I went to the movies last Saturday evening, and I discovered just how truly degrading and repugnant the experience can be. I’m not talking about the movie itself (the delightful Julie and Julia) nor the audience, which was well-mannered to a fault.
No, I’m talking about the 35 minutes prior to the showing of the movie. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my entire week — and I was paying for it! You see, my corporate hosts for the evening — the Hollywood studios, the TV networks, the Cinemark theater chain and a few dozen corporate advertisers — had decided that my time is theirs. They have collectively decided that the half hour before the showing of a film — that hushed, informal time for being cozy with your date, or chatty with your spouse, or friendly with your neighbors who happen to be seated nearby — belongs to them. Your time cannot be pleasantly enjoyed; it must be forcibly "monetized."
Don’t you know? The special moment of quietude before a film is too valuable to be "wasted" on informal chitchat or intimacies. You have paid to become part of a captive audience, and your attention and consciousness now belong to the Corporate Overseer.
My wife and I arrived at the theater about twenty minutes before the show because we wanted to find a decent seat. We also wanted to take a few minutes to collect ourselves after rushing around. How silly of us. For the next twenty minutes — and then 15 minutes past the scheduled show time while trailers were shown — we were assaulted by blaring commercials for idiotic ABC sitcoms, for pop music, for Coca-Cola, for cell phone service, and for the coming movie attractions. The barrage was loud and relentless and assaulting. It was impossible to have a quiet conversation. It was impossible to avert one’s eyes from the onscreen mayhem.
This whole ad genre treats viewers as captive blobs of numbed protoplasm that need some explosive, sensory shocks in order to get their attention. No intelligence is presumed or expected. One trailer showed a family cowering in fear as New York City was swept away by a massive tsunami (an end-of-the-world flick); another was about a stepfather whose family begins to think he’s a fugitive murderer who has hidden his past; and a third was militaristic war-porn film. Zeitgeist check, anyone? Everything was ear-splittingly loud, fraught with fear and rage, and overwhelming in magnitude.
The topper was Cinemark’s self-congratulatory ad celebrating its 25th anniversary as a theater chain. The spot featured syrupy, sentimental music that portrayed the owner of a soulless multiplex franchise as a beloved civic institution. By the ad’s reckoning, the company that had just forced me to sit through 35 minutes of commercials, should be roundly celebrated for its "customer service" (i.e., the gum-cracking teenager who tore my ticket in half) and "community service" (i.e., like the time a can was passed to take audience donations for some Hollywood-sanctioned disease charity).
Watching the endless parade of commercials in the Cinemark theater, I felt like some captive in a Soviet re-education camp forced to watch propaganda. The message to be internalized: "You will laugh and cry and be amused when we say you must! You will love your clever Corporate Overlords who sell you magical technological products. You will be a happy, satisfied consumer!" On the big screen, when the ads tower over you and blast at full volume, ads cannot be so easily ignored. (And Hollywood wonders why so many people have fled to the Internet and other amusements!)
I’m fortunate that my town has a nonprofit, community movie theater, the Amherst Cinema. It usually can’t afford to exhibit the big Hollywood films, just the art-house flicks, but that’s okay. At least it treats you as a civilized human being, not as a moron to be force-fed ads. I’m done with the multiplex. Now if only we could find an effective way to get theater-owners to BACK OFF and show a little respect. (Complaints to Cinemark can be made at 1-800-246-3627 or its corporate website..)