Movies

The Shusher And The Shushed: Why It Matters When You Talk During Movies

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man. i i

This is Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man. I should not have to tell you not to talk during this movie. Wilson Webb/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Wilson Webb/Focus Features
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man.

This is Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man. I should not have to tell you not to talk during this movie.

Wilson Webb/Focus Features

I very rarely shush at the movies. I hate the confrontation, I hate the sense that I'm intruding, and I hate the feeling of being a hated killjoy.

Nevertheless, I shushed twice this weekend. Well, not shushed, exactly — I find shushing moderately passive-aggressive and often inefficient. But twice this weekend, I asked people to shut up and stop talking.

The first time was at a Friday afternoon showing of Crazy Heart. There was a group of women there who were loud in the lobby, loud in the restroom, and then, to my eye-rolling dismay, they walked into the same theater I was in. Gales of laughter at nothing, preposterously loud carrying-on in a way that simply serves to broadcast that you're having a better time than anyone else — it's nothing particularly malicious, but it didn't seem like a good sign. (I suspected they might have been drinking — a sort of Girls Night Out on a Friday afternoon — but I reserve judgment, because I honestly don't know whether they were ... whatever, just high on life.) Nevertheless, trying to be optimistic, as I sat there, I thought, "Surely, they will stop when the movie actually starts."

We sat through the previews; they were still at it. Loudly carrying on like they were in their own living room. Okay, some people don't apply the rules of etiquette to the previews; that's a gray area. I waited. But when the movie started — the actual movie — and they were still at it, I leaned down the row. Naturally, they had chosen to sit a few seats down from me (that's how these things go), so I leaned over and said, "Okay, the movie's starting, so."

You would think, from the look that was shot at me, that I had leaned over and said, "I just stole your purse, so." Or possibly "Women really shouldn't wear pants in public, so." For some reason, the shushed often believe they can shame the shusher, which I suppose plays on those same feelings I talked about at the beginning — you are a killjoy, you nerd — but honestly, once I'm at the point where you need shushing? I'm not susceptible to shaming. Because I'm not shushing unless you're being so rude that I cannot take it, and I am not a stickler. (There was an older couple talking beside me during A Single Man when I saw that later the same day, but they were at least making an effort to talk quietly, so they were spared shushing.)

The second time was at the Best Picture Showcase on Saturday, where a young woman and her friends sat down in front of me. They fancied themselves the Greek chorus of the room, and wanted all their punch lines heard by everyone. Everyone tolerated it pretty patiently — they were clearly pop-culture enthusiasts, talking between movies about Battlestar Galactica, their rooms for (I believe) Comic-Con, and the shirt Wil Wheaton wore on The Guild. They were trying to have fun. They were having an event, making a day of it. But here's where it went wrong.

Oh, so wrong. After the jump.

In A Serious Man — and I think I can do this without spoiling too much — there is a moment when a character is faced with a high-pressure situation and finds that he freezes, because he's been enjoying some marijuana and is addled. He stops. The tension builds. It's not clear that he has any way out. It's not clear what will happen if he doesn't pull it together. It's comedic tension, but it's tension nevertheless. The screw is being turned, on the character and on the audience.

Suddenly, Battlestar Wheaton Shirt yells out, "Don't do drugs, kids!"

Really?

I know exactly how she feels. She feels as you might when in a large group of people at a late-night showing of Fighting or Step Up 2 The Streets or something else very frivolous, where the entire crowd is yelling at the screen, because it's that kind of show. There are shows where you can do that. There are shows you can't ruin.

But this was not that kind of show. This was an audience of people who had chosen to spend all day watching Best Picture nominees. Nobody else was talking. Nobody in the entire theater was providing commentary, with the exception of Battlestar Wheaton Shirt.

It ruined the entire sequence utterly. When this happens, all of a sudden, the string of tension that has been tightening and tightening just goes slack, because you're reminded of your surroundings — the theater, the people around you, the double reality of physical you in the theater and invisible you eavesdropping on the scene. Now, distractions happen off and on. You shift in your seat, the person beside you coughs; you can't stay in suspended animation all day, in a sensory deprivation tank except for what's on the screen.

But those things are not demands for attention. "Don't do drugs, kids!" in that setting is a demand for attention. She is asking you to stop thinking about the movie you are watching, and pause to congratulate her on the wit of, of all things, "Don't do drugs, kids." Putting aside the fact that this, as a sarcastic joke, is older than Carl in Up, it breaks the contract with everyone else in the theater.

Don't act like you don't know the contract. There are rules. You don't get mad at kids making kid-noises in the middle of The Princess And The Frog, but you do in the middle of Inglourious Basterds. Everybody's got expectations, and in some movies, in some theaters, in some moments, you're not going to bother anybody by pulling focus from the movie, because you're at a crowd-participation movie.

But you must, must, must know your moments, and if you don't, then you can't go to the movies.

If I'm remembering the sequence correctly, I still didn't say anything to her after "Don't do drugs, kids." I believe it wasn't until she started talking during The Hurt Locker — yes, chatting to one of her friends during one of the painful, agonizing, nerve-knotting silences in The Hurt Locker — that I leaned down and said, "Could you not talk?" (She didn't stop immediately, so I can't remember which was the time I finally asked her to be quiet.)

Here's the thing: If I'm at the movies, I'm not there to think about you. You are there to think about you (apparently), and the difference in our level of absorption in the film is a little like the difference between deep sleep and light sleep — by the time you talk, you've already pulled away from the movie; you're prepared to hear yourself talk; only your light sleep is disturbed. But for me, you talk out of nowhere; you yank on my attention like you've suddenly got a fishhook in my mouth. And once you do it, I know you might do it again, and in reality, I can never get back into that deep sleep again. You know when you're about to talk. I don't.

I don't want to be a bad sport. I've talked back to the screen at Honey. You're not a bad person for wanting to goof around with your friends. But please, seriously: choose your moments. Because when you pick the wrong one, you take something away from everybody else in the room. This isn't a stodgy etiquette rule run amok; it's got a purpose. And if you're there to sit through Best Picture nominees and Best Actor nominees, take a moment and think about what that purpose is.

And if you're headed to Crazy Heart on a Friday afternoon with your girlfriends? Drink water with lunch.

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