One way of following the spread and acceptance of mobile telephony is to look for how often and in what ways cell phones appear in movies. As parts of a plot or as attributes of characters, cell phones have become so frequent in movies and television series that rather their absence is noteworthy. Still, mobile phones are often skilfully used to signify something or to construct an intricate story-line. Just as fixed telephones were employed as props in older movies, today cell phones are used to enhance the drama in one way or the other.
In fiction movies, the mobile has become a significant object defining a role – by the way it is turned on or off, held, talked on, carried, worn, placed on the table, dropped, forgotten, and by how it looks and sounds. It is a prop used for self presentation and the interaction between the character and her/his phone is sometimes skilfully framed as a drama within the drama. For instance: how does the character react when the phone rings or blips?
Mobiles have also radically changed the plots of detective stories and thrillers. The hero no longer must be contacted via the wired telephone in the favourite bar or restaurant but can be reached anywhere. Mobile phones are examined (by the police or intelligence agencies) in search of phone numbers and contacts. The phone itself is a source of evidence, circumstantial or not, in the form of text messages, numbers called and calls received, images taken and videos recorded – and also fingerprints and DNA. Thanks to roaming, the user of a cell phone can be tracked through the city. The pursuer, however, can be led astray if the hunted person for instance drops the phone on a passing lorry.
A web search that I made recently gave some interesting results. The combination of “cell phone” and “movie” produced a wide range of hits that went beyond what I was looking for. Many refer to the phenomenon of using mobiles to record video and even make films. Others address the nuisance of phone signals and even conversations in movie theatres. Textually.org, a website dedicated to texting and SMS offers a good introduction to most themes, see SMS and The Movies. A sister site, picurephoning.com, covers cell phone video, a phenomenon that has also developed into an art form. But let’s focus on cell phones portrayed in films.
A good introduction is this transcript of a National Public Radio program, covering a range of aspects. The conversation refers to an article by Zachary Pincus-Roth in Los Angeles Times, which explores the intricacies of using mobiles in movie plots. Among other things, he points out the downsides of ubiquitous communication technology. In the Guardian, with respect to such drawbacks, critic Joe Queenan discusses why (like No Country for Old Men) so many dramas and thrillers today are set in the past.
As soon as I started watching the Coen brothers’ dark shoot-’em-up about a philosophical psychopath on the loose in rural Texas, I realised why the movie was set a full quarter-century in the past. No mobile phones. No internet. No Google. No easy access to phone records, maps, personal histories, criminal records. No way to track the killer merely by pinpointing the last phone tower that handled his call. No easy way in; no easy way out.
So, it is not the way cell phones are utilized as attributes to characterise a person that is important here. In that sense, cell phones are no different from Zippos, Volvo P 1800’s and Patek Philippe’s – or worn out shoes, ill fitting suits and rusty pocket knifes. Instead, Queenan pinpoints the specific contemporaneous connectivity that the Coen brothers manage to avoid.
Current technology has fundamental effects on the ways narratives are put together, as long as they are set in the present. The cinema here provides a mirror displaying the ongoing changes in society and in the ways everyday life is enacted. When watching a movie, somehow the absence or presence of sophisticated communication devices – and their consequences for daily life – become a matter of active observation and reflection.
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