Essay: Of manners, movies and the sorry state of spectatorship


‘The Tree of Life,’ left, caused one theater to post a memo warning about the film’s complex structure, after movie-goers demanded refunds. D.C.’s Avalon Theatre, top right, has surrendered to those who text while watching. ‘The Artist,’ bottom right, has drawn complaints from patrons who didn’t realize it was silent.
Ann Hornaday
Movie critic February 3, 2012

Last summer, denizens of the movie-watching world were abuzz over two cases of mortifying behavior in theaters: In Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema ejected an audience member for texting during a movie, in accordance with its rules. A few hours later, the angry young woman left a rambling, profane message on the theater’s voice-mail system (which Alamo owner Tim League promptly repurposed into an equally profane and utterly hilarious anti-texting trailer).

Shortly thereafter, the manager of the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Conn., was compelled to post a memo to his patrons reminding them that Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” — an ambitious, discursive, occasionally confounding meditation on everything from the creation of the universe to patriarchal family dynamics in 1950s America — was, indeed, an ambitious, discursive, occasionally confounding meditation on everything from the creation of the universe to patriarchal family dynamics in 1950s America.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic. View Archive

“We would like to remind patrons that ‘The Tree of Life’ is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film by an auteur director,” the memo read, before understating, “It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling.” The note concluded by announcing that the theater would not be handing out refunds to disgruntled audience members — a policy they needed to reinforce after a few filmgoers walked out on the film and demanded their money back. “The Avon stands behind this ambitious work of art and other challenging films, which define us as a true art house cinema,” the memo concluded, “and we hope you will expand your horizons with us.”

Expanding their horizons? What a quaint idea. More and more, it seems, that’s the last thing filmgoers are interested in doing. Powered by fandom’s technologically amplified voice, they instead prefer cinematic experiences that simply confirm their own assumptions of what a cinematic experience should be.

Through such outlets as Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, the notion that “everyone’s a critic” has never been truer. Or scarier. Because with that exciting new empowerment has come an unwelcome petulant edge. A sense of ad­ven­ture has been replaced, in some quarters, by a sense of entitlement.


New rules for the modern film-goer — Rule No. 1:Turn off your phone. That means texting, too. Seriously. (Mikey Burton/For The Washington Post)

If 2011 was the year of Angry Voters and Angry Birds, it was also the year of the Angry Moviegoers.

The months since the “The Tree of Life” memo have brought fresh outrages, from the woman who sued the company that released “Drive” because it didn’t contain enough driving, to the British filmgoers who recently demanded refunds when they realized that “The Artist” was a silent movie (no word on whether they contacted their lawyers when they saw that it was in black and white).

Dear filmgoers, as a critic, I cast myself as your advocate in the multiplex. I try — with limited success, judging from a couple of recent e-mails about “The Grey” — to shine a light on deserving gems, warn you off the dreck and somehow anticipate the individual tastes and desires of an audience that spans generations, genders, ethnicities, religious creeds and constitutional tolerance of sex, violence and Adam Sandler comedies.

When it comes to movies, for 364 days a year I’m in your corner, rewarding merit, providing context and calling out cynicism, hypocrisy and pretentiousness to the best of my critical abilities.

Today? We need to talk.

To quote the musical “Nine,” the cinema today is in a crisis — and “Nine” itself notwithstanding, the worst isn’t necessarily always on or behind the screen. In fact, a distressing proportion of it is coming from an audience in apparent need of tutoring, not only in how to behave in a movie theater, but in managing its own aesthetic expectations.

It’s hard to believe that we still have to go over the no-texting rule, but device addiction has only worsened in recent years, making it all but impossible to watch a movie without something beeping, blinking or lighting up. As the notorious Alamo texter shouted, welcome to the Maglited States of America, baby.

Andrew Mencher, director of programming and operations at the Avalon Theatre, has declared tactical defeat in the battle against texting. Zero-tolerance, he says, is no longer an option. “Our feeling is that to try to accost somebody in the middle of a show is more of a distraction than it is to hope that whatever they’re doing is going to be brief,” he says. “It’s frustrating, but unfortunately it’s probably the way of the world right now.”

Far more troubling for Mencher and other presenters is a newly aggressive stance that leads filmgoers to blame the theater — and, yes, their local critic — when a movie doesn’t live up to the hype, or when they simply don’t like it. New technology has helped condition filmgoers to see movies how, where and when they want. But that user-centric ethos seems to be curdling into the irrational expectation that the movies will be what they want.

Based on interviews with local exhibitors, Washington filmgoers are mostly exempt from this rant (and those who aren’t . . . you know who you are). Mencher admits that, once in a while, his regular patrons will express dissatisfaction at something he’s shown (least popular in recent years: “Borat”). In those cases, he’s given his managers discretion to hand out movie passes, to better to keep faith with the Avalon’s loyal guests.

Things are also pretty quiet over at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, although they have put up a preemptive sign warning patrons that “The Artist” is indeed silent. (The last time they went to such measures was with the 2010 movie “127 Hours,” which, they warned viewers, contained a potentially troubling sequence of a man amputating his own arm.) “Not that we’ve had problems,” says Landmark publicist Stephanie Kagan, before quietly mentioning that a few viewers complained about the nudity in “The Iron Lady” — nudity that amounts to a brief shot of a topless woman in a newsreel. To which one can only respond: Really?

Whether it’s the metaphysical meanderings of “The Tree of Life,” or a relatively tame, Margaret Thatcher biopic, a small but vocal segment of the filmgoing public — even in cine-sophisticated Washington — won’t be happy unless a movie conforms flawlessly to their unique, preconceived notions of what that movie was supposed to be — either in their heads or based on reviews they’ve confused with beat-by-beat synopses.

With a night at the movies easily topping $25 with parking and popcorn, a customer-is-always-right attitude is understandable. Filmgoers are utterly justified in demanding the best when it comes to excellent production values, stories that don’t insult their intelligence, crisp projection and clean, smoothly run theaters. Anyone conscientious enough to consult a review — or better, a range of them — in order to make the most informed decision possible deserves to be rewarded with the aesthetic experience they’ve prepared themselves for.

But even armed with the most careful, comprehensive reviews, viewers still decide to see a movie based on imperfect information. Whether it’s a one-star pan or a four-star rave, a piece of criticism is always incomplete and never unconditional. I might have disliked “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” but I understand its emotional appeal to audiences, just as I understand why “Meek’s Cutoff” — a film I consider a masterpiece — may leave some viewers as cold as an Oregon Plains winter.

I’m lucky: My readers understand that. And when they disagree with something I’ve written I can count on our exchanges to be civil, lively and — for me at least — unfailingly edifying.

Once in a while, though, there’s that Monday-morning e-mail expressing not just surprise but personal offense that my correspondent's experience of a particular movie didn’t square with mine — as if, somehow, reviews come with that guarantee.

What’s more, the new mad-as-hell attitude seems to be gaining traction with the very art-house denizens and cinema-club members who ought to know better. Those viewers who stormed out of “The Tree of Life” in Connecticut weren’t mall-shoppers who decided to take in the new Brad Pitt movie and got shnookered, notes Mencher. They were attending a small, independent local cinema where they knew the programming wouldn’t be mainstream. “You would expect that somebody going to an art house would expect to see something non-traditional,” he notes.

Michael Kyrioglou, director of the Washington D.C. Film Society, agrees that manners have declined in recent years. Simultaneously, he says, unrealistic expectations have risen, creating a dynamic more akin to demanding consumers rather than adventurous connoisseurs. He attributes the shift not just to those ever-present “tools of disruption” but to a mainstream entertainment culture that has catered increasingly to pre-sold markets and niche demographics.

Citing the sequels, remakes and adaptations that Hollywood seems solely capable of making these days, he says, “The bar has been lowered on the quality of the work that audiences have gotten used to, and they’re now expecting a familiar, packaged product that’s similar to something else they might have seen. And if it doesn’t match up, they’re unsatisfied.”

In other words, when a filmmaker endeavors to sneak a little bit of steak into a steady diet of McDonald’s — or, even more daring, tries a brand new recipe featuring Asian snakehead served with a coulis of locally sourced edible ferns — instead of an audience willing to trade perfect execution for a new and singular gustatory experience, she’s faced with hostile viewers demanding the cinematic equivalent of more ketchup.

Cherished movie fans, multiplex mavens and self-appointed critics, if in the course of reading this you’ve recognized yourself and winced, I beg you: Save the rage for the stuff that really matters, like human trafficking or Ryan Gosling getting skunked at the Oscars this year. Yes, stop texting and talking and blurping and slurping (which you should have done years ago).

But also stop mistaking the act of going to a movie for buying a desk at Ikea. As a commenter on Hollywood Reporter noted, a movie ticket entitles the bearer to watch a movie, not to like it. You win some, you lose some — and never forget that the definition of “win” and “lose” is ultimately, universally, maddeningly subjective. (If you sat through a movie to its conclusion, your contract with the theater has been honored in good faith. Shrug and move on.)

As of tomorrow, I’ll continue trying my best to tell you about the good movies, protect you from the bad ones and make useful sense of everything in between. In the meantime, do me a favor: Get a grip.

What are your biggest complaints about the modern moviegoing experience? Tell us in the comments.

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