The past, the present, and the future hop on a quick video call

There is a particular subset of movie nerds that harbors a masochistic streak. I have long counted myself a member of this strange, perverted tribe. I love a well-crafted film even more, perhaps, than the next guy. But when someone tells me that a film is truly terrible, a sick little voice chimes in from the back of my mind:

How bad are we talking here?

If you’re unfamiliar with this twisted cinephile mindset, it may surprise you to learn that I’ve never had to look far to find others of my ilk. In college, where by day I was studying in exhaustive detail the most important films in history, by night I’d trek down to the basement1 of Burton-Judson Courts for screenings of some of the most maligned cult “classics” in history. In graduate school, when we weren’t repeatedly dissecting and reassembling our peers’ screenplays and short films, we were at the movies. This was the heyday of MoviePass, and some of us would see ANYTHING that was playing. Have you seen R.I.P.D. on the big screen? Don’t. But I have.

MoviePass has passed on, but some films are still such storied train wrecks that one simply must pay $17 to see them in theaters (sometimes, twice). But there are other ways to scratch the bad-movie itch in several ways. I listen devotedly to The Flop House podcast. And from Boston, there’s Trash Night. A monthly showcase of rarely-seen, next-level movie garbage, the appropriately named screening series was held at The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, but moved online during The Pandemic. It remains a virtual event at the time of this writing. The movies are streamed via Twitch, a platform I’d never used BLE — Before the Lockdown Era. I was turned onto virtual Trash Night by a college friend who lives in Boston, and when I’m free to tune in, I participate in a running commentary text thread with some of the very same folks I watched bad movies with in The Pit. (The chat, by the way, is held via WhatsApp, another platform I had little exposure to BLE.2)

This month, several of us watched, phones in hand, as Trash Night broadcast 1995’s Hologram Man.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to explain to the plot of Hologram Man. Suffice it to say, it deserved its designation as a Trash Night pick.

Deep into the film, some shady character is entertaining a date at his high-tech house. Suddenly, an alert chimes from his computer. He’s receiving an important video call! He sits down at his monitor and gets some bad news from his…henchman? Boss? I was a little lost at this point, as I’d taken a break to do some yoga. Whoever it was, his appearance, (in a little box, on a computer monitor, in a movie I was streaming from my iPad to my television set via my old Apple TV) caused my own phone to chime. “This movie predicted Zoom!” a friend had joked to our WhatsApp group.

Hologram Man is set in the future, as evidenced by the Hologram Men running around all over the place (one of whom has escaped from Hologram Jail!). But it was released in 1995, a time when a video call might have been technically possible, but a casual video call between work colleagues was the stuff of…well, futuristic science-fiction movies. Or reruns of The Jetsons. In 1995, I had already been daydreaming about videophones for years. I fantasized about calling my grandparents in Albuquerque and getting to see their faces while I opened birthday presents they’d sent to the Midwest for me. Teleportation was the ultimate fantasy, but this would be the next best thing.

And yet, in 2021, when I watched this movie-villain of the ‘90s future take a quick video call from his living room, I didn’t bat an eye. If my friend in Boston hadn’t sent that message pointing it out, I would not even have noticed that the film was flexing its science-fiction muscles to make this scene possible. Of course the guy took a video call from his computer. That’s what you do.

Several days later, I was with my 5-year-old nephew and his parents, recounting this bizarre sensation. How could I have forgotten for even a moment that this miraculous, longed-for technology was a throughly modern phenomenon? My nephew, feeling left out of the conversation, asked me to explain what I was talking about.

I looked at him and realized that, in order to explain, I was going to have to start before he was born. I needed to sketch out a world that he’d never known — a world where we couldn’t just pick up the phone and see Grandma’s face. In fact, that’s exactly where I started.

“You know how you can call your grandmas on FaceTime, and see them when you talk to them?”

Yes, of course he did. That’s what you do.

“Well, when your mom and dad and me were kids, you couldn’t do that.” I went on a bit longer before he cut me off, exasperated.

“I don’t understand,” he said, ready to change the subject to Super Mario3 or airplanes or the new dance he’d just made up — some topic to which he could reasonably relate.

These past years, clutching wildly for any silver-lining that doesn’t feel hollow or trite, I have often observed how fortunate it is that a pandemic like this didn’t happen just 10, or even five years ago. Better, obviously, if it had not happened at all, but accepting it as an eventuality, how excellent that we had the technology to build a way through. Even people who might formerly have self-identified as luddites have learned (by necessity or force, perhaps, but learned even so) how to do things with their devices that were once pure science-fiction. The world of technology that greets today’s children is yesterday’s stuff-of-fantasy.

It’s easy, sometimes, to feel like our super-connected, tech-driven world is all bad. But then I think of how my nephew’s dance classes have been held via Zoom while it’s not safe to hold them in person. I think of how his parents FaceTimed me in to their living room for his recitals. I think of watching my godson open his birthday presents from three time zones away. Hell, I think of the terrible movies and shows I’ve watched and commented on with my friends across the country. And, in that light, it’s impossible to hate this brave new world.

But I do think, if we’re going to make peace with technological progress of our wildest dreams, we need to remember why we dreamed it all up to begin with.

1

In my day, this dormitory basement hang-out and snack shop was called “The Pit.”

2

This same group also watched 2020’s Lifetime Christmas film The Christmas House via Discord, yet another platform I’d heard of but never really used until that year. If Metaforia had existed back then, I would probably have written about The Christmas House.

3

Technology may change, but Mario is evergreen