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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era