In Defense of the Cheap Seats


It works like this. You tell the kid at the ticket counter you want to see J. Edgar at 7:30. He asks if you’d like regular or VIP seating. Prompted by your obscenity, in which he sees an implied request for clarification, the kid explains that for an extra couple bucks you get a special seat—big, reclining, leather, reserved—to which another kid will bring you special luxuries not traditionally enjoyed in a movie theater—gourmet food, blankets, pillows, and, above all, booze—upon demand. There are variations from place to place, but that’s the basic model.

It sounds pleasurable. No doubt for many filmgoers it is. But going to the movies isn’t really about pleasure—not mostly, at least. Not exclusively, for certain. A movie is not like a cruise or a massage or a slice of devil’s food cake. We don’t go to the theater to get pampered. Rarely is it a flat-out indulgence. Admittedly, once in a while we see something like The Expendables just to shut off our brains for a couple hours and bathe them in a sugary, puerile syrup empty of all nutritive value. But filmgoing usually offers something more to us and often a great deal more indeed. The problem with VIP seating? It upsets this arrangement.

Start with the simplest, purest gift of movies: escapism. This is the filmgoing experience romanticized in paean-to-the-golden-age-of-film films and wistful interviews with famous old writers and directors. Here, escaping doesn’t just mean temporarily fleeing one’s problems. It’s more of a catch-all term for dearer things, like inspiration, invigoration, and even epiphany. It’s finding holes in the razorwire-topped fence that we always find trying to pen us in. For dorky little Marty Scorsese and Allan Konigsberg, the movie theater pushed horizons way back. It set them on the path from outcast to iconoclast. It gave them ambition and hope.

The movie theater is a great leveler. Not as great as death perhaps, but certainly greater than Atticus Finch’s laughable candidate, the courts. Movie theaters don’t erase social distinctions; though dimly lit, they’re not dark enough to do that. But power imbalances even out in them. Movies theaters are like the sidewalks of New York. The lumpen lump together with the rich and everyone in between. A big distance separating two people can be closed in seconds. One observing a typical New York sidewalk or a good old-fashioned movie theater on, say, a crowded holiday weekend, could plausibly describe the assembly of people using that fine, fraternal phrase “the ruck of humanity.” But it just doesn’t fit in a place with VIP seating, where a handful of saucy souls who once suffered the indignity of the bathroom line with everyone else now pee giddily in their passcode-protected lavatory.

VIP seating makes escapism harder, because the social dynamics that burden your brain outside of the theater are now carried in instead of checked at the door. A traditional movie theater is a sort of supra-historical social space, like the ones political philosophers sometimes posit in thought experiments. A few dozen rows of identical seats, all oriented toward the screen, occupied on a first-come-first-serve basis. By default it’s an anonymous, egalitarian space. Its blankness mirrors the blankness of the screen. The movie is projected directly onto our minds and the screen alike, unmediated.

No doubt this sounds like neurotic carping to many people. But for semi-serious to hardcore moviegoers, VIP seating marks a real intrusion into that blank space. You’re not anonymous anymore. You’re classified. You are, to a not insignificant degree, shackled to the place from which you once so relished escaping.

In this way, VIP seating alters the whole social-psychological gestalt of filmgoing. Let us not overlook, however, the petty annoyances of this supposed innovation, the things about it that just plain piss you off. In some of the VIP-seating theaters, for instance, a gopher (it seems too generous to call them waiters) will see the light activated by the button a VIP has pressed and, in the middle of the movie, will gratify that VIP’s sudden yen for another appletini, both of them conspicuously trying to look inconspicuous and thereby cutting another cord of the fraying rope that’s been suspending everyone else’s disbelief.

That’s how VIP seating thwarts those seeking escape. But there’s a second category of filmic gifts, which we can broadly categorize as enrichment. Aside from providing escape, a trip to the theater can edify, admonish, or enlighten. It can send blood to the spiritual, intellectual, and moral centers of our brains. And here again, VIP seating impedes our mobility.

How it does so here should seem a bit more obvious. Say a movie comments provocatively on social inequality or Western materialism. Maybe it would seem that, in this case, the presence of segregated seating is actually kind of fortuitous and useful, for it illustrates the very message of the film. There’s a crumb of allure in that argument. But the goal of a film that makes a serious comment on some failing of humanity, when you boil it down, is pretty much always directed, at least implicitly, toward bringing humanity closer together. If a movie offers any kind of inspiration or catharsis or spur to collective self-flagellation or reconciliation, then you want no barriers to impede the lending of tissues to wipe away tears or the commiserating nods or the exchange of sympathetic pheromones or whatever. Provocative movies bring our guards down, but they do it in vain if we erect other guards to backstop our own.

Maybe this is all just sentimental drivel. But it’s hard not to be sentimental about the movies. Like baseball, they’re a lobe of an important organ in America’s body, the one that secretes mythologized pastimes. It’s not the heart, maybe, but it’s surely something less expendable than the spleen or gallbladder. And speaking of baseball, look at what’s happened to it—and all the major pro sports, for that matter. Not to be alarmist, they’re not ruined by any means. But the magic that infuses the panegyrics of Updike and DeLillo and Halberstam seems trapped in the past, unable to gain full purchase in ballparks where people in luxury boxes watch TVs instead of the playing field and kids in search of heroes and role models find fewer tickets to be had and those at higher prices.

There are some other people who will tell you that American sports have lost their magic: those who hate the Yankees and Lakers because they all know someone who cares not a fig about sports but sat front-row at game seven with his boss, who keeps four season tickets for the sole purpose of charming employees and entertaining clients. Or those who like college sports more than pro sports because there’s a scrappiness and passion and purity that they think the pro game lacks. Or yours truly, a diehard Nuggets fan who at NBA games feels like he’s at one of those dance clubs he gets dragged to when he’s invited to go out for a drink (and accepts, mistakenly anticipating a quiet chat over whiskeys at a dark mahogany-toned bar) and where people dress in shiny, flamboyant clothing that they don’t realize celebrities get away with wearing because they’re rich and famous and no one has the guts to tell them how foolish they look. Sure, it’s fun hearing the barbs his sarcastic dad launches at Foppish Man, the guy who sits in the courtside seats straight ahead of and twenty rows down from them and whose hair plugs and ludicrously ornamented blazers make him such an easy target. But that’s not really why he goes to basketball games. The analogy is inexact, like all of them. But it should be compelling enough to make us bare our teeth at those who would VIP-ize our movie theaters.

A last word on an anticipated objection. Resisting the stratification of movie theaters is not about justice or fairness. It’s about preserving the best conditions for watching and appreciating movies, whatever the politico-economic considerations. And the consumers of movies are responsible for the theaters they get. Just like the consumers of toilet paper and chicken cutlets are responsible for the Walmarts they get. Don’t call your congressperson. Don’t occupy your local VIP-seating movie theater. Vote with your feet.

Jacob Loup lives in Austin, Texas. More from this author →