For many years, the film-going public has put up with cell phones in the cineplex: the distracting rings, the rude conversations and the conflicts with audience members that sometimes follow.
But now, the ubiquitous device is taking more of a role on screen.
Cellular, the new kidnapping suspense film, stars Kim Basinger, Chris Evans and, more than anything else, the cell phone. The movie, as its title makes clear, could not exist without the cell phone, an instrument upon which the entire plot pivots. Cellular not only exploits the portable phone, but also one of its Achilles' heels: It operates on batteries that eventually run out of juice.
But the drawbacks of cell-phone use are only part of the way technology is deployed by filmmakers on screens both big and small. Just as in life, cell-phone manners tell us something about their users, cell-phone manners on screen are more often than not revealing of a character's moral bearing.
Basinger's Jessica Martin, the wife and mother kidnapped at the start of Cellular, is an average woman who suddenly finds herself dependent on a cell phone for her own survival and that of her husband and child. Her cell-phone usage is both defensive and defensible. She is not interrupting others at the multiplex or holding up the line at the deli counter while she natters on about her golf game.
Likewise, Robert Redford's kidnapped business executive in The Clearing, whose attempts to use his cell phone are speedily thwarted.
On television's The West Wing, cell phones sound off to remind us that the men and women who answer them are selfless public servants who have no such thing as a day off when duty calls.
On 24, Keifer Sutherland's pressured agent has his cell phone to his ear constantly. On Law & Order, Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) is continually pulled away from the business at hand to attend to urgent matters communicated from the nearest cell tower.
The converse to these characters are those whose cell-phone use betrays negative personal qualities and questionable moral underpinnings. The conniving and cruel high school students in Tina Fey's Mean Girls, for instance, use cell phones for retribution.
HBO's Tony Soprano uses his cell phone whenever and wherever he chooses, interrupting conversations, meetings and social events, without any consideration for those around him. Implicit in the behavior is the fact that Tony is the boss and his business comes first.
Where the deployment of cell phones does not have a moral equivalent on screen, the devices tend to appear for comic purposes or to suggest a character's or filmmaker's ingenuity.
In Justin Lin's high school comedy, Better Luck Tomorrow, it does both. In an early scene, a couple of young guys bury a corpse in a shallow grave. They have only just finished the job when the victim's cell phone rings from underground, signaling the whereabouts of the body.
Leave it to the minds behind The Simpsons to lampoon cell-phone users and their bad-mannered self-absorption. In an episode involving Lenny and Carl, the show's writers put both characters on cell phones talking to one another about obnoxious cell-phone users as they drive, unknowingly, straight toward one another, and ultimately crash.
To the extent that cell phones have altered the stories we tell, they have become an expected plot device or resource for characters needing to reach out and touch someone. No characters can be late, in trouble, or lost without audiences wondering why they did not reach for a cell phone to solve their problems.
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