“We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have presently in store for us . . .”
“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace . . .”
“Hullo,” he cried, stepping back from the steely glitter, as men step back from a serpent; “are you afraid of burglars, or when and why do you deal death out of that machine gun?”
“Oh, that!” said Smith, throwing it a single glance; “I deal life out of that . . .”
—G. K. Chesterton, Manalive
but a ringing phone has to be answered.” This unwritten but universally observed rule of technological culture forms the basis of the 81 minutes it takes to play out what is almost certainly the most compact allegory in the past few years of moral redemption in a culture devoid of ethical hierarchy.
In Phone Booth, Colin Farrell plays self-obsessed and self-important publicist Stuart Shepard, a guy so smarmy he calls everyone “my number one client” while lying to the liars to get them to lie to each other on his other clients’ behalf. In the dog-eat-dog world of publicity, Stuart is a shark in the pool of fame. We see him in New York City, the new Jerusalem, multitasking one client by putting him on cellular hold in order to make another client go to bat for him, while his toady/apprentice tries to keep up and learn from the master manipulator. He is one of those people who seems almost to deserve what is about to happen to him.
Leaving his assistant, Stuart enters a phone booth on 8th Avenue and 53rd to make what seems like an unnecessary call unless his cell phone battery is low. Stuart, who is married, has entered the phone booth to call Pam, his “number one client” that he’d like to sleep with—no, fuck (as we later learn). The land line is so his suspicious wife Kelly cannot trace the proof of his internal accommodation of a not-yet externalized infidelity.
Then, out of the blue, a pizza-delivery guy knocks on the booth and tries to offer Stuart a pizza, claiming it was ordered specifically for him.
After speaking with Pam and shooing away the pizza guy, Stuart goes to leave the booth when, suddenly, God calls. Stuart’s time is up. We know that the caller is actually God only by the end of the film, but if you re-view it on DVD, you’ll see that the clues are there all along.
God is played by a disembodied voice labeled “The Caller” in the credits. Stuart, who is used to hanging up on people and having them do what he wishes, immediately suspects the caller is a disgruntled former client. The caller lets Stuart play this power-wielding position out to its end, then informs him that this is not the case. After speculating further about a Vietnam veteran and an adult victim of childhood abuse, Stuart realizes he’s dealing with a very intelligent madman who has a high-powered rifle aimed right at his heart.
When Stuart realizes he cannot leave the booth without first satisfying the caller, he asks him, “What do you want me to do?”
God answers, “I want you to obey me.”
Stuart, completely baffled by the horror implicit in the word’s meaning to postmodern ears, says incredulously, “Obey you?”
Stuart cannot get off the phone, which annoys some local prostitutes. When their pimp comes to settle the score for them, God takes care of him. As the tension escalates, Stuart discovers that a porno king and a corrupt businessman who both mysteriously died on the streets of Manhattan were also victims of the sniper’s perverse sense of justice. With three out of four potential victims, then, the caller seems most concerned with sexual morality. (Try playing that on Sex and the City.)
While Stuart tries to appease the caller, all the elements for a full-blown police showdown arrive. By the time things get desperate, everyone from Pam to Kelly to his assistant is at the scene, trying to talk him out of the booth. The police chief asks Kelly what he likes to be called, and she replies, “Call him Stu.” She might as well have said “Stew,” for Mr. Shepard is a lost sheep about to be sacrificed on the altar of electronic media in an oddly appropriate inversion of his job description.
This is a brilliant cinematic portrayal of that part of Old Testament law that takes off on natural consequences and has justice served with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (updated in the New Testament by Jesus’ comment that those who lived by the sword would die by the sword). Stuart, who has lived by the mass media, is about to be executed by the same monster he spent his career feeding.
Like The Truman Show and its spiritual sequel Bruce Almighty, the film confirms the modern belief that only by being on television can you be like God—or be liked by God. It is ultimate reality TV. The tourist population of Times Square is out in full force, videotaping every moment in hopes of selling Stuart’s suicide-by-cop tape to America’s goriest police brutality show.
Eventually the police chief realizes that Stuart is neither the perp nor able to leave the booth and the story takes its turn toward moral redemption.
The caller, like the God of the Old Testament who is the original caller, is invisible, all powerful, and known only by his voice and the effects of either his wrath or his blessing. Only if the caller is an all-knowing God can the audience make sense of what otherwise looks like completely random violence.
What the caller wants, it turns out, is for Stuart to make a full-blown confession and repent on live national television. He says to Stuart, “Bare your soul.” Stuart complies in what is one of the most compelling confessions ever shot on film. The scene is so moving, in fact, that in our real life, the real crowd watching the filming burst into applause once Mr. Farrell completed the scene—which only had to be shot once.
This alone, I think, tells us something significant about the state of things today. Whether you call it moral decay, widening of the gyre, or spiritual warfare, the decline and fall of America’s moral empire has been palpable for the last decade in a way that it hasn’t been before. And this is why, I believe, more films like Phone Booth are showing up at the multiplex, because desperate times call for desperate measures. As such, Phone Booth represents the coming of age of a new film genre, the gunpoint conversion movie.
Raymond K. Hessel in Fight Club, Nicholas Van Orton in The Game, and the executives of Mooby Corp in Dogma are all examples of this genre.
In Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk updates the genre when his main character Tyler Durden begins practicing what he calls “human sacrifice.” Threatening death at gunpoint, he forces his victims to actually engage their life and become the person they wanted to be.
In an earlier David Fincher film, The Game, protagonist Nicholas Van Orton is pushed to the breaking point by the seemingly ruthless CRS Corporation, who make him believe he has killed his brother and his only escape is to commit suicide—on exactly the day (his 48th birthday) that his father before him committed suicide. Van Orton leaps to his death from atop a building, only to land squarely in the air mattress of his savior, who actually has been his brother’s keeper all along.
In Dogma, all the executives except a few are gunned down for their spiritual blindness, just as the porn king, the pimp, and the corrupt businessman are annihilated in Phone Booth.
Walker Percy, greatly influenced by Flannery O’Connor, addressed this situation in most, if not all, of his novels, as well as his non-fiction. In The Last Gentleman, he writes, “There is a certain freedom in having your house burn down.” Perhaps the most famous example from literature is Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which the character of the Misfit, who remorselessly kills the grandmother, later says of her, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
As the promo poster for Phone Booth notes, “Your life is on the line.” Or, as Tyler Durden puts it in Fight Club:
“The question, Raymond K. Hessel, was: ‘What Did You Want To Do With Your Life?’ ”
The threat of physical death awakens these characters to spiritual life and forces them to realize that only by being psychically dead to this world can their spiritual eyes be open to view, experience, and enjoy it from the vantage point of the next. Even transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau remark on the odd persistence of this seeming contradiction with observations like, “All truth is paradoxical.” G. K. Chesterton, perhaps the twentieth century’s master of paradox—and a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Walker Percy, Marshall McLuhan, and a host of others—said this about the paradox of the faith:
“In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.”
Stuart Shepherd is just this creature—haughty and proud of his skill as a publicist yet simultaneously the lowest of vermin in his devious manipulations of his clients, his wife, and his potential lovers. He is only capable of reclamation, from God’s point of view in the film, if he can acknowledge, recognize, and repent of the facts concerning his dual nature—and so become integrated into a whole being once more, which is, after all, the meaning of the word integrity. In other words, Stuart must face a paradox: his future life is worthwhile—and possible—only if he recognizes that his past life is worthless. The present moment, under the duress of a gun-toting god, is all that matters.
But if the genre has come of age in recent cinema and owes its existence to a trend in late twentieth-century literature, that trend itself goes back to the roots of what Ms. O’Connor called our “Christ-haunted and Christ-forgetting culture.” Specifically, the story goes back to the ancient tradition of substitutionary violence being the unpleasant but necessary requirement for real transformation to take hold.
For Agamemnon, whose ships had floundered on the way to Troy, the soothsayer Calchas instructs him to appease the god Artemis by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. In one version of the story, Agamemnon prepares to do so (with the assent of the daughter, who will do anything to save Greece) but at the last moment Artemis lifts Iphigenia up and replaces her on the altar with a white fawn.
The New Testament line in Hebrews 9:22, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness,” points all the way back to Genesis, where God has to kill an animal to cover the newly aware nakedness of Adam and Eve, which is why the word “atonement” comes from a word that means “to cover.”
But Phone Booth more closely resembles another ancient Jewish story, that of Abraham and Isaac.
If Stuart is Abraham and the caller is God, then we need two more characters—a figurative son and a figurative substitutionary ram. The son turns out to be a woman, while the ram comes in the form of a pizza delivery guy.
First the caller forces Stuart to choose between Pam or Kelly for the sacrifice, but Stuart cannot choose because, while he loves his wife, he refuses to accept the moral responsibility for Pam’s death. As the cops finally storm the apartment the caller is in, Stuart thinks he’s saved himself by his cleverness. But the cops bring down the dead body of the pizza delivery guy from the film’s opening scene. Note that he has not been shot but has rather had his neck slashed.
Stuart says, “Yeah, that’s him” and believes he has identified the perp—but why would the sniper slash his own throat (a slow death) to avoid capture when he has a gun (a fast, efficient death)? Because the pizza guy is not the sniper. This is our ram to the slaughter. He is the substitutionary ram that God provided for Abraham at the last minute, and his death by the specific act of throat-slashing is required by Jewish law in order to make atonement. For him to be dead by the time the police arrive, the caller must have cut his throat as soon as Stuart made his confession.
But the pizza guy is innocent! Random violence! Bingo: Absolving guilt through the bloodshed of one who is guiltless is both the basis of Jewish law and the foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice. The pizza guy’s innocence, coupled with his death by throat-slashing, are the film’s only tip-offs that signal that the caller is indeed a mighty, vengeful, and righteous God, the very God of the Pentateuch. He is a God who escapes detection by the official authorities, who doesn’t seem to exist for all practical purposes, yet whose reality is made known to a select few by a violent-yet-saving presence that arrives during the most painful moments in life.
The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, you recall, was the pivotal moment of Israel’s destiny. They have been long unable to produce a child, and Abraham and Sarah in extreme old age are finally overjoyed (and, one imagines, a bit shocked), to conceive a son. Only then, only when that one, long-sought-after son is born, is Abraham put through a final test to prove his trust in a God who has promised him that he will be the father of many nations.
And now God is going to kill the one who was conceived so late in life? Huh? Father of many nations? Dead child, more like! Random violence! But that’s the point—what looks like random violence (unfair and unjust and all too painful) to our human eyes is apparently, from a God’s-eye point of view, the only perfect part of a perfectly rational plan. Pass this test, and the world is yours! It’s an intervention that God the Caller sometimes makes for people who have enormous potential, like Abraham—or enormous potential combined with enormous need, like St. Paul. Or Stuart.
One could almost say that, had Abraham not passed the original test, there would have been neither a Larry Cohen nor a story to retell in movie form thousands of years later. There’s a sort of ironic symmetry going on here: the weekly ritual of escaping to the movie theater—so relished by modern pagans, agnostics, and the irreligious of all stripes—is itself a direct result of the success of God’s people, Israel.
Which is why it’s a bit of a letdown to finally see, through the medically induced haze of Stuart’s point of view at the film’s conclusion, that God is played by the blue-eyed blond Kiefer Sutherland.
Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? One cannot help but think of this film when seeing sacrificial pizza delivery guys in the news just a few weeks after this film came out on video. And of course there is the fact that the DC snipers of 2002 caused the distributors to delay releasing Phone Booth to theaters for five months.
An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, by Neal Gabler
The World as Will and Representation—Arthur Schopenhauer
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in The Complete Stories—Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South—Ralph C. Wood
The brave reader will want to read Søren Kierkegaard on the Abraham and Isaac story in Fear and Trembling.