What does clapping for 13 straight minutes do to a person? That question, along with #spitgate, has occupied too much of my mental space throughout this year’s Venice Film Festival.
A film I did not know existed before this weekend, The Banshees of Inisherin, received a standing ovation that lasted that long on Monday—the longest at the festival so far this year.
Fancy film fests always feature absurdly long ovations as the credits roll, because celebrities fucking love to clap for themselves (and each other). This year has been no different: Brendan Fraser cried and aw-shucks’ed his way through The Whale’s six minute standing ovation; Florence Pugh cut Don’t Worry Darling’s applause short around the four-minute mark by walking out of the theater; White Noise got an unremarkable two-and-half minutes of applause, despite star Adam Driver’s penchant for ovation theatrics. (Last year, he lit a cigarette during Annette’s five minute standing ovation at Cannes–a performative bit during a performative celebration of a performance! I love the theater of theater!)
Clapping for over five minutes seems to veer into the territory of delusion, so I conducted a social experiment to answer some important questions about clapping for a quarter of an hour. Where does the mind wander? How close to the edge of insanity’s crevasse can it push you? My colleagues were shockingly game to gather in a conference room to clap for 13 minutes straight (The Banshees mark) with me, and I indicated which film we were clapping for as we passed their respective standing ovation lengths. From the start to two and a half minutes, we clapped for White Noise before moving onto Don’t Worry Darling until the four minute mark, et cetera, et cetera up until The Banshees clock ended.
What everyone could agree upon is that your hands really, really hurt after clapping for that long. After about four minutes, the Don’t Worry Darling mark, a few of my coworkers’ faces sunk into discomfort, causing me to wonder if this was the worst idea I’ve ever had. Did they all hate me? Can the rest of the office hear us clapping? Did they hate me, too? Was this too stupid of an idea? This can’t be a good use for an English degree, can it? My younger sister is a school teacher. She’s at least doing something with her life.
I was pulled out of my spiraling when the clapping picked up enthusiasm at The Whale mark (six minutes). A swell of energy took over the group, with some hooting and hollering. One coworker cheered, “Go Brendan!” We made eye contact and laughed as an applause-induced mania grew within us. I loved it. They loved it. One Jezebel staff writer said she kept “blacking in and out,” and it’s true, there were times I noticed she did not appear to be fully on our plane of existence. But another Jezebel writer was fully on board, noting that she felt a “shocking sense of community.”
That relation to those around her is slightly akin to what the science suggests (yes, there is science on applauding). As John H. Miller and Scott Page wrote in their paper, “The Standing Ovation Problem,” the phenomenon can “be interpreted as pure conformity and not as a strategic attempt to signal.” This conformity is especially present in social environments where there are distinct power hierarchies, like a film festival with powerful producers and famous actors. Basically, once a few people start clapping, it’s really hard to stop.
Towards the end, when we were in Banshees territory, the clapping once again tapered and began to sync up, sounding severe and militant. Luckily a few people course corrected and renewed the asynchronous clapping, only for it all to come to an abrupt end at 13 minutes. The timed ending meant there wasn’t a gradual descent into silence, but something similar often must happen at these screenings—an ending forced by the director delivering a quick speech or a film’s star prematurely exiting the room. (Again, a person in power signaling an end to the activity that our plebeian brains automatically follow.)
In his paper, “The dynamics of audience applause,” Richard Mann likens some aspects of standing ovations—and their eventual end—to disease. Individuals are “infected” by clapping disease, but “recovery” (that is, not clapping anymore) is similarly infectious. (“The group will only stop once at least one individual decides alone that they have clapped for long enough.”) With that in mind, let me please offer my best to the beautiful, rich and famous Venice attendees: Get well soon!