Evolution of the Depiction of Telephone Calls in Popular Movies

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Since Aristotle, tradition has it that stories are defined as unified wholes, divisible into smaller inter-related parts. In many narrative forms these parts are called scenes. Scenes, too, are regarded as wholes, typically unified on three grounds: a constancy of characters and location within a continuous time frame. Generally, if a storyteller changes one or more of these, the story has moved on to the next scene. But this rule is not universal. The most obvious exception in movies is the telephone call, which can change locations to accommodate images of the two conversing characters. Here, I explore a century’s worth of popular, English-language movies to discern how two-sided telephone conversations (which violate spatial unity) are portrayed on the screen, and how they compare to face-to-face conversations (which do not violate spatial unity) in the same movies. The portrayal of both types of conversations has evolved, sometimes independently and sometimes in synchrony, and popular filmmaking has arrived circuitously at a system in which both are generally portrayed in the same way—two characters in alternating shots, slightly to opposite sides of the midline and turned towards one another. I discuss the social and psychological reasons why this might be the case.

Projections

The Journal for Movies and Mind

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