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

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

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.