Our increasing gravitation toward communicating via the phone in our palm has proved to be a troublesome adjustment for visual storytellers. Much like filmmakers treated our burgeoning Internet use, there were films that placed the cell phone as the center of its thriller (Cellular). The phone was cause for moral panic (and still is), or was a tool for bomb detonation (Source Code). Unsurprisingly, the cell phone was fetishized for its monolithic and harmful presence before it was used in TV and film as a conduit for communication.
It seems odd to recognize, but entertainment producers are still having trouble integrating this ubiquitous form of communication. There are two main reasons showrunners and filmmakers would shy away from incorporating cell phone use: 1) characters communicating through SMS prohibits possibilities for dynamic acting between two actors, and 2) watching people text each other is boring.
The former happens throughout Parenthood; every character has an iPhone, yet one person will go across town to another person’s house just to say “sorry,” or “I care about you.” Not only does it allow for more meaningful screen time for each actor, but it also opens up for exponentially more dramatic storylines. For instance, what was supposed to be an apology might turn into the beginning of an affair or a fist-fight.
The latter is being increasingly ironed out; visual storytellers are finding innovative ways to make an unavoidable form of our communication interesting on screen. Although this originally involved just a shot of a cell phone in the foreground as the owner texted their message, the following are a few examples* of films that make interesting use of on-screen texting. It is worth noting that the lion’s share of the most idiosyncratic examples are from this past year.
House of Cards (2013)
The on-screen texting of House of Cards works well because it's used sparingly. It is reserved for only a particular kind of transaction that is precarious and secretive. Zoe, D.C. journalist, and Frank, politician, use each other for their distinct professional advantages. The silent nature of texting aids the characterization of their relationship and this presentation builds the tension between them. One of the strongest qualities of House of Cards is its production quality. David Fincher made the show look pretty, and these on-screen text exchanges allow for Fincher to not only add some sleekness, but to continue his nice framing and visual exposition. Instead of sleek, this might have been clunky if the audience had to watch their phone screens instead.
Non-Stop (Taken on a Plane) is about a U.S. Air Marshall being trolled via text by a plane passenger for two hours. I can't imagine the screenplay was anything but a bore, but the film is exciting and tense. Before the pervasiveness of on-screen texting, I'm curious as to whether the film would have been as cohesive, or if it would have felt stilted, going back-and-forth from the phone to Neeson's face.
Beyond how on-screen texting ties the film together, there are a couple nuances to Non-Stop's presentation that keep it fresh. The first (as shown above) replicates the screen of a phone once it's broken. Wisely, the filmmakers only used this trick with a phone Neeson wasn't going to be using for very long. The other interesting feature to Non-Stop's on-screen texting is the inclusion of autocorrect. Sometimes, when Neeson's character is texting, the autocorrect for the word pops up and completes the typing. At first, I found this detail annoying and maybe even distracting, but it won me over throughout the film. It doesn't necessarily add anything to Non-Stop, but I'll be interested to see whether details like autocorrect do become significant parts of communication in other films (i.e. the cause of miscommunication hijinks).
The Fault In Our Stars (2014)
The budding relationship at the center of The Fault In Our Stars spend a lot of time on the phone together, both talking and texting. It’s a substantial mediation of how they share their day-to-day, moment-to-moment struggles. Obviously, what's interesting about this example of on-screen texting is its creative, playful design. The handwritten notebook sketch-esque presentation matches the personalities involved in the conversation, and honestly, the superficiality of it breathes some life into the film. I expect to see this type of handwritten display used quite a bit in future graphic novel and comic book adaptations.
Men, Women & Children (2014)
Jason Reitman’s already forgotten 2014 film about (*throws up in mouth*) the dark side of our constant Internet use, narrated by (*throws up in mouth again*) intelligent sounding Brit, Emma Thompson. In a sentence, Men, Women & Children is the Crash of Internet use.
As hard to swallow as Men, Women & Children is, it does, however, contain the most sophisticated integration of cell phone communication in TV and film. But that’s simply because it’s obsessed with it. There are funny techniques that capture some of the nuance of our phone and tablet use, and Reitman laterally uses a similar technique for home computer use.
The visual representation of our internet and mobile-based communication present in Men, Women & Children is most likely be the formula going forward, which is fine. However, I hope showrunners and filmmakers start to use a similar model but in storylines that don’t place our communication at its center. It’s odd that it took an industry so preoccupied with graphics so long to regularly incorporate artificial visuals for practicality’s sake that must be relatively easy to create in relation to idiosyncratic mythical creatures. I find these exciting and fun, and I look forward to how visual storytellers are going to improve on the examples provided to not only make more visually interesting stories, but also continue to enrich their storytelling.
*There are plenty others: I know the TV shows Sherlock and Pretty Little Liars use similar techniques, but I have not been exposed to either very much.