Graham: Movies struggle to keep up with technology

Movies are all time capsules, but these days their window of relevancy is getting smaller and smaller

Adam Graham The Detroit News

“The Departed” is by no means a relic of another era.

The 2006 Best Picture winner still moves and looks and feels like today (give or take a haircut or two), save for one glaring element: It’s technology. Go back and look at it and try not to snicker at the characters’ flip phones or the scene where Matt Damon texts while his phone is in his pocket. (That could never happen then and could certainly never happen now, by the way.)

Nothing dates a film or a TV shower quicker than its tech. The explosion of the internet in the mid-90s led to thrillers like “The Net” and “Hackers” where the internet is depicted as some sort of hyper-color digitized universe with floating URLs and tech code whizzing around characters’ heads. Cool graphics, guys.

Today, things are moving so fast, technology-wise, that it’s almost impossible for filmmakers to keep up. Those throwaway jokes about Facebook and Twitter that started permeating films around the turn of the decade were already moldy by the time they got to the screen. How will they play 10 years from now?

Films inevitably are time capsules, whether they want to be or not, reflecting the fashions, political climate and yes, technology of their era. But at the speed and pace of today’s world, films are now becoming dated faster than a Snapchat disappears. (That reference is already pretty stale, I know.)

The thing filmmakers have had to adapt to the most over the 10 years is the omnipresence of cell phones. It used to be that phones were attached to cords and characters couldn’t get a call while they were walking down the sidewalk, and directors didn’t have to dramatize text messaging because it didn’t exist. (Can you imagine Humphrey Bogart pulling out a phone and texting Ingrid Bergman “here’s looking at you, kid” with a winky face emoji in “Casablanca?”)

But since we all have phones on us at all times and text messaging is the preferred mode of communication for an entire generation, filmmakers have been forced to deal with how to present this technology as a storytelling technique. They don’t really have a choice, unless they want to start setting all their films in 1996.

No one has really agreed upon the best way to depict the cold, impersonal act of text messaging. The most popular format is the floating text bubble, where as a character texts, words unspool around them as though the characters could trip over them or swat them out of the air.

Floating text bubbles aren’t perfect, because that’s not how texts exist in real life — not yet, at least — but they free up a filmmaker from showing specific devices and operating systems, which can quickly date a project.

This week’s “Personal Shopper” will likely fall victim to that fate. In it, Kristen Stewart plays a lonely character who lives her life through screens.

Late in the film she starts receiving a series of menacing text messages, sent from an unknown number, which director Olivier Assayas depicts with a chilling coldness that registers because of its reality. They show up as text messages, on her phone, and we see her answering them, and we see the three ellipses dots flashing when the other party is following up. It’s frightening and relatable, because it’s so now, and it hits home in a way it wouldn’t if the texts came up as floating bubbles.

Of course when the next generation of tech comes along, “Personal Shopper” will become a relic of 2017. That’s the curse of modern technology. There’s always something new just around the corner, and the struggle to keep up eventually leaves us all looking dated.

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