Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Lend me your ears

There has been idea bouncing around in my head for months, and I think I am finally going to let it out.

I have gone back and forth with myself as to whether this is a good idea or a bad idea, and I know in my heart of hearts which it is. But I am going to share it with you, since it gets to the heart of the film viewing experience.

This is the idea. What if, when you entered a cinema, you were handed a set of headphones, similar to what happens when you take your seat on an airliner for a long-haul flight? No, I’m not suggesting that we have “movie attendants” that bring us food and drinks, as flight attendants do on an airplane. Practically speaking, you would get the phones when you get your ticket. And, of course, you would be required to return them upon leaving the cinema. The problem with this, of course, is that it would probably add to the cost of movie tickets. There would be the cost of the headphones for the cinema to absorb, as well as wiring phono plugs in all the seats, not to mention the ongoing replacement costs. And additional staff might well be required to handle the passing out of equipment and monitoring its return. These are all cumulative expenses that would certainly be passed on to moviegoers in ticket and/or concession prices.

The beauty of this system, on the other hand, is that people would have the option of bringing their own (high-quality) headphones, instead of using the (probably low to mid-quality) equipment provided by the cinema. People who are really into sound quality could bring their Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones, which I shamelessly plugged in this space nearly six months ago (and for which I have yet to receive any payola from the Bose Corporation, darn it), and enjoy the film in auditory splendor. A side benefit to using headphones, and in particular the Bose ones, is that ambient noise would be drastically cut back, if not entirely eliminated. There would be fewer things to distract your from the movie.

This idea first occurred to me one evening while watching a film at the Omniplex Cinema in Galway. The movie was lightly attended, but inevitably a pair of people managed to find their seats directly behind me and proceed to catch up after the apparently long period of time since they had last seen each other. This has often happened before. Sometimes it is a couple on a first date, with the young man trying to impress the young woman by making smart comments about everything that happens on screen. Other times it is a group of smart alecks who think they are much smarter than the movie (and they frequently are right) and insist on verbally pointing out every inconsistency, unlikelihood and absurdity.

Nothing, however, comes close to the egregious behavior displayed when my Scottish brother-in-law-by-marriage and I attended a long-awaited screening of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King at the Mayo Movie World in Castlebar last December. This is a true story. Just as the lights dimmed and the movie began, a mobile telephone rang directly behind me. I was annoyed but figured that the owner would simply turn it off. But, no, he answered it! And began having a conversation! As the music on the soundtrack swelled and grew louder, the idiot behind me talked louder and louder. Finally, he was screaming at the top of his lungs, “I can’t hear you!! This movie is too loud!!” By now, other patrons were actively calling for him to turn the thing off. And, in tolerant-of-any-kind-of-inconsiderate-behavior-reather-than-look-like-a-stick-in-the-mud Ireland, that speaks volumes. In my fantasy world, I had of course long since turned around and throttled the offender. But the less said about my fantasy world the better.

So, for a while anyway, I was finding the idea of everyone sitting in the cinema with headphones over their ears rather appealing. People might be more focused on the movie, and everyone could hear the film at the volume they prefer. What could be wrong with that?

The idea re-occurred a while ago when I saw my first movie (House of Flying Daggers) in the luxurious seventh auditorium of Galway’s new Eye Cinema. That auditorium, appropriately dubbed the Magnificent 7, is like nothing so much as the first class section of an airliner. It has relatively few seats, but they are great seats. They are large and comfortable and separated by a good space from the next seat. The projection and sound are state of the art. And, as in first class air travel, you pay a premium to sit there. The effect of the cost differential, as far as I can see, is that the audience is largely or entirely self-selected film buffs. People, who have a choice between paying two prices for the same movie and willingly choose the higher price because it will be a better viewing experience, are by definition serious filmgoers. They are more respectful of the movie and their fellow viewers. Based on my admittedly limited experience, you do not hear mobile phones ringing in the Magnificent 7.

And, while I am it, allow me to continue singing the praises of the Eye Cinema. (Maybe the people at Bose didn’t cough up for unsolicited positive p.r., but maybe someone at the Eye will notice this and send me a few free passes or something.) In addition to the Magnificent 7, auditorium 3 is devoted to “art house” films, which generally means non-English-language or other non-mainstream films. Attached to auditorium 3 is an espresso bar, a wonderful alternative to the standard over-priced soft drinks and popcorn that comprise the bulk of offerings in most cinemas. Other niceties include underground parking that allows one to avoid the usual dash in a rain shower from car to cinema entrance. And the building design is quite cool. The interiors and the uniforms of the staff suggest nothing so much as the set of a Star Trek movie. Most impressive is the huge window (about two stories high) in the lobby, which itself is one story above the ground. The window looks out on an inlet of Galway Bay. I am curious to know if there is any other cinema in the world that actually boasts a lovely sea view. Now, if they could just do something about the Galway traffic.

But enough about the Eye. So, what about this idea of issuing headphones to cinema patrons? I think you’ve probably already guessed the conclusion I inevitably reached. Sitting in an audience is, after all, part of the cinematic experience. For every instance of rude behavior that impinges on our enjoyment of a movie, there are a certain number of instances in which our enjoyment is enhanced by sharing a knowing look, spurred by something onscreen, with a companion or even a stranger. Or the feeling of community in joining in a group cheer or in a group groan. Let’s face it. If we wall ourselves off from others by placing speakers over our ears, why not simply stay at home and avoid the riffraff entirely? After all, the television screens and home sound systems are getting bigger and better all the time. And those Bose headphones will work just at well at home as in a theoretical wired cinema. And at home, if you are using a DVD or PVR, you can even pause and rewind. Why go out at all?

The answer, of course, is that film is art and art can be enjoyed solitarily or as a group. Both experiences are different. But few of us would choose one to the complete exclusion of the other. Besides, not all of us are lucky enough to have homes with lovely sea views.

-S.L., 28 July 2005


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