As I'm sure you can tell, I've watched a lot of movies. I'm nowhere near some people, because I work a ton, and try to read a lot as well. But I have probably seen more than most. In all that time, whenever I've gone to a theater, I've never walked out of a film. The closest I ever came was when I saw 10 Things I Hate About You. The mediocre Heath Ledger/Julia Stiles Shakespeare in high school flick. I had already seen something beforehand, and decided to hop into that theater for a double feature. (I'm a scofflaw, I know.) The first ten minutes of that film were so excruciating, that I almost left the theater. Instead, I stayed, and the movie got better. It's not a classic, but I didn't feel like I wasted my time. But I did almost leave.
So, instead of writing about something current, I thought I would spend some time writing about the times where I've been in a movie theater and seen people leave, never to return. I've written about this topic before (briefly), but I find it fascinating, so I thought I'd revisit it.
The very first time I experienced someone walking out of a film was during Katt Shea's Streets. The year was 1990. Probably January or February. Married... With Children was on Fox and to this 17 year old, Christina Applegate was the hottest woman on the planet. And she was starring in a film where she played a prostitute being stalked by a killer cop. There was no way I wasn't going to see that movie. I was also savvy enough to know that I had a mere one week window to see this film, because there was no way it was going to last longer than that in the theater. I feel that I saw it on a Wednesday or Thursday (probably Thursday). There were two people in the theater. Myself and an older gentleman (we'll say somewhere between 30 and 50) made the trek. The movie started, and pretty quickly you could tell that this wasn't your normal exploitation film. The movie had much more on its mind than simple exploitation. It was tragic, violent, and gripping. I was immediately able to shift gears as I was watching the film (something I'm still able to do today, thank goodness). That guy who was in the theater with me, though? Nope. After about an hour, he got up and left. I have the feeling he was hoping for something way more salacious than what he was given. I know that's what got me in the seat. But personally, while the movie may have it's flaws, I consider to be a true undiscovered classic.
Then there was the college experience. This one wasn't in a theater, it was in a classroom. In one of my film classes, the teacher was going to show us a movie called Sweet Movie. He prefaced it by saying that it was pretty extreme, and if anyone decided at any point that they wanted to leave, it wouldn't be held against them. People have asked me since why he was showing it to us. That explanation has been lost to the sands of time. All I know is that I wish I had left. I feel that about a half dozen students left at some point or another. I stuck it out. Sadly. It was, and still is, the most disturbing film I've ever seen. I do not recommend it. I don't recommend searching it out. I'm still gobsmacked by the fact that it's part of the Criterion Collection. I know there's worse movies out there, but I also make it a point to not experience them. I know better. I'm all for expanding my boundaries, as it were, but on my own terms. I even opted to revisit it at one point a few years ago, just to see if I was being a wuss (and be a glutton for punishment, apparently). I made it through the first 20 minutes, and then I tapped out. I blame no one for leaving that one.
Post-college Happiness happened. There was a group of us who went to see Todd Solondz' Happiness. I loved Welcome to the Dollhouse, his previous film, and this one was getting rave reviews. It's possibly the bleakest film ever made. None of us liked it. Obviously, it made an impact, but I still don't like the movie. And, apparently, neither did the audience. It wasn't just one or two people who left. It was a steady stream of people. It was like each successive person was going, "I just sat through that scene, so I should be good. Oh, crap! I'm out!" And it wasn't just any one scene that got people out of the theater, it was the movie itself. Again, those people were smarter than we were.
By far, the most dramatic exit came during City of God. This is an amazing film that follows a group of kids living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Some aspire to a better life, and some just aspire to live. It's legitimately a great film. In a movie filled with scenes that would bring lesser people to their knees, there is an astonishingly tense scene where a little kid (6 years old or so) is holding a gun, all ready to shoot. There was a guy in the theater who literally jumped out of his seat and ran out. My buddies and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and nodded in silent agreement. No judgment, dude. I get it.
How about The Aristocrats? It's a documentary about the filthiest joke ever. It's not a funny joke, but the idea is that comedians use its template to one up each other in debauchery. My buddy Kevin and I went to see it at the Cedar Lee Theatre on a Monday night, so there was a pretty decent crowd. Signs were posted throughout the entire theater telling patrons that The Aristocrats was Unrated, and no children under 17 were permitted. Also, the signs seemed to tell you what you were in for. Sometimes signs don't work. Within the first 10 minutes or so, there was a mass exodus of people. I feel that it was about twenty people or so who fully underestimated what they were in for, and made a mad dash for the exit. But after that initial rush, not a single person left after that. We were the ones who knew what we paid for.
One of the weirder walk-outs was during the film Compliance. This is a staggering piece that would seem fantastic if the reality it was based on wasn't so incredible. It's about a fast food worker who's sequestered from the other employees because a guy on the phone, identifying himself as a cop, says she's been stealing from the register. He has the manager search her, and more. It's shocking, depressing, and jaw-dropping. A few people left as the movie went on. But most interestingly was the couple in front of me. At a certain point in the movie, she got up, whispered something to her companion, and left. He stayed and she never came back. I had never seen anything like that before...
Until it happened to me. The movie was A Walk Among the Tombstones, the film adaptation of Lawrence Block's novel starring Liam Neeson. The subject matter is dark, the movie is grimy, and the buddy I went to the movie with was clearly getting uncomfortable as the movie was going on. And just as the movie was getting to its darkest point, he got up, said, "Sorry" and left. I didn't know what to do. Do I follow? Do I stay? Was he coming back? Was he really gone? I stayed. The movie, from that point on, got considerably less bleak, but he wasn't coming back. I didn't blame him for leaving, and he didn't blame me for staying. It was just one of those things.
People have their own thresholds for movies. I know people who've left a movie because they thought it was boring. I know others who've left because they thought the movie was bereft of any merit. I'm not really a fan of those excuses, but I understand them. I'd just prefer to see someone get so upset or pissed at the film that they have to leave. I want the movie to provoke them. That makes things fun. Out of the movies I've seen people walk out of, they're all challenging, but only two of them are ones I hated. But the others are what I would consider "good." As a spectator, I guess I just like seeing what's pushing people's buttons.