Friday, April 26, 2013

The Dragonheart Effect

Movies are a communal experience.  I know that movie watching is something that happens more and more on an individual basis now that we have quick access to them on all our mobile devices.  But I think that something about the art form will be truly lost if we lose group movie watching.

I know that going to the theater is not only expensive, but a hassle.  After paying for your ticket (extra if you see it in 3D, XD, Imax, Imax 3-D) and taking out a small home equity loan to get a medium popcorn and Junior Mints, you then have to sit in a large dark room full of strangers.  These are people from all different walks of life who were raised goodness knows what kind of manners.

Some people follow the basic etiquette of silence when the voices on the screen are talking.  Others seem to be as clueless as the apemen shouting at the 2001 monolith.  Some kick the back of your seat.  Others never stop fidgeting.  There are, of course, the obnoxious teenagers who are there more to make a spectacle of themselves because they cannot stand that people in a darkened theater are staring only at the giant screen in front of them.  And then there are the talkers.  One of my favorite lines from the show Firefly was from the character Shepherd Book who told someone, "You're going to end up in the special hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk in the theater."

I remember I was once at a packed screening of the movie Changing Lanes starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson.  In the middle of the movie, a cell phone rang.  The owner was apparently unaware that he was not sitting privately in his living room, but was surrounded by hundreds of people who paid money to hear the film and not his voice.  He proceeded to have a conversation with his acquaintance (I'm assuming that this person could not possibly have actual friends) at the top of his lungs.  I would be angrier at him.  But he was the most memorable thing about that movie.

My point is that I understand why people don't like to go out and see movies when it is easier, faster, and cheaper to do so on your own.  But watching with other people changes the film going experience. I'm not talking about the film's quality.  That is an semi-objective judgment about the merits of the film in the different aspects of movie making.  But there is the subjective enjoyment of a movie that is greatly impacted by those with whom you see it.

Have you ever argued with someone about a movie being good or bad?  Of course you have.  We all have.  But one of the reasons why it is so difficult to reconcile the two points of view is because often (not always) the two viewers do not have the same viewing experience.

I think that this is especially true of comedies.  I remember I sat down once and watched This is Spinal Tap by myself.  I found it meandering, pointless, and boring.  I could not understand why people liked this movie so much.  Then I happen to watch it again with a group of people.  I braced myself for a boring evening.  But to my surprise, I found myself laughing hysterically at most of the jokes.  The movie began to click.  I am convinced it was not so much a grand insight I had (although I finally realized that this movie was the template for shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation), but that I was in the presence of people who truly enjoyed it.  And that helped me enjoy it too.  This is the same experience I had with the movies Billy Madison and Swingers.

It doesn't always work.  This isn't simply a matter of bending to social pressures.  Sometimes you cannot fathom why those around like the movie you are watching.  My friends once tried to "correct" me of my ranking Caddyshack 2 over the original Caddyshack.  So they decided to hold a viewing of the first film to demonstrate to me how funny it was.

It didn't take.

But even though I still don't care for that movie (I know I am in the vast minority here), I did enjoy it MORE than had before because of the company I kept.

But the best example of this is what I call the "Dragonheart Effect."  Dragonheart was a movie that came out in the mid-'90's that had a talking dragon (Sean Connery) go on adventures with world-weary knight (Dennis Quaid).  When my group of friends made it to the theater, there weren't enough seats for all of us to sit together.  So half of us went to the front and the other to the back.

We all sat through the exact same movie in the exact same theater.  Unlike most teenagers, we did not constantly talk to each other during the movie.  But when we had finished the two groups of us got back together and we found that half of us loved the movie and the other half hated it.  And the division depended on where you sat.

Even without talking, I think something about the environment of people around has a deep impact on your film viewing experience.  Being with other people who enjoy something can enhance your enjoyment.  Being with other people who hate something can sour you on it too.  You can't force someone to like the movies that you like.  This is especially true if you hover over them at constantly check their expression to see if all the scenes are hitting them emotionally the same way they hit you.  But you can make the movie watching experience richer by sharing a movie with a group.

I've seen theater's jump with terror together (Dead Again).  I've heard it fill the air with a constant barrage of laughs (Ted).  I was once in a theater where people actually stood up and cheered (Attack of the Clones).  I've even been in theater's where the audience was stunned into profound silence together (Schindler's List).  There are very few movie-watching experiences as thrilling as being in a room full of people bonded emotionally by nothing more than the magic of the silver screen.

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