The Columnist (2021)

This is going to sound ironic coming from someone who publishes multiple paragraphs of movie opinions no one asked for on a daily basis, but I’ve been trying my best to avoid Online Film Discourse lately.  I still frequently listen to podcasts, lurk in heavily curated Facebook & Twitter circles, and refresh my Activity feed on Letterboxd—mostly looking for new movies to watch—but I’m becoming increasingly reluctant to participate in conversations with strangers online about movies, or about anything at all.  Sometime between the reactionary blowback to the Cuties trailer and the immediate Hot Take apocalypse aftermath of Bo Burnham: Inside, I’ve just lost my taste for engaging with strangers’ opinions online.  I’ll read and listen to film criticism, but I have no energy for contributing to the discussion . . . unless that discussion is contained among the half-dozen people who contribute to the Swampflix blog & podcast.  That loss of appetite for a more generalized, public form of film discourse is likely Pandemic related.  I’m just generally burnt out on the daily chore of basic existence, and having all my social interactions limited to digitally obscured strangers is not helping at all.  If anything, spending too much time scrolling my Twitter feed makes me outright misanthropic; I always end up walking away with a few sparse movie recommendations and a thousand reasons to feel worse about the nature of humanity as a species.  The tradeoff is not really worth it.

The recent Dutch black comedy The Columnist deeply understands that kind of internet-inspired misanthropy, just as much as it understands how weak I am for succumbing to it.  It’s a satirical horror film for our cursed Online Discourse times.  It treats the universal truth “Never read the comment section” with the same grave seriousness previous generations’ horror films gravely warned “Never sleep in the woods,” “Never have premarital sex”, and “Never swim on a shark-infested beach.”  Katja Herbers stars as a clickbait columnist who reads one too many anonymous sexist tweets about her work and snaps, going on a violent rampage.  It starts as a kind of writer’s block thriller, where she cannot focus on her work until her detractors are violently silenced (after she slays them in their homes, confronting them with sexist language from their tweets).  By the end, though, she’s totally Jokerfied, losing track of her familial connections and professional duty to create #content in her pursuit to destroy every last misogynist troll who antagonizes her online — of which there is an infinite supply.  The biggest red flag that she’s lost to the madness of Online Discourse is when she announces that she’s officially quitting Twitter, then spends more time obsessively checking the notifications on that message than she does writing or enjoying her life.  It’s a very familiar kind of horror, one that evokes a humor of recognition and despair rather than anything politically satirical.

The Columnist is smart enough to satirize its antiheroine for her own ideological weaknesses, so as not to entirely rely on The Internet Is Evil fearmongering.  She’s at least lightly ribbed for her amorphous neolib politics, as her strongest ideological stances are that blackface is bad (a still-sensitive subject in Holland, at least, thanks to Christmas celebrations involving the figure Black Peter) and that people with differing opinions should be nicer to each other online.  Still, it mostly backs her ultraviolent revenge on her much more grotesque right-wing trolls, gleefully indulging in a Fuck Around and Find Out ethos.  The Columnist is most fun as a pitch-black counterpoint to all those NPR & Chris Gethard human interest stories where targets of online bullying forgive and make amends with their vilest trolls.  Here, internet vitriol is literalized into physical, cartoonish violence and everyone involved is mocked for getting sucked into the pointless ritual of Online Discourse in the first place.  It’s just as cathartic as it is sharply observed, especially considering that women in particular take the most shit for daring to have opinions online (apparently even women with benign clickbait-friendly “opinions” of no real consequence).

As an illustration of why I’m losing my appetite for engaging in Online Film Discourse with unmoderated strangers, I’d like to point to the real-world clickbait article “Bizarre Dutch dark comedy film ‘The Columnist’ mocked for showing journalist on a killing spree against online critics“.  Much like the reactionary blowback to films like Cuties, Joker, and The Hunt months before they were actually released, The Columnist apparently stirred up minor right-wing vitriol for “endorsing” the murder of lefty journalists’ political opponents.  You can’t fault the anonymous right-wing commentariat (and their army of bots) for willfully misconstruing the point of a movie that satirizes the journalist herself as well as her trolls; after all, they were commenting on a movie they hadn’t seen.  It’s still a useful affirmation that the kind of aggressively inane Online Discourse that accompanies every last news item (including the release of low-budget Dutch horror comedies, apparently) is enough to make a normal, calm person violently misanthropic — proving the satirical point of The Columnist months before the movie was released.  Anyway, I should have known better than to read that comment section round-up in the first place, a mistake I hope I can avoid making again in the future.

-Brandon Ledet

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