Hunter Walk's idea for the movies

Hunter Walk proposed an alternative movie theater experience where he'd be able to use his mobile devices and talk out loud:

Look up the cast list online, tweet out a comment, talk to others while watching or just work on something else while Superman played in the background.

[…]

I’d love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, wifi, electricity outlets and a second screen experience.

[…]

If you took a theater or two in a multiplex and showed the types of films which lend themselves to this experience I bet you’d sell tickets.

This idea got a lot of criticism in the comments and elsewhere — John Gruber, for example, called this "The Worst Idea This Week" — to the point where Walk posted a point-by-point response.

I don't think it's fair to call a preference a bad idea. As a business proposition, the "I bet you'd sell tickets" part is fair game. But you don't get to tell someone how they should prefer to enjoy any cultural artifact, whether it's popping open a laptop at the movies or reading the ending of a novel first. You can tell people to respect the prevailing rules of etiquette, which is why I don't pop open my laptop at the movies, but Walk isn't suggesting otherwise.

Since the experience Walk wishes for isn't currently available, is it possible that it's a bad idea in the sense that he only thinks he'd like it, but really people are always happier paying full attention to the movie in front of them? The answer is clearly no. Anil Dash writes that "American shushers are a rare breed overall":

The most popular film industry in the world by viewers is Bollywood, with twice as many tickets sold in a given year there as in the United States. And the thing is, my people do not give a damn about what’s on the screen.

Indian folks get up, talk to each other, answer phone calls, see what snacks there are to eat, arrange marriages for their children, spontaneously break out in song and fall asleep. And that's during weddings! If Indian food had an equivalent to smores, people would be toasting that shit up on top of the pyre at funerals. So you better believe they’re doing some texting during movies. And not just Bollywood flicks, but honest-to-gosh Mom-and-apple-pie American Hollywood films.

Note that Dash questions what behavior should be acceptable in "regular" movie theaters, whereas Walk is proposing separate theaters to provide a separate experience. The distinction is important, but the point remains: there is not just one way to enjoy a movie in the theater.

I'm reminded of an anecdote from Iron & Silk, Mark Salzman's autobiographical novel about his adventures in China. In one chapter, Salzman tells about his visit to a family that lived on a fishing boat, and what happened when they asked him to play his cello. At first he was disappointed that while he was playing, the family proceeded to ignore him, chatting with each other and horsing around.

But then I remembered what a Chinese friend had told me one night at a performance of instrumental music where the audience talked, laughed, spat and walked around during the show. I mentioned to him that the audience seemed unbelievably rude, and he answered that, on the contrary, this showed they were enjoying it. He said that for the majority of Chinese who are peasants and laborers, music is enjoyed as a sort of background entertainment and is intended as an accompaniment to renao, which literally means "heat and noise." Renao is the Chinese word for good fun, the kind you might have at an amusement park in America, and noise and movement are essential to it.

Compared to these descriptions of accepted audience behavior, Walk's suggestion hardly seems bizarre. Even if it were bizarre, it would fall in the category of "preference", not "bad idea".

Walk is criticized not only for how he wants to enjoy the movies, but for how he wants to use his computing devices. One commenter wrote:

That's the issue with people like you today. You can't put your damn phone down to actually interact with a person or place.

The bad-idea angle here is that introducing mobile devices into the moviegoing experience would aggravate a societal problem that has already gone too far. This is narrow-minded and needlessly judgmental, but it's a common sentiment. I would counter with Rachel Smith's blog post, "What I See When You're Using Your Smartphone".

2 thoughts on “Hunter Walk's idea for the movies

  1. It's about pride in your work, and expectations. I don't think it's simply this culture, that culture.

    A string quartet playing in a hall with a hundred other people would be understandably upset if people were having conversations with each other and ignoring them. Unless they were playing at a wedding reception.

    Sometimes you are performing and sometimes you are "accompanying renao". In the first case it is rude not to pay attention; in the second it is understood that the performance is merely there for the atmosphere. I visited my girlfriend's family last Christmas, and at one point an uncle of hers picked up a fiddle (I think) and started playing it while the family was talking. He wasn't expecting everybody to stop and listen.

    I've never been to China, but I'll bet they have also concerts where you don't get up and talk during the performance.

    Cinema is kind of weird. Being pre-recorded, it's not like you're insulting someone directly when you don't pay attention. But the fact is, the people who make movies are trying to deliver an experience which requires your full attention. And they are insulted by the implication that they are just providing background noise. Whether or not people would enjoy the theatre Hunter Walk is imagining, the idea carries the assumption that a two-hour film, which LOTS of people worked VERY HARD to create, is just background noise.

    Contrast this with the fact that nobody gets upset about televisions in waiting rooms. It's basically the experience that Hunter Walk proposes (though maybe not as fancy). But a lot of television (especially the morning and daytime stuff) is produced knowing full well people will be doing other things while they watch.

  2. Thanks Ben, as always.

    You addressed a tension that I didn't get into: the wishes of the artist vs. the wishes of the audience. No one has any business dictating the wishes of the artist, but neither does anyone have any business dictating the wishes of the audience — not the artist, and most definitely not some other party who may or may not be a fellow audience member. No artist and no work of art is so precious that anyone gets to tell me how much attention to pay or how I should think my experience would be enhanced.

    You also brought up the distinction between a live performance and forms of art that are prerecorded or otherwise "canned". I would imagine you are more sensitive than most to the artist's perspective, being a performer yourself, and because live comedy involves such an intimate interaction between artist and audience. The difference in a live performance is that the artist is in a position to enforce their wishes to some extent, with the help of the hosting venue. The artist can decide how much heckling to deal with before calling security. Maybe the artist can ask me to stop checking my phone because it's rude and distracting; depending on the venue and the artist, that might or might not fly.

    At a certain point art leaves the artist's hands. Louis CK can call me on my behavior when I'm sitting in front of him. When I get home and buy his video, I can give it the MST3K treatment if I want. (Well, the video wouldn't suck, so it would be hard to mock, but I could try.) Alternatively, I can mostly ignore it and use it as background noise. I can play it at double speed and destroy his comic timing. The point isn't that he is physically unable to intervene because it's not live, nor that this would be in my own home vs. screened in a theater. The point is that he would have no business telling me what I do is wrong. By which I mean, he can have opinions, but he has no entitlement.

    I didn't mean to over-emphasize cultural differences. It's not so much this culture vs. that culture, but (a) where do people get off telling other people what to prefer and what to imagine? and (b) it's possible to be open-minded about acceptable audience behavior.

    A friend told me that nowadays movie audiences in China behave more or less like in the West, and that even in the old days disturbances were only accepted up to a point.

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