At the beginning of the 1996 movie “The Rock,” Nicolas Cage’s character takes a well-deserved break from his adventures as an FBI agent to share an intimate moment with his girlfriend — but then his cordless phone starts to ring.
“Just don’t answer — it’s okay,” she says.
“It’s the office, baby, I have to.”
In movies and TV, it’s a rule: When the phone rings while two people are in a romantic embrace, someone will pick up. Natasha Lyonne’s character does it in the last episode of the recent Netflix series “Russian Doll.” Don Cheadle’s does it in 2004’s “Crash.” Famously, Laura Linney’s character does it in 2003’s “Love, Actually” when she finally brings home her office crush, then gets a call from her institutionalized brother, which for some reason dooms that budding relationship. It happens in “Seinfeld.” It happens in “Sex and the City.” It happens in Netflix’s “You.”
There are thousands of similar entertainment tropes, and many are eye-roll-worthy cliches, but this one has always felt particularly egregious. Can’t the phone wait? I’m angry at the characters not just for leaving passion on the table, but for not acting like real people. Entertainment insists such a phone call plays out one way, when in reality I imagine most of them just go to voice mail. Or do they?
When I mentioned this frustration to Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru who wrote the guidebook “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” he pointed out that we don’t really want our fiction to exactly mimic reality. Even in literature, he posits, like in the realism of George Eliot or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the depictions of “real” suffering are primarily metaphors for the meaninglessness of life.
“It’s really pointless and antithetical to the nature of art to be literally, factually accurate in some kind of photographic way — nobody wants that,” he says. “We don’t go to the movies for literalness. We go to the movies for an elevated intensification of what it means to be a human being.”
These scenes can be potent contrasts, showing that ecstasy can be dashed by the trivial or the tragic at any moment, that our highs can quickly become lows or middles. The call is sometimes a pull from pleasure to peril: for a dangerous mission away from that very partner, for instance, just like in “The Rock” and 1995’s “Apollo 13” when Kevin Bacon’s astronaut steps out of a shower with another woman to take the call that sends him into space.
Answering one of these phone calls could be a black mark on a person’s character. Larry David does it on his television series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and faces the consequences from his wife. An entry on the tropes-cataloguing website TV Tropes, entitled “Coitus Uninterruptus,” is mainly about villains who show their cruelty by continuing their lovemaking even after picking up the phone.
David Thomson, a film critic and author of “Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire,” says these examples, all from the past several decades, go hand in hand with one trend over that time: “For a long time, people took sex very, very seriously. … Then we begin to see that sex is more comic.”
In the first half of the 20th century, premarital sex was less accepted, and while movie romances showed no lovemaking on-screen, they treated it as a “remote ideal.” “It’s something you can’t have, but I’ll show you something in a way that you’ll dream about it,” he says.
Since the 1960s, the idea of “profound eternal companionship associated with sexual rapture” has been deflated — by the sexual revolution, the rise in divorce, more explicit sex scenes and the spread of pornography. Thus, the phone interruptions, which are “departures from the dream and the ideal.”
No matter how bleak our view of romance has become, movies have to be credible. And I can’t imagine many calls in those situations are worth answering. I tried to find real people who actually would do this. A call on Facebook brought the responses: “No” and “No” and “nope nope nope.”
And yet, in a Dear Prudence column in Slate in which a woman recalls that once, during an intimate moment, her boyfriend took a call from his mom, Prudence advises that it is “not a reason to flee” the relationship, but that he shouldn’t do it again. Reddit threads have many similar stories.
Even if the landline examples from movies mentioned earlier seem unrealistic, smartphones have helped real life catch up with fiction. Tammy Nelson, a sex therapist in New Haven, Conn., confirms that notifications often interrupt affectionate evenings, and “it’s always a point of contention.”
“One client just told me he picks up the phone because he’s afraid it’s another woman” — his mistress — and that his wife might see the message before he does. “Another told me he picks it up because he is always on call with his job and he can’t help it, it’s automatic.”
Marty Klein, a sex therapist in Palo Alto, Calif., says that about half of his patients have been interrupted or distracted during sexual activity by devices of some kind — and half of those instances haven’t resumed because of a broken mood or other reason.
“If you’re a cardiac surgeon or the secretary of state, you get to answer your phone in the middle of sex,” he says. “Other than that, I don’t get it.”
Part of the problem, he says, is that most people are anxious during sexual situations. “Turning your attention away from what you’re anxious about to something that’s familiar is very comforting.”
On Facebook, I did find a couple of people who admitted to it. Jason Kessler, a 38-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles, says “being able to pick up the phone is a sign of your closeness” with your partner. He points out that in “Love, Actually,” it’s not Linney’s character who is at fault, but the guy who dashed off as she took the call from her brother.
“At the very least, if suddenly the sexual vibe is killed, you don’t leave, you have some tea and ask some questions.”
Sarah Fisch, 47, a freelance writer in San Antonio, says one time she did it in college, and after she answered the phone, “he tried to keep kissing me — that happens in a lot of movies. I remember thinking, god this is a movie, so I was aware of the trope even then.”
Another time, she was making out in a taxi but had lost her keys and she was getting a call that would help her back into her apartment.
But she recalls another more vivid example: After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when people in New York were “acting with abandon,” she found herself making out in a bathroom on the Lower East Side. Her mom called — she answered it, and the guy walked away in frustration. Her mom implored her to move back to Texas, and she burst into tears. Another girl walked into the bathroom, overheard her and did the same. “It went from some sort of wild hookup situation to me and this girl from Michigan holding hands and crying.”
The incident, as McKee might put it, is an “elevated intensification of what it means to be a human being.”
Now that’s a movie scene I’d actually want to see.
Correction: This story initially stated that in “Apollo 13,” Kevin Bacon’s character steps out of a shower with his wife. His character, Jack Swigert, never married.