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LOL (Letting Out Less)

_LOL_ by Joe Swanberg is a monumental work, the agonising howl of a generation with nothing left to say.
Celluloid Liberation Front

The finacialization of the capitalist economy implies a growing abstraction of work from its useful function, and of language from its bodily dimension. Desire is diverted from physical contact and invested in the abstract field of simulated seduction, in the infinite space of the image.

—Franco “Bifo” Berardi in The Uprising, On Poetry and Finance

For those who came of age in the nondescript 2000s, an era characterised by securitarian paranoia and lack of future prospects, Joe Swanberg’s LOL (2006) might as well read as their very own (purposeless) existential manifesto. A generational pamphlet that, in tune with its times, neither affirms nor negates, let alone criticizes, its predicament, but simply registers the vacuum within which it occurs. It is the Western vacuum of the 21st century whose first decade was marked by a tangible curb in the forward surge of pop cultural history. Cinema, but also music and literature, did not break away from their past (hi)stories in any meaningful or substantial way. The past, immediate and remote, constituted our creative playground of choice. An unprecedented amount of cultural data clogged our media landscape offering a sense of endless possibilities while simultaneously causing a sort of temporal standstill. The consumer-entertainment complex fed on endless remakes and rehashed franchises, packaging films into a colorful glaze intended for blind acceptance and unconditional admiration. Worldwide communication and self-documentation suddenly became a daily possibility to some, obsessive compulsion to many. Home technology and the inundation of social media were the true (anti-social) breakthroughs of the 00s. The ability to connect with everyone ushered a widespread inability to be with anyone, (meaning)fully.

Swanberg’s film feels like the most sincere clinical report on the immediate consequences of this new networked sociality, and definitely benefits from an insider point of view. LOL is to cinema what text messages and tweets are to orality and literacy, a new autistic wave of expressive self-referentiality; those who dislike it should not blame Swanberg, for he has not invented it but simply documented it. And has done so avoiding complacency as well as condescension, paying close attention to what this paradigmatic shift meant to our affective sphere. In fact, the film stages the willing entrapment of wired souls struggling between two competing regimes, physical and virtual.

Above: Collective loneliness. Courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg.

The epochal significance of LOL lies precisely in its articulation of this anxious failure to communicate face to face. The uploading of relations onto the digital (in)security of virtuality is disrupted and underpinned by a harrowing longing for human connections. Swanberg’s second feature is the first and only film, to our knowledge, to have reflected and explored a quintessentially contemporary issue: the impact of networking technologies on physical interaction.

The film courageously ponders on the paradox of social media that simultaneously enhance and castrate relational exchanges. The crisis of social imagination and the separation of affects and intellect from the body are the true protagonists of LOL. Threaded together are the inconstant lives of young middle class white Americans wiggling out of a seemingly eternal adolescence. Aimlessness and indecision are their burden and identification marks as they indolently go about their daily business most of which takes place online or over the phone.

The very opening sequence could not be more effective. A series of blank staring guys behind their laptops (excuse the allusion but…wankers?) is looking, each from his own spot, at a strip tease meant to be a private present but somehow leaked online. Tim (Joe Swanberg) intrudes on the virtual scene just as his friend Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf) is intent on enjoying the digital peep show with his trousers lowered. Alex, we learn, has some sort of Internet romance with a girl he never met but from whom he received a videotape with some random mouth noises and a little extra he jealously cherishes. Alex asks Tim too to produce random vocal clatters. He is collecting these noises from (virtual?) friends for a sampling composition that materializes in front of the spectators’ eyes in edited form. Total strangers to us and presumably also to each other take part in a fragmented choir of minimal if lyrical, digital intensity. Meaning is irrelevant, Alex insists, when faced by the perplexed objections of his friends, the singularity of each voice is to be digitally recombined and deprived of its originality. With this “innocuous,” seemingly insignificant narrative device the director gives form and voice to the ultimate nature of online interaction: depersonalised and uprooted togetherness. In a process not dissimilar from that of financial markets; meaning/value, in Alex’s compositions, is produced without passing through flesh/material goods. Voices, the meeting point between meaning and flesh (cf. Giorgio Agamben), like monetary value, are dematerialised, abstractly deprived of their physical referent and addressee. Alex in effect orchestrates the loss of the performative efficacy of words, the dissolution of the boundary between private and public into an amorphous anonymity. Individual imagination is flattened out into a collective monologue of idly shared ideas and myths, a net of long-distance universal relations.

"The characteristic affective tonality for the insomniac drift of cyberspace, in which there is always one more click to make, one more update to check, combines fascination with boredom. What characterises the present moment more than our anxious checking - of our messages, which may bring opportunities or demands (often both at the same time), or, more abstractly, of our status, which, like the stock market is constantly under review, never finally resolved?"

—Mark Fisher in Time-Wars

These Internet natives upload into the aseptic impersonality of the web their intimate utterances and feelings, both carnal and emotive. Even when sharing a sofa in a theoretically social situation, outgrown boys, their sensibility atrophied, rely on software interface to talk behind their girlfriends’ back. The intimate ambiguity of the emotional side of language is bypassed thanks to chats, texts and emails which, even when not strictly necessary, are preferred over the act of talking looking into each other eyes. Albeit communication technology virtually erased distance and delay the film suggests, walls of uncommunicative silence are being erected all around us so that the bodily dimension is becoming almost an obstacle in interpersonal relations.

Awkward in person, overconfident online; that is how the (male) protagonists of LOL are. When Tim approaches his clearly frustrated girlfriend asking how she feels, he does so almost out of obligation, showing no sign of sentimental involvement, and mischievously laughing at his partner’s exasperation. Unlike Swanberg’s previous film Kissing on the Mouth (2005), LOL features very little sexual activity (barring the online/phone kind), signalling the hijacking of carnality at the hands of modern technology. Devoid of sexual interaction, the relationships in the film are consequently deprived of any shared, felt sense. The way the three male characters deal with their relationships is almost inertial, part of a series of operational tasks (checking your inbox, making that phone call, having a girlfriend). Social life, relationships and personal issues in LOL are not a matter of singular sensibilities but an impersonal, external standard projected by a mass-mediated mythology to which the (male) characters have to measure up. Unable to conceptualize and lucidly experience their position in the virtual hyperspace of the network, condemned to perpetual nonsense, they sleepwalk through the void of their lives like peripat(h)etics with no principled compass. The genius of Swanberg is in insisting on filming their personal sphere even if the latter is empty, directionless and repellently narcissistic.

"The behaviour of persons in a network is not aleatory, because the network implies and predisposes pathways for the networker. When the infosphere is too dense and too fast for a conscious elaboration of information, people tend to conform to shared behaviour"

—Franco "Bifo" Berardi in The Uprising, On Poetry and Finance

The lo-fi YouTube-era aesthetics and their abrasive warmth, wholly removed from the elephantine production values of Hollywood, distinguishes LOL as a film not only “about” the first Internet generation but emanating from its alienated midst. Underneath the casual and unprofessional surface of the film is a formal ploy of remarkable coherence. Ostensibly random editing choices suggest a symptomatic understanding of sense and how it is today constructed and bent by mass technology. Online overabundance has worn away a certain capacity to focus on any given thing and let it unravel; we rush on to the next (often-disappointing) link rather than analysing and exploring what is in front of us. This neurotic content scavenging, though fueled by sensations, rarely leads to emotional fulfillment. So when Alex is performing (alone) live for a small group of friends, his attention and thoughts—which appear to us in the form of flash forwards—are already elsewhere in an immediate future where he is already dismantling his equipment and flirting with a girl, Walter (Tipper Newton). As it turns out, even his real life flirting will be urged aside by his virtual, inconclusive romance.

Constantly lured by the fleeting promises of the next update, email or text message, the (male) characters in LOL are (in)constantly evading the present moment. Digitally over-stimulated Alex ignores the graceful beauty in front of his eyes and longs for the sultrier one in his computer, which—surprise, surprise—will probably not turn up. Fractured by the tension between the infinity of cyberspace and the vulnerable finitude of their bodies, Alex and Walter are separate and together at the same time. In an emotionally degrading finale, Alex will neurotically try to connect with his virtual date while "trapped" with Walter at her parents' place with no Internet.

The libidinal compulsion to accumulate connections, “friends” and followers can do without real, concrete relationships, for the virtual, over-sexualised ones waiting on our laptop are somewhat more alluring if hardly satisfactory. It is worth reflecting on how the very meaning of the word “contact” has come to signify in our digital era the exact opposite of its original meaning (i.e. physical contact/touch). The textual nature of LOL both mirrors and illustrates the mass-mediated subsumption of feelings, connections and language at the hands of social media. Unfinished sentences, abrupt cuts and swallowed words rather than a sign of unprofessionalism or immaturity are symptoms of the existential inadequacy besieging the characters, unable to keep up with the endless acceleration and demands of hyper-modernity. Incapable to articulate their feelings, they’re netted in a techno-illogical web transmitting a sum of separations to a multitude of solitudes (cf. Alberto Grifi). The looping compositions of bedroom noodling, which keep popping up throughout the film, are the perfect soundtrack to the wired isolation of its characters. Neither score nor harmony; only random, remixed noiseheads can voice their linguistic and emotional withdrawal. Filtered and regimented by the functional exchange of digital machines, their sentimental lives fall into the painful indeterminacy of mute love. The inhuman (for it is literally not human) rhythm of technology imposes itself, dispensing and dispersing the reality of intimate contacts.

Above: The Media Landscape.

The film also depicts in dire honesty the banal vulgarity of post-machist masculinity and the mindless mortification of feminine Eros and grace. Female characters in the film are in fact all frustrated by the hopeless immaturity of their boyfriends, usually too busy playing with their own dicks or twitching away with their latest tech-toys. Tim asks his girlfriend Ada (Brigid Reagan) to wake him up early in the morning to go and pick up his friend at the airport and then takes her to the beach with the same enthusiasm one would reserve to a garbage bag. When Chris (C. Mason Wells), who is spending his summer away from his girlfriend Greta (Greta Gerwig), arrives, Tim hardly greets him since he is talking at the phone with someone else. Nevermind, Chris too is busy chatting with his long-distance girl, whose unwillingness to engage in telephone sex will be Chris’ main complaint throughout the movie. Actually, he complains about her unconvincing screen performances (“I want you to want it also”)—not sexy enough for this not-exactly-attractive moaning “lover.” Male characters, whose infantile desires merge into the great, undifferentiated source of digital overload, silently embrace a sort of emotional anomie.  The three girls in LOL on the contrary are the only characters who seem to still recognize the meaning of togetherness, their sensuous voices like muted pleas for the return of their male counterparts to, well, planet earth. Unlike their boyfriends, they are not completely immersed in social networked life, their emotional impulses are still aimed on a physical level. Their (onscreen) presence suggests the possibility of an actual encounter as opposed to the elusive, perennially distracted state of bovine infantilism of the guys whose sole purpose seems the inertial fulfillment of futile solipsistic goals (i.e. checking their inbox, coming, going, and so, egotistically, forth).  

Precariousness, which describes both an existential condition as well as the current organisation of work and lack thereof, permeates the affective and stylistic dimension of LOL. It is the first film to have convincingly staged sentimentality in a world marked by short-term flexibility where the desire to connect with one another is simultaneously aroused and hijacked by mass-mediated communication. Caught up in the swirling vacillation of networks, even our sentimental lives are subjected to uncertainty, indecision and algorithms. Rather than harbors of free speech and creativity, the interconnected technological world that LOL captures resemble a concentration playground whose sleepwalking prisoners are reluctant to leave. In stark opposition to the sense of infinite expansion that has pervaded modernity, the protagonists of LOL clearly suffer from the absence of social resources and lack of imagination. The totalizing and seemingly unavoidable horizon of their lives evokes a sense of existential entrapment rather than space. The same arbitrary (il)logics that governs the financial market has also infected relationships, the ability to be with each other, truly. It is not by chance that within this scenario, the individual(ist) venture has become the preferred means for cinematic expression. Independent, low-budget cinema increasingly relies on the single filmmaker who is often also its own distributor, promoter and brander. Laptop filmmakers making movies for laptop spectators. This, whether we like it or not, is the contemporary productive regime for independent (whatever that even means anymore) cinema. The abstract and abstruse mechanisms of a gaping industry on the one hand, the hyper-cult of personality of celebrity culture on the other hand: submerged in-between is a new generation of moviemakers. Looping in the closed-circuit television of reality airing their communicative failures, the Cassavetes of today were born and live online.

In 1977 the American anthropologist Rose Khon Goldsen in The Show and Tell Machine suggested that “we are breeding a new generation of human beings who will learn more words from a machine than from their mothers.” Here it is in all its pulsating anonymity. In this respect LOL is a monumental work, the closest 21st century cinema came to social network realism; it is the agonizing howl of a generation with nothing left to say that refuses nonetheless to remain silent.

Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an "open reputation" informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent spect-actors. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. @CLF_Project


Joe SwanbergLong Reads
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