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Please Turn On Your Cell Phone: The Dark Side of Smartphones in New York Film Festival Movies

Please Turn On Your Cell Phone: The Dark Side of Smartphones in New York Film Festival Movies

This post contains SPOILERS.

It was only right that the Digital Cinema Package projection of Brian De Palma’s new film, “Passion,” failed. The anti‐digital segment of the film world quickly took their chance to haughtily harrumph at the “future of projection”’s malfunction. Of course, this is not to say that De Palma deserved to have this discomfort visited upon him for some past transgression against 35mm. Rather, it was right because this audience in search of a film was treated to a moment of art imitating life. What was surprising was that the fates did not conspire to do the same to Barry Levinson’s “The Bay.” Neither engages in a great deal of subtlety about their subject matter, but beneath their superficial plot concerns lies something much darker. Both films are propelled not just by the actions of people, but by the omnipresence and unwitting betrayal of their smartphones.

The idea that technology might one day rise up and betray its human masters is nothing new. At this point, “dystopian sci‐fi” is a genre all its own. “The Bay” and “Passion” however, are not interested in some far-off moment when artificial intelligence achieves consciousness. The simple, modern cameras that unravel the mysteries at the heart of these two films are dangerous by their very presence. 

“Passion” follows the life of two young, successful advertising women competing over a marketing campaign for a new phone. The intensity of their office rivalry is mirrored by the way the two negotiate their sex lives with each other and a shared, third lover. When De Palma mixes sex, love, and business it can almost be guaranteed that blood will spill. The police wake Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace) and the younger of the two women, in the middle of the night with a warrant for her arrest in the murder of blonde-haired, cutthroat Christine (Rachel McAdams). Now that the stage has been set, De Palma is content to play with time and reality while sending the viewer down an ever-deepening rabbit hole. 

When Isabelle’s assistant finally reveals that she can prove her guilt — thanks to the camera in the phone her boss has been trying to sell — the power balance shifts again — in much the same way Isabelle had usurped her boss’ position by releasing the ad she made with the same phone on YouTube. Thematically, “Passion” is a film about the relationships between doubles, but the central product of this corporation constantly destroys the relationships whose boundaries are established by the structures of business. These cameras do not act autonomously in order to bring about the downfall of their users, but rather they do exactly what they are sold to do, namely offer the ability to record anything, anywhere. The terror does not come from things being other than what they seem, but people, whose facades are invariably false. The objects, on the other hand, do exactly what one would expect of them.

“The Bay” takes this point to the extreme. When a mysterious parasite nearly wipes out an entire town in twenty-four hours, the government confiscates any and all video evidence of outbreak. This runs the gamut from security cameras to iPhones. When a Wikileaks-like organization releases it years later, a constantly frazzled young reporter named Stephanie (Kristen Connolly), agrees to narrate the film within a film. Levinson has discussed the novelty of the eco‐horror angle, but before the causes of the epidemic appear on screen the quiet truth of “The Bay” is that it would have been impossible in another age. The movie relies upon the idea that almost everyone would not only be able to record the important events in their life, but would willingly do so. By piecing together the material from the cameras the faux‐Wikileaks is able to recreate a narrative. Thus, the same government that lauds the entrepreneurial spirit of the tech sector and the necessity of surveillance is undone by the citizenry’s ability to maintain an equally active eye.

Ultimately, what makes these two films, as different as they are, so tense is that they adopt the outcomes of dystopian science fiction and place them in a contemporary setting. Smartphones, and not a supercomputer or robotic killing machines, undo these characters’ lives. This theme is such an effective cinematic strategy in part because it speaks directly to a fear of the increasing speed of technology. The material that once defined the world is quickly swept away, forcing cinephiles to call something a “film” even if it was digital from start to finish. It really is unsurprising, then, that “Passion”’s no‐show spurred on calls for a return to the infallible reel. 

The truth, however, is that there will always be glitches. When Film Forum last ran “Raging Bull,” the film came loose in the projector and the lights came up for fifteen minutes. For the spectator, there is little difference between this and a coding error. The introduction of digital need not mean the death of cinema; indeed it only signifies the proliferation of choices. While the audience will have to contend with all of the distractions these phones offer, more voices can be heard. “Passion”’s failure to screen says nothing about the future of digital projection, but like “The Bay” the movie itself has much to say about the way we relate to our gadgets and how we use them. The future does not belong to the smart machines. It belongs to those who use them.

Blair McClendon is currently studying art history at Columbia University, while working in and writing about film. He firmly believes that the Mothers of America should let their kids go to the movies. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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