Featured Article: Movies That Will Make You Think Twice About Social Media

The Movie Sleuth takes a look at 8 movies that will make you think twice about using social media.

Rewind your minds back just twenty years when the most advanced thing your cell phone could do was play Snake and the world was being overrun by free AOL compact discs for a painfully slow dial-up internet.  Today there are over 1 billion people on Facebook and it's hard to believe there was once a time when people weren't glued to their cell phones and didn't need to constantly be conversing with one another.  Social media is quickly becoming as natural as breathing air.  With boundless innovation pushing the technological envelope while arguably rewinding the clock on intelligence, one has to wonder just how prescient the Wachowskis really were with their images of human beings physically plugged into The Matrix.  Justin Timberlake said it best in The Social Network: "Now we are going to live on the internet!".  Just what has this meant?  Unlimited access to all the information we could possibly want, the Library of Congress at our fingertips at all times, and most of us use it to watch cat videos and post photos of our meals.  Is it progress or regress?  The following films about the implications of social media on everyday life ask some of these questions and offer answers in their own unique ways. 

We Live in Public (2009)
Filmmaker Ondi Timoner attended early internet prodigy Josh Harris' invasive and voyeuristic online art project Quiet: We Live in Public and witnessed the drug fueled Roman orgies and chaos which ensued firsthand.  Chronicling the journey to and from Harris' very real Big Brother creation is Timoner's revealing documentary We Live in Public about an internet television experiment in the early 1990s where more than 100 volunteers forfeited their privacy to live in an underground human terrarium beneath New York City.  With each person's pod and every inch of the structure fixed with security cameras watching their every move, Quiet: We Live in Public in a way informed reality television particularly with the sensationalist drama and voyeurism in monitoring other people's lives.  The difference with Harris' short lived creation as that the situations were unscripted despite the undeniable influence of surveillance on human behavior in general.  The resulting documentary portrait of Harris' early internet art equivalent of the Stanford Prison Experiment can't help but serve as a prescient prediction of the millennial Facebook generation where public validation is everything despite its obvious danger to emotional stability.

The Social Network (2010)

Say what you will about Aaron Sorkin's lack of adherence to the facts with his fictitious and melodramatic take on Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.  Loosely based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires, Sorkin's adaptation as written contains all the highs and lows of grand theater replete with capital A acting.  With David Fincher's monochromatic visualization and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' ethereal and tense electronic score, the material is transformed into a mood piece about why the most forward step in online interactivity might not be all that wonderful for society.  Take for instance a scene where Facebook CFO Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield) finds himself being raked over the coals by his girlfriend for not knowing how to change his relationship status on Facebook.  Severin is dumbfounded and bewildered by the onslaught of rage he's being attacked by.  While on the phone with the film's characterized version of Zuckerberg, played with fiendish glee by Jesse Eisenberg, Eduardo's infuriated girlfriend lights a trash can on fire on his bed out of spite.  Exemplar of the social disconnect in the real world influenced by our interactions or lack thereof in the online world, The Social Network for all its historical fiction manages to be completely honest and to the point about this crucial flaw in online social interaction.

Serial Experiments: Lain (1998)

An anime series spanning 13 episodes and 5 1/2 hours of running time isn't necessarily what we first consider with respect to films persuading viewers to abandon social media.  But in Yoshitoshi Abe's surreal, avant-garde series about Lain Iwakura, a withdrawn and socially awkward Japanese high school girl who becomes something of a God as she assimilates deeper into a virtual reality netherworld called The Wired, Serial Experiments: Lain gives voice to the enormity of online personas versus the small and meek people behind them.  Dense and difficult to comprehend even after its extensive running time has wrapped up, the overwhelming vibe one gets from Lain is a lonesome, increasing detachment from the title character's fellow humans as she dives far into the internet universe.  Recurring motifs depict the isolated Lain walking home from school to her home beneath a forest of power lines and telephone poles buzzing white noise, suggesting technology itself is suffocating the titular heroine as she gradually becomes one with it.  Whether you can spell out everything that happens logically in Lain is beside the point, which is to lure you into Lain's world where the line separating reality and digital fantasy becomes more and more inseparable.  It says so much about the small, fragile human behind a faux internet persona without even trying and will make viewers wonder as much about what happens to it's heroine as it forces us to question the emotional health of millions of internet users not unlike herself.

Unfriended (2014)

The idea of making a horror film utilizing all the tools of an online internet chatroom on a computer screen seemed almost Dadaist in theory and particularly in the lame Blum House trailers geared towards Tweens who can't get enough of the found footage subgenre.  The actual movie Unfriended it turns out is one of the best cinematic rebukes of the toxic fallout of cyberbullying, unfinished business ghost story or not.  To quote Roger Ebert's review of Mulholland Drive, the failed experiment posed by Mike Figgis' Timecode which presented four separate screens playing at once "doesn't shatter test tubes" with Unfriended.  Here we have a startlingly watchable story about a group of teenagers in an online Skype video chat who find their Facebook profiles terrorized by a hacker, or is it?  While the Blum House inclusions of low bass levels signaling scares ahead are as unnecessary as the tacked on final scare, no other film in recent memory manages to turn social media's own tools against itself.  It's that rare social media driven horror film which forces us to rethink our connection with the internet and how cyberbullying can come back to haunt you in more ways than one.

Suicide Club (2001)

Cult Japanese auteur Sion Sono burst onto the international film scene with this startling, perplexing and often grotesque thriller offering, Suicide Club, about an epidemic of mass teen suicides sweeping Japan.  Initially Sono's film was thought to be an exercise in transgression with its controversial opening sequence of 54 teenage schoolgirls leaping to their deaths before an oncoming train (an image parodied in Eli Roth's Hostel).  Upon reflection however the bizarre and often incoherent Suicide Club is now regarded as something of a head-scratching kid cousin to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse for its depiction of Japan's populous either dying or killing themselves out of a loose connection to the internet.  Detectives (including Ryo Ishibashi from Audition infamy) desperately try to form a connection between a hacker's website displaying the suicides as colored circles, strips of skin wrapped into a tape-like ring and a glam rock group who may be the gatekeepers to the bizarre phenomenon.  It's a difficult and often ultraviolent film which manages to rival the extremity of Takashi Miike's work and impenetrability of David Lynch whose deviation from form will either enthrall you with its ambiguities or frustrate you for closing your hands on air.  As it stands, it's another attempt to make sense of the teen suicide phenomenon intrinsic to Japan's bloodstream with an equally contemptuous regard for social media's role in the still unresolved crisis.  Much like the world it takes place in, Suicide Club's doors remain open without closure, leaving you the viewer with much to process and more than a few second thoughts about continuing a life on the internet.

Pulse (2001)
Known as the 'Godfather of J-horror', Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 internet based horror film Pulse about a ghostly online virus which threatens to wipe out all of humanity was the scariest film of that year, period.  Viscerally terrifying J-horror of the highest order, the Cure director's most popular as well as possibly his most inexplicable work is a vast spirit thriller about existential loneliness perpetuated by our connection to social media.  In one of the film's most frightening scenes, a young man named Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) new to the internet tries a dialup connection for the first time and is brought to an eerie series of video screens of chatroom members standing still or swaying back and forth followed by the message "would you like to meet a ghost?".  Fearing a hacker, Ryosuke shuts down his computer and goes to sleep only to be reawakened by the computer turning itself back on, this time displaying a video of a man in shadow sitting in a wheelchair with a plastic garbage bag over his head, the words 'help me' written all over the wall behind him.  The man slowly wheels his chair towards the camera and begins to pull the bag off his head before a terrified Ryosuke pulls the plug.  Much like any unwanted site we seem to have stumbled upon accidentally, Pulse begs the question of whether or not the spirit world is indeed visible online or it it's even all that different from our own.  As with the progressive technological innovation behind digital communication, nothing can stop the apocalypse to come as more and more of us wire into internet and soon become ghosts in the machine ourselves.

Startup.com (2001)

While not necessarily focused on social media or its effects on people in general, few films manage to cram all the hardship, frustration, anger and sense of defeat people have when trying to start a website all into one piece.  The true story of govWorks.com, which raised $60 million from numerous sources before tragically folding, documents the heart and soul sank into the project by founders Kaleil Isaza Tuzman (recently arrested on accounting fraud charges) and Tom Herman.  Tracking every aspect of their website's ill-fated journey via digital video cameras over the course of two years of shooting, it's a very real tale of ambition and dreams on the cusp of fruition only to quickly wither up in demise.  Co-produced by rock documentary filmmaking legend D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop) and co-directed by Pennebaker's wife and business partner Chris Hegedus and Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim, it's an eye opener which brings to light all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into a website and how in the blink of an eye all that hard earned effort can all be for nothing.  As heartbreaking and painful to watch as Terry Gilliam's ill-fated Don Quixote doc Lost in La Mancha, its a galvanizing behind-the-scenes look at the Internet bubble, a precursor to the bitcoin phenomenon and a reminder to those ensconced in social media just how much blood is shed to produce the very website they take for granted with the click of a mouse button.

Winnebago Man (2010)

This heartwarming chunk of bittersweet hilarity which follows Jack Rebney, better known as the Winnebago Man, is as revealing of the public fascination with humiliating online internet videos as well as the after effects it has on the subjects in question.  Beginning with a viral video consisting of unused outtakes in a Winnebago sales video with its salesperson launching into rage fueled obscenities, Winnebago Man follows filmmaker Ben Steinbauer's investigation into the internet video phenomenon, the found footage festival and eventually the man himself, Jack Rebney.  Through Steinbauer's journey, we learn of the devastating impact videos like the Star Wars Kid had on it's unlikely star Ghyslain Raza as well as Aleksey Vayner's Impossible is Nothing video resume.  Soon Steinbauer learns the viral video of Jack Rebney isn't too removed from the actual man's personality yet as the film progresses we no longer see Rebney as an angry buffoon but a serious journalist trapped in a sales video desperate to clear his name and show the world he's not the nutcase the video makes him out to be.  More than anything, Winnebago Man is a breakdown of the nature of viral video tar and feathering of it's subjects that will make you think twice about what you're laughing at.  It also asks viewers to consider the possibility of there being more to the story than the man's online reputation suggests and by the end of the film you find yourself laughing with Jack Rebney instead of at him.

-Andrew Kotwicki

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