Thursday 30th March 2017,
Televisual

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Dispatch from NewFest

OMG/HaHaHa (2007); Dir. Morgan Jon Fox

Once again, I feel no need to beat up on the little guy. Sure, the camerawork is a little cooky, lacking a solid perspective, and the film doesn’t really posit any clear themes or ideas. But OMG/HaHaHa is, however, a self-proclaimed experimental film, an exercise in non-narrative cinema for the digital age, so that’s kind of an excuse. Other experimental directors Morgan Jon Fox lists as inspirations — Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant — manage to make their films look singularly authored and coherent, even in chaos (especially Korine, who’s films are the trippiest of the three). This kind of sophistication is rare, so I don’t fault Fox too much.

The movie was born fragmented. Fox and a friend wrote the script (as I’m sure most movies are written today) across cities – New York and Memphis, where the film is set. They wrote random scenes, moments they imagined or observed that seemed meaningful and put them together in a “collage,” as Fox said after its world premiere at NewFest.

A collage it is. A meaner person would call it a mess, but that’s shortsighted. In fact, OMG/HaHaHa’s reliance on digital culture to communicate its story makes the collage work, sort of. The random stories and characters, loosely connected through friendships and familial relations, work like a kind of onscreen social network. The film’s a mess because the digital culture is messy (life is mess, Fox would say.)

OMG/HaHaHa’s best device is the use of “text” on top of the video. Lots of emoticons — :P, :-), <3 are the main ones – and commentary – “i love you” primarily – pepper the narrative. Sometimes the effect is ironic and humorous, although mostly its earnest and literal, underscoring deep, introspective moments. The scattered text, in all different colors, shapes and sizes, keeps OMG/HaHaHa alive, so I was surprised to learn they were added as an afterthought, during post-production, a year after filming had completed and by a person the director had met through Livejournal (networked film!). The vlogs and MySpace pages in the film were also added in postproduction.

The reason why the text is so important is it places the film’s many tiny narratives* into a larger metanarrative: the digital world where personal problems can be publicly aired. Inner feelings are underscored. Declarations of “i love you” bind people in disparate situations. Serious problems – abortion – are equated with smaller ones – freeing a turtle.

The texting also underscores an important point: people, or at least Americans, narrativize their own lives. This happens in very lonely and solipsistic ways, so people fail to realize their own problems are similar to others. (The movie twice implies that if people would get off their iPods and cellphones they would hear the emotional cries of those around them and their own plight in them: once in a café as a coupled argued about their goals while the angry father who yells at his own wife listens to his iPod; and once again as that same tells his own problems to his friend and that friend picks up his cell to talk about seeing a movie with someone else.)

The Internet allows all these stories to be broadcast and allows us to see ourselves in others. In OMG/HaHaHa the most obvious Internet broadcasting example is Derrick, the boy learning to tie a tie, who can’t seem to figure out what to say on camera – but who, when he cries on camera, admits (in text!) that crying on camera gets more comments (he’s think of it as “business.” I love it!). But in truth, most of the movie is “broadcast” as if we were sitting at a computer (my idea of “networked film” is once again at work, couple this with the fact that most of the film’s music is local). There are a lot of close-ups, as if it was being captured on webcam, and the confessional nature of the “texting” gives it the feel of chat session or commenatry on a social network profile.

Like other digital movies of its time (Swanberg’s work, primarily, along with other Mumblecore flicks), the film is largely apolitical – with the exception of the abortion epside – and instead seeks to make personal problems grand. Race and sexuality are not core issues to be dealt with but rather are hinted at (there’s a frequent image of the book “The Prophet” in the interracial gay couple’s house; and one of those character’s is semi-estranged from his family because of his sexuality, but this is all subtext.) Instead, the film strives for a more productive, “humanist” optimism. Problems, even when crises of sexuality and gender, are framed as crises of the self (people are filmed alone and in close-up, for one, and the movie poetically juxtaposes these crises in a random, non-discrimatory way). After one scene involving the pensive and melancholy Owen, a 🙁 morphs into a <3, which is probably the most succinct summation of the movie a person could ever get.

**Tiny narratives include: the main character, Owen, who’s mother had died and who has decided to release the turtle he got after she was diagnosed with cancer; the estranged gay son and his Arabic? kover; the woman getting an abortion (we find that out real late); the young homophobic father who fights with his wife; the bulimic gay boy, Hunter, who spurned Owen, who loved him; the vlogging boy, Derrick, bored and a bit narcissistic, whose father left him and is learning to tie a tie; the woman (who either has diabetes or is transitioning to F), who works with kids; Lily, the owner of a gay-friendly café who listens to people’s problems — like Autumn’s – even when they’re boring; Owen’s two friends who even in their early teens are cynical about life; the guy who’s wife left his son because he surrounds himself with hedonistic slackers; the lonely old woman, sitting on her front lawn with rabbit ears on her head, who’s probably senile and who’s only company is Owen — I told you, it’s a lot.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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