Joe Swanberg provided a number of quotable nuggets during a Q&A session after last night’s Alamo Drafthouse screening of Uncle Kent—I recall one of them more clearly than the others:
I’m not competing for attention with other movies. I’m competing with Facebook. And I’m losing.
Although one of Uncle Kent’s clearest preoccupations is how new technology affects the way in which we relate to others (how we meet; how we interact), Facebook hardly ever figures in the storyline. The plot advances via the lower-case, seedier, (dare I say, subaltern?!) parts of the social networking universe—chatroulette and craigslist. Kent, a lonely cartoonist, meets a would-be girlfriend over chatroulette; they spend a weekend together. She and Kent add another participant to their makeshift menage after responding to a craigslist posting.
Post-screening, Swanberg characterized his films as “time capsules” of the specific moments in which they were filmed (for Uncle Kent, it’s May 2010). Swanberg focuses on the marginal media of the moment: in May 2010, most used Facebook (or to a lesser extent Twitter). Compared to the (arguably) documentary film Catfish, which more fully assimilates Facebook into the narrative and even into the aesthetic look and feel of the film, Uncle Kent only evokes Facebook in a throwaway line of dialogue in its final frames: “Write on my Wall, OK?”
Swanberg seems to be suggesting that one way to “compete” with Facebook is simply to use other technologies instead: as opposed to Facebook’s clean, corporate interface in blue and white, the sites craigslist and chatroulette feel slapped together over a weekend. Under the hood, they are probably complex as well: nevertheless they feel like there’s more space for the user to experiment. There’s a feeling that the connections formed there are somehow outside of Facebook’s totalizing control and potentially more liberating.