Stiller: The Cable Guy (1996)

Few films captured the transition from cable television to dial-up internet quite as eerily and uncannily as The Cable Guy, Ben Stiller’s second film as director after Reality Bites. This time Stiller only makes a fleeting appearance, leaving most of the story to architect Steven Kovacs, played by Matthew Broderick, and his cable technician Ernie Douglas, played by Jim Carrey. We meet Steven as he’s moving into a new apartment, just after he’s broken up with his girlfriend Robin Harris, played by Leslie Mann. Steven’s first priority is to get his cable hooked up, since he doesn’t have anything to do at night except channel surf. Despite this downbeat opening, Stiller makes several nods at the first few scenes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We see Steven having a shower, and then addressing the camera directly, as he talks to the front door behind it, when Ernie arrives to connect his service. You could say that Steven blends Ferris’ youthful vigour with Cameron’s dourer sense that there’s no possible way to change his day.

In retrospect, Ferris Bueller was all about connection – and Ferris’ insatiable need to network Chicago into one giant hub of connections, culminating with his prime position in the Von Steuben Day Parade. Broderick’s character also yearns for that connection in The Cable Guy, but the prospects of physical space and time are considerably smaller here, since the outside world appears to have shrunk to the drab coordinates of Steven’s new apartment. There’s no sense, any more, that a simple day out would suffice to satisfy Steven’s loneliness, or that mere physical space and time are enough, to keep us poised on the very cusp of networked life. In place of connection, The Cable Guy longs for a more digital experience of connectivity.

This is exactly what Ernie – nicknamed “Chip” – provides. At this time, cable guys were the gatekeepers to a new connectivity, equipped with the skills to transform television into a new medium. As soon as he arrives, Ernie rearranges Steven’s apartment to ensure maximum connectivity. First he intuits the “sweet spot” – the best place in the wall to drill the cable hold – and makes love to it, caressing it with his hands and tongue before penetrating it with his drill. Then, he figures out the best place to situate the television, and the best way to rearrange the furniture, so Steven receives an unimpeded flow of data from the local satellite.

Throughout these early scenes, Stiller presents cable as a forerunner of dial-up internet – or an accompaniment, since the two technologies seemed to evolve to fill the same niche in the mid-90s. The sheer plethora of channels plays like a nascent internet, as Chip predicts that “soon every American home will integrate their phone, television and computer – you will be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, and watch mud wrestling on another.” Although Steven is an architect, and works in real estate, this digital space is totally new to him. The closest analogy from his own experience is Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, which is Robin’s favourite film, and which pre-empted the internet as romantic medium a few years before.

Chip and Steven quickly form an unusual friendship, partly because they both have an unhealthy addiction to television, and a yearning to extend their televisual experience into more digital forms of connectivity. Not content to simply maximise the flow of information between Steven’s television and the local satellite, Chip takes him to the satellite on their first outing together. They travel in his cable van, “riding the information superhighway,” and then clmb up to lie on the dish and gaze out at the informational ether. This is quite a sublime sequence, as Steven sees the sweep of cabled life for the first time, and Chip reflects:“right now, she’s sending out information and entertainment to hundreds of thousands of cities.”

This dish feels like Chip’s natural home, since he doesn’t merely sell cable television – he embodies it. He’s the consummate channel surfer, but also seems to be switching between channels in his own mind. Virtually all his dialogue is punctured by the sudden bursts of energy that ensue when you shift from one channel to the next, regardless of the specific content. Stiller thus cements Carrey as an emblem of media convergence and overstimulation in the mid-90s, bookending a process that concluded with The Truman Show, where Carrey played a character who was both similar and different to Chip. Like Truman, Chip is the only character who doesn’t know he’s living in another world but, unlike Truman, Chip is the only character who is truly living in a virtual world, having left mere analog materiality behind him.

For that reason, Chip, and Carrey, move at a different pace from the other characters, bypassing traditional time and space in the same way as a digital signal. Chip incessantly calls Steven’s answer service, yearning for a real-time access that goes beyond the clunkiness of landlines. In effect, he’s texting before mobile phones were widespread, and sliding into Steven’s DM’s fifteen years before Instagram existed. He also arrives in real-time whenever Steven calls him, and has an uncannily ability to insuate himself into any situation, with the heightened, up-to-the-minute awareness of other lives that would only come with social media profiles. Conversely, Stiller (and Chip) engineers situations that expose Steven’s inability to traverse space and time with the same digital grace. In one especially comic scene, Steven tries to stop an offensive email before it reaches his boss, but falls pathetically short.

More specifically, Chip and Steven’s friendship speaks to a new kind of homosocial proximity in the proto-digital era. We first see this in the way Chip turns into an embodied message board, or internet forum, giving Steven a wealth of advice (most of it good) about how to get back with Robin. Yet this proximity can also turn destructive. In one scene, after his phone calls have been ignored, Chip cuts Steven’s cable access while he’s watching Sleepless in Seattle with Robin, at the very moment at which Tom Hanks’ character is explaining why he could never meet someone in a virtual space. This sentiment, only a few years old, already feels remarkably quaint in The Cable Guy, especially when Chip hacks into Steven’s cable and watches the film outside in his car, like a distant ancestor of a Netflix viewing party. He’s experiencing a different kind of sleeplessness, or a later iteration of sleeplnessnes, from Ephron’s vision – the insomnia that comes from scrolling through one profile after another.

In order to capture this new homosocial proximity, The Cable Guy has to blend comedy and horror in quite uneasy and jarring ways. Many contemporary reviewers criticised the film’s perceived atonality, but that’s actually one of its strengths, since it derives from the remarkable way in which Carrey personifies different threads of the nascent internet. In one scene, for example, he takes Steven to Medieval Times, a Middle Ages-themed restaurant and circus that was popular at the time. This entire scene works brilliantly as physical comedy, but it also plays as an inchoate attempt to visualise the rapidly burgeoning world of MMORPGSs – massively multiplayer online role playing games – in conventional cinematic space and time.

One of the biggest threats of this new digital homosociality is that it is easily coded as simply homosexual. Most of the historical thresholds between homosociality and homosexuality have been virtual, and dependent on physical ritual. Since digital media is entirely virtual, and takes us away from the physical world, it challenges these thresholds in a peculiarly pregnant way. For that reason, Stiller, and screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr, often take thresholds that had been discarded as gay by the mid-90s, and provide them with an uncanny second life. We see this, for example, in the return of what might be described as the hippie repressed – the promiscuous entanglement of male bodies that was part and parcel of the 60s experiment, but prohibited by the conservative backlash and paranoid gender politics of the 80s and 90s.

This gesture informs the central set piece of the film – a party that Chip holds to celebrate Steven’s acquisition of cable. In this scene, Chip draws on the extreme, angular and androgynous body language of psychedelia and glam rock – and the camera follows suit, twisting around him at bizarre angles as he performs a truly hallucinatory rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” Eventually, the song takes him out of the living room and into the bedroom, where Steven is about to sleep with a woman who turns out be a prostitute. Chip dances around the bed, inserting himself into this intimate moment, before taking a Polaroid photograph for his own records, while turning Steven into the “somebody” of the song. We then cut to the next morning, as Chip greets Steven with “Good morning, sunshine,” while wearing his sweater, and serving him bacon and eggs, as if they’re married.

This determination to recover glam rock from the backlash of the 80s continues into the next scene, where Chip draws on the band that are arguably the most identified with this transition – Queen. Dressing up as Freddie Mercury, Chip sets out to thwart Steven’s rival, played by Owen Wilson, who he intercepts in a restaurant toilet while he’s on a date with Robin. First, Steven makes smalltalk with Wilson at the urinal, as if cruising him, then follows him to the cubicle. Finally, he beats him up while still dressed as Mercury, turning one of the main sites of gay hate crimes – public restrooms – inside out, and involuting the way in which rock of the 80s and 90s succumbed to the repression of psychedelic homosociality. In doing so, he affirms cable as a new digital paradigm where this promiscuity can and should flourish again.

Despite these flamboyant moments, however, the film is not entirely comfortable with Chip and Carrey’s presence, since they turn heteronormativity into a kind of trap – a set of postures that might suddenly be revealed as their exact opposite with too much digital porosity and proximity. In another great set piece, Steven arrives to a family dinner to discover that Chip has insinuated himself into his entire family, and somehow endeared them to the most perverse and graphic imagery. They all play a game of bingo that involves trying to guess obscene words, most of which Chip whispers into Steven’s air. As we move through “vagina,” “nipple” and “ clitoris,” each whisper feels more like a kiss, until Steven does indeed lick Steven’s lobe. Even in the midst of a family night, and with nothing but female body parts on the brain, Chip’s presence comes with a homosocial surplus that Steven can’t fully process.

Of course, this scene also captures the unsettling ways in which digital media would soon bring us closer to our families – the uncanniness of seeing a sibling’s browsing history, or being friended by a parent on Facebook. Chip is an internet predator, but he’s also the internet as predator – a seething mass of uncomfortable connections that, by the third act, abstracts him into a network himself. We gradually learn that he’s provided everyone important in town with free cable, turning him into a kind of tech entrepreneur, the head of an invisible network that is always available in real time to do his bidding. You might say that he starts by embodying friend-based social media, like Facebook, in his dealings with Steven, but embodies follower-based social media, like Twitter and Instagram, by this concluding act.

Yet even these individual followers are eventually abstracted, as is Chip himself, into a more impersonal and transhuman network. In one scene, he somehow sets off all the car alarms in Steven’s building; in another, he works his way into Steven’s dream, where he’s shot with a fisheye lens, space curving around him, as if he’s the bowl of a satellite dish himself, receiving and transmitting every conceivable channel. While he throws away the occasional film or movie reference in the first two acts, he becomes a veritable repository of quotations here. These grow more dense and obsessive with every scene, taking in the most cutting-edge releases as if they’re already embedded in film history – Waterworld, Goldeneye, Bad Boys.

The final twist is that Chip isn’t even his name. Instead, he’s developed a variety of personae since being fired from the cable company years ago, all of them named after film and television characters. As he struggles to take control of Steven’s network, he feels like a character from mid-century science fiction about television – or a futuristic vision, from that era, from what the next generation, the generation totally raised on television, might look like: “I am the bastard son of Clair Huxtable, I am a lost Cunningham, I learned the facts of life from The Facts of Life.” As he becomes totally converged with his media icons, the action returns to the satellite, where the climax unfolds against an electrical storm and a torrent of cyber-rain – the rain that was so often used to capture the approach of digital data in the wake of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Black Rain; a way of drowning out the analog world.

In the final set piece, Chip is totally identified with the cable signal, as he hangs in the air between satellite and dish, and the public wait across the country for the single biggest media moment of the decade – the return of the jury in a trial that has been playing out across the entire film. This trial, which splits the difference between OJ Simpson and the Menendez brothers, is the first image we see in the film, during an opening sequence in which the camera pans back from the fine pixels of Steven’s television. Sam Sweet, a celebrity played by Ben Stiller, has been accused of murdering his twin brother Stan Sweet, also played by Stiller. There had been no greater media event in American history, at this point in time, than the OJ trial, and no greater testament to the power of television. The Menendez trial was a kind of precursor, in terms of media attention, but Stiller also uses it here, in his double role, as a synecdoche for the voracious power of media itself, as embodied in Chip’s final descent.

As Chip falls through the air, and literally occupies the space of the signal between the satellite dish and spire, he seems destined be impaled on the spike in the middle of the dish. While his fall is enough to break the broadcast just before the verdict is announced, he survives, and actually seems stronger for having beaten the signal at its own game and absorbed its energy into his body. The whole of Los Angeles might black out, and every television might cut to static, but Chip feels as if he’s ascending to some as-yet-unimaginable media regime as the police helicopter finally carries him away, with the grounded materiality of Steven, Robin, and even the dish itself vanishing away beneath him. By this point, he only speaks in film and television quotations, since he’s become an entirely digital subject, as fluidly interspersed with older media as if he were streaming it straight to his brain, without any material intermediation – a spectacular ending to one of Carrey’s most daring and unsettling offerings.

About Billy Stevenson (667 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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