Smartphones and Storytelling: Embrace, Avoid, or Both?

By  · Published on March 10th, 2017

‘Better Things’ and the narrative advantages of technology.

Back when I was writing terrible horror and disaster films for the SyFy channel, one of the first things I had to figure out before I even started the story was, how do I get around the cell phone? Pretty much every genre film can be thwarted or resolved by one of the characters just using their phone, especially now that so many phones are smart. One quick look at Yelp and no one visits the House of Wax, no one eats at Blood Diner (though maybe the name shies you off there), and no one checks into the Bates Motel. I’ve set stuff in the past, or in a post-apocalyptic future, or on sinking atolls(?) in the middle of the Pacific just to avoid the practical pratfalls of modern technology and how it can wreck a good story.

But what if I’m looking at the situation from the wrong angle? What if we all are? What if instead of a hindrance to narrative, smart technology is an advantage? According to Luís Azevedo and his new video “Smartphones in Cinema: A Missed Opportunity?” it’s all in how you write it.

There are, after all, films that use technology as central facets of their narrative – Her, Nerve, Disclosure, The Social Network – but what Azevedo is after is balance, not stories that eschew technology, nor stories that wholly embrace them, but rather those that gracefully blend the two, integrating technology with narrative in ways that bolster both without contrivance. For his purposes, he’s selected one of my absolute favorite new TV shows, Better Things, from Pamela Adlon and Louis CK and starring Adlon as a thinly-veiled version of herself: a working actress and single mother of three girls navigating life, love, and all that other crap. Azevedo eruditely demonstrates how Adlon and Louis utilize technology in sublte yet effective ways to imbue the series with wry and sardonic humor, yes, but also genuine heart.

This is, quite simply, a great exploration of a great topic using a great example. And not only is the content outstanding, on a technical note Azevedo’s editing skills are on point; I’m legitimately jealous. Grading criticism seems weird and pretentious, but if I was those things I’d give this video a capital A with a neon +. Get your eyes on it, then use your smartphone to share it with all your friends.

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Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist