The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

8 June 2007

Don't call us, we'll call you

Around 1960, PacTel installed a phone booth in the middle of the Mojave Desert, about 70 miles from Las Vegas, not particularly close to Zzyzx Road. In 1997, the booth gained a measure of Net notoriety when a Web site devoted to it sprang up. The site, and then the booth, picked up traffic; in 2000 the booth was taken down at the request of the National Park Service, citing environmental concerns stemming from that traffic. The site, however, lived on, and eventually filmmaker John Putch dropped by:

I was in Vegas — I don't know, must have been 2000, or right when the booth was removed or something — and I read an article in the Sun-Times, or whatever the Vegas paper is. It was the first I'd ever heard of it. I thought the article was really interesting. Typically, the booth is gone now, and I didn't get a chance to see it or look at it or call it or anything. So I got home and I started looking it up on the web and I found [the] site — and everybody else's, the blogs or whatever — and I just read a whole mess of shit on it. I guess what interested me were the same things that interested other people, and that was just this wonder aspect of it, that people actually connect, strangers so far away, and the best part is that you're in a weird, surreal setting, you know?

And so it came to pass that John Putch, on a budget of $38,469.49, brought forth Mojave Phone Booth, the movie, which played tonight at deadCENTER. And this is exactly the point he wanted to make: that people, strangers so far away, actually do connect in that weird, surreal setting. I've always thought that communication was far easier once you detach yourself as much as possible from the everyday, and Mojave Phone Booth is an object lesson in that detachment: the characters who would never discuss matters with the people closest to them will willingly talk to Greta, whoever she may be — altruist? therapist? the voice of God? — at the other end of the line.

The script, by Putch and Jerry Rapp, pulls off the difficult task of getting inside these characters without making them into caricatures. In the wrong hands, this could have been the sort of overwrought melodrama that gives away all its secrets in the trailer. Instead, the details accumulate, slowly but surely, the complexities unfolding, the stories unexpectedly intertwining. And this version of Las Vegas, the city these people flee to find a voice in the desert, is decidedly blue-collar and downscale: that fabled nightlife is a job, nothing more.

That reference to the budget, incidentally, isn't an apologia: it's a boast. Mojave Phone Booth is beautifully shot, its desert scenes balanced on the edge between compelling and disturbing, its Vegas scenes appropriately glitz-free. And the thread of hope which connects its characters proves, ultimately, to be far stronger than it seems.

Posted at 11:47 PM to Almost Yogurt

The booth's number seems to have been given out again. I disconnected after hearing the first ring because I wasn't actually looking to talk to anyone -- especially trying to explain about how I'd just read about this phone booth that's no longer in the middle of the Mojave Desert, read about it on a blog by a guy in Oklahoma City I've never met face to face...

I think Mr. Putch would have been proud, though, if I had let whoever answer...

(And now it's time for someone to chime in and say that the reason the number rang is because Lorene got it for her cell phone...)

Posted by: McGehee at 11:32 AM on 9 June 2007

...and I've just put the movie on my Netflix wait list, since it's not available yet.

Posted by: McGehee at 11:35 AM on 9 June 2007

The premise is great, I'll give it that. But, somebody needed to take some scissors to that film. It needed some serious editing in my opinion...and then it could be really good film.

It did have Steve Guttenberg. So, it does have that...

Posted by: Dwight at 11:39 AM on 10 June 2007

I remember thinking, "Wow, that looks like Steve Guttenberg after a two-week bender." Score this as a triumph for the Stonecutters.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:49 AM on 10 June 2007