The contemporary began on 11 February 2005, when the TV series Nathan Barley first aired on Channel 4. It ended just 5 weeks later, on the same station, with the finale.
Less a television show than a 3 hour film, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s masterpiece presided over the temperature of the cutting edge with the same insight and predictive pierce as Orwell’s 1984, or Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In it, the social order is depicted through the microcosm of early 2000s Shoreditch. Depicted as a promenade of absurd grifters, the culture-vulture mentality of the characters, an assortment of oddly behatted media figures, bandmates, and proto-viral influencers, shows a break not only with history, but a hermetic milieu that is unimpacted by geopolitical issues or even local social unrest. ‘The rise of the idiots,’ as Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt) hubristically tries to term it in the edgy magazine SUGARAPE.
But it wasn’t mere satire that positioned Nathan Barley as the be-all-and-end-all. Morris and Brooker present a formal strictness that pulled dot com aesthetic onto the street, through garish over-saturated lighting, and downgraded broadcast standard cameras. The acid-wash visual glare is matched in digital terms by the extremities of Pedro Costa and Eduardo Williams. At the recent 73rd edition of the Berlinale, I experienced Williams’ Un gif larguísimo (A Very Long Gif), which the programme notes described as the longest GIF you’ve ever seen. Consisting of three channels – two interchanging bubbles of city landscape and youthful revelry, one, a blown-up journey through someone’s digestive system. As with so much of what feels genuinely avant, it could easily become a Barley background gag. And yet, its power is undeniable.
Until this publication is bought out by some American firm (DMs open, venture capitalists), we will continue to run in the vein of TrashBat, rather than SUGARAPE. Cinema Year Zero’s MO has always been to resist hot takes and discourse culture, and an easy way to do so has been to largely avoid pieces on recent films. Which makes this issue an intriguing challenge. We are compelled by the collision of past and present, and in that spirit, this issue is an effort to survey the scene as it presents itself. We asked our 6 contributors to choose a piece of work they have experienced as an encounter with the contemporary. From site-specific cinema, to online arguments, to gallery exhibits that reform our notions of political discourse, these essays are a compendium of the present: frisson, friction, and non-linear expressions of selfhood.
There follows on these isles a cinematic tradition of pondering Britain’s rural landscape as a haunting spectre, and the oddities found therein. On a macro level, there was the folk-horror boom of the 1960s and ‘70s, which tapped into a more generalised relationship with rurality and its customs. Customs which, when used in pursuit of mainstream success, were often purloined unfairly from the communities that created them and kept them alive. In more accessible, localised forms it could be found in the anthology TV film series Play for Today (1970 – 1984) in the likes of Nuts in May (Leigh, 1976) and Penda’s Fen (Clarke, 1974). Films which focused in terms of social realism on how British people interact with the landscape around them and how it informs us – culturally, politically, even spiritually. There were the laughably sinister public service films which shaped how a generation of children viewed the landscape around them, such as Lonely Water(Grant, 1973) and David Eady’s Play Safetrilogy (1978). The great British countryside – beautiful yes, but ever deadly. Et in arcadia ego. The macabre stalks even the idyll. As landscape evolves, and the meaning of the word shifts in the 21st century – no longer simply a physical space but also a digital network – movements and organisations rush to bridge the gap. In particular, the recent programming and streaming collaboration between Deeper Into Movies and Weird Walk.
Those reading may be more familiar with the multiplatform East London film club Deeper Into Movies than Weird Walk, an online journal which puts out a zine, a podcast and events concerning the ancient tracks and hidden sites of the British Isles – “formed in the hinterland between the bucolic and the eerie”. Together they have collaborated as Deeper Into Weird Walk on two screenings so far, both at the Rio Dalston. The first, The Ballad of Tam Lin (McDowall, 1970) on Halloween Night last year, which featured a Q&A with star Ian McShane hosted by Stewart Lee. Then more recently they screened Ben Wheatley’s delightful caravan-holiday-murder-spree romp Sightseers (2012), with a Q&A by the writer-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. The Deeper Movies Channel has also started a Weirder Walks Selects collection. The channel features Sightseers along with a couple of cult psychogeography documentaries in the form of London Orbital (Sinclair & Petit, 2002) and The London Nobody Knows (Cohen, 1967).
Sightseers was the weird little brain baby of Lowe and Oram, brought to life by Wheatley in the days where his attachment to directing the sequel to The Meg (2018) was but a gleam on the horizon. A story of a couple, Chris and Tina, still in their honeymoon phase heading off on a caravan road trip through Northern England. Chris (Oram) soon embarks on a killing spree which at first is influenced by Little England grievances peppered throughout the film. He backs over a guy for littering on their visit to a model railway. While visiting a ruined abbey, Chris remarks to new friends on how someone’s personal graffito has marred the ancient stone. Individual close ups of each character’s grave expression in response to this this blight reminded me so much of a line from Larkin, that other great arbiter of petty Englishness, from Show Saturday (1973) “Mugfaced middle aged wives, glaring at jellies”.
Chris’s goriest kill is amongst standing stones, a rambler who chastised Tina for letting their (stolen) dog shit near the stones. The rambler threatens to grass them up to the National Trust, and Chris goads him, asking the stranger if he went to private school (he did) and accuses him of trying to feel up Tina. While Chris beats the brains out of the toff in slow-mo, John Hurt’s voice comes in reciting Jerusalem as Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ rises to a heartening climax, abruptly cut short when he smashes the guy’s head against one of the stones. “Tell that to the National Trust, mate.”
While the stranger’s brains are still glistening on the druidic rock, Chris justifies his murder as a retribution for feudalism – “300 years ago his ancestor would have strode down a path just like this you know, and he’d have seen some common strumpet like you and he’d have gone ‘I’m gonna have a bit of that’…and they call them The Good Old Days”. This scene alone can encapsulate a very recognisable form of England, an England entirely unsettled by itself and thoroughly despondent about its present circumstances. This is also evident in Cohen’s curio-doc The London Nobody Knows, which features James Mason in the David Attenborough role, but rather than grandfatherly observations of penguins, we have Mason flatly observing a decaying Music Hall theatre, detailing the demolition of a fading Victorian past, and ending on a phlegmatic note that any hideous architecture of the modern era will also be done away with at some point in the future.
The tie that binds this all, and Weird Walk with it, is hauntology: a portmanteau of haunting and ontology first coined by Derrida, who suggested that the act of haunting and of being could be as one – that ghosts, or the spectral, are relentlessly present even as the past fades into memory and the future arises. Originally developed as a music genre, it has since found itself part of a literary movement, envisioned most boldly in online projects Hookland and Scarfolk. Created by David Southwell and Richard Littler respectively, both are fictional towns which are eternally trapped in the 1970s, embodying the notion that cultural and political spectres linger in nation, or wider territory’s geography. And there can be no doubt that Britain’s landscape – political, social, economic, cultural, journalistic – is haunted. Feudalism, colonialism, industrialism, Thatcherism; all have driven dark furrows through this land, and the scars still gleam.
Scarfolk grew from a blog which posted sardonic public service posters influenced by the inadvertent grim comedy of the post-war health and safety era. Fostered in a greenhorn welfare state of radioactive nests and nuclear survival leaflets, from a time when that was a tangible threat. Some of these were recently featured in the Ghost section of Somerset House’s Horror Show exhibition. Hookland’s origins lie more in the ethereal, and the strange. Both, created by children of the 1970s, exemplify an idea of Britain lingering on the edge of time. Its heritage enshrouded in mist and its future unclear. Scarfolk’s outlook is perhaps more bleak, its parody posters sending up an obsequious nation obsessed with class. Hookland offers resistance. Rejecting creaking nostalgia, invoking landscape punk – a landscape of fractured rural beauty and humming pylons; standing stones flanked by cooling towers.
What is gained from all of this is a refreshing dose of weirdness, a refusal to view England in terms of chocolate box villages and neoliberal homogenisation; presented for consumption or profiteering. But to re-establish a cinema of Strange Britain takes guts and institutes willing to take risks. As Paul Kingsnorth noted in his 2008 novel Real England: The Battle Against the Bland, “Whimsy doesn’t pay”. This publicaiton’s own Ben Flanagan wrote about the Paddingtonisation of British Cinema since 2012 for our Pagans issue, and researching this piece certainly reaffirmed the ways in which the weirder side of British TV and filmmaking has become a smoothed out homogenous plasticine of Nice. Take for instance the recent British film The Lost King (Frears, 2022), a film about a woman who, along with extensive research into the matter, claimed to have a psychic sense that King Richard III was buried under a Leicester car park. In another England, this could have been brought forth in a suitably odd manner, given the correct team, and instead it was delivered with late-career Steven Frears cosiness, with a post-Paddington Sally Hawkins chucked in for good measure. Ben Wheatley seems to have abandoned his early career psychogeographical projects for the most part, especially as he’s now made the jump to directing large, silly blockbusters.
British cinema remains in a sad stasis, missing the opportunity to harness hauntology and weirdness in these progressively more chaotic times. But there is at least a growing trend in streaming and programming to edify our pre-existing oddities. Perhaps in this there is room for a movement to grow, however big or small, by inspiring those yet to become such filmmakers with the work those who came before.
Imagine, if you can, a film beyond the realms of reclamation. The photography neither symmetrical enough to appease “One Perfect Shot” fetishists nor consciously ugly enough to sate the ascetic wants of the avant-garde. The budget not low enough to be applauded as bootstrap-pulling nor high enough to be vouched for as unfairly disregarded. And, most importantly, featuring no ageing, esteemeddirector around whom die-hard fans can rally screaming “late style!”
Where reclamation once only applied to uplifting overlooked outings from fringe filmmakers, now the most common subjects of reclamation are works of popular cinema. It’s telling that few filmmakers have been subject to more reevaluations than Michael Bay, patron saint of maximalist action and diametrically opposed critic-to-audience scores. Once described as “the crassest hack in the business” by Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, Bay is a director who inspires snobbish revulsion with the same ease that he generatesyearlyreappraisals. Even this publication venerated him in Volume 1. Regardless of his merit as a filmmaker, he’s become a poster child for unthinking poptimism.
Bay’s qualities have been subject to relitigation even before Roger Ebert proclaimedArmageddon (1998) “an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained”, but his modern critical standing can be traced back to the vulgar auteur movement of the early 2010s. As defined by Callum Marsh in his foundational piece on the movement, vulgar auteurists sought to bring new attention to “unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode”. The intention was to widen the scope of contemporary criticism to include serious engagement with oft-dismissed genre filmmakers, particularly those with large bodies of mainstream work such as Tony Scott, Michael Mann, John McTiernan, and our beloved Bay. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put it, “Vulgar auteurism is about expansion, not rejection.”
Much like late-stage capitalism and the inevitable heat death of the universe, however, constant expansion isn’t always a good thing. The need to find ever more unlikely works to place under a magnifying glass has created a quagmire of zero sum discourse, where no film is bland enough to be ignored. A movie is scarcely released to bemused shrugs than it is reclaimed on social media; the vapid steadicam soirée of Babylon (2022, Chazelle) redeemed in a procession of four screenshot Twitter posts the moment it hit VOD. Ironically, the rabid defence of major studio releases now carries the same underdog ethos as independent filmmaking. Stating that an archetypally milquetoast studio release like The Menu (2022, Mylod) lacked artistic value is reframed as mean-spirited by Anya Taylor-Joy stans and Ali G Indahouse (2002, Mylod) apologists. God forbid anyone hurt the feelings of some entertainment executive, mopping up their adrenochrometears with crisp dollar bills.
That’s not to say the canonisation of Bay et al is the problem. Rather, it’s the symptom. When auteur theory was first proposed by the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, it was intended as a rebuttal to the readiness with which contemporary studio directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, and Ford were overlooked, reframing their expansive filmographies as cohesive artistic statements. By segregating modern mainstream auteurs as vulgar—a term Marsh intended to indicate commonality rather than lack of taste—the floodgates have been opened for all manner of tripe with no visible creative fingerprint to be granted armistice. We’ve reached a status quo where a film like Tron: Legacy (2010, Kosinksi), disregarded by critics and ignored by audiences, isn’t just the subject of cultish fandom—it’s garnered enough cultural cache for a direct sequel to enter production over a decade later. Meanwhile, its for-hire director just released a Netflix bomb and Best Picture contender in the same year.
The point remains that so-called vulgar auteurs are auteurs by any other name. Certainly Bay is. His signature style—dynamic camera movement accentuated by quick cuts, a complex, layered mise-en-scène, and a penchant for telephoto lenses that compress the foreground and background—is present in nearly every frame, regardless of whether he’s shooting dialogue or action. In the mode of Kafka or Dickens, Bay has even lent his name to a superlative adjective, the “Bayhem” of his constantly escalating shoot-outs standing tall amongst countless imitators. What sets Bay’s work apart is a pervasive misanthropy that fundamentally complicates our enjoyment of his bloody fireworks displays, from the barely-blinked-at civilian body count of BadBoys II (2002) to the loud-mouthed burlesque of the American dream in Pain and Gain (2014). Good or bad, it’s this internal conflict that makes Bay worthy of such repeated analyses.
Therein we find the misapprehension that set this critical framework in motion: that to be called an auteur is to be given a stamp of approval, and therefore auteurs who focus on “lowly” genre fare must be delineated and separated from their well-esteemed arthouse cousins. Since “vulgar” has been poorly defined, it’s as liable to be used to describe a shoestring-budget direct-to-streaming B-movie as it is the explosion pornography of Bay. It carries with it a sense of guilt on the part of the viewer, implying that the film in question can’t stand up to the scrutiny of traditional study. Moreover, it suggests that any opposition is narrow-minded or somehow punching down, even when the film in question is a multimillion dollar product. The remit of reclamation has been extended beyond elevating maligned works to avidly defending blockbusters from any dissent, a rhetorical imperative premised solely on the “Let people enjoy things” meme.
It’s no coincidence that the ceaseless reclamation of mainstream cinema has occurred during the largest stylistic drought in Hollywood history. When auteurism was first proposed, auteurs were noted for their ability to break from the house styles of each studio; Paramount’s arty, sophisticated dramas; Warner Bros’ cheap, flatly-lit weepies. Eighty years on, and the autocratic regimes of Netflix and Disney have changed the industry prerogative from filmmaking to content creation, where blanket coverage is king and quantity is quality. Netflix openly specifies that “90% of a program’s final total runtime be captured on approved cameras using the following capture requirements”. Suddenly, style breaks of any kind have become a rare commodity.
Anyone who’s seen an effects-heavy picture in the past decade implicitly recognises the predominant style of this cinematic era; every film shot in a series of medium wides and medium close-ups that lack any compositional intent or thoughtful lighting, blocking reduced to ensuring actors are somewhat visible when the CGI hangover descends. The Post-Whedon blockbuster isn’t only bloated with quips, it’s televisual. Against such competition, Bay’s set pieces, once demonised as everything wrong with the trajectory of American filmmaking, stand out as statements of craft that are as influential as they are idiosyncratic. His 360-degree hero shots—in which the camera rotates on a fixed axis around a focal point as the character(s) break through the frame vertically, staring into the middle distance—have been parodied, paid tribute to, and straight up ripped off. What’s more, his style is constantly evolving to meet the new scope of digital production techniques.
Much has been made of Bay’s ballet of dive-bombing drones and multi-perspective car rolls in AmbuLAnce (2022), but his most obvious refutation of predominant style remains Transformers: The Last Knight (2017). The set piece that ends the first act—one that, in a characteristic moment of self-aware commentary, starts out in a junkyard—features a short scene where two giant robotic dinosaurs burst out of the tarmac in slow-motion, flipping a series of military vehicles in the process. Bay cuts rapidly between a helicopter perspective shot, a fixed-camera-angle behind the turret of a gun mounted on one of the cars, a close-up from inside a vehicle, and a handful of medium wides of the chaos (some low angle, some high), all at different speeds, all shot on different cameras, all in different aspect ratios. Like it or not, Bay’s work carries a consistent intention behind every spray of dust and sparking exhaust.
It’s the clarity with which that intention shines through in a tentpole production that makes Bay’s work worthy of reclamation, rather than a generalised poptimism. And yet, anything that deviates from predominant style is now read as worthy of aggrandisement, making zealots out of every strand of cinephilia. The “arms wide open” philosophy of vulgar auteurism has been sullied, and enjoying Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022, Daniels) is no longer optional. The Daniels’ exaggerated rendition of predominant style, delivered in the same register as Marvel albeit with the mild flare of a mid-00s music video, has won them immense plaudits, both on the awards circuit and with their legions of sausage-fingered social media stans. That one half of the Daniels ended up reprimanding the more pernicious elements of their fanbase speaks to their bemusing vehemence. No-one gets angrier about the implication that their taste is shallow than the modern Hollywood glutton.
When Andrew Tracy coined the term vulgar auteurism in his 2009 article, “Vulgar Auteurism: The Case of Michael Mann”, the usage was explicitly pejorative. As he put it, “[Vulgar auteurism] is one of the defining traits of latter-day cinephilia, with whole fleets of past and present studio craftsmen, from the competent to the questionable, being elevated high above their stations.” There’s an irony that even the concept of vulgar auteurism itself has been reclaimed, especially since its initial usage speaks so specifically to our current situation. The purpose of vulgar auteurism was never to insulate pop culture from critique—quite the opposite. Even the most fervent Bay-head would acknowledge his potential shortcomings as a filmmaker; his puerile visual humour, his constant leering at women, his exhausting maximalist-at-all-costs style. But it’s those same recurring facets that make him worthy of discussion.
The vulgar auteurist’s reclamation of Bay & Co may have been valuable in drawing academic attention to otherwise vilified filmmakers, but it simultaneously reduced the cultural conversation to “Is X good or bad?”, limiting the critical apparatus at play. Rather than indicating that all mainstream media is worthy of reevaluation, Bay is one of the few exceptions that proves the rule: that contemporary popular cinema is an artistically-bereft, producer-driven crapshoot. Instead of meeting films on their own terms, vulgar auteurism’s descendents demand that rushed studio products be met with all-inclusive praise, words like “fun” and “entertaining” acting as unimpeachable rebuttals. It’s a stance that only raises the value of the work to elevate the individual, turning cinema into an extension of ego. Fortunately, the lesson for any nascent reclaimer is simple. The next time you encounter someone who doesn’t like the latest two star big-budget misfire, try bringing yourself down to its level rather than lifting it to yours. You might find the elevation difference isn’t as big as you thought.
“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 agame. 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.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the vast majority of people would never see themselves on a screen. Needless to say, this time has passed. Existing on-screen, in one way or another, has become a completely mundane facet of contemporary life, and the means of image creation and dissemination have now been ‘democratised’ beyond comprehension. But, in the 1970s and 1980s, the monolithic BBC saw fit to offer ordinary folks a shot at the UK airwaves in the form of Open Door (1973 – 1983), a ground-breaking series recently chronicled at East London-based gallery Raven Row. Their exhibition, People Make Television, showcased over 100 community-orientated programmes created by activists and advocates on a dizzying array of contemporaneous issues. One of the first grassroots organisations selected to create an edition of Open Door was the Transex Liberation Group, and the resulting programme (which originally aired June 2, 1973) is a miraculous thing to behold – a TV show about trans women by trans women.
The programme begins with a more typical example of the BBC’s treatment of the transgender community: a wink and a nudge from popular shop-floor sitcom Are You Being Served? In the clip, ladies’ man Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister) is downright shocked to see the camp-as-tits Mr Humphries (John Inman) apparently flirting with a beautiful woman. Humphries explains that they’ve “known each other for years”, adding that “he’s much more settled now he’s had the operation.” Cue the laugh-track and cue the gay panic from Mr Lucas. It’s at this point we meet our Open Door hostess, Della Aleksander, chuckling to herself. “I like that programme”, she says, “and now for the reality.” And with that, a delicate tone is set: Della (along with the programme’s other trans participants) will be endeavouring to change viewers’ hearts and minds, but not without a sense of humour.
We are then formally introduced to the four featured members of the Transex Liberation Group in a series of film sequences, each offering an intimate glimpse into the ladies’ daily lives. We see the groovily-dressed Jan out clothes shopping. In voiceover, she tells us how her transition has inspired her to become an affordable electrologist (a godsend for trans women). We hear homemaker and mother Rachel recall quite how much she loathed the “rough types of jobs” she undertook pre-transition. The newly married Laura is dying to tell us how she met her beloved Barry – watching her flirt with him during an adorable (albeit obviously staged) phone catch-up is an especially tender moment. Finally, in a truly daring choice, we watch Della take a bath. What makes this so radical is how nonchalantly her naked trans body is presented to us. There’s no sense a viewer’s prurience is being indulged here – there’s a simple, mundane beauty about it.
Each sequence begins with a photograph of the subject pre-transition and ends with her looking directly into the camera, holding the viewer’s gaze for a moment or two. The former choice would look downright tawdry without the latter but, as it is, this before-and-after device imparts the huge physical and psychological distances each subject has travelled. Still, it’s a curious combination of tabloid shock and arthouse technique. What these film segments provide for a contemporary viewer – perhaps even more than later discussion segments –is a tangible insight into transgender life in 1970s Britain. The fact they do so in such pointedly quotidianfashion makes them all the more remarkable and, ultimately, invaluable.
Following these filmed profiles is a studio-based conversation between the group members. Led by Della, the group first try to find adequate words for the ineffable frustrations of transition. Jan describes waiting for her gender affirming surgery as “like living on the edge of a volcano”, adding that she lives in perpetual fear of succumbing to an injury and waking up in a psych ward where she would “be made to feel an oddity.” Rachel describes the waiting period for her own operation as a “limbo stage”, as well as “like being in a revolving door you can’t get out of.” It’s striking to see these women bare their turmoil with such candour – a forthrightness that is surely rooted in mutual support. Some of Della’s questions are blunt, yes, but they are coming from a fellow trans woman. As such, her line of questioning can elicit more unguarded and authentic responses than a journalist would likely receive. Here Open Door lives up to its tagline: “your say, your way.”
The group then move onto discussing some of the structural and systemic issues each of them have faced and continue to face. On the subject of work, Jan points out that potential employers aren’t likely to offer a trans applicant as much money as “the girl next door.” Della then relates her frustration at having been told by a psychiatrist that she needed to work “as a woman” for at least one year before she could be considered for a surgery, and stresses how much she hated having to “hoodwink” people during her months-long wait for female documentation. With a bit of cheekiness, Laura describes the Kafkaesque quantum state of her marriage to Barry – “legal but not lawful”, as Della puts it. “I could still get married to a woman”, muses Laura, “but I’d hate getting into drag to do it!”
The final segment sees the panel joined by Dr. Schlicht and Leo Abse MP to offer their perspective on “the transsexual problem”. While it does have its points of interest, this is by far the least fruitful portion of the programme. Jan, Laura and Rachel all remain in attendance, though they can’t seem to get a word in. The segment quickly devolves into a rather shallow three-way debate between Della, the doctor and the MP. Both men ostensibly hold a pro-trans position, with the doctor being the more convincing of the two. He does, however, quibble with Della’s assertion that everyone is “intersex” to one extent or another. Though it’s hard to be certain, it appears that she’s using the term as an imperfect placeholder for the concept of non-binary gender – a line of thinking the doctor stubbornly fails to follow.
The MP rejects Della’s notion far more aggressively, pointedly discouraging her from suggesting that she and other trans people have anything in common with the general population. “The doctor and I want to be men”, he barks, “you want to be women, but you mustn’t confuse the issue.” It’s telling that the programme starts to more closely resemble televised conversations about trans people in 2023 as soon as the supposed expertise of a politician and a psychiatric practitioner are deferred to. Della fights her corner though, clarifying her position thusly: “masculinity has quite a large degree of femininity in it, being a man involves a feminine aspect, and being a woman involves something masculine.”
It’s of course unsurprising that some of the language used by Della and the other Transex Liberation Group members during the programme is, for lack of a better term, old-fashioned. For example, they not only refer to themselves as having had “sex changes” (a generally outmoded term for those not in the know), but also refer to themselves as being “sex changes”. However, a great deal of what these women have to say is strikingly forward thinking. At one point, Della delivers an impassioned piece to camera wherein she states that “transsexualism is really the tip of an iceberg”, and that “there is no pure male and no pure female.” Going further, she opines that “the sex act itself is a transsexual act, in which one endeavours to become and absorb the beloved.” Here Della is explicitly prompting the viewer to examine their own relationship to gender – it’s their empathy, rather than sympathy, that she seeks to arouse. This proclamation would surely prove controversial today, not least because it necessarily rejects the Us vs. Them dichotomy which sustains contemporary ‘transgender discourse’. That such a radical, big-hearted sentiment once occupied one of three television channels in the UK is – frankly – mind-boggling.
Artist, photographer, and short filmmaker Alex Prager is at the forefront of the surrealism Resurgence. Prager creates elaborately staged scenes that draw inspiration from a wide range of influences and references, including Classical Hollywood cinema, experimental films, street photography, and other forms of popular culture. She evokes an atmosphere of ambiguity in all of her works by merging historical and contemporary perspectives. Her images conjure a sense of nostalgia while intertwining fiction and reality, crafting an unsettling aura around familiarity. Prager’s latest exhibition, Part Two: Run, which is currently showing at Lehman Maupin in New York, feels like a grand showcase of her ethos.
Prager entered the world at the tail end of the seventies in sunny Los Angeles. In many ways, this landscape acted as a grand background to influence her life, her choices, and most importantly her art. After seeing an exhibition of William Egglestion’s stunning colour combinations at the age of 20, she became interested in photography. As a self-taught artist she found the sense of excitement and came alive through these still images. Initially conceived as black-and-white street photography, her work quickly evolved into hyper-stylized color portraits and group photographs.
There is a sense of separation from reality in her work, an idealized fiction. Prager creates worlds that are familiar, yet cause a sense of unease, drawing inspiration from the fashion and context of the 1950s and 1960s in order to bring attention to layers of artifice that mask imperfections and true emotion. The notion of being truly seen is a running theme; Prager captures the anxiety of being perceived, that the worst parts of ourselves may be known and seen by all. No two people on this earth share the exact same way of thinking. Every individual views life through their own slanted perception of it – my world will never be known to you and vice versa. Yet there’s still this anxiety that someone may see past the veil, look into your soul, and truly see you.
Prager’s entry into filmmaking was very abstracted from a desire to take a more immersive look into the stories she has created. There was a desire among her audiences for a narrative to accompany her photography. She shot the short film Despair (2010)with Bryce Dallas Howard, allowing viewers to be privy to the moments before and after a particular frame. The film enhanced the emotional range she could capture with her work and opened up more possibilities for her examination of self. In La Grande Sortie (2016)the audience sees through a dancer’s eyes on stage. Each member of the crowd steals a little piece of her until she’s all gone. Leaving the viewer to see themselves in a sea of anonymous faces. In mere moments, Prager establishes a mood, a feeling, that strikes the viewer so deeply. Her strength lies in nuance: bright colors, distinctly familiar visuals, and consuming musical scores.
The latest of Prager’s pieces focuses on the isolation of modern society. Part Two: Run is in direct response to the current period of cultural ambivalence and uncertainty in the United States. It is a feeling of confusion and indecision that occurs when faced with a complex situation. Manifested as a fear of failure, fear of the unknown, and a lack of confidence in one’s ability to handle a situation. Through this exhibition, the viewer is encouraged to examine human perseverance as well as the opportunities that exist both within the art world and in everyday life for empathy, participation, and action. In this day and age, almost everything can be delivered directly to one’s doorstep and a person could in some way “survive” without ever leaving the comfort of their own home. Bravely choosing to leave security, venture out into the world, and participate as contributing members of society demonstrates willful action. It illustrates life as it truly is, a game. Regardless of whether we choose to read the terms or conditions, we have decided to engage in the game.
Part Two: Run is an exhibition of new photographs, film, and sculptures. In this new body of work, Prager engages theatrical strategies and cinematic conventions, exploring cultural anxiety. Through the use of theatrical devices and cinematic motifs, Prager explores a sense of cultural anxiety. Transporting the viewer to an all-American town that erupts in chaos when the residents are confronted by a giant metal sphere on a rampage. As figures collide into their own reflections, Prager suggests a curative, collective reckoning with those forces outside our control. Through absurdist humour the film examines human resilience in the face of catastrophe. When society’s great anxieties are presented as a laughably large pinball, it is easier to digest and confront those fears.
Featuring a group of people from above, Sleep is an expertly staged, vivid photograph. Lifeless bodies lay in the middle of the street, but it appears to be in a peaceful slumber. As part of Prager’s practice, the figures assume familiar postures and poses in order to embody characters, to engage, reflect, and, ultimately, create a sense of empathy. Viewers, too, become active participants in the work. Implored to search for characters that embody a recognizable feeling. In this way, Part Two: Run encourages viewers to contemplate their own vulnerability and mortality.
Prager’s work as a whole is a reminder that it’s alright to live in a fantasy – or rather let dreams of a colorful and bright world influence your perception of it. If it makes it easier to examine one’s own existence and confront misadventures, what’s the harm in adding a touch of melodrama to life? Rather than wallow in fear and loathing, cast it out. Life is more enjoyable when you bask in the beauty of the unpredictable.
He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious? Well, actually, let’s see if I can be any less obvious with this piece. In the music video for Avril Lavignes’sSk8r Boi there is a guy at the beginning pointing a camcorder at a preppy girl in a car. Towards the end of the video, Lavigne is kneeling on the hood of a car singing directly into the lens of a camcorder held by some grinning goof. 21 years later, and we’ve got a video of another goof, this time holding a mic and standing next to a beautiful girl.
This video, which was uploaded to Twitter on February 21st 2023, by the guy with the mic, Israel Padilla, was captioned thus: ‘I was speechless’ followed by a cry laughing emoji. Padilla and the girl, who gives her name as Emily James, are standing on a brightly lit street at night with people passing by in the background. Emily is in the middle of a night on the town and halfway through the video one of her friends appears on camera to check if she’s alright. Padilla’s interview with Emily goes awry when he asks her how often she cuts her hair and she answers ‘I do porn’. From that point onward, Padilla is on the ropes – he’s stunned. Then Emily drops the two in her one-two punch by revealing that she’s trans.
The street interview is currently one of the most potent genres of online video content. However the form is almost as old as television itself, utilised first in broadcast news before moving into comedy. As far back as the 1950s, TV journalists would stop people in the street and ask them questions about the most pressing matters of the day such as “is too much fuss made over bosoms?”. These are known as ‘man on the street’ interviews or vox pops. Arguably the most notable variation of the format on TV in the last decade is the comedy Billy On the Street, in which the gay failson of Hollywood Billy Eichner browbeats innocent New Yorkers with questions about pop culture pablum.
With the accelerating accessibility of media technologies and online platforms in the last few decades, any cunt with a mic and a dream can be just like Eichner and bother people on their local high street for online clout. The creator, usually a guy, goes up to a random person, usually a young woman, and asks them a question: ‘What’s your most embarrassing story?’, ‘Do you like guys under 6 foot?’, ‘What’s your body count?’ There’s an implicit desire in these types of videos to get attractive young women to embarrass themselves with a raunchy story.
The street interview as done by Padilla and an international band of clout-hungry fuckbois, reinforces cisnormative ideas of heterosexuality. Through repeated lines of questioning around body counts, height, and the eternal nice guy-asshole dichotomy, these interviewers reinforce a code of existence against which young straight boys and girls measure themselves against. The borders of desirability are drawn up over and over again. It’s a game that’s rigged so heavily against all who play in earnest; humiliation is perpetually on the cards, and it’s usually the women in front of the camera who are set up to bear the brunt of it in the comments.
This is why it’s so pleasing to see bugs in the genre’s system, when an interviewee gracefully twirls out of the discursive trap with unselfconscious eccentricity. The ‘Ancient Man’ girl is the ideal example of this kind of matrix-breaking performance. In this brief video, the girl answers the interviewer’s question with complete sincerity and utter nonsense: “like 1800s, don’t you want to run away with me? It’ll be like humans never existed, or technology.” There are a couple of skeezy-looking guys messing about in the background for the camera, giving the video a vague aura of menace, which only makes the girl appear more heroic when she wordlessly runs away from the flabbergasted interviewer with a smile on her face. These interviewers are in the business of producing content, but through her responses, the Ancient Man girl takes the video and transforms it into a piece of online art. She produces a distancing effect for us as viewers, allowing us to consider just how monotonous this genre is, how insulting the questions, and how awful the interviewers are. As one commenter put it: “my man was looking for girls to ridicule… and instead he got this goddess.”
As an openly trans sex worker, Emily James similarly disrupts the cis heterosexual assumptions of the online street interview. Through flicks of her hair and grinning glances to the camera, she shows off an intuitive ability to perform to the camera. Journalist Kristen S. Hé tweeted “sex worker at her most powerful imo – the gaze is hers to control!” Padilla wasn’t able to clock James in the video and that, combined with his attraction to her, is what takes him aback in the moment, but through editing in reaction meme clips likethey had us in the first half, Padila attempts to reassert some control as the auteur. He definitely wasn’t owned because he sees himself as the normal one. It didn’t really work out either because men in the comments used a two-pronged attack on both Padila and James, making fun of Padila because you can “tell” James is trans. she was bringing it in the comments herself refusing to cede control of her image. Fully aware that guys who make fun of trans women online often make for the biggest simps in private, she was plugging her OnlyFans, and tweeting about how Padila begged her to top him once the camera stopped rolling. She rocks.
James’ confidence in 2023 does more than produce a funny clip, it also prompts reflection on trans women’s relationship to the camera. Historically, the documentary has often been a tool to draw borders between normality and otherness by subjecting people and cultures to the mechanical eye of a camera lens, wielded by an arbiter of the status quo. From Flaherty’s ethnographic documentaries to Louis Theroux exploiting sex workers,the documentary is often a rearticulation of entrenched power dynamics when seeking to examine the lives of marginalised people. Since Christine Jorgensen ushered in a mainstream awareness of trans women, documentaries about us have proliferated to satisfy a curiosity both sincere and prurient. One example that sticks out in my mind is the 1967 shortQueens At Heart.
Rediscovered by historian and archivist Jenni Olson, Queens At Heart features a middle-aged guy who calls himself Jay Martin and four glamorous trans women on a couch: Misty, Vicky, Sonja and Simone. Martin is conveniently sat behind a desk. After some footage of a drag ball, Martin interviews Sonja, Simone, and Vicky. Despite a flimsy pretence of being part of a “research project”, Martin’s interviewing technique is lurid. Just as Padilla bleeps out the words “porn and “penis” in James’ speech the filmmaker here bleeps out Simone when she discusses the particulars of her sex life. The censorship of words function as a reminder of who ultimately has the power in this media dynamic. It’s all the more twisted because Simone is simply answering the questions posed by the grinning Martin. The women in this short all look profoundly uncomfortable. Vicky’s mumbling response in her interview, particularly when she discusses her experiences with suicidal ideation, are heart-breaking. Where Emily James glanced at the camera with a mischievous energy, Vicky glances offscreen, betraying an intense anxiety over Martin’s intrusive questioning.
I find film texts like I Was Speechless and Queens At Heart conflicting. On the one hand these are products of transmisogynist exploitation. Perhaps my watching and rewatching of them, even my writing on them, perpetuates that harm. Yet at the same time what draws me back are the women; my identification with them as well as my admiration. I’m almost envious of James’ ability to wrap the camera round her finger, turning it into a tool for her rather than Padilla. My experiences of fighting transphobes online and off have taught me to shield myself from the camera, since transphobes often use images to document and dox us. For years, any poor lanky soul with dark curly hair who was photographed at an Edinburgh protest would be mistakenly identified as me. For most of my life I’ve been dealing with bouts of suicidal ideation, largely because of my position as a trans woman in a nation like the UK. So when I see a woman like Vicky squirm the same way I have done when questioned by an NHS clinician about my mental health (in the notes I was described as “dysthymic”) I find some comfort in knowing that my pain is not unique.
It’s fucked up that a trans woman can find solace in the media which was produced to exploit us. Seeing Emily James as not just another iconic trans woman, but also part of a lineage of trans women like Misty, Vicky, Sonja and Simone in Queen’s At Heart we begin to see a more complicated picture of trans women’s relationship to the camera. This machine – around which a cinephilic culture has accumulated so that publications like Cinema Year Zero exist, barnacle-like – can easily be used to degrade trans women. Yet it can also be used to humiliate those who would hurt us, so long as we play our cards right.