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Monday, January 31, 2022

Talking Back at Movies


 Is The Audience What Understands Pictures Best?


Been reading of movie audiences then-and-then by Manny Farber (40’s) and James Harvey (50’s). What is said to have begun in dutiful silence became more and more free-for-alls, verbal exchange between viewership and projected image that could not talk back. Farber says it got worse in the war. Harvey remembered college age "wise-asses" making "jeering expeditions" to movies they did not respect, which by the fifties was pretty near all movies. May we assume Farber and Harvey’s experiences reflected filmgoing as a whole? I spoke to Conrad Lane, who was in theatres from 1933 on. What he saw/heard differed somewhat from their accounts, but then, couldn’t any of us come up with anecdotes unique to individual experience, not shared by these or anyone else that went to movies? Conrad says patronage in better theatres were always well-behaved, a “quality” audience, but also admitted crowds were “progressively unruly” as years went on. There was always child clatter at matinees, Conrad recalling a girl in his party yelling out during a chapter of The Miracle Rider for Tom Mix to “Be Careful!” as he entered a doorway, an outburst he attributed less to the child being disruptive than inability to separate screen fantasy from her own delicate reality.



How did surrounding viewers comport themselves as we sat spellbound through films? My first exposure to sci-fi, if not horror, was Konga in 1961. I went with cousins, maybe a sibling or two. Anyhow there were at least four of us in the group. Being age seven at the time got me into the Liberty for a dime. I was prepared by the posters for an intense exchange, Konga after all a gorilla that grows to unnatural size. What I did not expect was sarcasm among my crew that greeted his arrival on screen. And they expressed it … out loud and for anyone to hear. After a while, I got into the mocking spirit. No monster movie could scare me! A third-act crisis found Konga engulfed in laboratory flames and hurling a player thereto, latter ID’ed as unsympathetic and having it coming. I compared (aloud) Konga’s gesture with roasting of marshmallows and drew laughter from companions all older than me. Resolved then: I had “resisted” the intent of Konga to frighten us, had in fact embraced the raw material of cinema to express my own alternative postwar modernism. Well, that’s at least what academics would tell me. Truth is, I felt like Tootie after she threw flour in Mr. Braukoff’s face, having like her conquered all fears. Afterward I overdid my inclination to rewrite what was said on screens, enough so to be pointedly excluded from neighborhood expedition to see Morgan the Pirate a couple months later. Why attend movies if your goal is to ridicule them? A bunch of us fourth graders were rowdy enough to be nearly thrown out of King Kong vs. Godzilla in autumn 1963, only this time I felt less proud and more a follower behind boys who had not looked so forward to KK vs. G, certainly not enough to paste Winston-Salem Journal ads for the film on their school desktops as I did.



Everybody’s a critic, so it was said, the more so when cult and camp gnawed ways into public consciousness. It was OK, even desirable, for audiences to yap back at films. Truth to Power as it were. Conrad remembers when crowds sat polite and did not interrupt drama's unfolding. Yes, they were restless with Limelight at San Francisco’s United Artists Theatre in 1952, but courteous enough to go the course. Soon, however, it was expected for us to seize the lectern, turn the tables, and bend moviegoing to suit ourselves. The nineteenth century had seen this coming via vaudeville viewers rowdy and demonstrative till management organized to shut them up, a success through applied and organized effort. Writers who came before argued for “creative engagement with text,” Oscar Wilde in 1890 calling his critical work a “starting point for a new creation,” the goal “not to explicate meanings inscribed in a text by the artist, but to record (our) own intensely personal impressions of the work.”



Once a thing of art was finished, it belonged to us to do with as we pleased. Other writers of a late nineteenth century saw change coming. For Thomas Hardy, “intensive power of the reader’s own imagination” would find values in his novels “which … was never inserted by the author, never foreseen, never contemplated.” Wilde and Hardy knew writings, theirs and anybody’s, would land in the lap of gods that were their readership, latter to apply whatever meaning such creations would acquire. What an engaged movie audience did was less personal, them among a crowd after all, so why not share their response with others who might view the thing a same way? Theatres would again be debate societies, only now viewers got the last word, provided no one sitting alongside challenged them. Things could get tense, however. I was at a campus screening (early 2005) of Northwest Passage, a childhood favorite of the instructor who obliged his class to attend. It was a laser disc, thus a bit bleary when projected on a too-large-to-wrestle-pixels screen. The thing played to dead silence for fifteen or so minutes till a lone voice cried THIS SUCKS. From there to the end, another two hours, was march to Calvary.



Audiences could be plain mean, especially ones at light side of maturity. Peter Bogdanovich taught filmmaking and cinema history at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem from 2010 to 2015. Less than an hour from me, the trip was worth it to sit in on classes, permission to do so graciously given by UNCSA and Mr. Bogdanovich. Here was opportunity to see/hear the famed director and writer interact with students, after which I'd get to chat with him myself. Classes were held in a theatre/teaching auditorium. Opening hours saw the day’s feature, followed by discussion. I usually showed up near the end of each movie, wanting mainly to hear group reaction and Bogdanovich’s remarks. Size of the room allowed students to spread way out … two here … one over there … three or so far in the back, not unlike theatre going of present day. Bogdanovich regularly had to herd them closer to the table where he sat so they could see and hear one another. None lit up at prospect of Chimes at Midnight or His Girl Friday, carping nearly always when Bogdanovich asked what they thought. One day he had enough, lighting into the bunch for not having anything “constructive” to say, his selections never good enough to suit them. Here was once where the screen (or screener) talked back on no uncertain terms to the audience, Bogdanovich as engaged for that moment as ever I observed him through what must have seemed a career low (though UNCSA is considered a world class school, it’s still 3000 miles from Hollywood).



We’re talking degrees of rudeness. Mine at Konga was no less annoying to whoever sat back of us, unless they were enchanted by snide remarks from a seven-year-old. I'd later grow into rapt attention and lack of patience for ones less considerate. By 1963 and The Haunted Palace, our Liberty was my sanctuary wherein worship of Vincent Price must be conducted in silence. I had gone from boisterous to priggish. Others still sought fun from movies, especially those meant to scare. Ann used to watch Shock Theatre with her brother on Channel 8, Saturday nights. He would boil hot dogs in water that turned a sick pink as they settled into Godzilla vs. The Thing, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, or Gamera the Invincible. “It was always American-International pictures!” she recalls, as if that were a bad thing. Here then was “text” that invited its consumer to find his/her own meaning, be it regard or disdain. I developed hearty distaste for “camp,” thinking it was mostly peer pressure that caused others to laugh at things I held dear. There was hesitation at sharing favorites with a group. First semester at college saw Channel 36-Charlotte broadcasting the first three Frankensteins on a Friday night. I invited the hall to come in and watch, at least ten showing up, the small room filled. Which way would they tilt? To my delighted surprise, the group sat entranced. All had seen these before and respected them. A moment’s levity came of reaction when Valerie Hobson threw herself across Colin Clive lying prostrate on a bed in The Bride of Frankenstein, one boy's an indelicate observation I’ll not share for propriety’s sake. Suffice to say, the interruption was OK because his remark was really funny.



“Creative criticism” was something I tried applying to reviews wrote in 1968-69 for our local bugler, most Liberty fare too weak to inspire fun-poking. Audience response was minimal because at weekday matinees, there was virtually no audience. This was dawn upon day when small town theatres were going to evening and weekend only policy. After I got done reviewing, new movies held faint fascination. I went but occasional and usually saw cause to regret it. Straw Dogs was a film that might be read a variety of ways by an intelligent audience, but the Liberty's crowd marched out like from Jeffrey Cordova’s Modern Faust in The Bandwagon. Whooping it up at the movies seemed all done by the seventies. Had a moviegoing public been intellectualized into obedient silence? Too much perusal of Pauline Kael perhaps, but then there were “midnight movies” the dump ground for stuff no exhibitor wanted to use during the week. I didn’t go unless they were revivals, and even then, it was hell staying awake in a theatre where The Cocoanuts and Duck Soup didn't let out till 2 AM. Always it returned to a same question: How much did anyone care about movies one way or the other? Sure there was “film culture” in Manhattan, but I never saw much of it down here. Maybe at UNC in Chapel Hill, plus Wake Forest had a terrific program (Doug Lemza in charge), but my little shows, at a little college, played for most part to sparse groups, less there to engage with the movie than satisfy mildest curiosity and pass idle hours. I’d like knowing percentage of my age group that fully embraced films, let alone interacted “creatively” with them.



Do most people simply watch and walk away, better off for doing so? Why strangulate on analysis? I know a man whose job is handywork, in other words practical things. We spoke recently of a Netflix offering, Hell or High Water. “Real good” he said. Then I mentioned a tense scene near the end that Jeff Bridges played with Chris Pine. My guy, who watches films casual-like, made with perspicacity to send Kael begging, were she here to compare screening notes. Point is the people we think are barely seeing films are often seeing them deeper than any basket of connoisseurs, deeper even than folks that made the films. Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy knew what they wrote was often received on more sophisticated terms than they dreamed of. How many get beyond a tenth of what a good book or movie offers? Not me, and I really do try. We jabber over what makes a picture great, then some or other listener bats an insight over all heads and proves again that anyone who writes about film or whatever art should stay humble. Just like in any walk of life, no matter how adept you think you are, there is always someone who's better. I get the hint often from comments to Greenbriar, each an alert to dig deeper next time.

18 Comments:

Blogger DBenson said...

Prefatory note: Amazon is selling "Showmen Sell It Hot" for just $12.75. A necessity and a swell gift for film students.

On the subject of audiences: In recent years, the cineplex audiences I've been part of have been pretty respectful, reacting the way the movie wants them to react. I suspect part of it is modern ticket prices -- One is determined to get one's money's worth. I can't say I've ever seen an audience express loud disapproval, except when there's an issue with focus or something similar. At worst, they're quiet and sullen, perhaps whispering complaints to companions.

For kid-dominated audiences it's a different story -- I remember what it was to be dropped off for a matinee where parental supervision was nonexistent.

My memories of college film showings in the 70s, on and off campus, are mostly positive. We were usually eager to meet old movies on their own terms, and actually heckling was very rare. At worst there'd be inappropriate laughter or even cheering. You'd get little if any disrespect during, say, a Val Lewton movie (beyond the nervous relief laugh after a shock moment). In a lot of vintage comedies and musicals you have characters onscreen heckling events for you. Busby Berkeley epics with precode wisecracks, Bob Hope or another comedian goofing through an otherwise straight genre film, even Nelson Eddy taking a bit of the mickey out of his operettas.

Interesting that audiences for silent comedies were themselves pretty silent, aside from actual reactions. My pet theory: They knew they were seeing classics, but for the most part only knew them as hacked-up clips on television. The impact of seeing them as complete, well-crafted movies, with a live audience, was totally unexpected. It was, "Who knew these were FUNNY?"

I will confess to being a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, although I'd never want "riffers" sitting near me in an actual theater. They're hit or miss, but when they do hit they're brilliant. RiffTrax makes "Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny" enjoyable.

The one time I heckled at the movies: Many years ago a bunch of coworkers went to a mall on a weeknight to dine in the food court and see Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Collateral Damage" (It was somebody's birthday choice). Of course the main feature was preceded by half a dozen trailers, and three in a row were for sleek, near-identical vampire flicks. Finally came a trailer for a romcom. I shouted, "But where's the vampire?" It got a laugh in the half-empty cineplex.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I can state that when I ran theatres in the 1970s, audience "participation" became part of the attraction, especially with the kung-fu features, good ones or bad ones. (Were there really any good ones? I say other than ENTER THE DRAGON...no.)

Black-oriented features were the same. Didn't matter if it was SHAFT or BLACKENSTEIN.

I recall when I went to see the TRUE GRIT remake, the idiot sitting next to me in a packed house was on his cellphone throughout the movie relating to another idiot everything happening on the screen. He never bothered to whisper. I thought of politely asking him to stop but decided my chances of leaving the theatre without a gun shot or knife wound would be higher if I didn't.

My last visit to my local bijou was the TCM revival of KING KONG, five days before our Governor shut down all theatres because of Covid. Audiences at the TCM shows are serious moviegoers and are a throwback to civilized times.

Otherwise, any new films I wish to see (and there aren't many) I'll watch at home in my theatre.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Maybe that kind of behavior was acceptable when tickets were 25 cents, but now that they're hovering around the $15 range, it should be illegal. The last time I watched a movie in a theater was "The Irishman" in 2019 -- and that was a Broadway house. The audience was respectively silent the entire running time, but that was expected.

While I don't have a home theater, my HDTV and soundbar do the trick; I have no desire to step inside a theater again.

Off topic: that "Duck Soup" poster is bizarre. Both Chico and Zeppo look positively demonic.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

My response is too long for this post.

When people stop taking what we do seriously we are lost. People have stopped taking the movies seriously fora long time. The industry is like Lazarus in the tomb waiting for a voice to shout, "Come forth!"

https://reghartt.ca/cineforum/?p=33434

10:56 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Oh, the problems of 2-D. The (glorious) advertising painting currently used for this site's opening makes it look as if Burt's right boot is to the LEFT of his left boot.

I am secretly a robot....

11:14 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Beowulf: Now that you draw attention to it the miracle is that he could stand up. That image is from a poster for THE UNFORGIVEN. The closest picture matching it is here: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Burt_Lancaster .

12:57 PM  
Blogger J Hall said...

My all-time favorite talk-back occurred at a reasonably well-attended afternoon showing of THE BIRDS in 1963 at my local theatre. I would guess there were about 60 patrons that day. Some kids were there but it was mostly adults.

The audience was respectful throughout the film. As Rod Taylor drove off into the sunset and "The End" credit appeared quietly on screen, a woman angrily shouted out "Is that it?". It echoed through the theatre and to this day makes me laugh just thinking about it.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I ran THE BIRDS at Rochdale College in the 1970s I bought a sparrow at the market. When the film ended it wasn't bird droppings on the floor.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I penned, but was never able to sell, a nostalgia piece called SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT THE MOVIES. It about my adventures at the State Theater, the second and more B-oriented movie house in my small town. It usually featured a cartoon, a short subject (obviously, the Stooges were the most popular) previews, a serial chapter, and two Monogram-quality westerns. This all cost me 15-cents plus a dime for bag of popcorn. They weren't masochistic enough to sell drinks.

2:33 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Talking back to the screen is why I gave up on Film Forum in New York.

It's one thing to be swept into the moment (like the kids at Tom Mix's Miracle Rider), but to talk back to the screen in a show of (unearned) "superiority" is indefensible and a deal-killer for me. Last time I was there was for a screening of Sunset Boulevard, it it seems every "camp!" and "let's scream!" jerk was in attendance.

Never returned. (And just weeks previously the crowd of my betters ruined a screening of Horror Hotel at the same venue.)

3:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I regularly threw (and through) people out of my screenings when they pull that kind of jerkiness thinking it is smart. A journalist said, "Cineplex projectionists say you throw people out of your screenings for talking." I said, "I don't think people pay to listen to someone in the audience." The journalist said, "I never thought of that." My experience is that too many journalists don't think period.I expected better at Film Forum.--Reg Hartt

10:26 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Totally agree about the Film Forum. A shame.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was once at Film Forum for a screening of The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp. The Powell short, An Airmen's Letter to His Mother preceded the feature. There were a couple of young guys that laughed all the way through it. This was in around 1994.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Reg Hartt: Did you sit there and fume or did you speak to the management? I did and do. I'd say, "You have a problem and either way it is going to cost you a refund." Usually the theatre is able to get people to behave. Any theatre that allows audience members to mock what is on the screen is going to lose people who take the movies seriously which is the bulk of their audience.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Every time I read or hear about rowdy or rude movie audiences I assume that either I am very lucky or others are too thin-skinned. I won't say that I've never encountered rude behavior in the movie theater, but I must say that such instances have been incredibly rare.

As for Film Forum, I've seen many many movies there and not once have witnessed the sort of behavior described here. Even when I expected some hooting and hollering (Bela Lugosi space-acting in THE RAVEN) the audience was well-behaved every time.

I'm not claiming that others are making things up, just saying that I must be a very lucky bloke.

And, of course, this is all spectacularly not new. From a biography of mystery writer John Dickson Carr: "Carr loved movies though he complained of people reading the titles aloud during silence"

6:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"As for Film Forum, I've seen many many movies there and not once have witnessed the sort of behavior described here."

Rick, Thanks for this. From the previous posts I thought this was a recent and recurring thing. Glad to hear it isn't.

Anytime you go to a movie theatre and the audience is treating the theatre like their living room notify the management.If you have to demand a refund.

Nonetheless, people talked during the original production of Shakespeare's plays. People probably talked in those Greek open air theatres.

Reg Hartt: I took a friend to see a band in a club. He was from Zimbabwe. So was the band. It was a L shaped room. It was packed. One couple at the end of the room beside the stage was carrying on a LOUD (and I mean LOUD) obnoxious conversation. The band was floundering. I've been where they were. I wrote a note. It was passed down. The man EXPLODED. When he became aware of the rage in the room directed at his location he shut up. The band leader had seen me pass the note. He nodded in my direction. Then the band started up. It was an awesome moment. Always, when you see the need, act. “Someone ought to do it, but why should I? Someone ought to do it, so why not I? Between these two sentences lie whole centuries of moral evolution.” ― Annie Besant

9:50 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Why does Spencer Tracy look like Kirk Douglas in the poster?

10:07 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Tracy looked like Mr. Hyde to me! :)

12:29 PM  

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