IT IS NEAR MIDNIGHT but neither husband nor wife can sleep. In bed, they pretend to read. Finally the wife can't stand it. "Are you hiding something from me?" she asks.
"He sure is," whispers another voice in the theater, not the husband's voice.
"Are you in love with someone else?" the wife asks.
The other voice says, "He's in trouble now!"
When Woody Allen wrote "Hannah and Her Sisters," he didn't include this third voice in the script, this droning, omnipresent commentary from the woman in front of me. But it's part of this showing at the Circle Avalon theater. I've asked the woman to be quiet. Maybe I'll change seats.
Theaters are places for wish fulfillment and this is my wish right now: That the prop man who designed James Bond's ejector seat in "Goldfinger" also worked on the seat ahead. Dream sequence: I press a button, there's a quick shriek and the flash of a body flying.
Instead, Michael Caine asks on screen, "Do you . . . have any feelings for me?"
"Of course she does," the woman answers.
BUT FORGET FANTASY. The truth is, I'd settle for realism. An usher to walk down the aisle and tell the talker, "Please be quiet." Bring back ushers. Ushers with red jackets and bow ties. Ushers who shine lights in talkers' faces. Who quiet down the . . .
Explainers: (As Nazi pulls Luger on screen and music rises dangerously) "I bet he's going to shoot!"
Travelers: (As Dutch Shultz is gunned down in N.Y. restaurant) "Hey, we ate there!"
Questioners: (As Barbra Streisand goes to kitchen sink in "Funny Lady") "How come she puts lemons on her elbows?"
Spoilers: (As Brian Dennehy collapses in "F/X") "He's not really dead."
Anyone who's ever missed a line in a movie because of talkers recognizes these people. And the murmurers. The political commentators. The infant carriers. In recent days I've interviewed lots of movie talkers. In "Brazil" I began with a traditional approach. I tapped a shoulder and said, "Could you please quiet down?" The woman glared. The man seemed amazed. "Not . . . not talk during the whole movie?" he said.
"You're supposed to talk in funny or action movies," said a Senate aide after "Hannah and Her Sisters." "That's the fun of going." He declined to give his name. He explained to his friend, "Lois might read my name and you know what she always says."
"She says he won't shut up in movies," said the friend.
During "The Color Purple" I asked two nonstop talkers if I could put a few questions to them. The woman snapped, "We're trying to watch the show!"
Bring back ushers. Ushers who don't just tear tickets and clean the lobby. Ushers who ush. In none of these recent movies did I see an usher walk through the theater, let alone ask people to quiet down. "People complain if ushers walk the aisles," said Mark Kotsatos, assistant manager of the Tenley Circle. He added, though, that when ushers do appear, talkers quiet down.
Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw the need for ushers in America 200 years ago. He never mentioned ushers or movies, but in his own way he predicted the "me decade." He worried that one day American individualism might go haywire and begin to work against society. Today it seems fashionable to ignore social restraints if we feel like it. Buttressed by feel-good psychology, we play boom boxes in parks and run red lights and talk in movies. The traditional ties of courtesy drop away. In the consumer society your only responsibility is to pay for the ticket. After that, "the attitude is: 'I paid my $5, I can talk,' " says Kotsatos. "We had a lady in here with a 7-month-old kid screaming. 'You can't throw me out,' she said. 'I paid money!' "
But a movie should be a time of relaxation, not an exercise in Darwinian survival MOVIES 27 the fittest. Or loudest. The lights go off. The curtain rises. You lend yourself to a pageant of fantasy, of letting go.
I'd love to see a movie marquee that reads, "We use our MOVIES 27 MOVIES 15 ushers -- No infants allowed." Who knows? Movie attendance could even shoot up. As Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic Ron Powers says, "I don't like to go to movies any more. I can't stand the talkers."
M EANWHILE, back at "Hannah and Her Sisters," Woody Allen is saying, "I'm dying."
"Oh, he doesn't have cancer," the droning voice in front of me says. Movie theaters are places for flashbacks and here is mine. My most frightening moment during high school occurred in the Squire Theater in New York. It was 1969 and I was an usher at the Sunday matinee. "Bullitt" was playing, a film with lots of chase scenes in San Francisco. Three football players in the balcony were making it hard for the audience to hear.
"Could you hold it down, please?" I asked on my first visit.
"Please, keep it down or I'll have to ask you to leave," I tried next.
Who was I kidding? These guys would kill me. Let's get an idea of the sides in this confrontation. The athletes were so big it was hard to tell where one shoulder ended and the next began. The fingers gripping the popcorn boxes looked as thick as salamis. On my side, my oversized red jacket and striped pants could have been designed by Ringling Bros. for the clown show. My bow tie was perfect for Faulkner's senior prom. Physique-wise, I could have modeled for the comic book ads that started with bullies saying, "Shut up, ya bag of bones!"
The third time I mounted the steps, my life flashed before me. The football players were laughing. I bent over.
"Okay, I warned you," I said. "You'll have to leave."
Without a word, they left.
Bring back ushers.