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New York’s Last Phone Booth Bids a Defiant Adieu

Tribeca-acclaimed short film 'Dead Ringer' lets a crotchety old payphone eulogize itself.

by Shana Nys Dambrot
28 May 2016, 11:45am

Still from Dead Ringer. Photo by Michael Tucker

These days, there's no shortage of cultural traditions whose demises we lament—the print industry, the hand-written letter, Polaroid film, body hair, record stores, typewriter repair shops. Now, the new short film Dead Ringer gives a voice—a cranky, world-weary, Brooklyn-accented blue-collar poet’s voice—to one such particularly poignant and emblematic icon facing extinction: the New York City phone booth.

Premiering to great acclaim at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the documentarian team of Alex Kliment, Dana O'Keefe, and Michael Tucker directed, wrote, and shot the film in close collaboration with the legendarily eccentric urban historian and tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch. “It’s my first producer credit!” effuses Levitch, an aficionado of the arcane whose unbridled enthusiasm for overlooked details was chronicled in the 1998 documentary cult classic The Cruise, as well as the 2012 Hulu series Up to Speed. Levitch describes the narration as, “a deeply emotional soliloquy,” tinged with humor, regret, resentment, and nostalgia. It's a four-minute rage against the dying light, in which a phone booth considers its own impending doom with profound philosophical insight into the social and cultural implications its loss represents.

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The voiceover was actually done by director Alex Kliment. “Although I'm a native New Yorker,” he says, “I don't sound much like that in real life. So to get it right, I tried to imagine what a talking phone booth might sound like. A sort of old New York character, a wiseguy—but an endearing wiseguy. Rough around the edges but maybe a little soft at heart.” He nails it.

The film’s syncopated editing mixes sumptuous, noirish cinematography by Tucker, portraying payphones in various states of neglect with fair use clips of phone booths in classic movie moments. “Without me, he’d just be Clark Kent!” scolds the receiver from its shabby cradle, expressing salty disdain for modern man’s addiction to technology and the death of privacy, human interaction, and spontaneity with it. “And really this is happening on every continent, in just about every country,” says Levitch. “They are maintaining phone booths in Brazil, and in the city of Houston, TX for some reason. Everywhere else, we’re losing them. Either they are being outright destroyed, or, like New York is planning to transform them into wifi stations.”

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Still from Dead Ringer. Photo by Michael Tucker

“Dana was executive producer on Up to Speed,” explains Levitch, “and he introduced me to Alex and Michael. One day we were all just talking, and someone mentioned phone booths and pay phones and how no one uses them any more, and we all just said, ‘Oh yeah, we need to research this.’ We couldn’t help it! And we discovered all this amazing stuff.” For Levitch, maybe the best part was meeting Mark Thomas from The Pay-Phone Project, a “microscopic appreciator and flaneur of phones.”

Levitch says, “[Thomas] took us on a tour, and reminded us that there have been 25 other civic plans for ‘phones of the future’ and all have failed. It turns out the majority of working payphones are clustered on West End Ave., and by majority I mean there are four. Even the one we used in the film was destroyed about a week after we shot it. It’s gone. It’s really dead.”

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Dead Ringer will be streaming in full on the New Yorker website until October. 

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