The digital guru and blogger Anil Dash has raised hackles in cinephile circles today with a lengthy and rhetorically free-wheeling (to say the least) post called "Sushers: Wrong about movies. Wrong about the world." In this post he expresses a good deal of disapprobation against "regressive resistance to cultural challenges." (One of Dash's most lively rhetorical devices involves unpacking a lot of sophisticated language, which reflects well on his sophistication and vocabulary, but showing an extreme disinterest in what that language might imply against his argument, as in, for instance, what constitutes the difference between a "culture" and a "civilization," or what the difference might be between those entities and a "society" or even, heavens to Betsy, a "civil society." But, you know, if I drag Heideggerean concepts such as "authentic being" versus "inauthentic being" into this argument, we're gonna be here all day, so let's just table the observation for now.) In this case the regressive resistance is to people who want to pay money to go into a movie theater and treat the place like their living room: talk, text, do pretty much anything except engage with what's on screen. OK, Dash is cool if they wanna engage with what's on screen; he expresses almost awed delight, if not exactly pure solidarity, with an ostnsibly adult male who stood up and cheered at a robot's announcement of self-hood during a Transformers picture. Later, Dash sniffs, "When I saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi [sic] in a theater with only a handful of others in the audience, there was considerably less of that kind of dramatic response, but I liked that film very much as well. It’s fine for there to be movies that encourage quiet contemplation, too. If someone had pulled out a phone during the screening, it wouldn’t have bothered me at all. Maybe someone did, and I didn’t notice." It's great for Dash that he's capable of being so, you know, Zen. and I'm not being entirely sarcastic here; by the end of this piece I'll be recommending that you, too, adapt a similar approach. The good news for ME, personally, is that if Jiro Dreams of Sushi is Amil Dash's idea of an ideal quietly contemplative sinematic experience, there's little chance that I'm going to be sharing cinema theater space with the guy anytime soon.
Back when he was expressing doubts about the viability of home video equipment to reproduce cinematic experiences, Steven Spielberg compared the movie theater to a church, or perhaps a cathedral; I can't find the quote, but I feel pretty solid on it. In the recent book of Henry Jaglom's conversations with the great filmmaker Orson Welles, Welles, who throughout the book makes small jabs at young filmmakers for whom film culture is the only culture, recalls a much less sacrosanct age of moviegoing as it was done in New York City in the 1930s. "In my real moviegoing ays, which were the thirties, you didn't stand in line. You strolled down the street and sallied into the theater at any hour of the day or night. Like you'd go in to have a drink at the bar. Every movie theater was partially empty. We never asked what time the movie began. We used to go after we went to the theater. We'd go to the Paramount where they had a double bill, and see the B-pictures, and go to laugh at bad acting in the Bs. You know, childish, stupid things. [...] We'd leave when we'd realize, "This is where we came in.' Everybody said that. I loved movies for that reason. They didn't cost that much, so if you didn't like one, it was, 'Let's do something else. Go to another movie.' And that's what made it habitual to such an extent that walking out of a movie was what for people now is like turning off the television set." You also see, in the film writing by the French Surrealists, descriptions of how guys like Breton or Eluard would walk in during the middle of a picture, with no idea of what it was, the better to bring on the "derangement of the senses" they were in a Grail-like search for. None of which is the same thing as talking or texting during a movie, but bear with me for a moment.
I am not a historian so I cannot even begin to pinpoint the time during which the notion of the movie theater as a consecrated space came into being. But given certain cultural signifiers—the movie line confrontation scene in Annie Hall, for instance, and that movie's lead character Alvie Singer's neurotic refusal to enter a theater once the opening credits of a picture have begun—I infer that the art film, the repertory cinema, and the counterculture all had something to do with it. As for the end of the idea of the movie theater as a consecrated space, I could guess that future historians will pinpoint Susan Sontag's 1996 New York Times Magazine piece "The Decay of Cinema" as the green flag in the race to the end of it all. What Sontag experienced as the death of cinephilia has become, for a generation more than once removed from her own, a miniaturization and privatization, as it were, of cinephilia, with the theatrical experience and all its multiform glories and discontents being just one aspect of it. I'm old enough to have experienced both kinds, and while in many respect I prefer the thing that Sontag lamented, I'm not entirely discontent with the other. What one misses, increasingly, is something that may have always been a kind of willed delusion anyway: that in giving over our rapt attention to a screen we were engaging in a form of actual cultural communion rather than merely consuming a product. It's pretty clear from my reading of Dash that in his world, what constitutes culture is ONLY product, and that really is the thing that gives him an airtight case. Ah, materialism.
In his impatience with the "shushers," Dash unpacks what I'll call a fuckload of baggage in order to demonstrate that the moviegoers who believe that they are entitled to expect a modicum of what they understand to be polite behavior don't just not "get" today's groovy plugged-in world, but that they're racist, too. One of his straw men (he never directly quotes anyone) is of the opinion that talking and texting in movie theaters happens "because [those doing it] are of a race/class that does not know how to behave. (These days, people say 'acting ghetto' instead of 'I don’t like black people and their culture', or 'white trash' instead of 'I should be able to tell poor people how to act'.)" Hmm. Allow me to get a little "real" here. I've written more than once about my moviegoing experiences in Paterson, New Jersey in the late '70s, and in Manhattan's Times Square in the '70s and '80s. (Harlan Ellison, too, has some particularly vivid talking-back-to-the-screen anecdotes from his Times Square moviegoing days.) At my beloved Plaza Theater in Paterson, particularly, patrons, most of them African-American, came in during afternoon Kung Fu triple features with their boom boxes on, and left them on; they talked back to the screen with no compunction; some even got into knife fights with each other, halted, called a truce, and sat down and caught a bit of the movie. I didn't object to any of this, and it wasn't because I feared for my safety if I spoke up. It wasn't even because I felt like it would be presumptuous of me to do so because I was a "guest" in "their space." I kept my mouth shut because I understood the tacit social contract governing this theater was an entirely different one than the one that governed, say, Cinema Village, which at that time had a smoking semi-balcony in which My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ and I could sit and puff madly at our Winstons while staring in silent concentration at Syberberg's Hitler: A Film From Germany or maybe a David Cronenberg triple feature. But as far as the Plaza was concerned, it was not a case of my judging or generalizing with respect to some hostile "they." It was exercising a little amiable common sense.
Dash later gleefully announces, "The most popular film industry in the world by viewers is Bollywood, with twice as many tickets sold in a given year there as in the United States. And the thing is, my people do not give a damn about what’s on the screen." Dash is Indian, you see, that's why he calls them "my people." Goddamn John Wayne had a point about "the hyphen." OK, that's a bad joke (well, I don't actually think it's that bad), but Dash does, while thoroughly uncollegial likely does not lie with respect to what is, for lack of a better term, "cultural difference." Although how you even KNOW there is a baptism scene in The Godfather if it's on screen while you're comparing cricket scores is beyond me. Some multi-tasking I don't get, and also, how does Dash watch a cricket match? But still: Dash's description of an Indian cinema brought to mind the critically reviled Pirates of the Caribbean movies. These pictures do not function as coherent narratives but rather as environments; they in a sense encourage a mildly disinterested consumption. One can text and talk through it without actually "missing" anything. It's designed that way. As are, in a sense, the Transformers movies. Yes, they do contain elements that will satisfy the deeply passionate follower of Optimus Prime (Jesus Horatio Christ), but they are also, not to sound patronizing, eminently ignorable. This is not the future of moviegoing; it is contemporary moviegoing.
And while we're facing facts...well, I want to say "let's admit," but I hate that kind of writing, so instead I'll say that the lost Golden Age of Cultural Communion was not always all that. Before there were talkers and texters to complain about there were the inappropriate laughers; well I remember a rep screening of Laughton's Night of the Hunter that was all but ruined for me and the other sensitive soul I saw it with when what seemed like at least eighty percent of an admitedly packed house roared with derisive laughter at what my sensitive companion and I took to be one of the film's most touchingly lyrical moments, when the boat piloted by the two kids who are running from Robert Mitchum for their lives floats quietly past a lily pad and frog. Remember how we used to bitch about the insecure folks who signalled their "getting" every obscure cultural reference that showed up in a Godard film subtitle by ostentatiously chortling at it? Yeah, those guys were fun. (See today's excellent Film.com piece by Calum Marsh on "Watching Movies Ironically.")
So,while Dash's I-Am-The-Future triumphalism is hard to stomach, there are many ways in which he is, technologically and sociologically, not wrong. New generations used to get themselves noticed by trying to change the society that they lived in; now they affect a societal change by the way they choose to define experience. I think that Jason Bailey's recent Flavorwire piece, "The Only Way To Solve Movie Theaters' Talking And Texting Problem Is To Give In to It" makes good sense. (And it's not as defeatist as you might gather from its title.) I mean, let's remember a few things. First, unless you want to engage people directly, which runs the risk of leading to a confrontation that could get physical, you really can't control other peoples' behavior. Second, "rules" only go so far. And if a theater's management cannot make its rules count, you're out of luck. (Look up and memorize the Serenity Prayer, people.) Third, some people really are pretty awful about not caring whether your behavior is bothering them or not. Dash himself ends his post with a taunt to the shushers: " [Y]ou could do that thing where you turn around and glare really fiercely—it seems to be working great!"
Actually, that brings to mind a story I am not particularly proud to recount, but heck, I'll do it anyway, as it took place an awfully long time ago: 1987 or 88 if I'm not mistaken. I was with a friend at the very short-lived downtown arm of the Thalia repertory theater, and we were watching a picture. The Thalia was a small house, with terrible sightlines and a low ceiling with visible piping, but what were you gonna do. Some guy a few rows in front of us was chattering to a friend very, very loudly and very very constantly, and I said, "Would you mind keeping it down a little up there?" And the guy shot back, "What if I don't," and I glared, fiercely, and I said, "Maybe I'll break your fucking neck."
He shut up.
And the thing was, the movie was Beyond The fucking Valley Of The Dolls.