The Cable Guy: a swansong for privacy

Imagine it’s 1996. The Iraq War is a thing of the distant past and you’ll never have to hear the name George Bush again. Leonardo DiCaprio is still twenty years away from his Oscar. Will Smith is still the name of a character played by Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Tom Cruise is yet to star in Magnolia as the charismatic leader of a cult convinced by his own meaningless affirmations, let alone become that man in real life.

Now imagine it’s not just 1996, but you’re Jim Carrey. Everybody loves you. You are dumb, and dumber. You shot to fame as Ace Ventura by literally talking out of your arse. Your troubled birth from a prosthetic rhino’s vagina has already made an indelible impression on a nine year old British kid called Alex Christofi. You have just been offered Hollywood’s first ever $20 million paycheque.

The character is not a detective, nor a cop, nor a lawyer, nor a salaryman in possession of a cursed Viking demon mask. He is the ’90s equivalent of a broadband installation professional. He is clingy and enthusiastic about karaoke.

This year in history, you are the most wanted man in Hollywood. You can pick any part in any film you want. And of all the films you are offered, you choose The Cable Guy.

But you say yes on two conditions:

1. We turn this screwball comedy into a parable of the slide of consumer capitalism into basic privacy violations, which the public will come to tolerate as a kind of devil’s handjob in return for the promise of free content, little realising that content itself will soon be devalued and we will acclimatise and come to require less and less reimbursement for the exact same privacy violations.

2. I get to speak with a lisp.

Ben Stiller directed the film, and has a cameo as a guy who murdered his identical twin (also played by Ben Stiller). Matthew Broderick plays the straight man so well you could almost forget he is in it, even though he is technically the main character. It’s like watching the word ‘normcore’ assume human form – he doesn’t quite seem like a real person, more like a set of pillows and clothes arranged in a bed to trick your parents when you run away from home. The supporting cast includes a recycled extra from Waterworld called Jack Black and the smuggest film debut ever from an actor calling himself Owen Wilson, who is later quasi-sexually abused with a hand dryer.

Despite the cast, the film scores exactly 6.0/10 on IMDB, making it one of the few films in the history of cinema that is, by popular vote, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth watching. On its release, the New York Times said The Cable Guy ‘offers the shocking sight of a volatile comic talent in free fall.’ It went further, to say that ‘there’s no fun in watching Carrey covering his face with chicken skin.’ However, Newsweek hit the nail on the head, if only accidentally, when it called Carrey’s character ‘a demonic and omnipotent Dennis the Menace.’

Because we have a word for what Carrey’s character is now. He either wants to be your best friend or your worst enemy. He hides behind pseudonyms. He quotes people without attribution, he thinks women are something you buy and, crucially, he is obsessed with what people in the 90s quaintly called ‘the information superhighway’. The cable guy is the world’s first troll.

Here’s what Carrey says when he’s standing on a giant satellite dish for those who prefer their visual metaphors to hurt: ‘Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!’ Here is a man clinging to a utopian ideal of keeping multiple tabs open so that he can convince himself he’s not really watching porn because he’s also, simultaneously, looking up museum opening times. It’s that sort of insight that makes this film a pre-Matrix Oracle. He even points out that ‘free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac,’ or as we would put it nowadays, Netflix and chill.

But let’s say it all gets a bit much and you want out. Well, that’s not really how this whole thing works. The cable guy insinuates himself with your girlfriend and your family home; he makes secret recordings of you; he hacks your office network and gets you fired; he makes every car alarm in the car park go off; he holds compromising pictures of you in flagrante delicto; he has you arrested for receiving stolen goods that he put in your flat. And you know what? He doesn’t even work for the cable company.

What did you do to deserve this? You’re just Matthew Broderick the pillow boy. But you let the free content cross your threshold, and now a troll is fucking all your shit up.

This is the gift they have given us, a swansong from the last days of privacy, Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick, some of the finest political commentators of their generation. Their message is this: any technology is only as trustworthy as the creepiest person who knows how to use it. As the troll himself points out, ‘The trouble with real life is, there’s no danger music.’

This piece was originally read at The Wrong Quarterly‘s event, ‘Remarks on Unremarkable Films of the 90s’, alongside Will Eaves, Heidi O’Loughlan, Nell Frizzell, May-Lan Tan and Ned Beauman.