WHEN WAS YOUR personal-technology film/TV epiphany moment? (I really want to know. Read to the end of the column on how to contribute.)
I finally got around to watching “Fight Club” recently. You might remember that one, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as young men feeling disenfranchised by commercialism. Plot aside, one scene that particularly resonated was when Norton calls Brad Pitt from a pay phone, gets his answering machine and hangs up without leaving a message. As Norton leaves the booth, the phone rings. “I star-69’d you,” Pitt’s voice says gruffly to a bewildered Norton.
Maybe I haven’t been paying too much attention to the big screen, but that was one of those epiphany moments. It’s the same kind of “at last!” exultation you get when you watch a thriller in which the guy and the girl don’t end up falling in love, or when you see the hero or heroine investigate a suspicious noise in the apartment hallway and actually close the front door behind them before running off down the fire escape.
So “Fight Club” is a movie that acknowledges call return a feature that would have ruined “Dial M For Murder” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “When a Stranger Calls”
For years, the telephone has been a fine instrument of torment in fiction, especially film and television. With custom calling services like priority ringing, repeat dialing and caller ID, storytellers need to get with the 21st century. Unlike the days when we were suckered by Orson Welles’ Martian sightings, we look-both-ways/don’t-talk-to-strangers/C onsumer-Reports-subscribing/don’t-under-inflate-tires audiences are too educated about products that can enhance our lives.
That’s why we can’t be patient with the heroine in John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief,” a top law student who didn’t realize her movements could be tracked by credit cards. DUH!
Most stalker or entrapment plots could be thwarted with a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. But personal technology, and common sense, doesn’t have to ruin all those home-alone/walk-alone-down-a-deserted-street scenarios. “The Cell,” while it did put some viewers off with its woman-as-victim premise, did offer a plausible ruse to show how a serial killer ensnared a woman who 1) looked around the empty parking lot for strangers; 2) had her keys ready; and 3) armed herself with pepper spray.
In the forgettable “The Watcher,” a cell phone is employed in the course of apprehending a suspect. Actually, a police detective is talking to FBI agent James Spader about another case entirely as he chases down and wrangles a suspect. Now that’s multitasking.
Admittedly, cell-phone abuse has been rampant, like its sheer existence in the shrill “Hanging Up.” A big red arrow/billboard sign “foreshadow moment” had Michele Pfeiffer remind husband Harrison Ford that his cell phone doesn’t work until they drive past the bridge’s midpoint in “What Lies Beneath.”
Technology should be more subtle, as when Nicolas Cage who at this point in “Face/Off” is really FBI agent John Travolta sneaks into a parking lot to steal a car. No slim-jims and hot-wiring: He grabs a set of keys from the cabinet and beep! beep! follows the flashing headlights to the vehicle, courtesy of advances in remote keyless entry. Genius.
While a cordless phone, TV remote control and a computer might have kept gimpy Jimmy Stewart from dangerous voyeurism in “Rear Window,” some films could still be remade successfully in today’s gadget age. A good example is “You’ve Got Mail,” which did more than update “The Shop Around the Corner”: Strangers Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ chat-room connection looked a lot like strangers Doris Day and Rock Hudson getting it on with their two-party phone line in “Pillow Talk.”
For you folks who don’t even share voice-mail with your housemates, here’s a history lesson: Strangers actually had to share a telephone line. In the 1959 movie, the two-party system turned out to be an early precursor to a 976 chat (witness the split-screen sequence that made Day and Hudson look like they were taking a bubble bath together. Stop snickering, this was squeaky-clean erotica). For Ryan and Hanks, that boinging AOL modem connection signaled their modern-day electronic foreplay er, courtship.
The most egregious disregard for personal technology has to be on “The X-Files.” While spouting pseudo-science and alien know-how, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had a remarkable penchant for ignoring their cell phones (finally remedied in later seasons) and dropping the flashlights they did remember to bring (although that new agent carries a smaller one, but ever hear of straps or head lamps?). As for poor Scully, the most violated woman on prime time (mystery pregnancies, cancer and alien implants), what did she do when she went checking for suspicious noises in her hallway?
Left her door open which led to her computer being stolen. Come on, hasn’t anyone heard of security alarms?
So what’s your personal technology film/TV epiphany moment? Send responses by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or faxing 925-943-8362. If we get enough, we’ll run them in a future And Another Thing column.
Vera H-C Chan is the events editor of Contra Costa Newspapers.