It was on the hottest day of the year that I took in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West. Seeing old movies in the medium they were made for is a joy. The prospect was almost as enticing, on that particular day, as sitting in an air-conditioned room when the temperature outside was hot enough to equate to a medieval description of hell.
“No teenagers, that’s what’s good about this. They don’t come to these classic screenings,” announced the woman in front of me to the entire foyer. “Me and my husband have seen this 20 times. It’s his favourite film. And no teenagers!”
Oh god, I thought as she and her partner prattled on, and on, and on, preventing me from buying my ticket in the process. Hell has found me here. Maybe braving the heat would be preferable.
To my great (temporary) relief, they seemed to vanish, that is until the movie was just getting underway. Its pivotal opening scene, establishing theme, conflict, and atmosphere, was playing out when the pair stomped in rustling, loudly conversing, and then fiddling with their mobile phones.
If only Charles Bronson could have jumped out of the screen after finishing off the desperados, I thought. Were it my all time favourite film, I might have turned into Charles myself. Give me a pair of peaceful teenagers over those two any day. Hell, give me a theatre full of them.
I’ve seen a few pieces lamenting the behaviour of post-pandemic audiences recently, mostly highlighting a change for the worse. But let’s be honest here, the sort of irritation I endured at the Leone screening wasn’t all that unusual with cinemas pre-pandemic. It just seems to have become more of a problem.
It’s a serious buzz kill for people tentatively returning to the silver screen for the first time only to find themselves listening to someone’s conversation rather than the film, while having their eyes drawn to the blue light of a phone rather than the action.
And this is before the question of cost arises. The pandemic has dramatically changed the entertainment industry, shattering cinema operators’ cherished “window of exclusivity” while pushing up the number of films that never see a cinema release, as studio owners focus on their streaming ventures instead.
Some cinema chains have sought to respond to the challenge of tempting audiences out of their front rooms by investing in enhancing the cinematic experience in terms of the quality of screens, sound and seating. Especially the latter. Fancy modern seats recline like the ones you get in business class aeroplanes.
I’m not going to criticise any company for investing in its business. A lack of investment is one of the chief problems facing our economy. But investment demands a return, and this has made tickets pricey. It is not a happy situation for a customer who has invested their funds in the enhanced experience only to have it wrecked by their fellow cinema-goers.
I’m not generally a lover of nostalgia. Looking back to bygone ages through sepia-tinted spectacles is something we need to get past. It’s causing this country no end of problems. It helped deliver the god-awful mess that is Brexit for starters.
But poor behaviour at the movies does rather leave me yearning for the days of the usher: the staff member, usually of a formidable disposition, who would sit in to supervise audiences and ensure the majority’s enjoyment.
One does rather wonder if this is what’s missing from today’s business class cinemas. But, of course, there would always be the risk that a confrontation with an obnoxious customer would further detract from the enjoyment of the film.
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The critic Mark Kermode, in his now-defunct BBC podcast, said he was willing to put up with people’s rustlings and shufflings coming out of lockdown. The pleasure of returning to the movies on the big screen made other people’s foibles worth it.
I was initially of the same mind. But while I can put up with popcorn and the occasional rustling of sweet wrappers, mobile phones and conversations are just too much, especially after a sizable hole has been burned in my wallet. It is starting to grate. It is starting to raise the question I didn’t imagine I’d ever ask as a cinephile: is this worth it?
Mostly it is. But audiences really do need to do better because otherwise there won’t be audiences anymore. The lure of the lounge, where a film can be enjoyed in peace, will win out. That would be a terrible shame.
Watching a film on a gigantic screen in a darkened room is still an experience that is hard to beat. It is one of life’s great pleasures, if you are allowed by your fellow film-goers to actually watch the damn movie.