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Technology And Film: Why Marion Crane Didn’t Check The Bates Motel On Yelp

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 3, 2011

Last week in The Guardian, Joe Queenan wrote “The movie plots that technology killed,” about the way that ongoing technological creep threatens to undo our cinematic suspension of disbelief. The piece is largely tongue-in-cheek, to be sure; half of it imagines how the storylines of famous movies would change with modern gadgets and websites (Trip Advisor preventing the entirety of Psycho is a particularly nice touch), making it essentially a more involved riff on the idea at the core of the below CollegeHumor.com video.

And I will speak from my own experience that when someone’s cell phone went off in the theatre when I first saw The Blair Witch Project (that person not having heard about the agreement we’ve reached as a society that such people are to be shunned with extreme prejudice), my very first thought was indeed, “Wait, if they brought a cell phone with them into the woods, then what’s the problem?” Then I realized my mistake, and the shunning commenced, silently but extremely prejudiced … ly.

But Queenan’s first half is a more serious consideration of this issue, focusing on how it affects his viewing of 127 Hours. The problem, you see, is that GPS technology and phone tracking would (or will in the future; Queenan doesn’t really differentiate) make it implausible for Aron Ralston to be so hopelessly desperate that cutting off his own arm would be preferable to awaiting an inevitable rescue. The dissonance bothers him; the crisis seems less real.

Now, of course, let’s get this out of the way right now: Yes, Ralston’s story is wildly implausible, but that has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with human squeamishness and extended focus under intense pain and deprivation. Oh, and implausibility is irrelevant in this case because, you know, real guy and everything.

Ultimately, though, Queenan might be inventing his own problem. 127 Hours ignoring current tech developments is different from the other serious example he gives, which is the recent Liam Neeson/January Jones paranoia thriller Unknown. In completely spoiling the mystery for anybody who still wants to see it (sorry, you two), he describes how e-mail or fax could have undermined the entire premise driving the movie.

That’s fair game as far as criticism goes, rather than just being a mental parlor game. For Unknown to unfold the way it does, it has to ignore technology and usage contemporaneous with its own setting. But that’s worlds apart from the 127 Hours issue, one where a movie whose technological era, though portrayed more or less accurately as far as it goes, is or eventually will be simply outdated.

Some movies have winked at exactly this tension between modern and old-fashioned sensibilities. Recall the scene in Superman where Clark Kent seeks out a phone booth, only to be confronted with a free-standing pay phone. (Pay phones, by the way: obsolete.)

But technology isn’t the only thing that changes. It doesn’t make any more sense to watch Citizen Kane and think that its title character is a fool for putting his money into newspapers when technology has imperiled print than it would to criticize the clothing and hairstyles for being hopelessly passé. Nor would you scoff at JFK for expecting us to buy the notion that there weren’t dozens of people filming the Kennedy assassination on their phones. We’re not supposed to think that all movies are taking place right this minute, and gadgets aren’t the only sign that that’s true.

Sure, technological (and historical, and cultural, and political) developments can add new ways of looking at existing movies (and books, and television shows, and music), whether that different view looks better or worse. And what’s possible at any given moment is going to affect the stories that can be told.

But the next time you watch an older film and see someone missing an important call because his daughter is tying up the phone line and his boss keeps getting a busy signal, don’t make fun. Just think about how future generations of moviegoers won’t be able to relate to Up once we run out of helium. Oh, it’s coming, people. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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