Much that is wrong with the movies can be blamed on what I call the terrain—the cashier in her glass house, the difficulty of reaching one’s seat, the location of the men’s room, the poor quality of the candy—if something isn’t done about removing such obstacles between you and the movie, television is going to be brought back.
The management gives you no satisfaction all along the line. You are made to look like a fool before you’re even inside. I don’t think you are supposed to know what time the feature goes on; they make it so hard. The cashier, who doubles in Information, never hears your question because she is cut off from the world on all sides by glass, and either you are forced into sign language or that right-angled stance that goes with talking up through the ticket slot. Meanwhile the attendant is prodding you—“Move along; have your money ready,” and blotting out whatever the cashier feels up to telling you. This, however, is preferable to asking the attendant himself, because he knows you are going to wait a long time, and, insufferable character, he enjoys this. The theatres are showing so many movies, featurettes and trumpet players these days that it’s impossible for anyone to know what is on at a particular hour—I hope you are not foolish enough to believe the newspapers. The ticket-taker has recently become another obstacle. He no longer holds out his hand for your ticket, making your passes at him seem forward.
Who builds movie theatres? If you seek the men’s room you vanish practically away from this world, always in a downward direction. It is conceivable that the men’s room is on its way out. At the theatre called the Rialto in New York the men’s room is so far down it somehow connects with the subway: I heard a little boy, who came dashing up to his father, say, “Daddy! I saw the subway!” The father went down to see for himself. Another place that lets patrons slip through its fingers is the theatre in Greenwich Village where the men’s room is outside altogether.
Then, in the gold-leafed Carlsbad Caverns type of theatre there are the stairways, sweeping up and around and down and under, and since there are no signs telling you where to go I advise you not to stir a step until you can get hold of the manager. Something should be mentioned about managers, but aside from the one who said he personally would get me a seat in the center and sent me three separate times to the left wall, I am willing not to say it. Speaking of the left wall: do they think you can see from it? You find yourself looking so far to the side you are apt to be watching your neighbor instead of the picture, and is he a sight.
What is wrong with the candy? It comes in little boxes for five cents, and there are five kinds of it. They are all the same—gum drops; this includes the caramels. I have never seen these pebblelike candies sold anywhere except in movie theatres, where there is nothing to talk back to but the machine. The distinguishing feature of these candies is that they neither chew up nor melt away but remain in your mouth long after their function is over.
It used to be, but is now no longer, a courtesy to stand up when a person wanted to get to his seat. I don’t know how else you are expected to get in. The average hurdle course of spectators’ knees is well nigh impregnable. “Lady, I can’t get by, you don’t give me enough room,” is usually answered by sottovoce imprecations out of which one phrase, something like “You’re pinching my flesh, damn you,” is audible. And so you go, pinching, shoving, stumbling or actually falling, as the case may be. The unsportsmanlike attitude of everyone concerned in this is absolute. You must take care not to curse back, because they will pass the word along the line to stiffen up. I have found out that if the first person arises, all accordingly rise—otherwise, they all stay put. Therefore I suggest that before you enter the row you say politely, “Pardon me?” and wait—on no account go forward before the first person has had time to show his colors.
If it is winter, everybody is holding his overcoat, which warns you that soon you will be getting out of your own. If you try to do this quietly and with no hysteria, you soon find yourself in danger of strangulation, and in the end you will have to stand up anyway, having cut off the circulation and nearly throttled yourself. (Note: It is impossible to get out of your coat while you are sitting on it.)
There is an increasing tendency among women to keep their hats on, armrest hogs have become more vicious and the people who plant their knees against the back of your chair to make it rock are riding you for a fall.
It sometimes seems to me that movie-goers do not understand very well, and have, at the same time, a brotherly urge to help one another out by explaining what is happening on the screen. With those of you who do not understand I would like to have a word. The person in front of you is practically a nervous wreck now from having gone through the movie terrain. Every word you speak, no matter how small, how friendly, how inconsequential and of interest to no one but yourself, may be just the thing to make that person crack. So I will repeat what I have often said in the past: “Quiet, please! Shhh!”
June 7, 1943
From Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito (The Library of America). Used with permission of the publisher.