The audience at the screening of Side Effects I attended was on par with those for most free screenings I’ve been to in my time as a critic: uncaring, prone to talking, and regretfully hostile toward displays of adult sexuality and emotional nuance. A scene of two women kissing drew uncomfortable titters; a shot of someone attempting suicide drew laughs when it cut to black. Etc., etc.
This is lamentable and not remotely new. When it happens, I usually get angry and sad for the same reasons Daniel Mendelsohn laid out when talking about why critics love things: “What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject … that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.” When people laugh or sneer at the wrong moment — and believe me, there are such things as wrong moments — it makes me feel cold and separate from the crowd, unable to share in a community because the one around me doesn’t have any interest in the thing I’m there to enjoy, namely, the movie. The art.
But I also think about things like context, and attention, and the perils of nervous laughter. It’s not that the more inconsiderate members of the audience actually think suicide attempts are hilarious: it’s that these moments are presented so starkly on screen that we as viewers have no choice but to reckon with them, to make ourselves vulnerable to the story, and a lot of people would rather deflect than engage. It takes a certain level of commitment to let your emotions be guided by a film, and when you couple a mass audience’s general unwillingness to yield such control with the degraded focus and dying courtesy born of the home video environment, it’s no wonder that going to the movies can be such a damn grind. You’re sitting there with people who often have no desire to give of themselves, and who wouldn’t know the first way to go about it.
This is all related to the Asshole Quotient, but in ways that I’m still figuring out. It’s not just lack of consideration that causes some people to be so odious at the theater. It’s larger issues of perception and attention, and of the level of care and commitment they bring to the process. It’s about how they/we view movies in the first place, and what we want to get out of them. When a movie does something startling or weird or uncomfortable, nervous laughter is both the most understandable and least appropriate response because it lets you choose to avoid dealing with the film on its own terms. You’re not just alienating other viewers, but missing out on what the film might have to offer. It’s work, and it’s worthwhile. But you have to stay honest.