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This Is Not About Texting: A Story of Movies, Men and Violence

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 14, 2014 at 10:56AM

Chad Oulson's murder isn't about texting in movie theaters. It's about what happens when you combine human nature and a deadly weapon.
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Chad Oulson, center, was murdered in a Florida movie theater.
Chad Oulson, center, was murdered in a Florida movie theater.

Chad Oulson, the 43-year-old father of a 3-year-old girl, was fatally shot by a 71-year-old retired police officer after a brief argument in Land O' Lakes, Florida yesterday. Oulson's wife, who threw her arm across her husband in a vain attempt to protect him, was also wounded. Those are the facts, as we currently know them.

That the argument between Oulson and Curtis Reeves, the man who murdered him, began when Reeves asked Oulson to stop using his cell phone during the previews of a screening of Lone Survivor has led some outlets to describe it as "an argument over texting," and the New York Times went so far as to link it to disputed reports that the AMC chain had considered adding texting-friendly rows or even screenings.

When the story broke yesterday, I sent the link out on Twitter, and a number of my colleagues did the same, mostly without comment. But a number of movie sites, including the one that employs me, picked up the story, and a few individuals took the opportunity to say things like, "Maybe it's time to consider allowing texting in theaters?" At Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells went so far as to say, Oulson "obviously didn’t deserve to die for texting, but you can’t say he didn’t at least flirt with the possibility of trouble by doing so."

As I see it, this is not a story about texting, and certainly not one that can responsibly or sensibly be tied into a larger debate about movie theater etiquette. It's a story about guns, and men, and violence.

It's true that the dispute between Oulson and Reeves apparently began over texting: Oulson was texting his 3-year-old. Reeves asked him to stop. Oulson refused. Reeves left the theater, apparently to look for a manager, and after failing, returned to his seat. And then the confrontation turned physical. According to witness Charles Cummings, Reeves and Oulson started arguing again almost immediately, and popcorn -- he's not sure by whom -- was thrown, at which point Reeves drew his .380 handgun and shot Oulson in the chest. Cummings, a Marine who saw combat in Vietnam, said that Oulson gurgled blood and said "I can't believe I've been shot" before he died.

A digression which I hope will eventually seem relevant: In December, I went to a neighborhood cultural center to see Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux. I'd been waiting over a year to see the film in a theater and on 35mm, so I was excited for its only local screening, if a little wound up from the crunch of year-end assignments. There weren't many people there, perhaps two dozen, and with an audience that small -- and a director whose past films were so deliberately daunting -- you'd expect they compromised only the hardiest and most dedicated of cinephiles. But sure enough, a few people started to pull out their cellphones, and since no one else was doing it, I took it upon myself to ask them, politely but firmly, to stop. 

As I returned to my seat the second time, in something of a rush so as to minimize the distraction, my foot connected with the bottle of soda I'd left on the floor, which went skidding down the nearly empty row. I could see a figure sitting by the far aisle, and I could have gone over and apologized, but I thought I'd save that for after the film, and to be honest, I was ashamed of my clumsiness. So I sat back in my seat and turned my attention toward the screen, which is why I didn't see the soda bottle as it came whizzing back and hit me in the shoulder.

That, as they say, led to an argument. Most of what followed is a blur, although I know plenty of harsh words were exchanged. And then, dear reader, I shoved him. It was pretty pathetic, really, an impulsive, half-blind act that if my memory can be relied upon barely connected with its intended target, but the intent was clear: I wanted to start a fight -- or, more accurately, I felt one had been started, and I wasn't going to back away from it.

Fortunately, that was more or less that. The other man suggested we step outside, I told him in the most profane language I could muster that I had no interest in doing so, and I sat back down in a vain attempt to concentrate on the rest of the film. Needless to say, the screening was ruined, for me, and, quite probably, for everyone else. I'm not sure what I could realistically have done differently, apart from being less of a clumsy oaf, but I'm genuinely sorry for that.

Was texting a part of this confrontation? A little. Did it have anything do with it? Not really. Mostly it was about men and their overblown sense of entitlement, and about the fact that in spite of my liberal political views and generally shy demeanor, there's a part of me that's essentially a lizard. I should know better, and I usually do, but no matter how evolved I may fancy myself, a part of me is stubbornly stuck in the Stone Age. It doesn't matter how ill-equipped I am to follow through on those reptile-brain impulses, or how badly I'd fare were I to get in an actual fight -- and man, would that be a sad and shameful spectacle -- sometimes I see red and want nothing more than to beat the crap out of something.

This is what's known, popularly, as the urge to kill, which we mostly use in (partial) jest. But put a gun on someone's hip, and suddenly it's not a metaphor anymore. I'm not saying I would have shot that man, but I have no way of knowing whether he might have shot me. Curtis Reeves probably would have. And it wouldn't have had a damn thing to do with movies or texting or anything but what happens when you combine human nature and a deadly weapon. Chad Oulson's murder is a tragedy, and a terrible reflection on the state of our nation. But it reflects even more poorly on our culture that a man was shot dead in a public place, and instead of a gun, we blame his phone.


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