This past Christmas I found myself with some time to kill between the morning festivities and the evening hijinks, so I decided to treat myself to a matinee showing of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s newest film. I thought it was a safe choice, as the film had been in general release for a couple of weeks, and theaters were full of new, fluffy holiday fare like Little Fockers and the Jack Black vehicle Gulliver’s Travels (or period pieces like True Grit and The King’s Speech for those without kids). It seemed unlikely there’d be much turnout for a psychosexual drama set in a professional ballet company.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
I arrived a good twenty minutes before show time, and the theater was already half full of people all over the approximate age of sixty, doubtless thinking they were there to see a nice film about ballerinas. I wondered with bemusement how many of them would be blind sided by the much ballyhooed Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis sex scene, and wind up walking out.
Turns out the old folks weren’t the problem. That dubious honor belongs to the extended family who walked in loaded with concession stand snacks just as the coming attractions began rolling and took up the entire row directly behind me. While the rest of the audience sat spellbound this group proceeded to munch, joke, and converse through the film: “What’s going on?” “What is that?” “Hee-hee, I dropped popcorn down my boobs.” “The mom must be poisoning her.” “Did you get it out?” “This is just like that episode of [insert title of asinine reality show here]!”
Black Swan, like all of Aronofsky’s films, is a study in obsession, in this case told entirely from the perspective of Natalie Portman’s character Nina, who I’m fairly certain is in every scene. While it’s less labyrinthine than his earlier film The Fountain, it’s still a tricky, nuanced, and at times breathtakingly beautiful picture, the kind you find yourself thinking about afterwards regardless of whether you liked it or not. It’s the kind of film that demands the viewer engage in a behavior that is increasingly becoming anathema to American audiences: thinking. In short, it’s the exact kind of film that I love, and one that was demonstrably smarter than the jerks sitting behind me.
I tried to be tolerant; really, I did. Christmas Day, goodwill towards men and all that. But few things in day-to-day life raise my ire faster than rude behavior at the theater. I’ve snatched cell phones out of hands and clambered over rows of chairs to confront talkers; heaven help you if you keep kicking the back of my seat. So after forty-five minutes of their babble I could take it no longer. “Really?!” I growled at them, loud enough that the rest of the audience could hear. “You’re going to be THOSE people?”
Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but it got the job done. There wasn’t a peep out of them for the rest of the film, and when it was over they left without a word.
Behavior like this has become more and more pervasive and socially permissible over the last several years, I’ve noticed. I’m not entirely sure why, and I don’t understand it, since as a child I was emphatically taught not to talk in the theater. It’s the principle reason why I (a confessed film junky) hardly ever go to the movies these days, the rising cost of even a matinee ticket being the other.
It’s also part of why my once-gregarious taste in film has become more selective of late. The only big-budget Hollywood movies I recall seeing in the theater during 2010 were Iron Man 2, Inception, and The Social Network, and more and more I find myself eschewing the big studio fare for smaller independents and foreign films. Thanks to the monopolistic stranglehold theater conglomerates like AMC have on the market, I usually have to go of my way to one of the smaller art house venues scattered around town, but I’m not complaining. I’m lucky to live in a city with enough cultural demand for this sort of film that these theaters can stay in business despite the presence of the megaplexes. Many, many others haven’t been so lucky.
I said before that I don’t know exactly why obnoxious behavior in the movies is becoming prolific, but I have a theory: big-budget films are getting stupider, and as a consequence so are the audiences. So many movies released these days are gee-whiz-bang! vehicles of action and special effects that require no engagement from their audience whatsoever. They’re purely passive entertainment, designed to allow the viewer to disconnect for two hours. Movies like these are the filmic equivalent of a Big Mac: tasty, perhaps, and a nice treat from time to time, but ultimately just a mass-produced product of dubious nutritional value. And they’re having just as destructive an effect on our minds as fast food is on our bodies.
Think I’m wrong? Think about how many people you heard say the plot of Inception or the third Pirates of the Caribbean was too complicated to follow. More complex than they needed to be? Perhaps. Too complex to follow? Not at all.
Or, alternately, ask someone at random what they think of silent or black and white films. If, like me, you’re a lover of both mediums, the answer will usually dishearten you.
Consider Casablanca. While not quite the flawless masterpiece it’s often held up to be, it’s still a damn good film, and one that assumes the viewer has pretty good grasp of current world events circa 1941. Aside from a brief (historically inaccurate) opening narration about European refugee paths into Morocco, the film offers no expository history lesson; either you’re informed enough to keep up, or you’re not. I once had to stop the film halfway through showing it to a girlfriend who’d never seen it before to explain why the French police captain played by Claude Rains takes orders from the Nazis. Would a film like this find an audience if it were released today? I doubt it. Those that did show up would probably get bored after ten minutes and start tossing half-chewed Milk Duds at each other.
Because this is what we have now, thanks to all these hyperkinetic special effects extravaganzas, formulaic thrillers, and insipid rom-coms: audiences unable to intellectually engage with more challenging material, who resort to juvenile behavior as a mask for their boredom and unease. Audiences conditioned to accept a movie as an insular experience that provides visual stimulation without provoking critical thought – or, at best, the illusion of critical thought. Why in the hell else would the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich continue to find employment?
It’s not even generational, either; I snapped at a pair of adults during a showing of Let the Right One In who seemed under the impression that, because the film was in Swedish, it was perfectly fine to talk over it. I’d go so far as to say children these days seem better behaved at the movies than adults do, at least in my experience.
I don’t mean to suggest that there should be an IQ requirement for appreciating a certain kind of film. Far from it; anyone should be welcome to view any film they want, and I’m all in favor of people trying to broaden their perspective. But in a market where more and more movies are being measured solely by their varying degrees of Awesome!, that’s seldom ever the case.
Yes, I’m familiar with the argument, “My day was hard. I just want something I can turn my brain off for and enjoy for two hours.” I get that, and it’s fine – on occasion. But why do you need to go to the theater to do that, especially if your inclination is to act like a hyperactive child when you do? Hours and hours of mindless visual junk food are piped into your TV every night, lots of it for free. So why spend a bunch of money just for the luxury of inconveniencing other people?
I love the movies. I really, really do. Lowbrow, highbrow, classics, current…doesn’t matter. I don’t believe any one type of film is automatically superior to another. Because, at it’s best – and I mean, at it’s very, very best – moviegoing is the act of gathering with a group of strangers to share a collective dream. I’m just so damned tired of how many movies these days are being described as “Exactly what you’d expect a film about _____ to be, and nothing more.” Why this is considered praise, as it so often seems to be, is beyond my understanding. All that statement says is, “Congratulations on rising to meet an already low bar! Good for you for not trying to excel!”
The hell with that, I say. I want to be challenged. I want to be tantalized. I want my expectations grabbed and subverted. I want to respond with emotion, not apathy. I want to reward my brain, not turn it off. At the risk of sounding like an utter film snob, what I want is to see is a piece of fucking art.
OK, dummies, here’s the deal I’m prepared to make with you: if you don’t like the movie, or don’t “get” it, just…leave. That’s it. Don’t start talking, don’t play on your cell phone or with your Game Boy. Just calmly walk out. No one will judge you for it, since we’re all too busy enjoying the film. Go to the ticket office and ask for your money back. You’re a consumer and the theater is a business like any other, and if you’re not happy with the product you’ve paid for you’ve every right to ask for a refund or an exchange. Odds are good they’ll be playing something else you’d rather see anyways.
But if you do choose to remain, well, consider yourself duly warned.