Toronto Film Festival: A postscript about the viewing experience

September 16, 2013


Sitting through almost two dozen films at the Toronto Film Festival last week, I had occasion to consider the notion of the viewing experience itself.

It’s a strange and delicate thing – that feeling of being so immersed in what you’re viewing that you forget where you are. That’s the experience I assume that most people crave when they go to a movie.

For some people, that immersion means turning their brains off and simply submitting to the sensations pouring off the screen: action, horror, comedy. For others, it’s about engaging the mind, being forced to think and become intellectually or emotionally involved with the film, to meet it on its own terms and wrestle its meaning from it.

These are experiences best achieved in a movie theater, where the size of the screen and the surround of the sound pulls you into the image and takes you out of yourself, your life, your worries.

Nothing, however, pulls you out of that zone – that sweet spot of movie viewing – as the sudden intrusion of a brightly lit screen of someone’s cell phone in your line of sight. Yet it was a regular occurrence in the press-and-industry screenings I attended at the Toronto Film Festival last week.

I’m not talking about people who accidentally left their phones on, then had them ring during the movie, which is bad enough. No, these were people who made a point of taking out their phones and checking emails or texts in the middle of the film, sometimes more than once.

As a professional moviegoer, I tend to have a zero-tolerance policy with that kind of thing. If the person is in my vicinity, I have no qualms about leaning over and saying, “Would you please turn that off?” They tend to comply, perhaps out of embarrassment. At least I hope that’s the reason, given the decreasing role that shame seems to play in our society.

Lately I’ve been trying another tactic, particularly with people sitting in front of me: As soon as the screen of a phone lights up, I simply kick their seat. They usually get the message.

Still, I got a certain amount of pushback from one rude fellow during a screening in Toronto. When he pulled the phone out again a couple of minutes later, I kicked his chair again – harder. This time, he turned around and said, “Quit kicking my chair.”

“Put your damn phone away,” I replied.

After the movie, he sought me out to say, “Hey, it’s uncool to kick someone’s chair.” “No ruder than using a phone during a movie,” I replied, though I don’t think he got it.

But I ran into a lot of that at Toronto; I hate to generalize but I would venture that the bulk of the offenders were industry people, as opposed to critics (who have to watch the films in order to write about them).

As someone who does actually see movies at my local multiplex for time to time (granted, at bargain matinees for the most part), I can say with assurance – at least about the multiplexes in my suburban neck of the woods – that I rarely have that problem with the viewing public. At press screenings in New York, I find that it’s not critics but, again, those people who don’t actually need to watch the film closely – TV producers, agents, publicists and the like – who are the offenders with phones.

Of course there are alternatives to attending screenings: I often get screeners on DVD or streaming links online. But watching a movie on my TV – or worse, my computer – is hardly the optimum way to achieve the immersive viewing experience.

Yes, I know; in deriding the 3D fad in the past, I’ve noted that if a movie is strong enough, you could be watching on a screen the size of an iPhone and still be caught up in it.

But even with a big-screen HD TV, watching at home means you are prone to the same distractions and interruptions that happen while watching any TV show. And the same temptations: Oh, I need to pause this to get a snack. Or go to the bathroom. Or answer the telephone or front door.

In other words, all the reasons you go to a movie theater to get away from distractions and enjoy the immersive movie-viewing experience. Until some asshole turns on his phone to check his email.

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