In his runaway bestseller The Republic, noted brainiac Plato posits that the bulk of humanity are like prisoners, chained in a cave, taking for reality the shadows projected upon the wall in front of them. Plato suggests that the sober and preferably bearded philosopher will stage a break-out and turn towards the light, ultimately emerging into the world beyond the cave. In this way the philosopher will attain true knowledge, and as a bonus will probably feel a sight better for an infusion of Vitamin D.
Philosophy and film studies lecturers enjoy pointing out the parallels between Plato’s allegory and the cinema. It’s the same basic set-up: darkened room, projected images, reconstructed reality. But there are two key differences. First, in a cinema, the audience is generally present of its own volition and aware of the fundamental unreality of the images being projected. Second, Plato’s cave, despite depicting an abject humanity unable to recognise the fraudulence of its perceptions, is nevertheless refreshingly free of idiots with smartphones checking Facebook or pointing to the wall projections and loudly asking their cave-mates “Is that shadow puppet the murderer? Oh, isn’t that the short one from The Big Bang Theory?”
For as long as there have been cinemas, there have been annoying cinema-goers. When the Lumières premiered their riveting short Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon —incidentally, how did they get such privileged access? They must have known somebody who worked there—one can imagine the rudeness of the unschooled audience. Doubtless some people continued to read their massive multi-volume Victorian novels throughout the duration of the film, unconcerned that the fluttering of pages would distract attention from the screen. Others would have shifted constantly in their seats, eating toffees noisily and asking their companions who on earth those mysterious people on the screen were, in worker’s clothes and leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon.
Thus it has continued throughout cinema’s long and occasionally glorious history. The whisperers, the nudgers, the pashers, the lolly-unwrapperers, the pontificators, the popcorn-chuckers, the drink-slurpers, the seat-kickers—all routine banes, all deserving of a focused and efficient boxing around the private parts.
Recently, the massed ranks of people who behave like especially self-involved three-year-olds in public have welcomed a new breed: the phone-fiddler. This person—if personhood is to be granted in this case, which is a debate for another time—cannot manage to go five minutes, let alone ninety minutes or more, without checking their phones for texts, social media updates, or merely having that warm rectangle of light nestled in their hand, smiling at them like a mother, lover, and benevolent dictator rolled into one. Never mind the people who take actual phone calls during a film. (And I do mean never mind: they’re being rounded up and processed into high-protein chicken feed as we speak).
Now, I’m not some modern-day Ned Ludd, on a misguided crusade against mobile phones. Some of my best friends are mobile phones! But to my mind, if you enter a cinema—or any other theatre—you are making a compact with the proprietors, with the general public, and, damn it, with Art, to sit down, shut up, and pay attention. By all means, check the weather during the previews, text your mum during the ads, play another round of 2048 when the screen pops up futilely requesting that you turn your bloody phone off. Once the lights dim and the film starts, however, you need to put that thing in your pocket before someone puts it elsewhere. In the bin, perhaps, or your urethra.
‘But Tim,’ I hear you saying, because you just can’t let somebody finish speaking before you butt in with your own two cents, can you? ‘But Tim, I’m the product of an obsessively multi-tasking society, whose individual and collective attention span has withered to the length of… Oh look! A shiny thing!’ Sorry, bub. No dice. If you truly are incapable of single-tasking, perhaps the cinema isn’t the place for you. Might I suggest staying at home and opening a browser tab or fifty? But if you’re willing to put your phone away for a couple of hours, we’d love to have you down at the local movie house. Just to show we’re not completely inhuman, we’ll even let you bring in some noisy food—but have it eaten by the end of the previews, or its curtains for you.
TIM STERNE, MELBOURNE