I will begin with a story. When I was a lot younger, I used to go with my mom and sister to a community pool during the summer. In the women's locker room, I started to notice that all of the women that were in their 50s or above would wander around stark naked. You would get an eyeful of everything from a few wrinkles to varicose veins and boobs dragging on the floor. And there was no discretion, no modesty - these women almost seemed like they were wandering around the locker rooms aimlessly in the nude. It was rather inconsiderate to those who, um, didn't want to see all that. One day, I asked my mom, "Why do they do that?" Her response? "They just don't care anymore."
What does this have to do with moviegoing? Well, believe it or not, I've noticed a parallel between locker room nudity and movie theater politeness. As a child, you have no self-awareness. You'll scream indiscriminately in a movie theater because you can't comprehend that it's an environment where you shouldn't. Similarly, you'll run around naked in a locker room (or often, any number of places) because you can't even conceive of that being a problem. Then, as you get older, you get self-aware and insecure. You would never be seen naked anywhere. This continues through your teens, twenties, thirties. You start to learn appropriate behaviors for different environments. But then, as middle age hits, you've served your time. You've been polite, you've held back. So you let loose. And this is my explanation for why at about half the movies I go to, there are middle-aged people behaving worse than children. I didn't want to get ageist here, folks, but you made me do it.
I should first quantify this statement: I probably don't see as many blockbusters as the average person. I was nowhere to be found for Transformers 2 or 2012, but I did see and enjoy Sherlock Holmes. Those types of films are the ones where the audience pest you're most likely to find is the teenage hooligan. Since blockbusters comprise the backbone of the American moviegoing experience, the teenage hooligan has been generalized as the number one theater pest. But triple their age, and you'll find yourself with the primary menace to foreign, independent, and classic films.
A couple of summers ago, my local rep house did a series of rare film noir double features. My boyfriend and I (read: early 20-somethings) hurried off to the theater with geeky film-nerd excitement. We were by far the youngest people in attendance (we even bumped into one of my professors). Everyone else was 40+.
It was the worst-behaved audience I have ever seen in my life. And I'm counting kid's films and blockbusters.
Everyone, EVERYONE talked at full volume the whole time. They made snarky comments. They laughed nonstop (and these were not comedies). Since this was a small, university-owned venue, there were no ushers. It was unbearable. It makes you wonder why they even bothered to come.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I saw A Single Man. It's the artsy film debut of a fashion designer - like, you're not gonna wander into it by accident, and on the off-chance you do, it's probably because you meant to see A Serious Man. It stars Colin Firth, and there's a scene where his character is on the toilet. It's not supposed to be funny - it's just the vantage point of the character's house where he can see his neighbor's yard. You can't see any genitalia or anything. There's no bodily function noises. And yet, the second they saw someone on a toilet, the whole highbrow audience started laughing. I've seen the same thing happen at other indie/foreign films when someone is naked, there's a sex scene, etc. You know, things that would make a 12-year-old giggle.
My theory for this is that this middle-to-upper-class middle-aged folks see good reviews of these films in The New York Times and want to seem edumacated and sophistimacated by seeing them, yet they apparently lack the maturity to do so. I don't know exactly, but this isn't blind prejudice because I'm just reporting what's actually happening.
And teenagers and young people aren't the only ones fiddling with their phones, either. I saw The Yes Men Fix the World with my 54-year-old dad at the Film Forum in New York, and he texted THE ENTIRE TIME. I kept gesturing to him to stop, and he wouldn't. I thought it was maybe something urgent or business-related, but no, he was just trying to arrange to get tickets to a baseball game. Clearly, stepping outside for a single brief call would have been out of the question.
So I implore you, baby boomers: BEHAVE. Indie and foreign films often contain sexual situations and other things you have to be 17 to see, or artistically challenging moments. If these situations are literally outside of what your maturity level allows, please don't attend. There are people there trying to experience serious art appropriately. Put your god damn phones away. Try to set an example for the young whippersnappers.
P.S. - This extends to other art forms too. I'm a big dance buff and last year I saw an amazing show by Jirí Kylián called "Black and White." It featured dancers moving their bodies in unexpected but really dynamic and interesting ways, and even periodically using their voices. For some reason people moving their bodies in unexpected ways makes most people really uncomfortable, so my evening was almost ruined by rampant laughter and coughing. (Whenever there is silence in a live theater piece, the audience goes wild coughing.) And again, these are blue-blood fine arts patrons.
Have you found this to be the same problem as me? (All ages welcome to comment, of course!)