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Critical Confessions: Part 10 - Noise Annoys

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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2008

Someone in marketing must have thought it was a good idea. After all, it was a concept that went together with the theme and main character of the movie quite well. Better than a t-shirt (which was also offered) or a keychain (huh???), a pair of drum sticks symbolized ex-80’s hair band musician Robert “Fish” Fishman’s main motivation. All he ever knew was the skins, and when he lost his shot at rock and roll immortality, he lost everything…except his kit. So at a recent screening of the upcoming comedy starring Rainn Wilson, The Rocker, a local TV station gave away dozens of drum sticks, a token of their preview appreciation.


After the initial novelty of holding two pieces of wood in one’s hands started to wear off, the smallish audience was starting to get antsy - and as a result, inventive. A few took their recently received “instruments” and did a little air drumming. Others batted the balsa together, pretending to countdown the next imaginary arena anthem. Before long, the theater was filled with a cacophony of lumber lameness, patrons trying to keep the imaginary beat on the back of seats or their own legs…with minimal success. As the time for the movie to start grew near, most in the critic’s row assumed that the rat-a-tat-tatting would stop. After all, the inherent charms of the storyline should stifle such nervous energy, right?


Well, not exactly. Within the first ten minutes of the slightly subpar comedy (nice, but bloated with every musical cliché in the lexicon), the first nods to Neil Peart could be heard from way in the back.  Before long, wannabe Bonham’s were tapping along to the concert sequences. When there was no reason to rap, the sticks still struck anything within range, the hallow noise adding an unnecessary drone to what was already a trying entertainment experience. By the end of the screening, the combination of novice Charlie Watts and the standard in theater din turned The Rocker into something akin to motion picture waterboarding. Sadly, not even the Bush Administration could condone this level of intolerable torture.


Complaining about noise in a movie theater, especially circa 2008, is a lot like kvetching over too-skinny supermodels or skanky reality whores. Thanks to home video, and a lessening human etiquette, people treat the cinema as their own personal private space, answer phone calls, texting their pals, talking intermittently over plot points and narrative particulars, and in general, acting like there is no decorum in visiting the local picture show. So to mention it within this context seems foolish. But in reality, a preview or advance screening is supposed to be a different animal. Since they are solely set up for the benefit the press (the other audience members are invited guests), there is an attempt to create some clear sonic parameters.


Sometimes, they work. Rarely do you hear people arguing over what some character said. Doing so usually meets with a strong “shhhhh” chorus. Even better, a cellphone ringing or any other kind of communication with the outside world leads to monitor admonitions, and frequently, an escort out of the theater via security. In general, the studios try to maintain a professional clime for the few remaining critics to work within. But there is one element they can’t control, and in fact, would never want to manage. You see, when a theater agrees to a screening, they accept a flat rate payment for the seats they would have sold for that showing. So the company is reimbursed for the loss.


But since most movie theaters make their money from concession sales, the pittance they get for the lost seats is nothing compared to the cash they can commandeer from snacks. And since the audience is already getting to see a soon to be featured film for free, their tolerance for overpriced drinks and crappy popcorn is greatly diminished. And so they buy. They buy and buy and buy. They buy the salty sweet snacks en masse, loading the stadium seats with the nauseating aroma of fake butter, nacho cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and microwave pizza. Some theaters - especially ones located in malls - even allow patrons to bring in their food court purchases. This means that the scent of fast food Chinese or mediocre meat sandwiches can be added to the swimming sea of stench.


For those of us in the biz, the olfactory assault we suffer each time we attend a screening is typically offset by our irritation over other issues (seating situations, credential clarifications). Still it can be quite a chore balancing our disappointment over a typically mediocre movie with the omnipresent fragrance of stale State Fair styled cuisine. Sometimes, we even take a “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and indulge ourselves. But far more disgusting than the stink generated by such gluttony gang bang is the noise - the endless streams of slurps, slorps, burps, farts, crunches, crackles, munches, rustles, and jostles that accompany the cinematic feed bag.


It’s inevitable. No matter where I sit in the press row, I usually find the ‘drink demon’ behind me. You know the kind - plastic straw constantly sliding up and down the super-sized lid, the resulting “creak” like a dead clown’s coffin door opening and closing. In between audible gulps, the ice is shaken and stirred, the better to mix the melting mixture with the backwash present. Every once in a while, a dry spot will be located, and the resulting libation loss causes an aural vacuum that brings back memories of the family dinner table, and Dad giving you that awful “punishment after the meal” look. Since the serving is typically 20 times that of what a human normally needs, this sipper cup ritual goes on for at least an hour. Once the last ounce of syrupy sugar has been tapped however, it’s time to remove the top and chew on the remaining frozen fun for a while.


Or maybe you’ll be lucky enough to sit in front of the ‘snack spelunker’. You know the kind - the top of the popcorn bag is never enough. No, for this two fisted face stuffer, only the product at the bottom of the container will do. As a natural result of such digging, there’s a distinct racket, similar to weevils burrowing into your brain. As the feasting continues, the noise grows more distinct, oil filled hand hitting on secret pockets of pseudo sustenance. Add in the constant chewing, the cow cud creation of the perfect cinematic experience and you have a soundtrack no film composer can compete against. There have been times when I’ve missed lines of dialogue as patrons partake of mandatory mastication, the combination of eating and obtaining producing a pronounced ruckus.


Naturally, no one is going to put the kibosh on such high profit margin behavior. Imagine the backlash should a studio monitor grab a microphone and announce, pre-screening, that the eating of snacks should be ‘restrained’ during the course of the running time. These people already get surly when having to ditch their Blackberry and quite their wee ones. Take away their food? That’s a violation of their cinematic Constitutional rights. And since these free movies are all about entitlement (not to the media, who are usually getting paid to suffer through the situation), the more rules you try to impose, the more insurgency you foster. Heck, such behavior even happens in ‘critics only’ previews. Between sips of Starbucks and nibbles of Egg McMuffins, we members of the press can put up quite a cacophony.


Certainly The Rocker situation was unusual. Most advertisers don’t try so hard to tie their swag into the storyline. It’s usually CDs, clothing, and the occasional promotional poster. But even if the reps had removed the drumsticks from the equation, one would still have to suffer through endless gorging and the accompanying biological braggadocio that comes with it (and let’s not talk about the occasional bouts of flatulence, shall we?). While we’ve come to expect some clamor within the theatrical experience, the sound of screenings can be trying indeed. To paraphrase the Buzzcocks, noise does annoy. And you don’t have to be hit over the head with a piece of wood to prove it.

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