A few years back, I attended a screening of the Nicolas Winding Refn film “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, and, while I experienced a wonderful story about the struggle for normalcy in the face of brutality, a far more important life lesson was learned from the silhouetted heads that filled my theater – the majority of moviegoers have no idea how to take in a film.
Now, before we continue, it should be noted that we’re not discussing simple poor theater etiquette. The problem here is something more cerebral and most likely the actual catalyst to why that warm glow of cell phone screens have become so common place in the shadows of your local theater. What we’re looking at is the moviegoing populace’s inability to consume film as an art form or the challenges that it brings.
Deep into the second act of “Drive,” we find Gosling’s character, the Driver, heavily mixed up with two different factions that push him far out of his comfort zone. The first is a merciless mob boss and his men, who spill blood without remorse, and the second is the Driver’s neighbor, a woman he has fallen for and silently sworn to protect. In both cases, director Refn takes us out of the normal conventions found in cinematic storytelling (at least in American film) and forces his audience to experience these moments in ways that they were neither expecting or comfortable with.
For example, when the quietness of the film takes a sudden and shocking turn in it second act, depicting several moments of graphic and brutal mob violence, the majority of my theater found themselves laughing out loud in that “can you believe this” tone, subsequently shirking off any responsibility towards actually engaging with the horror that had been brought forth. Also, as the Driver and his neighbor looked longingly at each other in silence for periods greater than it takes some rom-com characters to meet and then “hit the hay,” my pack of theatergoers were fidgeting as if they had dumped their popcorn in their shorts. “Do something!” one patron yelled out to the screen.
So why does this sort of thing happen? What makes an audience laugh at gore and dismiss subtlety? Simply put, the need to relieve tension. Whether of a violent or sexual nature, today’s audience seems to only be able to take so much before they break. This is natural. The body itself seeks to kill tension and laughter is one of its greatest weapons. By firing up and then cooling down your stress response through a chuckle, you increase your heart rate and blood pressure and bring about a calming feeling that allows you to be physiologically less effected by what your are experiencing. This is fine in everyday situations, but certainly a deterrent to society’s ability to consume art on a more emotional and gut level.
But film is a baby of an art form, at roughly 150 years old, and the biggest obstacle towards better consumption of what it brings to the silver screen is simply mankind’s immaturity with the medium. Though we have set up ways as a culture on how to properly observe a painting or piece of music, we are still Cavemen when it comes to cinema- simply dragging our clubs into the multiplex and, for the most part, taking in films made by a system that doesn’t mind keeping us at our Neanderthal stage. Because of this, it is only natural for people to be frustrated when a film doesn’t just spoon feed them or goes against their previous assumptions of what film can do. These are growing pains and, with films like “Drive” or even Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” our culture is forced to expand their minds to what they are watching if they seek to better appreciate the process that is occuring before them.
So there is hope. Take for example the art of theatre- both plays and musicals. When Sweeney Todd cuts the throat of another victim or Blanche and Stanley stare at each other, ripe with passion, no one in the audience lets out a laugh or begs them to move on. To be quiet and watch the action has become a part of how we consume theatre and, as time goes by, hopefully we will see cinema find its own way up the evolutionary chain.