EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play contributor Craig would like to dedicate this column to all those long-suffering people who have ever had to sit through a preview screening with loud people.
By Craig D Lindsey
So, I’m in a packed auditorium to see The Help a few weeks ago – and I am freaking the fuck out.
I drove all the way out to this multiplex, one that I loathe, not only because it’s so far away, but because it has the most architecturally ass-backward auditoriums I’ve ever seen. They’re these gigantic screening rooms that must seat around 200 people. I feel like I’m watching a movie in the multipurpose hall back at my old high school.
But that wasn’t what had me freaked out. What had me irritated and nervous and short with everyone I came in contact with was that I had to watch a 137-minute movie about black maids in the 1960s South with black, female audience members.
I’m sitting in my seat, just screaming inside. The place is full. Some people I know are sitting next to me, and right in front of me are three middle-aged African-American ladies. Seeing those women there took me back to an experience I had years ago in the exact same multiplex. In fact, it was one of my most emasculated moments. I attended a Meet the Fockers screening there several years earlier and two hefty black women sat a few seats down, conducting their own DVD commentary track throughout the movie. Instead of telling these cows to shut the hell up, I just slid further in my seat and didn’t say a damn word, afraid to make a scene in a theater, but more afraid to get in a scuffle with two large black ladies. (The following day, one of my more muscular co-workers told me he was there in the next row in front of them. If I'd known he was there, we could’ve teamed up and taken them.)
Back to The Help. I’m on edge like a somovabitch now, and the movie hasn’t even started yet, and when it does, it's not long before the trio of sistas in front of me start chiming in. Whenever a white character says or does something suspect, they have to put in their two cents. The breaking point came when Emma Stone’s character needed Viola Davis’ character for something and asked Davis’ white employer if she could borrow her. I believe the boss said something to the effect of, “OK, but I need her – tomorrow’s silver-polishing day.” One of the sistas squawked, within full earshot, “So?”
Yeah, I got up and left. I must’ve seen ten minutes’ worth of the flick before I bolted. (Keep in mind, I haven’t walked out of a movie since The House Bunny.) Some of you might be wondering how I could let these loud-ass ladies ruin my movie-going experience, but it wasn’t just them, as I was virtually surrounded by an entire Greek chorus of sassy, opinionated, predominantly black women. I knew the rest of the film would be filled with their groaning and snickering and catty little asides. I felt trapped, like I was transplanted back to the ‘70s and sitting in the studio audience for Good Times.
While I rejoiced that I wouldn’t have to deal with that bullshit anymore, I forgot about the fact that I had to turn in a review of the movie later that night for a weekly paper. When I left a voice message to the editor telling him what I had done, he called me back asking what I'd found so offensive about the movie that made me leave. I told him it wasn’t the movie that I found offensive, it was the audience. When I tried to explain to him the pain and torture of sitting in that group, he said my name the way a disapproving parent would. He was not happy in the slightest, and who could blame him? He couldn’t believe that, after all these years of reviewing movies and attending screenings, I’d lose my shit because I was sitting next to some chatty Keishas. And I couldn’t believe it either – I mean, I’m a professional, gotdammit! I’m too old to be flaking out like this!
There’s an easy explanation as to why I had this brief psychological meltdown. Gather around and let me explain something to you: I’m not a big fan of talking during movies.
I know, some of you are saying, “But, Craig, you’re black! How can this be?”
For most of my life, I’ve preferred watching movies alone. This is a choice I made way back when I was 11, when I told my mother that if we ever attended movies together, I was going to sit far away from her – not because I was ashamed to be seen with my mother at the movies, but because I couldn’t take any more of her yapping during the film! Her judgmental, disapproving moans! Her snarky side comments! She was Mystery Science Theater 3000 before Mystery Science Theater 3000 even showed up!
I know that the stereotypical perception of black moviegoers is that we must talk during the movie, but consider me the exception. Growing up in a house full of motor-mouthed, extremely self-righteous black women made watching movies an unpleasant experience for me. In fact, one of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood was when, at 8, I became sick and was bedridden. Most of the family was gathered around me, but what made this quite traumatic was that, at the time, we were all watching Risky Business. Yes, the whole family and I gathered around the TV to watch a young kid by the name of Tom Cruise become a teenage pimp.
The whole experience was memorably awkward, being stuck in bed as the fam watched Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay get all freaky-sneaky on a subway train. (Just so you don’t think my family consisted of awful guardians, they did tell me to cover my eyes during explicit scenes like that.) But it was their constant, unfiltered commentary about the movie that made this a childhood memory I just can’t shake. The women in my family were relentless in letting you know their opinions on a film as it was happening, and it made watching movies quite a chore. I anticipated their lip so much that I became constantly anxious and uncomfortable, unable to enjoy what I was watching.
At this point, I should say that I don’t think all African-American women talk during the movies. I recently attended that documentary on A Tribe Called Quest with a sista and she stayed mostly, satisfyingly quiet. And there have been times where I’ve attended a movie or two with white girls who couldn’t shut their traps, like that time I went to see Pineapple Express with a girl who kept responding to everything she saw on-screen with a jaunty-but-still-girly “Oh no!”
Anyway, you’d think that movies would be forever ruined for me. Well, here’s the twist: I grew up to be a film critic! For most of the last decade, I got paid to watch and review movies. For someone who grew up loathing hearing the responses of my fellow audience members (especially those who were related to me), this was a job that occasionally took its toll on me.
You see, most of the time, in order for critics to see movies before they drop, they have to attend preview screenings, which is usually the most loathsome way to watch a film. Publicity groups set up screenings in a theater, usually on the Monday or Tuesday night before the movie comes out, and distribute passes via radio and TV stations, businesses that sponsor the event, etc. So, usually, you’re not watching with a paid audience, but with freeloading riff-raff.
Preview audiences are the worst. On many an occasion, I’ve slowly made my way to auditoriums where a reserved seat awaits me. (These seats are always in the middle of the theater. I much prefer to sit way in the back, so I won’t have to be stuck in the middle of this cacophony of unruliness.) Once there, I slump in my seat, dreading the generally obnoxious behavior these audience members often exhibit throughout the movie.
But whether it’s chatterbox women, obnoxious teenagers, loud kids, douchebags on their cells or whoever, disrespectful or even indifferent viewers can easily ruin a movie-going experience for others. In a post on his blog last year, Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote of attending a packed screening at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, finding the experience transcendent because the audience was filled with honest-to-God moviegoers who paid to get in and had a vested interest in seeing the movie:
“At many screenings, particularly the 'sneak previews' at which critics are invited to join an audience of radio station listeners who got free tickets, the audience often doesn't know or care about the movie, and they respond as in terms of peer communication rather than shared experience. In short, what I felt in my bones at the Music Box was the experience a working movie critic rarely shares, the sensation of seeing a movie in a room filled with people who are there of their own will, sympathize with movies, and respond genuinely.”
When Ebert wrote that, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one who abhorred seeing movies with the disinterested audiences of preview screenings. To be quite honest, I actually prefer seeing movies with paying audiences. Whenever I pay to see a film (usually at a mid-afternoon matinee; I’m not even thinking about seeing a movie on a Friday or Saturday night, with kids and teenagers running around and acting more rowdy and dickish than the adults), the audience is usually on their best behavior, I assume because they paid their hard-earned money to be entertained by a motion picture. They didn’t pay to hear jagoffs talking or texting on their cellphones, or to hear some loudmouths do their own running commentary throughout the film. They came to see the film, dammit! Because of this unspoken rule, these movie-going experiences tend to be the most pleasurable. Even when the movie’s bad, I enjoy seeing it with an audience that wants to immerse themselves in the film.
I’m still in the movie-reviewing business, so unfortunately, I have to suck it up, be a man and take in a preview screening now and again. If it’s at a multiplex I’m usually comfortable at, that takes some of the edge off. If it’s a screening that was badly promoted and not a lot of people are there, then that really takes the edge off.
I realize this is an issue I may need to talk to a professional about (among many other issues in my life), but I’ll tell you this: after seven years of continuously taking in movies with audiences who act like they don’t have any gotdamn sense, I understand why people would rather stay home and watch films on their widescreen HDTV, complete with Blu-ray player and streaming Netflix Instant hookup. But there are still many of us who enjoy seeing movies on the big screen. Hey, maybe I’ll finally take in a screening of The Help – but definitely during a weekday, with fewer people around, of course.
Craig D. Lindsey used to be the film critic and pop-culture columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now he's back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, the Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, The Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog, and you can also hit him up on Twitter.