It’s a Real Zoo in There

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Recent surveys show that the most hated person on the planet isn’t Saddam Hussein or any other likely suspect. No, the most reviled individual in the world is the Guy Who Just Sat in Front of You at the Movie Theater.

You know him, right? Pass him on the street and you wouldn’t say he’s tall. But then he eases down into the seat and becomes a paragon of posture, as if his Marine sergeant mother might be doing spot checks at any given moment. As a bonus, he might add to his arsenal of sensory assault the jarring electronic caterwaul of a cell phone, pager or waterproof watch.

Even with the availability of state-of-the-art DVD and home theater technology, people are still going out to the movies in droves. That is because nothing in your living room can substitute for the collective experience you still get at the cinema, surrounded by hundreds of perfect strangers gasping and shrieking in unison. And that’s just at the box office.


But nowadays, wherever there are large groups of people, there is inevitable vitriol. Since we’re no doubt minutes away from the first recorded incident of multiplex rage in the new millennium, it seems like the time is nigh for a brief etiquette guide to enhance your experience (and maintain your life expectancy) at the picture show.

The following are some of the more common blood-boiling predicaments one encounters at the movies today and what should be done about them

The seat-saving conundrum: It might seem like a good and noble idea, but once you go beyond marking territory for one other person, this practice should be avoided at all costs. Any occasion when ordinary people get to control the fate of others is bound for catastrophe. And unless you have a third-degree black belt in karate or attend movies regularly with the Rock, it’s best not to get involved with other people’s seat disputes either; it can only end less pleasantly than the new “Planet of the Apes.”

Staking out the last remaining cup-holder: Smirking cousin to the wayward shopping-cart wheel, the phantom cup-holder is clearly the cineplex architect’s cruel practical joke, existing solely to spark conflict. In case you haven’t noticed, in most theaters that have these conveniences, there is usually one fewer cup-holder than there are seats in a given row. Because placing your beverage on the floor is a bacterial gamble of epic proportions sure to be featured on an upcoming edition of “20/20,” your best bet is to arrive early, snag a cup-holder and suffer through the purgatory of commercials and trivia questions--and of course the L.A. Times ad you’ve seen 12 times already.

The movie screen is smaller than your laptop: No matter how postage-sized the screen in Theater 4B is, it is never appropriate to knock out the back wall or ask the portliest person in the theater to wear a white smock and let the film be projected on him. Your best hope for eventual improvement in this area is to repeatedly ask the manager for a magnifying glass.

Your view has just been obstructed: When encountering the aforementioned public enemy, the Guy Who Just Sat in Front of You at the Movie Theater, your potential courses of action are limited. An audible sigh might produce the desired migratory effect, but only if you are a female and there are other seats for the suddenly conscientious offender to move to. Otherwise, the majestic vistas and dynamic composition schemes the cinematographer of “Freddie Got Fingered” wanted to share with you, the discerning cineaste , will be impinged upon by a cranial eclipse. Things could get worse still, if your own personal Dikembe Mutombo also decides to pan-and-scan the action by shifting his head from side to side every minute or so. You could try yoga exercises to give you the flexibility to see around the great obstructer, or given the state of current movies, you could just be grateful that you don’t have to see what’s up on the screen.


Bonus seating strategy: If you arrive when the house lights are still up, chances are you’ve got a lot of options where to sit. Going right to the choice seats in the middle is certainly very tempting, but it’s a decision that could come back to haunt you when you wind up behind someone with a topiary on his or her dome. Instead of being the first pioneer to tame an unsullied expanse of molded plastic, find the tallest person (less than 7 feet) already seated and sit two rows behind him. Because the seat directly behind him is the least desirable one in the whole theater, chances are pretty good you won’t have to worry about the dreaded last-minute obstructer.

The deer-in-the-headlight syndrome: If the feature presentation has begun and you find yourself standing immobile in the middle of the aisle for some idiotic reason, you are hereby declared fair game. To paraphrase THX, “the audience is glowering,” and vigilante action is highly appropriate. Raisinets and Milk Duds are the preferred projectiles, although some popcorn is recommended for texture’s sake. If you forget where your party is sitting, silently repeat the following mantra: “A lengthy half-crouch does not render me invisible” and proceed slowly down the aisle until they your friends flag you down. and bring you back to the pack.

The cell phone always rings twice: At least. In my days of overzealous etiquette enforcement, I would pounce on the inconsiderate callee’s bleating cell phone as if it were a grenade, rip out the battery to make it “live,” then heave it toward the nearest exit in melodramatic pantomime slow motion, ducking and covering. But now that I’ve matured, I fight technology with technology. Whenever I’m violated by someone’s personalized jangle, I simply unsheath and aim my laser pointer at the offensive ringing party, fixing him or her with a scarlet dot of shame for the remainder of the film.

Real-life SurroundSound: Once studio-produced celluloid (as opposed to commercials and Kodak promos) has tumbled through the sprockets, silence is expected. The only time one should be able to speak above a whisper whilst projection is occurring is during any preview that begins with the words, “In a world where.” If someone in your immediate vicinity is spouting bothersome verbiage, these instructions are to be followed in ascending order until silence is achieved: (1) Execute an abrupt half-turn of the head. (2) Say, “Shhhh” without an exclamation point. (3) Say, “Shhhh!” (4) Smile at the offensive yakker and loudly say: “Thanks for having us over tonight.” Rejoinders to dialogue and action from the movie itself are frowned on unless there are more than three credited writers on the project. In these cases, the policy is obviously the more the merrier, so feel free to chime in. Sample line: “Hey, if Buck Henry got a chance to punch up this muddle-headed, agency-packaged dog, why not you?”

Making a stand against crazy concession prices: Highly recommended. My delightful girlfriend (“The Living Coupon”) is the unchallenged master of combating exorbitant concession prices by way of the artful snack smuggle. Usually it’s just soft drinks and some home-nuked popcorn, but one time she even managed to mule in a hibachi, briquettes and some kosher hot dogs. One tip for avoiding food-police detection once you’re inside is to time the opening of soda cans with the inevitable explosion scenes during the previews. Now, gentle viewers, enjoy the show. And please turn off those cell phones.