MORAL TURPITUDE

TALKING AT THE MOVIES IS ACE

I hold that talking loudly with friends during the movies is a mark of the truly civilised. This argument may not satisfy everyone, so I hasten to add: I also look highly on the practice of talking loudly during the theatre, concerts, poetry readings, and especially at art galleries while the art is doing whatever it is that art does. 

Firstly, it is pleasant for those involved (Epicureanism). Secondly, it is beneficial for society as a whole (Utilitarianism). The first point is obvious to all; the second will take a little discussion, which I will enter into shortly. Thirdly, the movie itself may not be worth paying any attention to: recently I attended a screening of Godzilla with my brothers, and we proceeded to have a vigorous conversation about anything and everything to while away the two hours it took for the eponymous gigantic prehistoric lizard to wreak its entirely predictable devastation on several cities. 

To return to my second point: it is held against the talkers-over that they are no good to anyone, that they are distracting themselves and others from the art, and that they are not paying attention to whatever is the point that the movie is supposed to be making. This is summed up in a Sterne declamation in a previous CRANK:

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. 

And there is a great deal of truth to this asseveration: it is exceedingly impolite to be fiddle-faddling with mobile phones, iPads, iPods, and the like when you could be engaging in pleasant conversation with your companions. 

However, it is hard to know what the point of Art, with a capital A, is at all. Art is utterly mysterious: coming from a place we know nothing about, and going to a destination about which our knowledge is somewhat less certain. Who is to say that in letting people talk loudly over a movie, that a great discovery will not inadvertently be made? In former days, we used to make more allowance for these possibilities; people would attend plays and operas to shout for the heroes, hiss the villains, regularly pelt poor performers with bits of fermenting vegetables, and take part in the occasional riot. Opera stalls could be the setting of scenes of the greatest debauchery, but also the highest genius: Paul Morphy, the greatest chess player of his day, once played a famous game at a Paris opera house during a performance of Bellini's Norma. [1]

Besides, sometimes the best way of paying attention is not paying attention. I learned more about the London Symphony of Ralph Vaughan-Williams—a composer whom I love—by not listening to it and simply pottering around doing mundane tasks while the music was playing in the background than I would have ever learned by listening to it intently. This is appropriate, as Vaughan-Williams’ art was in large part subconscious and instinctive; music came to him in dreams; he specialised in setting folk songs, music written by nobody-in-particular and in no-key-especially, for nobody-else-in-particular. Coming to his own in the age of cinema, many of Vaughan-Williams’ pieces are therefore written for audiences who will be too busy paying attention to beautiful actors playing charismatic characters uttering witty dialogue to forward the riveting plot unfolding in the scenic landscape to think much about the music—which is all the more effective because of it. Really, are there any arts apart from the most turgid and meaningless, that we cannot be distracted from? I love Walter Scott’s novels—which is why I still have many books of his on my shelf that I have still not read. (Don’t we all need something to look forward to?). And so on.

By now, I have rather gone off the point of this essay, but as the point of people talking over films is their tactful missing of the point, the lack of point at this point is very to the point. 

Actually, as a poet and dabbler in the arts myself, I’d be more than a little concerned if people started focusing too intently on my works. It is said that English composer Benjamin Britten played through Johannes Brahms’ piano music once every year just to make sure he still hated it. 

TIM TRAIN, MELBOURNE

[1] Astute historians may quote Wikipedia, noting that “Morphy created this brilliant game while spending his time trying to overcome his blocked view of the opera, while the performers tried to catch glimpses of what was going on in the Duke's box.” This is true; however, it is doubtful that such a brilliant game would have been played if he was actually paying attention to the board. In this sense, Morphy was attending a game of chess only to be pleasantly distracted by an opera, not the other way around. 

Hogarth well understood the importance of not paying proper attention to artistic performances. Though referred to by the original publisher as "the laughing audience", clearly there is much more going on here. Marriage (or some less formal relationship) is being proposed and rejected in the back row. Without theatres as a venue for covert nookie, who amongst us would even exist? And what better time to discuss the content of a treasure map, while simultaneously selling apples (or possibly buns), than during a performance of Fielding'sThe Intriguing Chambermaid? Lastly, the importance of theatres as a hatching ground for various evil schemes may have been overlooked, as evidenced by the expressions of the majority of the audience. The inside of a theatre and the reactions of different parts of the audience to the unseen play. Etching by W. Hogarth, 1733. Wellcome Library No. 39146i

Hogarth well understood the importance of not paying proper attention to artistic performances. Though referred to by the original publisher as "the laughing audience", clearly there is much more going on here. Marriage (or some less formal relationship) is being proposed and rejected in the back row. Without theatres as a venue for covert nookie, who amongst us would even exist? And what better time to discuss the content of a treasure map, while simultaneously selling apples (or possibly buns), than during a performance of Fielding'sThe Intriguing Chambermaid? Lastly, the importance of theatres as a hatching ground for various evil schemes may have been overlooked, as evidenced by the expressions of the majority of the audience. The inside of a theatre and the reactions of different parts of the audience to the unseen play. Etching by W. Hogarth, 1733. Wellcome Library No. 39146i