Yes, I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m just back from a writers’ conference hosted by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. There I discovered it’s considered cool to share the insights you’re gleaning by tweeting them to your thousands of followers. Instead of looking at the speaker, you now keep your eyes fixed on your hand-held device as you tap out (spelling and punctuation be damned) nuggets of wisdom. Some speakers actually feel you’re not listening well unless you’re spreading their words in real time to the far corners of the Twittersphere.
Fortunately, my own panel didn’t encourage such behavior. I moderated a session on investigative reporting. My two award-winning speakers, Jim Frederick and Bill Dedman, are old-school journalists, the kind who know how to uncover dark secrets involving local governments, the U.S. military, and the banking industry. How do they gain access to truths that many would rather keep hidden? Both spoke eloquently about the need to forge relationships, to gain the trust of those in the know. For them the art of listening is essential. And it’s not easy to really, truly listen – to pick up nuances, to share in the telling of a story – if your hands and your brain are engaged in a completely different task.
What does all this have to do with movies? Of late there’s been a rash of texting in movie theatres. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the culprits are not in my age-range: it’s America’s youth who are so accustomed to fiddling with electronic toys that many see a darkened movie house as just another place to multitask.
Maybe we of the television generation bear some of the blame. Yes, we were taught to be quiet and attentive at the movies, but when we watched TV in our living rooms no one much minded if we were simultaneously playing a game, eating a snack, or carrying on a conversation. Hey, most TV programs seemed so inconsequential that we felt no particular need to give them our full attention. (There were exceptions, of course — in those days, reality programming meant the Apollo 11 moon-landing or President Kennedy’s funeral, not Jersey Shore.) Today most widely-circulated movies seem inconsequential too, so perhaps it makes sense that teens can regard them as background noise, not the main event.
Some movie exhibitors, I’m told, are wondering if there should be a place for texting at the movies. Since it’s the youth audience that theatre-owners most want to attract, perhaps the rules need to be changed to accommodate their lifestyle. This subject was hotly debated at Cinemacon, a major exhibitors’ conference in Las Vegas (a locale well versed in the charms of distraction). I leave it to Patrick Goldstein, who writes “The Big Picture” column for the Los Angeles Times, to argue the case against texting during movies: “The whole idea of going to the movies is about leaving all your other baggage behind. It’s why we call it escapist entertainment. If you’re checking your text messages, you’re missing out on the feeling of awe and exhilaration you can only get in a darkened theatre.”
Film, notes Goldstein, is a communal medium. As someone who’s had the weird experience of seeing Teshigahara’s great Woman in the Dunes in a completely empty auditorium, I know that movies are for sharing. But sharing your unfolding moviegoing experience (or your dinner plans) via text or Twitter seems a violation of those special moments in the dark. It’s hard to truly see and hear a great film when your hands are telling a story of their own.