The holidays are about consuming copious amounts of food and finding things to do with your family that allow you to be with them while also ignoring them. My family’s method of choice is watching movies. And so this past Christmas, we gathered round to watch a pair of holiday classics—Michael Clayton and uh Dunkirk—on consecutive nights. My aunt and uncle suggested the former, I the latter—not necessarily because I thought it was a masterpiece or anything, just that it seemed close enough to a traditional war movie that might also be potent enough to let everyone sit in silence for a few seconds after the credits hit before saying, “that was powerful.”
Michael Clayton went well enough, which is to say everyone was mostly into it. It’s a fantastic movie, so that’s no surprise; Clooney is somehow still an actor I tend to underrate, despite his Oscar and name and timeless genre-defining performance in Batman and Robin. It had a perfect ending, too. There was one hiccup, though, maybe 20 minutes into the movie. That was when I had the audacity to check my lock screen during a lull. My uncle picked up on this, insisted that some important plot development had ensued, and that we should rewind so everyone was up to speed, despite my missing maybe a line of dialogue.
Dunkirk enjoyed marginally less investment throughout the room, by which I mean that the same relatives who were taken aback by me glancing at my phone during Michael Clayton were very legitimately singing and chattering through the beach slaughter. This disrespect for Christopher Nolan and The Troops is between them and their creator, but there was something clarifying in the dissonance of them making an example out of a Movie Texter the previous night and then revealing themselves as Movie Talkers the next. This is not to say that both offenses aren’t harmful to the viewing experience—they most definitely are—but one is clearly so much worse.
I am not alone in this battle against Movie Talkers, of course; there have been little PSA-style advertisements for Not Talking During The Movie airing in theaters for my entire life. But it should be said that there are times when it’s alright to engage in either activity. Maybe you’re watching something you’ve seen a million times, or a movie that everyone has agreed is sucking shit as it progresses; in this case, as a few friends and I experienced while watching the 2017 Ben Stiller drama Brad’s Status, drastic measures are required. Or maybe it’s a scene break, or an extended credits sequence, or a scene involving Johnny Depp. But this is situational: if a given moment in a film is markedly more serious, or if someone else in the room seems to be taking it more seriously, you really should just shut up.
This is not a defense of texting during movies, either. That’s mostly bad and can be especially distracting in a dark theater if the brightness is turned up and everyone can watch you craft your posts during the movie. But there is a distinct generational divide between the two that throws the comparison into sharper relief. My holiday experience highlighted this. The same person that counts texting or even a quick scroll through the notifications as a personal affront worthy of a punitive rewind might also be comfortable asking a million questions, predicting shit, or pointing out who certain actors look like throughout the movie.
The key difference, at least while watching movies at home, is that a quick text—or livestreaming the NBA Draft on mute, if you want to get more ambitious—will almost always be less distracting to a smaller number of people than opening your big dumb mouth. In the right environment, texters will only distract themselves, and if they resign themselves to just missing a quick shot or transition or scene of exposition instead of becoming a Movie Talker to catch up on what they missed, then minimal harm is done. The talker wreaks havoc upon the whole room, sometimes inspiring real and warranted reason to rewind and catch the important dialogue they were jabbering over.
There’s a weird and unsolvable sort of calculus in trying to get a Movie Talker to shut up. You can opt for the nuclear option—just telling them to stop—which can lead to extraneous animosity that lingers after the credits. But any less forceful approach carries the risk of not working. There’s really no easy way out. Saying “yeah” or “mmhmm” to each stray comment might only lead to more, as could ignoring them outright, since each snubbed line of commentary might just strengthen their appetite to land a joke.
Compromises can be reached—my significant other recently agreed to cut down on talking during The Americans series finale if I scaled back my Borat voice usage around the house (somehow it has only increased since then.) But far fewer bridges need to be burned if everyone’s on the same page and agrees to just let the movie do the talking.