It’s 2018 and People In Movies Still Don’t Understand How to Talk on the Phone
I saw First Reformed last night. It is an excellent movie about serious and important subjects. I recommend you see it. And one scene in it drove me absolutely insane.
It occurs about halfway through the film. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller receives a call on his cell phone from a distraught member of his congregation. She implores him to come her house. “You must come,” she repeats several times. “Okay,” he replies. Then he closes his flip phone, returns it to his pocket, and walks to his car. Neither person on the call says goodbye.
Everyone has their little pet peeves about weird quirks in movies, and this is mine. It makes me nuts when people on the phone in movies hang up without saying goodbye. And it happens all the time.
You could argue in this particular case that Toller is too worried and distracted for such formalities. But we’ve all made worried and distracted phone calls in our lives, and we’ve probably ended 999 out of 1,000 of them with some variation of the words good and bye. Unless you’re furious at someone (which Toller is definitely not), that’s how you inform the person on the other end of the line that you’re hanging up. Otherwise they’re left talking into the void.
The no-goodbye hangup is not a phenomenon isolated to movies about people in emotional distress, either. This supercut has almost three minutes of people hanging up on the phone without saying goodbye, many in completely mundane situations. And a lot of these examples come from classic movies, like The Terminator, Midnight Cowboy, and Double Indemnity.
I’ve written briefly about weird movie phone calls before; the last time was in 2011. Seven years later, nothing has changed. And every new time it happens, I want to rip my hair out all over again. (If I go bald in the next three years, I’m sending Paul Schrader my Rogaine bill.)
In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. One strange beat in one brief scene does not ruin First Reformed, just as it hasn’t stopped people from revisiting Network, The Big Lebowski, or Memento over and over throughout the years. But all of these examples pull you out of the movie, and temporarily shatter cinema’s illusion of reality. Because this is not real. This is something that only happens in movies.
To me, it’s far worse than a more famous quirk of fictional phone calls: The fake 555 phone numbers used in movies and television shows because otherwise viewers may be tempted to call real numbers assigned to real people who don’t want to be pestered by thousands of cinephiles. It can be distracting when a movie character gives someone a 555 number, but that can be rationalized. In the fictional universe of most movies, 555 numbers are real, and in use in whatever region that specific film is set. That’s plausible enough. It’s at least more plausible than a 45 year old adult man who is unfamiliar with the rituals and customs of phone calls.
I suppose writers or directors leave these words out of their screenplays because of efficiency considerations; too much dawdling with formalities can drag down the pacing of a scene, and if enough scenes are dragged down then so is the whole movie. But how much time does it take to say goodbye? One second? Less? Would it really kill the flow of First Reformed if Rev. Toller had paused for one “Bye?”
I doubt it. It certainly would have taken less time than it took me to stop thinking about whether Toller had ever made a phone call before in his life and refocus on the plot of First Reformed. My humble request to the writers who keep leaving these two little but very important words out of your screenplays: Please hang up and try again.
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