There Has Never Been a Golden Age of Undistracted Moviegoing

By  · Published on June 9th, 2015

Alamo Drafthouse (Screenshot)

Unwanted distraction in movie theaters is a near-universal experience amongst cinephiles, and it’s become a ritual of its own to share the worst – or even the most mundane – of such occurrences. For devoted moviegoers, there are few things that boil the blood quite like the concentrated light of a cellphone a few rows ahead, an unwanted commenter who decided your ticket should afford you a front row seat to their grating version of MST3K, or a sudden chorus of ironic, detached laughter. Suddenly, it’s not about the movie anymore. It’s about what you should do – or even can do – as compounding annoyance threatens to overtake your observant silence.

Such occurrences have not only been the subject of numerous editorials about movie theater decorum, and how to deal with its ruptures, but have constituted nearly the entire brand identity of one well-respected theater chain.

Amy Nicholson wrote recently on the subject with a widely shared piece about her experience at the LA Opera’s exhibition of Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World in order to lament the greater difficulties of attending repertory programming in LA:

“Ironic laughter has ruined a half-dozen old movies I’ve gone to in the last few years, and it seems be getting louder. I’ve heard horror stories of audiences guffawing through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Thing, Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather – c’mon, The Godfather!?”

With all of this attention given to movie theater interruptions (and its particularly 21st century permutations), it would seem that theatrical moviegoing is in a state of crisis that can’t be measured by dwindling box office receipts or competition with other media platforms. The reverence that was once given to movie theaters – before the advent of texting, or when movies were palaces of spectacle, or before, in Nicholson’s words, modern repertory audiences felt the need to “one up the past” – seems to have given way to an impatient, dual-screened, and collective lack of self-awareness.

But history tells us something different – that distracting theatrical experience has been a fact of moviegoing as long as movies have existed.

Last month at a centennial symposium on the life and work of Orson Welles, Welles historian Joseph McBride narrated a problematic theatrical experience that contributed to the unfortunate fate of the director’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

At a Los Angeles test screening in 1941, a group of teenage boys reportedly laughed and jeered loudly throughout the film at Ambersons’s tragic “spinster” character, played by Agnes Moorehead, a distanced (not to mention sexist) collective reaction that undercut the character’s dramatic moments. Whether looking for an excuse to take the film away from Welles or scared into making changes by the awful test screening, this collective reaction against the grain of Andersons’s intent helped in some way to seal the film’s compromised rollout and its heavy recutting by RKO.

However, McBride asserted, the screening cards told a much more complex story, and captured the revelatory experience that several audience members had watching the film. Perhaps at least one of the film’s early written words of praise even came from a mocking teenage boy. Regardless, the most vocal reaction to the film was, for what it’s worth, not indicative of the entire crowd’s experience.

While not only showing us that dismissive laughter is hardly an issue exclusive to the modern moviegoer, this case speaks to the strange, sometimes contradictory space of democracy that is the movie theater. In theatrical moviegoing, we are ideally expected to share an emotional, thematic, and/or aesthetic experience that the film intends – it’s in sharing laughs, surprises, and even the general flow of images onscreen that a movie theater reveals itself to be a uniquely powerful space in which one temporarily becomes part of a collective experience with strangers.

Such a space can be broken by the slightest interruption, from an unintended snore to the ping of a received text message. And people who ostensibly care about going to the movies have continually searched for ways to manage such occurrences. As reported by Erin Blakemore of Smithsonian earlier this year, attempts to establish moviegoing decorum have existed since the silent era. In 1912, designers John D. Scott and Edward Van Altena assembled a series of slides as visual guides that demonstrated “good” behavior to “bad” audiences, which included illustrated instructions such as “Ladies kindly remove your hats” and “Loud talking or whistling not allowed.” Blakemore paired this anecdote with other creative attempts to condition moviegoing propriety, including a 1909 short that features a giant contraption eating distracting, screen-blocking hats whose comic threat now looks like a Gilded Age precursor to The Alamo Drafthouse’s viral-ready No Talking PSAs.

What were some other distractions in silent-era moviegoing? According to a 1922 etiquette columnist, “A very annoying person at the ‘movies’ is one who reads every ‘caption’ out loud.”

It’s perhaps best to think of the potential for cellphones and unwanted conversation to break the hypnotic power of the film screen not as an escalating problem, but a contemporarily specific iteration of interruptions that have existed across individual screens throughout the medium’s existence, regularly attended with corresponding efforts at bringing such activities to light.

But on a bigger scale, this collective power of the theatrical experience also carries its opposite: the potential for a significant mass of the audience to move in opposition to the film in ways that are equally powerful, not to mention powerfully disruptive of the supposed ideal of passive observance. For movie theaters expect a unique, possibly contradictory form of human interaction: they are an inherently social space, but one in which social activity is expected on a rather sanctioned basis. You are presumed to engage with what’s unfolding before you, but only in the right kind of way.

The history of moviegoing suggests that we have rarely obeyed such unwritten social rules together in the dark, with this 1943 photo spread illuminating the various activities that happened in just one New York theater, showing how variously social such a space has proven to be.

Audiences have also rejected the idea of conducting themselves subordinate to the images onscreen for more decisive ends. In 1930, a group of fascists threw ink onscreen at an early showing of Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or, erroneously thinking this would somehow damage the film itself. During the second half of the 1950s, British newspapers and tabloids carried numerous articles about the “riots” caused by teddy boys in theaters showing the newest rock ’n’ roll musicals. And “ironic laughter” has produced several long-lasting interactive traditions of cult filmgoing. Just as the movies give a large group of strangers a space to be awed in silent reverence, it’s also proven equally capable of using that same social dynamic towards reactionary ends on behalf of audiences who realize the power they possess to change the meaning of the movie and the tone of the space in which it’s being projected.

As people who care about movies, and as people who should care about the experiences of other people, we should all be self-reflective and aware of our behavior within the strange, unique, and sometimes even transformative space of the movie theater. But the tsk-tsks at fellow moviegoers that cyclically occupies the blogosphere too often assumes as a backdrop a uniform and singular function of the movie theater that was more widely accepted during some undefined, idealized past. In actuality, the movie theater has never been a place without distraction, just as the space of the movie theater has never produced one style of behavior. Going to the movies is exciting because we get to share it with an audience, and audiences – for better and worse – have rarely been complacent.