Is it ever right to clap in the cinema? Yes, sometimes it is

It used to seem pointless and self-congratulatory - but in the right circumstances, applause can signify solidarity, celebration and joy.

I was fortunate enough to be in Los Angeles recently when the marvellous Beverly Cinema marked the recent death of Karen Black with a screening of a 35mm print of Robert Altman’s Nashville. This is many people’s favourite film among Altman’s work. It’s the point at which he found a storytelling canvas (the screenplay is by Joan Tewkesbury) every bit as multi-layered, ambitious and sophisticated as the techniques he had been pioneering up to that point. You’ll know the sort of thing: multiple actors yapping and improvising away, their overlapping lines picked up by radio-mike technology, while the cameras zoom in and out surreptitiously on actors who could never be entirely sure when, or even if, they were in shot. Personally, I always cite McCabe and Mrs Miller, the woozy western he made four years earlier, as not only my favourite Altman but my most cherished film of all time. Nashville, though, is indisputably a towering piece of work equal to his other greats—The Long GoodbyeThieves Like UsKansas City and Gosford Park.

Robert Altman is also the name I come up with whenever I’m asked who my favourite director is. So it was quite something to sit in the half-full New Beverly last week and hear the audience applauding his on-screen credit at the start of the film. Greeting the names on screen with applause is not something typically seen or heard in a UK cinema, apart from during the end credits at, say, a festival screening where the filmmakers themselves are in attendance. A few of the cast members (including the late Black) received that treatment at the New Beverly, but it was the response to Altman that I found most heartening, possibly because I have worried in the years since his final movie, A Prairie Home Companion, that his work and reputation are slipping from view.

Applause in a cinema is a curious thing anyway. In a theatre it makes perfect sense: the objects of our acclaim are right there to receive it. But living or dead, no one involved in a movie will know they are being applauded if they’re not in the building. In a fundamental way, this is consistent with cinema itself, which is nothing more complicated than the play of light on the wall and sound in our ears, synchronised artificially to create the illusion of life. To adapt the old philosophical saw: if a cinema audience applauds, and none of the cast and crew is around to hear it, what’s the bloody point?

My first memory of applause breaking out in a cinema was during a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981: I was ten years old, and I recall feeling both perplexed (why was everyone clapping?) but also invigorated, since the response was one of unadulterated and appreciative glee. (Indiana Jones had just dispatched the fancy-pants swordsman with one lethargic gun-shot: the applause was in recognition of a joke so good that laughter alone would not suffice.) I don’t recall hearing it again much in subsequent years; sometimes I even feel embarrassed when a smattering of applause breaks out at some splashy West End preview screening where the audience seems to be clapping themselves for having seen the film first. An exception was the 2003 London Film Festival screening of Dogville, where the crowd’s cheers and catcalls and clapping during the final violent stretch of that movie reflected favourably on the complex levels of provocation which Lars von Trier had packed into his minimalist satirical thriller.

In the case of the response to Altman’s name, it seemed a simple act of celebration and remembrance. Under the right circumstances applause in the cinema engenders a kind of solidarity among the audience members; we (yes, I joined in) were proclaiming that Altman’s worth and significance endures. I suppose a cynic might read something self-congratulatory into the reaction, as though we were applauding ourselves for our excellent taste. I don’t see it that way. It was dignified and respectful. Not to mention unique to cinema. I love on-demand viewing as much as the next binge-watcher but the only noise typically heard at the end of a movie seen at home is the resigned phut of the laptop snapping shut.

The sound of many hands clapping. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State