When I was a child, Spider-Man made me wet myself. That’s not an exaggeration or a figure of speech; unfortunately, I’m being totally literal. Sitting down with my dad and a bucket of Pepsi in Screen 11 of the Sutton UCI in July 2002, my ten-year-old brain could barely make sense of the fact that I was finally about to watch a live-action Spider-Man film on the big screen. I’d waited my entire (albeit short) life for this film to become a reality, and nothing was going to stop me enjoying it. Nothing, it turned out, except my tiny bladder.
The thing about giving an enormous drink to a ten-year-old is that they have the discipline and self-control of, well, a ten-year-old. I’d finished my enormous Pepsi before Uncle Ben had even popped his clogs and by the midpoint of the film I was beginning to feel the strain. But what was I supposed to do? Leave? Go to the bathroom and miss even a second of the performance of Willem Dafoe’s lifetime? Not likely. Squirming in my seat, I held it and held it and held it… until I couldn’t hold it any longer. Despite my best efforts the floodgates had opened, and I felt the wet warmth of shame seep through my jeans and into the fabric of the seat beneath me.
What now? Slink out and try to dry my trousers, missing part of the film in the process? No, I thought. If I do that, then I’ll have wet myself for nothing. To leave would be the coward’s way out! And so, like Peter Parker before me, I chose the path of the hero. I chose to sit on a piss-soaked chair, overcome with self-loathing, until the credits rolled and I was finally able to waddle out to the bathroom to clean myself up. ‘Can you smell something strange?’ my dad asked as he drove us home. I lied and said I couldn’t.
I’m telling you this story not just to embarrass myself but to illustrate that it takes a lot to get me to walk out of a screening of a film. Be it poor audience behaviour, a misaligned projector or simply a terrible movie, nothing has ever motivated me to leave before the lights come up. Oh, I’ve been tempted. Of course I have. The arse-numbing mundanity of Terminator Salvation nearly got the best of me, but I was seeing it with friends and to walk out without them seemed a tad rude. Seeing Her projected in the wrong frame rate, at the Cornerhouse no less, wasn’t enough to break my resolve. The less said about Suicide Squad, the better. You get the picture: walking out of films early just isn’t something I’ve ever considered as an option.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently found myself leaving a screening of War for the Planet of the Apes after only twenty minutes. This isn’t at all a reflection on the opening of the film, which is excellent. No, the blame lay not with the film but with the people who’d paid to see it. I finally encountered an audience so terrible, so inconsiderate, so irredeemably shitheaded that I had no choice but to leave in order to protect my sanity. This screening had it all: texters, talkers, rustlers and those strange people who, for some inexplicable reason, look at odorous cinema nachos and decide, ‘Yes, I’ll put those inside my body’. Practically every single person in the cinema was behaving in a way that diverted my attention away from the film, almost as if this audience had been scientifically engineered to irritate me. I can only tolerate so much, and when it became clear to me that I wasn’t enjoying a film I knew would entertain me under better circumstances, I decided to cut my losses and try again another day.
I don’t like to wish ill upon anyone but my compassion was seriously tested that day. Take, for example, the man sitting in my row who seemed to be under the impression that he was recording a DVD commentary for the film. ‘It’s Caesar!’ he exclaimed, as if surprised that the protagonist of the first two films in a trilogy had shown up in the third. ‘Oh shit!’ he’d blurt out to his partner during action scenes, seemingly unaware that if she could hear him, so could others. Bizarrely, his head would whip around whenever anyone else would dare to talk, his death gaze betraying a black hole of self-awareness. Meanwhile, I commend the two teenagers in front of me for ending their conversation when the film began, but I’d rather their solution hadn’t been to immediately pull out their phones and communicate via Snapchat. At a certain point, it just seems useless for people like this to even bother showing up. What’s the point in forking over £10 to not watch a film?
I should note at this point that I’m not a purist. I don’t want to somehow be completely unaware that I’m sat in a room with fifty other people. There’s no greater pleasure on this earth than seeing an entertaining movie with a good crowd, where you can all laugh and gasp and cry together. To see a film at the cinema is to take part in a very special communal experience… or at least, I think it should be. Sadly, it seems many disagree with me and are perfectly willing to behave the same way in a public setting that they would at home. If you want to scroll through your texts or chat to your friend while you’re on your sofa watching Netflix, be my guest. I do that too! But don’t mistake that for being engaged with what you’re watching, because you’re not. In modern life our attention is often divided between multiple screens at once, and that’s okay. But the cinema, like the theatre or the concert hall, should be a place where we gather and experience art together. All that’s required of us is our attention, but it seems that attention is in short supply these days.
I know what I’m describing isn’t a new problem. I’m not short-sighted enough to believe that people have only started talking and texting during films in the last six months, but it certainly seems to have got a lot worse recently. What’s really frustrating is that the solution is entirely in the hands of the audience members who could sit and quietly watch the film but choose not to. I don’t want to assume anything about their motivations; I’m sure that 99% of people who pull their phones out during a film aren’t doing it specifically just to aggravate me. But the fact that they know the glow of their screen will be visible to literally everyone next to and behind them and decide to do it anyway because they just don’t care is almost more insulting than if they were doing it maliciously. That indifference says a lot about a person, I think, and it’s a real shame to see how widespread it is.
But then again, I once pissed myself in a cinema, so what do I know?