“Hirous claimed he could make ten calls for the price of a beer”
During his avant-garde experimental phase—as if you wouldn’t call the two feature films I’ve seen from later on in his career avant-garde or experimental—Peter Greenaway took it upon himself to play a high-brow telephone game with his short film Dear Phone, an elegy to the since forgotten British red telephone box. The entire piece consists of static-framed shots of different booths across England along with random aural examples of the myriad rings cut between pages of text that’s edited, crossed-out, and annotated of a single story’s multiple chapters as narrated by Greenaway himself. At least it seems like one story. The names constantly change ever so slightly: Hirous Canditi to Harry Contintino to Harrin Constanti to Hiro Contenti and so on.
The tale is humorous—at times turning Alexander Graham Bell into a rock legend of wall poster fame and others abstracting the connective tissue of wire vibrations to a potentially erodible pathway from salty ocean water to an ex-wife’s ear. Sometimes Zelda is an ex, sometimes a current, and always the woman of our ever-changing subject’s past, present, or future affection. And as time washes away the text panels become clearer, moving from scrawls stained with liquid to scribbled-out typewriter ink to a final polished and unblemished paragraph of summation. Is it easy to follow what Greenaway is saying considering the players keep morphing? No. But I can’t say I was really trying. Taken individually they each provide a moderate chuckle as we wait for pay-off.
Well, there isn’t any. More telephones are seen. More rings heard. And the journey from Hiro Candici to simply H.C. carries on as though we’ve stumbled upon an epic saga to stand the test of time. What we really received, however, is a witty glimpse at a technology so widespread and ubiquitous that has evolved and evaporated itself. This film was made in the 1970s so who knows what Greenaway’s original intent was besides a laugh at the minute alterations riddling an already heavily edited script. But today it can’t help being an intriguing time capsule of an era before cellphones and absolute freedom. Here characters travel distances for scheduled appointments to converse. Where there was ritual and preparation presently lays informality and wasted breath.