Saturday, September 12, 2009

Faking the numbers

We're all familiar with the 555 telephone exchange. It may be the most widely used, widely accepted piece of artifice in the movies and TV. The 555 exchange doesn't exist anywhere in the U.S., which is why it's safe to create fake phone numbers using this exchange. Otherwise, the thinking goes, every idiotic yahoo would pester every person in every area code who has that number. It wouldn't just be 867-5309 that needed to be retired.

Don't think it would actually work that way? Don't think people are actually that childish and predictable? Just ask the producers of Bruce Almighty. Famously, in that film, Bruce receives a pager number where he can reach God: 776-2545, sans area code. This number did not exist in 716, the local area code for the film's Buffalo setting, but that did not stop viewers in dozens of other area codes from calling the number and asking for God. It's not clear how many of these calls were jokes, and how many were real, but that hardly matters -- it was a major disruption to the owners of those phone numbers. On DVD and when televised, the number now appears as 555-0123, as generic a number as possible. So much so that it's almost a spit in the face: "See, we could not trust you with something realistic, so you get the most fake number we could come up with." So much for trying to give the human race some credit.

As much as the Bruce Almighty thing backfired, I respect them for trying. Fake phone numbers tend to stand out like sore thumbs. Granted, Bruce Almighty isn't a movie that's exactly going for verisimilitude, so it was probably more than they needed to do. But in an otherwise serious, realistic film, it can be distracting to see one of those 555 numbers flash on the screen. The same way it's distracting to see a character drink a beer called BEER.

What I really like is when a movie or TV show actually buys the number in question in order to use it. It would seem to be a pretty minimal charge, relative to the budget, and they could even use it as a form of marketing, leaving an outgoing message that relates to the plot. I believe the TV show 24 did this. I guess there are still a couple issues: 1) Even if you showed the area code, viewers could call the number in a different area code; 2) You'd have to be committed to that number in perpetuity, since a viewer might watch the TV show/movie at any given time in the future. There are reasonable limitations to how much you can protect people from themselves.

I suppose while I'm on the subject, I should mention one other clever thing that is sometimes done in movies set in the early years of telephones, when people used the letters that corresponded to the digits while giving out their phone number. They'd say, "Operator, please connect me to KL5-7294." That's still 555 -- the K and the L both appear on the 5 key -- but at least it doesn't register falsity in your brain like a 555 number does.

What's this all leading up to, other than a somewhat interesting discussion that doesn't really cover any new ground?

Well, I was watching Julie & Julia this week, and I noticed that they didn't know what the heck to do with the phone numbers in this movie.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) live above a Queens pizza parlor. There's at least one shot of the outside of the pizza parlor, which shows its phone number. It's the Queens area code (718, I believe) followed by 555 and then who cares which four digits. Pretty standard stuff.

But then they decide to abandon this the next time phone numbers come into the plot. Namely, Julie's blog has blown up, and she has 65 messages (seems a bit excessive) on her answering machine from various magazines/newspapers/websites/publishing outlets that want to interview her/offer her a book/make her rich and famous. (And whose answering machine can even hold 65 messages, anyway?) We hear a snippet of about five or six different messages, which tend to bludgeon us with just how well things are going for our protagonist.

Here's the thing -- they aren't 555 numbers here. Nope, they are the other great way of fabricating a phone number, heretofore undiscussed in this post. They are numbers with a real area code, and then, instead of 555, a three-digit exchange that start with 0 or 1. You know, if these calls were coming from Manhattan, they might be 212-167-4918 or 212-083-3787.

You see, the phone company can't give out numbers like this because they don't work without the area code. If you tried to dial 167-4918, the phone would expect that you were dialing 1-674-918-, and then would still be expecting four more digits. And if you tried 083-3787, you wouldn't get any further than the 0. The operator would be on the line asking what you wanted before you got to the third digit.

This I like. You know on some level it's a fake number, if you listen closely. But it doesn't stand out like a 555 number. It has a basic plausibility. It goes into your head without immediately setting off warning flares.

Okay, but that still leaves questions about Julie & Julia. If they were going to use this more convincing, more seamless method of fabricating phone numbers in the answering machine sequence, why not for the exterior of the pizza parlor? It's all the stranger because they seem to be patting themselves on the back in the answering machine sequence, going out of their way to list three or four phone numbers in their entirety, when the dialogue simply could have been tweaked so you didn't have to hear the full number in each message.

The only thing I can guess is that it has something to do with how it looks. Maybe 167 or 083 just doesn't look right as a telephone exchange. Maybe they consider that number to appear as more of a distraction than the standard 555, when seen on the exterior of a pizza parlor.

I don't have any conclusions. It's just a way to waste 1,000 words on a Friday morning.

One thousand eighty, to be exact.

See, I'd never give you fake numbers.

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