Sit Still & Shut Up: or How To Go To The Cinema

This was supposed to be a review of Cold War (pictured), the new romance from acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, but it’s not going to be.

That’s a shame, because it’s a film I was rather looking forward to, having been so enchanted by his last picture, IdaCold War takes the austere black and white aesthetic and Academy ratio of his last and applies it to a love story concerning a maestro and his muse, whose lives criss-cross Europe over a period of fifteen years or so, starting in Poland in 1949.

The picture comes in at a svelte 89 minutes; a running time that ought to have clipped by, but which was rendered interminable not by the film (which appeared good if not spectacular, probably a solid 3.5/5), but thanks to the pot luck of sitting next to a man who simply could not sit still.

For the length of the film this stranger fidgeted, sighed, scratched, shook his popcorn, spilled his popcorn and, most frequently of all, restlessly ran his hands at high speed through his shoulder length hair. For an hour and a half.

Now, I don’t wish to be mean or quick to judge. We were all sitting in the dark, and I have no way of knowing whether this stranger had any ability to control himself. He appeared to be alone (we were by the wall, at the end of an aisle in a tiered screening room with a semi-central gangway). It could very well be that he suffered from any number of mental or physical ailments that prevented him from remaining motionless. Unfortunately, the perpetual flapping of his arms in my peripheral vision rendered Cold War almost impossible to surrender to. The whole row jiggled with his ceaseless movement.

With this lack of understanding in mind, I did my best to remain patient, but after an hour (so very British) I turned and, as much as I could measure, politely asked him if he could refrain. “Could you stop moving about, please?” I quietly asked, hoping that if it wasn’t of his own volition, he could perhaps forgive my request. He did stop. And in that minute I felt bad for my poor temper. But his hands were back in his hair moments later.

I watched the last half hour with my own hand held up to my forehead, cupped around my eye in an effort to mask him from view, frustrated that the experience was ruined but also admonishing myself for my lack of tolerance.

Reviewing the film based on this experience would be fruitless.

But while my fidgeting friend might not be the finest example, he does bring to mind something I find myself increasingly stupefied by; people who honestly don’t seem to understand basic cinema etiquette.

Tonight’s example might be the exception to the rule, but 99.9% of the time, the people in movie theatres ruining it for everyone else have absolute control over their ability to do so.

Chances are most people reading this are in the well-behaved majority, but in case you’ve wandered here and made it this far, there are really only two golden rules which cover all bases regarding how you should behave in the cinema.

Sit still and shut up.

Sit still can cover unnecessary and distracting movement, but it also extends to the plague of 21st century cinema going; phones. Sit still means don’t get your phone out. Don’t light up the screen. Turn the thing off. If you can’t bear to turn it off, stick it on airplane mode or at the very least mute the fucking thing. You’ve paid to see a film at the cinema (an increasingly expensive proposition). Get what you paid for. Instagram will still be there when the movie finishes.

I’ve seen people sit on their phones playing games throughout the entirety of Django Unchained and The Magnificent Seven remake (maybe its Westerns?). When I went to see Lifethe only other guy in the screening sat there watching episodes of Pokemon on his phone. Granted, he didn’t miss much, but that really isn’t the point, surely? I’d like to think attention spans haven’t crumbled as quickly as people often say. I’d like to credit most individuals with the ability to hold on the one massive stream of information in an otherwise dark and cavernous environment. I honestly don’t think it’s too much to ask… right?

Sit still also applies to frankly any other bizarre decisions people sometimes make in cinemas. I remember seeing Sinister only to find myself astonished that a family chose this location to noisily reorganise their Iceland shopping bags. Speaking to people about this, it seems like this particularly is a surprisingly common occurrence. Leave that shit be.

It also applies to some of the more extreme distractions. I’ve never concentrated on a film as intensely as I did the screening of Ex Machina I attended, as halfway through the guy sitting next to me started receiving a handjob from (presumably) his girlfriend who was sitting on the other side.

This was in a packed screening. We weren’t even anywhere near the back. And the film isn’t even that sexy (aside from Oscar Isaac’s inexplicable disco moves…).

So sit still ordinarily shouldn’t be much of an ask. But there’s absolutely no excusing people who won’t shut up.

Shut up applies to all gabbers, whisperers and yammerers. And bores who vocalise how much they’re not enjoying the movie. You can talk through the ads. Fine. Talk through the trailers. Don’t care. Talk through the BBFC certificate and idents if you must (but we’re getting close now). As soon as the film begins. Shut the fuck up. This isn’t just what you paid for, it’s what everybody paid for. This isn’t your living room. If your remarks are about the film, consider raising them afterward.

This is turning into an embittered diatribe, so admitting I have lost my shit at people in cinemas for talking isn’t going to do me any favours. But I have. During, ironically, Don’t Breathe and also Deepwater Horizon I have moved from respectful request to outright anger. But both times, regardless of the quality of the film, I felt justified in this escalation. It is so rude to ruin an experience for others out of indifference, especially when you’ve been asked politely to change your behaviour.

Again, ironically, this stuff shouldn’t need saying.

But it does. Shut up also brings us back to phone usage. When I saw The Witch it was in a sparsely populated screening (barely a sum total of ten of us). Two people in that audience took calls. One of them a lengthy business call. For a film that lives on atmosphere, this level of baffling disrespect is a death knell (fortunately I managed to catch it again).

Cinemas used to have ushers that sat in a screening with you to maintain a level of order. Some had flashlights. Few if any wielded any power, and from memory most were scrawny and barely interested in keeping the peace. But their presence was enough, most of the time, to get people to sit still and shut up. I suppose the business model has changed, and nobody wants to pay for such monitoring. But I feel its absence has contributed to the decline of cinema etiquette, and I would welcome their return.

So long as they maintained the discipline and didn’t sit there on What’s App…

Now, in their place, most cinema chains play messages before the film that fall on deaf ears. Odeon’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ approach is too friendly and all-too-easily ignored as the importance of the message isn’t stressed. Vue’s voice in the dark yelling “Boo!” (which sounds like Tom Hiddleston) takes too long getting to the point and has been going for so long now that people have stopped paying attention. Other cinemas have their varying messages and, by and large, the artier the venue the better behaved the clientele.

But it doesn’t seem like enough. Cinemas are facing tough times. The convenience of streaming services and the steep pricing structures of some theatres contribute to an increasing ambivalence toward the cinema experience (which can be astonishingly magical). It is heartbreaking to go to one of these cathedrals of escapism and suffer such a bad time.

First world problem? Maybe. But the lack of control and respect in our cinemas is fast becoming another reason for people to decide to just stay at home. As for Cold War? It seemed like it was probably pretty good. Go see it and let me know. And if you do go, be respectful. Thanks.


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