I recently saw the movie American Hustle. I had hopes the movie would be good, but it defied my high expectations and ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year. It’s almost distracting how good the acting is from everyone, especially Christian Bale who deserves any and every award for his role (and ability to gain 50 pounds). There are a lot of moving parts to the movie and a lot to keep up with which made me realize that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I didn’t see it in the theater.
When you watch a movie in the theater, as opposed to your living room, you have only one choice: to watch the movie (I’ll get to the exceptions). When I watch a movie or TV show at home, there is always the urge to pull out a second device, whether computer or iPhone, and do something that feels “productive” while engaged in the “non-productive” task of watching the TV. When I give in to this temptation, I’m productive at simultaneously decreasing my enjoyment of two things at once.
Microsoft have commercials running that tout the ability to multitask on their tablet. The problem I have with this is that multitasking doesn’t exist. People can only focus on one thing at a time. You don’t multitask on a tablet (or anything else), you switch your focus between two things very quickly.
So when you watch something on a screen also with a computer, phone, or book in hand, you’re generally getting a worse experience from both. There is a lot to keep track of in the con-movie American Hustle, which is why it would be difficult to enjoy the movie while dealing with distractions. You miss a hundred little subtle things that make movies great.
But what if theaters are more distracting than my home?
I was in Vegas a few months ago, to meet up with friends and then attend a conference for work. In between the two, I had a few days where I was in sin city completely by myself. Like any male, I decided to quietly to go to a “show” that I didn’t tell many people about since I figured most people would find it slightly odd–odd because I was going alone and it wasn’t the type of show many people I know would normally attend. We live in a society where it feels strange to be alone. When alone, one often clings to their device of choice to starve off any feelings of isolation. I didn’t care about the feelings of isolation because this was perhaps my only chance to see these people perform on stage. The show I’m talking about is a performance by the Kronos Quartet, the reason I have an unnatural interest in classical music.
I went to see the Kronos Quartet perform Lux Aeterna. Every other piece they performed was just icing on the classical cake. Seeing them perform the piece live was amazing and worth the ticket alone. But during one of the other pieces they were performing, I was unfortunately reminded how interesting some people are. The piece they were performing was one of the quieter pieces of the entire night. During the piece, someone decided they had to have a piece of candy. I’m certain it was an older person because old people don’t carry around Skittles, they carry individually wrapped candies, which this was. While being transported to another place from the beautiful classical piece, I was brought back down to earth thanks to the slow unraveling of a piece of candy. The person tried to muffle the noise by unwrapping it slowly, but that just prolonged the distraction.
People also ruin movies at the theater, as most people are aware. Last night I saw Wolf of Wall Street, which was pretty good but far too long. During the start of the movie, two women a couple seats down from us were gabbing their heads off. I gave a Seinfeld-esque half turn glare, which did nothing since they were living in their own world. My only options were: 1. Ignore them and hope they stop. 2. Throw popcorn at them (just a few kernels). 3. Direct a stern shush in their direction. Option 3 is the most satisfying one, but I couldn’t do it. My quick unscientific calculation told me that there is a 50% chance they’d realize they were being annoying and stop, but also a 50% chance the talking would increase and turn its focus on how rude it was for me to shush them. This is similar to when I honk at someone who is in the wrong and they flick me off.
Women wreck movies by talking to each other while men wreck movies by their own efforts. I’m not sure which is worse. When I saw Talladega Nights, there was a man two seats down from me jabbering on his cell phone for 80% of the movie. To quote the Seinfeld episode where Jerry has to deal with a talker at the movie theater, “I gave the guy the half-turn. Then I gave him the full turn with the eye roll. I mean, beyond that, I’m risking a punch in the mouth.” I would rather since next to a 180 pound pile of manure than someone talking on a cell phone.
Last summer I saw the movie The Spectacular Now. An older gentleman by himself, which is fine, was sitting next to me. About 45 minutes into the movie, I hear the growing sounds of an old man on a Saturday afternoon snoring. Immediately after I notice the man next to me is sawing logs, about 10 people turn to stare in wonderment and annoyance. I’m the only person next to him so now I feel deputized to do something about his obnoxious snoring. After about 20 seconds, which felt like an eternity, I slightly nudged his knee, waking him from his slumber. We repeated this knee-nudging dance three more times during the course of the movie.
All of that is to say that theaters can be more distracting, but under ideal conditions a movie is always better in the theater, if only for the fact that you’re setting yourself up in an ideal environment to only focus on what is in front of you. To fully understand the power of focus, try the experiment below.