Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast: Fyre Docs & American Movie (1999)

Welcome to Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-eighth episode, Brandon & Britnee contrast & compare this year’s dueling Fyre Festival documentaries: Fyre Fraud & Fyre – The Greatest Party That Never Happened.  Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the cult classic documentary American Movie (1999) for the first time. Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Fyre Fraud (2019)

Right out of the gate, Fyre Fraud has a few marks against it. Technically premiering a few days before Fyre on Netflix, there are some issues that aren’t fair to hold against it (for instance, that it’s trapped on the currently inferior platform, although one doesn’t have to read tea leaves to know that Netflix’s shrinking catalog and decreasing quality control could render this statement out of date any day now) and some that definitely are (Fyre never stoops so low that it uses stock footage to fill time in voiceover, or worse, playing out an entire scene from an episode of Family Guy as a kind of shorthand to demonstrate that, hey, sometimes lawyers are real jerks). But there are marks in its favor as well, most notably that it features an interview with Fyre founder and con man Billy McFarland, alongside its indictment not only of McFarland but larger “influencer” culture (again, gag) and makes larger statements against the kind of unethical behavior (I’d say “antics” but don’t want to minimize the impact) in which McFarland et al engaged, and how that can track to larger political movements.

To say that Fyre Fraud is constructed around its interview with McFarland isn’t quite accurate. Whereas Fyre had a narrative throughline that was largely chronological and structured its thesis around demonstrating that McFarland and company were not only woefully unprepared but inextricably crooked, Fyre Fraud is a bit more unfocused; it explicitly takes aim not only at the festival’s creators but its attendees (to a greater extent than Netflix’s film) and the larger sociocultural movements that have, as a side effect, opened up new areas of anxiety and taught us all new ways to compare our normal lives against the cultivated and curated fantasy lives of the nouvea célébrité and find ourselves lacking. As a text, it reads more like a collegiate essay in comparison to Fyre‘s performatively journalistic approach, a reach for relevance that exceeds the grasp of its vocabulary, a fact that is underlined by its aforementioned stock footage use; as a result, it would be easy to dismiss Fyre Fraud in comparison, but this would be a mistake, as it functions as a perfect companion piece to Fyre.

There’s duplication of content between both docs, as you would expect. In its early minutes, Fyre features blurry footage from a local news broadcast about McFarland’s previous failure Magnises, and from which the “black card for millennials” verbiage is drawn. The resolution of this footage was so low that I assumed it was from a webcast, but Fyre Fraud has this same footage in crystal clarity. The video of Fyre Festival attendees walking out onto the dark gravel beach to find hundreds of geodesic tents, video which perfectly encapsulates the moment when panic started to grow as they begin sprinting to claim a tent to call their own, also appears in both. But what Fyre Fraud infamously has that Fyre didn’t is an interview with McFarland himself. As NPR (and others) point out, this is ethically dubious given that McFarland demanded payment for his appearance, and Hulu apparently obliged, although no accurate figure has yet been provided. However, as Hulu noted in their own documentary, it is equally morally questionable that Jerry Media, who were involved with the marketing stunts for Fyre Festival and are potentially culpable for their participation in the scam of it all (admitting on camera in Fyre that, at the request of McFarland and Fyre CMO Grant Margolin, they deleted comments on social media posts that demanded response to issues of lack of facilities, payment issues, and other concerns), were producers on Netflix’s documentary. There are even mirrors and echoes between the two that aren’t exact but which reflect the way that all of these individual actions add up to a larger whole: Fyre saw Justin Liao extolling the virtues of destroying adjacent property to forestall having neighbors (despite his insincere, mealymouthed apologies across social media, which you can seek out if you so desire), but he manages to be outdone by “influencer” Alyssa Lynch, who may be one of the worst human beings on the planet in addition to being one of the few people who got the kind of living accommodations that they were promised. We see her self-shot phone video of her describing economy class as if she were asked to sit in steerage on a doomed ocean liner (also in Fyre) followed by her disingenuously saying that she felt “really bad” for those who ended up in tents–followed by an immediate cut to her gleefully dancing around her villa. Meanwhile, fellow festival goers were wandering around incomplete stages and unopened transport trucks.

Like Fyre, there’s much mirth to be had at the expense of all those involved (other than the unpaid laborers, both at home and abroad). Many of the attendees recall being plied with copious amounts of liquor, and we also see this on screen. One interviewee remembers stacks of unused lumber alongside pallets of alcohol, which made me chuckle. Obviously, there was a mass of spirits; alcohol usually doesn’t require any assembly, and if it does, the most complicated step is muddling. Another interviewee, when discussing McFarland’s ticketing scam that he attempted to run while released on bail, made the comment that “When you’re out on bail, that’s the time when you should be doing the least amount of crime,” which is hilarious in and of itself, but may have been an insight that McFarland needed, although it came too late. Oren Aks, a former Jerry Media employee who opened up about his experience on the inside of the media circus and criticized the company’s decision to deflect criticism, pointedly notes that the tent area at the festival was situated directly next to a 20-30 foot drop into a shallow pool of water: “They didn’t even think, ‘We need a fence’,” he says. Once you stop giggling at the ineptitude, you realize how lucky McFarland et al are to be facing jail time only fraud and not wrongful death or criminal negligence charges. And though no story shared by any participant in this documentary can top the revelation of what McFarland asked Andy King to do (as revealed in Fyre; if you’ve managed to miss the memes, I won’t be the one to spoil it for you), one of the participants here notes that there was a bulleted list of solutions (as we know, “[they’re] not a problems-focused group, [they’re] a solutions-oriented group”) that included “robbing customs,” which is about as absurd a thing as you can imagine, next to one of the blandly attractive male influencers recounting the events of the festival and ending his statement with “#rescuemission” and a frat boy chortle.

While watching Fyre with a group of friends, there was a discussion of McFarland and who he might really be, as we only see him in archival footage. A few of them noted that his actions, vacant stares, and frequent adherence to repetitive language made him seem like someone who might be on the autism spectrum; in discussion, I didn’t find this evidence particularly convincing or compelling I saw “Billy” as having an innate understanding of the intersection between the need for personal validation through online visibility and the psychosocial need for a space that reinforces ingroup/outgroup mentality along the lines of wealth and prestige. His apparent vacuousness was merely the cocktail that resulted from mixing his own internal urges for validation with his cunning ability to take advantage of this hunger in others. With Fyre Fraud, my roommate and I were again in conflict over our interpretations of McFarland (it should be noted that neither of us is really trained for this kind of diagnosis; my MA is in rhetoric and composition and he is a PhD candidate in pure mathematics, so in the interest of full disclosure I should note that our armchair psychoanalysis is utterly unscientific and bound by our independent horizons of knowledge and experience). We each saw confirmation of our hypotheses regarding McFarland’s behavior on display in McFarland’s silences and inability to properly respond to straightforward questions about his business practices. My roommate saw evidence of spectrum behavior: poor eye contact and a lack of facial expression, speaking with an abnormal rhythm, repetition of words and phrases verbatim without indication of understanding, failure to express emotion and apparent unawareness of others’ feelings, and even difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues. On the other hand, I saw a practiced deflection and proof of the codified narcissistic sociopathy of privilege: McFarland was controlling, disingenuous, dishonest, possessed of an exaggeratedly positive self-image and a sense of entitlement, manipulative, pathological lying (when confronted in a discrepancy, he just clams up like a child caught in a lie and lets the silence hang in the air as if waiting for the interviewer to forget they had asked anything), lack of remorse or shame (Michael Swaigen, the cinematographer who shot the initial promotional video, tells a story about Billy, “removed from it all by many layers of glass,” asking him to help him shoot a documentary that would reframe him as a recovering victim), and a need for stimulation (as evidenced not only in his methodology but also the anecdote from a Fyre planner about McFarland storming out of a business meeting in which the impossibility of their task was being discussed so that he could hop onto an ATV and speeding up and down the beach before returning and resuming).

One of the first things that we learn about McFarland comes in the form of a letter from his mother, read by a text-to-speech program, in which she extols young Billy’s entrepreneurship and early academic success. This is such a small moment, but it speaks volumes: when writing about her indicted criminal son, Mrs. McFarland talks about what a “special boy” he was, which is not unusual in and of itself as this is something that all parents do, but the fact that her apparent go-to piece of evidence to demonstrate his exceptionalism is how quickly he could complete his multiplication tables speaks to a certain kind of parental pathology that tells us a lot about the environment that created (and creates) Billy McFarlands. It really only gets worse from there, as young Billy’s first “business” was utterly different from what most of us had to for pocket cash: no manual labor like mowing lawns or raking leaves, no early demonstrations of responsibility like babysitting or fundraising; instead, he inserted himself as a middleman in some kind of crayon racket as when he was seven or eight. The devil really is in the details here: his first customer/victim was a girl he had a crush on, and all he did was help her with a broken crayon. So not only did he not respond the way that most children are socialized to in the U.S. (i.e., sharing), his first instinct when confronted with the opportunity to help someone in whom he had an emotional investment was to take advantage of her. Is that nature? Is that nurture? Either way, it’s fucked up and reveals a lot about the man who would grow up to perpetrate one of the most unsubtle but effective con jobs of the decade marketing what one participant called a “perfect generic fantasia” that, as another notes, “went into breach [of contract] on day one.”

One of the oddest things that crops up over and over again were the number of people who describe McFarland as charismatic, magnetic, handsome, attractive, or some combination of the above. He’s certainly not unattractive but it boggles the mind that so many people would buy into his brand of deception, both of others and, ultimately, of himself. Perhaps Fyre Fraud‘s most damning screed is not merely against Billy, but against the society that creates and encourages people like him. It’s not just what one talking head called a “tsunami of schadenfreude” that we can mock and laugh at, until you hear the influencers attempt to justify their shallow existence by talking about the importance of spreading their ideals. When asked what these ideals are, the best one can come up with is “Um … positivity. And, um … Yeah.” It’s impossible to take them seriously, and yet people do. Kendall Jenner apparently received a quarter of a million dollars just for posting the orange square that was used for Fyre’s promotional material to her Instagram. If that doesn’t make you want to burn down everything that humanity has built and salt the earth, I don’t know what will. I recently saw a post online (that I wish I could find again) which perfectly encapsulates my personal viewpoint on this: “everything I ever learned about the Kardashians I did so against my will.” It’s not 100% accurate (no one ever forced me to watch The Soup, I did that of my own free will and would do it again, every week until I die, if E! gave me the opportunity), and perhaps I’ve turned into a curmudgeonly old man against my will and without realizing it. I was certainly a part of the first generation of kids on whom this media saturation was foisted; I can still hear the Disney announcer’s voice saying “and featuring Brink‘s Erik von Detten!” in my dreams. I’ve also fallen into a spiral in dark times when looking at someone else’s social media and comparing my life to this cherry-picked, filtered snapshot of the existence of someone else, but I always managed to drag myself back with the realization that my independent thought was more important and that it was self-defeating to envy the lives of people that, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to be. But not everyone has those same mental defenses, especially when an online presence and the accompanying glut of monetized “self”-expression has been a part of their lives from birth. It’s a house of cards that deserves mockery, but also needs to be demolished. Otherwise we might end up with a Billy McFarland in the White House one day. Oh, wait. Shit.

Ultimately, Fyre Fraud‘s most chilling lesson comes not from anything explicit in the text, but in how it so thoroughly depicts the inherent dangers of contemporary capitalism, in which money is moved from here to there and back again as investors throw funding at one project and then another, fully formed companies appearing from the ether like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus and absorbing mountains of cashless capital from venture capitalists and employing dozens or hundreds or thousands of people under the promise of future compensation that often never materializes. Despite spending much of its runtime mocking a subset of “millennials,” Fyre Fraud fails to acknowledge that trends away from employment in fields of manual labor and toward what we loosely call “knowledge work,” and that this is a generational movement as much as it is a cultural shift. Even our language is having a difficult time keeping up: when searching for the correct terminology for the opposite of manual labor, lists of antonyms were largely words with negative connotations–laziness, indolence, sedentariness. (I won’t get into the way that language influences thought since this really isn’t the place to dig deep into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it bears mentioning that this linguistic antipathy toward work that yields less tangible results is probably not a separate phenomenon from intergenerational employment-oriented hostility.) That the Bahamanian laborers went unpaid despite the extensive labor they contributed to Fyre Festival, coupled with the way that Fyre Fraud makes explicit the fact that McFarland was constantly seeking money from his next venture to pay off his previous one in an endless 21st Century Ponzi ouroboros, reflects the terrifying reality that all our currency is fiat and we live our lives perched on a veeeeery thin membrane of shared belief in hypothetical capital that barely covers a deep, dark abyss. And that abyss just gets deeper and darker all the way down, sped along by the exultation of celebrity culture and rampant, unchecked greed; that the two so often function as two extensions of the same ideology, coupled with the current American political climate’s demonstration of how effective those two evils can be when they walk hand in hand, sent a shiver of existential dread down my spine, and it should scare you, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)

Not since Queen of Versailles have I taken so much delight in watching rich people having a hard time. Watching a bunch of “influencers” (gag Alice Sheldon tried to warn us and we just didn’t listen) who were willing and able to drop more than a middle class person’s annual salary just for the opportunity to party with models and Blink 182 forced to retrieve their luggage from huge trucks and rush in a panicked herd to try and claim disaster tents made me laugh for five minutes straight.

Ok, let’s back up. Fyre Festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, a twentysomething college dropout from an affluent unincorporated neighborhood in New Jersey who managed to accidentally pull off the greatest catalyst of schadenfreude of the new millennium through nothing other than sheer self-delusion.

Wait, let’s try again.

Ok. For those of you who missed the media blitz in 2017 and the follow up descriptions that accompanied the release of this documentary and its Hulu-hosted competitor, Fyre Festival was a planned luxury music festival to be held in late spring 2017 in the Bahamas, to promote the Fyre booking app, which was intended to function like Tinder or Uber for events and performers. So, if you were the kind of parent whose child might appear on My Super Sweet 16 and wanted to have Ja Rule or Kendall Jenner or Post Malone perform (that is, a parent who is obscenely wealthy and criminally negligent), Fyre would help you do that, and the world would get a little darker and more dreary. Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Festival that Never Happened, traces the beginning of the festival and the app back to its creator, Billy McFarland, and exposes McFarland and his cronies as the pathologically nouveau riche trendchasers that they are.

As far as this documentary is concerned, McFarland’s story begins with his creation of Magnises, identified in news archival footage in the film as “the black card for millennials” (and if you’re already sick of hearing the word “millennial” before your viewing, you should turn back now), a proxy credit card made of sheet metal that could be paired to another card and allow young go-getters to mimic their idols: money magnates with their black and platinum Amexes. This is actually the perfect place to start with the discussion of what went wrong with Fyre Festival, as it gets to the core of what allowed a group of inexperienced goofballs to defraud a willing (and deserving) vapid, wealthy public: image, artifice, performance, and prestige. Magnises’s Twitter account, which hasn’t posted anything since March 2017, boasts this description: “The community for the socially and professionally adventurous.” Essentially, it was a private club that, for $250 a year, gave members not only a “Just Like Daddy’s!” metal credit card and access to a work/playspace loft that also hosted private events. Per Forbes, “Members would gain entry to exclusive celebrity events, a concierge service to score hard-to-get concert tickets and restaurant reservations and access to a swanky, shared hangout pad. They’d also get to meet up with other wealthy young folk who like to party: entrepreneurs, businesspeople and entertainers.” So, you know, a cesspool of young money and unearned self-congratulation; I don’t think that you’ll be shocked to learn that the photos from these events are full of white faces.

From there, the documentary explores the friendship (?) between McFarland and Ja Rule, who the younger man met via Magnises events. McFarland came up with the idea for the Fyre app with Ja Rule, and the two of them leapt at the idea of using a music festival to promote the app. From the moment of inception, virtually everyone involved with the festival comes off as, if you’ll pardon my lapse into common speech, a supreme fucking douchenozzle. There’s McFarland, of course, who seems like a rich kid who just wanted to party every day of his life and got in way over his head and decided to dig further rather than admit his mistakes and come clean. There’s also the preposterously named Mdavid Low, Fyre’s Creative Director, whose Twitter laudably contains much anti-Trump, pro-Net Neutrality, pro-immigration rhetoric mixed in with the same kind of shallow “get shit done” motivational images that your former high school dudebro bully posts on his Facebook (example). There’s Samuel Krost, a twenty-three year old who seems to have somehow gotten involved because of a prior relationship with Selena Gomez and friendship with model Gigi Hadid, one of the models who was ultimately complicit in the misrepresentation of Fyre Festival on social media; his LinkedIn profile bears no mention of his involvement in the Fyre debacle, which seems both wise and deceptive. There’s Andy King, the head honcho of event production company Inward Point, a middle-aged businessman who invested time and energy into Fyre based on his belief that McFarland was a savvy businessman; he also has the best story in the entire doc, degrading though the memory may be. There’s Marc Weinstein, a music festival alum who aims to paint himself as a sympathetic whistle-blower but doesn’t quite hit the mark. There’s Grant Margolin, the Chief Marketing Officer of Fyre, who, aside from Billy, comes across as the most delusional person on the entire island. More than once, the doc shows Grant with a smartphone in each hand trying desperately to coordinate an event that was out of control from the word “go,” as his colleagues and co-workers chuckle while reminiscing about how woefully unprepared Margolin was for this kind of responsibility, painting him as McFarland’s toad. You almost feel sorry for him  a short, average looking dude surrounded by beautiful models, suitbros with expensive personal trainers, and even McFarland, who’s handsome in an I’ve-had-a-few-drinks-so-sure-I’ll-go-home-with-you kind of way, until you see the manic energy that he brings to every action and imagine how exhausting it must have been to work alongside him; there’s a scene where he’s trying to organize a bonfire for the promotional video shoot where he uses the word “big” eleven times in a row to describe what’s needed. And then there’s Ja Rule himself, acting as the imp who pushes McFarland to ludicrous extremes of reckless spending and gratuitous excess, as best expressed in his ridiculous toast to the crew: “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.” It’s a perfect storm of booze-fueled toxic immaturity coupled with the business acumen of childhood overachievers who sold the most wrapping paper at the fundraiser and now think they’re too big to fail.

McFarland, Ja Rule, and Margolin are ghosts in this documentary, appearing only in archival footage, of which there is a stunning wealth of material to supplement the talking heads provided by Weinstein, Krost, Low, and others. It’s never explicit in the text, but Fyre acts as a stunning indictment of what mainstream media likes to (inaccurately) call “millennial naivete” and (inarticulately) call “FOMO” by taking aim not only at McFarland and his cronies but also demonstrating how the need to obsessively self-document elements of daily life for the performative artifice of celebrity in exchange for the temporary but ultimately fleeting satisfaction of emoji reacts and comments from followers/subscribers. Some of the most fascinating parts of Fyre come not from the delineation of how the event was doomed to failure but from the completely shallow lack of self-reflection exhibited by the attendees of the festival when detailing their experiences, which for most of these privileged goons will be the most difficult experience of their charmed lives. Hulu’s documentary, Fyre Fraud, features a wider range of these than Fyre (stay tuned), but you’ll find yourself deeply hating almost every person who appears on screen. There’s Mark Crawford (who appears in this film exactly as he does in his LinkedIn profile, shitty haircut and all), who recounts first hearing about the festival and how he and his bros started hitting the gym in preparation for hanging out with models on Pablo Escobar’s private island (note that the promotional video was shot on Norman’s Cay, which was not the ultimate site of Fyre, nor did it go over well with the living family members of people who were killed as part of Escobar’s drug empire). There’s Justin Liao, a cryptocurrency dude who comes across as a stone cold sociopath as he smiles while recounting the fact that he and his buddies ransacked the tents next to theirs and intentionally made them even more uninhabitable on the first night so that they would not have neighbors, intercut with footage he shot himself using that most aggressively absurd of instruments, a selfie stick. Also using a selfie stick is James Ohliger of Jerry Media who, alongside Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki, is one of the more visually appealing participants, but other than their interviews all of the footage of them comes from self-shot phone video that is so saturated with unsubtle marketing language and envy-baiting rhetoric that it makes your libido curl up and die. Worst of all, nearly every single man in the documentary talks about the appeal of partying on a desert island with “hot,” “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “breath-taking” women in a way that makes your brain short circuit because you’re not sure if you should vomit in disgust or just crawl out of your skin. These are certainly attractive ladies, but the undisguised piggishness that serves as the impetus to attend Fyre is so unexaminedly toxic and nakedly misogynistic, even from interviewees like Weinstein, whom I think we’re supposed to like, that it’s disgusting.

There are a few people involved for whom you can feel empathy, however. Shiyuan Deng, a developer for the Fyre app, expresses her frustration early and often, and you get a feel for what it must be like to be a cog in the development machine when the business for which you work ends up bursting their money bubble and leaving you out of a job and wasting all of the time that you put into coding and testing. Maryann Rolle, the proprietor of a restaurant that was intended to assist with the feeding of event attendees, ended up losing her entire nest egg as the result of hiring additional staff for Fyre-related business that failed to take form. The mononymous Columbo, a contractor working on the building of facilities for the festival, was unable to pay the construction staff he hired to assist him, many of whom worked for 20 hours a day in a desperate attempt to prepare for the festivities, and ended up having to flee the island to avoid reprisal from others. And then there’s Keith van der Linde, perhaps the only sane person involved with Fyre Fest, a pilot whose important questions (how are you going to move toilet facilities to an abandoned island?) were met with McFarland’s declarations that “We’re not a problems-focused group, we’re a solutions-oriented group,” which is (a) exactly the kind of startup wishy-washy language you would expect from him, and (b) not the only time that one of the involved parties recited this bit of McFarland wisdom in response to legitimate issues that needed attention while McFarland was busy jet skiing and feeding wild pigs. Notably, other than Keith, the laborers and unpaid workers were all people of color, implicitly noting the stratification of labor in the worlds of Fyre and Magnesis.

Overall, this is a pretty slick documentary, although the talking head segments notably look less professional/more VH1’s I Love the… than similar interviews in the Hulu doc, but it’s not terribly detrimental. I know that there were some concerns about the involvement of Jerry Media, who were tasked with managing the social media elements of the festival, as producers on the film, but I’m not sure it was as much of a detraction as it could have been; either they were willing to present the worst sides of themselves by sharing their own self-congratulatory footage and failing to disguise their desire to “fuck like porn stars,” or they didn’t realize how this footage made them appear, so it’s a toss up there. If you have Netflix, check this one out. Also, for further reading, take a look at Rolling Stone‘s “What Fyre Fest Docs Reveal About Tech’s Cult of Positivity”, and also revel in how prescient this decade-old Onion News Network video was in regards to this generation’s need to obsessively self-record.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond