Clapping in movie theaters after a movie has ended never made much sense to me. Why exert energy to praise filmmakers who aren’t even present? What purpose does unacknowledged admiration serve? I first asked myself these questions when I was only eleven years old after seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. When the credits began to roll, the audience broke out into unanimous applause. Sure, I was blown away by the film’s massive scale, the state-of-the-art special effects, the touching story, the great performances, but why should I clap? My kind of praise comes in the form of second and third viewings; my clapping is the thick wad of cash in the filmmakers’ pockets. My young mind just couldn’t fathom the reason behind this particular phenomenon, that is, until I relived the entire experience at an IMAX premiere of The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) almost a month ago.
Before TDKR was officially released for the worldwide audience, Twitter was abuzz with reports that the film had received a standing ovation at one of the press screenings, that part of the critical elite had been so smitten with the Caped Crusader’s final bout with injustice they jumped out of their seats and gave the film a visceral honor higher than anything they could have written about it. Perhaps social media is an outlet for applause that had previously gone unnoticed, I thought to myself. Perhaps the tender hands of clapping audiences across the globe are not in vain. Whatever the case was, it only made me more excited to see the movie.
Despite not quite understanding the applause, news of such a positive primal response to a film I’d been anticipating for years somehow had much more power over me than the Hollywood hype machine. It was then that I first began to realize that clapping for a movie is not so much an expression of praise for the filmmakers, but rather, a reactionary impulse determined by our own self-indulgent fandom. My contention was confirmed on July 20, 2012 at about 2:45 A.M. when the frame went black and “The Dark Knight Rises” flashed on the massive IMAX screen before us followed by the rest of the end credits. There it was again, the great unsolved mystery from my childhood, the unacknowledged praise — the clapping.
Now, I don’t mean to sound as if I was surprised at all by the audience’s response considering the type of people at this particular screening, myself included. We consisted of nothing but devout Batman fans, the ones willing to drive hours just to be the first to see the film the way it was meant to be seen. This could potentially mean standing out in the rain for over an hour just for a movie, a movie for which we had all bought advance tickets — the date the tickets went on sale was an event itself — and paid the hefty IMAX fee (definitely worth it, by the way). So, it seemed reasonable to me that this specific crowd would applaud at the film’s end, but it didn’t seem anymore logical. Why should fanboys have more reason to clap than a nonpartisan moviegoer? Stupid question.
For about a year leading up to the release of TDKR – a potentially great cultural event — fanboys scoured the Internet for plot details, speculating how the film would end, debating how much money it would make, contemplating its political implications from trailers and rumors alone. Reading about this film became an active pastime, sometimes bordering on the rigors of real academic research. It really did take up time, I’m afraid to admit. And the film itself ultimately caused heated arguments and controversies, occasionally revealing the worst of film fandom (See here and read everything the very smart Jim Emerson has ever said about Christopher Nolan’s films over at his wonderful blog, Scanners). To be crass, TDKR was kind of a big deal. It gave fanboys something to care about, something to look forward to, something to truly believe in. It consumed us for a long time and built up inside of us a profound longing, an omnipresent anticipation, perhaps even a constant inner turmoil: What if the movie sucks? What if Chris Nolan doesn’t deliver? What if all of my ranting in message boards and comment threads is all in vain? What if someone disagrees with my opinion? What if I have nothing else to live for?
I’m exaggerating, of course (I think), but you get the point. We all had an emotional investment in this film. Anticipating it caused something to stir within us, the kind of feeling we used to get right before Christmas morning (Well, until we started sneaking into our parents’ rooms and looking in the closet or under the bed before they’d had a chance to wrap our presents). We were so obsessed with TDKR that we almost wanted to spoil it before it came out. I can recall resisting the urge to watch low resolution cell phone footage of the filming of one of the movie’s big action sequences that had made its way onto YouTube. I can remember watching and re-watching each of the film’s trailers, debating with my friends and brothers which one was better. I am, of course, ashamed of all of this now. I was then too, probably, but fanboy glee will trump shame on any given day.
So when the film was finally over, the clapping began and slowly died away, and seemed to me to be not so much an applause for them, for the filmmakers, but for the fans, for us. Our applause became a physical act of relief, a biological imperative, a true sense of a chapter’s end, of a future, of the confirmation that there is life after The Dark Knight Rises, a sentiment we so fervently and masochistically denied to ourselves for a very long time. We had made it to the end, after a long year, and very quickly found other reasons to be alive.