The tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to escape communication

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An Interview with Christopher Magee

Tabea Krauß 

“The pho­ne repres­ents human com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on for many peo­p­le, and put­ting a face on it makes it seem more like actu­al human cont­act. I guess it could be inte­res­t­ing to think that lots of peo­p­le may be more in love with their cell pho­nes than with the peo­p­le they use them to com­mu­ni­ca­te with!”

SCHAU INS BLAU: A lonely guy is sit­ting in his apart­ment and wai­ting for his cell pho­ne to ring. But it’s not a nor­mal cell pho­ne; it looks like the face of a woman who just went by right in front of his house. She was tal­king on this pho­ne that looks like her when she ran into a guy tal­king on a pho­ne that loo­ked like him. It seems as if they had exch­an­ged their pho­nes. But in this moment the came­ra is zoo­ming away from the two per­sons and up the buil­ding to the win­dow and into the flat whe­re the lonely guy is sit­ting and wai­ting for his pho­ne to ring. What did hap­pen in this stran­ge moment? Is the guy, who is sit­ting in the flat, the same guy as the one who went by down on the street? And how did he get the woman-pho­ne? Do they even know each other? Tho­se ques­ti­ons ari­se right in the begin­ning of the video, and they are not ans­we­red, they seem to cau­se the con­fu­si­on that is neces­sa­ry to gua­ran­tee the open­ness of mea­nings of the video…?

CHRIS MAGEE: This is an inte­res­t­ing inter­pre­ta­ti­on, howe­ver I was not thin­king with such com­ple­xi­ty, and the cha­rac­ters look like they might be rela­ted becau­se the designs are simp­le and simi­lar, that’s all. The move­ment of the pede­stri­ans towards each other is just a way to allow the came­ra to start its pan up the buil­ding. The idea of the woman-pho­ne comes from the idea that we are tal­king to peo­p­le when we talk on the pho­ne, and why not per­so­ni­fy the pho­ne its­elf to repre­sent that.

SCHAU INS BLAU: But isn’t the point the rela­ti­onship bet­ween the man and the woman-pho­ne? I was won­de­ring whe­ther the guy desi­res the cell pho­ne or the women; and if he per­haps pro­jects his desi­re for the woman on the phone?

CHRIS MAGEE: The guy desi­res com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on — human cont­act. The pho­ne repres­ents human com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on for many peo­p­le, and put­ting a face on it makes it seem more like actu­al human cont­act. I guess it could be inte­res­t­ing to think that lots of peo­p­le may be more in love with their cell pho­nes than with the peo­p­le they use them to com­mu­ni­ca­te with! In this case, the lonely guy sees peo­p­le con­nec­ting via their cell pho­nes, whe­re­as his has been stub­born­ly quiet for some time. He does pro­ba­b­ly desi­re a woman — women may sym­bo­li­ze con­nec­tion to huma­ni­ty, as women are often more con­nec­ted and more social than men.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Well, I had the impres­si­on that he is also dri­ven by the will to deci­de on her? For me that see­med like a typi­cal male desire…

CHRIS MAGEE: Oh actual­ly, as I men­tio­ned, he seeks human cont­act becau­se his world is ste­ri­le and an emp­ty space: he’s lonely. He is unhap­py becau­se of that, or at least he thinks so. I think most peo­p­le want to con­nect with others, becau­se we are social crea­tures. So it’s not so much a ‘typi­cal male desi­re’ as a more gene­ra­li­zed human one, expe­ri­en­ced as a man.

SCHAU INS BLAU: But his desi­re, whe­ther for com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on or for the women, is tor­ped­oed when the nice, woman-like pho­ne turns into a screa­ming and scree­ching fury. I was apt to read this as the reven­ge of the fema­le on male desire…

CHRIS MAGEE: The trans­for­ma­ti­on into an obnoxious “fury” is sud­den — rather too sud­den, when I look at the con­s­truc­tion of the film. The idea is that he is initi­al­ly very hap­py to have cont­act, that this goes on for a while — you meet someone, you get to know them, you agree, you com­plain tog­e­ther about peo­p­le and things, you feel you have a cer­tain com­pli­ci­ty, that someone under­stands you, and then they say some­thing that doesn’t make sen­se to you. This con­tra­dic­tion is all the more sho­cking becau­se you have grown to trust them and to feel that they under­stand you and reflect your way of per­cei­ving the world. They go from being on your side to being against you (such is one aspect of clo­se rela­ti­onships) becau­se of the invest­ment you have made and the assump­ti­ons that lull one into com­pla­cen­cy and dependency.

SCHAU INS BLAU: You said, the guy suf­fers from his loneli­ne­ss. Is the cell pho­ne the only con­nec­tion to the out­side world for him, a world which has beco­me strange?

CHRIS MAGEE: Basi­cal­ly yes, it is his only con­nec­tion, espe­ci­al­ly in the film. He lives way up in the buil­ding, away from the street whe­re peo­p­le walk and talk, obser­ving them, hoping for the same thing. I don’t know if the world is any stran­ger in the midd­le of the film than it is in the begin­ning. What inte­res­ted me was the idea of the ten­si­on bet­ween the desi­re to com­mu­ni­ca­te and the desi­re to escape com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on or inti­ma­cy: never hap­py eit­her way, always wan­ting to be eit­her clo­ser or fur­ther away from peo­p­le or per­sons. That is the the­me of the lar­ger film from which this short has been pul­led. It’s cal­led “SoF­ar­Too­C­lo­se”, and I’m start­ing to work on it now.

SCHAU INS BLAU: This is a real­ly important and inte­res­t­ing aspect: the ten­si­on bet­ween the desi­re to com­mu­ni­ca­te and the fear to lose con­trol in com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. In some way you always depend on your dia­log part­ner. Per­haps the­re is some­thing even more sca­ry about com­mu­ni­ca­ting by cell pho­ne becau­se you never now what‘s real­ly going on the other end of the line?

CHRIS MAGEE: I can’t say I had this idea in mind, alt­hough it’s inte­res­t­ing, espe­ci­al­ly as it con­nects to the idea that see­ing someone’s face allows you to read whe­ther they are tel­ling the truth or not.

SCHAU INS BLAU: In the case of your film the guy final­ly wants to escape com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, but he can­not. Through the cell pho­ne the thre­at is coming direct­ly into his flat, so that he even tri­es to hide behind the sofa in his own apart­ment. Is he sort of defen­se­l­ess on the back­ground of the ris­ky aspect of communication?

CHRIS MAGEE: Well, the cell phone’s “noi­se” — the con­scious­ness that inva­des the guy’s mind, is so loud that he can’t escape — like a bad dream, or per­haps more like a bad “trip”. The inti­ma­cy that at first see­med such a balm has tur­ned into a claus­tro­pho­bic straitjacket.

SCHAU INS BLAU: I was thin­king of Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s App­ren­ti­ce” and the line, “die Geis­ter die ich rief, werd ich nun nicht mehr los” (Spi­rits that I’ve cited/ My com­mands igno­re). Is the man in the video kind of a post­mo­dern sorcerer’s app­ren­ti­ce who is cal­ling the spi­rits of tech­ni­que and the spi­rits of sexu­al desire?

CHRIS MAGEE: That’s inte­res­t­ing, and I would never have thought of it! I guess it’s true that he dis­co­vers he is not in con­trol of the degree or qua­li­ty of the com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, the con­nec­tion that he sought after and then found. The lack of con­trol that accom­pa­nies the hel­p­less­ness of loneli­ne­ss trans­forms its­elf into the lack of con­trol over an inter­ac­tion with someone else.

SCHAU INS BLAU: The lack of con­trol is reflec­ted in the sound, the sca­ry sound of the pho­ne that the guy can­not escape. Peo­p­le in your ani­ma­ti­on video do not speak at all, but the dif­fe­rent sounds seem to be important for the sto­ry. Thus, what role does the music play in your animations?

CHRIS MAGEE: I work­ed with a com­po­ser who had just gra­dua­ted from the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts, here in Phil­adel­phia. In the past I have crea­ted the music for most of my films, but the­se have been songs rather than sound­track music, which I can’t wri­te. So I hired Nathan Coo­ke to come up with music that would act as dra­ma­tic sup­port to the events in the film, to reflect mood and ten­si­on in a clas­si­cal sense.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Moreo­ver, the fact that the peo­p­le do not speak at all in your ani­ma­ti­on movie cau­ses an effect of ali­en­ati­on. Neither what we hear nor what we see con­nects to “rea­li­ty”. Could you the­r­e­fo­re say that the effect of ali­en­ati­on in ani­ma­ti­on is inten­si­fied becau­se the view­er rea­li­zes that the­re is no “real” con­ti­nu­al moti­on, but that ever­y­thing is rather made up of sin­gle drawings?

CHRIS MAGEE: I don’t know to what degree ever­yo­ne is awa­re of that, but I do think that ani­ma­ti­on, espe­ci­al­ly when it makes no pre­ten­ti­on to por­tray “rea­li­ty”, and in fact does the rever­se (i.e. makes its arti­fice cle­ar­ly visi­ble) allows the view­er to take a step (or two) away from rea­li­ty and then see the under­ly­ing mea­ning. Espe­ci­al­ly in a short we need to say what we’re going to say in a den­se man­ner, like poet­ry. The fact that we know that we are wat­ching some­thing that is so obvious­ly not real allows us to focus on the mea­ning of our actions and beha­viour by taking us away from the imme­dia­cy and dis­trac­tion of rea­li­ty and into the tim­e­l­ess­ness of meta­phor and the subconscious.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Not to be bound to rea­li­ty opens up a lot of pos­si­bi­li­ties. In ani­ma­ti­on you seem to be even free to play with cate­go­ries like time and space, are you?

CHRIS MAGEE: Even though “Cell Pho­ne” is pret­ty pro­sa­ic in its use of time and space, my aim in making the­se litt­le films is to crea­te a self-com­ple­te idea who­se mes­sa­ge exists out of time. The effect of a good pop song lasts much lon­ger than the pop song its­elf. It’s almost more the idea of the song rather than the song in its actu­al dura­ti­on, which is very short, that is important — same for ani­ma­ted shorts, for me, anyway.

SCHAU INS BLAU: Thank you, Chris, for ans­we­ring all tho­se questions.

CHRIS MAGEE: Thank you! Ans­we­ring your ques­ti­ons hel­ped me to arti­cu­la­te a few of the con­cerns I had while attemp­ting to shape the sto­ry. This is a useful and enligh­tening aspect of the who­le pro­cess for me.

Chris­to­pher Magee grew up in Hawaii. He stu­di­ed music and ani­ma­ti­on in school, and curr­ent­ly tea­ches ani­ma­ti­on at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts in Phil­adel­phia, USA. He has made two fes­ti­val films, “The Bird­ca­ge King” and “Cell Pho­ne”, and has ide­as in his head for more films.