August 15, 2008

The death of the answering machine

Ah, the answering machine. A perfect cinematic device. Even more so than a telephone, really, because you can hear the voice on the other end more clearly. It has so many applications: in the romantic film, after the couple's big fight, the offending party can leave soul-bearing message after message until the offendee can't bear it anymore and picks up. In the thriller, the bad guy can leave a string of menacing messages (although he's probably more inclined to go for the Breathy and Abrupt Phone Call). The comedy sees a hapless protagonist leaving embarassing messages, probably on the machine of his dream girl. And so on.

Trouble is, I don't know anyone with a traditional answering machine anymore. Even those old dinosaurs who still have land lines have probably made a mandatory switch to digital voicemail. Pressing a speed dial button, hearing a short ring followed by the robotic lady saying "Please enter your password," punching in a password, hearing "You have __ new messages" and listening to them just isn't compelling cinema. I've noticed that to cling to the answering machine for as long as possible, some filmmakers hide behind the excuse that a character has a crummy little apartment and isn't tech-savvy. Well, as previously mentioned, most phone companies have forced people into voicemail, so that line of reasoning doesn't fly.

The introduction of cell phones has also had a quiet but profound effect on cinema. In a movie made before the advent of cell phones, if you had arranged to meet with someone at a certain time and place and they didn't show, they were probably dead, kidnapped, standing you up, setting you up, etc. Now it's a different story - give them a quick ring on their cell ("Oh, you meant that park. I'll be right over."). This is a welcome development in the real world, but it makes things a little too easy on screen. Again, some filmmakers are flat-out ignoring the existence of cell phones and clinging to payphones for as long as possible, despite the fact that they barely exist anymore. Payphones/phone booths are another unfortunate loss from the silver screen, as they are wonderfully dramatic - not enough money to finish the call! Random payphone ringing! Calling the person in the next booth over to discuss your evil plans! But in the age of cell phones, payphones just seem sad and ridiculous.

What are some other fading technologies that are winding down their glory days on screen?


Jordan Troublefield said...

Do you ever sit there in a movie and then it hits you -'Man. NONE of this would be near as tricky/problematic if someone would just pick up their cellphone and explain what's going on.'?

Alex said...

Maybe not a technology but certainly obsolete: no one seems to go to the library to do research anymore. If Se7en was made today, maybe Morgan Freeman's character would still go to a library because he was an "old school" detective but Brad Pitt's character would be seen reading over the entry for "Seven Deadly Sins" on wikipedia.