"LOL" (Joe Swanberg, 2006; USA)

Joe Swanberg.
Joe Swanberg.

All in their mid twenties, the three male protagonists of, and col- laborators on, Joe Swanberg’s ultra-low-budget, semi-improvised, collectively written satire LOL are more involved with various cyber- relations than with any human at hand. "LOL" maps a system based on cell phones, instant messaging, websites, and YouTube, to suggest a virtual world more compelling than the real one.

The movie’s first shot is of a computer screen with a moving mouse scampering about until it clicks on a link where some boor has posted his girlfriend’s private (albeit suspiciously professional seeming) striptease. As she dances and disrobes, eyes never leaving the camera, Swanberg intercuts close-ups of a half-dozen, notably unattractive young guys home alone and comically transfixed by the performance. Could there be hundreds, even thousands, of them enjoying this secret performance? To add to the embarrassment, one spectator—the aspiring musician Alex (Kevin Brewersdorf)—receives an unexpected visit from his friend Tim (Swanberg) and is nearly caught with his pants down. "Have you ever met any of your internet girlfriends?" Tim will later ask Alex.

Alex is seriously infatuated with an image named Tessa, a feature of the website "Young American Bodies," to whom he sends regular (unanswered) emails in hopes of arranging a meeting. Chris (C. Mason Wells) argues with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig)—who is only present in visual or audio recordings, since she is currently living in another city— complaining that the naked pictures she emailed him, at his request, are too "cold." Tim, who has a flesh-and-blood girlfriend, sits on the couch sending cyber-messages to his buddy over her head and, even in bed keeps one eye on the computer screen in case an email arrives.

While LOL is a form of neo neo-realism, it’s also an attempt to make a contemporary new wave film. Swanberg’s production is characterized by primitive jump cuts and all manner of sub-Godardian sound/image dis- junction. A panicky voicemail message is heard over a montage of faces, email messages function as silent movie intertitles. Alex, the most serious as well as the most deluded of the protagonists, is a musician composing a montage of people making mouth noises—as "if MySpace could sing" per the commentary included on the movie’s DVD release. This reference is only one of the things identifying LOL as a near-instant period piece. Smart phones and Skype for Mac were introduced barely six months after "LOL" was completed. Social networking is primitive. The protago- nists are compelled to use cumbersome email and cell phones—rather than Twitter—to report on the minutiae of lives. Even the notion that Alex compulsively checks his email twenty times an hour seems quaint. Stranded without access to the internet, having gone home with a young woman who doesn’t have a working computer (and only checks her email once a week), he panics. Still hoping to hear from Tessa and failing to get an ancient PC belonging to the girl’s mother online, Alex is forced to call Tim in the middle of the night to get his messages.

Posting on the website PopMatters, Jake Meaney described "LOL" as "an eighty-minute commercial for the pernicious effects of the contradictory bifurcation and conflation of the real and cyber," making the point that the “proliferation and ubiquity of cell phones, Blackberries, computers et al has done more to drive people apart and garble communication than bring them together and make connections easier.” But Swanberg cele- brates, even as he satirizes the brave new world of cyber-communication. According to ancillary material on the "LOL" DVD, the movie was "born out of ideas batted back and forth via computer, cell phone etc and then filmed in the same manner that people use webcams or their cell phones ... but for a few chance non-meetings or unhappy accidents, a much different film could have emerged." Even the filmmaker’s unflattering self-portrait has a techno utopian component. If he could make this movie, you could too.