Wednesday 25 March 2015

Answering machines

I was chatting with a friend recently about ideas for short films and one of those mentioned involved a telephone answering machine. That lead to me doing some quick research. I turned up fifteen films with scenes involving answering machines (though there are many more). 

The most surprising dates from 1955: Kiss Me Deadly, a Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer story. In 1955 most Australian families didn't have a phone, much less an answering machine, so it was interesting to see one from that era in action. 

Mike Hammer and a 1955 reel-to-reel telephone answering machine.
Get Shorty (1995) and Definitely, Maybe (2008) have very similar scenes, where the post-coital happy couple receive a message summoning them to a hospital.  

"My name is Maude Lebowski. I'm the one who took your rug."
In The Big Lebowski, an answering machine solves the mystery of the missing rug. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gets my vote for the movie with the cutest answering-machine.  
The Magrathean answering machine.
Swingers (1996) has two such scenes, both well worth seeing. The first introduces the machine as a character in its own right, commenting on the messages received (or not received) and attempting to give advice to Jon Favreau. The second consists of a series of phone calls Jon makes to a woman he's just met, where he is stymied by the machine and descends into ever-increasing frustration. A very similar scene, involving George Costanza, occurred in a Seinfeld episode five years earlier. Coincidence? Probably. 
Jon Favreau gets advice from his answering machine.
In Once (2006), the heartbroken protagonist sings a sad song, while an insert shows him ringing the ex, only to get her answering machine. In Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), John Cusack rages to his psychiatrist's answering machine about the fact his childhood home has been turned into a supermarket. 

In Bowfinger (1999), two messages arrive over the answering machine in the opening scene. The first helps establish the point that Bobby Bowfinger is struggling financially; the second leads to a sequence of phone calls which set up the subsequent scene, a meeting where the protagonist's plan is outlined to the gang. 

Bobby Bowfinger summons his gang.
From a writer's P.O.V., what's most interesting about the various scenes is the way the machine enables someone not visible onscreen to influence a character's story. Sometimes they are purely comic relief (Seinfeld, Swingers), other times they provide new expositional information, or alter the direction of the protagonist (Get Shorty and Definitely, Maybe). Whatever role they play, answering machines have to be the cheapest actors in the business.

First posted:  29 September 2011

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