The screen goes to black. The music swells. The closing credits begin appearing. The houselights begin to warm. And then, all of a sudden, a strange noise begins emitting from the back of the house. The sound of two hands coming together. That’s right. Despite the fact that no one who deserves it can actually hear them, some misguided fool is audibly applauding a film.
The purpose of applause is three-fold. We applaud at the beginning of a performance or lecture in order to welcome the person on stage. We applaud someone to show appreciation for a particular performance – someone has worked hard to keep us entertained and interested for the evening and for that we give him or her our audible approval. We also applaud someone to let him or her know that we approve of the content of the speech or the performance, like at a political rally.
Based on the situations in which we clap, hoot, holler, whistle or do the Arsenio Hall fist roll and woof like a dog, it can be argued that applause is an interactive endeavor. The person on stage or at the podium has put something out into the liminal space between the performance space and the chairs set up in front of said space. We respond to it. Think of performance and applause like a game of catch – Johnny Cash or Glenn Beck or the Royal Shakespeare Company throws something at us. We receive it and then we throw something back. But, just like a game of catch, when we throw the ball, someone has to be at the other end to grab it out of the air. Otherwise, you’re just denting your garage door.
Which leads me to ask: Why would anyone clap in a movie theater? If you’re at the Cannes Film Festival or Sundance or at the red carpet premiere of the film, where the director and the actors and the screenwriter and the people who composed the score might be present, it would be more than understandable to clap at the end of the film – it would actually be encouraged in that situation, because you would be voicing your approval directly to the artists to worked so hard to produce the movie you just watched.
But if you’re at the dollar theater in a small town in Middle America on a Saturday afternoon, who are you applauding when the credits begin rolling? Are you applauding the projectionist, for making sure the transition from first reel to second reel went off without a hitch? Are applauding the Cinemark , for their clean theaters and their comfortable seating? Maybe you’re cheering on the homeless guy sleeping in the back row. You might be saying, “That is a textbook nap, with all the classic elements of snoring and drooling on yourself, Mr. Wino”.
The people you certainly aren’t applauding are anyone actually involved with the production of that film. Because here is a hint: That giant Robert De Niro on the screen in front of you? He can’t hear you. He’s not real. That’s trick photography. He’s not even anywhere near the movie theater. Amazing, right? What an age we live in.
For those of you still in doubt that your unheard applause is unfounded and annoying to your fellow cinephiles, try this litmus test. When you’re at home by yourself, watching reruns of Cheers, do you politely clap along with the studio audience? When you finish the final sentence of a good book and close it and set it on your nightstand, do start whistling wildly at the picture of the author on the back cover? When “Freebird” comes on the radio in your car, do you pull over and dig out a cigarette lighter and hold it aloft as Ronnie Van Zandt croons about how particular species of birds cannot be changed? No, you don’t. And if you do, you have a lot more problems than being annoying in a public place like a movie theater. You live in a world of delusions. You’re a modern day Don Quixote. You probably think your vote really counts on Election Day. You probably think exotic dancers really do enjoy your company.
Just like you are told to think before you speak, or to excuse yourself from the room before you break wind, try and consider your audience and where you are before you just start slamming your palms together all willy-nilly. You’d be surprised to learn that, just like all the other noises you emit, your applause is not always appreciated.