Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006


Part of the “Vloggers Unite! Internet Video in Person” series
Showing through Sept. 3 at
The Pioneer Theater
155 East 3rd St.
(between Avenues A and B)

Lights, cell phone camera, action!

‘LOL’ screens as part of online video fest at Pioneer Theater  

 Courtesy Joe Swanberg

Chris Wells as Chris in a screenshot from the online video, “LOL.”

By Steven Snyder

We’ve all seen them: Those people who walk around all day wearing wireless headsets, juggling a cell phone and iPod in one hand while typing out an e-mail on a Blackberry in the other. Technology has come to change not only the way we communicate, but the way we think about interacting with those around us. How many now prefer phone calls to face-to-face conversations? E-mails to phone calls? Instant messages to e-mails?

This is the question posed and explored by Joe Swanberg’s “LOL,” one of more than a dozen works scheduled to screen at the Pioneer Theater through Sept. 3 as part of its series: “Vloggers Unite! Internet video in person.” Sampling from the wide range of online videos — testimonials, shorts, serials, soaps — that have gained popularity in recent years, “Vloggers” plans to move these films from the computer screen to the big, and pair their showings with in-person appearances by their creators.

“LOL” is not so much an online video in its own right than a feature-length questioning of what the popularity of these videos tells us about today’s technoculture.

Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf) and Tim (Swanberg) are two men addicted to their technology, and it is impeding them from engaging in what most still regard as the real world. If Tim is awake, it seems, his Mac notebook is powered on and sitting on his lap and his girlfriend (Brigid Reagan) is becoming incensed with this lack of attention. Meanwhile, Alex’s fascination with electronic music earns him the romantic attention of a fan (Tipper Newton) who jumps at the chance to offer him a ride from Chicago down to St. Louis, where he says he’s starting a tour.

She clearly likes him, but he’s going south for a different reason — in pursuit of a woman who runs a porn site and has said she’d love to meet Alex.

In the margins, we see other conversations playing out — sometimes via voicemail, as a boy tries to interest his long-distance girlfriend in sending him dirty pictures over her cell phone, other times through Alex’s hobby in using a digital camera to film people making weird noises which he then mixes together into an improvised, a cappella symphony.

If not for these details, “LOL,” which of course stands for the online abbreviation of the phrase “laughing out loud,” would be a one-trick pony — a movie about people treading water in a vast digital sea. But there’s something more going on here, particularly in the way the movie willingly contradicts itself.

Technology has both bettered our lives and worsened it, and Swanberg seems willing to contemplate this paradox that is governing how we live today. In one sense, it is connecting people who would have never crossed paths before. It’s making one-person bands possible and helping us to discover friends — through blogs and chat rooms — who we never would have found 15 years ago.

But it’s also ripping us away from the here and now, leading us to a bizarre form of hyper-reality in which our mind is always fixated on a stationary computer screen, on faceless voices and on distant places. It’s making us dependent on something electronic and artificial, re-wiring our brains in terms of the way we work, play and interact.

First screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival, “LOL” was unfairly criticized by one reviewer who deemed it observational but simplistic, shallow in the way it reiterates the tired old mantra that teenagers often must endure awkward times.

But there’s much more at work here. These teenagers are not just awkward — they’re incapable of forging a human bond. As Swanberg so bravely shows, their only passionate interactions occur through typing on a keyboard, falling in love through their passive voyeurism of porn sites and sharing emotion only through mechanical recordings (indeed, the best acting of the film is to be found in a series of voicemails). And society today is reaching a point where many feel more comfortable in this artificial space — with reality created on our own terms — than in our own lives, or in sharing real connections with our friends, families or lovers.

In some ways, it’s a contradictory existence. Are we more alive, or less alive, than ever? As we watch Alex craft his music video out of isolated people creating their own awkward sounds, we see the paradox of just how beautiful this composition can be when mixed and mastered by cutting-edge software.

“LOL” sees this tension and understands the way it’s tugging at us — that we’re drifting in the direction of a people who would rather take the virtual tour than the plan the road trip, who would rather type LOL than actually share a chuckle.

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