The three or four loud sneezes that erupted behind us during the 20 minutes of previews were a warning shot that all would not turn out alright for us during this screening of “Rocketman” in midtown Manhattan.
But the sneezing would not reoccur, in part because the offender would evidently fall asleep before the movie even began. Unfortunately sleeping would be the only thing this man did that would not be offensive to the rest of us in the movie theater, in ever escalating fashion.
The first thing to go wrong was the sound of an alarm that added itself to the sound mix early on in the movie, during the second song, a tender ballad no less. It was an odd old fashioned alarm sound, an electronic arpeggio that made me think of pagers or pioneering digital watches. Too modern though for the 1960/1970s era soundtrack we were trying to attend to on the screen. It took us half a minute or so to realize those repeated electronic arpeggios were not part of the movie. They must be someone’s odd ring tone, but no one was reaching into their pockets or purse to hastily silence the offending instrument.
The source of the sound was in the middle seat of the row directly behind me, yet separated by a horizontal aisle creating about 14 feet space between me and the big and tall, middle aged, thin haired white guy with his chin on his chest and his eyes closed.
I turned my head away from the screen I would have preferred to keep my rapt attention on, and searched for the source of the odd alarm. And saw that several heads of patrons in the rows raked up behind the horizontal aisle were looking about for the source of the irritant too. Once pinpointed, someone quietly whispered to the source to turn off the alarm but there was no response. I finally said, loud enough to be heard by those close enough to the droopy headed guy: “He’s asleep. Wake him.” I turned back to the screen, already perturbed by how much I had missed looking away and how much the alarm sound was messing with the movie. Behind me I heard someone determinedly waking up the keeper of the alarm. That eventually did the trick. It still took alarmingly long for consciousness and recognition and grumbling to segue into rustling in some bag or pocket to find and turn off the electronically arpeggioing device, but it finally was done.
Now we’d be OK, right? Far from it.
The alarm went off at least once more. It was turned off, again after a lengthy delay.
Then, not that much longer into the movie, we were shown the first gay sex scene, understated by art film standards, not too shabby by mall movie measures.
I heard a snickering guffaw behind me. An odd mix of delighted and derisive.
Was this coming from the alarm guy? I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed likely.
As the love scene continued there would some more snickers and grunts, which sounded just a little too declamatory to be the innocent reflexive responses of an engaged movie goer, but I wasn’t sure. Yet from past experience I know how “mainstream male” audience members can overreact to (for them) unexpected homophile screen content. One man declared “Oh shit” and walked out 30 minutes into Cloud Atlas when Ben Wishaw was seen naked in bed with James D’Arcy. And when Ed and I saw Braveheart, the guy sitting behind us chose to impress his date by repeatedly calling the mincing English prince and his lover “faggots” when they appeared on screen. Ed and I finally turned around to tell him to shut up and after a volley of “motherfuckers” and “asshole” and a threat to take it outside the guy finally did shut up (and snuck away quickly during the credits rather than meet us later outside). But the derisive cheering from too many in the audience as the villainous king chucks the prince’s lover outside a castle window to his death put the coup de grace on Ed’s and my enjoyment of that particular movie and its (at generous best) awkward depiction of homosexual characters.
But the ugly Braveheart experience was 1995, 24 years ago. Surely such a thing wouldn’t happen anymore, in Manhattan, in 2019? Yes, the Cloud Atlas incident was only 7 years ago, but that guy merely walked out, he didn’t create a scene and verbally abuse the other patrons. And this is Rocketman, for heaven’s sake; surely homophobes would know better than go see a musical of Elton John’s life if that sort of thing was going to bring out the bigot in them?
But that question is too rational, too reasonable, for what would soon ensue.
Around two thirds into the movie, two characters duet “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. Evidently this song is a personal favorite of our least favorite audience member, because he started singing the chorus. He wasn’t singing along with the movie, no, he was singing the chorus while one of the characters on screen was singing a verse. After two lines he stopped. But when the other character sang another verse, he started up again on the chorus. Matching the movie in volume if not melody.
I turned around and hissed “Be quiet!”
“Fuck you!” was his emphatic response.
At which point Ed had had enough and got up from his middle seat, walked over to the aisle in his socks (yes, Ed is one of those people who take their shoes off in theaters; sorry, but at least his feet don’t smell, they just hurt) and out of the theater to get official assistance.
That was the mature thing to do. I had thoughts of jumping over the back of my seat to lunge at the guy. Or at least toss my glass soda bottle his way.
“Yea, you go help your boyfriend”, the man hurled our way, only strengthening Ed’s resolve.
At this point I could barely take in what was happening on screen anymore, and what Ed was missing while he was out for several minutes finding a theater employee to deal with the situation, my brain was seething so much.
Ed came back with one attendant. But on the way he’d already told him, “You are probably going to need more people for that guy”.
He was right.
Ed pointed out the offending gentleman to the attendant and came back to sit next to me. The wide horizontal aisle gave the attendant easy access to the man while he lowered his head to him to quietly inform him there were complaints that he was talking and that he would be asked to leave if he didn’t stop.
“Don’t come to me. Talk to those two Marys over there. They are the ones talking.”
Marys? How old fashioned. I’ve been called names many a time over the past half century, but in all those years Mary had not been thrown my way in all seriousness.
The attendant continued to quietly talk to the guy, who loudly countered.
“I was just laughing. I should be able to do that in a movie. It’s the fags over there who talked. Make them leave.”
Fags. Ah, there it is.
By the “two Marys” Ed was already thinking “That’s it. He’s done. This guy is outa here.”
The “fags” heightened the already charged atmosphere in the theater. Restless movements and sounds of irritation rippled across the aisles.
I turned back to the attendant and said “That guy has been abusive from the start.”
The attendant gave one final unheeded warning and then, as Ed had predicted, walked out for reinforcements.
Four attendants returned and this time asked the man to leave. He refused. They told him they would call the police. He told them they should call the police on those two Marys over there. They did the talking. He was only laughing.
He had paid for his ticket. He had a right to see the movie. He paid for his ticket! Make the Marys leave!
The audience got more than restless. People started shouting “Get Out”. While the man remained unmoved and only declared his position with greater vehemence.
This while the two leads on screen were having a major (musical) argument. But that pivotal moment sadly got mostly lost on all of us in the theater.
Half the audience started yelling “Get out! Leave, asshole! Get the fuck out already!” in a series of volleys that finally pushed him up from his chair to be escorted out of the screening room by the four attendants, to cheers and shouts and applause. A lusty “Get out, asshole” escaped my hoarse throat too.
Then somebody called out “thank you” to Ed, to the appreciative assents of other patrons.
A guy next to me said “and just at the start of Pride month too…”
The palpable relief of the crowd got mixed with the realization that there were maybe only ten minutes left of the movie.
I felt like crying. I had been looking forward to seeing Rocketman for months, it was my most anticipated movie of the summer, and now I couldn’t even tell you how much I liked it. The experience was ruined for me. I think I like the movie. And maybe I’d have loved it, but I frankly can’t say, so much did my engagement with the film get interrupted, distorted, and maligned by the noxious actions of the belligerent homophobe.
He was probably drunk. Certainly the sleeping and slowness of response to the alarm ringing would indicate as much. And perhaps also explain why he would choose to engage in behavior practically designed to cause offense. And then double down.
And also there’s the insistence that he didn’t do anything wrong. He wasn’t singing inappropriately, he wasn’t being disruptive, no, he was just laughing, laughing is Ok at the movies, right? No it’s the ones who complained who were talking, never mind that those Marys, those fags, only talked to shush him up. No it’s them that offended, not him, he’s the victim here, they are the offenders, lock them up!
Practically Trumpian in Every Way.
A microcosm of the Ways of the Orange Menace and his acolytes’ sense of entitlement to be offensive, their quick hyper-defensive posture when called out, and their rewriting of history and the facts to cast themselves as the victims of those they victimize.
I am reminded of another similar movie theater fracas, one that occurred the Thursday after the 2016 election before the start of a sold out screening of the sci-fi drama Arrival in an Upper West Side theater. Another perhaps not coincidentally big and tall white guy was sitting in a seat another patron said was his assigned seat. This was in the early days of movie theaters introducing reserved seating. The patron asked the guy to see his ticket to compare seat assignments. The guy gruffly told him to go sit somewhere else.
Rather than sit in a less desirable seat in the already mostly full theater, and thus boot some other later arriving patron from their reserved seat, the patron left and returned with an attendant.
This attendant also asked the guy in the seat to show his ticket so he could verify his location. But the guy again brusquely refused, saying something about having paid for his ticket, but also refusing to show his ticket to prove his seat assignment.
He kept harping on having paid for his seat. And that he would not show his ticket. All in a gruff and intimidating manner. Keeping his imposing physical self aggressively planted as if to say, try and move me, I dare you.
When the guy finally put his implicit threat of violence into words, offering to fight it out with the physically much smaller patron and attendant, another guy across the aisle got up and told him he could fight it out with him if he liked. At which point the whole theater erupted, with hundreds of people shouting at the guy to show his ticket, get up from the seat, get up asshole, fuck you asshole…
The guy never did produce a ticket, but the cascade of shouting moved him out of the seat and up the aisle and out of the theater. To applause.
It felt like all of liberal Upper West Side rising up to resist the bullying and toxic entitlement manifesting itself around Trump and only just affirmed by a most undemocratic election.
We were in shock, we were on edge, and we definitely were not going to take it. Not in our back yard.
Perhaps one can take issue with me drawing connections from two asshole movie patrons to the MAGA crowd, but that is were my mind went then and again last night.
My mind also remembered the overt homophobia of the Braveheart experience. I really didn’t expect to go through anything like that again, nowadays. It really hurt. But the difference is back then in 1995 Ed and I couldn’t be sure that the rest of the patrons would take our side against the homophobic heckler. The laughing response to the gay murder on screen surely made us feel alone in a hostile environment.
This time, last night, there was no doubt who was alone in that theater. After the movie was over, while an attendant gave everybody free movie coupons for another showing at the theater chain to compensate for what happened, people patted Ed’s shoulder, and thanked him for getting help, and laughingly relived the crazy experience we’d had. People were in good spirits, but I still felt like crying.
Ten minutes later, as we took the escalator down into the Penn Station subway two long avenue blocks from the theater, we heard two young women on the stairs parallel to us excitedly regaling each other about a guy being really rude and some other guy going to get the theater attendants, and… Ed turned to them as our escalator passed the girls and smiled, spreading his arms: “That was me”. And they laughed “Oh my god, you’re the guy! You’re the hero!”
Postscript – 6/9/19
Today we used our free passes to see “Rocketman” again. And cried for much better reasons.
To quote the movie’s own coda: it was “properly loved.”