mobile phones

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's The 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

REPROACH

THE SILVER SCREAM

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

As phones were much larger in days of yore, removing them from orifices in which they had been lodged was a decidedly painful affair. Etching, c1910, Wellcome Library no. 39455i.

As phones were much larger in days of yore, removing them from orifices in which they had been lodged was a decidedly painful affair. Etching, c1910, Wellcome Library no. 39455i.