On July 20th in Aurora Colorado a Joker-like madman opened fire with automatic weapons in the crowded Century 16 Theater. Pandemonium broke out among viewers who’d eagerly come to a midnight screening of the ultraviolent new movie The Dark Knight Rises.
In the aftermath of yet still another fully-renewed and fully-expected national debate over gun control, another odd question was fearfully whispered: how could there be a breach in one of the last perceived safe-houses – a movie theater? – followed by the perhaps an even scarier question: “why doesn’t it happen more frequently?” Despite the return of big box office for Dark Knight and all summer movies, there will forevermore be a lasting sense of violation. It wasn’t supposed to happen there.
And yet from the birth of moving pictures until now, bizarre, quirkily comic, and even violent happenings have taken place inside of movie houses – with many unexpected, unusual audience responses.
What is it about being in a dark room with other people that makes people do such crazy things? We bring you… “Wild in the Seats.”
For decades psychologists have had great fun analyzing whether violent video games and movies might be responsible for triggering real-life actions. Few would argue however that the line between the screen and the real world keeps getting thinner every day.
* In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger after a World War II-era induction center rejects him as 4F, the patriotic if scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) consoles himself by going to the movies. While watching newsreels of the Allies battling the Axis powers, another man in the audience impatiently yells at the screen, demanding that the main attraction start immediately. Steve tells him to show respect and be quiet. A war of words erupts and the two take it outside to punch it out in the theater’s alley.
* Buster Keaton plays a projectionist who enters the movie he is showing in a theater and becomes part of the onscreen action in the 1924 silent classic Sherlock, Jr.
* In Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Jeff Daniels portrays an actor who [spoiler alert!]walks off of the silver screen, into the aisles and into reality.
The above examples are of action that occurs in the plots of movies. However, as far back as Aristotle in his Poetics the ancient Greeks noted that stage drama has had a cathartic effect in real life, among the spectators. But motion pictures – with their heightened realism and larger-than-life moving images projected in the dark (during something akin to a dreamlike state) have powerfully intensified that cathartic experience beyond that of stage performances.
Trains and Horses and Guns, Oh My!
The earliest films proved to literally be a “training” ground for audiences unfamiliar with the new medium of expression. The Lumiere brothers were French motion picture pioneers. The actualities they filmed then screened in public are credited with being the first documentaries, and could even be considered filmic forebears of Reality TV. These cinematic snippets, which captured scenes of everyday life with movie cameras, caused sensations among early audiences who didn’t know how to react to this unprecedented art form.
In January 1896, when the Lumieres’ 50-second short called The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station was screened, terrified ticket buyers reportedly screamed and fled!
Unaccustomed to the illusion of movement of large realistic graphics viewers reportedly believed that an actual locomotive – which the Lumieres had shot approaching their stationary camera at an actual train station – had somehow entered the venue where they were seated and, as the train got closer and closer, was going to run them over! Audiences were bedazzled and deeply affected by the large, unfrozen photos flowing in such rapid succession that the pictures appeared to be moving. (This event was reenacted in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated ode to silent cinema, Hugo.)
Another film featuring a railroad also jolted audiences. According to Ephraim Katz in The Film Encyclopedia, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery “remains one of the most important milestones in screen history… advancing the cause of the story-film dramatically,”
Arthur Knight notes in The Liveliest Art that a major contribution of this prototype which set the template for Westerns is its use of “parallel editing” – alternate cutting between scenes depicting simultaneous action. But another filmic flourish stirred spectators – a huge close-up of one of the cowboys firing his pistol directly at the camera. “The resulting excitement is great,” Knight writes of the shocking in-your-face shot.
In a 1957 filmed interview, Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d acted in the one reel film and became the first cowboy star, described audience reactions to test screenings in Manhattan: “The audience started to get boisterous – and yell and shout ‘Catch ’em! Catch ’em!'” And at another theater: “They sat there, stupefied. They didn’t yell, but they were mystified at it. I said to myself then – that’s it. It’s going to be the picture business for me.”
Slicing Eyeballs + Bishop Skeletons + Sucking Toes = Riots in the Seats!
The Paris premiere of director Luis Bunuel and melting-clock painter Salvador Dali’s notorious Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) was attended by Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Le Corbusier.
Un Chien Andalou literally had an “eye opening” beginning – as a razor-wielding barber (Bunuel) slices a woman’s eyeball in an extreme close-up.
[A recent homage was done by the band Garbage in their video for Blood for Poppies: Watch the Video.]
Bunuel wrote about the debut: “I was a nervous wreck. In fact, I hid behind the screen. I’d put some stones in my pocket to throw at the audience in case of disaster. I expected the worst.
After the film ended I listened to the prolonged applause and dropped my projectiles discreetly, one by one, on the floor behind the screen.”
Well the riot that failed to materialize then exploded a year later with the release of Bunuel and Dali’s next motion picture provocation – L’Age D’Or (The Golden Age).
When bishops turn into skeletons, and a young woman sexually sucks a statue’s toes you’re going to invite outrage, and that’s just what happened. According to Bunuel, after the opening “The Camelots du Roi and the Jeunesses Patriotiques and the right-wing press… attacked the theater in full battle dress, lacerating the paintings at the surrealist exhibit in the foyer and smashing the chairs.”
In The Bunuel Riots blogger Pete Thomas details the violent reaction: Ink, rotten eggs, stink and smoke bombs were hurled at the screen. Audience members were clubbed. Rioters fired guns into the air. Anti-Semitic slogans were shouted; paintings by Dalí, Ernst, Joan Miró and Man Ray were slashed.
Within a week the theater was closed, L’Age D’or was censored, and remained censored for fifty years. The Total Film movie guide calls L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou “a couple of Surrealist Molotov cocktails, hurled in the face of authority.” The critics surely had their day.
Film-Makers & Their Audiences: Punching Out Their Creative Differences
1968: The French, who co-invented movies, take cinema so seriously that when a general strike swept the country, filmmakers acted in solidarity with the workers and students fighting in the streets, and shut down the Cannes Film Festival.
In Cannes 1968: Fighting on the Beaches, Richard T. Kelly recounts: “The attempts to close the festival were not without comedy. There was a priceless moment… [where]the public was vocally demanding the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappé despite the fact that Saura had withdrawn the film from competition.
There’s not a single film that shows the problems that workers and students are going through. Not one. Whether made by Forman, by me, by Polanski or Francois. We’ve missed the boat! It’s not a matter of continuing or not continuing to watch films. It’s a matter of cinema showing solidarity with the student movement and the only practical way of doing this is to stop all the projections immediately. — Director Jean-Luc Godard
“The lights came down and the protestors onstage took the only action available to them. Assisted by the film’s director and his leading lady, they hung onto the curtains obscuring the screen, keeping them firmly closed so that the film could not be seen properly by the spectators.
Godard was slapped in the face and lost his glasses, and Truffaut was thrown to the floor by an angry audience member.
Godard: “One Plus One” = Round 2
Later that year contentiousness roiled the release of Godard’s Marxist-propaganda documentary featuring the Rolling Stones, the Black Panthers, and a comic bookstore. See, Godard wanted to call it One Plus One, but producer Iain Quarrier insisted that it should be titled Sympathy For the Devil. Then each proceeded to cut the film their own way.
The creative differences erupted during the 1968 premiere at the London Film Festival when Godard discovered Quarrier’s version was to be screened. Godard announced he would be boycotting the screening, demanded that the audience should do the same, and instead, should send money directly to [Black Panther] Eldridge Cleaver’s defense fund. He further announced that he would be showing his cut of the film outside the cinema, but when a vote was taken among the Festival audience, the majority chose to watch Quarrier’s version.
Godard first turned on the audience: “You’re fascists!” Then he attacked Quarrier, punching him in the face and stomach, until finally he was forcibly ejected from the theater. Mick Jagger said he never saw the film and had this to say: I don’t think Godard understands anything about black people. He’s such a fucking twat.”
Get Off My Turf and Out of My Aisle!
Movie historian Brian Camp pointed out that when Walter Hill’s The Warriors – a 1979 flick about gang warfare in New York – was released it triggered rumbles between rival gangs watching the movie in the same theater, in particular at L.A.
Meanwhile, the 1975 Chicago-based picture, Cooley High starring Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Garrett Morris, included a similar scene, depicting brawlers inside of a theater who are seen in silhouette before the screen, which they are then thrown through.
Shootings and numerous acts of violence in theater, ticket lines and cinema parking lots also happened during the first few weeks surrounding the releases of the gang-related films Colors, New Jack City and Boyz in the Hood.
“Electrifying” Audiences. And Making Them Sick.
When your cinematic plot and actors just aren’t enough to get a reaction from your audience the next best thing is to attack their senses in their reality. For decades film producers have tried various gimmicks to get people into (but sometimes out of) their seats.
The 1960 film Scent of Mystery by Hans Laube made use of Smell-O-Vision in which – upon visual movie cues – 30 various odors were injected into the movie theater including fragrance of wine barrel, freshly-baked bread, perfume, skunk and pipe-smoke. Audiences hated it, the gimmick was a failure and was never used again.
Producer/director William Castle was arguably the king of blurring fantasy and reality in movie theaters with his low budget B-pictures. Castle had a P.T. Barnum-like flair for showmanship, often luring crowds with outrageous audience participation-type gimmicks.
In 1961’s Mr. Sardonicus the title character’s face is frozen into a grotesque expression. At the end theatergoers can vote in a purported “Punishment Poll” whether or not to cure him.
In 1959’s The Tingler starring Vincent Price, Castle literally wired theater seats with “Percepto,” an electrical vibrating thingamajig that simulated fearfulness, which could only be overcome via….screaming.
For 1958’s Macabre, Castle gave $1,000 life insurance policies to fans afraid the flick might scare them to death, and posted phony nurses in theater lobbies.
Sometimes, however, real nurses have been needed at screenings. Over the years, extreme queasiness and even fainting have been induced by movies such as the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, the 1986 sci fi pic Aliens, and 2009’s creepy supernatural picture Paranormal Activity. The trailer features audience reaction to the movie:
For recent nausea-inducing cinema the self-amputation scene in 127 Hours about a desperate rock climber whose arm is pinned underneath a boulder, may be the hands-down winner. At a screening of Danny Boyle’s 2010 fact-based film one theater-goer fainted on the restroom floor, and was treated by paramedics who had been called when yet another moviegoer suffered an apparent seizure.
Sex in the Seats (Ewwww…)
When it comes to getting “wild in the seats,” one has to at least make a passing reference to sex. From the 1950s drive-ins to the matinees of today teenagers have long used darkened movie theater to explore their sexuality – everything from mild petting to going “around the world in 80 days.”
“Adult” movie theater have always done boffo box office by being able to sell sexual fantasy to the patrons in the seats. Men and women (but mostly men) are susceptible to lifelike sexual imagery coming at them at 24 frames per second, lending an almost hyper-virtual reality to their usual hum-drum missionary-position reality. And many have taken matters into their own hand when it comes to fantasy-fulfillment.
Two celebrities famously caught with their pants down were actor/comedian/wankers Pee-wee Herman Reubens and Fred Willard, which begs the question – do you run an additional risk of getting caught masturbating in a public place, or getting an indecency charge if your name actually sounds like a phallic symbol? [cue Andy Dick/Anthony Weiner joke here] But with the advent of videotape and now the internet, darkened movie-house porn business has gone a bit limp, while the thrust of the debate seems to be “Doesn’t Fred Willard own a computer?”
The Catharsis: Full Circle
On April 14, 1865, Pres. Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater by actor John Wilkes Booth, a scene Griffith vividly portrayed in The Birth of a Nation.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 espionage thriller Saboteur there is an ambiguous shooting scene that takes place in a movie theater. Tellingly, the spectators are confused as to whether or not the shots are fired in Reel Life by onscreen characters or in Real Life in the cinema.
And now, 70 years after the release of Saboteur, the Aurora shootings continue to confuse and blur the movie-experience reality with the tragic and human one.
In a strange coda to the already-tragic story, the trailer for Dark Knight that fateful day was Gangster Squad – which included a violent scene of mobsters with Tommy-guns mowing down an audience at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Due to the fallout from the Colorado massacre the producers are scrapping that sequence. Re-shoots are set for August 20th in Chinatown, and the film’s release has been delayed until January 11, 2013.