One of the first major event cancellations this year was the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. That announcement was the exact moment when the widespread infection of COVID-19 in the US became a tangible reality for a lot of pop-culture obsessives like myself, as SXSW is a massive, institutional event that almost seems too big to simply skip over. The programmers of SXSW’s film festival wing apparently felt the same way. While the physical venues remained empty this year, festival programmers eventually found a way to keep the ritual alive in some capacity, taking advantage of having a captive audience at home in quarantine who couldn’t safely fly to Austin to watch movies en masse but could easily find time to stream them online. For the last week in April, a small selection of films that were programmed to play at this year’s SXSW were made available to stream for free on Amazon Prime to anyone in the US – preserving the film festival experience despite our current crisis by making it digital.
The most amusing inclusion in the SXSW showcase on Prime was the French anthology comedy Selfie, which at its heart seems antithetical to the SXSW ethos. Self-described to be a joke “on the influence of new media on good people,” Selfie is a series of interlocking, technophobic shorts that mock the modern ills of the social media age. Like a sketch comedy variation of Black Mirror, the film is endlessly fearful of technology’s influence on our daily lives, finding a never-ending supply of satirical targets under the Online Culture umbrella worthy of scorn & scrutiny. It’s especially funny to see that mindset presented in the context of SXSW in a year when internet distribution was the festival’s only chance of happening at all. For SXSW to program a technophobic satire on the evils of technology would be an amusing-self own in any year; more so than most other cultural fests, it’s an especially tech-obsessed event intended to market the latest in apps, doodads, and gadgetry. This year was especially ironic timing, though, since the entire festival was online and there were so few films for it to promote that Selfie was prominently front & center.
As a frequent sketch comedy apologist who loves even the trashiest movies about Evil Technology, I’m probably a terrible metric for whether someone else would enjoy Selfie. I got a kick out of the film as a joke delivery system and even found the flow of its interconnected vignettes to be impressively constructed, like a modern-day update to Mr. Show. The individual gags are appropriately sharp but never outright cruel, making sure that the satirical target is always Social Media itself and not the everyday people who use it. That kindness is even extended to the introductory nuclear family who have been so gradually immersed in transforming their adopted child’s life-threatening illness into content fodder for corny YouTube inspo videos that they’re completely unaware of how pathetic they’ve become. In the closest thing the movie has to a wraparound story, their desperation to maintain their child’s online fame even after his illness is cured reaches new lows every time we check back in on their unraveling, but they never stop being anything but normal and, frankly, boring people. They’re just normal people who’ve been badly influenced by modern tech.
That’s not to say that the movie is averse to throwing punches. It’s critical of social media Influencers in particular: celebrity YouTubers with confounding audience reach but no creative substance, white-nationalist terrorism recruiters who prey on lonely children online, inhumanly perfect Instagram braggards with perfectly curated lives, etc. It just manages to throw those punches while seeming more critical of online behavior rather than online people. Even a bookish, Luddite high school teacher who chides her students for being “lazy and perverted and glued to their phones all day” instantly devolves into a smartphone-addicted Twitter troll as soon as she discovers the lure & power of online anonymity. The movie doesn’t dunk on her after she sinks to her lowest moments of online bullying, either. Instead, it allows her to form an increasingly intimate connection with her Twitter rants’ most frequent target, so that in a roundabout way social media actually does its supposedly intended job of bringing people closer together.
That sentiment is echoed in how the seemingly disparate cast of anonymous Parisians throughout the shorts all know each other through friends-of-friends or daily irl happenstances. As much as Selfie is willing to rib its characters over their individual obsessions with YouTube view counts, Uber ratings, and turning all intimate family moments into entertainment media, it’s ultimately a movie about our shared, communal follies in a new global communication landscape we’re not yet sure how to properly navigate. We all fuck up online on a regular basis, even if just by mindlessly scrolling through the same two or three social media platforms long after we’ve drained them of their in-the-moment entertainment value. That daily buffoonery is more apparent than ever in the current COVID-19 lockdown limbo, where most of us are spending more of our lives online than ever. In that way, programming Selfie as one of the highlighted features for the at-home SXSW experience was exactly on-point, even if its mild technophobia would normally be antithetical to the fest.
– Brandon Ledet