Thursday, May 27, 2010
The Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not
The Telephone Book is a comedy about a girl who falls in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone caller (it says so on the cover). "How obscene is this call?" you might be asking yourself. Call’s so obscene, bizarre, perverse, inspiring, and filthy they hypnotize any and all who come into contact with their deep breathing glory (that being said we never actually hear what is said onscreen during the juicy parts of the calls; let your imagination be your guide). The caller in question refuses to identify himself initially, and our lovely heroin sits in her apartment (full of pornographic wallpaper), waiting for her next verbal violation like an eager kid at Christmas. Soon the voice is not enough, and she wants/needs to find out if the caller’s bark is as well endowed as his bite. So our tale begins, a silly sex romp through the streets of Manhattan in the 70’s as our gal is sent from one strange location to the next meeting who I can only assume are regular NYC fixtures like the flasher, the man with the unkillable erection, the porn king, the woman with the mysterious baby carriage, etc. New York from it’s subways to it’s café’s, from parks to high rises, becomes a buffet of sensual enticements. Written and directed by Nelson Lyon who would go on to be a writer for Saturday Night Live, this has all the whimsical lightness of similar SNL born and all but forgotten fantasy “Nothing Lasts Forever”. “The Telephone Book” being an earlier film it would seem to have absorbed much of the late 60’s sex-politics of Dusan Makavejev (in the faux-documentary portions of the film featuring “real” obscene phone caller’s discussing their fetish and trade) and 1968’s “Candy” the sex-ploitation re-imagining of “Candide” (in it’s goofiness and naïveté, and without the mishandled “satire”). If you ever wondered what Mark Rappaport doing soft-core might look like (in which case you are a strange person, but we should talk later in private), look no further.“The Telephone Book” is not about anymore than it’s taglines claims it to be, thankfully not taking sex as seriously as either of the films mentioned above. Sex is never depicted on screen, while sexual acts are usually fragmented by editing, into flailing limbs, belly button close ups, or non specific gyrating bodies shot from a distance etc. “The Telephone Book” more than anything is a comedy, and a very funny one at that. Like Voltaire’s “Candide” and Terry Southern’s “Candy”, our heroin is so impossibly sweet, likeable, and upbeat through any perversion she encounters, her journey of stalking her stalker, becomes a grail quest were willing to cheer for, not just droll over. Even if our heroin, were to react "realistically" and didn't have that ridiculous Betty Boop voice, it would be hard to resist the charms of actress Sarah Kennedy (who carries the film largely on the strength of her smile) aptly named Alice, as she explores her own concrete wonderland. Besides, who could say no to this face? Only unlike King Arthur and his failed quest, "The Telephone Book" delivers the goods in a final scene almost a quarter of the film long, where the caller recounts his life story of being a man whose craft at dirty phone calls has evolved to the point where if he so desired he could “...seduce the president of the United States Of America”. But he has no interest in world domination, he is in it for the “art” of the call, pure and simple.
“The Telephone Book” concludes what has become a trinity, with my last two film reviews, of sexploitation films about technology; cars in “Crash”, art/sculpture in “Blind Beast”, and now phones in “The Telephone Book”. The pattern remains the same, people who have become so distant from each other, they must use objects to bridge the gap between their desires and themselves, but only in “The Telephone Book” is this not made out to be entirely a bad thing. This surely comes from the films tone being comic, and the other two being tragic, but it’s also more than that. This movie could have taken the easy way out and made the caller a typical lame duck disappointment highlighting A. technologies inherently deceptive nature (it claims to make our lives better, but really just makes things worse/less natural) B. the woman’s journey as feminine exploration of her own sexuality (the caller was never important, the orgasm was in you all along young grasshopper!) or C. Social alienation and loneliness of two strangers coming together through chance or fate. Now there are respectable elements of B. and C. at work in small doses here, but A. is completely refuted.::SpoilerAlert:: The couple do not have sex, or become a couple in any traditional sense. Not because the caller can’t, but because he won’t. Much to Alice's disappointment (not so you would notice), he is a talker, not a lover. And though he cannot offer her a body, he can and does give her the “greatest sexual encounter of her life” by the two of them standing in adjacent phone booths and him “talking” her ear into a puddle all night. This too could be a sad, sordid little scene in the hands of Harmony Korine or Micheal Haneke, but director Nelson Lyon predates the movie version of the “The Wall” by editing in animated sequences where every possible object from buildings to clouds to the sun becomes some variation of a penis, breasts, ass, testicles, mouths, or vaginas. Lyon doesn’t do this for a few seconds either, this scene goes on for minutes, like “2001’s” wormhole sequence only the wormhole runs straight into R. Crumb’s sub-conscious. ::SpoilerOver::
The Telephone Book mocks much of the seriousness and criticisms of the sexual revolution, but in the teasing/knowing way a girlfriend might who really keeps it close to heart.
Years before the Internet made it possible to meet new people without actually meeting them, it feels like The Telephone Book is mapping out territory for virtual experience, honest enough to recognize it as creepy, sweaty, and absurd, but not so self-righteous that it’s not open to the idea that genuine pleasure, romance, or humor couldn't be found in these new relationships either.
I was reminded at times of the gentle ending of “Me And You And Everyone We Know”, with the boy in the park, that could have been a cruel "Law And Order: SVU" episode but wasn’t, or “Private Fears In Public Places”, and the secretary who gives her boss a VHS tape of “religious tv” which ends with a woman’s (presumably the secretary’s) legs and torso dancing provocatively (she is only willing to give him the tapes provided he never mention them to her). There is strange logic at work in those films, but like this movie, it is a specific and honest logic, and so it works. The characters in “The Telephone Book” may be no more substantial than the porn-cartoons which serve as stand in for their physical contact, but there is more truth (or if not, at least varieties of truths) to be found in their wide-eyed over-exaggerations than in any art-house trips into “the dark side of...”.
This was a warm, fuzzy, feel good, modern fairy tale about love and distance that makes the best case I’ve seen in a movie for the old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.