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Mike Leigh, a smartphone, and mace

Yesterday in a Los Angeles screening room, less than a meter away from me, a woman maced a man in the face for tapping her on the shoulder. 

The incident made the news because it happened during an AFI Fest screening of Mike Leigh's J.M.W. Turner biography "Mr. Turner." 

Barely 15 minutes into the film, near the back rows of Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theater 1, a man demanded that a woman sitting in the row in front of him turn off her smartphone. When she didn't respond, he tapped her on the shoulder. She shouted, "You hit me!" and rose to her feet. 

The man said, "I tapped you!" The woman turned her phone's blaring bright screen toward the man and others in his row, who were all shouting at her, "Sit down! Shut up!" 

Many others joined the chorus. Since she was slowly panning the phone across the row, she appeared to be filming her supposed assailant and his possible accomplices. She shouted, "I'm calling the police! It's a good thing I carry mace!"

She went into her bag and brought up a satchel or holster, unbuttoning a flap over the spray nozzle. It was fairly dark in this back area of the theater, but I saw the details because I was sitting two seats to the woman's right. 

My friend Jennifer, who was sitting next to the woman, was trapped between me and the madness. Slumped in her seat, she made a shield of the jacket she'd been using as a shawl against the movie theater air conditioning. She knew what was coming.

The man shouted his incredulity that the woman would even mention mace, then shrieked his disbelief when she maced him. He rushed out of the auditorium, groaning in pain, promising to have her arrested. She sat back down and quietly enjoyed the movie until security came to deliver her to the police. I wiped some stray mace droplets (or whatever it was) off my arm, surprised, in my ignorance, that it didn't burn.

I was also surprised when a screenshot another friend of mine texted to me hours later showed that this minor incident had been reported in Time, Variety and all over the Internet. But it makes sense: Our commercial cinemas, overpriced and congested with thunderously hollow blockbusters, are nevertheless among our last remaining quasi-public sanctuaries. We still think of the movie theater, against all reason, as a place to snatch a two hour vacation from the daily grind.

Incidents like this have become too common. The origin point is often a conflict that transcends race, class, or geography: patrons' perceptions of "rude" and "polite," which have been blurred by new technology.

At the beginning of the year, we saw where moviegoers' intransigence could lead when a retired police captain gunned down a moviegoer who had been texting his three-year old daughter. Google "movie theater" and "violence" and you'll pull up more examples, some comical, others tragic. Many started in disagreement over the proper use of a handheld electronic device. 

The woman at this screening seemed to think there was nothing wrong with leaving her lighted phone on during a movie. The man who confronted her felt otherwise. Things spiraled out of control from there. I'm sure that the maced man thought he was being reasonable when he first shouted at the woman, "Turn off your phone!" It's likely that she believed that when he touched her, she had been "hit": some people draw a hard line at touching when it comes to strangers. Maybe his tap felt like a jab to her. 

In any case, neither was willing to back down. I suspect we'll see more such incidents in the future.

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