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Edelstein Asks: How Should We Treat Texters and Talkers at Movie Theaters?

When you go to the movies nowadays, is it hard to concentrate on what’s onscreen because people are texting or talking all around you, as if they were in their own living rooms? I hear you. I hear them, too.

As I write this, my latest terrible experience is still fresh. It happened Saturday night during the New York premiere of Mother of George at BAM Cinematek’s annual BamCinefest. You’d think the folks at one of the city’s premiere arthouses would pay attention to what’s happening inside their theaters, especially in the middle of their signature festival. You’d think.

It was like this. These two … persons, a man and a woman (God, I’m so angry I wanna just go LN26IRTUV3C55CUXWX11111!!!!!11#$%Y###%$#W
####SDGZ) who happened to be sitting behind me decided to keep up a running conversation during the film — a lyrical, meditative, exquisitely photographed portrait of the Brooklyn-based Nigerian community and what happens when a young wife is unable to conceive a child.

Maybe you can shut out the sound of two idiots yapping at a Roland Emmerich film, but much of Mother of George is wordless — or would have been if the Ugly Couple hadn’t filled the silences.

I decided, for the sake of inner peace, not to say anything, to try to focus on the screen: inhale count four … hold it count five … exhale count eight … but every so often I could hear people behind them say, “Stop talking!” The couple laughed and went right on. A half-hour went by. An hour. Periodic outbursts of “Shhhhh!” “Stop talking!” They were just low enough to keep the whole theater from turning on them, but just loud enough to keep everyone in their vicinity from becoming suitably entranced. It’s that ability to be hypnotized — to be drawn into the action onscreen — that’s destroyed by talking and/or the eye-stabbing flickers of smartphones.

I finally turned and gave the couple the evil eye, which they ignored.

And finally, finally I said, “SHUT UP!” So, for the record, did the guy next to me.

The woman said, “YOU shut up!”

What do you do in that situation? Make a scene? Go running to the manager? There was no manager or usher in or anywhere near the theater (which happened to be full and then some).

Finally, finally, finally I said, “That’s it!!!!!!” and threw a fit — just lost it. And I’m not proud of that. The person who makes a scene inevitably looks in the wrong, even if he or she is in the right. Because fits are never good. And I’m especially ineffectual. When I say, “Do you know who I am?” they generally say, “No — who are you?” and I say, “Uh. No one. Never mind.” Only in this case I found a BAM publicist, who looked appropriately stricken but had no idea what to do. Another publicist actually went over to the couple and asked them to stop, but the woman waved him off. She actually did that gesture with the hand that says, “Enough of you. Leave.” Then she went back to chattering.

The theater manager, when he eventually showed up, refused to do anything. “It’s too late in the film,” he said.

So I walked. Missed the end of this beautiful movie. But then, I’d missed a lot of it already.

As a critic, I’m lucky to see films at studio-hosted screenings, but even those aren’t safe anymore. Last year, I got stuck beside a guy taking notes with a flashlight, which would go on and off whenever he’d scribble something. When I asked him to please shut it off, he was indignant. “How do you expect me to see what I’m writing?” he hissed. Learn to write in the dark like the rest of us, schmuck, so other people aren’t distracted by your light going on and off when they’re trying to pay attention to the movie. Colleagues of mine have gotten in shouting matches with people who wouldn’t stop checking their texts.

I get many e-mails from people who say they don’t go to the cinema anymore. It’s not just the money, although the cost of tickets is crazy. They just can’t take their fellow audience members. They buy 65-inch monitors with 7.1 sound systems and wait for the Blu-ray — or take advantage of the increasing numbers of current movies available on demand.

In the end, shushing won’t do it: We have no choice but to depend on theater managers to police their screenings. But most of the time when you go to them (I’ve only done this three times — all recently — in a lifetime of moviegoing), they look terribly confused. They act as if they’ve never heard of such things. You can almost hear them thinking, “This isn’t my job.”

It should be their job.

The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, has the right idea. Not only do they throw people out for texting and talking, but in 2011 they made an example of a texter who left them an indignant voice message by playing the whole thing before their movies. ( "… so excuse me for using my phone, in the USA, Magnited States of America, where you are free to text in a theater.") Alamo Drafthouse is coming to Manhattan and I can’t wait. They’re my heroes.

The larger question: Has our culture become so private that no one knows how to behave anymore in public? Is selfishness the rule rather than exception? Are people who say, “Shut up and turn off your phone” today’s version of “You kids get off my lawn”?

I’d love to hear from you readers about this. What do you do? Have you ever seen an audience turn on a talker/texter en masse? And I’d love to hear from theater managers and ushers: Do you think it’s your job to police screenings or is it every man/woman for him/herself?

You can comment below or send me an e-mail at filmcritic@nymag.com and I’ll post the most compelling stories in the next installment of this (I fear eternal) saga.

Just don’t f—ing e-mail me while you’re in a theater watching a movie.

UPDATE — BAM has emailed over a response:

To the editors,

We are sorry about David Edelstein’s experience last Saturday night at a screening of Mother of George during BAMcinemaFest.

BAMcinématek feels strongly about providing its audience members with a positive and enjoyable cinema experience. When it is less than that, audience members are urged to speak to cinema management as soon as possible. Management will enter the cinema and address the problem. If it persists or escalates, disruptive patrons are escorted from the theater. In this case, we were apprised of the situation in the last few minutes of the screening, and although I did speak to the offending movie-goers who agreed to stop talking—it was clearly too late.

We were certainly dismayed by the evening’s disruptions and hope that Mr. Edelstein returns to our cinemas.

Photo: Corbis