Wednesday, August 20, 2014


With fond memories in mind and the recent death of Robin Williams in the news, I re-watched Steven Spielberg's 1991 film Hook a few days ago. Though it didn't live up to the memories I had of it as a kid, I still enjoyed it for the most part (how much of that was due to nostalgia I can't say). The first 30 or so minutes are well done, the rest is increasingly bad—especially the last third. And Tinker Bell is a disaster on many levels. (Not a criticism but something I was wondering: Wouldn't it have made more sense for Williams' character, Peter Banning, to have been named Peter Panning? I don't understand why, given the premise of the film, such a change would have been deemed "too literal.")

More interesting to me than any of this was seeing and remembering how cell-phones used to function in films throughout the 80s and much of the 90s. Williams' character in Hook is developed as a father and husband whose priorities are askew because his ability to imagine and view things with a sense of wonder has been lost and forgotten. Everything is dollars and cents and appointments, and he justifies this by telling himself (and his wife) that he's providing for his family and therefore making their lives better. The problem, of course, is that there is no family when he's always at work, whether it be physically or mentally.

The shortcut for establishing all of this in the first portion of the film is Banning's cell-phone, which is used to signify detachment, self-absorption, materialism, and, by extension of the other traits, general assholishness (the latter trait results more from what's signified than it does his personality, though it would certainly be exemplified a bit more had the role not been played by Robin Williams, someone who naturally tended to exude sincerity and warmth). Since Spielberg was using the cell phone in this way, we can rest assured that it was a trope and that audiences needed no other cue once a character was seen with one. Someone would take out a cell phone and all was apparent.



ENTER: THE RICH GUY (also a dick).

As cell phones became less expensive and more people began using them, Hollywood backed off of this representation. Why? Did the trope work simply because the phone represented wealth and we automatically equate money with callousness—until or unless, like the now ubiquitous cell phone, we have it ourselves? One could argue, as Mitt Romney or Peter Banning might, that our reaction to those who used the phones was just envy, and I suppose there's no real way of disproving that view except to note that the people who wrote most of the films were probably wealthy themselves, and likely inhabitants of a Cell Phone World. Their commentary, then, was either a first hand criticism of the people and mentality the phones represented, or—to take a cynical view—the writers were simply projecting onscreen what they believed to be the "average person's" view of cell phones at the time. (The latter case, if true, might make a case for envy, but it doesn't explain why most people had such a view in the first place—unless you want to argue that it was the movies that gave it to them!) Or maybe cell phones, since they were a new technology, naturally looked silly before we got used to them (or before they shrunk), and therefore the people using them were laughable by default. Or was it not the phone itself but what it was attached to
work? But to disdain people for this would mean that anyone who couldn't leave their work behind was a greedy fool rather than a hard worker, which is contrary to the supposed American ethos of "Hard Work + Effort = A Noble Life, Success, etc." (Even if this ethos is a sham, we should feel compassion, rather than contempt, for someone who can't escape their job, however much the ties might be fashioned by their own hand.)

 In one way or another, all of the above explanations likely play some small part in why the trope was an automatic signifier for the aforementioned traits. At the same time I think the largest contributor to our reaction was (and is) simply our intuitive understanding—obvious, really—that cell phones are bad for human relationships. When a character onscreen takes out a phone, it's apparent that the device automatically creates a schism between the person using it and those in their company. How could it not? We see a character with a cell phone and all of the sudden they become the focus of the scene, visually, aurally, or both. Everyone else in the frame is cut off and—often quite literally—out. The User is left alone talking to themselves about things of apparent import that no one else in the film, or audience, gives a damn about. (The exceptions to this are films where a character is waiting for a call, or when something of great importance and immediacy has taken place—like a kidnapping. If a character were to take out a phone to check their Facebook or watch a cat doing a pole vault on YouTube, the reaction to the character—even by those who do the exact same thing—would be quite different. At least Peter Banning's phone addiction has the veil of importance, however misguided!) The phones are conversation and drama killing devices, rendering everything around them dull and flat. (They are not, as some people seem to think, conversation databases to be mined on the spot. Because, you see, everyone reading this has their own access to the internet, which they can use at their own pace and leisure when they're alone.) And this, I suspect, is why, even though cell phones have become more commonplace, they're not featured in movies to any degree approaching the proportion in which they appear in everyday life. Unless a character is doing something crucial to the plot, something that the audience also validates as important, a character in a film cannot use a cell-phone for any real length of time and remain likable. We'll automatically think they're self absorbed, or worse. (Consider that the next time you decide to whip your phone out in the presence of a flesh and blood human being.)

Phone booths are also represented in the same Hollywood era in a way that's interesting, at least in terms of the "phone in public = asshole" trope. The phone booth was oftentimes a place where we would be introduced to a jerk—someone so obsessed with their own conversation that they wouldn't get off the phone when the protagonist arrived with their inevitable emergency. And since most of us now carry around cellphones in our pocket (let's call them what they are: computers), we can't be the jerk who becomes an obstacle in the way of someone else's emergency. Nor do we have to rely on the courtesy of someone else during a similar type of situation. But our pocket phones still allow us to seal ourselves up inside the isolation booth, so to speak, just like the jerk in so many films. (That phone booths were often the dwelling place of this type of person also works as a counter argument to the stance that cell phones signified unflattering traits because audiences were envious of those who could afford them. Fairly or not, it was the "public phone" more generally that seemed to carry this connotation.)

There's also, to relate this back to Hook more literally, a sense of Neverland—of refusing to grow up—about our need to always feel connected (I think distracted is a more accurate name for the comfort being provided). As Jaron Lanier wrote in You Are Not a Gadget (2010):

"Children want attention. Therefore, young adults, in their newly extended childhood, can now perceive themselves to be finally getting enough attention, through social networks and blogs. Lately, the design of online technology has moved from answering the desire for attention to addressing an even earlier developmental stage.

"Separation anxiety is assuaged by constant connection. Young people announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind."

So yes, all of the above is intuitive. Like an addict trying to convince themselves that their habit has no detrimental effect on their life or on the lives of their friends, we keep asking ourselves the same questions about our drug of choice. "Are cell phones bad for us when we use them the way we do? Do they cheapen friendships? Are they distracting? Do they diminish our attention spans? Do they make us more anti-social? What are the environmental costs? Is being connected all the time a good thing? Does the technology help reinforce and accentuate what's best in us, or what's worst?" The treatment of cell phones onscreen in the past shows us that we already knew the answers to most of these questions decades ago. We just don't like the answers now that we're hooked, so we choose instead to forget.


Tyler said...

In order to make this really stick, I realize, I'd have to rewatch all kinds of films from the period and make a video essay from the results... Which isn't going to happen! So instead I'll trust in your own memory and experiences.

Matthew Shilman said...

Good article T. I thought it was Panning not Banning.

Tyler said...


Yeah, I thought so too when I watched it, but imdb and wikipedia both say Banning.

Tyler said...

I don't particularly like this video, nor do I agree with most of it, but it's certainly worth linking to as it relates to the above: A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film

If nothing else it reminded me of my gross oversight, texting, which can certainly account for why cell phones aren't used in films in "any degree approaching the proportion in which they appear in everyday life." Not as phones, anyway. Texting doesn't function the same way in films because the audience will immediately be brought into the narrative once a text is displayed. It's no longer an isolated, self-absorbed gesture, but a piece of shared information. But unless the text is incorporated into the narrative, the above problems will automatically arise (ie, the character will be viewed as self-absorbed etc.) -- unless of course there is another reason for showing them using their phone but not showing the text itself.

No doubt this is part of the reason why no one answers their phone anymore in real life and texting has become the default form of communication. Since it's quiet and mostly unobtrusive, texting gives the impression (or illusion) of adhering to long established modes of social etiquette. But of course it's actually no different than answering a call; unlike a film audience brought into the story through a given character's point of view (we're basically made to feel as though we're receiving the text ourselves), people in the company of an actual texter are always being left in the dark.

Tyler said...

75% of this post is rubbish, as most readers probably already realized.