The Phone Call (everyday performances)
The changing nature of an artistic chronotopic trope
My grandmother’s light yellow rotary phone sat in our basement for years unused, simply for the purpose of playtime. Why did my siblings and I love to twirl those numbers? The anticipation of a call? The feel of the machine? The power of holding the receiver and controlling the conversation with Grandpa in Minnesota? Now, even the touchtone keys that still hang on my parents’ walls feel slow but joyfully tactile and the large receiver feels weighted with mystery. The ring is loud and typical, alerting one to attention and breaking into the cadence of the day.
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Before caller ID, we sort of had to answer the phone. I was born in 1980; if you’re 5-10 years younger, you might not understand. Each ring could have been an emergency – grandma on her deathbed or the police warning you about a burglar on your street or somebody trying to ask you to prom. Miss it, and you miss a lot more than a phone call.
I’ve never had a landline myself, so it’s ironic that my toddler son pretends to use an old school phone all the time. Bananas, toys, books…they all make easy devices: ‘Hello? Is anybody there?’ He FaceTimes relatives and sees me texting friends, but the weightiness of a big phone with a mysterious caller and message is still ubiquitous, learned through cartoons or preschool or the trips to grandparents’ houses. It’s a way for him to pretend to be a grown up and to imagine conversations he would want to have.
Art is about humanity’s dialogue with ideas and each other, so it makes sense that the phone has had a central place as a type of communication, often across large amounts of space as well, even national boundaries.
This week, we’ll stick with old school phones – rotary and touchtone. Next week, we’ll take a look at a transition to cell phones in the arts and the impact it has on the construction of meaning.
I can’t think about everyday technology in the arts without considering what Mikhail Bakhtin would say about it. In his seminal essay on the chronotope (“time-space”), “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination (1937) Bakhtin specifically discusses literary arts in relation to the “inseparability of space and time” (p. 84). Rather than seeing space and time indicators of context as a given, part of the background or understand elements of a story and its language, Bakhtin understands these factors as intentional elements of the story itself, providing subtexts to a narrative. In this way, he argues against a Kantian idea that sees these elements as innate parts of nature.
Bakhtin discusses three worlds in flux – the time/space of the creator of the work, the time/space of the world we inhabit as we read the text, and the time/space of the “created” text itself, which always has a “created chronotope” even if it mimics a real moment in time. Therefore, all indicators like the telephone add to this understanding of the imagined world. The reason it is important is that it makes us aware of the purpose of the indicators and helps us understand subtexts. How has the type of phone technology available within the text impacted the way characters communicate, and, therefore, possibly their fate? How does it allow the viewer to understand thematic ideas to give us truth beyond the text?
His use of the term “dialogism” might also help us understand the importance of a phone call in various types of literary and artistic texts. Here, meaning comes from dialogues, that is, in relation to the above points, through the imagined world (in fiction) and the two real worlds at play. Additionally, and more concretely, dialogues in literature and film give us different perspectives and allow a type of intertext within the text. A phone conversation makes the structures and boundaries of these viewpoints even more clear, sometimes giving us language from a character, for example, that contradicts other things we know about this person. It helps us consider more nuanced versions of truth.
The literary phone call
Let us start with the artistic written word simply because Bakhtin prefers to look purely at literature through his views on the chronotope. However, as we move into visual texts, the literary element of the language either written before us or as a screenplay could be regarded as this literature.
The New York Review discusses the rise of real phone calls in the pandemic in relation to Dorothy Parker’s “The Telephone Call” (1930). The woman desperately waiting for a lover to call her mimics the way we may wait for reply texts: “Please, God, let him telephone me now….If I didn’t think about it, maybe the telephone might ring. Sometimes it does that. If I could think of something else.” The passage emphasizes our lack of control when it comes to phone calls and the idea that we all share elements of fate that we must leave up to the universe, whatever that means. It is both the joy and the frustration of reality.
Longer literary texts allow for even more nuanced uses of the trope of the call. One could imagine Parker’s story continuing to show the protagonist on the phone with others to help demonstrate her psyche or to expose either individual or societal fault. Bakhtin understands the rise of the novel as the dominant literary genre as a method to also allow other genres to flourish in a sort of heteroglossia among texts:
They become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the ‘novelistic’ layers of literary language, they become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally-this is the most important thing-the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic open-endedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the open-ended present). (p. 7)
Any chronotopic motifs in the text function to both bridge stories between genres and between fiction and reality. The phone (as well as other technology) help us to pinpoint where and when a story takes place and becomes an allusion in itself.
Heteroglossia is the use of more than one viewpoint within a text. Bakhtin discusses its use in terms of national and social conflicts, including the use of dialects and political language. The phone allows for this play of idea through character not only by the voice of the author but also by that of the fictional character within a text (and perhaps another). Two other good sources for understanding this term are Slavoj Zizek’s "A Plea for a Return to Différance (with Minor Pro Domo Sua)” (2006) and Claire Colebrook’s Deleuze and the Meaning of Life (2010).
When we answer a call, we assume a role. As a child, I could often tell who, more or less, was on the other end of the phone by the voice my father would use after an initial greeting. A deeper voice for colleagues; a more nuanced one for friends; a still lighter one for my mom’s (female) friends. I’m sure I do the same thing when I code switch in different situations with different company. However the symbol and threshold of the phone itself allows us to anticipate and play with this switch without people watching us (usually). This changes everything. Images, even those of our friends, can conflict with language based thought.
Often, we read to experience a mystery without the pain of waiting for a call (or Whatsapp). Detective series or thrillers are prime places to utilize the phone conversation, which can be unexpected, provide key information or clues, and allow an interruption to normal daily life. They also remind us that although we are reading a ‘fun’ thriller, there is real relevance to the way these journeys can be metaphors for our own realities, often in the sense of understanding the mystery of ourselves.
Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass is part detective story, part metafiction, part semiotic investigation. Auster has a way of giving us ordinary characters and making them encounter the greatest depths of their soul while philosophically considering ontological viewpoints. His prose is also a lot of fun. This story is part of The New York Trilogy (1987), which really put him on the map. Auster began as a translator of French fiction and poetry, which I think gives his prose a particular focus on details of diction as well as heteroglossia. When we read a translated text, it is already aware of the cultural references included in the prose.
The story begins: “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not” (p. 3). Wrong numbers can either be bluffs or symbols of chance. We can imagine the sound in the “dead of night,” shocking us from our slumber. When it rings again, he “walked naked to the phone” (p. 7) and later looks down at his “limp penis” when denying he has a detective agency, since this is what they are looking for. The fact that our protagonist can answer the call naked emphasizes the limitations of the phone as well as the possibility for the man to act a roll and take on any physical form through voice that he fancies. The other end will likewise imagine a person; even if that person is known to them, the clothing and postures will be imagined.
When the phone rings again on p. 12, he then plays along and takes on a new identity that he carries with him all the way to the client before taking their case and hunting down a man who has just been let out of prison. It’s a strange story of labyrinths and riddles in which the phone keeps coming back through “busy” numbers and Quinn “imagin[ing] what the operators looked like” (p. 125) to talking to strange characters to hearing the “line [go] dead” (p. 146). Because these plays of identity also turn into ‘Paul Auster’ as fictional character, the heteroglossia reaches beyond the text itself, making us question the relationship between protagonist and author.
When others can no longer hear our voices, are we essentially dead to them? To their realities?
How do we create identity or play with identities through phone calls? How do people’s understanding of our true selves change by solely listening to our language? Do people only listen to what they really want to hear? Who has the power in a phone call?
City of Glass also has a beautiful adaptation in the form of a graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (2004). Below, you can view the authors speaking on a panel at the Comic Arts Brooklyn Festival. Auster has worked with others on adaptations, including several projects with filmmaker Wayne Wang.
Through visuals, the graphic novel must interpret what is really happening to Quinn in this story that wanders into the absurd at times. Of course, the visions could still be in his head, but we imagine the way these authors see Quinn’s deterioration in his unkempt clothes and hair. In literature, the way we imagine a narrative is more like a letter or voice call communication: we have to fill in the visuals. Here the visuals are imaginative and interpretive rather than depictions of real life and perhaps add to the dreamlike quality of the text rather than forcing it into a filmic quasi-real.
Quinn’s phone on pages 5-11 is clearly a rotary phone. The black and white images recall old detective and mystery films or television shows with a phone like this on the desk. The exaggerated highlights of the aesthetic on the receiver as well as close up panels of the voice box and emphasis on the spiral cord make the phone into a chronotopic focus point and play with the detective story genre.
A later scene with the phone on p. 60 only briefly shows the cord and the receiver. Instead, pinky-sheared speech bubbles demonstrate the voice on the other side with a black background or empty chair. It is as if the imaginary detective game has taken over Quinn’s identity, now becoming less playful and more sinister. But the rotary phone returns on p. 86, juxtaposed with a typewriter, a technological communication tool of similar time frame. This happens again near the end on 118 where Quinn can be seen in a totally disheveled state, apparently consumed by existential questions and isolation. The typewriter (something Auster still uses for writing his novels) may represent a calculated way to make sense of this narrative or an outmoded way of understanding the world that Quinn (or Auster) is lost in.
We see one other phone in the text. Quinn attempts to reach his faux-clients through a touchtone payphone to no avail (p. 100), which also demonstrates that Quinn’s home phone is anachronistic. Above close ups of the receiver, numbers, and coin slot, the narration emphasizes Quinn’s isolation:
The busy signal became a comforting metronome…beating steadily inside the random noises of the city…negating speech and the possibility of speech. Virginia and Peter Stillman were shut off from him now. But he soothed his conscience by still trying. Whatever darkness they were leading him into, he had not abandoned them yet.
The following full-page panel is of Quinn walking over a map of Manhattan as if he alone is navigating the labyrinth of the city and of his mind. Payphones are both fixed points and traceless to the caller, which is why we see them in many detective shows (still, even if you’d be pressed to find one in real life). What does the role of the phone have to do with invisibleness of individuals? Of erasure?
In Killing Commendatore (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, 2018) Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami likewise helps us understand, or at least question, the identity of the protagonist through phone calls. Like Auster’s text, the man lives alone and has recently lost his family. Murakami’s character is alone due to divorce while Auster’s protagonist’s family is dead. Here, the phone call is frequently used for communication, perhaps to emphasize his solitude as well as the unexpected turns and relationships in his new life.
His lover frequently calls. Once, when he has connected a large magical dirt pit with a woman’s vagina in his head (he is an artist after all…), he predicts a call from the lover: “So when the phone rang a short while later, I had a hunch it would be my married girlfriend” (p. 411). As extramarital lovers, the phone represents secrecy as well as trust; she often calls him to divulge vulnerable emotional information. However, it also demonstrates a sort of predictability to the universe, perhaps if one is in touch with one’s intuition by observing the world around them.
Also, because the protagonist is an artist, the lack of visual in phone communication is often emphasized, for example by his agent or commissioner who have not yet seen finished paintings. The agent at one point says over the phone: “I haven’t seen the actual painting, though Mr. Menshiki attached a photo. From the photo, at least, it looks like an amazing work. Something that goes beyond the boundaries of portrait painting, yet remains a convincing portrait.” Perhaps a phone call, then, is like a photo of a painting. It’s not quite a real conversation, somehow it has been changed through technology’s transmission of sound.
What kind of information do we share during phone calls? What kind of trust do we place in the listener?
Old phones conceal identity and whereabouts and are therefore more mysterious. In films, they can create irony: we can see what a caller on the other end cannot. We experience this irony when George and Mary share a secret cuddle in It’s a Wonderful Life as their old friend and her suitor – Sam – talks blindly on the other end.
The mystery of the phone call in the aforementioned literary works clearly lends itself to plotlines we would also see in suspense or horror films. While almost every film will include some phone call, the horror genre is especially ripe with similarly mysterious calls that leave one isolated and vulnerable. Because one can not view the caller (before FaceTime), there is an added mystery about the communication that can be left to the viewer’s imagination, much like in a literary text. Sometimes, we can only hear (and see) one side of the call as if we are another character in the room, creating more layers of distrust and questions. There’s a great list of famous filmic calls in Slant magazine, many of which are in the horror or mystery genres (Dial M for Murder says it all).
Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic thriller Rear Window (1954) utilizes the rotary phone in an anticipation of action and in helpless witness to possible crimes, creating suspense and using conversation for characterization. The main character, Jeff, is a professional photographer stuck at home with a broken leg. In the New York City apartment complex, he observes others through their windows out of boredom and journalistic curiosity. While seeing without being able to hear creates one sense of mystery, his phone calls do the opposite of allowing us to hear without (completely) seeing. In the apartment where he thinks he has witnessed a murder, this is especially relevant. Here, we do the watching, but what we cannot see and hear due to the division is equally as frightening. In “Rear Window: The Telephone,” film professor John Hartzog has nicely laid out the ten uses of the phone in this film.
The amplified sound of dialing the rotary phone and anticipation of the connection; the women watching as Jeff dials the phone…the ringing, and waiting for the ring to be answered…all these aspects of the phone call add to the tension in the film. Jeff plays with a new identity on the phone as if mimicking something he has seen in a film; the antagonist-murderer is unaware that Jeff (and the audience) can see him, highlighting his body as a target.
But Jeff, too, is a target. A mistaken call to the antagonist allows him to discover Jeff; he then enters Jeff’s flat seemingly with the intention to kill him as well, although it is stopped by the police (who have also been called). The phone both acts as a safety mechanism for a vulnerable protagonist and as the mechanism that creates danger. It is a filmic tool, and as such, it emphasizes the need for someone to understand technology in order to use it for good as well as the possibility of two-sided surveillance.
Krzysztof Keislowski in part pays homage to Hitchcock in A Short Film About Love (1988) through a use of rotary phone calls mixed voyeuristic scenes (available through NYU). Tomek, a 19 year old orphan from Warsaw now living with his only friend’s mom (the friend is off at war, so Tomek also occupies a hole in his mother’s world), spies on a 30/40-something female artist across the apartment blocks. Although spying may be a heavy word, for she never seems to close the window shades, even whilst having sex at night with her lights on (a similar convenience to the object-apartment in Rear Window). I imagine there are others watching, too! But the obsession by Tomek, including a permanently set up telescope covered not-so-covertly by a red cloth next to an alarm clock to remind him when she normally gets home in the evening, is a regular and lonely one.
Although Tomek is not crippled like Jeff in Rear Window, he is mentally crippled from his abandonment(s) and isolated besides his post office coworkers. Perhaps because he has no memory of his own mother or simply because he is lonely and Magda is a beautiful woman, the virgin teen becomes more bold and creates reasons for her to go to his post office window and to encounter him as the new milkman in the mornings. However, he had already experimented reaching her through phone calls long ago, we learn. His nondescript black rotary dial next to the telescope at his tiny desk where he teaches himself languages gives him a straight-edge quality, as if he is a detective investigating this wild woman’s immoral behavior. Paradoxically, it is Tomek who is the stalker.
Magda often grabs the bright red rotary phone the color of fuck-me nail polish and sits with it between her naked legs in bed. Although she has several men who visit the apartment for sexual encounters, she is lonely. She has decided love doesn’t exist, perhaps in an attempt to save herself from its torment. On one night, Magda fascinates Tomek by crying into spilled milk (the Oedipal symbolism is heavy).
Later after they connect and Tomek thinks he has found love, she laughs at him or possibly at the idea of love, and he runs off to attempt suicide. Although unsuccessful, she is left in the dark; the mother doesn’t trust her to be gentle with him and Magda admits she is the wrong one for him, that she is ‘bad.’ At one point her phone rings and she rushes to it, looking out the window as if looking for him. The other end is silent, as it has often been in the past when Tomek calls, so she speaks. We are able to hear how much she cares about him after all, to hear that she thinks she was wrong about love. A callback tells us it was simply a bad connection from another friend or lover, emphasizing the phone’s limitations. The initial botched call was simply for the audience’s benefit of hearing her inner monologue.
Films may also use phones to more explicitly create heteroglossia by adding narratives beyond the constraints of the film’s setting. I found this was true in many independent films from Hong Kong in the 1990s and 2010s (just before and after the 1997 Handover). My PhD dissertation looked at such films featuring different types of immigrants and the way laws affected their ability to assert their identities. Films like Evans Chan’s To Liv(E) (1990) and Bauhinia (2002) include main characters between Hong Kong and elsewhere (both New York in these cases) that are present through phone conversation. Other phone calls are often from isolated sex worker immigrants, calling home in the Mainland (Durian Durian, Fruit Chan, 2000), attempting to reach mental health facilities (The Map of Sex and Love, E. Chan, 2001), and making money from phone sex (One Nation, Two Cities, Cheung King Wai, 2011). In these films, the phone both represents safety and security as well as emphasizing isolation and questions about Hong Kong’s role as a Special Administrative Region. What types of real or useful connections can be made from a phone? Are these conversations enough to bridge international borders? What are their shortcomings? In what ways might immigrants be more reliant on phone conversations than others?
Television quick take
Phones are easy ways to move the plot along in television series. A few make more explicit use of the motif. Batman has a conversation with himself in the 1960s television series and adds to the ongoing theme about performance and identity. Full House shows the power of the family house phone in the 1980s. The one with the phone in hand has the capability of escaping the domestic sphere. It also shows the humor and shame of negotiating a large phone bill, including this one where the kindergartner mistakenly calls Tokyo. Finally, here we can witness the arrival of the telephone at Downton Abbey:
In “Oh Jeff I Love You Too But” (1964), pop artist Roy Lichtenstein plays with an image from a romantic movie that shows tension in the woman’s face, but power in her cradled phone receiver. The power is in not having to face the one she is disappointing and in being able to exit at any time.
Can we really trust what we hear on a call? In a short musing about artists and phone calls in ArtReview, Patrick Langley discusses this issue:
Describing how testosterone injections changed his voice during his gender transition, the philosopher and curator Paul B. Preciado observes that the phone, that ‘faithful emissary’, began to betray him. ‘The voice is the mistress of truth,’ he writes. Yet, when his mother fails to recognise his altered timbre on the phone, he wonders: ‘Am I really her child?’ The phone can be used to deceive; equally, it can reveal more than we intend.
How might an artist in the future reimagine the philosophical nature of phone use?
How would these books and paintings and films be different without the phone? How could they still get their messages across? Or, would it change the narratives or visuals too much to construct a similar meaning?
Next week, I’m excited to share some ideas about cell phones and smart phones in the arts, including more films and novels as well as a look at music lyrics —
In the meantime, if you know further texts that make interesting use of the old school phone you’d like to share, please post them in the comments.