' ' Cinema Romantico: The Perfect Phone Call

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The Perfect Phone Call

Over the weekend, the ostensible President of the United States, King Big Brain I, placed a phone call to Georgia’s Secretary of State in which he explained, more or less, that he had been beamed up to a UFO in the middle of the night by aliens who proceeded to show him tremendous evidence of voter fraud the likes of which you have never seen before. In a normal administration this might have caused a multiple-alarm fire; in this administration it was just another day at the office with the classy gold drapes. Why this wasn’t even His Imbecility’s first election fraud phone call! He’d made one of those in 2019 to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, proffering a quid pro quo in his typical crude manner, leading directly to his impeachment and causing him to deem the phone call “perfect.” 

He has yet to deem the second phone call perfect, at least so far as I can discern, but I assume he thinks it is perfect because he assumes everything he does and says is perfect. And I suspect he labeled that first phone call perfect because his limited vocabulary prevented him from describing what he meant by perfect, leaving behind the most crucial question: what makes a phone call perfect? Is it content? Is it length? Is it tone of voice? Is it verbiage? Is it honest back and forth? Is it getting to the bottom of the something? Is it beginning the call the right way; is it ending the call the right way? Is it convincing the customer service rep to waive the late fee? Is it getting that stooge on the other end of the line to purchase a subscription to Better Homes and Gardens? Is it the phone lines going down and not having to make the call in the first place?

You might not immediately think of the phone call between master thief Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) and the businessman cum money launderer Roger van Zant (William Fichtner) in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) as The Perfect Phone Call. After all, the phone call is nothing less than McCauley threatening van Zant’s life – nay, telling van Zant in so many words that he’s “a dead man.” That doesn’t sound so perfect. But as King Big Brain I goes to show, who says a phone call needs be humane or within the law to achieve perfection? 

Let us now recount the call in full...

McCauley: “Roger van Zant?” 
van Zant: “Yeah, who’s this?” 
McCauley: “You know who this is.” 
van Zant: “Yes I do, yes I do. I sent a guy to deliver the package. He didn’t call, is everything all right?”
McCauley: “Tell you what, forget the money.”
van Zant: “What?” 
McCauley: “Forget the money.” 
van Zant: “It’s a lot of money. What are you doing? What do you mean, forget the money?” 
McCauley: “What am I doing? I’m talking to an empty telephone.”
van Zant: “I don’t understand.” 
McCauley: ‘“Cause there is a dead man on the other end of this fuckin’ line.”

To begin with, while McCauley’s phone call to van Zant might well be, in its own way, a business call, it is simultaneously the spiritual antecedent to the most dreaded of all phone calls – the sales call. McCauley is not pitching van Zant anything; in point of fact, he’s telling van Zant to “forget the money.” This alone, this admirable, even heroic, refusal to sell something, puts the call on the road to perfect, personal, in its way, rather than transactional. 

What’s more, McCauley, aided greatly by the esteemed actor playing him, forgoes chit-chat or any annoying pretense of aggravating pleasantries. He confirms the person on the other end of the line is the person he’s trying to reach, avoiding the insultingly superfluous Start-Talking-Only-To-Realize-This-Isn’t-The-Right-Person red herring. From there he does not so much deflect as commendably reject van Zant’s attempts to stall and make the phone call unnecessarily interminable before, upon van Zant trying to butter him up with a little small talk before they get to the brass tacks, shutting him down by inserting the brass tacks a mere five exchanges in, keeping the phone call on schedule. And at that point, rather than hanging around, wasting his time and van Zant’s (after all, van Zant’s a dead man so he better get to living while he still has time!), McCauley states the phone call’s ultimate intent and then, once he does, eschews a banal have a good day, nice talking to you, etc., to simply hang up, ensuring the phone call is all of, what, forty seconds? 

If McCauley famously espoused the philosophy that one must be willing to walk out on anyone or anything in 30 seconds flat if he/she feels the heat around the corner, he might have been just as smart to espouse a similar philosophy about making a phone call. Never make a phone call you are not willing to hang up on in 40 seconds flat if basic intelligence suggests there is no reason for it to continue. 

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