The Godfather: Peter Corris on how technology changes the plot
In the television program Life on Mars a character from the present has gone back to the past and at a moment of plot crisis shouts in frustration, ‘I need my mobile!’
‘Your mobile what?’ someone responds.
This illustrates the effect time and technology can have on language and artistic expression.
Think of how many films and novels, particularly in the crime genre, written before the late 1990s, hinge on a character’s need to find a phone. Conspiracies could have been averted, misunderstandings instantly resolved, by simply whipping the phone from the pocket.
Similarly, certain songs predating modern communications come to mind. Some of their plaintive lines could not apply post-Nokia, Blackberry and Apple.
Jimmy Webb’s extraordinary ballad ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, so beautifully sung by Glen Campbell, with its aching back story, is one example. The girl the singer has left behind without any notification has tried to call him but the phone just keeps on ‘ringing off the wall’. Nowadays, their relationship obviously fraught, she’d simply text him: Where the f…. are you? And she wouldn’t have waited until lunchtime.
In ‘Memphis Tennessee’ Chuck Berry, as a bereft father, contacts the phone company’s Information service to get a number to enable him to get in touch with his daughter. All he has is a message scrawled on the wall. No need with a mobile phone; the initial call would have included caller ID.
Dr Hook would not have had to go through Sylvia’s mother (in the song of that name) to contact Sylvia – she could have been by-passed. Meet me at the station, he could have texted, forget the Galveston feller and come away with me.
A classic example is afforded in kd lang’s haunting ‘I’m Down to My Last Cigarette’. The I of the song is waiting for a long overdue phone call from her partner and is almost out of coffee and smokes; but she can’t go out for more because ‘you might call while I’m gone’. Not a problem with a cell phone.
In ‘You Wear it Well’ Rod Stewart resorts to snail mail to make contact with an absent lover, invites her to ring him and won’t object if she ‘calls collect’. The expression has no meaning now.
Modern criminal investigation and therefore crime novels could not function without mobile phones, Facebook, GPS and Twitter, although Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch does his best.
Happily for Adrian McKinty, his anti-hero Belfast cop Sean Duffy deals with criminality at the time of the ‘troubles’ and the only technology that counts is firearms and bombs. If he continues with the series though, he might bump up against the pesky, plot-involving devices as the 20th century draws to an end.
Conversely, some iconic moments in old films would be different if the technology had been available. With a mobile phone Major Strasser, villain of Casablanca, could have prevented the take-off of the plane carrying Ilsa Lund and Victor Laslo to freedom. And the line attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Mae West could have come out (admittedly with less panache) as, ‘Is that a cell phone in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’