La Cabina is a Spanish horror short which was aired on television in 1972. You can find it on You Tube with English subtitles and I will paste a link at the end of this article. I suggest you watch the film first as my commentary below contains some spoilers.
The opening shot is a closed frame of some apartment blocks and the camera quickly pans down to a deserted square and a truck entering the road that runs down one side. The truck parks abruptly and four men carry a brand new, red telephone box, on poles, into the centre of the square and set it down. They install the telephone, give the glass a quick clean, prop open the door and then leave.
We cut to the city waking up and the first human traffic through the square. A man in his late forties or early fifties, wearing a suit and tie, walks his son to the school bus. Then, he walks past the new telephone box and realises he needs to make a call. He enters the box and begins to dial. The door closes slowly while his back is turned.
When he tries to exit the booth the door won’t budge. He is spotted by two men who try to pry him out, but again the door is more than stuck. A crowd begins to congregate around this individual –the predicament seems so unlikely, and so innocuous, that it is comical. He becomes a spectacle. A strong man appears and the box is a chance to show off his strength. After a number of failed attempts, the crowd spitefully chiding his masculinity, he nurses his shoulder and leaves the scene.
What is immediately clear is that the man inside the box becomes an illusionary exhibit as soon as the door shuts: cocooned in glass he is literally on display and physically separated from those around him –realistically close and yet untouchable; like the starving child on TV who elicits our sympathy but then less and less with saturation, and often not enough to drive us to action: the constant demands of our own lives (embodied prisoners that we are), the distance (expressed in any physical separation, with only a pane of glass being necessary, as the film illustrates), and the lack of feedback (requisite for the satisfaction of giving) all make it far too easy to turn away. Ironically, our phones pull us away with a greatly diminished reality, but in this case the Dopamine rush, engineered with uncanny precision, is just too strong and its addictive qualities vastly trump whatever effects on our conscious the starving child might have.
As we watch the carnival of spectators outside the telephone box, there is a doubling of separation for the viewer. We watch the watchers, we see through their eyes and also we look out with the eyes of the captor, sharing his isolation and loss of humanity. We might also become dimly aware that we are another type of spectator, given privileged access and altogether safe from involvement and moral obligation (unlike the crowd, who we are encouraged to judge: the point being of course that we are no better when we ignore the starving child).
The first two men to help the protagonist (is there a protagonist?) seem sincere enough, but once they realise it’s not as simple as doubled strength, they explain that they are late for work and leave him stranded. The rescuers who follow are more interested in performing for the crowd, or are simply following their orders –the police try and force the door once again, and then disperse the crowd; the fire fighters arrive with their equipment, assess the scene and act accordingly. Everyone is either an actor or an audience member –there is little sense of a genuine empathetic response to this man’s plight. It is all faked or performed.
The city is both a maze and a post-modern labyrinth
The labyrinth or maze is generally designed to be walked alone. Although the hedge mazes of the 17th and 18th centuries could be walked by couples or small groups, the width of the path usually dictates that one person leads. Certainly, the adrenaline-fear of getting lost in a maze or the spiritual meditation of the labyrinth were designed around a single walker.
If you move to a new place, a certain amount of time is required to orientate yourself. You discover the quickest routes between the places that your need to go: work, school, the supermarket, the gym etc. This is like walking the same maze every day; first it is intimidating and you might need to pay close attention to the route and way markers. You are alert and prescient. Eventually however, you can navigate on autopilot and the richness of your environment fades to a set of blank walls. You might listen to music and shut out the world, or walk head-bent-forward absorbed in the digital realm of your phone. Imagine then a million people all travelling this way, all passing each other like ghosts.
The arteries and public spaces of a city are, with exceptions of course, spaces of isolation and alienation, whereas it is the private spaces seek to connect like-minded people and provide sites of connection-making. There are very few modern flaneurs, and most people would not apply Thoreau’s taxonomy of travel to the city (favouring slow passage as an opportunity to contemplate, observe and have meaningful contact). Time is money, and time spent getting from A to B is an arduous waste of it. As a result the glass walls close in and the crowd becomes the faceless blur of the landscape outside the train window.
We inoculate ourselves against an overabundance of reality by diverting our attention inward, and ironically the phone has come at just the right time to rescue us from a new epidemic of existential milieu. A magic box of tricks has allowed us to peer over the walls: as we walk through a glass-walled labyrinth to our chosen destination we can look into the mirror, like the Lady of Shallott, and reach out to what is desired with the detachment of pressing buttons that light up our neural networks.
It is not without irony that in La Cabina the man is trying to make a telephone call when he is imprisoned –the technology that pretends to connect us is also what isolates us.
The film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKkfGG9q32c