Do you remember all those “No Spitting” signs in the subway that threatened fines and arrest and imprisonment? I was fascinated by them as a kid. I’d ask my parents repeatedly why spitting was such a criminal act, but they never had a decent explanation.
As I stood on the train platform I used to fantasize someone letting loose with a big hawker, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere a dozen armed phlegm police rushed the perpetrator to the ground. I think I was about seven, on some outing with my Norwegian grandmother, when I actually saw someone spit on the ground while waiting for the subway. My heart stopped. Time seemed to stand still. My eyes darted around expectantly, and then to my shock- nothing happened. Not one thing. I pulled on my grandmother’s skirt and whispered, “That man over there was spitting, and the police didn’t arrest him.” The train was then pulling into the station at the time and she hustled me aboard saying, “Hellige Gud, what’s the matter with you, are you crazy?” And to compound matters, the minute we climbed up to the street when we reached our destination what do my wandering eyes see but a huge “No Standing” sign with about four people defiantly doing just that underneath it.
That kind of mixed signal can really warp a kid’s perception of the world around him. It’s no wonder I spent the next summer running around the house ripping the “Do Not Remove Under Penalty” labels off all the furniture and mattresses in an ecstatic frenzy.
Now when you sit down in a movie theater and the lights dim a litany of “Don’ts” flash across the screen- “No Smoking,” “No Talking Or Texting,” etc. and the audience is generally quiet during this visual onslaught of rules and regulations. Even during the coming attractions. But without fail, the instant the feature presentation begins, at least three-quarters of the audience have their phones out checking their eMails- a little constellation of phone lights dotting the auditorium. Later comes the talking. And with the new Dolby stereo systems they really have to yell over it, which they certainly do. It’s unbelievable. Occasionally what they say actually does have to do with what’s happening on the screen. “Oh look- a kitten!” is an astute observation. Or “I have those drapes,” might have some relevance to those nearest her. But why on earth do I have to listen to some woman bellowing to her husband over the phone, “Do you want me to pick up the large curd cottage cheese or small curd?” The most baffling vocal exclamations are when people around you repeat the last line just spoken by an actor on the screen just in case you may have missed it.
Now, after years frequenting scary Times Square theaters I know better than to criticize or chastise another cinema patron. I vividly recall during a rousing showing of Black Mama, White Mama a man asked the guy in front of him to pipe down. To which the gentleman simply smashed a boom box over his head. Even when I managed a movie theater in Provincetown during the 70s the only time I replied with action to a complaint was when a guy started urinating on the screen during A Clockwork Orange. Although secretly I had to applaud the man’s moxie. Take that Stanley Kubrick!
But who is going to enforce those “No Talking,” admonitions in theaters today? I’ve heard that at any Alamo Drafthouse you are permanently banned from their theater for being on a cell phone during a film. But in regular multiplexes they aren’t paying ushers enough to put their life on the line asking a patron to stop reciting their recipe for peach cobbler over the phone at top volume during a screening of Captain Marvel.
It’s like the “No Spitting,” signs- if people think it’s a dumb rule and interferes with their personal freedom of expression, then they just refuse to obey it.
But there are so many times when I fantasize on ways to keep an audience behaving in a civilized manner. Why not outfit the staff with cattle prods and then have them gently zap an unruly audience member. Or handy rags generously soaked with chloroform to silence chatty Cathys. Why not wheel tiny spotlights down the aisle and shine it directly in the face of someone texting to mortify them into putting away their phone. You could point out a patron playing Candy Crush during a film and place a metal bucket over their head and repeatedly bang a wooden spoon on the pail until they lose consciousness. How difficult would it be to punish disorderly filmgoers by tripping them on the escalator after the movie?
I’ll tell you the only thing that will dissuade talking during movies. I thought of it the other day while I was straining to hear a movie over the din of an egg salad recipe next to me. It’s failsafe. You dress kids up just like the little cannibal girl in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw III, then arm them with flashlights and makeshift knives and have them creep around the theaters after the lights go down. Then, when they catch a chatterbox, have them run over, shine a light right in the offender’s face and stab them in the leg with their homemade blades shouting “Yackety yack, don’t talk back!”
That’ll shut them up. At least for a minute.