There’s precious little laughter to be found in Joe Swanberg’s LOL, unless it’s that of painful, wincing recognition. Overeducated, artistically inclined 20-something hipsters, weaned on Myspace, cellphones soldered to ears and retinas locked onto monitors, will find here a less than flattering mirror of their own narcissistic navel gazing.
Less a film than an 80-minute commercial for the pernicious effects of the contradictory bifurcation and conflation of the real and the cyber, LOL piques not so much with its vague commentary on the emotional and social fallout of addiction to technology, but for the way its (the film’s) very genesis and production seems to be at odds with this ostensible message. LOL wants to be the very solution to the problem it portrays, a neat trick if you can do it – and it almost does. It’s a confused film, unsure and hesitant of what it’s about or where it’s going, but I think the confusion is deliberate and earnest, the substance of the film secondary to the contradictory forces it embodies.
I don’t know that it’s exactly axiomatic, but I kind of believe that the proliferation and ubiquity of cellphones, Blackberries, computers, et al (and the type of communication they encourage), has done more to drive people apart and garble communication than bring them together and make connection easier. There’s just too much, and it’s all too instantaneous – our words are not tempered, expediency is valued over coherence, and what we say is overwritten or overwhelmed by the sheer volume of chatter. Eventually, the sort of manic obsession with routinely checking these devices, over and over again, assumes ascendancy over whatever is conveyed in the messages themselves.
Swanberg seems to agree. The three male “leads” in LOL are all seemingly unable to go more than five minutes without checking their voicemail, their e-mail inbox, their website, their blog, their Myspace page, or whatever. They also seem totally incapable of sustaining a conversation in the real three dimensional world with an actual human being for more than five minutes without the mediation of some sort of technology. And as far as meaningful relationships go with members of the opposite sex, pathetic doesn’t even begin to cover it; they’ve entrenched themselves so firmly behind their electronic barricades, that emotional investment could never possibly enter into the equation.
E.g., when he’s not cooking up avant-garde vocal experiments on his computer, Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf) seems to spend most of his time collecting internet “girlfriends” on Myspace or Suicide Girls-esque websites. Content to let things rest at swapping of e-mails and risque pictures, he likes the idea of meeting them for real, but he’s an antisocial prick when confronted by a girl in the flesh. He would rather live in the fantasy of having a relationship with Tessa, who he spends the whole movie arranging to meet in St. Louis, than with Walter (played by the engaging Tipper Newton – no idea why she is called “Walter” in the movie), a girl who is obviously into Alex (so much though that she actually agrees to drive him from Chicago to St. Louis).
Tim (Swanberg) can’t see the ongoing disintegration of his relationship with long suffering girlfriend Ada (Brigid Reagan) because it isn’t filtered through some electronic medium he understands. She’s right in front of him, she’s speaking right into his ear, and he cannot see or hear anything, cannot comprehend that things are falling apart. In the film’s central moment, Ada has finally enticed Tim into bed (after he asked, half jokingly, to wait 20 minutes so he could “finish up stuff” on his computer). The room is dark, except for the blue glow of a monitor off screen. Making out and getting hot and heavy, Tim just cannot help himself, and his right eye opens to stare at the monitor. It’s like he has to fantasize of having virtual sex through his computer, rather than with the beautiful young girl in front of him—or, better, he’s actually having sex with the computer itself. Ugh…
Tim’s friend Chris (C. Mason Wells), visiting from out of town, seems to have a relationship with his girlfriend Greta (Greta Gerwig, who plays the titular role in Swanberg’s follow up, Hannah Takes the Stairs) that consists of nothing but swapped voicemails and cellphone pictures. Of course, they are in different cities, so they can only keep in touch via phone, but one gets the impression that their relationship, even when they are together, is exactly the same. She is little more than a disembodied voice, a ghost in blurry cellphone shots. We don’t know whether she’s even real, and I think Chris probably wonders the same thing.
And I’m left wondering just what Swanberg is trying to get at here, besides pointing out what an ordeal real genuine human communication has become in this world of technological overload. But this is a bit facile, not news at all, and plus I don’t think this point is the point besides. See, because its surface belies a deeper, abiding trust in the power of this glut of technology – of rapid immediate meeting and communication with friends and strangers—to allow for new possibilities of collaborative creation, of which LOL is meant to be an exemplar and exponent.
There’re two clues to what’s going on here. First, within the film, Alex spends time creating bizarrely compelling a cappella songs born out of the assembled contributions of dozens friends and strangers (both real and of the internet variety). What he does is have them videotape themselves making random noises, anything that occurs to them: hoots, howls, grunts, crying, screaming, beat boxing, whatever. He then breaks them down, reassembles them, and builds songs and accompanying videos out of this chorus of random voices.
If it sounds really pretentious, well, that’s because it is (but no more pretentious than, say, Bjork’s Medulla)—and it shouldn’t work, it really should be the weakest point of the film. But these song/ video pieces are actually the glue that holds the thing together. Interspersed at points along the way, acting as punctuation and scene breaks, they seems like so much noise at first, the very jumble of chatter the film seems to be lamenting. And yet, though it is “speech” reduced entirely to its base elements, barely communication at all, it’s the most evocative and compelling thing you hear in the film, the sort of song we’d hear if Myspace could sing (as Bewersdorf puts it in one of the film’s extras).
I don’t know that these “Noiseheads” (as they call them) are meant to mean anything beyond themselves, are meant to be taken as something more than the sort of gimmicky stunt art school kids get off on, and yet I found them to be beautiful and hopeful and compelling, a harmonic convergence extracted out of the bedlam of the online/ cellphone world.
But beyond these little ditties, the very production of LOL gives hope, not only for consolidating and justifying all this technology that overruns our lives, but also for the future of independent film. Though LOL is by no means a great film (or even a very good one), I think Swanberg is onto something here. I like the idea of LOL, because it is the same idea that informs and drives the films of Andrew Bujalski, a friend and collaborator of Swanberg. They, and their fellow travelers (too loose and amorphous to really be called a collective or a movement, though that doesn’t stop people from bandying about such noxious terms as “mumblecore” or “bedhead cinema”) treasure a certain spontaneous amateurism above all else, an off-the0cuff informality which comes across as, well, life, in all its mundane triviality. I think this vitality is born out of the highly collaborative nature of these films, and LOL in particular, since it is as much Bewersdorf’s or Wells’ film, as much as it’s Swanberg’s.
LOL also relies, for what success it has, on “actors” who are anything but (in fact, they are generally just playing versions of themselves, e.g., Chris and Greta in the film are real-life boyfriend/ girlfriend, at least when the film was shooting), dialogue that is highly improvised, and a loose “plot” which courses wherever it will without regard to any sort of overarching narrative or point. It doesn’t necessarily lead to compelling film, but it doesn’t have to, or it shouldn’t. Born out of ideas batted back and forth via computer, Blackberry, cellphone, video, etc., and then filmed in the same sort of manner that people use webcams or their cellphones, LOL emerges, when you step back, as a possible solution to the very traps the three leads fall into – detachment, isolation, being buried under by technology. Rather than fragmentation, all these technologies can lead to some synthesis.
Or something like that. Like I said, LOL confuses and confounds to no end. It’s a tough film to like, and a tough film to get through, even at a lean 80 minutes. It has odd rhythms that take getting used to, and a second viewing actually makes the film so much more enjoyable that it’s almost a necessity. But I like it for what it represents more than what it is. I like this democratization of the filmmaking process that Swanberg and his cohorts seems to value above all else, this primacy of collaboration. I like this idea of turning the technology of communication against itself and redeeming it. And I like its rigorous lack of rigor, how stridently it walks the line of walking no line at all, of relying on chance and luck to dictate the final outcome of the film itself. If Swanberg’s odd ambition exceeds his reach, well, there are worse crimes to be accused of.
An abundance of extras accompany LOL, the debut release from Benten Films (founded by Andrew Grant, editor of the excellent film blog, “Like Anna Karina’s Sweater”, which I’ve been a fan of for years.)
There are two commentary tracks, both featuring Swanberg and Bewersdorf (along with several other players from the film). Track one is mostly concerned with the technical aspects of the film’s composition, providing insight into both the opportunities and challenges posed by the relative ease of DIY filmmaking. Track two goes into depth about Swanberg’s strategies for working with untrained amateurs in a movie that has no script and no definitive narrative. It’s surprising to learn how loose and prone to chance most of the film was, and how but for a few chance non-meetings here, or a few unhappy accidents there, a much different film could have emerged. Both tracks are essential for any sort of real understanding LOL, and seem almost to be as integral to the substance of the project as the bare film itself.
In fact, all the extras seem to work that way, to be various tendrils and tangents branching off from the main film, side narratives and scenes which could’ve easily been folded into the main film itself seamlessly. Bewersdorf’s short podcast videos of his scoring process could’ve been slid into LOL next to his “Noisehead” videos (which also get a separate feature) without any disruption. And the short film “Hissy Fits”, shot by Swanberg as a test for LOL, could’ve served as a prologue to his story in the film, showing him and his girlfriend as they meet, before they become entangled in a relationship that is so obviously going nowhere.
A few stray features on art work, an interview with Tipper Newton on how she approached the film as an absolute neophyte, and additional musical performances by Bewersdorf round out what is a comprehensive and satisfying DVD release of a mildly unsatisfying, though very interesting, film.