Michael Bluth (aka Jason Bateman) gets serious online.
The opening moments of the new film Disconnect are confusing enough to reel you in, as you try to make sense of the scenes unfolding before you. With the help of a naked woman in an animal mask, stacks of pumped up kicks, a cool P.O.V. shot from a camera mounted under a skateboard, and (wait for it…) urine in a protein shake, writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin get their hooks in the audience quickly – and then dare you to look away. You won’t be able to.
Billed online as “A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world”, with the tagline ‘Look Up’– Disconnect seems, at first glance, to be a call to the audience to pay attention to the relationships and human beings who share our immediate physical environment (I mean, how often have we kept company with the tops of peoples heads as they play on their phones?). At it’s most basic and overt level the film is about how technology brings us together and pulls us apart – but that’s not really anything new or different (nor is it the most important message of the movie). One of the things about Disconnect that is different – or rather, one of the more captivating aspects of the film – is how these moments of rupture and repair are authentically captured and conveyed in a way that makes the audience complicit in the downfall or redemption of the characters. This strategy works to further blur the line between truth (the audience) and fiction (the film) in a way that often mirrors our virtual experiences.
Allow me to explain: In nearly every scene where a character is texting/Facebook messaging/I.M.ing/etc. we are spared the typical over-the-shoulder P.O.V. shot where the character is off to the side while the camera focuses in on the computer or telephone screen. More often, in this film, the characters are shot head on, looking down (of course) at the computer or phone, with the words they are typing written out in real time on the left side of the movie screen. So the words are – literally – inscribed onto the film itself – adding one more nicely fit layer to the onion of mediated versus unmediated interactions that the audience must peel away. And this is part of how the audience is made complicit: we must actually watch the words as they come up on the screen, as if we ourselves were the one composing – or getting – the message. In this way we are forced to be both the sender and the receiver, as the words unfold on the screen and the director alternates head-on shots of each of the two communicating characters. It’s a nice little cinematic sleight-of-hand – a way of making us identify with the characters who are each struggling with their own identities (both in real life and online) even as the lines between these identities become necessarily blurred and crossed.
And identity is important in the film. We get to see how characters (and by extension -we ourselves) create online identities – like in the scene where two girls are reviewing photos on their computer, selecting which images to put online (which ones will ‘fit’ their online identity), and one character admonishes the other as she walks out of the room saying, “don’t post that picture!” – a phrase I’ll wager you’ve both said and heard many times. In this way, we have some level of consciousness about our online identities – and control over them – in ways we often do not in real life. I believe that the film addresses what happens when we lose control over our mediated identities as a means to get us to meditate on our real world identities – and the way these play out in our relationships to one another as husband/wife/daughter/son/mother/father/brother/sister.
In this way, the film uses technology and our online identities as a vehicle for talking about identity writ large because it highlights how our online identities are things we craft and create. Of course, we do this with our ‘real’ or non-virtual, un-mediated selves and identities as well – though this fact often exists on the periphery of our consciousness. Still, regardless of the story arc for each of the three intertwining main plot lines, it is only in the non-virtual un-mediated moments –through real-life human interaction and physical contact – that any given character is redeemed. Without giving anything much away (so I’ll skip the gender analysis I want to do & that this film desperately needs), I’ll just say that the one character who is not redeemed is the one who lacks the real world support system or human safety net that the other characters have managed to create for themselves even in non-traditional, non family-of-origin, ethically ambiguous and quite possibly illegal ways. The message perhaps being that while the internet allows for connections and disruptions – it is only the interactions we have in real life that have the potential to truly save us.
And it is for this message that the film has been taken to task in reviews that claim the filmmakers are hitting us over the head with their moral lessons and over-worked clichés (like the fake Facebook profile that ultimately allows for real connections, the online support group that pulls a family apart, etc.) but I think that this critique is missing something important about the film – and that, to me, is the larger, more subtle yet inevitably more crucial message of the movie: We Are All Surveilled.
When we watch Disconnect with this message in mind (rather than the somewhat tired ‘is the internet bad or good’ question) we are privy to what I believe is the filmmakers much more refined analysis of larger, more systematic and social questions regarding privacy and surveillance – not at the level of parent and child but between individuals and The Man (whether you think “The Man” is the government or large corporations or some hidden Illuminati-type group of actors). Clearly, this is a bigger issue than the film can address but I contend that this is the (not-so-hidden) message in the movie. The film’s catch phrase “Look Up” could also be read in this way – as in look up the power structure, see who is really in charge here and who is watching us. Even the promotional poster for the film points to this reading: in a busy city square where everybody is going about their business, Jason Bateman is looking up – ostensibly at a surveillance video camera that the other people in the square are seemingly oblivious to.
Granted this message isn’t really hidden in the film, it’s actually central to each of the main story lines – that whatever virtual reality the main character inhabits (or plays with, or acts through) is under surveillance from another ‘governing’ body (be it parents or the FBI). But what is important – and largely unspoken in the film (except in a few playful moments) is that in each of the stories the characters have this sort of suspension-of-disbelief about the fact that they themselves have consented to this surveillance (and here I’m working hard to try to NOT talk about hegemony. You’re welcome.) But this consent is really key –WE create that Facebook profile, WE sign up for online payment systems or cell-phone banking (it’s so easy!), WE use GPS to get from point A to point B (which means of course, that WE not only arrive at our destination but are tracked on our way), WE give all those apps “permissions” (literally: permissions) to do a range of things on our fancy little phones (this is a larger issue that I’ll pick up in my next post in this series). And then we are a little surprised (or completely shocked) when our privacy is compromised.
We are participants in our own surveillance, uploading scads of personal information, largely because it makes our lives easier – but what happens when the reality of our lack of control over this information sets in? This is nicely illustrated in Disconnect between the ease of setting up a Facebook account and the near-impossibility of trying to deactivate it: the two character’s commentary in this scene is hilarious as they complain about how difficult it is to delete a profile, making comments like “they make you fill out so many things”, “they really don’t make this easy”, and finally “ugh, we have to put down a reason”. The reason they select, by the way, being “I don’t feel safe online”. Brilliant.
Brilliant, if not a little too obvious. At times – like in the Facebook account deletion scene – the movie seems to be hitting us over the head with the message. But then again, the filmmakers even seem in on that joke too – as in the very next scene that boy is wearing a t-shirt that reads “Overkill by Insight”, and the other boy wears a shirt that says, simply, “Overkill”. Yeah, alright, turns out Overkill is a skateboard-based clothing collection, but its placement in the film is not an accident. Neither is the impersonation of the Grim Reaper by a main character during a beautifully shot sequence towards the films end (I really want to talk more about this scene, but I don’t want to ruin it for you).
This issue of privacy and policing, and the ways in which we are complicit in our own online surveillance is the topic of a new series on this blog. Watching and writing about Disconnect was a good way for me to begin to think through these issues. Because it’s a film about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we do’, the ways we construct our identities, both online and IRL – but it’s also about a lot more important things that we need to be thinking about. Needless to say, the film doesn’t give an answer, it just asks a lot of questions – the kind that Google can’t answer for you.