LOS ANGELES — There was a time, I think it was back in the Paleozoic era, when it was possible to go to a movie theater and hear more noise coming from the screen than from the audience. It was possible, once upon a time, to be lulled by the gentle snoring of one's seatmate. Today that same seat filler is likely to be bleating into a cell phone, or text-messaging a friend, who is probably also in a movie theater.
Before I spin out this tale of woe, however, let me quickly insert a faint ray of hope: A recent Los Angeles Times report says that the National Association of Theater Owners, faced with an alarming slide in attendance, is looking into ways to jam cellphone signals, "eliminating the chance that dramatic silences will be interrupted by a 'My Humps' ring tone."
The movie-going experience, especially for those of us who are middle-aged enough to note the difference, has changed catastrophically in the past decade. People have brought their home-viewing habits into the theaters. Actually, it's worse than that: Watching a movie at a multiplex is often a lot yappier and more aggravating than watching one at home, unless of course you live in a kennel.
I happen to be one of those people who don't like a whole lot of hubhub, least of all inside a movie theater. Because I'm a professional film critic and attend hundreds of screenings a year, this presents a distinct problem for me. Many of my screenings are for critics only, so you would think I have a comparatively easy time of it. The press, as we all know, is so well behaved. Think again.
For example, there is one group (whose identity I won't divulge except to say that it dispenses Golden Globes every year) that's notorious for smuggling hot and spicy entrees into screening rooms (often poorly ventilated) while pursuing a line of nonstop chatter in heavily accented English. Then there are all those critics who pull out their lighted pens at the drop of an insight.
But that's old-school behavior. New school is bringing your laptop into the theater and typing your insights as you go along. If enough of these typists are in the theater, the collective sound is like a squadron of rats clacking across a linoleum floor.
Critics also enjoy impressing other critics by venting aloud for all to hear. One famous critic used to belt out an anguished sigh whenever she found a film too drippy; another regularly rocks the room with a laugh pitched somewhere between a croak and a whinny. At film festivals like Toronto and Cannes, the one-upmanship often takes the form of instant mini-dissertations, as in "That tracking shot is so Tarkovskian!"
But at least all this obnoxiousness can be linked, however tenuously, to a love for movies. Worse is when the movie agents and buyers invade the screenings and, within minutes of sitting down, whip out their Blackberries to make a deal. They don't call it the movie business for nothing.
All things being equal - and they rarely are - I like to see movies with real people, as opposed to critics or Hollywood types.The atmosphere in the room is less rarified and the responses more honest. The bad news is, the atmosphere is also rowdier. And unlike at home, where you can tell your children or spouse or friends to can it and still stand a reasonably good chance of surviving, the multiplex is a cauldron of strangers who do not take kindly to instruction. Note what happens the next time you see one of those trailers telling everybody to please not talk during the movie. Everyone starts talking.
I used to have a prepared comment for the babblers who always seem to sit directly behind me. You know, the kind of people who feel duty-bound to provide a running commentary on the action to their partner, as in "Look, he's opening a door." I would turn around and ever so politely say, "Would you mind speaking a little louder? I can't hear you over the soundtrack?" But this proved to be too Zen for most people, some of whom actually did speak louder.
So now I do things differently. Rather than provoke confrontations, I simply scope out several empty alternate seats before I take my own. If the going gets rough, I switch. This doesn't work if the theater is packed, in which case you better hope that seated near you is one of those guardian angels with no compunction about shushing down the opposition.
But even when the talkers are compelled to quit it - not, I might add, by the ushers, since there aren't any - they find other ways to make their presence felt. People who are annoying in one way are usually annoying in many ways. Quieted down, these same patrons become foot jigglers or high-decibel whisperers. They rifle through their seemingly bottomless handbags for - what exactly? It always escapes me. Candy, swathed in the noisiest foil, is unwrapped. Popcorn is consumed kernel by kernel.
And of course, the quieted-down rarely stay quiet for very long. First-date couples are the worst - the guy is always trying to impress the girl with a patter of hogwash and she is too polite or intimidated to stop it. Generally speaking, the younger the viewer the more likely he or she is to jabber, but there are numerous exceptions to this rule. Age has no dominion over manners.
Just look at the cellphone noise-pollution epidemic. If you ask someone to keep quiet nowadays, you're likely to get back a look of genuine astonishment. People who are plugged into their own hum don't recognize your right to silence. What they recognize is their right not to be silent. It's democracy in action all right.
Not to put too fine a sociological point on it, the epidemic of bad manners in the movies is part of a much larger ill gripping the land.
What it all comes down to is this: There are few private zones in public spaces anymore. Restaurant reviews in many of the big city newspapers now rate the decibel level right along with the food and the service.
Maybe film critics should do the same thing for movie theaters. Not this critic, though. I've heard enough.
* Showing up late and asking people to move.
* Talking during the movie or the previews.
* Leaving cellphones or beeping watches on.
* Kicking the seat in front of you.
* Putting your feet up on a seat, occupied or not.
* Hogging the armrest.
* Eating loudly or making noise with your straw.
* Leaving trash on the floor or cupholder.
* Bringing infants or young children (who have trouble staying quiet) to anything but children's movies.