Gatekeepers and Godfathers: A Thought Piece on the Cinema Experience
It’s only the most famous film trilogy of all time, right? It’s only an opportunity that is too good to refuse, right? To see those films on the big screen in all their glory, and to engage in it with a room of fans, of newcomers, of cinema lovers to experience the craft of storytelling at its finest, that’s not too much to ask for… Why did it feel like it was? Well, let’s see if I can work it out for myself why recent trips have left me rattled.
Fifty years on and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather has lost none of its punch. I took the opportunity to catch the trilogy on the big screen over the last couple of weeks, having suffered the misfortune of being birthed sometime after the initial releases between 1972 and 1990. It’s been eleven years since I first watched them (Social Media has reminded me of the fact) and I can’t believe it is possible for something that is so infused in the film-lovers zeitgeist, still carries so much potency. I love these movies. It’s not even a cliché statement. One simply can’t deny how brilliant they are. With those screenings, that has never been truer. They were better than ever.
The Corleone’s world is as engaging as ever. The violence was shocking all the more so for its setting and environments, but it is utilized to the utmost, one never gets used to it in contrast to the dark gloomy rooms, bars, the romanticism of the Sicilian scenes. Humanity is infused within these characters, we’re no longer looking at good vs. evil, no more cut and dry of the stories of old, and in the era of New Hollywood it was no longer so simple. The mobsters have been given hearts and now we see them battle demons we can see in ourselves.
On the big screen, I could see Marlon Brando beyond the caricature (‘Look how they massacred my boy…’ although easy and fun to impersonate, is a beautiful performance), beyond the makeup and the performance just oozed with melancholy. Al Pacino, as my friend said, has a face that deserves to be admired on the big screen. That face, those eyes, ‘You broke my heart…’! It’s a quiet film, patient yet wildly eventful yet calculated in its revelations. It draws you in, and it’s impossible to look away.
The Godfather trilogy resonates in a way that transcends the genre it revitalized. The story is so much bitterer; devastating even. A family saga disguised as a Mafioso flick, a poignant character study, a fall from grace tragedy that can only be utterly heart-breaking. When that door shuts, when the autumn leaves blow across the desolate grounds of the Corleone estate, when the gun shot rings across the peaceful lake; all those moments are made for the Cinema. I got to see that, feel it, get totally lost in it all.
Or I should have. Though my memories are not wholly soured, it is perhaps some divine grace that the films are so utterly enthralling that I can relieve those moments on that big screen before me and to be entirely blinded by the obnoxious around me. To give credit where it is due, the first film really as not so much of a problem. But it was the screening of 1974's The Godfather Part Two that left a sour taste on the whole experience.
You see, the audience was terrible. Not all… but enough for me to be totally perplexed as to what exactly it was that was unfolding in front of me. I loved that people wanted to go. It is not my place to choose who can attend a screening with me, nor is it plausible to correct the worse but lesser-evil habits of recent cinema goers; noisy eating, plastic wrappers, obnoxious can-opening, stinky-ass food. But do people really think it’s okay to talk throughout? Do they think it’s okay to post their ‘experience’, for clout, on social media during the screening? Do they really need to look for the thing they dropped with the blinding phone torch, shooting light through seats and onto the screen? Can people not see themselves in any way; do they know how outrageous they are?
I decided to stand up for myself. I had booked this a month before, my seat was perfect. Slightly raised and directly in the centre, me and Pacino could lock eyes and I would feel like I telepathize my way into his heart. As any gal would. In front of me were a couple of drunkards. They had swapped seats multiple times, and would continue to throughout. Mildly vocal and disappearing for half hour intervals (sometimes together) and returning in worse states than when they left, they would loom at the end of my aisle in a confused state like the undead. Behind was a couple who felt it necessary to comment on every significant scene- like I said, it was The Godfather Part Two so there was a lot of those.
The couple beside me, on the other hand (who had picked the seats at random; I know this from conversation as they did not choose to sit in their assigned seats), were insufferable. Perhaps they had not received a memo that the film was over three hours long. One of them seemed to know the story; they would lean over and explain scenes to the other for long whispery periods of time. Rummaging noisily through their bags, repeatedly getting up for more food throughout the screening, opened-mouth chewing, feet up on furniture… and finally I had to say something when one got their phone out to post online.
Maybe I seemed insane. Miming a phone and making little to no sense. When it came to saying what I wanted to say, the time between that decision and the expression I received, my resolve was shake. I was trying to be quiet but also call them out. Maybe I should have said nothing; she finished taking a picture and posting before acknowledging me anyway. I told her to put her phone away that was all. It was distracting, rude to anyone in the vicinity and I thought it was disrespectful to the film… films don’t have feelings, but they have legacy. I mean, it is like me ripping out a couple of pages here and there of a book your reading because I’m not enjoying it, only to share those pages with random strangers… The analogy doesn’t really work, I know. Anyway, she was posted online before she bothered to notice me. And she simply looked at me like she could not have cared less once she did.
My heart raced in my chest, my hands trembled and it took me a long while before I could fully engage in the film again. They settled down a bit after that, but I felt no victory, in fact, I felt in the wrong. I've seen them so many times, I said to myself, I know these films word for word, focus on that and don't be so wrapped up in what everyone else is doing. I should have shut up. Let them be... They paid, as did I. Yet I don’t wholeheartedly believe that even as I write it. I paid. I wanted to see the film. And they were there, enjoying it like they were in their own home, like there were no others who had invested in an immersive experience. There was never an intention of telling cinema staff, I didn’t know how to broach the subject that the audience was rude and annoying. Besides, sometimes I got to pay attention to the film and I would fool myself into believing I was conjuring up problems. Ushers are no longer a presence in screens, they’re busy too and underpaid, and with the inflation of self-importance; it seems harder to scold bad behaviour.
I left that screening ashamed and embarrassed. They didn’t leave right away, I sat through the credits (I always do, someone has to do a lot of work on credits and it feel sonly right to acknowledge the names behind all the work) and they were there when it was all over. I avoided them, taking the long way out of my seat and felt like a total coward for it. On my way home, those feelings arose in me again; helplessness, rage, humiliation. I couldn’t have been wrong yet I felt like I could not have taken a bigger misstep. Even now, I can’t quite come to terms with the feeling. It was something in her expression. It was that she didn’t care. That acknowledgment, the all-consuming sense of self-absorption that we’re adopting; the phrase ‘That sounds like a you problem’ came to mind. A phrase I have heard a lot in the last couple of years. Is it?
Apparently my sanctification of cinema has harmed me. I am the unreasonable one. Maybe, I’m just becoming a purist. It’s no longer a light entertainment for me so I have become a Gatekeeper of something that is intended for everybody. Self-entitlement runs through all of our blood. I see it in every screening. But it manifests in degrees. I have it the moment I sit in that room, I expect to be allowed to enjoy the film uninterrupted by others – all the while aware of poor decorum that others would not have a second thought for. I need to relax more when it comes to this, I do, and it’s a miserable flaw. When an audience is fully engaged, when we are all enraptured with what we see, it’s an amazing experience, a united love of something that is overwhelming – a story that brings us all together, years after its birth. I felt that when I saw Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai last year. Where was that feeling in The Godfather? The cinema is an experience, right? Not an extension of your living room. This is a place where people go to be entertained, but a respect should reside within that space. Charlie Brooker wrote a funny, semi-tongue-in-cheek opinion piece for The Guardian about audience expectations in 2011 and Alice Saville went onto discuss a new wave of bad behaviours in Theatre-goers. I often recall both of these when I plan trips out to any seated venue; I like to think that he was wrong but if anything since then it has become more apparent. I think it has.
I know there are bigger problems in this world, the kind that fill me with melancholy for the future of this. It’s sad, this world. It can also be beautiful. I want to believe it can be. I want to believe humans can be beautiful too. But so often, I see no proof of that. Maybe that’s where that apathy has arisen, that self-indulgence at the expense of others. But the more selfish we become in such minute ways, speaks volumes for the bigger stuff. The little things say so much about a person; I felt surrounded by people who snap their fingers for the waitress. It felt like that. Then people’s actions feel superficial, especially in the bigger picture.
I know it’s just the cinema. Although it’s not an isolated even for me, it’s a little thing in the grander scheme of things. I know I am a Gatekeeper of sorts. If everyone who loved cinema got together to sanctify their love of it, there would be never be money to make the sporadic great films that come out. I want to share films, but I want respect too. It feels like I spend my whole life worrying if I am in the way or a nuisance to others, and perhaps if I adopted the mentality I am speaking out about today I would have a lot more peace of mind. But I can’t do that, it lacks authenticity. When I go to the cinema, I think there is a part of me with a lot of faith in humanity still; you can’t love stories and not feel that way to some extent; it’s a another person consciousness reaching out to you, healing some of that loneliness of being human if just for a time. So what a complex it is when it’s humans that robs us of that. So yeah, maybe I do need to Gatekeep a little. My head says to me heart, ‘It’s not personal… it’s strictly business.’ That’s how I’m gonna endure it, I guess.