Three years ago, during a visit to Seattle, I suffered one of the most excruciating experiences of my movie-going life. A theater that specializes in classic and alternative film was hosting a special screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” preceded by an eloquent introduction by local-area movie critic and scholar, Robert Horton, who explained to the audience why “The Birds” is regarded as a classic.
I admired the film for much the same reasons Robert Horton does, and was looking forward to the presentation, especially with its 35 millimeter print, which is increasingly rare in the digital age.
However, something peculiar happened which hampered my immersion in the experience. To my left, there were two young ladies who from the first minute were laughing loudly at the film. At first it I assumed it was nervous laughter generated by the skill and flair with which the Master of Suspense cultivates an ambiance of menace.
In soon became evident, however, that (perhaps under the influence of marijuana) they attended the showing of this movie with the specific purpose of mocking it, loudly, and by extension, mocking its appreciative audience. They not only chortled, even guffawed, at each and every scene, even the most somber (and being that Hitchcock opted not to have a film score, “The Birds” is one of his most somber efforts). However, their laughter was not in any way an authentic expression of mirth, but rather forced.
Thus, what should have been a rewarding, if disturbing, experience became a very unpleasant one. What these two punks did was comparable to crashing a wedding with the intention of disrupting the ceremony under the pretext of spontaneous reactions. I very much regret not responding by purchasing two large and sugary sodas and pouring them over their heads.
I wish I could claim this as an isolated incident, but recently other film journalists have been making note of this new phenomenon of snickering at old cinema. For example, in the Los Angeles Weekly, Amy Nicholson published “Stop Laughing At Old Movies, You $@%&ing Hipsters.” Writes Nicholson:
Ironic laughter has ruined a half-dozen old movies I’ve gone to in the last few years, and it seems be getting louder. I’ve heard horror stories of audiences guffawing through ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ‘The Thing,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The Godfather’—c’mon, ‘The Godfather’!? And perversely, the same crowds stay quiet during actual classic comedies. It’s like modern audiences must one-up the past.
A few years ago in Ecuador, where I taught screenwriting, I had the experience of presenting the 1940 film, “The Letter,” with Bette Davis, directed by William Wyler and based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, as an example of a great film. Regarded a masterpiece by film buffs, my hope was that this movie would plant a seed of enthusiasm for classic Hollywood in a new generation largely unfamiliar with any movie older than “Star Wars” or even “The Fast and the Furious.”
Instead, they responded with loud yawns and even more loud guffaws. To them, what was on the screen was nothing more than a silly melodrama with characters and intrigues that had no relationship to their lives.
Perhaps that is a fair criticism, perhaps it isn’t, though it could just as well be applied to “Oedipus Rex” (“The guy’s wife turns out to who? Ha!”). However, it is worth noting that when I showed this same class John Sayles’ 1997 film, “Men with Guns,” which deals with genocide committed against the poor in Central America during the 80s, it provoked a few giggles, an index that today’s young audiences of today are not just cynical, but nihilistic.
Some of the commentary on line in response to the complaints by journalists such as Ms. Nicholson and Matt Zoller Seitz (creator of the website, “Press Play”), has been in defense of the rudeness. According to the hipsters, they have the right to respond in any way they want to when the see a film. Furthermore, they believe that few Hollywood films have intrinsic value as art and are not worthy of respect. A major complaint is the artificiality of the special effects. Some even argue that such films are racist and sexist, and deserve public ridicule.
This provokes the question, if such people hate old movies so much, why do they make the effort to see them in a public venue? Do they not have better use of their time? And why can’t they let others enjoy their interests? After all, even the most severe atheists do not go to church in order to disrupt the service.
And certainly, there have been no reports of cynical youngsters paying money in order to roar with laughter at live performances of opera, classical theater, and ballet. This points up to a still-persistent condescending cultural attitude towards the seventh art that has been around as long at the form itself.
To be continued…
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May 12, 2017
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