An artifact which is increasingly rare. It is a small structure, just large enough to turn around in, with a metal frame and glass or plastic windows, and a door for one wall. Within there is a pay phone, a light, and usually a shelf or two ... and sometimes a phone book.

Superman used them to change clothes. Bill and Ted used one to do their time traveling. Doctor Who did not use a phone booth, as some Americans think, but rather a police box.

Someone is loose in Moscow who won't stop
Ringing my phone.
Whoever-it-is listens, then hangs up.
Dial tone.

What do you want? A bushel of rhymes or so?
An autograph? A bone?
Dial tone.

Someone's lucky number, for all I know,
Is the same, worse luck, as my own.
Dial tone.

Or perhaps it's an angel calling collect
To invite me to God's throne.
Damn, I've been disconnected.
Dial tone.

Or is it my old conscience, my power of choice
To which I've grown
A stranger, and which no longer knows my voice?
Dial tone.

Are you standing there in some subway station, stiff
And hatless in the cold,
With your finger stuck in the dial as if
In a ring of gold?

And is there, outside the booth, a desperate throng
Tapping its coins on the glass, chafing its hands,
Like a line of people who have been waiting long
To be measured for wedding bands?

I hear you breathe and blow into some remote
Mouthpiece, and as you exhale
The lapels of my coat
Flutter like pennants in a gale.

The planet's communications are broken.
I'm tired of saying hello,
My questions might as well be unspoken.
Into the void my answers go.

Thrown together, together
With you, with you unknown.
Hello. Hello. Hello there.
Dial tone. Dial tone. Dial tone.

Translated from the Russian by Richard Wilbur

Andrei Voznesensky

Phone Booth - 2003
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Larry Cohen

Slick New York publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) uses the same phone booth to call his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) every day because his wife checks his cell phone bill. One day, he answers the pay phone and the caller on the other end (Kiefer Sutherland) tells Stu that if he hangs up or leaves the booth he will be shot. After the sniper kills a man on the street, the police and the media surround the booth believing that Stu is the killer.

Phone Booth is a film that has been long gestating. Larry Cohen came up with his original idea 20 years ago and it was turned into the short film End of the Line in 1996. The project was then picked up by Michael Bay in 1999 and a revolving door of actors were ready to star in the lead role. Mel Gibson, Will Smith, and Jim Carrey were all slated to star at different points, with it looking as though Carrey was finally going to seal the deal. Eventually, Carrey declared that he was uncomfortable with stalker aspect of the material and dropped out along with Bay. The script was then picked up by Joel Schumacher, who brought in his Tigerland actor Colin Farrell and actually managed to make the damn film. Phone Booth was initially scheduled to be released on November 17, 2002, but the Washington sniper attacks caused the studio to decide to push the release back to April of 2003.

I really love the concept of Phone Booth, but I don’t think that this is the right time or place (or director!) for this film to be made. This is the perfect type of movie to have come out of the 1970s: low budget, quick, and intense. They managed to score on both the budget (a relatively minuscule $12 million) and quick (the running time is a paltry 80 minutes), but I don’t think they nailed the intensity.

The main area where I think this film could have been improved is in the directing. Schumacher fills the film with lots of little visual moves that seem to pull the focus out of the booth. After opening with a photogrammetry shot of the movement of a cell call through satellites and transmitters (which is ripped off from the beginning of Enemy of the State), Schumacher uses a lot of split-screens and picture in picture set-ups (much like those in Kiefer Sutherland’s 24) to try and show two things going on at once. This just felt artificial and pulled me out of the film. Since the whole movie takes place on a small section of city street, I think that it might have been better if he had just used a couple of cameras and observed the goings on from those set perspectives as though they were security cameras (like in The Conversation). I would have been really impressed if he tried to pull a Rope and do the whole movie in a single shot. As gimmicky as this might sound, I think that something like that could have really sucked me in and ratcheted up the power of using such a small setting.

There’s nothing about the performances that really stand out in my mind (other than one woman playing a profanity-spewing hooker that is simply terrible). Colin Farrell is fine, which is compliment considering he pretty much has to carry the film all by himself. The ever-solid Forest Whitaker is good as the weary police captain trying to talk Stu out of the booth. Kiefer Sutherland tries to be all sinister and mean as The Caller but just can’t pull it off. Maybe his voice is just too distinctive to be the sound of random evil.

Two other total nitpicks: The laser sight on the sniper rifle looks really fake and was obviously added in post-production, and The Caller’s voice is pumped in through the main audio track, as though he were some sort of omniscient narrator. I don’t know why, but these two things irked me to no end. You can probably ignore them.

I look over this writeup and all I see is negativity, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad film. It’s simply OK, nothing special. 6.5 out of 10. C+/B-. Two and a half stars. Whatever you want to call it. But it is not great, and that’s what I was hoping for. Something that could give me the claustrophobia of Cube with the standoff/hostage/character aspects of Dog Day Afternoon.

It’s a shame that remakes usually only happen to famous movies that don’t need them. It would make sense that good ideas that simply got misplayed should sometimes get another shot too. Maybe in the future someone will strike gold with the Phone Booth concept and give us something great. I’d be the first one in line.

I was just reading this writeup, and it got me thinking about the recurrence of phone booths in American fiction.

The protagonists in The Matrix use phone booths as exits via which to leave the Matrix (and, perhaps, also to enter it) - an equivalent to mediaeval fantasy's magical portals. In Keanu Reeves' earlier film, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a time-travelling phone booth is a Matrix-like means to make a quick escape. Unlike The Matrix, however, the phone booth is his only real "super power" (air guitar notwithstanding).

This, in turn, reminded me of Superman - the old Christopher Reeve Superman from the films I watched as a kid, who would often use a nearby phone booth to change into his trademark red-and-blue outfit. Unlike Bill and Ted he doesn't need the phone booth per se, but the outfit change that represents his transition to an alter ego of sorts - the phone booth a catalyst to giving him free reign to use his superpowers without discovery of his secret identity.

You have to wonder, therefore, if Bill and Ted or The Matrix weren't inspired by Superman's use of the phone booth. Like Superman, the phone booth is where Bill and Ted go when they need to step out of their normal lives to go save the world - or, in an ironic twist, to indulge their wanderlust and baser desires as young men are want to do. Going from Bill and Ted to The Matrix, we see characters like Neo and Trinity using the phone booth as a means to escape, just as Bill and Ted would - in both movies, both to physically escape a dangerous situation beyond their control, but also to escape from everyday life.

Perhaps the reason behind this is that the phone booth, a quiet room sized only large enough to fit one or two people (or a superhero team if they squeezed), were at first a new feature to many towns, something that inspired fiction writers to imagine that strange things could happen with them - not unlike the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a similarly shaped construct housing a portal to another world. It was purely a functional thing for Superman, a convenient stop-off like a videogame's save point, that allowed for a clear transition between one personality and the next.

As time passed and phone booths became more mundane, the phone booth became a place where a person could leave the outside world for just a moment and speak to someone a great distance away - an ability greater than the average human could perform unaided, and yet one invokable at will given how common phone booths had become. Bill and Ted would enter the phone booth to leave the outside world - and in a literal sense, by travelling to other times and places just as the public telephone allows all people the possibility of communication with foreign countries and in different time zones, currency allowing.

In the eighties and nineties, more and more people began using the phone system for computer-based telecommunications, and already among them the real-life groups of hackers that the protagonists of The Matrix were clearly based on. To these geeks and phreaks, the phone booth was their interface to the world's communications system, something they taught themselves to manipulate and bend the rules with. By the end of the twentieth century, the phone booth was a piece of technology that existed in just about every American city, a refuge for society's outsiders, available to Neo and Trinity as an "exit" just as it was available to Clark Kent all those years ago whenever he needed to don his red cloak and zoom off to save the world.

Interesting, then, that these marvels of technology are being quickly superceded by the mobile phone (cellular phone), a device more closely resembling Captain Kirk's communicator via which he could command all the power of the starship in orbit. He didn't need to take a shuttle to and from the planet, he used a convenient hand-held device to request himself beamed up and down or whatever he wanted. Nowadays you can even play games on the latest phones, and I dare hazard an estimate that most modern phones are more powerful than the computers onboard the earliest spaceships. I suppose this goes to show that with technology progressing as it does, yesterday's fantasy will very often become tomorrow's technology.

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