< Call Into Question

Transcript

Friday, September 12, 2008

[CLIP]:
[SOUNDTRACK-PHONE RINGING/MUSIC]
WOMAN:
Hello? Hello?
[SCREAM]
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Telephones have always figured prominently in movies, as a plot device, a prop, a way to generate suspense but, more often than not, a way to reach out and touch someone. But now that we're all so reachable all of the time, screenwriters have had to contrive ways of using our phones in symbolic or surprising ways, or even how to deprive us of them altogether.

Freelance journalist Zachary Pincus-Roth wrote about the effect that cell phones are having on movie plots in this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Of course, back when cell phones didn't exist, Hollywood had to invent them.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
In the pre-cell phone era, writers found ways to kind of envision a cell phone before there even were cell phones, like in Get Smart with the shoe phone, or James Bond has a car phone. In Woody Allen’s movie Play it Again Sam, he even sort of plays this idea that someone can be everywhere for laughs when Tony Roberts’ character, everywhere he goes he calls his office and tells them [LAUGHS] exactly where he’s going to be, at which phone numbers.
[CLIP]:
TONY ROBERTS AS DICK CHRISTIE:
Let me tell you where you can reach me, George. I'll be at 362-9296 for a while. Then I'll be at 648-0024 for about 15 minutes. Then I'll be at 752-0420, and then I'll be home, at 621-4598. Yeah. Right, George, Bye-bye.
[END CLIP]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
And so there was this need in screenwriting to kind of be available to people at all times, and so they invented these cell phone-like devices before there were any.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
When the cell phone finally started to appear in films in the late 1980s and the '90s, it was a novelty and so it was a very potent prop. If a character had a cell phone, it said something about him or her.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
It sort of was this big indulgence. Not that many people had them. It was only for the very rich, and so it was kind of the symbol of excess.

One example is in the movie Clueless. Cher, who’s this kind of spoiled teen in Southern California, played by Alicia Silverstone, she’s walking through her school hall on her cell phone –
[SOUND OF SCHOOL BELL]
- and she’s talking to her friend, Dionne.
[CLIP]:
ALICIA SILVERSTONE AS CHER:
Dee?
STACEY DASH AS DIONNE:
What’s up?
ALICIA SILVERSTONE AS CHER:
Did you get your report card?
STACEY DASH AS DIONNE:
Yeah. I’m toast. How’d you do?
ALICIA SILVERSTONE AS CHER:
[SIGHS] I totally choked. My father is going to go ballistic on me.
STACEY DASH AS DIONNE:
Mr. Hall is way harsh.
[CLIP CONTINUES IN BACKGROUND]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
Five seconds later, you see Dionne around the corner and she’s on the cell phone, and so clearly their lives are of such excess that they can [LAUGHS] have these cell phones in school -
[CLIP]:
STACEY DASH AS DIONNE:
Bye.
ALICIA SILVERSTONE AS CHER:
I’ll call you, okay?
STACEY DASH AS DIONNE:
Yeah.
[END CLIP]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
- just so that they can talk to each other for five seconds before they see each other in the hallway.
[BROOKE LAUGHS]
And another symbol of the excess in the sort of early cell phone era is in Wall Street, which was in 1987. Charlie Sheen’s character, Bud Fox, is being mentored by Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, famously. And there’s this one scene where Charlie Sheen’s in his messy apartment early in the morning.
[CLIP/MUSIC AND PHONE RINGING UP AND UNDER]
He gets this call from Michael Douglas, and [LAUGHS] Michael Douglas is on his cell phone on the beach. And it’s this huge cell phone, one that we would laugh at today.
[CLIP]:
CHARLIE SHEEN AS BUD FOX:
Yeah. [SIGHS]
MICHAEL DOUGLAS AS GORDON GEKKO:
Money never sleeps, pal.
[END CLIP]

ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
This phone is a symbol of his power, his excess and what Charlie Sheen’s character aspires to be.
[CLIP]:
CHARLIE SHEEN AS BUD FOX:
Mr. Gekko, I’m there for you 110 percent.
MICHAEL DOUGLAS AS GORDON GEKKO:
I’m gonna make you rich, Bud Fox.
[END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You also observe that a lot of screenwriters are now treating the cell phone as an opportunity to advance the plot by allowing characters to be essentially in two places at once. Characters can stretch their arms miles into other people’s lives, and into other scenes, you know, like Plastic Man.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
That’s exactly right. In The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway, who plays Andy, the assistant to Miranda, is constantly being hounded by Meryl Streep’s character on her cell phone. And there’s this phone ring, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo.
[CLIP]:
[PHONE RINGS – DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO]
ANNE HATHAWAY AS ANDY:
Hello, Miranda?
MERYL STREEP AS MIRANDA:
My flight has been cancelled.
[END CLIP]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
It’s kind of the, the phone ring that keeps occurring whenever Meryl Streep’s character calls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
It’s sort of like the telephonic equivalent of the Jaws motif.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
Right, exactly. [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER]
And so, whenever you hear that in the movie, you sort of know that this woman is there to terrorize her.
[CLIP]:
[PHONE RINGS – DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO]
ANNE HATHAWAY AS ANDY:
My boss.
[PHONE RINGS TWICE – DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO]
I’m sorry, Dad. I have to take this.
[END CLIP]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
And it is kind of this, you know, workplace horror film, in a way. The cell phone serves as a symbol of the leash that Anne Hathaway’s character is on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
If, in the early days, having a cell phone said something about you as a person, now it’s really weird if a person doesn't have one, and that, you noted in your story, can be a big problem for filmmakers.

One writer you spoke to said the ubiquity of the cell phone takes away a couple of really potent sources of conflict, the difficulty to communicate or the difficulty to call for help.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
Right, there are over 250 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. In each person’s pocket is kind of an implied phone, and so you have to kind of kill the cell phone [LAUGHS] in various ways.
[BROOKE LAUGHS]
One example is a movie that came out earlier this year, 27 Dresses, where Katherine Heigl’s character and James Marsden’s character are in this car. There’s been some kind of sexual tension between them earlier in the movie and they're driving on this street in the rain –
[SOUND OF RAIN]
- and their car runs off the road and gets stuck in the mud.
[SOUND OF CAR ENGINE]
Usually now you would -

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Call Triple-A [LAUGHS].
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
Right, call Triple-A on your cell phone. [LAUGHS] But there’s this scene where they hold their cell phones out their window and they don't get any service.
[CLIP]:
JAMES MARSDEN AS KEVIN:
You got anything?
KATHERINE HEIGL AS JANE:
No.
[CLIP CONTINUES IN BACKGROUND]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
This forces them to go to a bar nearby where they have a few drinks [LAUGHS] and start singing Bennie and the Jets.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And romance ensues. It really helps when the [LAUGHS] ability to communicate is neutralized.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
Right. For instance, you know, in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, they miss each other – in the flashback they miss each other on the train platform. You know, they just pull out their cell phones [BROOKE LAUGHS] and call each other, and it would be sort of this strange scene of, you know, hey, where are you? You know, oh, you – you left me at the train station.
[BROOKE LAUGHS]
It would not have [LAUGHS] the kind of romance that it has in its current form.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Zachary, thank you very much.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH:
Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Zachary Pincus-Roth is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. His piece about cell phones in movies is in the Sunday Calendar section of The Los Angeles Times.
[CLIP – “BYE BYE BIRDIE]:
[PHONE RINGS]
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] Hi, Nancy!
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] Hi, Helen.
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] What’s the story, morning glory?
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] What’s the tale, nightingale?
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] Tell me quick about Hugo and Kim.
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] Hi, Margie.
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] Hi, Alice.
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] What’s the story, morning glory?
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] What’s the word, hummingbird?
TEENAGE GIRL:
[SINGING] Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?
[END CLIP]
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson, engineering help from Zach Marsh and more help from Michael Bernstein and Andy Lanset. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there or email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield.
[CLIP]
[MUSIC/WOMAN SCREAMING]
[END CLIP]
[MUSIC TAG]
(FUNDING CREDITS)