My Idols Hate Cell Phones

Last week, I saw an article about Paul Thomas Anderson re-collaborating with Daniel Day-Lewis for a film set to release in 2017. I clicked, because I was curious, because he’s our best living filmmaker. There were very few details about the plot (classic P.T.), other than ‘set in the 1950s fashion world.’  I thought, “come on, man – another period piece?” 

Then today, I realized something. None of my film heroes: Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino, have ever set a movie in the modern, digital age.

For some context, I grew up in the ’90s.  I make films kind of. Using those two pieces of information, it is less than shocking that Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and to a lesser extent, Quentin Tarantino, are very dear to me.  When I was 11, the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction introduced me to cinema that felt hip. Then, I saw Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, which opened my eyes to stylized comedy. By the time I was 17, and freshly in love with both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, my formative years were set. I learned what the word ‘auteur’ meant and permanently put their faces next to the definition. What I’m saying is I like them. That’s what I meant by saying ‘film heroes.’

But in the last decade, all of their films exist outside of daily, contemporary experience. 

2007 –  THE DARJEELING LIMITED – set on a train in India

2007 –  THERE WILL BE BLOOD – turn of the century oil

2009 –  FANTASTIC MR. FOX –  cartoon about animals


2012 –  MOONRISE KINGDOM – 1950s New England

2012 –  THE MASTER – post ww2

2013 –  DJANGO UNCHAINED – slavery

2014 –  GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – ww2 europe

2015 – THE HATEFUL EIGHT – post civil war  

2015  – INHERENT VICE – the 70’s, man!

2017 – Untited Wes Anderson Animated Movie

2017-  Untitled P.T. Anderson fashion movie

So, that’s 0 for 12. The last movie set in modern day was 2005’s The Life Aquatic, which was mostly at sea, but we’ll count it.  But since then, nothing. No mention of e-mail. No reference to the Internet. Not a single cell phone.  Maybe it’s a coincidence. Or maybe the present is just not that interesting, and these guys want to tell stories about all of history.

[I mean, it’s mostly World War II, and its subsequent fallout. Or it’s the goddamn ’70s – which, sorry to get off-topic, but why are there so many movies set in that decade? I’m not saying y’all weren’t groovy and cool or whatever, but as an era, it’s pretty fucking one-note.]

OK, but, here’s the crazier part. Like I said, they are 0 for 12 since 2005, but… from 1992-2005, 11 of their 12 movies were set in the present day. So what the hell’s going on, fellas?

Is it too easy to chalk this up to the Internet? And more importantly, is it sloppy to state that ‘the Internet basically started in, like, 2006?’  I don’t know. But I just asked Google and it told me ‘YouTube got big in 2006’ and ‘Facebook boomed in 2007,’ and ‘tablets/smartphones were a Thing in 2009,’ so let’s go with that.  It’s an inexact estimate, but let’s just agree, from now on, that 2007 is basically when the Internet started to become what it is now, a decade later.  (Awww our 10th anniversary is coming up, you guys! We should all get each other Apple watches.)

Now some counterpoints.

  1. It probably wouldn’t be good if these writer/directors did try to be ‘of the moment.’  You don’t want a laptop hanging out in one of Wes Anderson’s dollhouse sets. And you don’t want Sam Jackson watching YouTube clips in Tarantino’s next revenge movie.  
  2. The goal of storytelling is to be timeless, and the more you incorporate modern technology in said story, the more likely it will become dated. Haha have you guys seen Zack Morris’ cell phone? 

In truth, most movies and television, and probably books although I don’t read them – mislead the audience as to how much of our lives are spent on mobile phones. When characters text or take selfies or swipe or scroll, it usually feels like the writer is trying to ‘say something,’ which we can only assume is some overwrought point about device addiction. And even when that’s not the case, it’s just not good cinema. When characters talk face-to-face, or even on the phone, there’s a good chance that one of them will say something hurtful or revealing or generally dramatic. Texting, on the other hand, is calculated, and diluted. 

[I think it’ll take some time, but eventually Hollywood will solve its text messaging problem. There will definitely will be some indie movie at Sundance in five years that has its entire story take place over text. It won’t ultimately be that good of a narrative, but we’ll laud it for being novel and imaginative.]

The point is, these guys aren’t alone. Art doesn’t always imitate life, and more often than not, it’s offering an escape from it. But the best art, the stuff we connect to, the stuff we can relate to, the stuff that gets deep down in your bones, does tend to imitate life. My favorite films of the past 5 years are Birdman and Her. The former takes place in the present, and seamlessly uses YouTube as a plot point, and references Twitter without coming off as desperate or tacky. And good for them, it takes some real Best Picture balls to take something like social media seriously; far too many shows and movies reference the Internet as if it’s some temporary, insignificant distraction, and not the one thing we can’t seem to live without. Her, on the other hand, is literally about this very relationship.

I’m not saying Wes, P.T., or Quentin should make a movie as centered around technology as Her. The degree of difficulty, as we’ve discussed, is very high. But who better to take on that challenge than three directors whose respective styles have become a little too predictable? It’s not like Django Unchained, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Inherent Vice, Grand Budapest Hotel, and Hateful Eight are groundbreaking efforts for these three.  It’s time to embrace change, boys! It’s time to adapt!

Nostalgia is powerful, and the past is romantic. But if you dig deep enough, so is the present.