Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Where do you sit in the theater?

I’ve been going to the movies more or less consciously since 1956 now. I say “more or less” not out of deference to those features that were of such a nature that I took a short nap during them, nor due to mental numbing generated by such events as Sex and the City 2. No, it’s simply because my earliest memories are sketchy to say the least. Some things are fragmented or jumbled. I’ve only a few images from going along with my parents to see The Searchers (1956). For years I thought the opening to Portrait in Black (1960) was part of an Elvis movie. (It may have improved them both had it been true.)

Of course, in one’s early moviegoing years, the question of where to sit doesn’t arise. Assuming you’re not one of those children who do Elvis impressions during Loving You (1957)— I name no names here (and besides I don’t remember doing it)—you sit wherever your parents decide to sit. It’s later on that where to sit becomes an issue. I don’t recall it being something to be considered until I was about 10, at which time my friends and I discovered the immersive quality of watching movies from the third row of the State Theater.

Why the third row and not the second or first? I’m not entirely sure. I’d like to think it was something like the difference between buying a Rolls Royce and a Bentley—the latter proving that you’re so classy that you don’t feel the need to flaunt it with the showy “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament. I’m not saying that we weren’t precocious, mind, but I somehow doubt we were that precocious. My best guess is that it was vaguely rebellious. After all, it was something our parents would never do. I suspect we were even cautioned that it would hurt our eyes. Even the theater looked down on those rows. When they reupholstered the joint, the first three rows were left with their worn red vinyl coverings—as if to say, “This is good enough for the likes of you.”

At the same time, I think the reason it became the standard position for a couple years was because it truly did immerse you in the film being so close that you couldn’t actually take in the entire screen at one time. This was especially true of the State, which was one of those cavernous single screen theaters from the 1940s with a big screen that truly was big. If the movie was in a true widescreen process like Cinemascope or Panavision, I’m sure we looked a bit like spectators at a tennis match looking from one end of the screen to the other. In any case, an image like the one at the right has a good deal more impact if it’s all you can see.

The whole concept of sitting very close to the screen is addressed in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004), which is perhaps the most on-target film ever made about people obsessed with cinema. The immersive aspect is there addressed in more psychological terms, being read as a desire to get nearer the film itself on the part of people whose whole lives are filtered through the movies. It’s an expression of a life lived vicariously with actual human interaction kept at bay for whatever reason. I’m not prepared to say that this reading is filled with the juice of the prune—even if it does make me somewhat uncomfortable by perhaps being a little too close to home.

The up-close-and-personal seating gave way to sitting somewhere around the middle of the theater in the teenage years—mostly I suspect because we’d become too cool to sit down front. That just evidenced way too much involvement in those years when one tries to adopt a kind of Noel Coward world-weary sophistication. It’s simply not cool to express actual excitement, you know. After all, when you’re 15 or 16 you want the world to think—or you want to think that the world thinks—that you’ve seen it all before and it’s going to take a lot to impress you. This was especially true of my most common viewing partner in those years, the late Bill Wheeler, who I am convinced emerged from the womb with a martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other and an Oscar Wilde epigram ready for use. Instead of wailing, I expect he took one look at the doctor and yawned.

As time passed and the question of where to sit lost most of its social status—except as concerns balconies, which I’ve always been a sucker for—I gravitated toward slightly closer than mid-way down and as close to viewing the screen from the center as possible. That second notion was thwarted for a time with the rise of the first multiplexes and the shoebox auditorium where the aisle was straight down the center. Sitting in the aisle tends to be frowned upon and is generally uncomfortable.

Of course, individual circumstances and theaters present different considerations. If your seat of choice is not available, you have to alter your habit on the spot. And, of course, there’s the case of having the world’s tallest human being plop down right in front of you. Now, my take in this is to move. On one notable occasion—at a screening of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976)—the infrequent commenter on these columns known as Rufus, actually leaned forward and requested the offending party to please not sit directly in front of us. It was not unreasonable since the theater was far from full, but it was beyond my basic reticence in such matters. Of course, neither option is always available. Ken Russell once complained that he’d gone to see David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and been seated in a packed theater behind “the man with last afro in London.” I’m sure this made for an unusual moviegoing experience—like peering at the film through the shrubbery.

Theaters are definitely a consideration, too. The Tampa Theater in Tampa, Florida may well live up to its claim of being “The South’s most beautiful theater.” It most certainly is a wonder to behold with its recreation of an Italian garden by starlight—complete with a domed ceiling of twinkling stars and projected clouds. It also has the downside of having been built in 1925 when the only consideration in terms of acoustics was how the Mighty Wurlitzer (and, yes, it really does rise up out of floor) sounded like. The fact is the sound tends to echo in the Tampa—unless you grab a seat under the balcony. That’s a rather unusual concern.

Of recent years, I’ve tended to be fairly ambivalent about where I sit and usually let it be dictated by whoever I’m watching the movie with. I have one viewing companion who is too vain to wear glasses and too blind to really see the movie any further back than that good old third row. I don’t mind. It’s like revisiting my childhood—with the definite advantage of not having to stay there. For the most part, though, I do avoid the first rows, especially if I’m reviewing the film, because I like to be able to take in the whole frame for that. (If I like the film, I will probably try it from an immersive, up-close position later.) The sole local exception to this is the Beaucatcher where, for some reason, you could put a small skating rink between the front row and the screen.

The last time I was in the actual first row was in March of 2009 at the Florida Film Festival for Crimes of Passion (1984). The festival people had saved that row for Ken and Lisi Russell, Barry Sandler and myself because Ken and Barry were doing a Q&A afterwards and this put them near the makeshift stage that had been put together for the purpose. To make matters worse, this was in a stadium seating theater. I know I am in the minority in disliking stadium seating, but whatever debatable merits it may have are definitely cancelled out from the first row. My neck has yet to fully recover.

Left to my own devices (read: when no one wants to or can go to a movie with me), I do have certain default preferences. Downstairs at the Fine Arts Theatre for example, I like to sit on the aisle on the right directly in front of the projection booth. I don’t know why, but it suits me. If there’s someone in that seat, it puts me mildly out of sorts. In the upstairs theater, it makes me downright (yes, I’m going to say it) cranky if I can’t sit in the second row.

Generally speaking, though I’m pretty much OK with any seat—so long as I can see the screen and am not next to someone of dubious hygiene, a penchant for text messaging during the movie, or who laughs at such peculiar things that I fear for my well-being. I should note that I have never sat through a movie in the manner depicted at the top of the column—that was strictly the idea of the director of the documentay that image is drawn from. There have, I admit, been numerous films that might have been better viewed with my back turned toward the screen. However, I have noted a marked tendency for me to seat myself at the back the theater nearest an exit door during things like The House Bunny (2008) and Meet the Spartans (2008). Whether this is fear of contagion or simply a desire to be able to make a speedy retreat I can’t say, but either seems reasonable.

SHARE
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."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

43 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Where do you sit in the theater?

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    I always try to sit left of center thanks to less than perfect eyesight due to two childhood operations for lazy eye.
    I used to like to sit in the middle rows in the first seat of the row. Now I sit all the way in the back so I can watch the audience as well as the movie.
    Sometimes it’s a lot more interesting to watch their reactions to what’s on the screen than the movie itself.

  2. Son of Rufus

    On one notable occasion—at a screening of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976)—the infrequent commenter on these columns known as Rufus, actually leaned forward and requested the offending party to please not sit directly in front of us.

    Though I don’t know if he would do that these days it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to picture this in my head.

    In regards to seating, I don’t think I ever had the, some would say childlike, desire to sit in the front rows unless forced to by a crowded theater(I hope Rufus doesn’t come on here and say otherwise). I’ve really always been a horizontal and vertical center kind of person. I like being able to see the whole screen without doing the “tennis move”.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Sometimes it’s a lot more interesting to watch their reactions to what’s on the screen than the movie itself

    Well, I know I would have felt a lot safer at R.V/ if the woman cackling like a crazy person at everything Robin Williams did had been in my line of sight rather than behind me.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Though I don’t know if he would do that these days it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to picture this in my head

    It was somehow startling at the time.

    I don’t think I ever had the, some would say childlike, desire to sit in the front rows unless forced to by a crowded theater(I hope Rufus doesn’t come on here and say otherwise).

    You can call it childlike, it won’t bother me. I can’t speak for everyone, of course.

  5. Lady L

    Being somewhat anti-social and not very trusting of others I like to sit where I can see the movie and as many of the other patrons as possible. It also never hurts to have a wall at your back. My husband calls this very rational behavior paranoid; I’m not convinced.

  6. LYT

    Great topic. My penchant for front-row seating is noted by a lot of folks out here, but it was truly nurtured in Western North Carolina, where, when I first lived there, the only real moviegoing options were the aforementioned Beaucatcher, and Sylva’s Quin Theater, which has quite a respectable front row in its two big houses.

    I solidified this preference in college, when a Friday-night shuttle would take us to Westwood, and generally a movie would be starting right when we got there…if it was a popular one, I knew there’d be seats free upfront. I also have long legs, and my knees can seize up if there’s insufficient space.

    With the new stadium seating houses, however, I prefer the back row of the front section – it’s close, but nobody can kick me from behind, or put their feet up in a way that shifts the whole row every time.

  7. Rufus

    On one notable occasion—at a screening of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976)—the infrequent commenter on these columns known as Rufus, actually leaned forward and requested the offending party to please not sit directly in front of us.

    I didn’t remember that anecdote until reading about it. I would say that it is completely aginst my nature now to ask (tell?)someone in front of me to move. My wife is still laughing about it. That must have been during my brash period, which may have lasted one night. I’m sure that if some conflict had arisn, I would have immediately backed down, and looked to Ken to take care of the situation.

    I generally try to locate roughly 5/8 of the way from the front, and as close to center as is available. This is usually not a problem, as I rarely manage to make it to a feature early in its release.

    In regards to seating, I don’t think I ever had the, some would say childlike, desire to sit in the front rows unless forced to by a crowded theater(I hope Rufus doesn’t come on here and say otherwise).

    While I don’t remember S of R ever desiring to sit in the front of the theater, there was a period when he would choose to sit somewhere other than next to us.

  8. Ken Hanke

    It also never hurts to have a wall at your back. My husband calls this very rational behavior paranoid; I’m not convinced.

    Considering where I like to sit downstairs at the Fine Arts, I’m not in the best position to argue with you.

    But thanks for allowing yourself to be de-paranoided long enough to meet last night.

  9. It depends on the theatre, but generally I sit about halfway back, right in the middle of the row. That way I can look straight ahead and see the whole frame without having to tilt my head up or down.

    I’m rarely in a cinema so crowded I can’t pick the seat I want. A few times I’ve been lucky enough to be the only person there! The lack of popcorn crunching and the like definitely made THERE WILL BE BLOOD a more immersive experience.

  10. Rufus

    Well, I know I would have felt a lot safer at R.V/ if the woman cackling like a crazy person at everything Robin Williams did had been in my line of sight rather than behind me.

    Without a doubt the least funny comedy I have ever sat through – scary.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I also have long legs, and my knees can seize up if there’s insufficient space

    Since I am actually taller sitting down than standing up (well, not quite, but it’s close), I don’t encounter that problem.

    With the new stadium seating houses, however, I prefer the back row of the front section – it’s close, but nobody can kick me from behind, or put their feet up in a way that shifts the whole row every time.

    I know it’s an uphill and losing battle, but if I have the choice, I don’t go to stadium seating theaters. Maybe it’s the fact that they aren’t my ingrained notion of a movie house. Maybe it’s the fact that to my compromised respiratory system, it’s just more stairs. Whatever it is, I’ve simply never warmed to them.

  12. Ken Hanke

    That must have been during my brash period, which may have lasted one night.

    Tyrant for a night. Well, I can understand that.

    I’m sure that if some conflict had arisn, I would have immediately backed down, and looked to Ken to take care of the situation

    It’s a damn good thing no conflict did or we would have been so screwed.

    there was a period when he would choose to sit somewhere other than next to us

    You have left yourself sooo open for a smart-ass remark, but I’m taking the high moral ground here.

  13. Rufus

    I prefer the back row of the front section – it’s close, but nobody can kick me from behind, or put their feet up in a way that shifts the whole row every time.

    I have a usually unconcious habit of bouncing my leg or foot. At a screening of PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN III I was mortified when some poor girl in front of me had to turn aroound and say, “Would you please stop kicking my seat!”

  14. Ken Hanke

    A few times I’ve been lucky enough to be the only person there!

    Maybe it’s having seen so many press screenings and movies off-hours that the lustre has worn off that experience. But really, I like seeing films I like with the largest number of people possible. It pleases me to see them doing well.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Without a doubt the least funny comedy I have ever sat through – scary.

    Oh, my friend, I could make you a list of films that would curl your hair in their awfulness.

  16. Ken Hanke

    At a screening of PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN III I was mortified when some poor girl in front of me had to turn aroound and say, “Would you please stop kicking my seat!”

    Hooligan. That is what you are.

  17. LYT

    “Maybe it’s the fact that to my compromised respiratory system, it’s just more stairs.”

    Not if you sit in the back row of the front section, as I do! That tends to be at the same level as the entrance door.

    The Arclight Hollywood, where about 40% of big-studio press screenings occur, is an interesting mix — in every house, save the attached Cinerama Dome, the front section is a couple rows flat on the floor, and a stadium-esque section in the back. As it has your metaphorical skating rink room in front, I go for front row there.

    The other 60% of big studio press screenings tend to be at venues with stadium seating. Yet another reason I imagine you’re glad not to live in L.A.

  18. arlene

    Interesting ….

    I was never fond of the first few rows. Even when I was very young or when I was too vain to wear glasses. (The inventor of contact lenses should be canonized)

    For years I had no real preference. But, in recent memory, I MUST have the aisle seat of the center back row (unless that includes a wheel chair accessible spot- I know I might have a neighbor.) In that case, any aisle back row.

    I can watch the film in relative peace. I rarely have others in close proximity and yes, there is the quick exit. I do get cranky when my preferred seating is not available.

    The only disadvantage is being able to take in all the glow from texting.

  19. Fran

    I am trying to picture Rufus asking someone to move. His finest brash hour!! I am even surprised that S of R can picture this. I want to hear more.

    If I find a couple of hours to grab for myself and am attending a movie on my own without my usual movie-going companion, I will sit 2/3rd up in the middle or a bit right of middle. I feel like I can see everything. I don’t need to be closer to be absorbed. I most recently watched Shutter Island from this vantage point and was captivated. Otherwise, I sit just behind the bars that indicate the handicap area about 1/4 back in the center. My friend likes to put her feet on the railing if it doesn’t disturb anyone.

    When attending films with M of R and EB of R, we usually joined S of R (unborn at the time) in the middle of the middle.

    The only time I sat in the front row was when I went, as a young teenage child on vacation at the ocean, with my entire family to see Jaws. We were characteristically barely on time and the place was packed and we had to split up. Most of the only seats left were on the front row. An unfortunate place to sit for that particular movie if you weren’t fond of such genres anyway, and were vacationing at the OCEAN.

    Regarding aisle seating, comfortable only in vitaphone trailors.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Yet another reason I imagine you’re glad not to live in L.A.

    Don’t misunderstand. I have nothing against LA — so long as I don’t have to live there.

  21. Ken Hanke

    The only disadvantage is being able to take in all the glow from texting

    A pretty significant disadvantage. Just imagine what the auditoriums will look like when the next Twinklight movie comes out. Everything will be bathed in a soft bluish haze.

  22. Ken Hanke

    I am trying to picture Rufus asking someone to move. His finest brash hour!!

    It is not easy to conjure up, is it?

    I will sit 2/3rd up in the middle or a bit right of middle.

    This begins to sound like some bizarre political stance.

    When attending films with M of R and EB of R, we usually joined S of R (unborn at the time) in the middle of the middle

    I’m only relieved you didn’t try to work me into that litany of letter ID’s. Then again, I don’t think I ever went to a movie with M of R or EB of R. Sr. of R (as distinct from S of R) and LB of R, yes. I trust everyone is thoroughly confused by this point. If not, I’ll throw in LSMFT for good measure.

    Regarding aisle seating, comfortable only in vitaphone trailors

    Three people possibly got that reference, which is probably just as well. I will point out, however, that there’s a bean-bag chair in the Cinema Lounge where we run those Tuesday and Thursday night movies, if you’re feeling nostalgic. I’ll further note that it would take a small crane to get me out of a bean-bag chair these days.

  23. Dionysis

    I like to sit a bit closer to the screen than mid-way, and towards the center. And I will take an aisle seat if available (left of center, of course). I don’t like to be too close, but also don’t want to have too many people in front of me either. If that area is not available and there’s a balcony, I’ll go for a seat close to the front of the balcony, maybe three or four rows back. I just find those locations afford me the best viewing, for whatever reason.

  24. Mike

    Glad to see someone else shares my distaste for stadium-style seating. Everyone I know thinks this opinion is irrational (and they’re probably right) but the whole setup just seems… off to me. If I want that kind of seating arrangement I’ll go to a baseball game.

    And I always sit in the back of the theater, off to whichever side is furthest from the door. I’ll only move closer to the screen if there are a lot of people in the general vicinity of where I want to sit. I’ve learned from experience that sitting next to others in a theater just invites distraction.

  25. Ken Hanke

    (left of center, of course).

    My tendency to veer to the right of the auditorium at the Fine Arts should in no way be viewed as a political statement.

  26. Ken Hanke

    Glad to see someone else shares my distaste for stadium-style seating.

    There have to be a few of us.

  27. Fran

    A brief response to the “bizarre political stance”..while the rest of the initials would have been right of center as described, I would have been the lone person in that group to move to choose the other side. In fact, maybe that is what I meant…

  28. luluthebeast

    In town I sit at the back of the theater where they have handicapped seating and I can stretch my legs out, otherwise it has to be an aisle seat where I can stick my legs out. If I’m forced to sit in a regular seat I just leave and get my money back. My legs can’t take being scrunched up for two hours.

  29. Ken Hanke

    I would have been the lone person in that group to move to choose the other side.

    Oh, I knew that. It just sounded so peculiar.

  30. Ken Hanke

    In town I sit at the back of the theater where they have handicapped seating and I can stretch my legs out

    Some of the theaters here have handicapped spaces further down than the back,

    My legs can’t take being scrunched up for two hours

    I said something like that about my brain after sitting through Sex and the City 2.

  31. luluthebeast

    “I said something like that about my brain after sitting through Sex and the City 2.”

    I feel your pain.

    “Some of the theaters here have handicapped spaces further down than the back,”

    We enter through the rear up here, so it’s just easier.

  32. Ken Hanke

    I feel your pain.

    I feel somewhat bettter learning that Sex and the City 2 was far from the hit they anticipated.

    We enter through the rear up here, so it’s just easier

    That is perhaps more insight into the antics of America’s Dairyland than I’d anticipated…

  33. luluthebeast

    “That is perhaps more insight into the antics of America’s Dairyland than I’d anticipated…”

    Well, it does get boring on the farm sometimes….

  34. Ken Hanke

    I have thus far been able to avoid even the trailers

    In my case, resistance is futile. I will have to see it. I’m pretty sure this one’s my turn. I take a measure of solace in that we’ve programmed Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula for that week’s Thursday Horror Picture Show as a reaction.

  35. DrSerizawa

    When I was a kid stuffing redhots in my mouth and grooving to “The Mysterians” and the like I always sat in the very first row in the center if I could. If I couldn’t get the center I’d sit as close as I could but in the center. I agree with the idea that it really immersed me in the films.

    I used to seek out 70mm screens as much as possible, but alas, that format has entirely disappeared locally. With the great sound system at the Chinese Theater when I lived in Hollywood I could sit almost anywhere and get a great experience. Especially notable were “Raiders”, “Star Wars”, “American Pop”, “Alien” and “Excalibur”. Something about that format could make even a mediocre movie great fun. The sound was very large without have to be loud, if you take my meaning. Oh yeah, and my wife and I literally came out of our seats at the first lightning flash of “Popeye”. On the other hand even that format couldn’t save “The Avengers”. It was kind of nice being in an empty theater though.

    Today I sit about 1/3 back so I can see the entire screen. If the movie has just been released I usually sit on the left so I can make an easy escape from a crowded theater like I did from “House Arrest”. I don’t know what possessed me to see that. I’d given up drugs years before.

  36. luluthebeast

    The only movie I remember sitting front row center was for Bullitt. A bunch of us guys went and snuck in a bottle of bourbon in, so by the time the big chase came on we were pretty lit. It was a hoot watching the cars bounce over the hills that close and in that condition.

  37. Ken Hanke

    I used to seek out 70mm screens as much as possible, but alas, that format has entirely disappeared locally.

    I’m not even sure where the nearest one is these days. I can’t think when the last time was that I saw anything in 70mm, but I suspect it was at the long gone Palace in Tampa.

  38. Ken Hanke

    It was a hoot watching the cars bounce over the hills that close and in that condition.

    I should imagine the effect was not wholly dissimilar to watching a double feature of The Time Travelers and First Men in the Moon while coming down with the chicken pox and a rapidly escalating fever.

  39. Jonathan Barnard

    I like to be centered on the screen about one-third of the way back.

    When I was a kid, I liked to be in the very front row. (I guess I would have chosen the Rolls with a hood ornament.)The only exception was at the Thalia, a wonderful revival house with a new double feature every day. Like most theaters it mostly sloped down toward the screen, but for the seven or eight rows right in front of the screen it sloped up for some reason. Its floor was thus check shaped. That unnerved me, so I’d want to sit farther back there.

  40. Ken Hanke

    Like most theaters it mostly sloped down toward the screen, but for the seven or eight rows right in front of the screen it sloped up for some reason

    You know, as screwy as that sounds it would put you in a position where you wouldn’t be bending your head back to look up at the screen. Now, how hard it would be to get used to is another matter.

    The Thalia is one of the NYC rep/art house theaters I never made it to. Has it, too, passed into memory?

  41. Jonathan Barnard

    The Thalia isn’t a true revival house any more. It’s the secondary hall–Leonary Nimoy Thalia Hall–of the Symphony Space cultural center. The main space is in the old Symphony Theater. (Readings of short stories from Symphony Space are played on WCQS on the weekends.)But I think they do play revival art house films there on the weekends.

    The Tampa Theater looks amazing. Is it still used just for showing films? I love those gorgeous depression-era movie theaters. The UC in Berkeley was another impressive one. When I was there in the early eighties, it was used as a revival house. But I think earthquake-insurance requirements shut it down.

  42. Ken Hanke

    The Tampa Theater looks amazing. Is it still used just for showing films?

    No, it’s long been a mix of films and live acts. One of the drawbacks (which should soon go by the wayside in these digital days) is that it was sold on the condition that it would show 16mm film and not 35mm (in other words not competing with commercial theaters).

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.