Denise Calls Up

(Hal Salwen, USA, 1996)


Contemporary comedies about love and relationships are suffering greatly from what could be called the clever metaphor syndrome.

This consists of symbolising all the phases of a personal interaction in a familiar activity or social ritual.

Food is by far the most overworked clever metaphor. From the movie hit Like Water for Chocolate (1992) to Amanda Lohrey’s novel Camille’s Bread, from Monica Pellizzari’s short film Just Desserts (1993) to a 1995 episode of the ABC television series Passion, the vicissitudes of love have been strenuously compared to every possible aspect of the preparation, ingestion and expulsion of food.

In Denise Calls Up, the metaphor of choice is telecommunication, in all its new-fangled forms: computer, fax and especially telephone (complete with mobile, call-waiting, speaker-phone and answering machine options). This is not exactly a new idea, either: from the Judy Holliday comedy Bells Are Ringing (1960) to the low-budget oddity Julia Has Two Lovers (1991), telephones have served ably as the prime symbol of the peculiarly mediated contact people have with each other in the modern world.

Writer-director Hal Salwen has set himself the challenge of constructing an entire, eighty minute film from telephone conversations – with each character completely alone in his or her own space. Within this constraint, Salwen works hard to dream up funny variations: his characters talk in cars, in bed, even on the toilet.

Denise Calls Up also focuses on a specific social group. It presents a small community of stressed-out, workaholic professionals who never deal with each other in the flesh – not even at parties, funerals or in the delivery room. Their familiar refrain, when constantly apologising to each other for never showing up at prearranged meetings, is: “Well, you know how it is …”

Some of these characters, such as Linda (Aida Turturro) just sit around on the end of a phone gabbing while they work. But two particular plot threads emerge from this tangle of telecommunications. The first concerns the effort of Gale (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) to matchmake two of her interlocutors, Barbara (Caroleen Feeney) and Jerry (Liev Schreiber).

Barbara and Jerry work through an entire relationship arc in this mediated fashion – from hesitant initial conversations to emotional dependence and sweaty phone sex. But then they both get cold feet and (as Linda comments with evident world-weariness) the relationship reaches the inevitable nadir of “moan, groan, dial tone”.

The second and more exciting plot intrigue is set in motion by Denise (Alanna Ubach), who plucks up the nerve to contact Martin (Dan Gunther), donor of the sperm with which she has been impregnated. Their phone exchanges mimic the cliché experiences of a married couple: arguments over the baby’s name, anxieties about its gender, dreams about the future.

Predictably, there is a mild lament about urban insularity, alienation and indifference built into this story. But Salwen also allows a note of up-beat cheer, as when all the characters suddenly get together on a party line. It is a refreshing perspective: the technology that, in old-fashioned terms, separates people, also has the potential to create new and unexpected alliances.

A surprising and welcome note of black comedy enters proceedings via the guest appearance of Sylvia Miles, memorable from the Paul Morrissey classic Heat (1972). Her gruesome monologues on the connection between telephones and death push the film towards a comedy of the grotesque – a direction also suggested by some of the more manic, mannered actors in this ensemble.

But it would have taken a prodigiously inventive filmmaker fully in tune with an aesthetic of the Grotesque – such as Stanley Kubrick or Joel Coen – to make the sight of people talking into phones cinematically engaging over so much screen time. Denise Calls Up is ultimately a one-joke movie – mildly enjoyable as it spools through, but instantly forgettable.

© Adrian Martin May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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