We're All Going to the World's Fair

We're All Going to the World's Fair ★★★★


I'm going to need to go long on this, and don't really have the time right now. But I will say this feels like an instant classic, along the lines of Get Out and Donnie Darko. Its of-the-moment trappings (viral challenges, creepypasta) belie something much more timeless and crushing.

Not for nothing, may I direct fans of this film to Michael Robinson's films, this one in particular.

p.s. Most reviews I've seen are from viewers not that far from Casey's age, and let me tell you, this thing hits way different if you're a parent.

Jane Schoenbrun's new film is, as we used to say back in grad school, a complicated text. There are a number of aspects of We're All Going to the World's Fair that speak very particularly to contemporary Internet culture, and while this adds depth and authenticity to the film, I worry that World's Fair will be mistaken for an "Internet movie," or worse, a "quarantine movie." Let me be clear: We're All Going to the World's Fair is a movie about the Internet in the same ways as Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse. That's to say, the specific parameters of the web are a medium through with both films explore fundamental crises in identity, sociality, and the body.

There is a common misunderstanding about youth culture, that its forms become increasingly exotic and foreign, hence incomprehensible. There is some truth to this. Kids need to forge spaces away from their parents as a part of individuation, and this inevitably develops around in-group speech and sign systems. (By the time moms and dads like something, it's not cool anymore. This is the law.) What's more, these generational distinctions happen, for most of the world, within capitalism. So young people's need to forge new identities are unavoidably imbricated with neoliberalism's endless procession of new fetish objects and the cultivation of new markets.

Still, we do ourselves a disservice if we don't adopt a somewhat McLuhanite approach to new media. That is, what has transformed and what has remained the same? To take only the most obvious example, the web-based phenomena of creepypasta -- horror fictions with no author, that transmute as they pass from screen to screen, keyboard to keyboard -- is a variant of known forms like folklore and urban legend. The new medium provides a conduit between producers and consumers, and a material substrate -- the website, as opposed to oral tales passed among friends -- that of course is mutable across time.

We're All Going to the World's Fair centers on an online "horror game" that takes the form of an internet challenge. Challenges, as found on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and others, are a means for individuals to collaborate without having direct connections between them. The challenge is iterable, and each specific instance or variation of the challenge expands the collective "project," much like an open-ended structural text. The format is a loop, essentially, and each participant's creativity is expressed in terms of how they tweak the format. Often, the only noticeable tweak is the participant's individuality: their demeanor, style of presentation, race, sex, gender, body type, etc. And this variation-by-subject-position is often understood to be enough.

In Schoenbrun's film, "Casey" (Anna Cobb) is a tween who is, as they say, very online. She hosts her own YouTube channel, and the film shows her most of the time either looking at her laptop in her attic bedroom (the sloped ceiling providing an added sense of enclosure), or out in the world but shooting video for later use. We mostly understand "Casey" (her screen alias, probably not her given name) inasmuch as she articulates herself for the camera. But there are moments when we see the subject behind "Casey." She is lonely, bored, has a difficult relationship with her father, no mother in the picture, and she wants to undertake the World's Fair challenge in order to scare herself.

Why? Because she is experiencing a dissociation from herself and her body. She describes what the DSM-V calls depersonalization: a lack of connection between one's body and one's consciousness, and/or the sense that one is existing outside of oneself, perceiving one's own reality in the third-person. We can recall Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic appropriation of Arthur Rimbaud's literary statement "I is an Other." For Lacan, this phrase described the essential alienation at the core of human subjectivity: that we only come to conceive of ourselves as coherent subjects inasmuch as we see ourselves from the outside, in literal mirror images but also, more importantly, in the eyes of others.

Casey has decided to grapple with her depersonalization through the loose connectivity of the internet horror game. We see her videos of herself, seemingly under the power of an outside force, coming partly out of sleep to perform a horrifying, wide-eyed rictus, or (more disturbingly) ripping apart her childhood comfort toy, a stuffed lemur called Poe. But when a fellow World's Fair participant (Michael J. Rogers) contacts "Casey," fearing that she may hurt herself or someone else, she is indignant. It's just a game, she insists.

There is a lot to say about young Casey's online interactions with the much older man, whose halting speech and shortness of breath sends up a signal of nefarious intentions. (When Casey chooses to break off their online communication, she calls him "pedo," making one's anxieties about this man quite explicit.) But Casey's reaction is certainly more interesting than another instance of "stranger danger" on the web. Her response -- that she is playing a game, and is conscious of that fact -- speaks to a double-consciousness that may run parallel to depersonalization. Casey is neither believing in the game, nor is she participating from an ironic distance. Rather she has chosen to believe completely, without relinquishing her choice of whether or not to believe. She says at one point she'd "like to live in a horror film," and she has applied cinema's suspension of disbelief to her own daily interactions, her troubled sleep, and her distanced relationship to herself.

The way others play the World's Fair game, as seen online in the film, involve bodily transformations: skin growing a fungal exoskeleton, a girl's body turning to plastic, or eventually, being physically consumed by one's computer, disappearing by literally "becoming data." This emphasis on bodily metamorphosis has been wisely picked up on by several trans* critics (Willow Maclay, Sam Bodrojan, Esther Rosenfield, Lena Frances, and others) as bearing a close metaphorical connection to the experience of dysphoria -- the sense of one's body as disconnected from one's subjecthood and identity, the body as a "faulty container." (Schoenbrun, who is nonbinary, may have had this connection in the back of their mind.)

But Casey's experience is a bit different. As an internet-based subject, she seems to see her "real" self externalized, on her page and in her videos, but also in terms of the connections she has forged in the world. She is a node "out there," connected to other data nodes whose bodily expressions she may never see or hear, but are more meaningful -- more real -- than anything she encounters in her family, around Upstate New York, or in her own body. Casey's form of dissociation may not properly be called depersonalization, because what it means to be an identity, to be a person, is radically shifting.

We have always been an Other. But the internet may be the technological form most suited to expressing our shared, essential alienation. Or put another way: our digital cameras offer two options, looking out at the world, or selfie mode. Like the two sides of a sheet of paper, they are more than inseparable. They're exactly the same.

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