Miranda Mungai

“Between 1994 and 2008 the internet flattened into reality.” (*)

Being online was once wet n’ wild and we were all internet explorers. Now it is what it is, a sheer veil over our experience of the everyday, and we are all suffering in alienation. We were stripped of our titles, noble explorers of the voltaic unknown, when “the online” stopped being at a distance from us. Being “online” is now the same as being “in the world” but cinema, heretofore, has only ever offered a study of the latter.  

Cinema is facing an entirely new conception of the everyday to narratively re-present, one that is severed and shifting at incredible speeds as new technologies usurp their predecessors, offering new ways for us to interact with each other and the world. Without being foolish enough to offer any concrete designations that will surely become obsolete by the year’s end, this piece, will categorise some American films of the 2020s according to their attempts to narrativise the present day. What emerges might be best described as an “online realism”, or a cinema that renders our contemporary alienation palpable. 

In We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021), a teenager plays a game. As she pricks her finger and watches a gash flash on her screen, reciting “I want to go to the World’s Fair,” she relents to the computer, enacting a kind of digital/fleshly blood transfusion. Casey (Anna Cobb) loses control of herself, the “viral” online content animated in her body. In her attic bedroom in the middle of nowhere, she does not travel, explore, or surf beyond the interface: the creepypasta comes out and explores her.  The world is porous and the digital seeps in, calcifying what is animate and delivering it back into the pulsating flesh of the world, presenting a challenge for a medium deigned the “time image” and the “movement image.”

“…to experience the pleasure of the computer, one must be a sadist.” (Pg. 13)

When time moved fluidly forward, so did the movies. As the concept of progress became intertwined with technological advancements, the cinematic apparatus marched towards the future, growing from shadow-play to CGI in little over a century.

Networks are the next step of this technological trajectory. While the talkies opened up a new narrative horizon as the diegetic world expanded to include sound, “being online” is a more unruly technology to narratively contain. Not every filmmaker obliges, as grandaddies Scorsese, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson churn out films firmly in the pre-internet past-tense. They find company in the presence of an increasing number of films that are both subtly and overtly set in the near past, just before networked technologies were ubiquitous (Bones and All, Aftersun). Similarly disconnected from the present moment are films ostensibly of science fiction, with flawlessly functional consumer technologies, notably without social media (Decision to Leave, M3GAN). Yet, some films do make a formal attempt to reflect the present day and the networked technology that is integral to it; but as they register our synchronic condition, such films struggle to avoid becoming deeply imbricated in it. 

Constituted through the vlogs she posts to an ambiguous video-hosting platform, we watch as Casey spends a majority of World’s Fair staring vaguely in our direction, breaking the fourth wall as is appropriate to the online visual register. Formerly reserved for, say, the confrontational politics of Brechtian theatre, Schoenbrun now signals a confusion of cinematic codes and their online perversions. Casey’s indirect gaze mimics the narcissism of an online exchange that relieves the anxiety of facing the ambiguity of the other: looking outwards, imagining control over the unpredictable gaze of someone else. Looking outwards is, for Casey, a method of retreat into the imaginary that the online facilitates. JLB (Michael J. Roberts), a lonely middle-aged man who directly contacts Casey out of concern, presents us with the shame of misrecognising such direct address as sincere. He reaches out only to be rejected; only to show us that even the visual regime of the online is self-ironising, self-reflexive, and ultimately self-obsessed.  

Just as this gaze shows us that the machinations of interpersonal contact online mean that our look outward can only be redirected inwards, Bodies Bodies Bodies (Halina Reijn, 2022) takes this operation and turns it into violence. Bodies is a bitchy murder mystery that takes the concept of “gen-z” and makes it the central comic thrust as a storm locks seven party people in a mansion. Early on, the only millennial present, Greg (Lee Pace), surprises everyone when he expertly opens a bottle of champagne with a sword. Alice (Rachel Sennott) mutters “I can’t believe I didn’t video that,” summoning the single regret the entire narrative rests on. The host of the party, David (Pete Davidson), looks to imagine himself as someone capable of soliciting such amazed reactions from others, without the possibility of public embarrassment. And so, he turns to the presumed safety of an imagined interlocuter cast in blue light and the murder mystery begins and ends there.  

“Is this then a failure of imagination, or is it rather simply a fundamental skepticism about the possibilities of change as such, no matter how attractive our visions of what it would be desirable to change into?” (Pg. 413)

After an hour of chaos, the remaining four come together in an attempt to have a conversation, in which Jordan (Myha’la Herrod) expresses anger towards Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) for involving her in the trauma of her drug addiction and overdose, and Sophie replies:

“Feelings are facts.”

“It’s creative non-fiction which is a valid response to life in an attention economy.”

“You all trigger me.”

The film is self-reflexive, but the character is not. While this distance is intended as satirical bounty, it succeeds only at a wilful disassociation of the subject from the challenges presented by the narrative world. In emulating the online and its fervent discourse, the film necessarily emulates the defence mechanisms against interpersonal sincerity that are hard coded into a language that shuts down, rather than nurtures, conversation. Such language, borne of indictments against injustice and oppression precisely opposes any possibility of a world free of inequity as it bars entry to any interlocuter. If the world is porous, the online’s encroachment ensures that subjectivity cannot have the same porosity. 

“So, User is not a body. It is a simulation, a profile, a stand-in, or a proxy” (Pg. 71)

Bodies builds to a grand gesture of bathos, as the whole film and its many casualties are revealed not as the work of a killer lurking in the stormy shadows, but as narcissistic impulse leading to mistrust, and finally to the panicked violence of self-preservation. Under such stratified conditions, the degree of violence the characters in Bodies enact on one another is logical. Each character makes sense if we consent to the logic of mistrust and disgust that structures online interactions.

Consider the preoccupation with “likeable” and “unlikable” characters in critical and fan discourses (let alone the ambiguity of these terms and the absence of fixity in their connotations). Simply, “unlikeable” characters can be killed without remorse. In fact, they go so far as to kill themselves and each other. Bodies cannot be considered a horror, with the palpable absence of any threat, of the perversion of the human condition that births the psycho killer or the complete obscurity of some supernatural vengeance. In some ways it shares this with World’s Fair: the killer is not any kind of body, or even a presence in the world, but this unnameable way of being that has escaped the internet.

The Menu (Mark Mylod, 2022) is similarly populated by a host of notoriously “unlikeable” characters: pretentious critics, unrepentant tech bros, old money filled with existential ennui. But there is an exception in Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot, who figures as the viewer’s co-conspirator, “likeable” thanks to her inability to be duped by the experience; for her guile and independence, she survives this ordeal. 

These films ask for our psychic participation and agreement to perceive fictional worlds according to these binaries. None of the characters described so far benefit from thorough characterisation, lacking history or personality beyond the likeable/unlikeable scale. The most vacuous are those who live, defined by a few key redeeming traits that flag them as worthy of sympathy. In The Menu, sex worker Margot was brought on a date by someone who did not value her life on account of not valuing her labour. In Bodies, we have two survivors: ex-drug addict Sophie and her girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova), whose mother has bipolar disorder, and who offers the only narrative tension as a continual object of suspicion. Her potential threat is to the national imaginary, as she tickles at xenophobia: a jobless immigrant seemingly more ruthless than the rest (what is she hiding?). 

These Final Girls are saved not by their compliance to moral codes of virginal purity – a sex worker and lesbian couple present the complete opposite – but by their inability to be completely condemned as unlikable. That this position cannot strictly be defined is what renders these characters flaccid, as they evade the shifting limits of transgression. With the unlikable ceremoniously executed, all that survives is the void of likeability and the certainty of alienation in the absence of an in-between.

“Also, understanding Dasha’s humor as a greater whole probably helps. I would recommend this to Dasha fans, but probably not anyone else. It’s…LIKE THAT.”(*)

The Scary of Sixty-First (Dasha Nekrasova, 2021) relies on the same precept: you know these people from outside the narrative order, so judge them as you do elsewhere. Except, rather than turning to stereotypes, to the vague idea of your least favourite Twitter hack, Nekrasova embeds her own persona directly into the narrative.

Nekrasova eludes being named, ostensibly playing herself. More accurately, she plays the online persona she has been building since she went viral in 2018 after offering wry retorts to an InfoWars reporter while dressed in sailor fuku. The film garners a 4.6 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that if you are not completely aware of who Nekrasova is – or aware that the film is an 81-minute meme of her interest in the Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy; then you haven’t been in the correct online circles to completely understand the film let alone enjoy it’s campiness.

This articulates how films attempting “online realism” become Marvel bedfellows, so heavily reliant are they on extra-diegetic information. Marvel asks that viewers spend a considerable amount of time and money investing in the franchise, so that each new release makes sense in the grand scheme of Marvel movies. The Scary of Sixty-First asks that you already know who Nekrasova is, and the Epstein conspiracies she publicly obsessed over; The Menu asks that you watch at least a few episodes of Chef’s Table, that you understand the pretension that visually and narratively structures the whole film; Bodies needs us to already know its catchphrases, stereotypes and viral movements for its claims to satire to even come close to offering some entertainment; World’s Fair doesn’t need us to know about creepypasta but asks that we accept a visual register lifted from the Twitch, YouTube etc.

The building blocks of each film lie outside the cinematic space and can instead be found in the specific online contexts and accompanying social norms which the filmmakers assume to be known by the viewer. This cinema’s attempts to grapple with our present condition instead becomes over reliant on its reference material, deferring to its logic rather than offering any imaginative embellishment. 

“The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities.”(*)

Today, something that might be termed an “online realism,” leaves behind a husk of what was once cinematic world building. These films are extraordinarily successful at showing us how little distance we have from the online, and how online tools and their attending discourses have come to structure so much of our imagination, including its limitations. “Online realism” precisely articulates the alienation and discontent at the heart of our current moment. 

Credit: Utopia