Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - Asleep at the Reel
by Christopher Campbell
November 24, 2008
I used to think the worst moviegoing experiences were those in which the print or projector breaks mid-film and you're sent home with a readmit ticket and only a partial viewing. We've all experienced such snafus, more often perhaps in the age of non-professional projectionists, though modern practices have also allowed for quicker repairs. When I worked as a manager and projectionist, I had plenty of film snaps, tangles and power shortages, but I rarely had to cancel a show completely unless an outside technician or bulb replacement was needed. Usually the movie was back on screen in a matter of minutes.
I thought maybe the whole idea of film breaks and readmits would become a thing of the past once digital projectors were introduced. Maybe there'd be room for new glitches that come with the format, but there wouldn't be snaps. Or tangles. Or even scratches, for that matter. However, a recent mishap last week at a press and industry screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the Director's Guild of America theatre in Los Angeles is proving that digital projection is not exactly the fault-free savior of film exhibition that some have thought it to be. Barely 25 minutes into Button, the image froze and the film stopped playing. And after a few attempts to get the Oscar-contender running again, the audience was told that it would not continue, and they were dismissed, left to wonder what else to do with the remaining hours they'd set aside for the screening. And when they'd find time to try and see it all over again.
That experience must have been terrible, but at least there was something to blame. And while the time lost may be translated into financial setbacks for some of the viewers, there was no direct money lost or wasted by the audience. This is why the actual worst moviegoing experiences are those in which you fall asleep. Whether it's just a quick doze or a nap that lasts through the majority of the feature, any kind of shuteye is a frustration for the moviegoer. Unless you have cash to burn and don't really care about movies, falling asleep for even a few minutes is guaranteed to ruin your enjoyment of the film at hand.
The first disappointing snoozes for me came in film school, when I was still not accustomed to either watching foreign films in the early morning or watching silent films at all. I would doze off in anything from Greed to Nights of Cabiria. On a bad day, I couldn't even keep my eyes open for an engaging American talkie like Casablanca. At the time, though, it didn't seem too big a deal. Not until I began paying off the student loans and professionally leaning more towards film studies than film production did I realize how truly upsetting it was that I'd missed so much of so many great films (this was before DVDs came along).
My first immediate frustration came during a midnight screening of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I fell asleep around the midway point and was probably only out for two or three scenes, hardly enough to become lost in such a lengthy and straightforward story. Yet I awoke feeling groggy and annoyed at myself and then ended up taking the blame out on the rest of the film. To this day, I still haven't rewatched the first LOTR installment, instead continuing to dismiss it as something I'll always dislike. To be fair, I stayed awake entirely through the second and third films and wasn't quite into them, either. It's still initially my own fault for dozing off and thus being unable to fully appreciate the film.
Who likes to accept blame for anything entirely, though? Especially something that has us losing money and time, as well as the disadvantage of lacking a complete and objective experience of a movie. My favorite thing to blame is the heat inside the cinema. This is particularly useful this time of year, when I walk through NYC in below-freezing temperatures and then quickly transition to a warm, dark auditorium. The temperature change will almost always get me, and so I hope that even in the depths of winter that a theater will keep the A/C blowing. Unfortunately, they rarely do, and so I find myself snoozing at some point during a Carole Lombard double feature at Film Forum, as happened last week.
Though I've already got the heat and pitch-black auditorium to blame, I'll also go ahead and fault the contrast between the snappy, laugh-out-loud tone of My Man Godfrey and the slower, talkier, theatrical comedy of Twentieth Century, during which I decided to close my eyes, just for a moment, and listen to the dialogue at a point when not much was happening visually. I woke up minutes later wholly irate. Not just because I felt like I'd missed something important, but also because my contact lenses were so dry that one of them immediately popped out and I had to continue viewing the film with one eye shut.
There is no certain circumstance to these unwelcome and unexpected naps. I'll nod off in anything from an 8AM film festival screening to an afternoon showing of Transformers, during a silent film or an eardrum-bursting action movie, with film prints or digital projection (though not yet with 3-D). And each time there's really nobody or nothing else to blame but myself. Even if it's partly genetic (my mother can't stay awake during any movie) or more common in the winter, there's no blaming the film or the cinema, no getting a refund or unfairly giving a critique that the movie was too boring. There's only allowed the continued disappointment with my own attention level and drowsiness and the occasional questioning of my chosen profession and favored pastime. And sadly, this worst kind of moviegoing experience will continue to exist regardless of advances in projection technology or changes in format.
Sleeping photo courtesy of vsqz on Flickr.