For the past few months, analysts have been crediting new media with revolutionizing American filmmaking. Using handy buzz phrases like ”the new language of film,“ pundits have pointed to the nonlinear plotline of Doug Liman’s Go, the fanciful cyberlike brain portal in Being John Malkovich and the transdimensional topography of the Wachowski brothers‘ The Matrix, and concluded that today’s avant-garde filmmakers have been imprinted with the lateral epistemology of the World Wide Web as well as the interactive determinism of PlayStation.
But there‘s another, less scrutinized technological influence in current filmmaking that can be dubbed Nokia cinema: films that, whether or not they depict actual cell-phone use (and most don’t), clearly demonstrate the profound impact of cell-phone culture on our experience of the world. To understand a Nokia film, it‘s first necessary to unearth the very singular psychic landscape produced by cell phones: the sense that one’s personal narrative is no longer enclosed, but rather is always intermingled and intercut with other people‘s. The net effect is an enhanced sense of simultaneity, synergy, interconnectedness between people, while at the a same time a displacement of self, a disembodied feeling, a sense of being uprooted from any distinct physical domain. Every time the boss calls while you’re at the massage parlor, or your boyfriend buzzes during the middle of a staff meeting, your identity is fragmented, your professional and personal selves are commingled.
In conveying the weblike sense of connectedness, the foremost American Nokia film has to be P.T. Anderson‘s Magnolia, which attempts to provide the cinematic equivalent of listening to six cell-phone conversations at the same time. Indeed, Magnolia contains all the hallmarks of compulsive cell-phone behavior: the colossal self-absorption, the total lack of self-restraint, the belief that even the most mundane personal details need to be communicated to as many people as possible. The quintessential cell-phone moment is when Anderson has his characters, sprinkled across L.A. in separate-but-interlocking vignettes, sing along to the same song — it’s a moment that could, without any editing, be converted into a Sprint PCS ad.
Magnolia, certainly a love-it-or-hate-it movie experience, is nonetheless a harbinger of things to come — anticipating in particular the latest endeavor of German wunderkind filmmaker Tom Tykwer, whose film Winter Sleepers opens in a couple of weeks. When he was in his mid-30s, Tykwer began his directorial career amidst the cornucopia that was ‘90s technology — the Net, e-mail, CD-ROM games and the like. Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, with its three alternate scenarios, was described by many critics as a cinematic video game: In one scenario, Lola dies, only to be resuscitated for games two and three. To add to the video-game effect, Tykwer actually converts Lola into an animated action figure for certain sequences.
At the same time, Lola exemplified what can be called a ”hyperlink narrative“ structure — Tykwer ”pointed and clicked“ on the people Lola passed on the street to show, through a snapshot montage, their ensuing (and variable) destinies. Tykwer‘s stylistic innovations seemed to strike a chord: Run Lola Run broke German box-office records, single-handedly resurrected the German film industry, produced a kicking dance-music soundtrack and then became a box-office hit in the U.S.
Winter Sleepers is to cell phones what Run Lola Run was to the World Wide Web. The film — whose languorous pace could earn it the nickname Slowla — is a kind of lush, frogless Magnolia that probes the often invisible points where human lives intersect, the people in this case being horny German ski bums. Tykwer sees Winter Sleepers, which was released in Germany before Lola, as a companion piece to the latter movie.
”Both films belong together, both express the feeling of my generation that society wasn’t really moving, and the related question: Are we still able to change things? In your early 30s, people start to expect you to define yourself, but you don‘t know how,“ Tykwer explains in a phone interview. ”Lola tries to answer these questions through speed. She believes that energy can change the world. The people in Winter Sleepers, on the other hand, have no answers, they’re just trying to live through all this.“
Tykwer also notes the strange relationship between cell phones and his own artistic preoccupations. ”My first cell phone was bought back in 1997, when production for Winter Sleepers began, and I remember that it felt very close to the movie — all these unexpected things that show you that somebody else is being affected by your existence because he‘s trying to reach you,“ he says. ”And this is maybe what all my films are about, these intertwined systems that we all travel in and in between. All my characters have these visible and invisible strings that connect and disconnect them. This is how I’ve experienced life even more intensely via the new media — e-mail, the Internet, all the Nokia stuff.“
Having said that, Tykwer hastens to add: ”Yet I feel the depiction of cell phones in movies to be disgusting, and I refuse to use them. You see that in Lola I used a wired traditional red phone, and Manni was calling her from an old-fashioned phone booth.“ (The same formula applies to last year‘s postmodern sci-fi epic The Matrix: Neo and his compatriots also use old-fashioned telephone booths and corded phones to migrate between realities.)
Cell-phone culture, and the connectivity it enables, opens users to heretofore unperceived scenarios taking place around them. By allowing owners to tap into each other’s realities on a whim, at a moment‘s notice, from virtually anywhere, cell phones place people in contact with the banality, stress and exhilaration of each other’s lives in unprecedented ways — and, in doing so, relativize one‘s own individual scenario. Above all, it’s these new-media dynamics, the blessings and burdens of human synchronicity that come out of cell-phone and Net culture, that Tykwer is intent on probing.
”People think in terms of what-ifs all day: ‘What if I didn’t make that call, what if I took a different route to work?‘“ muses Tykwer. ”In the banality of one’s situation are so many hidden, uncelebrated potential realities. Luckily, we now have the virtual toys that allow us to celebrate not just our reality, but alternate realities as well.“