August 18, 2008

Only in the Movies: Answering Machines

Pardon the interruption - I was in California for the last few days. Visited my buddy Mitch in L.A., and even had the pleasure to briefly meet Craig Kennedy. Then another wedding and catching up with the crew in San Diego.

So at my friend's place in San Diego, I was reminded of a feature that I've been meaning to get off the ground for a while: "Only in the Movies", otherwise known as movie cliché
s. These are, obviously, the distracting things in movies that completely remove you from the experience because they're so out of touch with reality.

Who uses answering machines anymore?

I thought I might be going out on a limb with this one, but the stats are out there: "According to USA Today, the number of homes that only use cell phones jumped 159% between 2004 and 2007. It has been particularly bad in New York; since 2000, landline usage has dropped 55%. It's logical that as cell phones rise, many of them replacing traditional landlines, that there will be fewer answering machines."

That alone is strong enough evidence, but I would argue that even those who still have landlines often have digital voice mail instead of a physical machine next to their phone. Forgive the hyperbolic metaphor, but there are probably about as many microtape answering machines around these days as there are rotary phones (or for that matter, pay phones). Yet, in movie after movie, these beeping machines continue to make an appearance.

Typically, we get an answering machine scene to relay a message from a character that we would otherwise not see: protagonist arrives home, tosses belongings onto a nearby chair, sees archaic machine flashing with a red light and displaying a digital number, hits red button, and hears a loud, clear message played back in between obnoxious beeps.

It's a shortcut for advancing the story, and it usually does the job. Besides, how else would we hear those plot-driving messages if the character was - as they would in real life - checking their voice mail with their phones up to their ears?

So I get the reason, but I'm still distracted by it, and I still think that it's especially out of place in so many movies with contemporary stories, like The Savages. Personally, I find it easier to relate to the characters when I can plug in to what they're doing. In Tell No One, for example, we were able to check out a cryptic email along with the main character, Alexandre. Considering most of us probably get as many (if not more) messages relayed to us via email and not phone, I thought it was a step in the right direction. This advancement of technology can be abused, however. Am the only who raised an eyebrow at the extreme dependence on text messaging in The Departed?

By this point you're probably rolling your eyes that I could be so bothered by something as silly as phone technology in movies. All I can say is, we all observe different details in different movies, and this is one of several that irks me every time.


  1. I really think it's great that you met Craig, and I'm sure you made that brief meeeting as one jammed-packed with fond anecdotes!

  2. I like this observation. I never thought about how odd it is that they STILL pop up in films.

    The benefits of it, I guess, is that it makes for a much more interesting shot. With a cell phone you most likely will get a close-up of the head/ear listening b/c it would feel odd for us to hear the cell phone message in a wider shot. And with e-mail... well, it's kinda bland. I liked Tell No One, but looking at an e-mail on a computer screen isn't very cinematic.

    Plus, if it weren't for the answering machine, one of the best jokes in The Brother's Solomon woulda been killed. (I know I'm the only one that cares about The Brothers Solomon, but still...)

  3. That it was, Sam. Like I said at LiC, he's on the way up and it was nice to talk shop for a bit. Never thought such a meeting would have ever happened a year ago, before this whole thing actually existed in my life. Weird.

    If it's not obvious, Fox, I'm at least glad you recognize the occurrence. I have to shake my head every time.

    Your point about the shot is a really interesting one. It's true - we'd basically have to be in the characters face or ear to get realistic audio. I guess that could be as awkward as reading emails. Still, I wonder if the whole reliance on answering machines isn't just a sign of lazy writing.

    That being said, there have been some classic answering machine scenes - Swingers comes to mind.

    It can't last more than a few more years, though. How can you continue to use a relic as a prop? I mean seriously, NOBODY will have an answering machine in 5-10 years...right?

  4. Yeah, I mean, the only people I know that have an answering machine anymore are my parents. I'm a slow-mover when it comes to technology and even I haven't had one for 4 years now.

    I would think they have to be phased out soon. And, also, thinking about it some more, I guess it wouldn't look that weird just overhearing the the voicemail as the actor/character listens to it. I'm sure it happens all the time... I just can't think of an example at this second.

    But I really like this topic b/c it's about devices that directors always rely on.

    It a (kind of) related note, I was watching De Palma's Blow Out the other day and Travolta was walking around the hospital smoking. My first reaction was to laugh, but then I realized "Oh yeah, the world used to be much different..."

  5. Is it really that common in contemporary movies, though? I can't think of too many recent films to use an answering machine.

    By the way, both my parents and my in-laws have and use an answering machine, despite having cells as well. They just can't justify paying $5.00/month for voice mail on their landline (and I really can't blame them there; I just prefer the convenience of voice mail).

  6. To my shame I still have a stand alone answering, not tape, but still. As soon as it breaks, I'll go voicemail I swear.'re right. And it bugs me.

    You know what else bugs me? When a character's cell phone rings, they look at it, then answer and act suprised by who is on the other end even though it's someone who would be in their address book and therefore ID'd

  7. Haha, Fox, or the smoking on the flight in Airplane. How that was actually real blows my mind. The smoking, not the movie, of course...

    You know I think we always hear phone conversations from one side or another (Babel comes to my mind for some unknown reason - Pitt and Barraza with kids; the Bourne movies, really EVERY movie), but rarely do we see somebody just listening to a message - it's always the speaker on the machine. If you think of it, let me know.

    On that note, Fletch, I really feel like I've noticed it a lot in the last year. Maybe it's because we've seen different movies, but I think if you keep an eye out for it you'll see it. It obviously hurts my case that I can't name more examples of late, but it's really so ubiquitous that I feel like it's one out of every five movies or so. How's that for an outlandish statement, haha?

    And Craig, there's no shame in it (and at least you've got digital!). In fact it's probably going to become trendy again soon. I just find it annoying that it's still used so often...but then there you all go, all three knowing people who use them.

    Don't get me started on caller ID or other technology - "beeping computer monitors" is definitely another one on the way...

  8. The romantic in me always wanted an answering machine... my parents never had one, and I'm one of those young hipsters without a land line, so I guess it's not gonna happen. I have this fantasy, especially, of someone calling up and going "Pick up. Come on, I know you're there. Pick up!" while I stand aside in a glamorous outfit with a wistful look on my face...

    Only in the movies, indeed.

  9. I still use an answering machine! But then, I'm an adamant opponent of cell phones. I've borrowed a cell phone a couple of times in my life, when I was in a jam and it was the most convenient thing to do, but beyond that, I consider them one of my enemies.

  10. I’ve never had an answering machine, but they are appealing to me. It’s the same as when people in the movies or on TV “screen” calls, and then the call gets picked up by the answering machine and the person on the other side of the call pours their heart and soul out to the recipient, and only then does the “screener” pick up the phone and they have a cute little heart to heart, or something.

    I am a firm believer in the cell phone, I don’t even have a conventional phone in my house. But in the movies, cell phones are just boring.

    *yeah, and I am still jealous of your and Craig's meeting, but it's all good*

  11. lol, Hedwig, that's the movie scene alright. I'm surprised sometimes when I'm leaving someone a message and they pick up in the middle of it. Still catches me off guard that people are screening their calls like that. Why? I assume nobody has an answering machine!

    Your resistance is amazing, Alexander. I love when people have random loyalties like that (like me not being on Facebook...). Hold out as long as you can.

    Nick you describe that scene even better. Is there any other way for it to happen in the story? It's full circle back to Fox's first comment.

    You'll get out here soon enough, guy.

  12. I use an answering machine. I love it. Cos I despise cell phones. This is more an age thing Daniel. You kids today and your need for hi-tech gadgets...and the disdain for people that don't love these new toys that simply enslave you further...beep.

  13. I love that photo from Kiss Me, Deadly.

    I have an answering machine in the port for my wireless landline phone. It's handy.

  14. Alright, I'm a few years too early with this one, at least for a majority. I'll take Fox's and Craig's agreements and stew quietly the next time I see an answering machine scene.

    Haha, Christian, message received. I don't disdain the users, though, just the frequent movie uses of it.

  15. Computers, computers, computers! Almost exclusively shown to work in way they do not. From old ones in old movies to new high tech movies and everything in between.

    I quote the part from Super Troopers quite a bit (sadly I quote all of ST quite a bit) "Enhance...enhance...enhance". I guess that was a nod to a Star Trek scene.

  16. I didn't know you loved ST so much. You know I hung out with those guys one night, right? They ended up agreeing to have my roommate assist with their next project "in Mexico". It ended up being Club Dread. She wasn't in it. I didn't see it.

    The beeping computer screen is definitely going to be featured here in the future. I never know what the point of it is.

  17. Nothing wrong with quoting Super Troopers all the time. What's the name of that restaurant with all the shit on the walls?

    Though I believe teeblah is referring more to the impossible resoultion that movie computers that create rather than any beeping. It's always HIlarious to see, for example, a 1 megapixel image blown up (or zoomed in) to approximately poster size and yet it never loses resolution.

  18. I can't remember the name. I actually haven't even seen it in a couple of years...

    Well the beeping and the image resolution are two peas in the same supercomputer pod. Enemy of the State is a poster child for both of these.

  19. Because I was going to forget: Elegy has not one, but three answering machine scenes like the one I describe!

  20. Sideways is a film that comes to my mind, with a character that uses answering machine.

    I would go through the films that I have seen to come up with more contemporary examples for Fletch but I am just too tired for now :)

  21. Thanks for commenting, Anil, and for that great example! I know, I hit a wall with Fletch's challenge, too, but I still think it's pretty common...

  22. First scene, first line in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist = beeping answering machine.

  23. Well, it's now 2012 and I'm watching "Limitless" with Bradley Cooper and I had to pause the movie because I was so irked about him STILL using an anachronistic answering machine as a plot advancing device, as if it were still 1992 in this magical Hollywood world. I had to go online and see if this bothered anyone else and that's how I found this page... gah! When are they going to stop using this lazy writer's device?? It's driving me batty now...

  24. Thanks for checking in on it, Brian. I think I remember that from Limitless and had to roll my eyes yet again. Or, it might have been a different recent movie; definitely it remains as common as ever.

    And soon enough even voice messages on cell numbers (what should be the current mode) will be anachronistic as people increasingly just don't even talk on the phone at all. To really be with it these days, a film should just feature massive amounts of text messaging between characters. But I guess that doesn't really engage the actor or the viewer, despite the fact that it would be much more realistic.

  25. Yeah, I know... I mean, I understand that it was a useful device and it is difficult to replace it... but pretty soon it's going to start looking like the equivalent of having a messenger boy knocking at the door with a telegram... ;-)

  26. Speaking of telegrams, wonder how long it will be before postal mail disappears from the real world - and the silver screen. Loads of movies with mail as a plot device as well.


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