An Evening in Hollywood
For this assignment, I chose to focus on the experience of going to the movies. The theatre is a common site for first dates and is a relatively safe choice for such an occasion, because there is no need to constantly think of topics for conversation throughout the date. The movie allows you to exist in close proximity to the person, yet your focus is on the movie that you chose to watch. What intrigued me about this ritual is that people tend to go to the movies and forget that they are sitting in a room filled with strangers. In a world where movies and shows are accessible so instantaneously in the comforts of your own home through online streaming, why do people still take the time and effort to go to the theatre to watch movies? Because of this, I chose to focus my two ethnographies specifically on the experience of going to the movies and the interactions between people that typically go un-noticed.
Many people enter the warm theatre lobby to escape the cold wind outside. The first thing you notice is the overwhelming smell of buttered popcorn. Slowly, you wonder through the crowded lobby and you become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people in this small area, and the sheer volume of conversations all happening at once. As you approach the concession stand, you’re greeted by the faint hum of the fountain drink machine and you’re knocked back by the brightness of the LED screens trying to convince you to buy a combo. The bright lights are a stark contrast to the navy-blue walls and the dark carpet, enticing you with the almost too perfect picture of popcorn and hotdogs. Stepping up to the counter to order, a cheerful employee, who is more than willing to take your order, greets you. This atmosphere is laid back in between showings of popular movies, but becomes stressful and tense leading up to the start time of the more popular movies. Before a movie, everyone is bustling about, trying to get their snacks as quickly as possible in order to secure the best seat possible.
As you enter the theatre, the commotion outside is suddenly silenced by the sound insulation. In the haste to find your seats and get comfortable, you’re surrounded by the low murmur of quiet conversations, the crinkle of popcorn bags and the crunch of popcorn kernels. The light dim and a hush settles over the crowd. The movie goers eagerly await the movie to start. Once the opening credits begin, everyone remains silent and still. The only movement throughout the movie is the occasional shuffle to re-adjust or to quietly escape to the bathroom after drinking a large fountain drink.
As the movie comes to a close, all the spectators simultaneously pack up their things and shuffle towards the exit. As you slowly move through the hallway to the bright lights of the main lobby, the muffled sounds of the end credits slowly fade out as they are eventually overtaken by the plethora of conversations between the spectators, excitedly discussing the outcome of the movie.
Going to see a movie is typically seen as a relatively asocial activity. The most social interaction one has to accomplish is in the act of buying movie tickets, which in recent times has been completely taken out of the equation through the invention of self-serve ticket machines. Now, you can go to a movie alone and never even have to open your mouth. How then, does this lack of social interaction affect where and how these moviegoers take up space and exist within the public sphere that is the theatre?
When one enters the movie theatre lobby, you are first given the choice of how to buy movie tickets. In my experience, people tend to gravitate towards the front desk to buy tickets as opposed to buying them from a machine. This is truer the older the person is. During my research, it was mainly adult heterosexual couples who attended the movies on Saturday evenings, followed up closely by larger groups of at least four young adults of the same gender.
After entering the theatre itself, people tend to do one of two things: they either proceed to the food concession to buy snacks, or they opt out of spending more money and enter the theatre as soon as they are able to. Less than five people were loitering in the hallways at the time of my observations.
Once the people enter the theatre, the majority of them gravitate towards the centre of the back most rows. It appears that those seats are optimal for being able to see the entirety of the screen while also not straining the neck. As the optimal seats get filled up with those who arrived early, the remaining seats get filled as well. There seemed to be a direct correlation between the quality of your seats and the time you arrived at the theatre. The later you arrived, the worse seats you would get. I also observed that some couples use their bags or jackets as placeholders or attempt to create a form of buffer between themselves and the other people in the theatre. I believe this is to give the illusion of a more private experience for both themselves and their date.
At the end of the movie, the audience exits the theatre very slowly. During my research, it seemed to only take about five minutes for the majority of people to leave the theatre once the credits began to play. After that, the theatre employees usher the remaining stragglers out in order to prepare the theatre for its next viewing.
For my first description, I decided to do a combination of sensorial description along with thick description, much like Hughes Raffles did in Insectopedia. Here, I attempted to recreate the experience of going to a movie through a sensorial description of a movie-going experience. When I did my research, I found that smell and hearing were the main senses that were used throughout the experience, so I mainly focused on them. By conducting these observations, I was able to experience going to see a movie from an entirely different point of view and it made me really appreciate the way the people who create movie theatres are able to shape your movie going experience by playing with your senses.
In my second description, I focused instead on the way people move and claim space within the realm of a movie theatre. I also chose a more analytical tone for this essay, while discussing my findings in a sort of narrative analysis. I did not rely on description only but highlighted and discussed my findings and their potential meanings. This exercise made me focus on where and why people moved in the movie theatre, which was a very different experience for me. Typically, when you go to the movies you tend to forget the other people and focus on the group of people you go with, but this exercise brought the other moviegoers to the foreground of my observations.
In conclusion, this exercise helped put into practice underlying theme of this course: the idea that ethnographic work can be written in all sorts of ways. This can either help of hinder the way it is interpreted by the reader. Through reading all types of ethnographies I have discovered that my preferred type of ethnography combines the descriptive and the analytical. The descriptions allow the reader to feel as if they are experiencing what the writer is, while the analytical style, helps outline and explain observations and findings the writer has made.