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Joe Swanberg’s LOL: Looking at the Present, From the Outside In

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Joe Swanberg ’s LOL: Looking at the Present, From the Outside In

There is a scene in the beginning of LOL that represents the film’s basic ideology: An unseen Internet user plays a video that a young woman has made, as she announces, “for you.” It would be easy to confuse the referent of “you” (her boyfriend) with the person directly addressed (whoever is actually watching). “This video is for your eyes only,” she tells the camera. She then proceeds to perform a striptease.

It’s an excellent illustration of the ways in which technology conflates the private and the public—a video this woman made for her significant other has been posted on the Internet, available to anyone who comes across it. Although it is publicly available, each user watches the video in the privacy of their home. This sensation of “fake privacy” makes the viewer feel the way any sole recipient of such direct attention would feel—“special.” Yet in between clips of the video, we cut to countless identical close-up shots of various males, all mesmerized, each watching it alone.

The user-tailored, specialized nature of the Internet is central to LOL. The film’s main characters are all addicted to various forms of electronic communication because it makes them feel comforted in a way that “actual,” physical communication cannot. However, LOL is not about the relationships of users to the Internet—it’s about the ways in which the Internet affects the interpersonal relationships of these addicted devotees. When young men get such attention from the women who live inside their computer screens, how can a flesh-and-blood counterpart compare?

LOL is a collaborative effort between director/co-writer Joe Swanberg and co-writers Kevin Bewersdorf and C. Mason Wells, who play the three lead roles. If the readers of this site are familiar with Swanberg, it’s probably because his most recent work, Hannah Takes The Stairs, was dubbed the uber-film of the “mumblecore” movement. LOL also fits into this subgenre of independent film, but there are some striking differences between it and Hannah. Hannah is a microscopically precise character study of one woman—a film that focuses, in particular, on its protagonist’s inability to maintain a relationship. LOL is also interested in the workings of relationships, but there is a sociological angle to it that is not present in either Hannah or in Swanberg’s first film, Kissing On The Mouth. (A note: I use the word “sociological” because the people being studied are members of our own society, despite the fact that LOL feels anthropological. The world(s) these characters inhabit seem very much at odds with our own, but in fact, they’re not as different as they initially seem.)

Tim (Swanberg) lives in Chicago and is awfully preoccupied with the Internet, specifically with chatting. In one memorable scene, he talks to his friend over AOL Instant Messenger, even though they’re both in the same room. The subject of the conversation: Tim’s girlfriend, Ada (Brigid Reagan), who is sitting in between the two of them. (The virtual world has assumed total precedence over what used to constitute “actual reality.”) Naturally, Tim and Ada’s relationship becomes strained over the course of the film, as he never seems to be fully “present” with his girlfriend. There is always some sort of electronic/virtual distraction.

Tim’s friend Chris (Wells) arrives from New York. Chris is under constant strain because of his own relationship, which is floundering due to the literal distance between him and his girlfriend Greta (Greta Gerwig). This is despite the fact that Chris is only coming to Chicago for a few weeks. Greta is planning on coming out to visit him, but until she does, Chris desires some sort of electronically mediated sexual encounter—namely, phone sex. Greta isn’t into it, but she does send him nude photos; unfortunately, they aren’t as stimulating as Chris would like them to be. “You don’t look happy in them,” he tells her. Here we have the reverse of the opening striptease—rather than sexual stimulation in the virtual world being more powerful than “real” sex, we have electronic attempts at stimulation that pale in comparison to the real thing.

Tim’s friend Alex (Bewersdorf) is the third protagonist, and the most extreme depiction of an Internet-obsessed, socially maladapted young man. What do socially maladapted young men do? They play music, of course. Alex is also interested in verbal sounds, but not speech—he makes avant-garde music out of the random sounds people make with their mouths for his video camera. These experimental recordings are inserted throughout the film, a strange decision until you realize that, for Alex, these sounds are not much more incomprehensible than typical human speech. His communication problem is tested by the introduction of Walter (the excessively cute Tipper Newton), who chats Alex up at one of his shows. Later on, in one of the most conversationally awkward scenes ever put on film (or rather, video), she ends up driving him to St. Louis, where Alex believes he might be able to meet up with Tessa (Kate Winterich), a porn star he has been continuously e-mailing. (Never mind the fact that, while we see Alex’s numerous e-mails to Tessa, we never see a reply.)

The synopsis of these three storylines may make it sound like LOL’s ideological conflicts are presented a bit brazenly, and this is indeed the case, for better and for worse. In a scene towards the end of the film where Ada and Tim have sex, we get a post-coital shot of Tim staring at his computer screen from afar. Elsewhere, in St. Louis, Alex becomes excessively irritated because there is no computer with working Internet in Walter’s parents’ house. It’s certainly possible that these characters would behave as such, but it becomes a bit frustrating at times, as if Swanberg is beating us over the head with a large mallet, the word “message” inscribed into its face.

However, there are also moments where Swanberg explores the conflicts of technological communication and interpersonal relationships with more poignancy. At a party, Chris, in the midst of a flirtation with a young woman, ignores a call from Greta. As we see Chris continuing to flirt, the diegetic soundtrack goes silent, and we hear the message Greta is leaving on Chris’ voicemail. It’s not long after the couple has had a significant fight, and the message Greta leaves is a jumbled, confused, chaotic little masterpiece that could serve as the paragon of inarticulate “mumblecore” speeches. It’s a stunning moment, probably the most gripping in the entire film. To play Greta’s distressed message over Chris’ unknowing flirtation creates a moment of genuine poetry out of the materials of everyday life.

“Everyday life” is a key phrase, as it would be easy to fall into the trap of believing that these three characters are outcasts hanging around the societal margins. In fact, with the exception of Alex, they are typical guys who engage with the Internet or text messaging much like anyone else would in a typical day-to-day routine. LOL is an ambitious film, certainly the most ambitious to emerge from the “mumblecore” movement, as it attempts to catalogue not only a set of personal relationships but, far more significantly, the ways in which broad advances in technology have affected communication methods for an entire generation.

As the mythology of the 1990s hardens into stereotypes, it has become clear that that era will be remembered primarily for the explosion of personal computers, the Internet, and cellphones. During that period, it seemed as if new modes of communication would enable interpersonal connection to occur on a level that had never before been achieved. Now, as Swanberg himself has remarked, interpersonal connection has in many ways suffered—ironically, as a result of these very advances. What Swanberg and his collaborators have succeeded in doing is isolating those moments where the virtual world takes precedence over reality, displaying how out of touch we have become with ourselves. The ultimate effect is one of realization—of the conditions surrounding us, which were previously so murky as to be unrecognizable. “We don’t know who discovered water,” quipped the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan, “but we know it wasn’t the fish.”

Image/Sound/Extras: LOL is presented in its original 1.33 aspect ratio, with Dolby Stereo sound. The audio can be a bit tinny at times, but not annoyingly so, and the quality of the images is adequate, but no more. It’s the best one could expect for a DVD release of a film that was shot with as simple a level of equipment as LOL.

The DVD is bonus-feature laden, most significantly with Hissy Fits, a short film that could serve as a pseudo-prologue to LOL (in the way of The Darjeeling Limited and Hotel Chevalier). The ideological content, as is typical of short films, is far from complex (no Internet = frustrating and bad), but the way in which Tim (Swanberg) interacts with Ada (Reagan) is worth the viewing. Despite its duration, the film is able to deftly weave together the worlds of Internet usage and interpersonal relationships. The film opens with Tim realizing that the Internet in his apartment is not working and then catalogs his various levels of frustration. He eventually goes out to the deli where he runs into Ada, who he asks out after some hesitation. The payoff is fantastic.

Another interesting bonus feature is the casting interview with Tipper Newton. What is it about this woman that is so damn charming? She first came to my attention because she and Joe Swanberg perform in a half-serious band called The Ice Cream Floats (their song “Sundae” plays during the party scene in Aaron Katz’s Quiet City). The music is insanely catchy (think Bishop Allen meets Saturday Looks Good To Me, with ultra-simple instrumentation); the interview with Newton mainly consists of her views on all things Internet-related, and is eminently watchable.

There are two commentary tracks on LOL: one is a cast track with Swanberg, Bewersdorf, Wells, Gerwig and Newton. The other is a more technical track done by the filmmakers (Swanberg, Bewersdorf and Wells). Not surprisingly, considering the unconventional manner in which the film was made, there is a lot of interesting information in both.

One of the issues that pops up consistently in both tracks (but especially the cast commentary) is the amount of crossover between fiction and the actors’ real lives (most notably in the Chris & Greta storyline). Many of the messages Greta leaves Chris during the film are real. The same goes for a decent amount of the cellphone photos she and Chris send back and forth. In a lot of the scenes where we see Chris talking on the phone (presumably with his girlfriend), he is in fact conversing with Greta.

On the technical track, Swanberg and Bewersdorf criticize how computer operating systems in movies almost always look fake; it was very important to them to photograph electronics as they actually were at the time of the shooting. “They’re trying to get their movies to look timeless,” Swanberg says. “The whole point of LOL is that it looks like it takes place in 2005.” This desire for realism works its way into the cinematography as well—on the cast track, Bewersdorf explains that he told Swanberg during shooting that a night exterior would look far too dark onscreen. Swanberg’s response? “Sometimes it’s dark in the world.”

The actresses comment at length on the oddity of acting in a Swanberg film. For Gerwig, everything regarding her performance was particularly disconcerting, because all of her acting was done over the telephone or in text-messaged photos. She explains that it became difficult to delineate between her own life and the character she was playing, as the two were so similar. Likewise, Tipper Newton speaks about how Swanberg thrust her into the first scene he shot with her (the scene where she meets Bewersdorf’s character at his performance) without giving her any significant information. “He just told me to go over to him and talk to him,” Newton says, “and the scene where we meet in the movie is basically us meeting in real life—we had never met before.”

The haphazard manner in which LOL was constructed, as illustrated above, is expanded on in the tech track. The filmmakers explain that the film began shooting in mid-June of 2005, and Swanberg expected to have a cut by the end of August. Instead, they were still shooting in October. Much of this is attributed to the fact that there was no script or even outline for LOL—it was just a small project that became bigger and more expansive as the filmmakers went along.

Rounding out the disc’s features are Kevin Bewersdorf’s mini-documentary on composing the music for LOL; a feature on the film’s artwork; and additional music performances from Bewersdorf.

A Note on the Distributor: LOL is the first DVD release from Benten Films, the brainchild of Aaron Hillis and Andrew Grant, two cinephiles who recognize that there is a DVD audience for low profile, ultra-independent (read: mumblecore) films. It’s to their credit because the vast majority of these films have had theatrical releases that are token at best. The IFC Center’s Generation DIY fest in August was the exception to the rule, and even then only two films (Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs and Katz’s Quiet City) had significant weeklong runs. Benten will soon be distributing a double-disc of Quiet City, which will include Katz’s debut feature, Dance Party, USA. Click here for Benten’s official website.

Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.