Sep 012015
 

“Say Vandelay!” Another Seinfeld plotline, made possible by the absence of cellphone technology.

Hello! I can’t be the only one who watches reruns of old TV shows and notices that most sitcom plots wouldn’t exist if cellphones had been around at the time.

It makes it hard to watch pre-millennial movies and TV shows; it makes you wonder how people solved even basic mishaps without the aid of a mobile device.

I call it the B.C. — Before Cellphone — problem.

For instance, there’s Seinfeld. A typical episode has Elaine, George, Jerry and Kramer trying to meet up for a movie. They arrive from separate locations, and end up stumbling around in the dark, packed movie house, whispering “Elaine??” or “Jerry??” — much to the annoyance of other movie-goers.

That script would end up in the trashcan today. Nobody has to stumble around in dark movie theaters — first of all, your cellphone has a flashlight, and secondly, a simple text message would have set up a meeting point.

It’s weird how so much of popular culture — movies, TV shows — relies on ancient technology to keep the old plots going. And how easily most problems on TV could have been solved with iPhones.

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Take a show like The X-Files. In the ‘90s, we recall Scully and Mulder did sometimes wander around with those huge, shoe-size mobile phones, usually when they were separated on their hunt for this or that mutant creature. But those cellphones were really more of an eyesore than a useful piece of technology. They couldn’t take pictures, for instance. One X-Files episode has Mulder (typically) watching in amazement as a fleet of alien ships soars overhead. In modern times, that moment would be captured on his phone cam and uploaded to YouTube in less time than it took the Cigarette Smoking Man to finish one of his Morleys. But since it was the ‘90s, no one had a Samsung or iPhone, so they just seemed like deranged hillbillies whenever they claimed to have seen a UFO.

(Of course, the relative availability of cellphones today still has not resulted in conclusive photographic evidence of alien life posted on Instagram. But anyway…)

And let’s not forget how, whenever Mulder or Scully enter a warehouse or building at night, the electricity is mysteriously cut, the light switches always seem out of reach, so the two end up wandering around in the dark — rather than flicking on that handy cellphone flashlight.

Yes, modern technology can be a real suspense killer.

Back to Seinfeld, where about 70 percent of the scripts rely on a comedy of errors resulting from lack of cellphones. The gang could have easily found one another in that strangely labyrinthine mall parking lot in Jersey; or they could have played Candy Crush to while away the half hour waiting for their Chinese restaurant reservation to be called — if only they had the technology.

A typical Rube Goldberg scenario on Seinfeld has George pretending he’s a salesman for “Vandelay Industries,” and giving Jerry’s landline as his “business” number. The jig is up when someone calls Jerry’s apartment while George is occupied in the bathroom; Kramer insists to the caller that there’s no Vandelay Industries, and George’s pathetic, pre-technology ruse is ruined. Lying on the floor, his pants around his ankles — all because he didn’t have a Nokia.

Or take the episode where George (again) tries to fake his way through an IQ test in a locked bedroom, waiting for Elaine to slip him the completed sheets through a nearby window. With a cellphone and Google, George could have cheated his way through with much greater ease and panache.

Similarly, a lot of movies could not take place in today’s cellphone age. Whenever John MacClane or Harry Callahan is told to run from phone booth to phone booth by a crazed killer or terrorist in movies like Die Hard III or Dirty Harry — well, you can throw that plot twist right out the window. Phone booths just don’t exist in most American cities anymore. At least working ones.

Or how about the strangling scene in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder? First off, dialing anything on an old rotary phone would take so long, the killer could take you out with a bad tuna fish sandwich before you could even get a cop on the line. And secondly, the killer in that movie at one point tries to strangle Grace Kelly with a landline phone cord — try doing that with a cell phone, Mr. Killer!

Or take Jaws. Ol’ Quint needn’t have been chewed in half by that Great White if a) he hadn’t taken a baseball bat to his ship’s radio set and b) Sheriff Brody had packed a BlackBerry along with his seasickness pills.

Almost every horror movie, in fact, is rendered prehistoric by the simple electronic gadget vibrating away in your pocket — from Clarice Starling wandering around blind in Jame Gumb’s creepy cellar in The Silence of the Lambs to Janet Leigh’s sister wandering around in Norman Bates’ creepy cellar in Psycho. The cellphone: Don’t leave home without it, ladies!

Romances would also suffer, such as Sleepless in Seattle or An Affair to Remember. Not only would your location in the Empire State Building be texted to the would-be lover, there would be a Facebook post with your selfie taken up on the observation deck. These days, you can’t escape knowing where your intended lover is posting from! And surely The English Patient’s tragic ending could have been solved by a little better preparation, including an iPhone with GPS tracking.

(Even in the age of cellphones, of course, countless movies still claim that such and such a person can’t be reached because of “lousy cellphone reception” or “low battery.” That’s what you call retroscripting a problem that is nowadays easily solved by modern technology.)

Or take E.T. (The Extraterrestrial), that wonderful Spielbergian confection from the ‘80s in which kids rode bikes after school and Drew Barrymore had an even more pronounced lisp. The dwarf-like alien needn’t have devised a ramshackle phone out of a Speak & Spell, a coffee can and an old umbrella to contact his faraway planet.
He could have just used Facetime.

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