starring Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers
written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun
by Walter Chaw We spend our teen years--and, if we're not careful, our entire lives--imagining ourselves a player in a grand, romantic storyline where everything that happens has meaning, every misdeed receives justice, and every moment of grace is returned in kind. We need to feel like there's more to this than just chaos and meaningless suffering. Most of all, we need to believe that we have some control over how things turn out on both a personal level and a cosmic one, too. The alternative, after all, tends to be despair. I suspect the reason Boomers are the majority demographic in the Q-nonsense is their fear of a world in which they suddenly understand nothing requires some sort of recourse, no matter how tortured.
The grand tapestry we picture is the foundation of religion and cults (to the extent that those are different things)--the food of philosophies and movements in absurd expressions poking holes in the Matrix. I don't know if the alternative to the delusion that there is meaning is better; I sometimes think about how nice it would be to give myself over to faith. The suspicion of design finds its event horizon on the Internet, where the technology of interconnectedness has resulted not in a new Golden Age of Man, but rather the Apocalypse, perhaps for real this time. Where the Old Testament Christian God once interrupted the building of a tower by confusing the language of its builders, we have completed its construction in modernity via the "cloud" concept, which allows for the manifestation of invisible nations built on fringe beliefs reinforced by others similarly unbalanced. Outcasts have formed societies: Charlie Manson with a global bullhorn; the Branch Davidians as one of the United States' two political parties. The Fruit of the Tree was knowledge--but the Tree's proliferation, and lack of pruning, is our fault.
Jane Schoenbrun's We're All Going to the World's Fair tells the tale of teen Casey (Anna Cobb), who exists in an empty world, subsisting on a diet of Internet chatrooms and a seemingly infinite selection of amateur videos. She decides to join an online RPG called "We're All Going to the World's Fair"--based, it would appear, on an old 8-bit console game where players declare their intent to allow themselves to be mutated into...something. The point of the game is its subjectivity, and the rules seem to be that its devotees upload "update" videos of their metamorphosis in process. For some, it's turning into plastic; for others, strange growths on their skin or losing all sensation or getting pulled into their laptops. I used to play 8-bit games a lot on my old Atari 2600. One of their more charming attributes is that the vast majority of them offer no "victory." They go on and on and on. It's eternity in there. The danger We're All Going to the World's Fair might be warning against is that the Internet's social element is a game no one thinks is a game, and there's no bottom to it when you start to fall.
"We're All Going to the World's Fair" is a game, though Casey doesn't believe it is. I can't help but think of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and its "Vanity Fair'' run by Beelzebub promising wares to visitors: "[H]ouses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not." The Fair is also a place where you can watch any kind of performance, illicit or merely ridiculous--where everything has a price and non-participants to the spectacle of accumulation are locked in irons, shunned, executed. Bunyan's Vanity Fair is the Internet, and Casey, in her loneliness and isolation, wants in not as a customer but as a performer. They all do. We all do. The new currency of our last age is "influence." If we don't reset the parameters of the game, we'll have more and worse whose only claim is the size of their "following" in the cult of personality they've managed to groom based on inflaming the fears of people afraid to begin with. The world is terrifying, cults are familiar; join us and we'll make everything simple. All you need to do is believe.
Young Cobb is fantastic with her wide-set eyes and hint of an indefinable accent that underscores, subtly, her feeling of strangeness. Seeing her watch a video, slack-jawed and vacant, until her never-seen father bangs on her bedroom door because it's three in the morning, and then seeing her bundle up, fire up an LED blue-light lantern, and trudge across a snowscape to be soothed by a cyber ghost on another YouTube channel, is as clear an illustration of the difference between the current generation, nursed at the digital-on-demand teat, and the previous one, what with its might-as-well-be Stone Age discomfort with instant gratification. If We're All Going to the World's Fair has a message, it's not the cautionary predator/pedophilia subplot introduced by a shift in perspective to creeper loner JLB (Michael J. Rogers)--it's that there is an entire generation of children who only know how to build social networks over electronic networks. Our difficulty understanding the good that can result from that, as well as the obvious bad, is the tipping point for whether we survive as a species. The film is most powerful when it shows how the "real" world is less real than the Internet world: how every time Casey ventures outside, it's empty and cold vs. the abundance of friends, adventures, confidants, lovers, teachers, whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, and souls she encounters every time she logs on. Vanity Fair is now the World's Fair, and we're not all going there: We live there. Any war for our souls we've lost already--and didn't even know we were fighting until we were too beaten to strike back. We're All Going to the World's Fair isn't a rallying cry for the resistance but instead a eulogy for everything that used to be true. It's Invasion of the Body Snatchers told by a pod.