime screenings. I often avoid nighttime press screenings these days. Usually they are sponsored by local radio stations that give away tickets and branded tchotchkes to contest winners. In most cases, the recipients don’t care what movie they are seeing—they care that the movie is free. Rudeness often abounds in such situations.
So a morning or afternoon “critic’s screening” is one to relish. On this day, however, My Week with Marilyn seemed like My Year with Marilyn. But this certainly had nothing to do with the movie, which I found charming, well-acted and compelling.
In theaters with stadium seating, I try to avoid sitting in the stadium seats. I tend to sit down closer to the screen, just so I don’t have to be near people. This may seem anti-social, but the risk of being bothered is higher in the stadium-styled seats.
The movie began, and within minutes, a man wearing a baseball cap crept into the theater and took a seat in front of me. Within a few minutes more, his phone was out and he was going to town on the keyboard, the face of his cell bounding like a strobe in front of me. Now what? He subsequently put the phone down and there was peace in the world—for five minutes, until he flipped the sucker out again and began to type away like one of those secretaries in a 1950s movie set in a chaotic Manhattan office.
The practice took me out of a movie I was enjoying. I gave his seat a swift kick, hoping he would get a hint. He did, turning around in response to my not-so-kneejerk reaction—for about ten minutes. Then it was back to texting.
Egad. Recognizing it was time to make a move, I scanned the theater. Down my empty aisle I would go, sitting a row and a few seats in front of two young women who appeared enthralled with the film. Within seconds, I heard whispering—loud, disruptive whispering—followed by giggling. Surely, two young women sent to cover a film at a 1 pm screening couldn’t be conversing, could they? They stopped, then started. Then stopped. And started again. I turned around and shushed them. They stopped. And started. Again. I glared. I glared and shushed louder—but not, I had hoped, loud enough to annoy the other people in the audience.
I tried to desperately to keep my attention pinned to the screen, saying to myself, “At least this isn’t as bad as the serial texter with the arc light in his hand.” But their idle chit-chat and girly giggling drowned out my rationalization.
Then—as if someone heard me from above—it got quiet. Over my left shoulder I glanced, to see that their seats were vacant. How do you spell relief? E-M-P-T-Y S-E-A-T-S. Ding-dong, they were gone.
Or so I thought. I connected back into My Week with Marilyn, mesmerized by Michelle Williams’ tour de force performance as Monroe, Kenneth Branagh’s turn as the flustered Laurence Olivier and Eddie Raymayne’s work as the likeable Colin Clark, the assistant director who befriends the trouble blonde sexpot. Perhaps it was the sudden serenity of the movie theater that added to my enjoyment of the film? Certainly, that played a part in my experience.
Then…Theyyyy’re back! The chattering began after barely twenty minutes of short-lived nirvana. And we’re not talking Kurt Cobain here. I turned around and took note of their young age. I surmised these were obviously college students, assigned to cover the movie for their school newspaper. Then I let out a big, obnoxious “shooooosh.” Damn them and damn the other people in attendance. The two looked at each other like “How dare he.” Then they snickered and chatted some more. Hey, Chatty Cathys, clip those strings! Was I on some newfangled version of Candid Camera, I wondered?
The movie ended. Down the aisle, I noticed that the Textmaster General was gone, flew the coop.
Behind me, the two girls remained, still deep in conversation. I took inventory of what really happened with them. Let’s see:
- They come to a critic’s screening of a movie.
- They talk and laugh through the first ½ of the film.
- They leave for about 1/5th of the film.
- They return and talk some more.
Was I being overly sensitive about their behavior? Is it acceptable for people to act this way at the movie theater these days, even for a critic’s screening with maybe 20 people in the whole auditorium? Should I have joined them in their discussion and laughing, and the hell with everyone else?
As I exited the theater, a publicist asked me what I thought of the movie.
“Good movie…” I noted, as the flack scribbled down my response, “…but bad movie experience.”
The concerned PR pro looked upset. “What do you mean? Can you tell me?”
Quickly, I reiterated the sad tale of The Texter and the Yentas.
Two other members of the press corps backed me up, reporting that there was a lot of text messaging going on with the two cub reporters. I didn’t even see that go on, as I was seated in front of them. Turns out that my hunch was right—they were covering the film for their college newspaper. As for the Text Man, he was like a phantom in the night. Nobody saw him come in, nobody saw him leave. Weird. Really weird.
As the two loquacious ladies left the darkened theater to the light of the lobby, they were confronted by the public relations ace.
They were both told that texting and talking were no-nos at a press screening. “But we’re press,” one of them responded.
“Well, everyone here is press at the press screening,” the PR person responded.
The reporters smiled and giggled, then walked into the sunshine leaving me in the theater lobby, wondering.