There’s a moment in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room when it becomes incandescently clear what kind of movie you’re watching. (I won’t give it away, but it involves Anton Yelchin sticking his arm through a doorway; if you’ve seen Green Room, that’s already enough to make you shudder.) Although it evolves into an intense siege thriller, Green Room is surprisingly slow-burning at first, enough that if you’re lucky enough to go in, as I did, knowing almost nothing about it, you might mistake it for a slice-of-life indie about the mundane travails of life on the road as an idealistic hardcore band. But when that moment hits, it’s like every synapse in your brain firing at once. I went into the movie’s midnight screening at Toronto on the verge of falling asleep, but 45 minutes in, I was wide awake.
Green Room is a movie about the conflict between punk rockers and neo-Nazis, but it’s also about their shared drive for intense feeling, the deep-seated anger and the hunger for community that drives punks into the mosh pit and leads disaffected white men to embrace a racist subculture and the sense of in-bred superiority that comes with it. They’re at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but as the Saulnier’s script points out, political extremes tend to bend back towards each other: When the Ain’t Rights, the movie’s down-on-their-luck band, is forced to book a last-minute gig at the neo-Nazis’ compound, they’re warned that their prospective audience is “right-wing… or technically ultra-left.” By way of laying down a firm boundary between themselves and the boots-and-braces crowd Ain’t Rights open their set with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” but their “earlier, angrier” stuff still strikes a chord: Later, as he’s holding them hostage, one of the neo-Nazis asks the terrified band members the name of one of their songs.
The feeling of thereness is what drew many of us to punk shows in the first place — or, really, to any kind of music loud and/or fast enough to temporarily obliterate anything but the part of your self that is listening and reacting in that moment. But now, as Green Room‘s Anton Yelchin put it in an interview with me, “We live in a culture where it’s all about posting that moment, so you let other people know that you are doing this thing, It’s like if there’s not some cheap photo posted of the moment, it didn’t happen.” At a concert last week, I watched as a man posed for a photo in the middle of a band’s set, inadvertently commemorating the instant he turned his back on the music he’d come to see.
That sense of overwhelming involvement is part of what I value in movies as well, or at least the good ones. Critics need to retain enough self-awareness to take notes, or at least to start reckoning with a movie while you’re in the process of watching it, but if you’re properly suited for the vocation, that intellectual interplay deepens your engagement with the work rather than alienating you from it. It’s one of the reasons the common complaint that critics don’t know how to turn off their brain and just enjoy a movie is so misguided: Thinking about them is part of how I enjoy them.
And yet there’s always that temptation, lurking in my left front pocket: a 6 x 3 inch rectangle of glass and metal that with the touch of a finger can connect me with the to the most capacious source of information — and distraction — in human history. I’ve labored under the delusion that it’s possible to slip your phone out for a quick peek: just to check the time, maybe, or to see if any important emails have come in. But, at least for those, like me, of an easily distractible temperament, there’s no closing that door once it’s opened: Once I’ve checked my phone once, why not one more time? The movie becomes just another screen competing for attention: a focus, rather than the focus.
What I do with my phone is under my control, or at least subject to my own woefully fluctuating willpower. But the temperament of a movie screening is a matter of common consent: Each has its own rules, theoretically set by the theater — although most multiplexes and even many arthouses opt to govern through neglect — but enforced by the audience itself. Laughter can spread through a room, transforming a screening of a beloved classic into an opportunity to chuckle at outdated mores and styles; sobs can be contagious, too, although crying at the movies doesn’t have the same performative aspect. Being part of a well-tuned audience is one of moviegoing’s great pleasures; that feeling of experiencing shock or amazement or joy in perfect sync with a room full of strangers is rare, but it’s a high worth chasing.
It’s also impossible to achieve if you’re texting your pals about where to meet for dinner later, or even if someone five rows ahead of you is doing it. A single glowing rectangle can shift the tenor of an entire room. Maybe it’s not realistic to expect hundreds of people to keep their phones in their pockets or purses for a two-hour stretch, but the brazenness with which some people whip them out, holding them up to their faces at full brightness rather than dimming the screen or keeping the device in their lap, suggests an aggressive disregard for the people around them. (You can tell because if you ask them to stop, they’re angry rather than apologetic.) Even accepting the premise that some people can’t possibly make it two whole hours without using their phones — and consider for a moment how deeply sad that is — there’s no reason they can’t minimize the disruption to their neighbors, which if you have an iPhone is as simple as triple-pressing the home button .
As thinkpiece after thinkpiece informs us, the ship has sailed: Mobile devices are an inextricable and permanent part of people’s lives, and those lives don’t stop when they enter a movie theater. Cinephiles may see theaters as a holy temple, but given that people are no longer shy about using their phones in actual church, that metaphor doesn’t carry much weight. So rather than invoking a social contract that’s constantly being rewritten, let’s appeal to a baser instinct: the fear of missing out. Your notifications will still be there when the lights come up, but odds are good you won’t see that movie again, and even if you do, you only get one chance to see it for the first time.