Kiss of Life May 18, 2021
On Mainstream and About Endlessness
ainstream, Gia Coppola’s old-fogyish influencer-culture satire, is precisely what people successfully operating within that world cannot be: a bit out
of touch. The movie stars Maya Hawke, better than the material serving her, as Frankie, a dissatisfied 20-something. Lost in life, she yearns for an artist’s career but currently idles as a hostess at a magic-themed bar in Los Angeles. All Frankie — who is still harboring guilt over her father’s recent death, whose loneliness is exacerbated by her living alone in a cramped apartment — has to look forward to in life is the YouTube channel she enthusiastically attends to. She doesn’t have very many views or subscribers to her free-form shorts — though I don’t think having 100-plus on the latter front isn’t so bad for someone just starting out — but it gives her a sense of purpose. “I want to make things that makes other people feel things,” she says; she isn’t sure, though, which medium will best suit
her in the long term.
One afternoon, what seems like a key to more-than-fleeting success drops into her lap. While languishing at an outdoor mall, Frankie impulsively films a skinny blonde guy in rat-mascot getup (Andrew Garfield) admonishing shoppers for admiring what’s in their bags more than they do the art decorating the complex’s walls. To Frankie’s surprise but especially to the viewer’s (this guy and his little monologue move to the beat of myopically pretentious insufferability), the video becomes a viral hit. The more Frankie gets to know this man — who is named Link, doesn’t have a phone, is contemptuous of online culture, and whom she finds charismatic — the more she envisions him as a muse for future video projects. Then her jumble of ideas reaches a tipping point. What if she were to use Link as a sort of anti-influencer figure that she and her writer friend Jake (Nat Wolff) could project their own ideas on — embody an online personality who uses the same tools, platforms, and oftentimes the same ethos (e.g., a continual reminder to viewers that they should just be themselves) of his peers but who also points out influencer culture’s failings and superficialities as part of his brand? (Which is to say consistently berate viewers for a dependency on their phones, criticize the carefully constructed presentation rampant on, say, Instagram and other media.)
Link, unbelievably, becomes a provocative superstar once he agrees to Frankie’s proposal. He molds himself into a passionate, unpredictable bard — the millennial equivalent of A Face in the Crowd’s (1957) Lonesome Rhodes. He castigates viewers for their preoccupation with online life; at the height of his fame, he singles out and publicly humiliates a young woman (Alexa Demie) on a major platform for posting a photo of herself on Instagram with makeup that obscures a birthmark on her right cheek. (His scolds are often sandwiched in preacher-like monologues to make them seem more impassionedly poetic.) Presumably, Link’s followers gravitate to him because he is able to vindicate those who feel above influencer culture, even as they participate in the very system they find shallow.
Garfield’s performance is impressive in that he gives in to Coppola’s demands with wild abandon. Hijinks include wandering around the city nearly naked — while donning a strap-on — and haggling passerby; interrupting a panel discussion by fake-pooping on the table participants sit at. Seeming to love every minute of Link’s boldness, Garfield is very annoying — not necessarily an insult because it’s a testament to his effectiveness in a pointedly unsympathetic role. But that effectiveness also aggravates what makes the writing lackluster. Link never feels like a person, and isn’t well-conceived enough to appear as an efficient embodiment of a clear-cut idea, either. He’s all bloviation. The character has a hollowness, just like the other people in the ensemble. (Everybody feels like a stock type swimming against the current of a misconceived narrative.)
The movie isn’t particularly good at anything it tries. A
tacked-on love triangle between Frankie, Link, and Jake is even attempted; I laughed when it appeared. But its biggest failure is persuading us that Link would ever become a beloved, albeit controversial, public figure. This reminded me of a problem that often comes to the fore in music-industry satires. We’ll see a band or artist skyrocket to fame, but when we hear their music we think to ourselves that there is no way they would ever be an artist of chart-topping magnitude. From then on the movie’s reality feels so divorced from our own that you can feel estranged from the film.
The same problem applies to Link, whose alter ego’s name is No One Special (haha). Anything we see him do that is supposedly pivotal in getting him further success is so off-putting — and also devoid of any sort of clear personality/ideological perspective that we could see attracting fans — that by the time he strikes a deal with a cynical executive (Jason Schwartzman) to bolster monetization efforts, our brains have so much affixed themselves to the idea that he would never get this famous that we simply can’t believe anything that comes next. Link eventually gets a variety show — edited with old MTV-style busyness — where he airs out all his misgivings. The contradiction of him telling his audience to get off their phones while preaching to them through the device is pointed out by one character toward the end of the movie, though by then this feels unnecessary — like hand-holding,
another manifestation of the movie’s aversion to subtlety.
It’s true that there are many Instagram influencers and YouTube personalities whose appeal might make no sense to an outsider. I, for instance, don’t understand the enduring success of the Paul brothers or TikTok figures like the D’Amelio sisters or Addison Rae. But I’m also not making a movie where my lack of understanding is conflated with a sense of intellectual superiority. Coppola’s insistence that a figure like Link, who really has nothing to offer, would make it without any real trouble is offensive in how much it feels like a generalization of a larger picture. Whether it was her intention is muddled, but the underlying message, to my eye, is that people who find some sort of a connection with influencers are dead-eyed, undiscerning consumers more preoccupied with what’s hot than what they actually like, with said influencers simply exploiting uncritical viewers for their own gain. If you participate in this ecosystem at all, you’re being used — that’s that. This sort of maker/viewer relationship isn’t unheard of, but Coppola’s screenplay, penned with Tom Stuart, is ham-fisted enough to suggest this negative dichotomy is the only one that exists in this online ecosystem.
Mainstream is a condescending, parachuting-in millennial’s take on influencer culture. The film is so overwroughtly scornful, made by people obviously not a part of the milieu being critiqued, that any “insight” it has either feels outmoded or gravely simplistic. Mainstream is a feature-length rehash of internet-related complaints we've already heard enough times to have had them rendered classic anti-internet platitudes: that often little-regulated platforms like YouTube can allow ethically dubious, exploitation-prone figures to flourish (Link has a shady past to boot); that even though being online allows users to superficially be more connected with each other than ever, alienation tends to thrive when people prefer offering up edited rather than unaugmented versions of themselves for public scrutiny. We’ve heard all this before; based on Coopola’s maximalist
presentation, though, we’re apparently meant to think of the movie as daringly forward-thinking — provocative in how it goes about underscoring unspoken-about truths.
Coppola is only 34, but the movie feels made by someone older. It never feels like she has actually engaged with the world she is satirizing — more so read articles describing certain phenomena relevant to her subject matter. (The attention on YouTube and Instagram in Mainstream, whose release was delayed because of COVID, also feels outworn: though those media are still important, TikTok is now the service undergirding even more conversations about the influencer economy.) If you’re going to make a movie this disdainful and cynical, you’d better know what you’re talking about. A satire should be contemptuous, but not to the point that it drowns out clever analysis. At the same time, though, I’m not sure dramatization is the best way to scrutinize influencer culture, which already evolves at a hyper-speed as is, in general. So much of it is so outwardly silly that an imitation of it, rather than the real thing, is bound to feel mocking. (The documentary format feels far better suited because we don’t have to be coaxed to believe in anything; I’d recommend watching the judicious Jawline, from 2019, and, more haltingly, 2018’s The American Meme, which while not very good is still a cannier and more entertaining look at the milieu in which Coppola is investing her time.)
Coppola’s first feature, Palo Alto (2013), was promising. That quiet, atmospheric meditation on teenage detachment felt like an obvious heir to something like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (1985), albeit with far less luridness. It established her as a capable stylist (she, working with Devonté Hynes, also showed a gift for music curation) and a filmmaker who, like her cousin Sofia, could use long periods of silence and sparse dialogue to cultivate empathy and an intimacy with characters without belaboring a point.
Mainstream doesn’t make us doubt that she’s a smart visualist. One of the movie’s most striking images sees Garfield, whose face has been blown up on a concert-hall screen, opening his mouth and appearing to consume an overwhelmed Frankie that stands in front of the projection. Frankie’s apartment lights are made to resemble the glow of a phone screen, cementing how much her online life follows her; in a later scene, after Link is “cancelled,” Coppola creates a collage from all the YouTube “reaction” videos that ensue, literalizing the immense scale of an online mob. Coupled with well-timed needledrops, Coppola’s still-strong visual gifts confirm that, although out of touch with the subject she’s meditating on, she has no problem tilling a “cool factor” stylistically. (She’s directed several music videos between Palo Alto and Mainstream that better speak to what she’s good at.) I’ll watch whatever Coppola offers next, mostly because the promise of Palo Alto still lingers. I don’t think, though, that those who have only seen a swing and a miss like Mainstream will be persuaded to subscribe to what else Coppola has to share.
Andrew Garfield and Maya Hawke in Mainstream.
bout Endlessness could go on forever. I’m not being hyperbolic: its very structure doesn’t have built into it a logical stopping point. Rather than go through the motions of a conventional storyline, the film is instead
an assembly line of extremely short vignettes detailing everyday mundanities: a woman waiting for her lover to pick her up from the train station; a couple snuggling on a bench while taking in a scenic view; a man getting drenched in red wine after an inattentive waiter spaces out while pouring his glass. There are a couple of recurring narrative threads — a priest in despair because he has, without warning, lost his faith; a middle-aged man bothered by the fact that a friend from his past, still bitter over a years-old fight, is now more successful than he is — but that’s all.
Many of the actors’ faces are dusted in white, like they were ghosts wandering around their former haunts or dressed-down clowns doing a skit commenting on life’s disappointments. The camera often sits statically at the corner of typically grey and beige rooms, making the characters evocative of a doll or even a Sims character. They seem smaller, more susceptible; the movie suggests an animated exhibit of blanched Edward Hopper paintings. An unnamed, omniscient narrator — ostensibly a young girl — consistently announces herself usually mid-tableau, as if what we were seeing was being remembered by her. “I saw a communications manager, incapable of feeling shame,” she says of a woman looking out of a window in her office. (That particular illustration ends before we see any evidence of this woman’s brashness; we’ll take the narrator’s word for it.)
Mercilessly, About Endlessness’ director, Roy Andersson, understands that just because something could go on forever doesn’t mean it must. The movie reminded me often of a particularly good collection of Raymond Carver short stories: brief, unflashy simulacra of ordinary lives that may not amount to much individually but when taken together achieve a sort of existential profundity — collectively a powerful meditation on life's futility. Finding time to allude to everything from immense evil (like, boldly, Hitler’s fall) to everyday ecstasy (a group of women moved to break out into dance when a bar starts playing a song they love), About Endlessness is exploratory of humanity’s eternally multiplying characteristics without unnecessary over-elaboration or a strained push to clarify a philosophy. It’s drily funny without ever stooping to unappealing glibness; it’s able to point out that much of what affects us on the day to day is trivial but also important in the context of our lived experience.
About Endlessness is a simultaneously depressing and comforting movie; it at once makes you feel less important (most of its wryly observed miseries are universal) and less alone. I've never seen anything quite like it. The film's
gloomy-hopeful dichotomy is best defined by a discovery made by a teen character toward the end of the film as he sits across from a friend. “The first law of thermodynamics states that everything is energy and it can never be destroyed,” he says. “That means you are energy, I am energy. And that your energy and my energy can never cease to exist. It can only be transformed into something new … Theoretically, our energies could meet again in millions of years.” We wonder what will have changed by then.
About Endlessness: A