Posted by David Kalat on November 24, 2012
I’m interrupting my own train of thought today. I had intended to write a series of entries about pulp mysteries, with last week’s post about Dr. Mabuse leading into what was supposed to be this week’s look at Fantomas. . . and we’ll still get to Fantomas, I’ve just abruptly decided to interrupt that series this weekend because I just had a WTF moment I simply had to comment on.
On Thanksgiving day, I finally caught up with Skyfall (and the verdict is: my wife’s favorite James Bond movie to date, although my son thought it had some plausibility problems worthy of the Mythbusters). But here’s the thing: 5 minutes from the end of the movie, during the dramatic and emotional climax, an elderly couple came into the theater and took their seats directly in front of me.
What were they thinking? Why would you walk into a movie at the very end?
I mean, if you showed up at the theater 2 ½ hours late for your intended screening, then just buy a ticket for the next show, right? Or, if you did buy a ticket to the next show, then shouldn’t you wait until it starts? And if you actually bought a ticket to a different movie altogether, then you shouldn’t really be in this auditorium at all.
My outrage is exaggerated—I actually know full well why they came in at the end like that (or at least I have a plausible scenario). My grandfather used to do that all the time.
Never once did he ever consult a theater schedule to see what was playing when. If he decided he felt like seeing a movie, he would simply immediately go to whatever happened to be the nearest theater at the time and buy a ticket to whatever sounded OK, then go straight in. It didn’t matter where he was in the story—beginning, middle, end, randomly selected. He’d just stay put through the next screening until he caught up with where he came in, and then leave.
It was maddening to go to the movies with him—this cavalier way of disregarding how the filmmaker wanted their movie to be experienced struck me as disrespectful. But you have to give it to the guy—this was terribly efficient. Attending a movie from start to finish forces you to adhere to someone else’s schedule. We intended to see an earlier screening of Skyfall but got caught in traffic and arrived at the theater 40 minutes late—so we dutifully killed time until the next show came around, which was wasteful and kind of frustrating. My grandfather was a busy man (CEO of an energy company) and would never let someone else’s schedule dictate when he did anything. He wouldn’t have squandered precious minutes at a Starbucks waiting for the next show to start—he’d have just gone in. And if that meant, y’know, sometimes arriving just in time to see the very end, well, them’s the breaks.
Although I can define this strange behavior in terms of my grandfather’s distinctive personality, I also know it wasn’t unique to him. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was marketed specifically with an admonition to the audience not to just saunter into screenings whenever they pleased, but to respect the advertised start times. Which is, frankly, an outright bizarre thing to have to even address. I mean, it’s not like people are in the habit of picking up books, flipping randomly to some point in the middle, reading from there to the end, and starting over at the beginning.
Certainly the experience of watching movies on TV encouraged the habit of cinema interruptus, and in general allowed audiences to become more casual and disconnected from the movie experience, but I have it on good authority from other family members that my grandfather approached movies this way long before he ever had a TV, and the Psycho marketing campaign implies that this was a widespread audience inclination prior to 1960, so I don’t think we can blame it on TV.
Instead it could be argued that this casual approach to screenings is rooted in the roadshow origins of film—that back in the late 1800s when movies first flourished, they tended to be shown in impromptu theatrical settings that encouraged viewers rotating in and out casually. The gradual accretion of more serious theatrical trappings built up an infrastructure that mimicked the traditions of the legitimate stage, but never completely shook loose from those carnival-like origins.
Regardless of where the habit originated, it’s fair to say that filmmakers were forced to restrict their storytelling techniques to the most linear and easy-to-follow when they had to accommodate an audience that refused to play along. The complex storytelling techniques of recent artists like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderburgh, and Christopher Nolan would have failed completely before pre-Pyscho audiences. Can you imagine walking into Fight Club during the last 5 minutes, then watching it from the beginning? What a way to cheat yourself. The only way more sophisticated narrative structures can develop is when the audience pays attention.
Along those lines, I’m not at all surprised that more complex and demanding approaches to storytelling have developed on TV in conjunction with the advent of DVRs. This isn’t a coincidence—there’s no point mapping out some densely plotted multi-season arc if you think your biggest audience will encounter your episodes out of order in syndication.
I’m a busy person, too. I become more like my grandfather every year—but this is one place I intend to hold a firm line. Yes, waiting at Starbucks wasted a huge chunk of my day—and for that I blame traffic jams. Curse you, Chicago traffic. But that’s the price I have to pay to be able to see a movie from start to finish, on the filmmaker’s schedule.
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