What would you say if you learned that one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, someone responsible for billion dollar movie franchises that explore things like space travel and alternate dimensions, doesn’t have email or a cellphone?
You’d probably think he was a bit crazy. But, maybe he isn’t.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind Interstellar, the Batman trilogy, as well as Memento and Inception,explains his reasoning, and it kind of makes a lot of sense.
“I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing,” he says. “I just couldn’t be bothered about it.”
That’s it. Read it again. Christopher Nolan has never set up his own email account because he basically doesn’t see a use for it. Eureka! This guy may be on to something.
Email is one of the greatest modern inventions, but anyone who has spent the greater part of their day answering emails with 78 different people cc’d, many of whom are only tangentially connected to the issue at hand, all of them offering one sentence replies that amount to— what, exactly??—?knows that despite its usefulness, it can also be one of the biggest time wasters in human history.
To wit, imagine all of the great things not being done, tasks not being completed, attention being diverted, ideas not being fully formalized, because people are spending their precious time— the only resource in life that they cannot get back— with this digital form of communication that can often not amount to much.
Before email, if people wanted to stay in touch with someone, they called them on the phone, mailed them a letter or maybe even saw them in person. Because these things actually required some effort, there was perhaps much more thought put into them beforehand. To mail a letter required not only a pen, some paper, an envelope and a stamp, but it also meant physically walking over to a mailbox, too.
Now, nobody thinks twice before firing off emails at every hour of the day, and it’s essentially a given that you will see notifications on your smartphone, which is tethered to your side like a siamese twin, lighting up at all hours of the night. Yes, there is precious, really important correspondence in your inbox, waiting for your attention.
But how much of this correspondence actually amounts to anything? Very little of it. I’d argue that deleting at least 50% of all your email would yield the same exact things in both your professional and personal lives.
Let’s not be mistaken— surely, some of it is important, because email is so ingrained into the fabric of how we live now. But a lot of it isn’t. Particularly as it pertains to work, a lot of email correspondence you get looped into, without even trying.
Sadly, we’ve taken those work email practices into our personal lives, too. So it isn’t that uncommon now to have long email conversations with family members and friends, where by the time you’re ready to respond, there’s a trail of 59 one-sentence replies you have to scroll through just to figure out what the original question was.
But, Mr. Nolan doesn’t just stop at email. Perhaps because he doesn’t want to be bothered by email notifications at 3 AM, he doesn’t have a cellphone either.
“It’s like that whole thing about ‘in New York City, you’re never more than two feet from a rat’?—?I’m never two feet from a cellphone,” he explains. “We’ll be on a scout with 10 people and all of them have phones, so it’s very easy to get in touch with me when people need to.”
The key words in that statement are the last four.
When. People. Need. To.
Imagine that, using the phone only when needed. Well, it’s not a very abstract concept. The way phone companies used to work, before cell phones and unlimited plans, they’d charge you for every call you made. Many grownups today can probably remember the days when their parents would open up a phone bill at the end of the month and harangue them about how many calls they made (“But mom, I was just talking to my friends!”).
Even mobile service, up until the past few years, was built around the idea of the minutes plan. You only had so many minutes to use each month, so you probably thought a little more about how you utilized that time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the days of waiting until 9 PM— off-peak hours!?—?to make a phone call. Now, not so much. You might have a 4-hour phone call in the middle of the day. Why? Because you can.
Similarly, with expanded data plans, proliferation of lightning fast wireless networks and powerful processors that have turned our handheld devices into miniature desktop computers, we’ve taken the time-wasting we might have done at our desk, right along with us wherever were are. Ultimately, that’s why Mr. Nolan doesn’t have one.
“It gives me time to think,” he says. “You know, when you have a smartphone and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.”
He’s right, we do. And that stuff tends to cloud our thoughts, occupy our mind and keep whatever it was we were looking at swimming around inside our brain. This stuff is not always essential to completing whatever tasks are at hand, or even the act of living itself.
So, maybe it’s time we all gave hyper-connectivity a second thought. Not disconnect completely, but pull back just enough to rediscover who we truly are, what we think about, and what our ideas really mean, when we’re not distracted by someone else’s.
If it works for Mr. Nolan, who has been nothing short of prolific, if not visionary and progressive as a filmmaker, maybe, just maybe, it’ll work for us too.
Roger Ebert loved words. He loved movies. He also really loved life.
That much I gleaned from watching Life Itself, the acclaimed documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), which is based on Ebert’s 2011memoir, and is actually streaming on Netflix now.
Rogert Ebert passed away in 2013, and for this documentary James received an extraordinary level of access. Short of seeing Ebert actually die, there is a lot to work with here. It’s very intimate, very personal, and at times, very humorous.
Ebert himself is alive for most of it, and he talks to the camera through a text-to-speech feature on his Apple laptop. The rest of it is narrated, with words taken right from Ebert’s book, and as a person who hasn’t actually read the book, I found a lot of the prose to be beautiful and wistfully romantic. I mention this because the movie would not be what it is without that narration. It’s like a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, tying everything together rather deliciously.
As for structure, Life Itself tells the story of how Roger Ebert came to be, and uses standard documentary style, mixing old clips with interviews from friends and family, plus new footage of Ebert, as he deals with his myriad health issues. This approach might initially seem formulaic, but it actually works quite well here, moving the film along at a fairly brisk pace, despite its 2-hour run time.
While the movie is fairly sentimental, it’s not a posthumous public relations campaign to present Ebert as an angel. It seems fair in that it shows him to be a prodigious talent, but also paints him ruthlessly competitive, a bit of egotist, and until he’s married at age 50, sort of an overgrown child. He’s also legendarily combative with his longtime television sparring partner Gene Siskel, whom he doesn’t even appear to be friends with. Watching outtakes of them arguing and insulting one another is particularly demonstrative.
There are other uncomfortable moments. In one instance, another legendary critic, Pauline Kael, is discussed. I’m not enough of a scholar on what the real relationship was like between Ebert and Kael, nor do I really care that much, but at one point, Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan very bluntly says: “Fuck Pauline Kael.”
James’ decision to include that part illustrates a type of animosity that existed?—?and I think still exists?—?between critics who thought movies and movie criticism should be a utility, serving the needs of masses with simple gestures like thumbs up or thumbs down; versus high-minded, intellectual and personal, perhaps serving the needs of only a select, artful group of people.
It’s an interesting conversation that happens a third of the way into the film, and I think it’s actually an important one, because nowadays, when there are fewer film critics than ever working at the professional level, and cultural criticism itself is being shed from established media institutions like so many other people’s salaries long forgotten, who can imagine a time when the business was healthy enough to support that kind of debate?
There are other sobering parts of the film, like watching Ebert, this blue collar guy from Chicago, rise up the ranks and become impossibly famous, despite the fact that he was a recovering alcoholic, significantly overweight and spent his life waxing poetic about other people’s art; which is kind of what we do all day on the internet now, except many people do it for free and it is largely terrible. That we’ve let our new technology overlords build businesses around the latter and not the former, that part is even more depressing. But let me not digress too much.
I use the word sobering to describe Ebert’s journey because in this day and age, in this winner take all and then take even more and more and more type of political and economic climate that we’re living in, I just don’t see that level of opportunity out there for people like that. And that’s sad, because in a way, that’s a lot of what America still really is.
While I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but keep thinking: if Roger Ebert was a 20-year-old today, what would he be doing? Maybe he’d have a Medium publication or a Tumblr or a WordPress site where he reviewed movies. But maybe after he wrote 100 of them and watched them get buried by a Facebook algorithm, or observed how people just look at a silly number on Rotten Tomatoes to make their decisions about what movies to see, he’d just as soon as throw in the towel and become a bus driver (not that there’s anything wrong with driving a bus; maybe it’s even more helpful than reviewing movies).
That should take nothing away from the film itself, which paints a portrait of a complicated artist as a young man, but one who eventually grows up to become a wiser, more mature, more loving one, too. There’s a lot of love in this film; from his friends and family, but especially from his wife Chaz.
I think the thing that Life Itself illustrates the most, however, is just how powerful and meaningful the act of writing is, for when Ebert’s health problems rob him of his ability to speak, he’s able to still use the written word to convey what he wants to say. Maybe, as the film quietly suggests, the loss of his voice actually empowered him, made the words count that much more, have more meaning.
A non-writer might find this concept novel in its own right?—?“isn’t that cute?”?—?but a writer, or anyone who really endeavors to dig deep inside themselves to find some sort of more everlasting truth, might identify with it on a level that is hard to really put into words. In fact, I’m struggling to write or even think about this movie now without tears welling up in my eyes. It touched me that much.
If you have some time, check it out and you won’t be disappointed.
Ebert himself might have given it two thumbs up.