Unexpected Laughter

How audience reaction can negatively impact a film.

Last night I had the rare opportunity to see David Lynch’s directorial debut from 1977, Eraserhead, at a small theater in the Portland Art Museum. It was a rare opportunity to see the film on the big screen, and I was, let’s just say, excited.

It was my second time watching Eraserhead. The last time I watched it was over two years ago on my iPad with headphones. Seeing it projected on 35mm film with good speakers made me appreciate it in a new way. It was really special.

But the strangest thing happened during the film–the audience would break out in laughter during many scenes that I don’t find funny. Sure, parts of Eraserhead are absurd and make me smile slightly, but I didn’t laugh the first time nor the second time I saw the picture.

It completely took me out of the world.

I’m not mad at the audience. If you’re watching a movie and it’s funny to you, laughter is an appropriate response. But it has me thinking about how people interpret art, audience behavior, and the theater.

When I’ve worked on creative projects that I take seriously and don’t intend to be funny, but it results in laughter, it feels like I’ve failed to express the feeling correctly. But on the other hand, what one finds funny differs so much from person to person. So of course how someone interprets art and humor is going to change.

With the theater and experiencing art collectively, the interpretations of the audience in regards to fear and humor manifest audibly. I can’t think of any other art forms this applies to aside from live theater and film. Books are experienced alone, as is a painting in a museum. TV is experienced with a few others, maybe. Sure, someone might chuckle at a painting, but, for the most part, museums are so quiet you can hear a needle drop.

The collective response to art in a theater can be reaffirming and communal, but last night it was off-putting and upsetting. I don’t have some grand point or take away. It’s just something that happened, and that’s okay. You really don’t know what you’re going to get at the theater, whether it’s someone playing a game on their phone, two people talking the whole time, or people laughing at a tiny roasted chicken’s legs moving.

I enjoy experiencing art by myself because it’s just me and the art. I don’t need to worry about the behavior of others. With that said, I think I’d take seeing a Lynch film in a theater with an audience reacting the complete opposite of myself over seeing it on a small screen in my apartment.

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: adventurer, video maker, writer

One thought on “Unexpected Laughter”

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