Time on screen

I’m noticing more and more films and TV shows set in the 90s, or very late 80s. Part of this might be nostalgia on the part of Gen X writers, but I think there’s an obvious practical reason.

This is the last window in which people didn’t have GPS, and characters could plausibly not have cellphones or email (though both existed). Plot devices can run, as they did for decades, on the assumption that someone out of town was out of touch - and that someone lost can’t just pull a device from their pocket and call for help.

It’s harder to write the various miscommunications and missed opportunities of historic literature today (letters misdirected, appointments missed due to late trains, etc). The lover late to the planned rendezvous today could just send a text. Or facetime his partner. Or in fact there is no rendezvous by the pavilion in the park. People don’t need to arrange to meet if they can talk anytime.

I was struck by this in the Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix. It takes a nineteenth century source (The Turn of the Screw) and makes it modern. But not quite in the world of today, as the same team’s previous outing (The Haunting of Hill House). Instead most of the action takes place in the late 1980s (the narrative is bookended by some scenes in 2007). That allows mysteries to linger, that would have been solved with google or facebook (or caller id).

In terms of production of course, it’s easier to reproduce the world of the 90s (in clothing, sets, cars), than the world of the 1950s, for instance. So there’s a pragmatism to going as late as possible for the filmmakers.

It also shows how much we struggle with representing our lives today, with how much we are connected and on-screen. Certainly whole genres have been built around this, with action taking place in virtual spaces. But in terms of drama set in the real world, there’s not much to be gained from seeing people on their ipads all the time. One technique I’ve noticed more of is having an image of the character’s phone screen hovering, ghost-like, near them, so we (the viewer) can see the text or social media post they’re reading (or writing). Facetime/skype/zoom have also become narrative options, which leave me with an odd affection for the old 70s movie technique of the splitscreen, so we could see the people on each end of a phone call.

But we’re still finding a balance of how to put these things into stuff people want to watch. Seeing someone else look at a screen is not interesting. Nor is seeing someone else read: back in the day, films used voiceovers, narrating the letter the hero would be reading on-screen (I’ve yet to see anything offering voiceovers of a text exchange).

The quick and dirty option for the screenriter of course is to work in a line early on:

“Wow, it’s so remote out here! There’s no phone signal”

And go on with a traditional plot we can watch. While also scrolling on our own phones.