SCOTT SIMON, host:
There was a famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon: a dog in front of a computer saying, On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. That cartoon was an early acknowledgment that in the online world, it's easy to pretend to be somebody else. Filmmakers and writers are drawing inspiration from the Internet's peculiar mix of anonymity and intimacy.
The element of disguise is good fodder for stories. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
There have been several films in the past few years in which chat rooms were crucial to the plot. Among them is Me and You and Everyone We Know. One of the film's offbeat relationships begins when 14-year-old Peter and his seven-year-old brother Robbie are fooling around in a chat room.
(Soundbite of Me and You and Everyone We Know)
Unidentified Male #1 (Actor): (As Character) Ask her if she likes baloney. What are you putting?
Unidentified Male #2 (Actor): (As Character) I asked her what kind of bosom she had. It's probably a man.
Unidentified Male #1: (As Character) Why is it a man?
Unidentified Male #2: (As Character) Everyone just makes stuff up on these things. It's probably a man pretending to be a woman. Okay. So picture a fat guy with a little wiener.
Unidentified Male #1: (As Character) What's a bosom?
SYDELL: Seven-year-old Robbie eventually has an online relationship with the adult on the other side of that chat, one that might be considered inappropriate. It turns out to be sweetly revealing about both people.
The film's writer and director, Miranda July, says in her own life she's had the experience of learning that people on the Web are not always who they say they are. Yet as a writer, she also sees the Internet as a source of potential.
Ms. MIRANDA JULY (Filmmaker): The just completely exposing yourself that can happen in an Internet romance, the places that you go that you would never dare to go. And in a sense that you could get into something that's almost beyond what humans can do when they're actually together.
SYDELL: In Me and You and Everyone We Know, the online world is a place where people can explore new parts of themselves. William Gibson is the author of the bestseller, Necromancer, and most recently of Pattern Recognition. He got interested in how the Internet creates communities after he spent time in chat rooms.
Mr. WILLIAM GIBSON (Author): I had been spending some time anonymously in several different groups, just being Bill. So it's a place where you can always go and hang out, and be part of a conversation with entities you know, sort of.
SYDELL: In his novel, Pattern Recognition, the main character, Cayce Pollard, lives a disconnected existence as she travels around the world. However, she finds company among an online group that is as obsessed as she is with some mysterious online film images.
Cultural critic Annalee Newitz believes chat rooms and other forms of faceless communication tap into an American tradition. It's the belief that it is possible to move somewhere else where no one knows you and start all over again. She says it's a literary tradition that goes back to Ben Franklin's autobiography.
Ms. ANNALEE NEWITZ (Cultural Critic): He's famous for having shown up with two rolls in his pocket in Philadelphia and basically gone from there to being one of the most influential figures of his time. And so I think that that's part of our myth in the U.S., that we should be able to pass through a phase of anonymity and into a new selfhood.
SYDELL: However, the idea of becoming someone else and starting over goes back even further than Ben Franklin in Western literature.
(Soundbite of Twelfth Night)
Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As Olivia): I prithee you, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I'll serve this duke. I shall present me as a boy to him.
SYDELL: That's Olivia from the opening act of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare's women often cross-dressed as men, and sometimes noblemen became servants.
Larry Friedlander is a professor of literature, theater and interactive narrative at Stanford University. He says Shakespeare was writing during a time when people were moving from the farm to the city. They learned it might be possible for someone to pretend to be someone else.
Professor LARRY FRIEDLANDER (Stanford University): The notion of disguise is at once a sense of exhilaration about new possibilities, but it also expressed an anxiety that we can't be sure to whom we're talking. We can't be sure that people are who they say they are.
SYDELL: That sense of anxiety is growing in today's society, says Friedlander, because of what the Internet has made possible.
It was a very disturbing online experience that was the inspiration for The Dying Gaul, a film directed and written by Craig Lucas. Lucas, who originally wrote it as a play, had recently lost a long time lover.
Mr. CRAIG LUCAS (Filmmaker): And somebody sent me an email pretending they were like an angel, you know, guiding me into a safe space. And it was both an alluring but also an appallingly intrusive and inappropriate action on the part of a crazy person. I think I know who it was. You know, I'm not going to do anything to that person, because they gave me a great gift, they gave me the idea for a really scary play.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SYDELL: In Lucas's film, The Dying Gaul, Robert reveals to Elaine, the wife of a man with whom he's having a secret affair, that he loves chat rooms. Elaine finds Robert online and pretends to be someone else. He unwittingly reveals that he is having an affair with her husband and she tricks him. Elaine pretends to be Robert's recently deceased lover. We hear what they are typing.
Mr. PETER SAARSGARD (Actor): (As Robert Sandrich): Who is this?
Ms. PATRICIA CLARKSON (Actress): (as Elaine Tishop): Don't be afraid.
Mr. SAARSGARD: (As Robert Sandrich): Dr. Foss?
Ms. CLARKSON: (As Elaine Tishop): She doesn't know how many men you slept with.
Mr. SAARSGARD: (As Robert Sandrich): Tony?
Ms. CLARKSON: (As Elaine Tishop): He doesn't even have a computer.
Mr. SAARSGARD: (As Robert Sandrich): How do you know that?
Ms. CLARKSON: (As Elaine Tishop): From up here I can see a lot.
(Soundbite of typing)
Ms. CLARKSON: (As Elaine Tishop): Difficult getting through. It's taken me a long time.
Mr. SAARSGARD: (As Robert Sandrich): I want to know who the (bleep) this is.
SYDELL: Other recent films, like Closer and Hard Candy, also have dark twists on Internet communication. In Closer, a chat room is used to play a rather nasty practical joke. And in Hard Candy, a 14-year-old girl lures a pedophile into a trap.
Author William Gibson has little doubt that this new form of social interaction is going to be the source of inspiration for all kinds of dramas, real and imagined.
Mr. GIBSON: I do think that this has changed our lives in some profound way, but part of our job as artists is to figure out how, to guess how we've been changed, because I don't believe we can directly know, once it's happened to us.
SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
SIMON: And for literary examples of obscured identity, from Shakespeare to Gibson - probably William Gibson and not Mel, nothing obscure about his identity - you can come to our website, npr.org.