This may not be a significant social comment—but I hear more and more shouting and clapping from movie audiences lately.
What possesses an audience to cheer the heedless screen?
Part of the answer is that we all have a deep need to respond to our own pleasure. The response, in fact, is much of the pleasure itself. We are pleased because we cheer as much as we cheer because we are pleased. It matters not in the movies that we are only cheering shadows on the wall and that their creators cannot hear us. Even the most devout atheist must breathe an occasional "Thank God!" to his Great Blank for the sake of his own soul.
And why do moviegoers call out to strangers in the dark?
Part of the answer is that highly infectious films create a community out of a crowd and give some of us a chance to overcome a little of our loneliness. Knock-about comedies most easily move us to commune with our anonymous neighbors, giving us the general laughter for common ground.
While watching the rollicking What's Up, Doc? last summer, many in the audience I joined couldn't contain themselves. An older man behind me, perhaps delighted at long last with a film he could easily understand, was constantly alerting the rest of us to the obvious. "Look out!" "He's picking up the wrong bag!" "She's in the wrong room!" He blurted out nearly every sight gag, apparently afraid the rest of us might miss them. After a few minutes most of the audience were enjoying him as much as the movie.
Younger members of the audience were celebrating their own communion and whispering the sources of the film to one another. "A Night at the Opera!" "Harold Lloyd!" "Mack Sennett!" "Caine Mutiny!" "What's Up, Doc? was like a doctoral dissertation, filled with film "quotations." They fairly cried out for audience identification, and much of the fun of the film for the young was in being "in" on its references to other movies.*
Audience response has its sinister side too. Movies celebrate whatever they show, and an audience is as easily moved to cheer evil as good. Few films can argue effectively against their own materials. (Try to imagine an anti-pornography film. Or even try to recall an effective anti-war or anti-crime film. All the moral censure may be in the film, but it is still bloodshed and boodle that is celebrated.) The only way a film can work a cinematically effective judgment upon evil is to make it dull, and that is too great a contradiction for most films to resolve.
The most chilling bravos and huzzahs I heard recently were during The Godfather. What was cheered? Just some scenes of criminal efficiency. Perhaps in a time when nothing seems to work, it is pleasing to see someone like the Godfather who gets things done! The threatening tag line of the film—"Make him an offer he cannot refuse"—sums up the orderly violence and lovable fascism of the mafioso. The audience seemed to see in The Godfather the efficient solution to all our problems from the Paris peace talks to the prices at the butchershop.
The Godfather was obviously a whopping commercial success and, in my view, also an estimable cinematic success—even if too long, to digressive, and to gory. Two of its most violent scenes wrested unstinted applause from the audience. The first scene begins the much interrupted main action of the story—the growth of the youngest son of the mafioso Godfather into his own Godfatherhood. The rite of passage starts with a suspenseful gangland slaying.
The audience wonders if the sensitive young son will follow in his father's footsteps and murder the "family" enemies. He has just assured his bride "I'm not like my family." But blood is thicker than water, and he finally blasts a cop and mobster point blank. As the victims slump bloodily into their spaghetti, the audience goes wild with relieved sighs, whistles, and applause. The son, after all, is a "good boy" and "honors his father."
In the second scene—one of the more brilliant parallel action editings in recent film history—the son completes his rite of passage. Again, blood is thicker than water, and the title Christian symbol is exploited for all it's worth and more. The son stands as a Godfather at a baptism, and the scenes in church are cross-cut with scenes of the streetslayings he has ordered for the very same time.
The irony of the parallelism, of course, is that both actions make him the Godfather—the rite of baptism and the murders which earn him and his "family" uncontested gangland leadership. As the child is exorcised with priestbreath and oiled for the christening, the rival gang members are set up for execution. As the young Godfather speaks the renunciation of "the devil and all his works and ways," his rivals are mowed down one by one. As the baptism and bloodshed end, there is no doubt who the new Godfather is in every sense of the term. The audience cheered almost everything but "Amen!"
I don't know how my reader feels, but when I'm in an audience which is cheering murder I find myself comforted by the nearest cheery red "Exit" sign. Something amoral seems to be loose in the theater and gripping the audience. Most film critics are rightly leary of making moral judgments of films according to their effects upon the audience, and a few idiot critics would rather make no moral judgments whatever. I, however, find film criticism which programmatically ignores the film experience of the audience a bit precious.
If I am right in saying most films cannot work an effective moral judgment upon what they show, then film critics have a special responsibility to try to do so in their reviews. And if audiences are making the effects of a film more audible these days, there is now more in the movies for making moral judgments than the material of the film alone. It is a significant social comment to note that The Godfather moved an audience to cheer murder, and a judgment of that amoral response is part of film criticism.
No one in the audience will thank them for it, but it may be time for film critics to start reviewing the audience too.
*The last sequence, in which the title is finally put into the very mouth of Bugs Bunny in an old cartoon, contains one of the most tumultous laughs in entertainment history. Barbra Streisand turns to an apologizing Ryan O'Neal and speaks the treacly tag line of Love Story, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." The film then stop-frames about ten seconds, probably because the editor couldn't guess the line was going to get such a long laugh and had to add time for it after the picture was released. Then O'Neal, also the lead in Love Story, turns to Streisand and tops the laugh with his next line, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." The laughter roared fully half a minute.