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The Audience Isn't Listening
by Patrick Storck

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Taking a break from the actual art / craft / hobby / distraction that is film or video, understanding it, doing it, what have you, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at something that can take even the best results of the most inspired geniuses at the height of their game and turn it into at best an unpleasant evening.

I'm talking about talking. Talking on your cell phone, to those with you, to yourself, to the screen, to anyone. Wow, cutting edge. Nobody has ever gone off on this before, right? Next week we'll cover airline food and the differences between men and women. Am I right, folks? Try the veal.

Sure, it's a common enough gripe, but that's because it's a common enough problem, and nobody really wants to do anything about it. Al Gore and Ed Begley Jr. can tell us how devastating our lifestyles are to the environment, but it take gas going over $3 per gallon for people to "understand" there is a real crisis. I'm not saying the ice shelves will break off if I can't get through CLOVERFIELD without wanting to hit someone for being louder than a collapsing building, but I do think it's a sign that our culture is slipping the wrong way.

What really set me off was a concert I went to last night. When you think concert, you might think "Whitesnake," or possibly "The Killers," though not likely "Paula Abdul." There are lyrics, shouting fans, fireworks, and a few speakers set up solely to drown all of that out. The concert I went to was by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performing film scores from science fiction films and television. The works of John Williams, Bernard Hermann, John Barry, played by an un-mic'd gathering of musicians. No lyrics (for the most part) to sing along to. No star to shout out to. It may have been geeky, but it should have been a classy affair.

The man in the row behind me apparently held, throughout the show, the first concept of the word "concert." Perhaps, knowing the term "concerto," he kept the two clearly separated in definition and therefore behavior in his mind. Maybe he was being treated to some culture in an effort to make him a better, more rounded person. Maybe he was just drunk and untrained to be in public without a sponsor. Either way, he would let out a good and loud "Weehooo!" after something he particularly enjoyed.

When a nice selection from E.T. was playing, this guy called out "Elliot!" He would name each piece being played to his wife in the middle, as if he was the one to crack the code of what the conductor said we were about to hear. Clues may be hidden in words coming out of mouths other than your own. He belched loudly during a staccato passage. The guy, just to make myself sound more snobbish, was an absolute boor.

Where did this behavior come from? I know to some degree it's always existed. The groundlings of Shakespeare's day were just as excitable as those at the coliseums for a good Christian mauling. William Castle designed gimmick after gimmick trying to cash in on the less that quiet reactions of people. The difference is that those have always been people reacting to entertainment. People might shout at characters on the screen, but at least it showed they were paying attention. Also, it was usually not the smartest of audience members.

I think home video is one of the big culprits. People can sit at home and talk over the whole movie, do their laundry, fix a snack, hop on the internet, take a phone call, and do pretty much anything during a movie as it occurs to them If the film doesn't hold their attention for pretty much every second, they immediately start finding distractions.

The information frenzy of fast editing and in-your-face framing has unfairly been rested solely on the shoulders of MTV because so many music videos were experimental, back when they used to be relevant. Still, the style has become commonplace now, and also hurts the viewer's ability to follow a moment for longer than simple surface information. Show me now, show me clear, don't make me, the viewer, have to work. The telling is your job, but use simple words, please.

We also live in an age of constant communication. There was a time where you couldn't get a phone call in the middle of a movie, less yet make one as some people will do. It was an annoyance for somebody to get up repeatedly because their pager was going off, but at least they talked in the lobby. While text messaging is quiet, often the alert chimes are not. The soft glow of the screen as somebody works out their plans for later or exchanges gossip isn't the worst thing in the world, but it's still something we don't need in a darkened theater.

The overall problem is that people just can't devote two hours of time to one source of input. We need hundreds of channels, multiple tabs on multiple browsers, and call waiting on each and every line. Asking somebody to take a small chunk of time and look and listen to one source is a challenge. The upsetting part is that this challenge is laid at the feet of the film makers.

If you make a movie, you have to know that a large portion of your audience will only be partially watching it. Unless you give them a reason to pay attention to every moment, they will miss things. If a scene moves slow, their mind will wander until the scene changes. Anything that happens becomes moot. If the plot takes too long to get going, they may start a conversation, wander into the other room, or hop online to check some things, stopping back at your movie "to see if anything is happening."

The worst part is, just as they will blame you for being bored, they will blame you for any information they missed while they weren't paying attention. More than once I've left a complex movie and heard somebody who talked through it say something to the effect of "That was stupid. It didn't make any sense. What was the deal with [plot point]?" It's almost invariably something that was in fact covered. The viewer is not the stupid one. No, it's the film maker for not adding enough shiny objects to entertain the groundlings, but not so many that those of us who care about intelligent movies feel frustrated. No audience left behind, and all that.

We can't control the technology, the theaters, the home viewings. All we can control is the content. Just know that very few people will watch your movie in a quiet room, no distractions, with their full attention directed your way. The editing bay may be the last time your movie is seen as intended.

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Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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