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25th February 2015

You Can’t Handle the Truth – Laughter Etiquette

Please turn off your phone when you go to the movies. And if your sense of humour is still in the ‘haha fat man fall down’ stage, switch that off too

Every frequent cinemagoer will be aware of the dramatic effect which audience reactions can have on a particular cinematic experience. Whilst the sense of shared viewing can add an extra dimension to a film, your personal reaction is necessarily moulded by those of the people around you. Admittedly, certain extreme audience reactions can be hilarious, as anyone who went to see Magic Mike can vouch for, but there are times when sitting with a group of people who are particularly prone to fits of giggles can prevent you from taking a film at all seriously (I’m still angry with myself for laughing through 90 per cent of Her).

Whilst over-the-top audience laughter is ordinarily an irritating but largely harmless cinematic side-effect, there are some contexts in which it becomes not only a distracting reaction, but a disturbing one. This was particularly noticeable during my second viewing of the film Whiplash. One of its most memorable scenes is Andrew’s first rehearsal with the studio band, when we first get a sense of the extreme dynamic of his relationship with his mentor. It’s important that this scene has an initially comedic tone; having laughed at Fletcher’s clever one-liners (“That is not your boyfriend’s dick. Do not come early”), we feel even more uncomfortable when we realise just how far he’s prepared to go. However, countless slaps-in-the-face later, and the laughter produced by the audience at the cringe-worthily painful insult “worthless friendless faggot-lipped little piece of shit” is if anything even more uproarious. My response to this may be an overreaction, but sitting in a room full of people who seem to find a middle-aged man threatening to fuck a teenage boy like a pig to be the comedic event of the century is an unsettling experience.

This lack of empathy is, perhaps, indicative of a larger problem in cinema, as the majority of commercially successful films are very often so tailored to their target audience that they are made to fit uncompromisingly into a definite genre. It is unsurprising that this kind of lazy commercial filmmaking has produced a society of lazy and undiscerning viewers, who are unable to detect tonal changes or emotional nuance. Whilst it may seem an inane thing to moan about, people’s emotional reactions to art and their ability to empathise with fictional characters can say a lot about their interactions with others more generally. More challenging cinema for the mass market is to be encouraged if such widespread voyeuristic tendencies are to be prevented.

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