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Thank You For Not Talking

the movie theatre gabbers must be stopped

The subject of talking during the movies has come up a lot lately. Having enormous experience with the behavior over the years, I've had some time to think about it, and I think what it boils down to is this: people just have different ways of enjoying the experience of watching a movie. For some, the experience involves vocalizing certain thoughts as they come into their heads. For others, silence is the best way to focus on the story and absorb everything that's coming from the screen. The talkers, in some cases, probably don't even realize that they're talking; it's just a reflexive action. And it stems from a lack of interest in the "filler material" between important moments in the plot. I can respect that – but that respect is based on an assumption (as I wrote about recently) that because we live in a society, if someone else's preference differs from yours, you'll compromise to be polite. It turns out this assumption is false.

It's impossible to say I can understand the talkers' position, but I believe I at least see why they do it. For them, the movie is not about the cinematography or the editing or the writing or (lord knows) the sound design. It's about the very basic elements of the story, and the memorable moments along the way. The picture of the movie that they come away with after the credits roll is not what I come away with. It's like a CliffsNotes summary, with an attached highlight reel. For the movie experience to be whole to them, they need to be able to tell their friends what happened and they need to have seen the cool explosions or the romantic kisses. The rest is just strung between those moments for the purpose of filling two hours. So, during "the rest," there's no reason not to chat a little about their reaction to the film so far. In some ways, the comments they make are probably seeking validation from their companions, making sure that they understand everything so far, since they haven't been paying attention over all the talking.

My way is different. First, I enter the theatre because I want to be immersed in a movie. I want to be completely swept up and forget where I am and just go with it. (Even American Pie. It's just how I am.) Also, I assume that (on average) about six to eight months and four to eighty million dollars went into making the film. Which means that people worked fairly hard on all the creative decisions that combine to form the final movie that you see on the screen. So, all of those elements probably enhance the experience in some way. The score, the lighting, the editing choices – they're all working toward the same goal, so the best way to get the most out of the film is to pay attention to every detail. I wish it weren't so, but chattering all the way through the picture inevitably removes the necessary focus and concentration. Try as I might, the distraction can be overwhelming.

So, it's a difference of preference. Some people eat the Dorito; some people lick off all the nacho-cheesy flavoring then eat the chip (ugh!). What bowls me over is that increasingly moviegoers of the talking variety don't see that the courteous thing to do, when surrounded by moviegoers of the quiet variety, is shut up. I'm not selfishly trying to argue that everyone should just do it my way, it's simply that the quiet way is the most reasonable common ground. They can still see the movie without talking, evidenced by the few moments during the film that they're quiet. It makes the most sense because film, like music, is a temporal medium. It keeps moving forward. If a rude person is standing in front of you at an art gallery, you can wait until they walk away and still appreciate the same painting. If someone spills coffee on you while you're reading your book, you can mark the page, clean up, and start reading right where you left off. If someone talks during a movie scene, that's it. It's gone. The only way to get that filmgoing experience back is to start all over at the beginning. So the polite thing to do, if someone around you wants to see it quietly, is stay quiet and have your conversations after.

So, that's settled. Silence is the appropriate behavior for all. (I'm not making this judgment alone; every movie theatre in the country has something on the screen before the film starts that says "Please refrain from talking during the movie," or something like it.) But how is it achieved?

With some, a few glances can do it. Casual talkers, those who don't really do it for a living, will be embarrassed that they've been caught breaking the rules and the fear will clam them up for the rest of the picture. With others, you kind of have to get in their face about it, which is no fun. First, it involves missing part of the movie yourself, and second, it really has to be timed just right. If you're going to jump on someone, you have to really catch them in the act. Which is distracting because you spend half the movie watching to see if it's the right moment. But there are some for whom any request for quiet is such an affront that they'll only talk more as a way to punish you. These are generally the group for whom talking is an unconscious reflex. We were in front of a pair last night at Identity, which was a good movie and would have been better in silence. But these two wanted to talk all the way through, partly for validation and partly out of nervous twittering because they were scared by the movie, which we all were. (I'm not as willing as they were to perpetuate a stereotype, so I won't describe them, but suffice it to say they looked more like Nell Carter than Christopher Lloyd.) Shushing attempts only emboldened them to talk more because they felt like we were interfering with their fun.

So what next? It would appear that the only effective solution would be to approach an usher to remove the belligerent talkers, but this means missing a lot of the movie and looks namby-pamby and the usher probably won't catch them doing it so then you've wasted everyone's time. For a while, it seemed like the "Please refrain from talking" signs would do it. Then we tried going to more expensive theatres, thinking that only serious filmgoers would be there. Or at least that if someone paid $14 to get in, they wouldn't want to waste it by talking through the picture. I'm thinking airplane-style call buttons which would summon authorities to expel the offenders might be a good next step. Other than that, we'll have to build private screening theatres that only our friends can attend, which would probably get costly.

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