The Moviegoing Experience…

Well, I was all set to write this entry about “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which I saw over the weekend in IMAX 3D at our local AMC.  But…

guardians-of-the-galaxy.jpg

…. this time, I think the theatrical experience itself was more worthy of commentary, and well, this is my blog, so… neener, neener (hehe).

I wanted to write about “Guardians…” and I was all set to do so, but I felt it was more important to take this opportunity to write about those things that go into sabotaging the moviegoing experience.

First, I must confess that I am an unapologetic, moviegoing freak.  I don’t go as often as other friends of mine, but when I do?  I usually drag my wife there a half-hour-to-an-hour early (or more) to get optimal seats.  In fact, I’ve been known to wait ALL DAY to get said optimal seats for the opening of a new Star Wars movie (see proof in the links below):

Waiting in line to see “Force Awakens”/Flickr

and

Waiting in line to see “Rogue One”/Flickr

Pathetic, right?   Yes, I know…

As a kid, I remember going to double and even triple features (yes, they HAD triple features back then… you really got your money’s worth in those days).    There was something a bit magical about losing yourself in a new reality projected in front of you in the dark, and letting an experience envelop you.  In those days, there weren’t a lot of gimmicks.  In the mid-to-late ’70s we had “Sensurround” sound (basically the movie’s standard soundtrack with a hidden subwoofer that kicked in during loud moments, such as an earthquake or an explosion).

Sensurround… basically a hidden subwoofer rumbling under your seat.  The ’70s precursor to THX…
1980s-era 3D was pretty crude compared to what is commonplace these days; and yes, my family actually paid MONEY to see “Spacehunter” with Molly Ringwald… I wish I could say I was kidding.

Then in the early 1980s there was a brief flirtation with 3D (the cheap, paper-glasses kind that almost always created ghost images, eye strain and headaches).  Unlike the high-end 3D movies of today, the 1980s crop of 3D movies were usually gimmicky and cheap fare, like “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone,” (see: above), “Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D” or “Parasite” (infamous for being Demi Moore’s very first movie…and she was terrible in it).   Movies of that day were still shot on, and projected from, good ol’ grainy, poppy, scratchy, faded film; usually 16 or 35mm, or sometimes in pristine 70mm presentations in the nicer Los Angeles/Hollywood- area theaters, such as Mann’s Chinese and The Egyptian (now the American Cinemateque).

In the 1990s, during my bachelor days, I went to the movies a LOT.   Sometimes with friends, sometimes on dates, and many times solo.   I had a movie theater that was walking distance from my apartment, so it fed directly into my addiction.

^ The theater that was just walking distance from my old apartment…I practically paid RENT there from 1996 to 1999.

I would even go to midnight movies as well; those were especially fun, because the crowds were usually fellow geeks like myself.   Back in that dim time before my wonderful future-wife introduced me to science fiction conventions?  This was where I communed with ‘my tribe.’

Back then, the only things you really had to worry about when seeing a movie were the occasional talkers/hecklers, the film in the projector breaking (happened a few times that I remember), or the noise generated by an old lady rummaging through her purse looking for cough drops.

It was during my bachelor days in the 1990s that things began to change a bit; movie sound suddenly got REALLY good.  I suppose it began with Star Wars’ “Dolby Stereo” sound in the late ’70s, but the ’90s was when movie sound really took off.  Remember those uber-loud, subwoofer-laden THX-ads that used to shift your internal organs around a bit?   Here’s one (below) for old times’ sake…

THX… the audience is listening (and a little bit deaf…).

Stadium seating was also an innovation in newer theaters and were pretty much standard by the time my wife and I were dating (1997-ish).   No more tall peoples’ heads in the way!  Yay!

This was an innocent time before cell/smart phones (with their seemingly endless array of distractions) began to compete so aggressively with the images and sounds projected in the dark…

Modern movie projection technology has reached a stunning apex; almost ALL movies I see now are digitally projected.  No more pops, scratches, awkward reel changes, broken film reels, muddy sound or faded color prints.   Movies look and sound as perfect on Day One as they do on Day 150.   3D is more or less perfected now, even though I still prefer 2D most of the time.  To clarify, I already wear glasses (farsighted with a left-eye stigmatism); so going to a movie is one of the few times where I can take them off and still comfortably SEE what’s in front of me.  So having to wear a new pair of glasses for the two hours I can finally take them off is a bit of a pain in the ass….

These days, most if not all modern local theaters (at least in California) have stadium seating, and there are also chains embracing the concept of reserved seating (this is a feature I really enjoy; no need to get there any earlier than the time it takes to get your concessions and find your seat).  There are chains that are now offering reclining seats as well (I’m not so big on these, but my wife LOVES them).

The only issue I have with reserved seating (in the handful of times that I’ve used it) are the ‘squatters’; people who get there before you, and take the very seat you’ve already reserved in advance.   I’ve had this happen twice (so far).   The first time, the squatter was benign, and moved to his own assigned seat without incident.  But the second time (when I saw “Batman V. Superman” last year) the squatter(s) were an obnoxious family who made loud exhalations, and shot me dirty looks when I asked them to please vacate the VERY seat I’d reserved and pre-paid for.  I didn’t care.   I was never rude to them, but I was insistent:  I mean, I hate to be a prick about it but like “Big Bang Theory”‘s Sheldon Cooper, I’m very particular about my theater seat… especially since I finally had the ability to pre-book it.   You can’t just ‘take’ a reserved seat in a restaurant or an airplane, so why should a movie theater be any different, right?   Ugh.  Anyway…

So, with the major leaps in theater design, projection and sound technology, you’d think moviegoing today would be a blissful, glitch-free experience; no more tall peoples’ heads in the way, no reel changes, pops or film breaks.  So what’s the problem, right?

Well, the biggest fly in the ointment today is the audience; more specifically, the distracted audience.

And this brings me to my point; over the weekend, my personal experience of seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” was basically pissed upon, and here’s why.

First off, my wife and I got there a full HOUR early even though we’d already bought our tickets online a few weeks ago; this theater house only has ONE theater with reserved seating, and it’s not the IMAX theater, so if you want the IMAX show, you still have to get there early.   There’s a nice-enough theater downtown with all-reserved seating, but the screens are a bit smaller, so it’s a compromise.   Anyway, we got there early, got our optimal seats.   We were mid-row, dead center; with nice foot-rest bars in front of us… nice!  

Then, after a few minutes, a family sat behind us.  A dad and his two kids.  Hey, no problem.  “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”, save for a few violent scenes, is a near-perfect family movie. I wasn’t even vaguely concerned.   A woman sat a seat away from my left while my wife was on my right.   So after what seemed like 20 or more solid minutes of trailers (and a previous 20 minutes of ads), the movie began in stunning IMAX 3D…

Okay, our local IMAX screen isn’t quite that big, but you get the idea…

… and that’s when things started going caca.

The kid behind me had one of my least favorite nervous tics in all of the universe: he was a certified seat-kicker.  I can forgive a public farter  far easier than I can forgive a seat kicker.   A fart is a slip-up; kicking the seat ahead of you is a deliberate act.   But as I said, the kicker-in-question was a kid; so other than shooting dagger stares and an occasional “do you mind?” in his direction, there wasn’t much I could do.  And his do-nothing father didn’t seem to give a flapping, winged s#!t, either.

This kicking went off-and-on literally during the ENTIRE RUN of the movie; especially during the quieter scenes, where it was especially annoying.    Now, the movie was nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes… that’s a HELL of a lot of kicking.   The back of my seat probably had dents by movie’s end…

Now, change the kicking girl into a boy, add some hair to the older guy and change the setting to a movie theater, and you get the idea…

The child’s kicking tic seemed very repetitive, despite my many angry glances in his direction.  When I was a kid?  An angry grownup shooting me a dirty look might’ve caused me to wet myself, so I’m guessing that this kid wasn’t comprehending or accurately reading my facial expressions (?).   It was annoying as all-hell.  But there was nothing I could do at that time.  The theater was too full to change seats, so what are you going to do?   Oh well…

And now for the icing on the cake, because seat-kicking kid wasn’t enough entertainment, right?  The woman sitting to the left of me was a texter.   Armed with her iPhone and able, willing thumbs.

Now, for full disclosure, I’m a texter.  I text my family, my friends, my wife… pretty much everyone I know.  All of the time.   It’s far more efficient than long, drawn-out phone calls where you either don’t have the time for a full conversation, or you wind up forgetting what you had called for in the first place.   Phone calls are just so… 20th century.   So yes, I’ve fully come to embrace the social (or anti-social?) ritual of texting.

But I DO NOT text during a movie.   Ever.  In fact, just as the pre-movie instructions request of the audience, I turn my phone off during the movie.   Yes, completely OFF.   As in, I don’t even want to feel it buzzing in my pocket during the movie.   I lived for about 40 or so years before I had a phone in my pocket at all times, and in that 40 or so years I’d attended thousands of movies without ever once worrying about whether my phone rang or not… mainly because my phone was AT HOME.   As in, the hook was on the receiver where it belonged.   If it rang?  It rang.  My answering machine would pick it up.   I didn’t care.

The oblivious texter… it seems there’s one in EVERY theater these days.

So, back to the story; the woman next to me reached for her phone to answer a text.  I know, I know… at least it wasn’t a phone call, right?  And I wouldn’t have cared so much if she just texted back with a quick “At the movies. TTYL. Bye!” and put her phone away.   But, of course, that was not to be.  She kept texting… and texting… and texting

So, after a seemingly interminable time (I had no idea how long; five minutes or twenty f#@king hours, who knows…) I turned and asked her if she could, at least, turn the phone away from my face; as the glow from her iPhone was glaring right into the lower corner of my 3D glasses (another reason I hate wearing those damn things).   It was creating more lens flare than a JJ Abrams movie.   She shot me a look visible even through our matching dorky 3D glasses, but she complied.  She put it away… for a little while.   Soon enough,  she was texting again.   At least she cupped her hand around her phone this time.   I guess her text was just SO important.  I mean, heaven forbid that the giant, IMAX, 3D movie that we all paid $13 or so to see get in the way of HER private text conversation, right?

So, we’re almost at the end of this 2 hr. and 20 minute movie.  Now, add to that another 20 minutes for trailers, and another full hour before that to score our seats?   My wife and I had been sitting in that theater for over three and a half hours (!).   So sadly this last bit of distraction came not from without, but from within: It was my own damn bladder.   I had to relieve myself like nobody’s business, and the movie was still a good half hour (or more) from being finished.

Oh, and did I mention that Marvel superhero movies usually have a funny little post-credits sequence at the very end?   Well, this particular Marvel movie had FIVE OF THEM.  No kidding… five post-credits sequences… and my kidneys were backing up into my eyes.

At about the halfway point during those seemingly infinite credits, I whispered to my wife I that I was going to the restroom.  It was either that or risk exploding kidneys.  So I booked to the men’s room and lost about 3 kilos.

^ How I felt after leaving the men’s room, after sitting on a VERY full bladder for at least a half hour…

I suppose at my age, adult diapers might be an option during prolonged moviegoing stretches.  Luckily, my wife dutifully relayed to me afterward exactly what I’d missed in the final two of the five post-credits sequences.   They sounded cute enough, but at the time nothing in the known universe could’ve felt as good as relieving my bladder in that moment.

So between seat-kicking boy, texting woman and my own failing bladder, my experience of seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” was pretty much shot to hell.   There were many scenes and bits that remained in my memory (some great character moments come to mind, particularly between Bradley Cooper’s “Rocket Raccoon” and Michael Rooker’s “Yondu”), and it was a good movie (I can at least offer that much), but I was so irritated, angry and distracted at the time that I really couldn’t give this movie my all.  Such a shame, as we’d bought our tickets weeks ago and got to the theater nearly an hour ahead of time in anticipation of the experience of SEEING “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”   A real shame…

I can say this about the movie; it looked and sounded absolutely fantastic.  The 3D, while not necessarily crucial to the story or movie itself, was well calibrated; a far cry from the ghosting 3D images of the 1980s.  The digital sound was crystal clear and downright booming; a bit too much so at first… in fact, it took my old ears a while to get used to the volume.  I suspect that if I hadn’t had the distractions of seat-kicker boy, texting woman and my own failing bladder?  It might’ve enjoyed it as a great movie.

The moviegoing experience today offers a lot to modern audiences.  With advances in theatrical architecture and projection quality, the picture and sound are almost always first rate these days.

If only we could just leave some of our distractions at the door and be truly courteous to each other.  By courteous, I mean being quiet, taking our assigned seats, instructing our kids to not repeatedly kick the seats in front of them, and turning our omnipresent phones off for a couple of hours.   It’s safe to assume that everyone in that same darkened space paid good money to partake in a communal experience that only works if we use that all-important, potentially human race-saving quality of empathy.   Empathy is only effective when we’re considerate of others.   Not just family or friends, but total strangers as well. 

The late film critic Roger Ebert put it best: movies are a democracy in the dark.   We feel affirmed in our own reactions by hearing the reactions of others.   We all share a laugh at a funny line of dialogue, or we all get a lump in our throats during a sad death scene.   Movies are a workout for our emotions; emotions that we either don’t get to feel very often in the everyday drudgery of regular life, or would rather experience through the safety filter of the silver screen (for example, who wants to experience the horror of “The Exorcist” in REAL life, right??).  It’s a time when we publicly share an emotional experience.  And we humans are communal creatures; we enjoy sharing experiences.

But movies only work when we check our distractions at the door and act courteously to others.   I won’t ever get that ‘first time’ of seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” back again; it was corrupted.  Ruined.

Being something of an optimist (despite this long, somewhat angry rant), I still look forward to going to the movies again soon, because of all those times past where I remember wonderful, transportive experiences; and I know that it can still happen again.  But we all have to do our part to make it happen.   A few simple tips:

  • Turn off your phone (not setting it to vibrate, but turning it OFF).  You’ll live… trust me.
  • Don’t kick the seats in front of you.  This one’s a must.
  • Don’t place your feet next to someone’s head).  Not cool… and probably a bit smelly, too.
  • Be quiet.  You can discuss the movie AFTER it’s over… dinner and/or coffee usually  help facilitate this.
  • Show a bit of courtesy (and empathy) by remembering that everyone in that theater paid good money to participate in this experience, and they don’t deserve to have it ruined.

Or, in the more succinct phrasing of Wil Wheaton:

Enjoy the show…

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