Phone Booth is undoubtedly one of my favourite films of all time. Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) is the arrogant married New York City publicist who has been cheating on his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) with Pam (Katie Holmes). While using a public phone booth to contact Pam, he is interrupted by a pizza delivery man, who attempts to deliver a free pizza to him, but Stu turns him away. As soon as Stu completes his call, the phone rings. Stu answers, only to discover that the caller knows him and orders him not to leave the booth. And so begins the ordeal with Stu now a virtual hostage to a sniper/caller lurking in the surrounding buildings.
The film serves as a classic illustration of how cinema interacts with viewers. As the drama unfolds there’s a mixture of curiosity and mild sympathy at the rude interruption of Stu’s day. A phone call is private even in a phone booth, and yet, we can’t help but wonder whether there may be more to the story than meets the eye. And so it proves, as the caller begins to reveal a few things against Stu, particularly his hidden infidelity and rampant dishonesty. With those revelations we find ourselves shocked and momentarily sympathetic to the hidden hand of justice that now has Stu in sight. Part of us even wonders whether the caller may be an unfortunate victim of Stu from misguided past.
Then something dramatic happens. The caller brings Stu face to face with his deception. Kelly and Pam are now on the scene. As a price for his secret misdeeds, Stu must confess his shame to his wife, his friends and the world. Failure to do so will mean further endangering the lives of others. At the mercy of his tormentor, and with television cameras locked on, Stu is forced to confess - in one of the most dramatic moments in cinema :
I have never done anything for anybody who couldn't do something for me. I string along an eager kid with promises I'll pay him money. I only keep him around because he looks up to me. Adam, if you're watching, don't be a publicist. You're too good for it. I lie in person and on the phone. I lie to my friends. I lie to newspapers and magazines who, who sell my lies to more and more people. I am just a part of a big cycle of lies, I should be president. I wear all this Italian [clothes] because underneath I still feel like the Bronx. I think I need these clothes and this watch. My $2000 watch is a fake and so am I. I've neglected the things I should have valued most. I valued this sh*t. I take off my wedding ring to call Pam. Kelly, that's Pam. Don't blame her. I never told her I was married. And if I did she, she would have told me to go home. Kelly, looking at you now, I'm ashamed of myself. Alright? I mean, I work so hard on this image, on Stu Shepherd, the [idiot] who refers to himself in the third person that I only proved I should be alone. I have just been dressing up as something I'm not for so long, I'm so afraid no one will like what's underneath. But here I am, just flesh and blood and weakness, and uh and I love you so much. And, um, I take off this ring because it only reminds me of how I've failed you, and I don't, don't want to give you up. I want to make things better, but it may not be my choice anymore. You deserve better.
At this point it all goes very quiet, literally and metaphorically. Something dramatic has just happened. We have now entered the booth. His confession has moved the viewers from bystanders to fellow hostages. We are now more than sympathetic. As we listen in to the confession, we realise he is not confessing alone but as one who speaks on behalf of all of us. Stu’s life mirrors our own.
He has lived a self-centred life: "I have never done anything for anybody who couldn't do something for me". All of his life has been based on “self interest”. His business and personal relations have converged. All of his life has been based on the market exchange where relationships are not based on mutual trust but mutual exploitation. He gives only if others are willing to reciprocate. And he is not alone! This is the basis of free “market capitalism”. If one tried to live an honest and altruistic life in the modern business environment they would soon go bankrupt! Markets do not reward morality, they reward efficiency regardless of how that is achieved! As a result many resort to lies and more lies to make it to the top and Stu is no different : "I lie in person and on the phone. I lie to my friends. I lie to newspapers and magazines who, who sell my lies to more and more people. I am just a part of a big cycle of lies, I should be president". In short, not only does he lie, but the whole system is a lie. In many ways he is a player and victim rolled into one just like everybody else!
Lying of course is an outward expression of an inner reality. We lie because we feel a sense of shame and inadequacy about our true self. Stu rightly uncovers this when he painfully observes, “I wear all this Italian [clothes] because underneath I still feel like the Bronx. I think I need these clothes and this watch..”. He needs the outer lies to cover up the shame he feels inside. Turning to Kelly, he opens up, “Kelly, looking at you now, I'm ashamed of myself… I have just been dressing up as something I'm not for so long, I'm so afraid no one will like what's underneath..” Someone has said, that when we first meet people we usually meet their representative. In truth it is all the time. In a world where we are judged by how we look and sound we are compelled to pretend. In this vein new mediums like Facebook now encourage us to present a false image of ourselves. We update our statuses not to admit we are struggling with alcohol but to showcase the latest place we have visited or how many people “like us”. In the age of Instagram we not only hide our true selves more and more from the public, but we are increasing putting on digital clothes made in our image. Our lives are to all intents and purposes a façade of the real lives underneath.
Shame reinforces our fears of rejection, which in turn leads to more and more lies. It is therefore unsurprising that Stu goes on to add, “,my two thousand dollar watch is a fake and so am I”. He is living but he is not living at all. He is chasing a dream, but in truth he is only running away from himself. In the process he has lost himself and the things that matters most – the love of his family, and though he wont admit it, God himself. As he notes, “I've neglected the things I should have valued most”. In the end he finds that those things he has craved for never satisfies.
The state of affairs has left Stu not only ashamed but quite confused : “But here I am, just flesh and blood and weakness, and uh and I love you so much”. In the screen we see his downcast face, as it reels from the shocking impact of the bitter truth he has suppressed for many years. His world is crumbling before his eyes and he feels helpless, as he incoherently cries, “I take off this ring because it only reminds me of how I've failed you, and I don't, don't want to give you up. I want to make things better, but it may not be my choice anymore. You deserve better”. Stu realises that judgement day has arrived. But more so, he sees that that in truth all along he has been prisoner of his desires. The things he wants to do he cannot do. He knew taking off the ring was wrong but he went ahead and did it any way. He is accepting a truth that all of us need to keep front and centre : our desires are forever seeking our worship. On this Jean Jacque Rousseu was surely wrong, when he said, “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”. The truth is that the whole world is under the slavery of our desires. We may be outside jail but we are not free! Like Stu our desires have bound us in chains and led us to the gallows as sacrificial lambs at the economic and social altar.
In the end Stu is rescued and emerges as a hero. And therefore the question must be asked : what then? What does the viewer walk away with after watching and hearing Stu’s remarkable confession and the salvation that follows? One group of viewers will inevitably conclude that so are we! Stu’s public confession earns him salvation. It appears the "hand of fate" is with those who confess and try and make good. For those viewers they will walk away and try and ensure that they do not become a Stu Shepherd or at the least become one by trying to amend their ways. A larger second group of viewers, I suspect, will walk away more justified than Stu Shepherd. They will react totally the opposite of the first group. It appears that given the unfolding drama the most powerful conclusion many will draw is surprisingly that "we are all just as bad as one another, so who are we to place anyone in the booth?” It is the inescapable moral conclusion that makes sense to the film's narrative. So rather than promoting public confessions the film at a deeper level discourages them. If everyone is a Stu Shepard, to who then shall we confess?
All of this of course is subject debate, but in any case it does not matter. What is important is that both groups of people react wrongly. The "pull your socks up" and the "I am my own boss" crowd are all untenable in the long term because they appeal to the self salvation. The truth is we cannot do it our own because Stu Shepherd is half correct when he says, “we are flesh and blood”. Sin is embedded in our nature. But more importantly the phone booth is not going away. One day we all must give account to God. It is to him we will ultimately confess. This could happen any moment. As the caller says, "You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?". The phone of life will indeed ring and these bodies will give up its life. What comes after that is eternal judgement before a righteous and infinitely perfect judge. Not a mere caller lurking in the shadows. The question is, what are we going to say to God? Are we going to appeal to the “pull your socks up” philosophies? The Bible says, our confidence lies not in what we have done but in what Jesus Christ has already accomplished on our behalf. So when that moment arrives, we must be ready and sure to say, “nothing in my hand I bring, only to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ I cling”!
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