Hanging on the Telephone

Contemporary cinema struggles to represent how deeply phones have restructured everyday life

Films set in today’s world are often stunted when it comes to representing what contemporary life looks like. This is because they tend to shy away from one of its defining aspects: phones. So much of life is now lived on and through screens, yet phones don’t typically get much visual attention. In the view of many filmmakers, the imagery of a screen on a screen presents certain obstacles to visual storytelling. Greta Gerwig, for instance, said her decision to set her 2017 film Lady Bird in 2002 was based, in part, on her notion that “to make a movie about teenagers now, you have to shoot cell phones…Their [lives] happen online and I don’t think it’s very cinematic.” This seems to be a commonly shared sentiment among industry professionals, as the sustained trend of recent-history period pieces like Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Mid-90s, and PEN15 suggests. The popular film and television landscape is increasingly shaped by the void of contemporary stories that directors, screenwriters, and showrunners don’t want to tell.

Instead, the current landscape is marked by pastiche, period pieces, and nostalgia-fueled revivals and remakes. Take the best picture nominees from the 2019 Academy Awards: six out of eight are period pieces, one is a remake (A Star is Born), and one revives a comic book character from the 1960s (Black Panther). Though the Oscars purport to highlight the cinematic excellence of the present, they more effectively demonstrate how attached we are to the past.

By suppressing the most familiar artifact from everyday life to a cameo, the phone is transformed into a jarring anomaly in an otherwise timeless world

Simon Reynolds, in his 2010 book Retromania, attributes this attachment in part to “a crisis of overdocumentation.” All the styles of the past are available at our fingertips online: I can mine YouTube and stream documentaries from the 1970s; I can browse troves of vintage Levis on Etsy. Mark Fisher echoed this sentiment in his diagnosis of popular music, which he described as 20th century sounds repackaged on 21st century platforms. In Ghosts of My Life, he recalls hearing Amy Winehouse’s cover of “Valerie” for the first time in a shopping mall. He knew it was a remake of the Zutons’ 2006 song, but it was sonically displaced to the 1960s, Fisher noted, by “the souped-up retro style” of producer Mark Ronson.

Fisher and Reynolds borrowed Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology” to refer to how future innovation is being canceled by the persistence of past modes in contemporary cultural production. Hauntological works offer an idealized image or sound from the past, coupled with anachronisms that give the feeling that, as Derrida emphasized, “time is out of joint.” The appropriation of outdated aesthetics has corrupted our sense of historicity, breeding works that appear to be set outside of time. As George Steiner wrote in In Bluebeard’s Castle, “It is not the literal past that rules us … It is images of the past.”

The ubiquity of cultural pastiche is not new and certainly predates the internet. Fredric Jameson saw pastiche as integral to postmodernism, which in a 1991 book he dubbed the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” Central to his argument was the idea that postmodern pastiche colonizes history to glean empty stylizations for reproduction and consumption. One of his examples was Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 noir Body Heat, which was technically set in the 1980s but studiously evaded period details to evoke an aesthetic of “pastness.” The opening credits are in a Chinatown-style art-deco font; the quaint, small-town setting is far from the then new glass-and-steel high-rises; and any artifacts that would date the image are kept out of frame. The film, Jameson writes, “conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time.” In his view, this kind of pastiche was a retreat from the challenge of innovation posed by modernism, a movement that rejected tradition and called for artistic experimentation in efforts to adequately depict contemporary life. Modernism implied a belief that new art forms could catalyze positive social change by forcing audiences to find new ways of seeing. Postmodernism, by contrast, suggests everything has been done before; nothing is new — capitalistically catering to audiences by producing new versions of things they liked in the past (Think: Ghostbusters, but female).

Today, the failures of contemporary representation on screen aren’t merely a matter of being trapped in old genres and reference points. In its crafted aesthetic “pastness,” Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch, for example, is a present-day equivalent of Body Heat: its opening credits roll in a medieval-looking typeface; the small-town setting evades architectural signifiers of contemporaneity. Yet unlike Body Heat, The Love Witch reveals its era in glimpses of late-model SUVs, police station computers, and toward the end of the film, an iPhone. By suppressing the most familiar artifact from everyday life to a cameo, the phone is transformed into a jarring anomaly in an otherwise timeless world. Thematically, the retro aesthetics serve to suggest that not much has changed for women in society. The phone’s purpose is to remind viewers that the film — which explores the objectification of women, a timeless phenomenon — is, in fact, set in the present. But the phone’s true role in daily life has no place in the story; the device is reduced to a superficial signifier, a pastiche of the contemporary rather than a determining factor in it.

Similarly, many films set today acknowledge phones, if briefly, for purpose of advancing the plot. It’s typical to see a character use her phone only to make a quick call that the narrative structure requires, and not in the ways people use phones in actuality: constantly, to accomplish a wide variety of functions. The phone appears merely to transition us from point A in the story to point B, as when in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016), an unexpected call precedes Chiron’s reunion with an old friend, or when, in Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (2017), Kumail breaks into his kind-of girlfriend’s phone to alert her family that she’s in the hospital. In horror films, phones — which have obvious utility as a safety resource — present plot hurdles that must be cleared for dangerous scenarios to be plausible: hence characters will either have no service, or as happens in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), their phone batteries die. When it comes to depicting characters silently texting or looking at their phones, films often leave these moments out. Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life (2018), for instance, includes is a wide shot of 15 people in a medical clinic waiting room, with only one phone in sight. This scene doesn’t quite look like one from the past, but it certainly doesn’t feel contemporary.

In “What Is Hauntology?” Fisher describes the use of vinyl “crackle” in hauntological music to sonically beckon the past, making time “an audible materiality.” Some films deploy a kind of visual crackle, as when The Love Witch makes use of Hitchcockian rear-projection backdrops. Crackle signals an ambiguous past, provoking audience nostalgia for how things used to be without actually having to return to when that was. But this kind of cancellation of the future by the past doesn’t always show up on screen in the form of nostalgic gestures and techniques. The failure to cinematically engage with the role of phones in everyday life suggests a similar failure to see the world how it is. The present absence of our habitual phone use has the effect of taking a story out of time: It’s invisible crackle. This leaves films ill-equipped to explore, let alone solve, the problems new communication technology brings.

Like the task of adapting an epistolary novel for film, depicting heavy phone use may require some translation. Television shows like Sherlock and The Mindy Project have experimented with portraying internet use and messaging via floating text which appears over the action to show what characters are typing or seeing. Similar techniques have been used in films like Fruitvale Station (2013) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018). These works at least acknowledge messaging as a primary mode of communication, but they misrepresent the private experience of phone use. In “The Concept of the Mental Screen,” Roger Odin discusses the importance of frames in granting viewers a sense of protection (whether real or illusory), freeing us to autonomously explore whatever piques our gaze. What we choose to view, type, or save on our screens is felt to be privileged, for our eyes only — and those of whoever we’re intending to communicate with. But floating text in film and television plucks information from the private frame and publicizes it. Perhaps the goal of using floating text is to have viewers closely identify with a character by granting them unprecedented access: Within one image, we see both the character and what she is seeing. But this perspective, which doesn’t exist off-screen, only serves to remind us we’re watching something unreal. The imagery ends up looking playful, whether intentionally or not.

The cancellation of the future by the past leaves films ill-equipped to explore, let alone solve, the problems new communication technology brings

One successful break from film and television’s sea of crackle can be found in Eugene Kotlyarenko’s 2018 film Wobble Palace, in which an iPhone screen is placed directly in the frame to show the typically unseen moments in which characters use their phones. In the opening scene, we scroll through the history of a failed relationship in the form of old iMessages. Later on, we see Eugene (played by the director) desperately query strangers on Tinder — resulting in a meltdown triggered by a prospect’s slow response — and Jane (Dasha Nekrasova) take a Buzzfeed-style quiz to diagnose how “basic” she is. The combination of such familiar, current visuals with the unfamiliarity of experiencing them in a cinematic context produces a constructive kind of cognitive dissonance.

In the sense that its portrayal of everyday life is unquestionably contemporary, Wobble Palace is the opposite of hauntological. There’s no taking shelter in the more conventionally “cinematic” aesthetics from the past. The inclusion of the iPhone screen, framed in its proper proportions, breeds a depiction of messaging that likely feels truer to viewers’ own experiences. Unlike text messages that float for the world to read, what happens on Eugene and Jane’s phones remains (aesthetically) protected.

Engaging with a phone or computer screen is often a solipsistic act, in both private and public. What people do on their devices — what they read, their browsing history, what podcasts they listen to — often reveals more about their character than what they say out loud. Even texting is primarily personal: it’s not so much a straightforward exchange as an exercise in projection, in filling in the blanks to intuit what a message, or a lack of response, means. In Wobble Palace, the screen recordings give us unique access to characters’ subjectivity; we watch firsthand as anxieties from their inner lives play out on their phones. Similarly, Olivier Assayas’s 2016 film Personal Shopper explores the psychological ambiguity of texting by focusing on an iMessage conversation (depicted in close-ups of the phone’s screen) from only one person’s side. The story follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), who receives mysterious messages from a stranger she comes to believe is the ghost of her brother. Whereas texting is most typically used on screen as a plot mechanism to deliver information to viewers, in Kotlyarenko and Assayas’s films, it’s used to evoke familiar anxieties about what we don’t know — and the places our minds take us when we’re alone with our screens.

Like frames that shape our way of seeing, films play a crucial role in shaping social discourse by helping us achieve the distance to reflect on the present. With better representation of contemporary life in film, what modernism encouraged, will come a more nuanced understanding of the psychological implications of phone use in the cultural imagination. What we do on our phone screens represents an extension of our psyches — it’s a part of character that contemporary stories can’t ignore. Some filmmakers are starting to embrace this fact, which is especially true for stories about characters coming of age today. Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade, for example, includes countless scenes of Elsie in isolation, scrolling through social media and filming YouTube vlogs that hardly anyone views. And in Mishka Kornai and Zach Wechter’s 2019 short Pocket, the entirety of the story is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy’s smartphone. It’s designed to be viewed on a phone.

Film and television will always have crackle, but stories that help us understand the present and situate its place in history are a necessary antidote. It’s an unavoidable reality that films that depict phone use tend to date themselves before they see theatrical releases. Perhaps this is a good thing. Documenting the elusive present restores some sense of historicity by giving audiences a recognizable past to remember for more than its styles.

Meghan Gilligan is a writer living in New York.