I wish I could take credit for the label. Instead, I first heard it from fellow critic Dawn Taylor. A Portland, OR staple low these many years, her press previews are frequently interrupted by what the journalistic gang there have dubbed “Screening Rats”. An easy definition of said staple is those consistent members of the free movie crowd who manage to make their presence known in ways both fascinating and unfortunate. They are the proposed backbone of the process, the wonky “word of mouth” Hollywood wants and caters to in order to supplement their marketing. But in reality, they are nothing more than the pests the nickname suggests - scavengers taking up space at a scenario supposedly reserved for journalists and other “invited guests”. They don’t earn disfavor by figuring out the shell game. They get cursed for how they abuse it.
It what will clearly be an ongoing series addressing these iconic individuals, SE&L has decided to start a dictionary of sorts, a glossary given over to identifying and calling out these particular people. While we’ll try not to be mean, rest assured that almost every description here comes from factual personal experience and anecdotal truth. There is no embellishing, or exaggerating. Instead, a limited blog feature can’t fully contain all the various subsections of each category discussed. Hopefully, we will cover the basics before moving along. Perhaps you will recognize a few of the types talked about as well, including the first felon on our movie ‘Most Wanted’ list:
You can spot “The Regular” right off the bat. They have the standard Regular regalia - portable chair, knapsack filled with paraphernalia and foodstuffs, movie-sponsored t-shirt, umbrella (in case they can’t get into the theater and it rains), and of course, an attitude of entitlement. These are the people that make the screening process a chore - the one’s who believe their constant obsession with free movies has somehow “earned” them the right to dictate - and participate - in the entire press process. They’re the people who stop you in the mall and dumbfound you with intricate questions about plotting and characterization. They’re the group that crowd around the critic’s row to “say Hello” and chitchat before the lights go down. They’re the voice that screams from the back of the theater whenever the studio representative asks for quiet, addressing said staffer by name. And they are the ones who make up at least 60% of the audience at every screening.
They have the scam down pat. They know which trade publications to read, which ad rags to follow for free ticket info. They pass along extra invitations and brazenly ask the press what’s coming next. They will use you to get in, sneak into morning press-only previews under the guise of some silly excuse, and wonder aloud why you don’t vouch for them when an issue comes up. They may even wonder how they too can get a “cushy” job like reviewing films for a living. They rarely cause trouble once the movie starts, and have been known to stop the talkative and cellphoner in their inappropriate tracks. But that just fuels their desire to “fit in”. Some have been doing it for decades. Others are just now learning the ropes. In reality, they are the sticky floors of the entire movie critic process. They will always be there - and they are almost always fairly annoying.
Unlike The Talker, who simply wants to share their view on everything (no matter how pointed or off the wall), The Narrator is its own unique - and obnoxious breed. They are the aural subtitles for the visually impaired, a person - typically in their early 20s or over 60 - for whom every onscreen element has to be expressed in bland, matter of fact terms. Talk about having no internal monologue. They will watch the logo and state “Oh, this is a Paramount movie”. The above the title credits will roll and they will flatly mention, “Eddie Murphy and Thomas Haden Church are the stars.” When the director’s name arrives, they will offer up an oeuvre or state with limited enthusiasm “Who’s he?”
As the movie progresses, they will point out the plot turns (“He needs her help.” “She feels left out.”) and if anything thrilling or frightening happens, they will anticipate the terror (“The killer’s hiding in the closet”) or break out the straightforward scripting denouement (“She’s the murderer.”). By the end, they are commenting on the sets (“That’s a big apartment”) or other production subtext (“Couldn’t they get a real horse?”). Remember, the Talker just wants to get some things off their entertained chest. It’s like a group hug with commentary. The Narrator needs to verbally recall the film fact for fact less they forget something and marginalize their overall moviegoing experience. The fact that we get to hear it to is icing on an already rotting cake.
In the world of obsessives, the Cackler comes right after the apologist, two away from the fanatic and three away from the basic fan. For this lover of the onscreen talent - typically a comedian or comic actor, though it doesn’t always have to be - everything is funny. Not just the jokes (or what sadly passes for same). No - EVERYTHING, literally. If the star says “good morning” to their co-workers, they snicker. A raised eyebrow earns a guffaw. A standard one-liner is greeted with the kind of laughter one expects from an audience with late great Richard Pryor, and the sloppy silent comedy or slapstick puts the Cackler into absolute stitches. They are often masked by other Cacklers in the crowd, or a film that is actually witty and hilarious. But more times than not, they are braying away, donkey style, amid the stunned silence of an otherwise bored audience. To call them a plant would be defamatory to botany.
Ah - the Gourmand. They are truly a rare and repugnant breed. Convinced that a free ticket to the movies means they can load up on indecently priced concessions, these prized pigs will load up on every available item at the snack bar, find a way of working themselves into their predetermined seat (usually right behind you) and then proceed to tie on the feedbag like starved thoroughbreds on the way to the glue factory. The typical ten course meal consists of popcorn, butter, salt (yes, those are three different menu items in the Gourmand’s purview), diet soda, candy, nachos, jalapenos, pretzels, bottled water, and whatever new novelty item (pizza, ice cream bites) the theater has decided to stock. All throughout the movie, they are munching away like a woodchipper chomping through a recently found member of the Witness Protection Program, grunting and groaning in unison with their jaw movements.
And it can be worse - lots worse. Some theaters are foolishly located in malls where the food court offers even more stomach churning delights, and per agreement between the two, ticketholders can actually go to a McDonalds, or a Sbarro’s, buy a gross of quick fried fattiness, and bring it into the screening to sup upon. As the various smells - body odor, feet, fresh cut farts, and honey roasted chicken - mingle, your gag reflex starts working overtime. But the absolute worst has to be the Gourmand subset known as The Experimenter. This is someone who will take popcorn, cheese topping brought from home, and a handful of pickled peppers, and literally let the mélange steep about six feet away from your nose. As the vinegary vileness fills the air, you pray that a sudden angina attack will force the almost always Lark-bound behemoth to leave the handicapped aisle, corned crap conveniently taken along for the grueling ambulance ride to follow.
The Family Man/Woman
This is an easy Screening Rat to spot - just look at the soiled biological offspring they’ve decided to bring along for the ride - be it R-rated or not. Yep - these are Child Protective Services social nightmares, guardians who give up common sense over the saving of the price of a night at the movies. These are people who believe kids need to see bloody slaughter, sexual deviance, gross out comedy crudeness, and any number of naked body parts, just so they don’t have to part with $10, plus parking. They scoff at suggestions that their crying child be taken out of the theater in order to avoid disturbing the “adults”, and wonder aloud why anyone would question their baby’s need to nurse - right there, during the final frightshow plot twist. These are the morons who change diapers on the stadium seats, feed their wee ones gobs of sugar, and then wonder why they go apeshit for the entire running time. They will gladly get their Hellspawn to shut up, but may give you a damn dirty look in the process.
Unless of course, we are talking about a family film or animation screening. At that point, you might as well buy the semi-automatic and have it surgically attached to your temple. You see, parents, weaned on decades of using movies as a means of babysitting their brats, believe that the cinematic scenario is sacred. Kids are entitled to do just about any dag burn thing they want, since the experience was - supposedly - tailor-made for such unnecessary outbursts. These are the DNA donors who think nothing of having their kid sing along to the songs in the film, even when they can’t possibly know the lyrics or the melody. They encourage shouting and silly comments, claiming that it’s just the juvenile being same. And since Johnny or little Mary can act like a ‘tard in public with little regard for etiquette or manners, Mom and Dad can do the same. Nothing says “shame” quicker than a family unit fake frugging to the knock-off nostalgia hit from the ‘60s stuck on the end of another CG-nightmare.