Post provided helpful hints about dealing with one's chauffeur, and, were she still alive, she would no doubt also be oblivious to drivers who routinely tailgate, ignore stop signs, and refuse to signal their intentions. Except for highways, movie theaters are the most obvious arena of rudeness, a laboratory for studying the decay of public civility. In the Enron era, which amended the Golden Rule to read: "Do unto others before they do it to you," movie etiquette is an oxymoron.
A visit to the cinema now often means sitting through a symphony of rustling, chomping, slurping, and belching — sometimes more thunderous than the Dolby Digital soundtrack. If you wonder whether credit cards have replaced metal currency, come hear amateur tympanists with loaded pockets jangle their accompaniment to the action on the screen. Motels with vibrating beds hold no advantage over a theater seat that is kicked from behind 11 times per minute. Screaming babies undercut the story on the screen, and sometimes even interrupt the snoring of another neighbor. Moments of dramatic intensity are shattered by the ringing of cell phones and the beeping of pagers. Recently, when a nearby phone erupted with moronic melody, its owner proceeded to conduct a casual conversation, as if no one else were present. We wished he was right.
Theaters are not nurseries, though some parents treat them as storage facilities for progeny while they take in a movie. I have frequently seen babies hauled along to features rated NC-17. I worry about the effects of exposing the very young to very disturbing material, and I do not wonder when they screech and shout, or when slightly older children, bored by their parents' choice of entertainment, use the aisles as a jungle gym. Am I Scrooge to complain that I came to see a film? One of the attractions of the renovated Bijou at the Crossroads is that minors are excluded; because it sells alcohol, no one under 18 is permitted access to any of its six auditoriums. However, not even the Bijou bans boors. At a recent screening, three biddies two rows back provided running commentary. "He is getting into his car," said one, as the hero got into his car. "He is driving away," said another, as the hero drove away. "He just hit something," said the third, and I felt like hitting something, too.
Confronted with their own rudeness, many offenders feel affronted. "I paid $8 for this, and I can damn well do what I please" is a common reaction, as if, like pollution credits, the right to offend can be bought. "I paid $8 for this, you jerk, and I will thank you to let me enjoy the film" is not an effective response, in part because it accepts the premise that money talks and those with cash get to make the noise. By that logic, travelers who fly first class have license to be more obnoxious than economy passengers. Regardless of financial assets, we owe to other human beings enough respect to let them watch a film in peace.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, going to the movies was a raucous affair. Audiences consisted largely of blue-collar workers and immigrants, who were informed, through etiquette cards flashed on the screen: "Ladies, kindly remove your hats," and "No spitting, please." These rough customers became direct participants in the stories, shouting out reactions to events in the silent film. They formed a vibrant community of viewers eager to share the movie experience, unlike the louts of today, who behave with contempt toward the feelings of others.
During the 1920s, in order to gentrify the movie audience, and increase their profits, exhibitors built ornate, luxurious theaters, like San Antonio's Majestic. Motion pictures had been a raffish form of cheap diversion, but now they aspired to art, and middle-class patrons ventured out to see them. Dressed as if attending live theater, they were directed to their seats by uniformed ushers. The grandiose structures were called "movie palaces," and the assumption was that if you treat your customers like princes and princesses, they will behave like princes and princesses.
Today, if movie audiences behave like royalty, their model is the crude, uncouth Diana. It is no secret that Hollywood aims much of its production at 15-year-olds, the group most likely to spend time and money at the multiplex and most likely to create megahits by returning to the same movie again and again. If you treat your customers like restless adolescents, they behave like restless adolescents. There is surely a correlation between the surly, coarse, violent characters we see on screen and the anti-social character behind you who makes moviegoing so unpleasant.
Big-screen stereo TVs have made an outing to the movies seem less special. Many now confuse public space with private places, tossing burger wrappers out of SUV windows and mistaking theaters for their own living rooms. Accustomed to remote control and the proximity of kitchen and toilet, they expect immediate, selfish gratification. In a society where the number of television sets exceeds the total population, moviegoing, too, has come to seem solitary — though experienced in the presence of other human beings.
Even the Declaration of Independence, the most famous assertion of individual autonomy, bases itself on "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." A decent respect for others, also called courtesy, has vanished from talk radio, tabloids, and the Texas Legislature. Can it return to the movie theater? •