Catering for all tastes... at the expense of the film

15 October 2011

A seminar reminded me earlier this week of the importance of cinematic sound. It's a more subliminally consumed element than the image, but it's no less important. While we tend to think of filmic sound as complementary to what we see, that doesn't necessarily mean it's synchronous - in fact, a lot of the time, what we hear doesn't in fact relate directly to what's inside the frame.

I'm not here to give an overview of the various uses of sound in film, though. There are plenty of good introductions; to prepare for the seminar (which took as its focal point Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), we had Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis's Film: A Critical Introduction suggested to us - you can read snippets of its chapter on sound from the 2nd edition here. I prefer the equivalent chapter in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art: An Introduction; for their fine, detailed analysis of one example of film sound - Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped - click here.

Yesterday I saw Drive at the cinema. More by chance than religious punctuality, I was second in the queue entering the theatre, and took my usual seat: three from the front, central to the screen. Briefly turning my head during the the final pre-feature trailer, I was slightly alarmed by how busy it was; custom for the cinema is obviously a good thing, of course, but I share Peter Greenaway's utopian selfishness in my wish for a big screen and good Dolby... but just me, nobody else. (Greenaway's quote is somewhere on here, amidst many.)

I'll speak more on Drive tomorrow, but for now it's enough to say it plays with sonic textures quite a bit; a synthesized bass is employed as a kind of undercurrent in its tense opening scene, and the diegetic roar of car engines, tyre screeches and so on give a real dynamic to the action. It was with great dismay, then, that I had behind me a muncher slash rustler, who was not only hellbent on rustling and munching, but trying to synchronise such activities with on-screen noise, which only drew my attention to it more.

I'm quite intolerant of fellow cinema-goers whose extra-curricular choices impede my own enjoyment of the film; an abrupt shhh can be effective, while a turned head with a finger raised to one's mouth can add cutting belittlement. Yesterday, I compromised with a fluid glance behind me, a swift and loud fucking hell, and a seat-shift; to the film's credit, it didn't take me long to adjust to the otherwise alien off-centre angle. Whether the muncher carried on munching remains unknown.

At any rate, shutting one's attention off from an unwanted sonic presence is as difficult as is doing so for a visual distraction. Cinemas don't expect patrons to view films from half behind a pillar, and so it seems unreasonable for them not to be more vigilant with the aural equivalent. This is a medium comprising sight and sound, and so we have to respect both. (The irony being that Odeon, whose company slogan is "Fanatical About Film", is less-than-complacent even when it comes to image projection, with images often out of focus and cut off at the sides.)

It's a common gripe, and it's always one-way: you never hear of anyone complaining about others not eating in the cinema (or chatting, for that matter, but the running commentary is another minefield altogether, and yesterday's screening had little in the way of whispers, though it did have plenty of gasps in response to the film's graphic violence - clearly, viewers were unfamiliar with Nicolas Winding Refn).

Personally, my decision not to eat during a film is two-fold: I'm too much of a messy eater and like food too much to squander it away in the darkness; also, not only am I conscious of annoying others, but I'd distract myself, from both the film and the food. Eating during a film - like anything else - reduces the experience to something much more passive, consumed under a kind of half-attentive need to get the grub out the way so you can settle into the film that's been fighting for your attention. Evidently, as those folks who wait until the film properly starts before rummaging for their meal show, I'm more alone than I would like on this matter.

There's always going to be that majority, or minority, for whom cinema-going is - as they'd call it - a "social experience". I'm not sure if that phrase legitimizes blending one activity with another, when the venue choice necessarily precludes any genuine sense of "social interaction" to begin with (it's a sad state of affairs when sitting in a dark room watching a quadrilateral of projected light is taken to be a "social event").

What's the solution? Sadly, there doesn't seem to be one, other than those at the purist end of cinephilia - for whom the biological necessity of eating can be deferred till a film's relatively short timespan is over - to attend off-peak screenings and hope for the best. Frankly, cinemas make too much from the confectionaries on show in the lobby for them to stop selling them (and, going from the sound of hands rummaging through a bag, I suspect yesterday's culprit had brought his own in from outside).

One solution might be optional headphones that you plug in at your seat. It might defeat the purpose of making use of the sheer space of a theatre in relation to the flat screen at its front, but if it's between experiencing a film's soundtrack through soundproof headphones and the film doing battle with some guy gobbling cookies in the fourth row, I know which one I'd choose... Another solution might be to have selected screenings during the week in which food and drinks are prohibited. That wouldn't be ideal by any means, but it would be something in the right direction.