A Film Without Hang Ups

By Jules Marshall, 10 June 1996

Denise Calls Up is a tautly observed urban farce about the isolating effects of technology.

Don't get me wrong - I love the Krokers. The Canadian tyros Arthur and Marie-Louise have justifiably been hailed as great critics of the virtual life. But they can be a little arcane, perhaps a tad too well-sourced. Who's making coffee for the zombies to wake up to and smell's what I want to know? Who's reaching out to those sleepwalkers already endogenously colonised?

Denise Calls Up is a tautly observed urban farce about the isolating effects of technology, specifically the phone, directed by Hal Salwen. A bunch of New York friends spend the whole movie trying to meet and relate to each other, but find themselves unable to manage it, for parties, dates or even the funeral of one of them. It is both funny and tragic, not least when you spot weaknesses and lies they tell themselves and each other mirroring one's own experience.

As a parable for the virtual life, the movie is unmatched in observation. Does Hal Salwen too live a virtual life of call waitings and conference calls?

"I hope it's not the standard I was living my life by," he says. "But I was a screenwriter writing on spec. People envy the freedom of a freelancer, but you're also your own boss and can't be lazy; you have to go out and generate work. You have to work harder, and you can't hide."

"I thought 'this is not how I should be living my life' when I went to a Brooklyn party and saw an old and good friend. I realised: I knew everything that had happened to him recently but hadn't seen him for three years!"

"Technology is deceptive and seductive, both in a utilitarian sense and a social way," says Salwen. "We talk of 'interacting' with our friends but do we? You've exchanged information only. More and more technology is used to avoid contact - with what result? Denise is one potential result."

He talks of growing up as a kid in school and trying to organise your first date; "you pick up the phone and you're terrified of rejection, but you gather the courage and learn to transcend that fear. You learn that failure is not so bad, nor is rejection, and that's part of growing up." The characters in Denise never have to deal with people. Even when death strikes, they're paralysed. "Death is a profound moment and if you can't go out the house and deal with it, that's tragic," he says.

Salwen describes himself as "not quite a Luddite", but Denise is an eloquent representation of the sort of messed up, no-life situation we allow technology to put us in Technology was first developed for business use, points out Salwen. "Phones, faxes, answer machines all increase efficiency and speed, which is good for business. But life is not like this. We're not designed to express ourselves instantly; it puts us on the spot."

A hundred years ago, he says, letters written might take two weeks to arrive, so there was no sense of urgency. "You could compose and ponder your words, and the receiver would do the same, and the words and sentiments could be beautiful. Compare this to the degraded prose of the fax machine."

"Speed is the enemy of reflection", according to Hindu scripture. "Yes! I love that," he says. "Awareness is the key; we're not going to do away with technology, but we should think about how we're going to deal with what happens to us."

"People call up and say they're 'interacting' or 'saying hello', but they're not hearing the voice of that person, merely a technical reproduction of it. We're listening to muted experience. It's like the way a really good film is hurt by being on TV but a poor film seems okay; there's a rounding-out of quality. You don't pay attention the same way you do in a cinema, and the power of the art is diluted. "We all want to control the universe", he says, but we have to also face the world outside. "This is what I mean by the alienation of technology. If you satisfy your needs unnaturally, your need for sex and food and warmth, it's going to leave you vulnerable to giving in to fears. "The greatest moments in life are when you do something you were scared of trying. Part of life is learning to accept failure, learning that it is not as bad as you fear." The hardest relationships are those that are intimate, he says, which is why we and the characters in Denise take refuge in our jobs.

"Technology can buy you most things - you can live like a pasha and have it all delivered to your own home; it's addictive. But some people resist. The return rate of teleshopping goods is huge, suggesting it's not as satisfying as real shopping. Going to the marketplace is the most human attribute."

"It's hard work to go out and experience something wonderful. If you temper everything and work so hard to avoid pain, you miss the joy. That's what's sad about Denise; the characters have given in to their fear. People who've seen the film say it's frustrating - you want these people to get together. Hopefully the film will make more people look at themselves and and see how lonely they are. Living so alone is not the right way. It's not the solitariness of reflection, but avoidance. We've been seduced away from nature and the world by technology. People rationalise their existence; they think they are right and make excuses all the time, even to themselves, and technology feeds on this. Confrontation with one another keeps us honest."

"Life is supposed to be more convenient, but all I see is people working harder and harder," he says. "I'm cynical," confesses Salwen: "I don't think we're going to sort this out. It's a drug, and, like free sex, no-one wants to turn it down. It's something people are not prepared to handle intellectually. They just know they want it. There's a sort of 'need to own'. He doesn't claim to have any answers; "I just had to make the observation."

So next time someone asks what's wrong with the wired world, take them to see Denise - if you can manage to arrange where to meet, and both get out of the house.

Jules Marshall