Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Unwilling Moviegoer

A couple weeks back, someone posted a comment about an overealous audience member at a showing of No Country for Old Men. At that time, I promised I’d tell some tales about memorable audiences — or persons in them at any rate — and I’m here to make good on that promise (or threat).

No, I’m not just talking about such delightful moments as someone in the audience at Damien: Omen II shouting, “Don’t go near the elevator!” to the hapless medico who just discovered Damien’s jackal blood. That’s actually the most memorable thing about seeing that movie. I also don’t just mean the guy at the Times Square movie house yelling, “Bowling for Dollars!” when Der Arnold rolled the rubber James Earl Jones head down the steps during Conan the Barbarian, even though that seems a reasonable outburst. Those are fun, if admittedly disrespectful, audience moments.

Equally entertaining can be audience walk-outs. The most memorable of these undoubtedly came in 1975 on the opening Saturday of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, a movie I confess to actually liking, but more for what it attempts than what it accomplishes. Bogdanovich set out to create a musical — somewhat in the manner of Ernst Lubitsch — built around a raft of great Cole Porter songs. Then he decided that Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd could sing. He was in error. OK, so they’re not exactly appalling, but the movie is almost wall-to-wall singing, and Mr. Reynold’s vague Dean Martin impression combined with Ms. Shepherd’s limited range wears thin.

As the film unfolded, people started to casually walk out, always at the start of a musical number. Somewhere around the 80-minute mark, Burt and Cybill finish a song and tactfully disappear from view on a sofa presumably for personal reasons. A few seconds pass while we look at the back of this couch. Suddenly, Burt pops into view and starts in with, “I feel the urge to sing …” No less than 20 people got up in a body and stormed out of the theater. Bogdanovich appears to have been instrumental in keeping this movie from any kind of home video release for over 30 years. Bootlegs copied from one of its rare Fox Movie Channel showings have been known to show up on eBay.

However, the audiences referenced so far have, I assume, been willing participants in the moviegoing process (at least at the onset). The unwilling viewer, though, is in a class all of its own. Because I see a large number of less-than-stellar movies, I have on occassion been accompanied by people who weren’t necessarily thrilled to be there. At one such screening — Are We There Yet? — my viewing partner spent the last half hour of the movie noisily flipping the seat next to him up and down. It didn’t matter since we were the entire audience. Still, none of them have been dragged unwillingly, which is to say I saw Pootie Tang alone.

The single most incredible case of the unwilling moviegoer I’ve ever encountered was at a showing of Warren Beatty’s Reds back in 1981. The movie’s a biographical film about left-wing journalist John Reed (author of the book, Ten Days That Shook the World, detailing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia). The film was showing in one of those then prevalent shoebox multiplexes. If you’ve missed these atrocities, they were long, narrow auditoriums with the aisle running down the middle of the theater, meaning you had to sit off to the side. It was quite the worst design for moviegoing ever devised. In other words, viewing circumstances were not ideal from the onset.

And then they arrived.

Oh, they looked innocuous enough, this “elderly” couple. (Well, they looked elderly to me then, but I was 27 at the time.) It soon became apparent, however, that there was a little tension in the air. All was not well between them. The problem was simple: he wanted to see the movie, she most emphatically did not. This fact was established before the movie began. It would continue to be reinforced throughout the evening.

Now, I concede that Mr. Moviegoer immediately put forth the idea that they could leave. The problem was that that wasn’t good enough for Mrs. Moviegoer. She had been brought there against her will and in return it was her idea to make Mr. Moviegoer’s life a living hell. Since I am unacquainted with what transpired before their entry into the theater and my life, I withold judgment on her decision. The fact that she was apparently equally determined that the rest of us shouldn’t enjoy it was another matter.

The credits weren’t over before she went into action. As soon as the names of Beatty’s “witnesses” appeared on the screen, the trouble started. For those not familiar with Reds, Beatty opted to include interview footage with contemporaries of John Reed. Names like Adela Rogers St. Johns, Henry Miller, Rebecca West, George Jessel and Will Durant flashed across the screen. “Who are these people? I’ve never heard of any of them,” she complained. Rather than letting this remark pass, Mr. Moviegoer tried to assure her that she did indeed know who at least some of them were. “You know who Will Durant is,” he told her. “No, I don’t. You’re thinking of Jimmy Durante,” she hissed back. (Obviously, the woman was either a philistine of some note, or she had no intellectual leanings at all. I don’t think I was ever in a home during that era with any intellectual pretensions where an entire bookshelf wasn’t groaning under the weight of Will and Ariel Durant’s brightly colored 11-volume The Story of Civilization.) After some pressure, she grudgingly conceded that, yes, she knew who George Jessel was. Score one for Mr. Moviegoer. It was to be his last victory, and ours.

Her momentary chastening was soon overcome. A few minutes into the film there came a noise strongly suggesting that which might be made by a prehistoric creature giving birth. In truth it was Mrs. Moviegoer emitting the first in an endless series of ponderous sighs. These were punctuated by occasional outbursts of “Ho-hum.” Realizing that we were a mere 10 minutes into a 194-minute movie, I started casing the joint for a likely relocation spot. But it wasn’t a large theater and was pretty well full. There was nothing to be done, but endure the sighing and ho-humming, not to mention the occasional offer of leaving from Mr. Moviegoer and the resultant, “Oh, no, you want to see this,” that invariably followed.

Soon her attention wandered to the film’s Shirley Russell designed costumes. She dutifully offered her opinion on each and every one of the period dresses. When she tired of this, the set design came under scrutiny. We quickly learned Mrs. Moviegoer’s taste in chairs, sofas and lamps. The lamps seemed to especially please her. “Oh, I’d love to have that lamp,” she enthused at one point. By then I would have dearly loved to have presented the lamp to Mr. Moviegoer with instructions on where he might give it to her.

The movie proceeded in this fashion until we got to Beatty’s magnificent blending of intimate scenes between Reed and his wife (Diane Keaton) with the overthrowing of the Kerensky government by the Bolsheviks. It truly was an amazing set-piece — beautifully photographed, flawlessly designed with red flags filling the screen. And best of all, it was set to a rousing rendition of that most famous of communist/socialist/anarchist anthems, “The Internationale,” which made it loud enough to drown out Mrs. Moviegoer.

Then came the intermission! People got up and wandered out to the bathroom or the concession stand or outside to grab a smoke. Salvation was at hand! We could now change seats. Oh, happy release, I thought.

Moving was an improvement, since it reduced the running commentary to some muttering far in the background. I could live with that — and I didn’t have much choice anyway. But Mrs. Moviegoer wasn’t quite reduced to rumbling. Oh, no, she’d saved the best for last. Here we are watching a movie called RedsReds, for God’s sake — and it was about the only American whose body was interred in the Kremlin. It had featured scenes at IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) meetings, had talked of little but radical politics, had ended its first part with “The Internationale.” All of this was seemingly lost on Mrs. Moviegoer, though, because about 40 minutes from the end of the movie an all too familiar voice loudly rang out from the back of the theater, announcing, “These people are communists!” I dissolved into helpless laughter.

Really, what other response was possible?

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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12 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Unwilling Moviegoer

  1. Justin Souther

    I’m not sure if this counts, but at the screening of WOMEN IN LOVE at the Asheville Film Festival in 2005, a woman hit me in the head with a bag of groceries while she was trying to get into her seat. It wasn’t just that I got smacked in the side of my face, but I had to sit there with my head on my shoulder while this woman’s groceries sat on the side of my head. The worst part was that I’m not even sure she noticed.

    But at the same time, the only reason I enjoyed BLACK CHRISTMAS was due to the girls yelling “Don’t go through that door!” (nevermind if no one went through the door there would be no movie) and kicking the back of my seat every time something even vaguely scary happened.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’m trying to figure out why someone would go to a movie with a bag of groceries. I did leave a jigsaw puzzle of the Marx Brothers (I’d bought it while killing time before the movie) in a theater once. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was at AT LONG LAST LOVE.) But somehow that doesn’t seem as outre to me as sitting there with a large sack of turnips or a side of beef.

  3. craig

    On audience walk-outs: I was once dragged by a group of pharmacy-school friends to a film starring Jet Li and rapper DMX. I often enjoy action films, but I was reluctant because I knew there was no way I was going to enjoy this one.
    And it was just as I anticipated. The movie was obnoxiously loud and overly frenetic from the outset. Only a few minutes elapsed before I found myself planning an escape.
    “Wait a minute,” I thought. “We’re sitting in a megaloplex that’s just feet away from a shopping mall, and I just happen to be carrying in my wallet a gift card good at one of its department stores.” So I decided, “Hey, I need socks!”
    I got up from my seat and politely gestured to my group that I’d be right back. I checked to make sure I still had my ticket stub and walked out of the theater.
    After that came a casual stroll thought the mall and, compared to the movie, relative tranquility. And, I found and purchased a fine pair of athletic socks.
    I didn’t get back to my seat until near the end of the film. After the looks of confusion from my friends, I had to endure a barrage of snarky comments – most of them having to do with theater-restroom activities. But I had my sanity. And I had my socks!

  4. Ken Hanke

    Hmmm, that must’ve been CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE, which I somehow blessedly missed. I have no trouble, however, believing a sock-buying excusion may have been preferable.

    I may be forgetting something, but I think I’ve only ever walked out of five movies in my life — and two of those had extenuating circumstances.

  5. Justin Souther

    Off the top of my head, I can only think of four movies I’ve walked out of.

    One was BLOODRAYNE, because the only enjoyment one can get from that film is making snarky comments, and I was by myself. Another was NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE, because it was NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE. There was also some indiscriminate kung-fu movie that I’ve forgotten the name of, which I fell asleep in for about twenty minutes and figured I wasn’t going to get the good out of staying there.

    The last one I won’t name, because I actually like the movie now.

  6. Ken Hanke

    “The last one I won’t name, because I actually like the movie now.”

    I think I know the answer and your decision to keep this a mystery is wise.

    If we throw in “films I’ve fallen asleep in” and encompass TV viewings the list grows by leaps and bounds. For example, I’ve never made it through the 1956 version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. In fact, I’ve never seen the parting of the Red Sea. I always nod off before that and wake up somewhere around Edward G. Robinson wanting to build a golden calf (“Yeah, he’s been gone 40 days and 40 nights, see? He’s not comin’ back, see?”).

  7. Justin Souther

    Apparently the kung-fu movie I walked out of was CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I was too fascinated by its look and its flabbergasting silliness to walk out on that one. Plus, I was reviewing it and there are rules about that sort of thing. (OK, yeah, I walked out and back in and out and back in on MARTIN LAWRENCE: RUNTELDAT and DYSFUNKTIONAL FAMILY, but I noted the fact in the reviews and movies of stand-up comedy are a different proposition anyway.)

    I think the interesting thing about walking out is that it occurs fairly infrequently. I don’t really count walking out on COUNT DOWNE: SON OF DRACULA (a really dismal vampire spoof with Harry Nilsson and Ringo), because I’d sat through it before and I’d bought a ticket for BLOOD FOR DRACULA. The theater had received the wrong movie and seemingly didn’t think anyone would care. I did. I also don’t count walking out on the miserable TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, because that wasn’t my idea and I went back to see it (why, I do not know) the following night. So really, apart from the two comedy concerts, the only film I’ve ever just plain walked out on is THE GREEN BERETS.

    The point is that people are very fond of saying they couldn’t sit through something, but how often does it really apply to a movie in a theater? Most times, I think it’s the far more disposable nature of a movie on TV or home video. The number of times someone “couldn’t sit through” a film grows dramatically — and possibly unfairly — in that context.

  9. Justin Souther

    Me walking out of CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER isn’t exactly the fault of the movie but rather my sleepiness. I fell asleep, realized I had no clue what was happening and decided it’d probably be a better use of my time to just head home.

    So I guess that should be a lesson to us all. Do not watch overheated Asian melodrama’s whilst tired.

  10. Ken Hanke

    It should be noted that Mr. Souther nodding off during a film is not in itself a criticism. He merely likes his sleep.

  11. Robin Anderson

    I’ve never walked out on a movie.

    However, I’ve been thrown out of one. Actually, both a friend and I managed it, and it was the movie BEACHES, which we both found hilariously awful. I mean, laugh-out-loud, gut-bustingly funny!

    We didn’t make it to when Barbara Hershey’s character finally dropped dead. In fact, I don’t know to this day whether or not she did, but these disease tearjerker movies always have to end with a withered, dessicated dead body to cry faux-tears over.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I’m not quite sure whether that should merit a badge of honor or not. I think it might.

    I thought I might be thrown out of ALIEN in 1979 because I burst out laughing when the thing popped out of John Hurt’s chest (hey, if it hadn’t looked like a dildo with chrome teeth, I might not have). I guess the general shrieking covered up my unseemly mirth.

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