Last weekend when I saw the new Roman Polanski film The Ghost Writer, I surveyed the cast of characters: Ewan McGregor transformed from when we last met in Trainspotting, an outworn Pierce Brosnan as ex-Prime Minister—who can look at him with a straight face after Mamma Mia?—Kim Cattrall, who turns out to be British, and Olivia Williams, whom I recognized from Rushmore. But one key cast member was missing from the credits. She’s a show-stealing personality from this year’s romantic comedies, the behind-the-scenes man in the best new action flicks, the guy who solves the mystery in chart-topping political thrillers. This ubiquitous unnamed actor is the Internet.
In The Ghost Writer, a young writer who specializes in ghostwriting political memoirs begins the daunting task of investigating the life of controversial British ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang in order to compile his autobiography. He stumbles upon the dark secret of Lang’s involvement with U.S. military operations and discovers the ex-Prime Minister’s mysterious relationship to an American professor named Paul Emmett. Ominous music simmers in the background. It is nighttime. McGregor has narrowly escaped assassins and checked into a dim motel. Suddenly, he opens his laptop and plugs Emmett’s name into the Google search bar. Surprise! Paul Emmett is affiliated with the CIA. The thread of the plot unravels neatly from here.
In Up in the Air, the Internet meddles in the love affair between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, two traveling executives married to their work, as an unsteady third wheel. When Farmiga displays a startling foreknowledge of her conquest, she explains, “I Googled you. That’s what us modern girls do when we have a crush.” Certainly, the Internet accelerates the plot. After she Googles him, there is painfully little left for her to discover.
The Internet’s acting career hardly stops at this. Take, for instance, the 2009 political thriller State of Play. A mysterious set of D.C. shootings are linked to the murder of Representative Stephen Collins’ mistress during the senator’s highly publicized investigation of PointCorp, a dubious organization that sends mercenaries to Iraq. When it is time for the big reveal, the camera once again pans to the sinister glow of the computer screen as the courageous journalists cross enemy lines—to the PointCorp website.
Though I would recommend any of these films, this evidence leads to an unequivocal verdict: the Internet is a bad actor. It is a stock character unable to perform any part but that of deus ex machina, a plot device that is often disparaged as the authorial “cop-out.” Use of this device suggests that the author is unable to provide a resolution to the plot line he or she created that is consistent with the story’s internal logic.
Movies tell us important information about our culture. Filmmakers project their impressions of society onto the big screen, and the big screen projects them right back at us. The subconscious plays a role on both sides of this equation. What does it mean, as far as cultural input, that the Internet plays deus ex machina in our film output? Perhaps the underlying conclusion is that the Internet functions the same way in our lives, unraveling daily mysteries for us so that we don’t have to do it ourselves. Just like the movies, we use the Internet to investigate associations between political players, to plumb the depths of big companies’ iniquity, to uncover the identity of a potential romantic partner.
Why, then, does the Internet’s role on the big screen sit so uncomfortably? Dramatic scenes couched in Internet browsing—the lights are low, the music is threatening—are completely ridiculous. One explanation is that modern appliances have no place in theater or cinema. Consider the criticism of NYU’s recent performance of Othello where the first scene was conducted over mobile phones: the actors’ faces were blank, expressionless, washed by technology.
However, I can’t believe it’s impossible to incorporate modern gadgets in a meaningful way, and, furthermore, it doesn’t seem genuine to exclude items so significant in our lives from the arts. Perhaps the solution is time, and with a few more years of acting experience, the Internet will grow up and expand its aptitude like a tedious Disney Channel kid who may, some day, perform in decent movies.
Another possibility is that the Internet as deus ex machina falls flat because it makes information too ubiquitous, the characters proportionally less heroic. We want our protagonists to be special and cringe at the prospect of their reflecting ourselves, sprawling impotently in front of a screen.
Personally, I miss Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, a time when characters in film figured things out for themselves. And yet, in my unheroic off-screen life, I remain entirely dependent on the Internet and unwilling to part with my daily deus ex machina.
Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College first year with an intended major in anthropology or comparative literature and society. The Far-Side runs alternate Tuesdays.