Being part of the US ultra-indie “mumblecore” filmmaking scene and having a title like LOL, Joe Swanberg’s “homemade” feature is inevitably going to draw comparison with Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha. While there is certainly a similarity in the subject matter of communication suggested by those titles’ disparity between the description of an emotional reaction and the actual expression of it, Swanberg’s film is a little more polished, not quite so deliberately aimless, artless and inarticulate and perhaps the one more likely to actually hit that funny bone.
Whereas Funny Ha Ha seemed to depict a particular sense of inarticulacy among young people that has led to an inability to express ones emotional intentions and even a failure to get in touch with them, it did seem to be specifically related to a certain section of American suburban youth. As the title suggests, LOL’s take on the failure of communication between the current generation lies more in those technical means of instant messaging that, rather than bringing people closer together and within immediate contact, actually places a barrier between them through its impersonality. As such, in this age of 3G mobile phones, internet, e-mail, text messaging, and on-line chat and discussion forums, it’s a subject that is likely to have resonance and significance for everyone. You will almost certainly recognise yourself and your own behaviour in one of these characters.
The premise of LOL then is simple and it makes its point quite directly. Lives and relationships are greatly affected by our growing reliance on technology. Not only do relationships increasingly take place on the phone and on the internet, but in many cases it takes precedence over real physical relationships. You will no doubt have observed or participated in this phenomenon yourself, where couples for example are physically sitting together but one - or both – appear to be more interested in checking their text messages or in the conversation they are conducting with another person on their mobile phone. LOL shows a number of similar situations occurring on an everyday basis with its characters.
This point is made often without a great deal of subtlety. You’ll see Tim (director Swanberg himself) tapping away on his laptop oblivious to his girlfriend Ada (Brigid Reagan) stripping off to try on a new bikini. Later, he and his friend - while sitting in the same room, on the same sofa even - chat to each other through a messenger service on each others laptops while Ada is again alienated, sitting between them watching the television. It may not be original, but it is real and it does happen – we’ve all been there – but part of the whole purpose of this style of indie-filmmaking is to break down artifice, style, symbolism, structure and technique and indeed show life as it is and how it is lived (though Funny Ha Ha was perhaps a little too studiously slack and low-key in this regard). In a film about the failure to communicate effectively and meaningfully, this has particular significance.
LOL manages to cleverly and creatively push this point further through several other characters and situations that combine this failure of communication with its own “homemade” technique. Tim’s friend Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf) is a bedroom musician, putting together little pieces of music through “mouth sounds” made by his friends. While these are little more than YouTube novelties, they are clever and technically accomplished little pieces. As well as illustrating the theme of disassociation – people for Alex have become nothing more than sound files to be used and manipulated in his compositions – it also illustrates the filmmakers’ underground do-it-yourself technique, Alex going “on tour”, carrying his homemade box of sounds, relying on friends to provide their front rooms as venues or trying to blag it into real music venues. His tour dates are also determined by the location of his “internet girlfriends”, none of whom he has actually met and, when the occasion arises, none of whom ultimately are as important as how conveniently they can to keep him plugged-in to his virtual internet world.
LOL takes this as far as even including a virtual person in the film. A visiting friend Chris (C. Mason Wells) introduces his girlfriend Greta (Greta Gerwig) to Tim by showing him her photo on his phone and letting him hear one of her text messages – a message that “has no point”. In place of actual physical sex, Chris demands increasingly explicit photos from her – the choice is that or resorting to internet porn – and although we hear and see Greta (intimately), she never actually appears in the film as an actual person. But perhaps the most striking point made by LOL is again the simplest one. When a person has been reduced to nothing more than a digital file, a disembodied voice, divorced of any physical or real emotional contact, it becomes the easiest thing in the world to just divert them to voicemail or switch them off.
For some that will either be either the strength of the film or its weakness. By using non-professional characters and keeping the situations relatively straightforward and readable, it similarly avoids any deeper considerations of this avoidance of emotional attachment. If there are any serious consequences to the actions of these dysfunctional characters or emotional outbursts, they all take place off-screen. Arguably however, this is part of the ethic of this style of indie filmmaking – not to judge its characters, nor to present a message or a moral – looking for an answer there is to similarly abdicate any real emotional self-reflexion of your own - but to simply show that dysfunction within our society and ourselves.
LOL is released in the USA by Benten Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc and is in NTSC format. The disc is not region encoded.
A low-budget indie film shot on Digital Video, there are evidently limitations to the quality of the image on this release, but it’s hard to imagine it really looking much better than it does here. Any shortcomings are inherent within the medium itself – a few jagged edges, broken lines and some shimmer when filming a computer screen – but otherwise this is perfect. Essentially, it looks like a direct digital transfer of the source material, showing no flaws, no additional edge-enhancement and, fitted comfortably onto a dual-layer disc (although the total content of film and extras does only take up 6.29GB), there are no compression issues.
The audio track is the original Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s well recorded. There’s none of the sub-vocalised mumbling that can be characteristic of US indie films in LOL, so the dialogue is almost always perfectly clear. A few phone-messages are intentionally not fully audible, but optional English subtitles have been included on this release for the hearing impaired, so these can be referred to if required. The strength of the soundtrack however is demonstrated well in its handling of Bewersdorf’s fabulous soundtrack, its underground noises and rhythms accompanying the film perfectly.
English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included for the feature film only. They are in a clear white font.
There is no shortage of extra features to supplement the material and explain the purpose. Two commentary tracks are included, the first is a Filmmakers’ Commentary, conducted mainly between Swanberg, Bewersdorf with contributions from Chris Wells. Not a little ironically, the talk is heavily centred on the technology side of things – the camera, the website, the music and the creation of the “noisehead” videos – but they also discuss filming choices and describe how the story evolved. Rarely screen specific, the remains interesting and active throughout. The second is the Actors’ Commentary. Swanberg and Bewersdorf dominate again, but Tipper Newton and Greta Gerwig also contribute, and there are edited-in segments from Chris Wells on his sections. It's an interesting commentary which shows the thin line between acting and real-life, many of the characters being introduced for the first time while shooting an improvised scene and the film often taking its direction by how they got on together in real-life.
Of the remaining extra features, the best is a short film Hissy Fits (7:05), made by Joe Swanberg as a test film for LOL. You could actually consider this a prequel for the film as it’s an entirely new situation seemingly introducing Tim and Ada. Kevin Casts (9:29) are video podcasts made by composer Kevin Bewersdorf, documenting the recording of the music, his use of MIDI and playing around with drawings on the concept of the film. The Complete “Noisehead” Videos (9:47) might seem to be a little too much to take in their entirety, but they are strangely compelling. Additional Music Performance Footage (2:40) shows Bewersdorf playing with sounds on his fascinating homemade music box assemblage of boards, chips and wires. In the Tipper Newton Casting Interview (7:41) Swanberg tries to get an idea of her personality and thoughts on the films’ subject. The Artwork of LOL presents 23 of Bewersdorf’s sketches which eventually worked their way into the final poster artwork for the film. There's also case insert with an essay by David Hudson which looks at the “mumblecore” movement and the themes raised in LOL.
LOL is the first release from a new DVD label Benten Films who state on their website that they intend to put out “overlooked gems that deserve greater recognition” and that all of their releases will be “of the highest technical quality, each supplemented with enhanced features and artful packaging”. That is certainly the case with their release of Joe Swanberg’s LOL. Not everyone is going to like the non-professional style of this homemade, low-budget, indie style of filmmaking on Digital Video, but the ethic behind the style is borne out in the content, the film presenting a witty and intelligent look our dependence on gadgets and technology and how they are increasingly leading to emotional detachment.