From Casablanca to True Detective: The Cell Phone Challenge

Casablanca-poster[1]We Baby Boomer authors came of age before cell phones. In our formative years there were plenty of phone booths for Clark Kent to duck into. But beyond providing a dressing room on every corner for immigrants from the planet Krypton, the lost era of the rotary phone supplied crucial plot points for the dramatic and fictional arts of those decades.

Think of Casablanca. The crux of that movie–indeed, the pivotal event that separated Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)–occurs in a flashback to that grim rainy Paris morning as Rick waits at the train station for his beloved Ilsa. The lovers had planned to escape the advancing German army together on the train to Marseilles. Ilsa never shows, and a devastated Rick starts his lonely descent into the life of a cynical owner of a bar in Casablanca.

Or think of Sleepless in Seattle, with that final dramatic scene on the observatory deck of the Empire State Building, where Sam (Tom Hanks)  and Annie (Meg Ryan) tragically miss one another and then, at the very last possible moment and purely by chance, they meet.sleeplessinseattle[1]

And now update those two movies to today.

  • Rick stands forlornly on the platform. His cell phone beeps. He pulls it out of his trench coat.  A message from Ilsa. Ah, now he understands. Life goes on.
  • As Sam and his son Jonah stand alone on the observatory deck, Jonah–who has set the whole thing up–shoots a text to Annie: “Where R U? Hurry!”

As Matt Richtel wrote in his clever 2009 article in the New York Times entitled “If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone“: “Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (‘It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the “no Sirens” route.’).”

Indeed, as Richtel explains, many writers intentionally set their stories back in time to avoid the plot-blocking nature of new technologies. One writer, who elected to set her next story in 1948, explains, “You miss a train in 1888 or even 1988, and have no way to contact the person waiting at the station on the other end. He thinks you’ve changed your mind, been captured, weren’t able to escape. You miss a train in 2009 and you pull out your cell and text that you’ll be two hours late.”

True-Detective-HBO[1]For those of us captivated by the recent HBO series True Detective, the show’s creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, had to devise a way to plot around modern technology in the final climactic scene of the last episode of the show. (Semi-Alert: I will try to avoid a spoiler here.)

Our two private detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), have used the latest in technology to track the suspected serial killer to a creepy set of structures deep in the bayous of southern Louisiana. The two men are out there on their own–no backup, no reinforcements on the way–and they are about to confront a terrifying supernatural killer.

As they get out of their car, Marty does what any rational human being would do: he takes out his cell phone to call the police. And thus a technology buzzkill to an otherwise breathtaking conclusion. Marty will make the call, get back in the car, roll up the windows, lock the doors, and wait for the arrival of the squad cars and SWAT team, sirens screaming.

Ah, but wait.

Marty isn’t punching in a number. He is staring down at his cell phone. He shakes his head in frustration, announces he has no reception, and strides toward the creepy house to use the land line, which, of course, has been disconnected for years.

And thus we have a new plot driver in the 21st Century: poor cellphone reception. It’ll work if you need to set up a spooky confrontation deep in the wilderness. Or up in the Himalayas. Or out in the desert. Not so sure, though, if you want it to occur in the warehouse district of New York or along an abandoned wharf in Los Angeles or up on the el tracks in the Chicago Loop. If one of those is your setting, better summon your Time Machine.

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