In seven words, that’s what my ideal experience in a movie theater is like. True, it’s also important that the movie I’m watching is good, and that the crowd I’m with is rapt and enjoying it, but those things aren’t under my control. What I can control is my own participation, the decision to actively watch the film rather than passively sit through it. The two primary tools for getting the most out of a movie, or anything else, are concentration and reflection. There are a million ways to do those two things, but I propose two very simple physical acts.
Is it really necessary to sit in the front row? Well, of course not; these are personal preferences I’m talking about here, and besides, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in the very front myself. I understand the physical difficulties people can have with being too close to the screen. I’m thinking of a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine find themselves in the front row at a theater: when the movie starts, they find that they have to look almost straight up, leaving Elaine with a sore neck. That show was all about affluent people’s obsession with petty nuisances; a transcendent experience of art is the last thing one would expect from these characters. Needless to say, I try not to draw too many life lessons from their behavior. Still, it’s a valid observation.
At the very least, what I’m talking about is sitting closer to the front than to the back. I read something online maybe nine or ten years ago — I’ll never remember the source — that perfectly encapsulates the reasoning behind sitting close to the screen. Going to the movies should be very different from watching something on a TV at home. The communal experience is a major part of that, but immersion is also important. At a theater, you’re looking at a much bigger screen than the average person can have at home, even as “home theater” systems seek to close that gap. But if you sit in the back, it’s not so different from watching TV. Why would we want to make the superior format feel more like the inferior one? When a movie fills your field of vision it’s much easier to “lose yourself” in it, forget the outside world and not get distracted. As David Bordwell puts it, in the front you are “snugly wrapped in the movie’s world.”
It’s all about enthusiasm. Now, I want to be clear that I’m not setting this up as a litmus test: movie buffs’ preferred seats can range all over the theater. People can choose seats for all sorts of reasons, but there’s still something potent about looking at it in terms of enthusiasm, with those up front eager to embrace the act of watching and those in back leaning away to look down on the silliness of it all. In college, I sat near the back of the classroom whenever I could; shyness made me less enthusiastic about participating in discussion. It also felt like the cool place to be, a place of detachment, a worry-free zone. Whether I have my priorities straight is a discussion for another time, but I’m not interested in being detached from a movie while I’m watching it. So I choose one of the first several rows in the theater when I have my druthers.
All right, the first part was mildly uncomfortable, but the second part is outrageous: I like to stay through the end credits, to the very last studio logo. And the presence of a post-credits stinger has nothing to do with it. Thanks mostly to Marvel’s “Avengers”-related movies, stingers have become ubiquitous, and I am thankful for them when I’m seeing a movie with my family, because otherwise the rest of the group takes the first credits as a cue to leave. However, the only way to make a stinger actually fun, as far as I can tell, is to make it a surprise, and the only way it’ll be a surprise is if I’m sticking around regardless. In any case, Matt Singer, writing for Indiewire, explained the increasing stupidity of the trend:
At a certain point, you realize these stingers are, by their very nature and location in the film, automatically meaningless. Since most people still leave the theater at the final fade to black, these stingers can’t really reveal anything truly important. If they had something vital to contribute to the narrative, they would have been included before the closing credits, where the rest of the crucial information goes.
The Avengers closed with what I would call an anti-stinger, making a fine joke about the whole concept. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have killed the trend. Again, though, it’s not really important to my point.
I have a few reasons for not wanting to leave when the theater starts emptying. Yes, I think it’s a valid way of paying one’s respects to the work of the hundreds of people required to make a movie. A very small percentage of the people responsible for any given movie are actually famous. What does it profit me to sit through the names of the stars, most of whom will already be familiar to me, and then leave? Over the past several years I’ve been learning the names of cinematographers, editors, and production designers, and learning about their filmographies. It’s all part of the effort to appreciate things beneath the superficial level. Admittedly, those three relatively central creative positions won’t take you much farther into the credits (often they’re announced at the beginning of the movie). There’s still that intimidating scroll. No, I don’t try to read every single name. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies don’t go that far (they just go far enough to make the experience feel incomplete if I leave while the movie’s still technically playing). Perhaps a symbolic gesture carries little weight. But it can be worth the small amount of effort.
My main reason for not keeping this to myself is that staying through the credits is an act of patience in an impatient culture. It offers a few minutes for reflection and quiet, and we could all use some more of that. My problem with the impatience that says “Let’s leave” as soon as the credits start is that the person is opposed to sitting for just five more minutes after we in the theater have sat for two hours already. Those five minutes aren’t intended to entertain us, so apparently they’re worthless. What’s most distasteful is that this decision treats the whole movie as disposable, like the soda and popcorn you brought in with you. Again, just like with the seating choice, people’s reasons aren’t necessarily that selfish — I don’t have anything against parents who want to get home to make sure the babysitter’s done a good job — but movies are not disposable, not even the bad ones. It’s so easy to have a quick, glib, snarky reaction to something that took months or years of concentrated effort and a vast amount of money and love (oh, and a vast number of people) to produce. It’s easy to be dismissive, but I think it leaves you empty. Thoughtfulness, appreciation, the willingness to step back and wait until a movie has really sunk in before giving an opinion — that’s harder. But there are rewards that extend far beyond simple entertainment.
You can sit in the back row and still adore the movie you’re seeing. You can leave when the closing credits start and still have in-depth conversations with fellow movie-lovers afterwards. You can do both these things and have a better understanding of movies than I do, but sitting up front and staying through the end is my way of saying, “I love this.”