Why I'm shushhhing you: Using your phone in a movie theater isn't a private act, but a public insult

Shane Danielsen, a filmmaker who has worked as a film journalist, critic and artistic director of Scotland’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, has spent a significant portion of his life in movie theaters. His mother has long predicted that he will meet his death in one of these theaters.

That’s because in the 12 years I’ve known Danielsen, he has been a vigorous and conscientious shusher. For him, the experience of seeing a movie in a darkened theater or screening room is predicated on an unspoken but binding social contract. And when you light up your phone mid-movie to check Facebook or send a text message, distracting yourself and those around you from the immersive and dreamlike power of the cinema screen, you are in violation of that contract and should be reprimanded accordingly.

For Danielsen’s sake, I hope his mother’s dire prediction is wrong, though there’s certainly enough evidence out there to support her theory. Stories about physical violence erupting in theaters, often triggered by someone’s excessive talking or phone use, have become troublingly commonplace — and usually (though not always), the violent act is committed by the shushee, not the shusher. I’ve never forgotten the story of a 2010 incident at a Lancaster theater, where a man asked a woman to turn off her phone and wound up getting stabbed in the neck with a meat thermometer by the woman’s boyfriend.

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By all accounts, the offending party had to leave the theater to fetch said meat thermometer, which did give me some small measure of relief. As tempted as I often am to ensure that my concession-stand hot dog has been cooked to the recommended 140 degrees Fahrenheit, I still believe that movies are best enjoyed with one’s food temperature-measuring implements left safely at home. I’d go a step further and say the same rule holds true for cellphones.

I don’t go as far as Danielsen sometimes does — meaning I have never actually snatched a phone from someone’s hand and chucked it angrily against the theater wall. (I wasn’t there to witness this particular altercation, but even after multiple nudges, apparently, the guy really, really wouldn’t put his phone away.) But I fully share his views on the sanctity of a darkened theater and the need for better theater manners, something that can only change if people are informed — not just reminded — that what they’re doing is not acceptable in the first place.

Even now, some 15 years or so into the era of ubiquitous smartphones, it surprises me how many moviegoers fail to recognize the distinction between the theater and the lobby, and the disrespect inherent in an action that all of us, of course, perform multiple times a day in non-theater settings.

Have these individuals never engaged so fully with a film, or felt pulled so deeply into a story, that they haven’t felt a moment’s resentment when something rang or vibrated or lighted up a few seats away, shattering the spell? Does the problem begin with a lack of respect for their seat mates, or a lack of respect for the entertainment medium itself?

Before it stoked controversy recently by announcing women-only screenings of “Wonder Woman,” Alamo Drafthouse, the Austin, Texas-based national movie theater chain, was known primarily for its extensive in-theater dining menu and its insistence on preaching a high-minded gospel of filmgoing etiquette. In 2011, a woman was famously ejected from an Alamo Drafthouse for violating its “if you talk or text during a movie, we kick you out” rule. When she called the theater and left an angry voicemail, the company responded by putting her message online, to the great glee of many anti-texter schadenfreudists like me.

In the most telling snippet of that woman’s voicemail, she rants, “I’ve texted in ALL the other theaters in Austin, and no one ever gave a ... ” Therein lies the problem, of course: The Drafthouse policy is an outlier when it should be standard policy nationwide.

The scourge is not limited, I should add, to a slovenly and self-entitled American moviegoing public. I am writing these words on my way back from the just-concluded Cannes Film Festival, and I can attest that even in a place that presumes to hold the cinema sacred, there is no escaping the glowing lights that pop up periodically throughout the theater, if not from the seat right next to you.

Sometimes at festivals, mid-movie phone use is defended as a professional necessity, especially at screenings held for journalists and film buyers. What these excuses really mean, of course, is something entirely different: My business is more important than your business, let alone your viewing pleasure.

For what business reason, I wonder, did the gentleman seated several rows ahead of me at a 2014 Cannes screening of “Force Majeure” take out a camera — not a phone, mind you, but a camera, with a very large, very bright viewfinder — and start taking pictures of the screen? I try to keep an even temper in most situations, but it was the most egregious of several offenses that day, and something inside me snapped.

“Turn that off!” I yelled, loud enough for the man (and doubtless the entire theater) to hear me. He turned it off.

Eruptions like that can be satisfying, admittedly, if also self-defeating. They run the risk of causing a much bigger and more hostile distraction from the movie (and, of course, begetting violence). Politely asking people to respect their fellow moviegoers shouldn’t be a difficult matter. Most of the times I’ve done it, the individual has quickly complied and even apologized, which I always appreciate. Much more than I appreciated that one woman who, after being asked to turn off her phone, smiled and said, “In a minute.”

I’m no longer as vehement as I used to be about shushing my fellow moviegoers, more out of fatigue than anything else. Phone use at the movies is so prevalent and unavoidable now that I myself often give it a pass, depending on how long the device is out and how bright the screen is. We all have to choose our battles.

But at the heart of these exchanges and confrontations is the fundamental question of exactly who’s bothering whom. Is your idle Twitter session an infringement on my viewing experience, or is my questioning you about it an incursion into your private business? Does it matter that my best effort to lose myself in the movie before us — regardless of whether the movie deserves it or not — is not being matched by your own?

There are all sorts of reasons we can cite for the ongoing debasement of moviegoing as a pastime, all sorts of reasons we no longer care to buy a ticket for an evening’s entertainment (the price of those tickets not least among them). Hell is other people, after all, specifically people who talk back at the screen, people who step on your foot as they make their way toward their seats, people who spill popcorn and leave their trash everywhere.

But being on your phone is a different kind of insult. And that’s because, unlike the other offenses — and I would argue that talking back at the screen is vastly preferable, insofar as it requires a level of engagement with it — it’s the only one that signals a complete disconnect from the reason we’re there in the first place.

It’s not just the inconsiderateness but the indifference that rankles, because it flies in the face of what we film critics often wax poetic about, a touch too earnestly, perhaps, but with complete sincerity: the communal power of the movies. And intentionally or not, using your device during a movie is a rejection of that power. It’s a gesture that says, “This experience doesn’t matter, my presence here doesn’t matter, and your presence here doesn’t matter, either.”

The reality, of course, is that all of it matters. At a time when we are forever consumed by our personal technology, the theater can and should be our last public refuge, where we are in thrall to the movies and the movies alone. And if that vision comes from a place of nostalgia or naiveté, then it’s a place where there is still room for all of us, sitting proudly and defiantly in the dark.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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