Last night I was at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the New York premiere of Curse of the Golden Flower, the latest film from Zhang Yimou. There was a little red carpet with flashbulb-popping paparazzi, and Yimou and his star, Gong Li, both spoke before the film began. Alice Tully Hall is pretty big, and it was full; the crowd was your usual Upper West Side Lincoln Center types, Sony Pictures Classics people, a smattering of celebrities, journalists and a few honest to God movie buffs who could score tickets.
The film is, as you might expect, opulent. Set in China’s Tang Dynasty, the most refreshing, tasty and astronaut-friendly of all, Curse of the Golden Flower is best described as Dallas meets the final battle of Lord of the Rings in a house decorated by Jimi Hendrix. It’s weird, it’s big, it’s overwrought. And it’s rarely quiet. But last night, during a dramatic pause when one character delivered a devastating revelation to another… someone’s cell phone went off. The mood of the moment was shattered, and it felt like it never came back. Portions of the rest of the film were met with loud giggling.
Sadly it’s not unusual to have a cell phone disrupt a movie today, but I really thought that a premiere at Lincoln Center might be immune from that sort of terrible rudeness. And it reminds me of the “Broken Windows” crime policy that Rudy Guiliani pursued as mayor of New York City – a policy I must admit I never liked, but which seems to make sense in movie theaters. The idea comes from a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article from James Q Wilson and George L Kelling, which has the basic idea that a building with broken windows that go unrepaired will attract new vandals to break more windows. The more windows that are broken, the more the building declines, making it more attractive to crime.
This isn’t a new topic, but more and more it becomes obvious that movie theaters need to institute a “Broken Windows” policy. The small things that people get away with – talking, cell phones ringing, texting during movies – lead to behavior that’s more disruptive for everyone else. The jackasses are taking over our movie theaters, and we’re just letting it happen.
The worst thing is that the jackasses aren’t just the usual “OMG WTF” teens that are so popular as general cultural scapegoats; the last time this topic came up on our message boards there were a number of professional adults who said they couldn’t turn off their cell phones in a movie theater because they needed to be available at all times. Guess what? That means you can’t go see a fucking movie. Just like if you can’t find a baby sitter – you can’t go see a fucking grown-up movie with your 2-year old in tow. I didn’t make you have a kid, you breeding creep, so don’t force it on me when I’m trying to see a movie.
The movies used to be an experience, a night out, a thing to do. Now for many they’re an extension of their living rooms, and they seem to feel that their right to annoy the shit out of me in public overrides my right to enjoy a movie. Here’s the thing: just because you bought a ticket doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want in the theater.
What’s most insane is that a “Broken Windows” policy would only help movie theaters. As home theaters become cheaper and more available and DVD windows shrink and as piracy becomes an entrenched fact of life, movie theaters are trying to lure more people in on the weekend, but they don’t seem to have figured out that making moviegoing an event is the way to go. Leave the early screenings open for the douchebags who need to have a phone always on or who need to bring their sure to grow up into a penal veteran child into The Hills Have Eyes 2, but make screenings after 7pm zero tolerance screenings. Hire a couple of ushers to make sure those broken windows are fixed.
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, "If you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 40, you have no brain." I’m 33 and still very liberal, but I find myself leaning more and more to conservative positions on some issues. I believe the next time a cell phone rings during a dramatic movie moment I may find myself suddenly swayed to support the death penalty.