Tuesday, April 28, 1998

The Beacon Of Shame

My friend Leigh, who lives in Manhattan, went to see a movie the other night. I wasn't surprised to hear that the movie ("Sour Grapes," from Seinfeld co-creator Larry David) was terrible. I was surprised to hear about the new reserved-seat system they've started using in that theater and some others.

Here's what she had to go through. After coughing up the $8.50 (eight fifty???) for the ticket, she then had to choose where she wanted to sit. The woman behind the bulletproof glass -- who I'm sure insists she's not the Cashier, but rather the Admittance Coordinator -- showed Leigh a seating chart and made her pick a spot. Naturally, she chose a good seat in the middle of the theater. Just as naturally, so did everyone else.

Now, this movie ain't exactly drawing Titanic audiences. So, here you have about three dozen people all scrunched together in a few rows in the center of a mostly-empty theater. They're all in their assigned seats, having been shown where to sit by an usher who no doubt doubles as the kid who replaces the urinal cakes in the men's room. What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong is that someone ruined a system that worked just fine and needed no improvement. Everyone understood the concept of showing up, paying for your ticket, and then finding a seat on your own; one which fit your own personal seat preferences. You wanted to make sure that you weren't sitting directly next to the guy who was gonna hog the armrest. You didn't want to be behind the woman from the B-52s with the beehive hairdo. You didn't want to be next to the family that brought their soon-to-be-screaming infant to an R-rated Bruce Willis explosion-fest. You may or may not have wanted to sit next to the gaggle of tattooed, nose-ringed, teen arcade chicks.

You wanna sit where you wanna sit, dammit. If you come early, you get the prime seats. If you come late, and the theater's full, you do the "Is that seat taken?" shuffle. And if you find yourself too close to someone, or if the floor at that spot is covered by too much cine-muck, or if you just want to have a place to put your coat down, you can get up and move.

Not anymore. With these reserved seats, once you pick your spot, that's where you have to sit, like it or not. Never mind the 200 empty seats around you. Just sit there, and don't dare eat that popcorn you brought from home.

There is one part of the new system that I find heartening, though, and that's the return of the Usher. If only it was accompanied by the return of The Beacon Of Shame.

There was a time when movie theaters actually employed people to keep order in their theaters. If you were talking too loudly during the movie, or making out with your intern in the balcony, or -- god forbid -- putting your feet up on the chair in front of you, the Usher would appear from nowhere and point a flashlight at you. Mind you, this wasn't just any flashlight. It had approximately the same candlepower as the Bat Signal. When the Usher lit you up, you were bathed in the Beacon Of Shame. Nothing more needed to be said. You were shamed into stopping whatever illicit activity you were involved in. You also missed the next 10 minutes of the movie because you were blinder than Mr. Magoo (which actually would have been helpful if you had found yourself in a theater showing the big screen version of Mr. Magoo, starring Leslie Nielsen...what were they thinking?).

Of course, wielding the Beacon Of Shame is a little more difficult these days. There's more than a small chance that after the Usher whips out the Beacon Of Shame, the offending 70mm-filmgoer is going to whip out a 9mm-usher-stopper. And soon thereafter, that sleeping infant in the reserved seat in front of you is awakened by the sound of gunplay, and then your whole moviegoing experience is ruined.

If only you could have chosen your own seat.