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Kids Today: Self-Distribution in the Internet Age

February 28, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Brian Welesko

PART I

“Technology is winning the battle against actual human contact, creating a nation of narcissists shaping their own reality like a Facebook page.”

-Rolling Stone on The Social Network

My friend recently directed me toward the “Zombie Kid Likes Turtles” video, embedded on his Facebook wall. A boy stares stone-faced, painted as a zombie, as a local news reporter asks him about his makeup. His response, “I like turtles,” is absurd. It was shown to me years ago in one of those YouTube round robins of meme sharing, standing around a monitor with a group of friends. Before each video, one must ask, “Have you seen…?” before titling it, then rapidly tap out key words into a search box after its clear the audience hasn’t. The video, sufficiently buffered, is played to anticipated laughter before the next is cued and loaded.

In watching the Zombie Kid again, I smiled but felt no real emotion as I had initially. Certainly having seen it before deflates its impact, but a good joke survives retelling. And “Zombie Kid Likes Turtles” is funny, but that isn’t the point. The communal experience, either in a shared viewing or a shared link, is a major part of what makes memes so enjoyable. We laugh about them, pass them on, discuss, blog and re-blog, and push the importance of the latest thing even if, years later, it isn’t lasting or significant. The real value is that public forum, because who cares if it is a kid who likes turtles or a cat eating a banana? The problem for me was not that the video was no longer funny, but that the meme had ran its course, and Zombie Kid’s impact was in being a meme.

Still from "Four Eyed Monsters"

Still from "Four Eyed Monsters"

Over the course of 2004 and 2005, Four Eyed Monsters, a feature film from two young New York-based filmmakers, was independently financed and produced. The semi-biographical film follows the lifespan of the filmmakers’ relationship as they meet, drift apart, and come together again, where all interactions are done through proxy media. Arin, a disaffected artist making wedding videos who feels lost in the world, contacts Susan through a social networking site because he thinks she is “hot.” Susan is also a disaffected artist who is waiting tables and pondering her place in the world too. They eventually meet and hit it off, however their interactions are conducted through handwritten notes because the dating game is apparently trite and banal and beneath them.

In much of the writing on Four Eyed Monsters, the film is made out to be a knowing depiction of a modern romance and a rumination on sequestered life in the age of the Internet. Surely, there are glimmers. Arin spends time in front of a bathroom mirror, taking flattering photographs of himself, sits alone and shirtless in front of his computer looking for dates. And as he scans a MySpace page for attractive women, profile photos from the subject’s best angle come to life and give voice to desperate, shallow, and sorrowful women. This is the narrative that the above epigraph promotes, distilled.

From "Four Eyed Monsters"

From "Four Eyed Monsters"

But this is misleading. The idea that I want to look good in the eyes of others is not a product of a social network, and certainly not a response to a sterile and faceless Internet. It is a fundamental human response to a social world where we judge and are judged. If Facebook is a collection of everyone’s best foot forward then it is akin to a social resumè, a first impression, and don’t we always fib and edit and crop and promote? Not only that, but just because filmmakers Crumley and Buice give a withered voice to profile photos, and it sounds convincing and perpetuates the narrative of a detrimental Internet, it certainly does not make it so. Are we to assume that attractive people are all fractured, vapid, and eager to please? Are homely people inherently more honest in their profiles?

What is happening in Four Eyed Monsters is not a thoughtful work of social commentary but an emotional work that lacks empathy for others. This is a common problem in young artists’ work. We are often told to write what we know, but what we know is not all that fully formed yet and fails to take into account our actions in a broader context. Because of this failure, young work tends to be self-centered and myopic as we cull from experiences that highlight our uniqueness and not our faults. As often happens, as it does in Four Eyed Monsters, our uniqueness is used to show alienation from society, where everyone else is an Other. The plot surrounds the misunderstood character’s desire to be “got,” to be understood.

We see Arin suffer his hipster roommate and Susan a pair of obnoxious patrons. These secondary characters are cynically portrayed as brash and self-involved, a consequence of playing the “game” of social interaction and a reminder of how unique our main characters are. But when the story world is so small in this way, uniqueness can come across as creepy. After Arin sends his message to Susan, she flippantly invites him to come to her restaurant. Arin ends up stalking her with his video camera. This is wildly inappropriate behavior and only acceptable in a film with such a limited perspective. Karina Longworth, reviewing the film after its screening at 2005’s SXSW Festival wrote, “They’ve managed to make a unique hybrid, a personal film that taps almost painfully into the zeitgeist.” Okay. But what is that, exactly?

What Four Eyed Monsters does best is offer us a lens into the plight of the Emerging Adult. Arin and Susan are privileged college-educated artists long on expectations who are released into society with a heavy question: What now? When we are told we can be anything, even an artist, we forget that a person embodies a profession over time, not upon completion of college. It leaves us wondering where we stand in society and it is a consequence of being younger longer. This is what resonates in Arin Crumley’s and Susan Buice’s film, and I suspect it contributed to the grassroots audience it garnered more than any “modern love story” tag.

But, in the way of Zombie Kid, all this about Four Eyed Monsters itself is not so important.

Editor’s Note: The distribution of the film Four Eyed Monsters will be discussed in PART II.

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