This week Amy Nicholson posted an essay titled “Stop Laughing At Old Movies, You $@%&ing Hipsters,” followed by a response / continuation from Sam Adams, titled “When You Laugh at Old Movies the Joke Is on You.” Both writers take a similar stance, criticizing individuals who watch old films and laugh at moments never intended as comedy (rear projection, artificial set pieces, etc).
I too have seen plenty of this behaviour, yet I fail to see it as problematic, nor do I feel the need to exert my own “superiority” (to employ a word they both use) over these types of viewers. Having spent much of my adult life reading about film, writing about film, and watching anything I have access to, I think it is safe to say I am a proud cinephile. And so are Nicholson and Adams; this is evident in their writing. Yet for some reason they felt entitled enough to publish essays detailing how a casual viewer may or may not connect with an older film. So what if someone laughs during a Mario Bava screening, or a Hitchcock one? Who are they to pass judgement on how another person engages with cinema?
Are these individuals breaking any rules? Did they have their cell phones out? Are they sneaking into the theatre? I’m guessing not. And I imagine both Nicholson and Adams are also proponents of keeping film alive and well, where they hope cinemas will live long and prosper. I know I am; I will die a slow death when I can no longer view a film in a public space. And to be fair, I loathe inconsiderate viewers who talk loudly throughout films – but I would never sit on a high horse and berate someone for laughing at a film, no matter how much I disagreed. They paid the ticket price, they have every right to express themselves as they see fit.
Sharing a space with strangers is half of what going to the cinema is about. You can learn a lot about people at the movies. And guess what? Not everyone knows how to take film seriously, or understands the value in being cognitively assertive when it comes to enjoying a movie – nor is it necessarily an easy transition even if they wanted to. It takes years of hard work and a lot of patience to fully appreciate how most art functions, especially film. In fact, it can be intimidating to engage with film history for these very reasons.
Plus, humans are creatures of habit. When you are used to seeing things a certain way (photorealist CGI is an example brought up in the articles), it is hard to change your perception, especially when you are unaware you even have a pre-established viewpoint. Nicholson and Adams are both well-established film-enthusiasts who have learned to alter their perceptions, so when they call out others it comes from a place of arrogance.
And they should be held accountable for taking an elitist stance on how films ought to be enjoyed, or at least how someone should behave in a cinema. Nicholson states: “His stubborn laughter was an advertisement for his own superiority, like it’s heroic to refuse to be “suckered” by a fake rock that’s obviously fake. But there’s nothing triumphant about being too cool to dream.” And Adams remarks: “The ironic thing about this behavior is it demonstrates exactly the opposite of what it’s mean to. Laughing at the silly effects or the stylized dialogue in an old movie doesn’t prove that you’re better than it. It demonstrates that you lack the imaginative capacity to project yourself backwards in time, to appreciate the rhythms and storytelling styles of an era that is not your own.”
In Nicholson’s case, she appears to have desired a somewhat high-culture experience, and thus felt disgusted when someone failed to adhere to this same belief; hence her mentioning of the ticket price and the talented opera singers, and her demeaning description of the man’s preference for candy and Hawaiian shirts—because, as we’ve been told, he is a hipster. Or in other words, he was not cultured enough to be in the audience. Of course we know how cultured she is because of her literary allusion and her reference to opera at the end of the piece.
Both Nicholson and Adams are being defensive because they see this behaviour as an attack on the way they engage with films, film history, and culture in general. And I understand that. You want certain works of art to stay in the public consciousness, and you want to be recognized for having a developed taste. I too would love to see more appreciation for older films. But calling out individuals for acting superior towards a piece of art is the exact reason why everyday viewers rally against critics and difficult / old films in the first place. And this sort of ivory-tower mentality plagues both academic film studies and film criticism in general.
Take the article by Matt Zoller Seitz that Adams references. In it, Seitz uses an example of a university professor (in 1988) being upset over his students laughing at Singin in the Rain. Is this not understandable? I’ve also taught Singin in the Rain, and to reference what Adams says, I’ve also taught Double Indemnity; and in both cases, I received similar negative opinions. But these were mostly from students who had little exposure to older films. They barely knew anything about Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese, let alone have an appreciation for film noir or non-Disney musicals. And when I talk to those same students who have now graduated from film studies, their tastes have changed.
Nicholson and Adams wrote mis-guided essays that target the very individuals who will probably never read their work. So what was the point? To gain sympathy from like-minded people? To be mean-spirited and exact some revenge? Draw your own conclusion.
– Griffin Bell