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

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. (2013)

One of my favorite filmmaking trends over the past decade has been how the visual gimmickry of found-footage horror has kept up with the evolving user interface of social media platforms & personal tech. The way Unfriended documents late nights on Skype, how Sickhouse reimagines The Blair Witch Project as a series of Snapchat posts, or how Cam turns an OnlyFans camgirl session into a surrealist nightmare have all been uniquely fascinating to me, among other examples. The one major social media platform I’ve never seen a horror film tackle through this evolving gimmick is Twitter. This immediately makes sense, as the mostly text-based platform isn’t especially suited to the visual medium of cinema the way, say, CandyCrush or Instagram or a Facebook timeline are. Still, you’d think some gimmicky schlock horror would have tried to make a spooky Twitter feed movie by now (even if I’d be the only opening weekend audience they could pull).

I did happen to find a movie that adapts the feel of scrolling through a Twitter feed into its in-the-moment narrative; it just happened to be in an entirely different genre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama about a listless teenage girl’s uneventful senior year of high school. Its narrative and dialogue were directly adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylony. It’s an experimental work in some ways, allowing the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom to top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims, but it somehow never spirals out into total mayhem. For the most part, the film plays like any other high school indie drama about teen-girl boredom & ennui. It just frequently interrupts that familiar tone & setting with the out-of-left field topics of its Twitter account source material, establishing a kind of minimalist absurdism that feels very reminiscent of early-era Twitter, when the site was mostly a platform for users to publish passing thoughts, no matter how inane (as opposed to now, where it’s more of a tool for self-promotion & political mobilization).

The referenced tweets from the @marylony account appear onscreen as if they were Silent Era title cards, punctuated by the clacking sounds of a desktop keyboard. Many of these dispatches from a teen girl’s mind are motivational platitudes like “Stand your ground”, “Practice leads to improvement”, and “Everything takes time” – lofty sentiments that help the titular Mary get through the boredom of a typical school day, but don’t mean much to the audience that trails behind her. Others have a more literal, immediate effect on the plot. When Mary muses out of boredom “I want a jellyfish” in a tweet, a FedEx package instantly arrives on her doorstep. When she writes “So lucky” she stumbles upon a duffle bag full of cash. When she mysteriously tweets “Today in France” she’s suddenly moping about Paris instead of her Thai boarding school, no questions asked. The film mostly sticks to a low-key, low-energy mode of absurdism, though, not taking the bait when tweets like “I’m living in multiple realms” or “Is my heart large enough for the world?” invite a Michel Gondry-scale twee fantasy tangent that the film’s budget and high school drama boundaries can’t afford.

I love that writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit experimented with how to adapt the look & feel of a Twitter feed into cinematic language, even if he did so outside my beloved Evil Tech horror subgenre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. has no real overriding conflicts or excitement to it outside that central experiment. We mostly watch a sweet, average high school senior navigate low-stakes romantic crushes, yearbook committee deadlines, and authoritarian school administrators in an effort to fill her days. It’s the exact kind of nothing-going-on adolescent boredom that would inspire someone to spend all day on Twitter, broadcasting every errant thought out into the void in hopes that a resulting notification would spark some much-needed dopamine. The only fault with the film, really, is that it’s over two hours long, which is pushing how much listless teenage melancholy anyone can pay full attention to in one sitting. I enjoyed the movie a great deal as a lighthearted narrative experiment, but if it were closer to the 70-80min range I might be totally swooning over it as an Online Cinema masterpiece.

-Brandon Ledet