I’ve never considered myself an across-the-board apologist for the French, but there’s a lot to be said for an entire population that never, under any circumstances, talks during the picture. I’ve sat through Saturday-night slasher movies with audiences of teenagers and even then nobody has said a word. I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed silence in an American theater. It’s easy to believe that our audiences spend the day saying nothing, actually saving their voices for the moment the picture begins. At an average New York screening I once tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me, interrupting his spot review to ask if he planned on talking through the entire movie.
“Well … yeah. What about it?” He said this with no trace of shame or apology. It was as if I’d asked if he planned to circulate his blood or draw air into his lungs. “Gee, why wouldn’t I?” I moved away from the critic and found myself sitting beside a clairvoyant who loudly predicted the fates of the various characters seen moving their lips up on the screen. Next came an elderly couple constantly convinced they were missing something. A stranger would knock on the door, and they’d ask, “Who’s he?” I wanted to assure them that all their questions would be answered in due time, but I don’t believe in talking during movies, so I moved again, hoping I might be lucky enough to find a seat between two people who had either fallen asleep or died.
At a theater in Chicago I once sat beside a man who watched the movie while listening to a Cubs game on his transistor radio. When the usher was called, the sports fan announced that this was a free country and that he wanted to listen to the goddamn game. “Is there a law against doing both things at once?” he asked. “Is there a law? Show me the law, and I’ll turn off my radio.”