Culture

Arguing with Smoke

That guy's going to pull a cell phone out as soon as the lights go down, I know it

Today's Twitter Tango revolved around this insufferable piece by Anil Dash on why we shouldn't consider people who are rude at movie theaters to be rude. Dash, it seems, thinks that it's a form of imperialist aggression to expect moviegoers to refrain from damaging the moviegoing experience for their fellow film fans. I will not reiterate my feelings about those who talk and text and talk and type and talk and terrorize at the movies; just know that in Sonny Arabia, they will be first against the wall.

All of which is to say that I'm fully in agreement with Matt Zoller Seitz here.* Using a phone in a theater isn't rude because it distracts the user from the screen; it's rude because it's a brilliant flashlight that distracts everyone else in the theater from the screen. Your actions affect other people. And yet and yet … I can't help but feeling at least a little amusement. The whole thing puts a slightly evil smile on my face. I must admit to finding a tiny bit of humor in watching the reliably liberal MZS have to confront charges that he is a no good very bad reactionary regressive racist imperialist colonialist bully.

Part of it is, as Victor Morton suggests, my delight at seeing a "self-described progressive appealing to Tradition against changing mores." But that's only part of it. I think another, larger, part is my grim amusement at watching a man of the left do battle with another man of the left who treats words as meaningless constructs and deploys them solely with the intent of, for lack of a better word, "othering"** his opponent. When words mean nothing—and virtually all of the catchphrases Dash tosses around in his silly little straw-man-stuffed screed mean exactly nothing—one might as well be arguing with smoke.

I've been thinking about this recently because I've been reading a dreadful little book praising the hard left of the late-1960s/early-1970s. The book refers to the race riots of that time not as, well, "riots" but as "Black rebellions" and "Black uprisings." In a certain way it's a handy locution, one that firmly seals the status of the person who spouts it as a Grade A Dipshit. In another way, however, it's mildly horrifying, the sort of phrase that suggests a serious lack of connection to reality. Even more horrifying is the realization that there are scads of cads who feel the same way: they see rampaging idiots destroying their own neighborhoods, burning down their own businesses, and harming the innocent amongst them as a "rebellion" rather than a "riot."

When you can't call a riot a riot, the world loses meaning. It allows us to pretend that rudeness—even normalized rudeness—isn't rude. It's the future. It's here.

*I'm also largely in agreement with Glenn Kenny here, specifically with regard to this passage:

At my beloved Plaza Theater in Paterson, particularly, patrons, most of them African-American, came in during afternoon Kung Fu triple features with their boom boxes on, and left them on; they talked back to the screen with no compunction; some even got into knife fights with each other, halted, called a truce, and sat down and caught a bit of the movie. I didn't object to any of this, and it wasn't because I feared for my safety if I spoke up. It wasn't even because I felt like it would be presumptuous of me to do so because I was a "guest" in "their space." I kept my mouth shut because I understood the tacit social contract governing this theater was an entirely different one than the one that governed, say, Cinema Village, which at that time had a smoking semi-balcony in which My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ and I could sit and puff madly at our Winstons while staring in silent concentration at Syberberg's Hitler: A Film From Germany or maybe a David Cronenberg triple feature. But as far as the Plaza was concerned, it was not a case of my judging or generalizing with respect to some hostile "they." It was exercising a little amiable common sense.

The real problem, and I think this is what Kenny is getting at a little in this stretch, is that both Seitz and Dash are right. There are places where it's acceptable to be a boisterous asshole because that is the prevailing norm; there are other places where norms dictate such behavior cease. In the age of the multiplex, however—when disparate audiences from varied backgrounds with different expectations are thrown together in an unending sea of homogenous, corporate theaters—the trick is figuring out how to properly enforce expectations. Me, I'd love for the chains to create an equivalent to Amtrak's quiet car: "The 8:30 showing of Elysium is silent and if you don't like it you can go to the 9:00 showing, thanks." The problem, of course, is that doing so would create virtual free-for-alls during every other screening, thus increasing the odds by about 150 percent that I would go to prison at some point for violently assaulting some jackass jabbering on his Samsung Galaxy.

**See what they've done to me?

Featured Photo Credit: mark sebastian via Compfight cc