Review: Film01 – Scott Litts

Il faut de la vie pour soutenir la vie. 

— Julien-Joseph Virey


While Angelicism has built a compelling multimedia aesthetic, it began as and remains largely a writing project.

With the internet, the means of cultural production and distribution have been liberated. As a result, many prevailing stylistic conventions of internet-based and internet-adjacent art are defined by democratization: accessibility, mundanity, a tendency toward sociality. And while these are not necessarily bad things, they are susceptible to vapidity.

In the writing world, the initial stage of this shift was encapsulated in alt-lit, which leveraged social media and internet-publishing toward the development of a robust, institutionally-independent literary community. While alt-lit might at first have been a descriptor primarily denoting independence, it is now mainly understood as a stylistic tendency. The current scene of quasi-independent New York City-based writing has been unimaginatively referred to as “alt-lit 2.0.” It is largely derivative in both style and trajectory. The general sentiment toward the ubiquity of this style and the now-innumerable amount of autofiction writers— a sentiment that fluctuates primarily between reluctant tolerance and total exhaustion— speaks for itself. So while I dislike the term “alt-lit 2.0,” it’s perhaps a fitting descriptor for those who adhere to it.

New York City is now inundated with this style, which mostly amounts to noncommittal mythologizing of the author and their acquaintances: self-deprecating indexes of perversions, hookups and nightlife encounters punctuated by niche subcultural references and name-dropping. The vast majority tends nihilistic, a kind of conspicuous sighing at the author’s impotence and listlessness. The typical fare at best solicits a nod and smirk from the reader as they think something like, “I empathize with this inconsequential string of foibles, faux pas and self-diagnoses,” or, at the bare minimum, “I recognize this subcultural reference.” Much of it is highly referential, propped up by a flaccid assertion of the writer’s cultural vocabulary— not necessarily even their involvement in but rather their mere parasocial awareness of some subcultural niche. By and large it seems to be performed not out of any great compulsion but simply to secure the title of ‘writer’ for its author. It reeks of utility. Yes, technically it is writing, something most of us learned to do at some point during childhood. We are all already writers. The term is as meaningless as the term artist.

From the outset of the project, Angelicism looked beyond these things. Angelicism is, like autofiction, concerned with developing a mythos, but commits to doing so in ways autofiction rarely does. Autofiction so often lacks the sense and tone of authority— ironic given its narcissism. This of course isn’t to say that Angelicism isn’t a narcissistic project. Insofar as it’s overtly megalomaniacal, Angelicism is arguably more narcissistic than autofiction. But such megalomania is at least respectable for its commitment, its ecstasy and vigor. Where autofiction tends toward the profane, Angelicism tends toward the sacred.

My friend Dennis Goodwin recently made the poignant observation that many of the writers who participate in autofictional readings are more akin to stand-up comedians than ‘writers,’ but ones who are too pretentious to admit what they’re doing is actually stand-up comedy. Perhaps this is a problem of conviction, or of fear. Regardless: like young-adult literature, this style comes with a built-in audience and a set of references that effectively buffers it from completely flopping or, most horrifying of all, being misunderstood. Of course, this is why it’s overwhelmingly mediocre, its intrigue cheap and voyeuristic.

Angelicism, while at times reveling in similar referentiality and clout-chasing, is not particularly concerned with being understood, or with achieving wide-scale notoriety, for which accessibility is essentially a precondition. No artist should be legitimately weighed down by such concerns— especially those who would claim any sort of association with the avant-garde. Writing is a medium that’s distinctly vulnerable to over-explanation, and as such writers must always temper this impulse. While autofiction writers and their attendant “cultural investigators” continually fail in this regard, profaning everything they touch through neurotic, quasi-journalistic analysis, the Angelicist sensibility is not beholden to these tendencies and thus has a certain vitality.1At the very least this entails the possibility of novelty.

Naturally then, Film01 would be a challenging work. Rumors abound of innumerable cuts of the film that far exceed the premiere’s three-hour length. This is not surprising. Angelicism is a maximalist project. It is confident in its excesses. This can hardly be said about that which willfully occupies the stylistic realm of “alt-lit 2.0”— especially its explicitly autofictional manifestations.

This is not to say that autofiction or art that is explicitly autobiographical is inherently flawed or bad— only that it should be careful not to devolve into the relative safety of pornography. Yes, most people are morally and sexually perverted, especially in New York City where so much of this is located. Explicitly cataloguing one’s depravity in a flat affect can be vaguely cathartic for the reader or listener, maybe especially if it manages to be funny, but how much mileage does this really have? If the trend of coyly alluding to some alleged religious conviction in order to substantiate an otherwise meaningless transgression offers any indication, then it seems the answer is: not much.

Regardless, I’ve always thought that autofictional writing became popular for a more subtle, and more important reason— in response to technological and cultural change. Autofiction asserts the author as a grounding point in a hypersaturated cultural marketplace, in which art and artists are cheaper than ever and there is a constant pressure to homogenize one’s identity. This point becomes arguably even more relevant in the face of a new and continual abundance of AI and computer-assisted art in which humanity is obscured, even at times made entirely irrelevant. More and more it seems like the internet is actively developing against the human. 

Still, this isn’t to say that autofiction is inherently good or noble because of this broad commitment to the author and the individual in the age of the internet. While Angelicism responds to these changes by committing to post- or meta-identity, leveraging the internet as a medium in which identity is naturally disintegrated, autofiction refuses this. And while in this refusal it can admirably be said to retain its humanity (I am skeptical of Angelicism’s post-humanism), this flat-affect, lo-fi autofictional style seems fixated on doing so by depicting a crass and overly-simple portrayal of humanity in its basest, and thus supposedly its “realest” form— ostensibly humanist literature veers instead toward obscenity, exploitation and exhibitionism. In comparison, Angelicism is somehow more affirmative of life and humanity despite its tendency toward post-humanism.

Where Angelicism’s post-humanism is compelling is in its engagement with media. While it maintains a focus on writing, Angelicism is more fundamentally a project of media and mediums. There is an ecstasy inherent to media— media as the extension of the senses, the self, the human. This ecstasy, this expansion carried to the point of dissolution, is the poetic heart of Angelicism. I like to consider this perspective alongside the work of Emanuele Coccia, who defines the medium by its capacity to receive and retain that which is not itself: “A medium is not defined by its nature or by the matter that constitutes it, but rather by a specific potentiality that is irreducible to both.” And just as air is a medium in that it can carry music, humans are mediums in that we have this capacity to receive and retain within ourselves images, ideas, emotions, the sensible. This— communication in an expanded sense— is the very nature of our phenomenological existence, but framing it as Coccia does reveals it’s likewise a component of our ontology. We exchange and retain these external images, songs, words, experiences, memories and influences, and in doing so mutually constitute one another. I’ve long thought of Angelicism, perhaps a bit charitably, as a project that sought to explore these notions as they pertain to the internet— the extension of the self via the digital metamedium, a process of both disintegration via media and re-constitution of oneself as medium in Coccia’s ontological sense. But Angelicism does not so much explicate these functions of media as it attempts to enact them. It appears as a technical poetic entity— as an it.

What results is an expression of the aesthetics of a technology, of the internet. Film01, like Angelicism, like the internet, is bricolage. The aesthetic novelty of the internet is in its capacity for bricolage, the recombination of media and identities facilitated by digital technology. In a sense, Angelicism is defined largely by its engagement with these fundamental aspects of the internet: infinite iterations, infinity in general as it’s broached through post-scarcity digital media.

Film01 might be seen as a kind of encapsulation of what is otherwise necessarily dispersed and scattered across various platforms, accounts, iterations and media on the internet. But the film’s subtitle, histoire(s) de l’internet, seems to have gone somewhat overlooked. Many approached and assessed Film01 as an extension of the Angelicism project itself, but it’s perhaps more clarifying to view it primarily as a sub-project oriented around this specific concern, histoire(s) de l’internet.

What the subtitle actually means for such a film is vague— an overt nod to Godard, mirroring his wordplay and suggesting an inquiry into the medium with a particular focus on its interplay with sociality. Significant chunks of Film01 are a barrage of hyper-stimuli, what many of us seemed to expect given Angelicism’s general aesthetic tendencies. The film also (by now somewhat infamously) contains significant portions of the opposite: meandering vlogs, an abundance of non-content. But insofar as Film01 is concerned with histoire(s) de l’internet, there’s a kind of formal justification, even an imperative, to include such non-content as stylistically evocative of so much of the internet— unassuming, participatory, vaguely but forgivably narcissistic non-footage that’s occasionally punctuated by quiet profundities.

So much of the internet is junk, and sifting through this junk is the aleatory nature of the internet. I used to have a minor obsession with websites that randomly direct you to low view-count videos. Many of these videos are legitimately nothing, likely accidental uploads. Many are boring, plainly utilitarian advertisements— silent videos showing the interiors of cars, foreign ‘antique’ auctions, or, among the most interesting of this genre, exotic animals for sale. But occasionally you stumble across something touching— touching in part because it’s so unassuming and irrelevant to the internet at large: a stop-motion lego movie made by a toddler with an iPhone while his grandmother sleeps on the couch; an Eastern-European man documenting his backyard tinkering with homemade windmills; a large South-Asian family after the birth of the first grandchild and an impromptu interview with the new mother in a language you don’t understand. This type of stuff exists as a functionally infinite pool of content. But despite the occasional tenderness, even a strange sublimity at times, this infinite potential for anonymous voyeurism appears to me now as a monstrosity. There is a sense of dread in it that’s hard to articulate— the dread of abstraction, of technological coldness, of a mass tendency toward mediation and the creep of alienation that proceeds from an overinvestment in the lives and opinions of strangers.

But Film01 is not composed of or by strangers, but rather by a geographically dispersed collection of recognizable, if niche, semi-public-facing artists who are either friends, a cult, loosely-related connoisseurs of fringe politics, or some mixture of the three, depending on who you’re asking. In this sense, its vlog elements effect an odd wholesomeness as documentation of something palpable— an ongoing artistic confluence, or an articulation of a sociality that was born of and is sustained by the internet. If the film is overly-referential, then it’s by necessity: Angelicism is an internet project, and it is a social project. And Film01 was indeed a collaborative project. Perhaps the film is nothing more than a monument to the relationships, the histoires, that developed through Angelicism. Does this mean it’s just an overly sentimental failure? Some seem to think so. But if this film is a failure, it’s an instance of failure within a greater, ambitious project— and an ambitious failure will always be more respectable than an unambitious success. 

[1] “Retardation is a necessary precondition for swag.”