For anyone who hasn’t seen the tv show firefly (and what are you doing reading this if you haven’t seen it yet?), in one famous scene, Shepherd turns to Mal and warns him against taking advantage of an innocent woman. In his words, “if you take advantage of that young woman you’re going to burn in a very special kind of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters…and people who talk in the theatre”. You see there are few crimes worse than talking in theatres and cinemas. When you pay for a cinema ticket, you’re buying more than a chance to see a film. You’re buying an experience. An atmosphere you can’t find at home. Atmosphere is why concert tickets are so expensive. It’s why seeing friends is better than messaging them. It’s what makes or breaks a great fantasy book. It’s something you feel but can’t easily press upon, until something draws you out from it. Like that idiot in the seat behind you talking to his friend. His life story regrettably does not compliment the film.
These people somehow believe that if they yell at the screen itself, the actors or characters might somehow hear them, take note and adjust their actions accordingly (such is the power of the almighty heckler). Audience reaction helps with atmosphere of course. ‘Planet of the Apes’ could not have had such an impact at cinemas without hearing audiences gasp in unison at its shocking twist. Would ‘Love Actually’ have been so popular without laughter in the theatre. Can ‘A.I’ be so powerful without the muffled sobs in the dark. These reactions build upon the shared emotional experience.
Not so much when I went to see ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’ as a kid along with 500 hundred other eleven year old boys (it was a camping trip and bad weather screwed up plans. Don’t judge). This film barely had a chance to build atmosphere; not when hundreds of prepubescent, just realised they liked girls, boys yelled at any sexual reference. One guy doing that can be annoying. 500 more of them and it’s closer to a prison riot. There was one scene in which Cameron Diaz is stripped of her clothes via whip and then sat practically naked inside a giant martini glass as part of a distraction scheme (I’m not making this up, I swear). I have no idea if the characters said anything in this scene or if there was even music. I did hear a lot of ‘damns’ though.
This trend is not restricted to teenagers alone. They come in all ages. When I went to see ‘x-men: first class’, there were four big guys sitting right in front of me who tried to encourage January Jones and Rose Byrne to undress further early into the film. It wasn’t until the action kicked up that they piped down, with the exception of the last scene when Rose Byrne regretfully tells her bosses at the FBI that she remembers nothing. The head of the FBI leans back in his chair after hearing this and says “you see gentlemen. This is why the FBI shouldn’t employ women”. As soon as he said this line, the cinema boomed as those same four guys ahead of me yelled ‘ooooooooooohh’. (Can’t say if it’s just guys though, that act this way. I didn’t go see ’50 Shades of Grey’).
Or when I went to see Ghibli’s ‘Arrietty’, the theatre was packed with my friends and Japanese students. With everyone showing up in such large groups, chatting was inevitable but the staff and I did our best to warn the ring leaders before the film began. At last everyone is silent. The films continue undisturbed. Then the terrible scene when one of the adults captures Arietty’s mother and locks her in a glass jar. She peers into the glass and tells her how she’s going to sell her for a fortune, and then they’ll dissect her for scientific research. All the while Arriety’s mother weeps inside the glass jar, and is left locked away in a dark cupboard. As this scene ends the audience silence breaks as someone whispers loud enough for the entire room to hear.
Naturally it was my friend Mon Mon, and upon recognising her voice, I slumped into my seat.
That one person who feels that everyone else isn’t quite feeling the right emotion and needs a hand. That person who thinks you don’t get just how serious or big a story like ‘Shindler’s list’ is. Or decides to congratulate the character on their success on behalf of the entire audience. When Melanie Griffith beats Sigourney Weaver in ‘Working girl’, the preacher is that person who yells ‘yeah, you go girl!’, and tries to stir everyone else up who just want to politely enjoy the film quietly. In Sheffield, there was a week long event run by the university to raise awareness of black history, and for this effort, the cinema put on ‘The Help’ depicting the lives of a group of African American women in the 60s. Close to the end of the film, the racist people are thwarted, the heroines are triumphant and just then, in that moment, one woman at the back of the cinema stands up and claps. Slowly, and loudly. Clap……clap………clap. Appreciating the film isn’t enough you see; the rest of the audience must be urged to applaud in the most patronising way possible. (And then you can’t refuse to clap, because you’ll appear to be rooting for the racist bunch. Bloody preachers).
Accidents are inevitable at times. You’re in the middle of a tense scene of a film when the doors suddenly open, letting light rush into the theatre, and you hear that scuffle of feet as the person rushes back out. Wrong screen. The hero was just about to confess his love but the romance is somewhat shaken by the whispered ‘ah damn, it’s not this one’ down at the bottom of the stairs. This is generally not such a problem with one exception that I experienced alongside my sister. She’s an ‘Underworld’ film fan and we went to see ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’ (the third one they did. Vampires and werewolves for moody teenagers. Or emos if you prefer). Lots of monsters, blood, dismemberment and violence, as you would expect. And then there’s the sex scene, where Rhona Mitra’s (not Kate Beckinsale. Aha, caught you out too didn’t they) character straddles Michael Sheen outside in the rain. It’s all very dramatic and to make it that little bit more ridiculous, he leans back and dangles his entire torso off the edge of a cliff while she rides him (subjectively sexy, terrifying or hysterical). In this exact moment, this one dramatic sex scene of the film, the doors open and a group of 7 wanders in. Then they stop at the bottom of the screen.
“This isn’t ‘Hotel for Dogs!'” a little boy’s voice cries. Me, and every single person in the audience looks down at the 6 children, toddlers among them, and the mother leading them out as fast as possible with her deathly white face. (The screen for Hotel for Dogs right beside Underworld; almost as apt as how the Early learning centre store is right beside Ann Summers in my hometown. One inevitably leads to the other I suppose). Suffice to say, the moody dark tone of the film we saw was ever so slightly cut up after this accident.
By far the greatest sinners of the cinema world. That person who has already seen the film, loved it enough to come back a second time, and has conveniently forgotten that everyone else doesn’t know what’s coming next. This comes in two forms. Give for example when I went to see ‘Batman versus Superman’ and some guy took it upon himself to say every cool line, just before actors did. “Maybe it’s the Gotham city in me. We’re just a little sick of freaks, dressed like clowns” is a cool Batman line, and Ben Afleck does a good job of delivering it. That guy in the oversized jumper two rows down who managed to say it first did not improve on it. All I got instead was a damn echo. Then there’s the second type of spoiler, the more direct kind. I went to see the incredible Hulk with Edward Norton and half way through the two guys in front started talking. “Ok. So Tim Roth is going to turn into the abomination. A big old monster to fight the Hulk. Edward Norton is going to temporarily lose his powers but he gets them back just in time for the final monster fight. Marvel has such convenient writing. But still way better than the last one right”. So one, screw you man. Yes I know, it’s the Edward Norton Hulk film and anyone could have guessed that plot but on principle don’t tell people. Two, I’ve stopped listening to Norton’s emotionless empty voice and I can’t complain about that afterwards if you’re distracting me. And three, and far more importantly, you bite your tongue. The 2003 Eric Bana Hulk was brilliant. Pfft.
Now I myself am not entirely without sin. Through pure accident I once dropped a bag of skittles onto the floor mid way through a film. The pitter patter of sweets bounced off the floor like rain drops for long unbearable minutes. And like the fool that I was, I tried to salvage them, tipping the bag further and letting those tiny balls of sugar chink even more as I tried to scoop them back into the crinkly packet. But I was young then and felt very guilty for it and therefore deserve some compassion. Please. All I said was “Oh good God…”.
A lesson in common sense. Don’t talk in the cinema. Laugh, cry, steal kisses from your sweetheart at the back, stuff your face with popcorn at the front. Grind your teeth when the villain comes on screen, swoon when that actor you love smiles into the camera, hold your breath as the cgi throws the action into slow motion. Do this and more when you’re in the cinema, and revel in that communal feeling. But for God’s sake, do not talk.