I once foolishly attempted to joke with a fellow critic who made a habit of keeping his bag on the seat next to him at film previews, removing it only when the lights went down. "I bet you're the sort of person who buys out the entire row when you go to the cinema," I said. "I don't go to the cinema," he sneered back. Had it been possible to bottle his facial expression, you could have splashed it on your chips.
That anecdote epitomises a (hopefully fading) streak of elitism that once prevailed among critics. It also allows me to come out looking rather good, like some champion of the common punter. Recently, however, I have started to feel a twinge of sympathy for my former colleague's snobbish point of view.
Not that I would ever swear off visiting public cinemas. But for a while now I have found myself tensing slightly in the foyer, knowing full well that, for reasons unconnected with whichever film I am seeing, it will be a miracle if I leave a few hours later having had a satisfying experience. More likely, I will have paid a tenner to listen to other people's conversations, phone calls and heckles. On the rare occasions that I actually voice my objections, I then spend my time alternating between feelings of unhealthy self-righteousness and vague fantasies that I'm about to be "shanked", as I believe the modern parlance has it.
I wasn't surprised to hear this month of a 16-year-old boy imprisoned for attacking (with bleach) a woman who had asked him to pipe down during a screening of the latest Harry Potter film. The shock is that hostility doesn't erupt more often. Anyone who frequents multiplexes will know them to be often lawless domains where you always take your viewing pleasure, and sometimes your personal safety, in your hands.
(That said, I've never actually experienced violence in the cinema. Outside is another matter. In 1988, I got a black eye on the steps of the Woodford ABC after seeing Beetlejuice. I'm not sure what lessons I can take away from that, aside from "Beware of men in pastel knitwear and tassled leather shoes". But I didn't need a punch in the face to know that. If David Cameron had been lobbying for votes back then, he could have extrapolated a helpful lesson about Broken Britain.)
Down at the saloon bar
Reports last week that cinema admissions in the UK and Ireland have hit a seven-year high are encouraging, particularly given the competition from piracy, DVDs and subscription channels. But there is a disparity between this news and the often frustrating experience of watching films in the company of other people.
Is the answer to avoid multiplexes? These are, for most people, the most convenient sites, and in the best cases provide the only opportunity for viewers outside major cities to see the occasional foreign-language title or Bollywood spectacular.
One of the obvious problems is that not everyone has come to see the film; and if an audience is comprised of those who want to watch the movie and others for whom the on-screen action is a tiresome impediment to socialising, there's no compromise to be reached. Cinemas also make fairly cheap and convenient pit-stops at which children too old for actual crèches and too young yet to be sent up chimneys can be deposited while their parents or guardians get on with, I don't know, futures trading.
Not that I'm dissing the kids -- how could I, when I'm so down with their lingo? On the contrary, my own experience is empirical evidence to show that disrupting a movie is an equal-opportunities pursuit. Besides, the clientele is irrelevant. It's up to the cinema management to ensure that customers can watch the films in peace. After all, no restaurant in the land would tolerate patrons picking at fellow diners' plates.
The sorry truth for anyone who cares is that cinemas often don't (care, that is). The problem may be a cultural one rooted in the elision between public and private space. The absurdity of the extravagantly loud public phone conversation has already been milked dry by second-rate stand-up comics. (It's the new equivalent of: "Does anyone remember space hoppers/Spangles/Jamie and the Magic Torch?")
Suffice it to say that the same widespread erosion of discretion that allows people to make phone calls on crowded trains, broadcasting details of their recent test results, is also responsible for bringing to many cinemas the atmosphere of the saloon bar.
My local Cineworld already operates a zero-tolerance policy on food purchased off-site. However, an adjacent donut emporium makes it well worth investing in a Carb Coat -- that is, a deep-pocketed mackintosh that you don't mind getting smeared with maple frosting, or leaking jam.
Customers bringing their own grub, and bypassing the concessions counter, are a big concern because their habits eat into profits. Antisocial or inconsiderate behaviour that eats into our viewing pleasure is less problematic to the cinema chains . . . unless those of us who care make a point of going elsewhere.
Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.