Chris Wells as Chris in a screenshot from the online video, LOL.
By Steven Snyder
Weve 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 Swanbergs 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 todays 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, Alexs 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 hes starting a tour.
She clearly likes him, but hes going south for a different reason in pursuit of a woman who runs a porn site and has said shed 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 Alexs 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 theres 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. Its 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 its 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. Its 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 theres much more at work here. These teenagers are not just awkward theyre 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, its 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 its tugging at us that were 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.