Mike Leigh, a smartphone, and mace


Yesterday afternoon in a Los Angeles screening room, less than a yard from me, a woman maced a man in the face for tapping her on the shoulder.

incident made the news because it happened during an AFI Fest screening
of Mike Leigh’s J.M.W. Turner biography “Mr. Turner.” Barely
15 minutes into the film, near the back rows of Hollywood’s TCL Chinese
Theater 1, a man demanded that a woman sitting in the row in front of
him turn off her smartphone. When she didn’t respond, he tapped her on
the shoulder. She shouted, “You hit me!” and rose to her feet.

The man said, “I tapped you!”
The woman turned her phone’s blaring bright screen toward the man and
others in his row, who were all shouting at her, “Sit down! Shut up!”

others joined the chorus. Since she was slowly panning the phone across
the row, she appeared to be filming her supposed assailant and his
possible accomplices. She shouted, “I’m calling the police! It’s a good
thing I carry mace!”

went into her bag and brought up a satchel or holster, unbuttoning a
flap over the spray nozzle. It was fairly dark in this back area of the
theater, but saw the details because I was sitting two seats to the
woman’s right.

friend Jennifer, who was sitting next to the woman, was trapped between
me and the madness. Slumped in her seat, she made a shield of the
jacket she’d been using as a shawl against the movie theater air
conditioning. She knew what was coming.

man shouted his incredulity that the woman would even mention mace,
then shrieked his disbelief when she maced him. He rushed out of the
auditorium, groaning in pain, promising to have her arrested. She sat
back down and quietly enjoyed the movie until security came to deliver
her to the police. I wiped some stray mace droplets (or whatever it was)
off my arm, surprised, in my ignorance, that it didn’t burn.

was also surprised when a screenshot another friend of mine texted to
me hours later showed that this minor incident had been reported in
Time, Variety and all over the Internet. But it makes sense: Our
commercial cinemas, overpriced and congested with thunderously hollow
blockbusters, are nevertheless among our last remaining quasi-public
sanctuaries. We still think of the movie theater, against all reason, as
a place to snatch a two hour vacation from the daily grind—even if the
film we’ve come to see only reflects the grind or depicts somebody
else’s hell; we still count on the auditorium as a safe vantage point.

have been in the position of that poor, maced man, fussing at obnoxious
patrons who would not shut up/sit down/stop texting. Only once did I
have doubts about my physical safety, when some knucklehead kept nudging
the back of my chair during a Bronx showing of “Menace II Society,”
circa 1993. Furious, I tried to keep a level voice when asking
Knucklehead to mind himself. When I turned around and saw that he had
eight friends with him, all of whom could have been extras in the more
violent scenes of “Menace,” and all of whom appeared delighted that a
clash was imminent, I remembered that this theater, the Whitestone, had
hosted its fair share of stabbings, shootings
and gang assaults. I told my brother—who was sitting beside me, and
whose temper could have overpowered reason and gotten us shot—that we
were moving a few rows ahead.

expect some trouble at theaters like the old Whitestone, venues
frequented by poor and working class minorities–places that Yelp! users
would call “urban” or “sketchy,” but probably not at a film festival.
This event happened at a venue that falls somewhere in the middle of the
respectability spectrum. Yes, this was a festival screening—a venue in
which we expect viewers to be somewhat sedate, and confine their
aggressions to post-screening asides or rude Q&A comments. But the
theater was on Hollywood Boulevard, an area as democratically populated
as Times Square or the Port Authority in Manhattan.

The real story here might be the patrons’ clashing perceptions of what constitutes “rude” and “polite.”

is an origin point for conflict that transcends race, class, and
geography. At the beginning of the year, we saw where moviegoers’
intransigence could lead when a retired police captain gunned down a
moviegoer who had been texting his three-year old daughter. Google “movie theater” and “violence” and you’ll pull up many more examples, some comical, others tragic.

woman at this screening seemed to think there was nothing wrong with
leaving her lighted phone on during a movie. The man who confronted her
felt otherwise. Things spiraled out of control from there. I’m sure that
the maced man thought he was being reasonable when he first shouted at
the woman, “Turn off your phone!” It’s likely that she believed that
when he touched her, she had been “hit”: some people draw a hard line at
touching when it comes to strangers. Maybe his tap felt like a jab to
her. In any case, neither was willing to back down. I suspect we’ll see
more such incidents in the future.



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