Hanging on the Telephone


This essay is a chapter from my first book, Phantasms (1994). I reprint it here because of its rhizome-like links to so many review-texts on this website. I still have 10 paperback copies of this now rare, never reprinted book on my shelf, so if you want to buy one (signed by the author!), contact adrian@adrianmartinfilmcritic.com.

My birth cry will be all the world’s phones ringing at once!
The Lawnmower Man (1992)

The Lawnmower Man – inspired by a Stephen King story but disowned even by him – is a horror/SF fantasy about energy. All kinds of energy: electronic, mental, sexual, planetary. It is as if we were back in the florid imagination of a distant century when philosophers divined the workings of all things in the music of the spheres, the comings and goings of spirits, and all the intangible but powerful energies residing in the enigmatic vault of the human body.

More specifically, the film speculates about what happens to energy when it is funnelled through, and enhanced by, new technologies like personal computers and virtual reality headsets. Trashy by almost anybody’s standards (if not mine!), The Lawnmower Man nonetheless forges (with neighbouring fantasias like Wes Craven’s 1989 Shocker) a compelling link between coldly rational and wildly irrational perceptions of our technological age. Why not imagine that Heavy Metal music is a dark energy exploding out of amplifiers or coursing insidiously through Walkman cables with the power to warp the mind and mutate the body – and why not portray the new Mephistopheles as pure, evil energy inside every domestic telephone?

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) may present a rather gentler reverie on the role of the telephone in the emotional lives of ordinary people – but without the technology, the fantasy could hardly even get started. Sleepless is about how true love – ideally at least – can bridge the pesky obstacles presented by time and space, just as it happens (not without some agonisingly melodramatic complications) in Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957). Classic films of earlier periods, like McCarey’s, often became classics for the mass audience precisely because they seized upon the romantic potential of the latest technological breakthrough to materially provide this bridge across time and space: think of the train in Brief Encounter (1945), the cars and buses in It Happened One Night (1934), the planes in Alfred Hitchcock’s lush, romantic thrillers such as Notorious (1946). This is a vision of technology not as a conduit of superhuman energy but as a means to human connection – fragile as all attempts at emotional contact must inevitably be. Vehicles, telephones, daydreams: all provide transport, in ways that can be both mundane and heavenly.

It makes sense, then, that Sleepless in Seattle is a quiet song of praise to our age of telecommunications: the film is full of computer screens showing the search for the address of a hopeful beloved, or marking the air travel progress of its main characters back and forth across the American continent. Its central scene is one that joins the whole country – maybe the whole world – in an open community forged by radio and telephone: a little boy plugs his unknowing Dad (Tom Hanks) into a talkback program, where he opens his heart and speaks of the heartache of being widowed ... and, listening on a car radio at that very moment, a woman (Meg Ryan) decides that he is her destined partner.

Energy and connection: these are the twin motifs which have governed the intimate union of the telephone and the cinema since the era of their roughly simultaneous birth. In Jean Renoir’s amazing silent movie Charleston (1927), we see the birth of cinema as two people – a vaudevillian sambo from Mars (Johnny Hudgins in blackface) and a scantily clad flapper (Catherine Hessling) – dance forwards and backwards, in fast and slow motion. To get this whimsical piece of sci-fi running, someone races into a mysterious cubicle, and draws the crude outline of a telephone on its wall. Suddenly, a real telephone materialises, and the character dials out for a storyline. It’s the same moment of genesis as in a Tex Avery cartoon of the 1940s, where Screwy Squirrel slouches around for a dead moment, promising us: “The good stuff will start as soon as the phone rings”. A similar air of anticipation pervades the strange arthouse classic Providence (1977) by Alain Resnais where, during a rather tense domestic exchange between three characters, the film keeps cutting (for no apparent or motivated reason) to a telephone, the ominous silence of which keeps stopping the scene dead … until finally, the god-like narrator muses, “The telephone. Why not?” – and then, when it does, the plot really gets interesting.

Telephone exchanges (in every sense of the word) and fiction films are very similar systems, and the talkies were quick to realise it. Entire genres – such as the Italian white telephone comedies of the 1930s – were named after their phone connection. The earliest sound films of Fritz Lang, M (1931) and The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), seized with glee upon the close analogy between telephonic contact and cinematic editing – both are ways of instantly linking up separate spaces in an economical and often surprising manner.

Think of the dozens of thrillers – from classics like Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954) to contemporary slasher-stalker films like Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (1979) – in which the mere ringing of a phone, seemingly magnified a hundred times over on a sudden cut to a close-up of its dial – signals the ultimate violation, unwelcome invasion, the collapse of all distance between your frail self and that monstrous other who is stalking you. In the first A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), Freddy Krueger’s tongue lashes out at an unsuspecting teenage girl from a phone receiver.

Telephones are deadly two-way contraptions. You can use them to surprise and attack – but you are also always open to attack, merely by having one. In movies, phones can give rise to extraordinary phobias – particularly, it seems, in women. In 1948, Anna Magnani strangled herself with the phone cord as she struggled with her withdrawing lover in Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 version of Jean Cocteau’s 1928 play The Human Voice – an obsessive reference-point for Pedro Almodóvar. Barbara Stanwyck was rendered virtually catatonic with phone terror in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). In Noce blanche (1989), Jean-Claude Brisseau’s unnervingly minimal drama of the affair between a middle-aged schoolteacher (Bruno Cremer) and his teenage student (pop star Vanessa Paradis), the incessant ringing of the loungeroom phone is enough to fan the tensions and suspicions that completely unravel a marriage. At the start of Barbet Schroeder’s thriller Single White Female (1992), the echoing voice of a man’s ex-wife through the speakerphone in his lover’s apartment is likewise enough to send a relationship crashing.

For other, luckier women, however, the phone provides a sudden exit route from the prison of their impossible, dangerous relationships with men – from the original Breathless (1959) and its American remake (1983) to Romper Stomper (1992), a quick phone call from a nearby booth is finally all it takes to betray a bad boy to the cops and deliver him up to death.

Sometimes, the wrong numbers can plunge characters into stories they were never meant to be the hero or victim of – like the hapless hero of Miracle Mile (1989), who civilly answers a ringing pay phone in the street only to receive privileged word that the end of the world is nigh. Or the unexpected call out of the past brings back the memory that someone thought was buried forever – as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In America (1984), where a phone gratingly rings over and over as a whole lifetime flashes by. In gruesome horror movies or conspiracy nightmares like Bells (aka Murder by Phone, 1980) and Telefon (1977), the mere whispering of a secret code word down the line is enough to turn people into hypnotised killers, or trigger their own deaths.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire sadness of modern life is concentrated in scenes of unsuccessful telecommunication. Desperate, one-sided telephone conversations – where the unseen party on the other end is either distressingly silent or eager to terminate the call – carry a special poignancy, as in The Human Voice, Marguerite Duras’ play and film Le Navire Night (1980), Liza Minnelli’s phone soliloquy in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), the solitary, unresolved finale of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), or Leonard Cohen’s song “Nancy, Long Ago” about a woman who kills herself beside “an open telephone”.

Equally poignant, since the pervasive spread of answering machines in the 1980s, is the scene in which an individual, withdrawn from all social contract, listens passively to the accumulated playback of anxious or angry calls from family and friends, as in Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) and Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983).

By the same token, simply getting through on a telephone is no guarantee of harmony either. Dennis Hopper as alcoholic Don in Out of the Blue (1980) sweats behind a plate-glass shield during visiting time in jail, desperately jamming a telephone to each of his ears so as not to miss any faint signal of affection that may be forthcoming from his wife (Sharon Farrell as Kathy) and child (Linda Manz as Cebe). In Wim Wenders’ films, characters make fragile, transient contact – the only kind they can manage to make – over long-distance phones (Kings of the Road, 1976), or again as feeble confessional voices through obscuring mirrors (Paris, Texas, 1984). And aren’t those poor angels in Wings of Desire (1987) – like the hyper-empathic alien of John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet (1984) – suffering a kind of cosmic telephonic anguish, unable to hang up on the voices of the whole world’s suffering?

Characters in films are not always victims of the telephone. In many contemporary movies, telephones serve as an emblem of the vast system of telecommunications systems that criss-cross our Western world – a system that can be mastered, broken into, tampered with, subverted from within. Matthew Broderick as the slick teen hero in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) is someone who can really play the systems of his city – and his phone dexterity is the surest sign of it. Ferris is master of the hold button, the precisely timed call, the fake answering machine message, the phoney voice – all the arts of phone bluff and phone deceit. In both versions of the gangster masterpiece Scarface (1932 & 1983), the unlovely hero has a prearranged call put through to his mob boss at a precise moment, in order to ascertain whether or not the boss has a contract out on his life. Scarface is the new boss by the end of this scene.

Those less masterful than Ferris or Scarface simply get lost in the telephonic maze. In Blake Edwards10 (1979), there is an excruciating sequence detailing every possible way that Samantha (Julie Andrews) and George (Dudley Moore) fail to reach one another, over and over, on the telephone. George’s phone stops ringing just as he gets to it. Then they both call at exactly the same time, so they both get the engaged signal. Then George has food in his mouth when the Sam calls, so he just grunts, and she hangs up in shock ... and so on.

In David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks (seasons 1 & 2, 1990-1991), we get an hilarious map of all the dizzying circuits that a phone signal goes through – commander systems, transferred calls, open phones, eavesdropping via a second phone ... Is it any wonder that Lynch, at one point, recalls for us that telephone standard from the swing era, Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvannia 6-5000”?

Telephones connect spaces, places, people, minds, messages – and disconnect them, too. On the one hand, Bill and Ted on their excellent adventure zip through the continuum of time in a space-age phone booth – mocking as they fly the hopeful message of the American telecommunications system: “It’s time to reach out and touch someone!”. On the other hand, there’s the vast, sad telephone exchange in They Might Be Giants (1971), that memorable fable of paranoid whimsy – an exchange which is an impersonal graveyard for all the unheeded signs and untold stories coursing through the phone wires.

The ultimate expression of the urgent, collective melodrama cued by the invention of the telephone is in another curious art film that landed on the action shelf of the video shop in many countries: Claude Chabrol’s internationally co-produced homage to Fritz Lang’s classic Mabuse series, Docteur M (aka Club Extinction, 1990). At the climax of this demented SF movie, a TV talk-show host tries to induce the masses into a frenzy of mass suicide. Logically enough, he proceeds by appealing to our shared experience of the dreaded telephone – and his delirious pulp poetry exposes every confusion of sender and receiver, speaker and listener, aggressor and victim, on which telephone movies thrive.

We can’t get through, can we, not to anyone. And we ask ourselves as we rush along the sidewalk, the street, the underground, all of us in the isolated tanks we call our lives, we ask ourselves: is there anybody out there, is there anybody home? The question is like a ringing phone; it rings and it rings and it rings until you snatch it up, just to have some peace from that awful ringing in your head. And you shout: hello, hello, is anybody home, is anyone there? Just a moment, I’ll check, can you hold? And you think, yes, I’ll hold. And you hold, and you hold, but no one comes on your line. All you hear is the faint roar of the electronic ocean, while you wait alone in the room, holding the phone. It’s then that the thought occurs: I’d like to hang up, why hold, why go on, I could be here forever, with his holding on, waiting, and for what? I’m going to hang up. Yes, I am. I’m going to hang up. Why not? It’s so easy. And then your wife, or your husband, or more like some stranger, finds you hanging from a rope, or splattered on the pavement, or floating in the river ...

Phantasms: Phantasms Prologue


© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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