Like Me, Like Me, Don’t Retweet: “Malcolm & Marie” and “Fake Famous”
Two new films, one a theatrical two-hander and the other a documentary on social media both want/don’t want engagement
There is so much bait in Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie (on Netflix) that every moment is an arch rachis, a streak of fakery on an angler, barely hiding the dull hook. As the film prods its characters to prod its audience, the aggressive and argumentative film continually vyes for your attention and interrogation, invites you, and then shies away, resentful, when you’re ready to joust. Its hook is rusty, dull, and so inelegant I’m surprised as many people took the bait as they did. Once one realizes that the characters, and the film, have little to say about anything, much less about art and film critics, it’s easier to recognize the lifelessness of the film.
Each moment feels like the idea of one of these films, you know the kind, progenitors of Edward Albee and John Cassavetes and other living room as verbal/emotional arena works, less like the moments themselves, blistering and fiery, and more like you asked someone on the street to describe and improv a scene on the spot. So much detail about these people’s lives, usually as it pertains to the argument at hand, and yet so little texture to who these people are, how they would interact and be on a night that wasn’t this. It’s the scenario, more shallow archetype, than the scene, the tender and brutal tête-à-tête. It’s the imitation of life, rather than a testament to it.
High on the successful premiere of his new film, filmmaker Malcolm’s (John David Washington) night takes a turn when an appropriate callout that he forgot to thank his partner, Marie (Zendaya), that evening reveals a festering wound infecting the relationship at large, both between the couple as well as between the filmmaker and his work.
But the film, its images kind of beautiful and yet without purpose, aimless in their occasional impressiveness, doesn’t so much have a fundamental misunderstanding of how film criticism functions, but of how people relate to one another more broadly. (The black and white also feels like the filmmaking equivalent of a TikTok filter; all affect, no organic connection to the form.) Much of the arguments actually concern Malcolm and Marie’s dysfunctional, wildly imbalanced understanding of how their relationship operates and how they work and exist in relation to one another. And while its considerations of whose life gets to be adapted, inspired, dramatized, etc. is not not interesting, it reveals in Levinson as a writer somewhat a myopic understanding of how one is perceived in the world. Or, if not the writer-director himself (to graft anything onto him is the trap), then at least the film brandishes a naive understanding of how to exist in the world, the gradual change of how social and political context can, wrongfully or rightfully, change how we engage with people and the work they produce in the world.
But the film within a film, apparently an addiction drama drawn from Marie’s experiences, seems to be as empty as the one that contains it, peppered with random details yet little indication of flavor or wholeness. (The old trap about art within art is always lacking.) If the film is so desperately trying to wrap its finger around the realness and rawness within a work being able to forge a relationship with the audience, and what it is we owe our relationship to that art, the dynamic Malcolm has with his work feels affected and disingenuous, where Marie’s relationship feels more like it’s with the character (and whether that character is based on her or not), not that character as it coheres within a larger work.
Long tirades about film critics and their ideas feature parodies of how writers think, but have less to do with film critics than the film’s own unsureness of being seen and taken on its own terms. Bizarrely, the film and its characters, what both to assert art as persona and identity yet distance themselves from the very auteur theory that allowed such an attitude to thrive (though, of course, artist as personality is much older). There’s an irony to wanting to compartmentalize yourself and your ethos and the work and also allowing the phrase “visionary director Sam Levinson” in a trailer to your film. It’s a film that wants to exist in a vacuum, its digestion and reception manicured, micromanaged, and made in a vacuum. Here, artists control the kind of relationship they create with the audience.
Its performances are wildly uneven and, when in conversation one another, wildly uneven and mismatched (these two people are not in the same relationship, if their performances are to be used as a metric for believable intimacy), spending much of its time shouting and conflating that with human detail, and painful irony for a film that fetishizes the idea of authenticity (without ever really defining it, for the sake of argument, especially in regards to artistry and marginalized identity), yet refuses, or is too cowardly, to bare any of its own. It’s a film that conflates histrionics for honesty.
But this fetishization of and inability to define authenticity is also the poison in the water of not only this evening of bourgeois discontent, but also of a shallow nonfiction study of modern fame. Nick Bilton, who previously has been a reporter at the New York Times and is now at Vanity Fair, also has as childish a conception of authenticity, what it is and who’s allowed to display it, as tainted by broad and judgmental speculation and an unwillingness to critically think and analyze. His documentary Fake Famous (on HBOMax) plays social experiment as expose, an effort to unveil our feeble forgeries of how we live and inspire adoration.
Picking three people from a casting call of thousands to turn them from nothing into a famous social media influencer (fake photo shoots and buying bots), Bilton goes about this process blinkered and uncurious, apparently never having heard of either the Hollywood Studio System (which literally spawned the myth of turning a nobody into a somebody) or Andy Warhol (whose factory work was an interrogation of fame and its social functions and that is literally what he is known for). Ironically, what he considers the fake photoshoots and inauthentic audience engagement is old hate: I mean, for one, it is still a photoshoot, even if the reality behind fantasy is that the photo shoot isn’t… as fancy as it’s claiming, but more importantly, the whole process is mythmaking, the creation of a persona, the oldest idea in the world.
Rather than contextualize the influencer within a broader historical context or contextualize fame’s evolution over a period of time, or, for that matter, define fame well enough for the sake of his argument, Bilton makes one dubious conjecture after another. He sees these influencer types accessing resources and what looks like capital, but refuses to do a closer analysis of what capital is and the existing (or extinct) ways to acquire it for young people in a particular economic space. (Or if these people actually have “assets” or what their income is actually like.) There is no analysis of what the influencer is in relation to the systems and institutions in place in ~our society~.
Additionally, Bilton, continuing to misunderstand what influencers are (despite the fact the excellent Taylor Lorenz is right there) and its labor implications, he sees the ways in which influencers are advertisements but seemingly refuses to draw the line to the democratization of advertising and marketing. He sees people doing sponsored content, but doesn’t connect the dots to the history of advertising, performance, and aspirational mythology. He documents how much work it is to maintain these profiles, but almost refuses to consider it a job, a form of work. It’s like he’s jealous of someone faking a resume for a job Bilton thinks is stupid anyways. It’s absolutely wild watching someone in real-time apparently misunderstand fame and capitalism, society and intimacy, artifice and performance.
For Bilton, with apparently little consideration of influencing as performance as labor (for something more rigorous, watch Liza Mandelup’s Jawline) and its class implications, it’s an uncomfortable designation of what is authentic fame without ever having clarified either, here or in a broader context of why either attribute were/are valued.
Bilton, or at least his film, like Malcolm & Marie, wants to be seen yet resents how people engage with others on a more human, and thus messier, level. He conflates fame with paparazzi and, in his contemporary argument, followers and likes. His problem has less to do with fame itself, but rather what he perceives as a so-called corruption of the word as it relates to who deserves to be rewarded and when, whose idea and performance of authenticity is more valuable than others. That, too, is on Malcolm & Marie’s mind. The problem, to me, is less an emptying and decontextualizing of fame (fame’s always been elusive and serpentine, no?) and more that, in the now age old saying, on these platforms, you are the product. Surprisingly little discussion of data mining is featured in the film, but it’s pretty clear to me that the issue is the consumer as both the advertiser and the consumed, selling while being bought. He seems mad that, to him, people have gamed a system of worth and validation without understanding that those things are illusory when your identity becomes commodified. Steeped in a less mature ambivalence about being seen and perceived in the world, about wanting “engagement” but hating when it happens, the great fear here is a loss of power, or power as we have come to know it. That the echo of who we are is beyond our control, contorted beyond remembrance. Both Fake Famous and Malcolm & Marie have an idealized vision of how people participate in and engage with one another and the world, but refuse to confront how those things play out in the real, material world. And the rest of us, we’re just material girls.