Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2020 5:36 pm 
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The lonely, connected ones

There is a new subculture in America of young, disaffected and angry white men. They're guys going nowhere who, though a minority, may symbolize a trend and say something key about where we are now. They feel isolated, alienated, and rejected. But they are not disconnected or inarticulate. This interesting documentary aims to bring them to light through sympathetic focus on a tiny group of them.

The "TFW NO GF" guys are children of the internet who though perhaps articulate and intelligent, did poorly in, and often didn't finish, school. They are reclusive emo "losers" isolated from most of their contemporaries, often living at home, without jobs, at the expense of their parents. They have no girlfriends, thus the title. This is not a voluntary state, hence their self-identification as "incel," involuntarily celibate.

The texting abbreviations of the title "TFW NO GF", which have become an iconic meme referring to this group, signal a reaching out for sympathy. "TFW," though it can mean other things, often stands for "that feeling when," and is used to seek understanding for a shared experience like the state of "NGF," having no girlfriend. Actually "emo losers" doesn't quite fit, because the cute, sad, spiky-haired youths the title "emo" refers to are highly desirable to some, as indicated in the "Emo Boy Song" ("Emo boy, emo boy, come on and be my love toy") or "Cute Emo Bbys [I'm with you]" - there is a sad, winsome emo girl longing to be united to him. Neither are these guys as extreme or hopeless as Japan's notorious hermits, the hikikomori, who live lives of extreme seclusion. Not, at least, unless the hikikomori secretly have iPhones and fast internet connections and vast online talk outlets like 4chan.

4chan is an online place where TFW NO GF guys, or incels, as they're often called, come to pour out their souls. 4chan is the source of many screen grabs here. It's a place worth researching to understand them (see Caitlin Dewey's little intro in the Washington Post). Special attention should be given to r9k/, a special board of 4chan where sad loners gather, or gathered. All 4chan, which is believed to have been started by Christopher Poole in 2003 when he was around 15, is an English language, all-anonymous imageboard website, with "avis" (avatars) rather than names, and threads are only up for a limited time.

What's interesting is not, per se, the pathetic young men who gather on 4chan's r9k/ or Twitter, or maybe Tumblr, but that they represent, as one of those interviewed calls it, a "subculture," with its own codes and language. Basic givens of this world are "the Feel GUy" or "Wojak" and Pepe the Frog memes. Pepe is an anthropomorphic green cartoon frog representing different feelings that was appropriated by Trump and the Alt-Right and white racists, but also by the Hong Kong anti-government protesters. Wojak or the Feel Guy is represented by a simple, black-outlined cartoon drawing of a bald, wistful-looking man, and it used to stand for emotions like "melancholy, regret, or loneliness" (Wikipedia). Wojak is associated with "TFW" - feelings, and on 4chan an image of two Wojaks hugging each other under the caption "I know that feel bro" gained popularity. (See image above)

The film, though, only focuses on five dudes and doesn't go into traditional documentary film context-building from the outside; perhaps advisedly (it gives a better sense of their isolation) it doesn't interview their families or former classmates.

A smart, healthy looking young man named Sean lives in Thornton, Colorado in a one-bedroom apartment with his mom. He works out with weights. (He also commutes to work but it doesn't say at what.) He found the internet was where "most was offered" to him when young. His tidy black desk has a huge computer and big speakers with 22-inch screen. He did well enough in school through eighth grade, he says, then stopped caring, and failed ninth grade. "Since then," he says, "I've just been a fuckin' neet." (Neet= no education, employment or training.) That's the first visit. He has changed later.

"Charels" lives with his childhood friend (or is it his brother?) "Widdy" in Kent, Washington and it's all snowy and desolate when we visit them. They share a house with somebody else. Charels has talked online about being suicidal a lot and has a license plate bracket on his red Civic saying "I HATE MYSELF...I WANT TO DIE." He has written online "I can't wait to jump into a loveless marriage and destroy the rest of my life with a horrible divorce and then shoot myself." But he likes to talk to the filmmaker. He has clearly studied Japanese.

Charels and Widdy say their parents were alcoholics, so they were on their own. They live in a nowhere place, but the snow makes it black-and-white dramatic and Widdy says, though desolate, it's "really beautiful in a way." They have guns - automatic weapons. We go with them far out of town where they do some shooting. But Widdy, who discovered 4chan when he was 11 or 12, says all incels are not terrorists. He says nowadays the internet and real life are no longer separable, and young kids "won't even understand the difference between the two." (Herein lies danger.) Charels' and Widdy's weapons are seized later by police after Charels poses with two rifles and the caption "One ticket for Joker please." But though banned from weapons for a year, they get them back because Charels' post was judged to be satire, and protected under the First Amendment. Charels has a girlfriend he met on r9k/.

The restoration of the guns doesn't seem like the wisest defense of civil liberties: automatic weapons ought to be banned. However, it's important to note that incels' rampant indulgence is misogyny, racism, and violence online is mostly heavily ironic.

Kyle has lived all his life in El Paso. He dresses in tight jeans outfits and a cowboy ht. He is not seen on the internet as much, but he's an angry white incel too. He says school was half in Spanish. He never learned it, so he did poorly and was taken out to be home schooled, but they just gave up on that. He laces every other phrase with "fuckin'" and sounds angriest of the group. He is always alone, but goes out to drink and to a karaoke bar. He is always drinking and smoking.. But he describes himself as less negative about the ugliness of the city than he used to be. Negative as he is, he is always out and about.

The most articulate, or at least theory-spouting, among them is the bearded, bespectacled New York City resident "Kringe Kantbot." We see him scamming a poll taker at first. He later says now he has interests and women are more interested in him because he can talk about the books he's read. A 4chan screen grab of his goes: "You're all a bunch of fuckups addicted to vaping, liquor, prescription drugs, and monster sips. You're all fucked up, depressed, unmotivated, anxious, insecure. You're all losers, incels, virgins, weebs, weirdos. But it's all okay. You're all going to be okay. It's okay." He wants to help. Maybe these healthy young men are simply addicted to a drug, online and in-life self-annihilation, and with help they could recover, as Kantbot seems to be doing, and he can give back by counseling others.

Alex Lee Moyer says who says she made her "tiny" but she thinks "important" film "on a shoestring budget, a wing and a prayer," also says she is delighted at the opportunity to put it out there on Amazon prime to "an untold, huge audience." She considers her film especially relevant now under the covid-19 shutdown. We're all doing what the boys in the film are often doing, "turning to the modern miracle of the Internet as a surrogate for lost connection."

But do they show that it works?

In the last 20 minutes the film reveals that four of these guys may know each other via Twitter. Sean has read all the books Kantbot recommended to him there, and he mentions Charels and Widdy,. Several years after his first appearance, Sean is working at two jobs and commuting an hour each way and looking to compete in power lifting, working at it very hard and looking toward planning a career for himself. He says his mother has cancer, so his plate is full. Women are quite a lot more interested in him. Kantbot has gotten "doxxed" by the media (his personal details revealed) by the media for posting a provocative article, but he is devoting all his time to his online writing and living from his Patreon earnings. He debunks the director's presumed aim to give the film a happy ending, but - well, his flights of intellectual fancy tend to be incoherent, though he gets the last word here.

Rolling Stone writer EJ Dickson, whose article combines a review with an interview with Moyers and revealing additional information, describes TFW NO GF as a "melange of edgelord [tongue in cheek nihilistic] tweets, 4chan screen grabs, definitions of internet vernacular, and discursive interviews with its disaffected subjects." As he says, the film leaves out "expert" talking heads or other more local providers of context. Moyers seeks to take us into these guys' world, of which she is unusually accepting.

This is more a virtual reality visit than a guided tour. Given the incels' nihilistic and hate-filled trolling, this film's indulgence has been and will be provocative to many and Dickson calls it "deeply uncomfortable." It does not pre-digest the material for us. But I found that a fresh and welcome approach.

TFW NO GF, 82 mins., was to debut in the pandemic-cancelled 2020 SXSW Festival (Austin). The director-screenwriter Alex Lee Moyer chose to include it in the SXSW films offered free on Amazon Prime April 27–May 6, 2020. It was screened there for this review.

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