‘Ingrid Goes West’ and Cinematic Social Media’s Evolution

The Instagrim Ingrid Goes West is a powerful step in explaining cinema’s relationship to social media.
By  · Published on August 28th, 2017

The Instagrim Ingrid Goes West is a powerful step in explaining cinema’s relationship to social media.

All the social media-focused films released so far in 2017 might be bleak, but only Ingrid Goes West understands why. The distinction between films that get technology and films that like using technology as a plot device – like the trope of a random video suddenly going viral (Rings), something finding its way into the unassailable “cloud” (Sex Tape), or just breaking traditional families apart (Men, Women & Children) – is as clear to modern moviegoers as the distinction between good and bad special effects. Realism isn’t entirely the point. Contextualization and style are just as important as fidelity, whether it in the digital construction of an image or effect (think of bad fire effects burning in an otherwise realistic movie opposed to the rubber yet entirely effective suits of early Godzilla films). Where The Emoji Movie, The Circle, and even Girls Trip make a show out of their social media use – critiquing it to (highly) varying degrees – Ingrid Goes West ingrains its use in its characters as heavily, accurately, and uncomfortably as needed to be a believable, affecting aesthetic device.

Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is an Instagram obsessive. To say she lives vicariously through others is to stretch the definition of “lives.” She is vicarious, a Read Only copy of whoever’s life has the misfortune of appearing on her 5-and-a-half-inch LED-backlit screen. The film’s black humor point, aside from the destructiveness of social media celebrity, is that those constructing their lives for their public-facing medium are just as fraudulent and desperate as someone like Ingrid. When Ingrid scrolls through posts, the sickly-sweet voice of the perfectly groomed Instagirls she follows read out their captions in total self-satisfaction. Gratuitous hashtags and emojis are given the deadpan treatment as we stare at picturesque highlights of meals, hair appointments, and nightlife. Tech that started as a way to communicate has lost all earnest meaning (who’s searching for “#Lucky”?) in a medium that by nature is always a bit behind the times. Development cycles take time and the way we use technology moves far faster than you can shoot and release a major motion picture. In a year when The Emoji Movie blighted our children, Ingrid Goes West uses humor to look forward to the present, where hashtags are ironic punchlines and Twitter describes films like Rosemary’s Baby through emoji-integrating ASCII memes. As well as, you know, every other type of meme available.

Ingrid, the most effective movie to utilize social media this year, reflects the current environment of over-saturation. That said, it’s unlikely that this will be the strategy other films can take over the next few years. The most effective movies about social media addressed their time while telling their story, but all evolved and changed as our relationship with technology evolved. These movies also altered how they depicted social media and tech use on-screen.

Strangeland, a thriller set during the early days of chat rooms, focused on the computer screen’s unfeeling pixels as a counter to its similar fascination with piercings, tattoos, and other body modifications. The flesh and the machine were viewed with equal horror, both usable for evil. It was certainly campy (just watch the trailer), but its suspicion of online interactions has dissipated from all but the most supernatural of horror films. Well, except for when Allison Williams briefly browses for more victims in Get Out.

These supernatural scary movies, like Smiley and Unfriended, utilize things like Chatroulette and, in the latter case, everything on a high schooler’s desktop to create their shots. Unfriended, the far superior film, captures the hesitancy and shame of awkward, guilty, or duplicitous interactions online. Text is typed, rewritten, deleted, then stagnant with consideration as we watch the cursor’s excruciating blink. Our eyes and the camera follow the cursor, every shot of the film a part of the computer screen. It is the proto-Ingrid, a film that damns its characters but not because of their technological immersion. It’s just a side effect.

A similar progression has taken place in films that depict texting as an aesthetic device rather than having someone look at their phones and speak aloud the relevant information (though some films and TV shows forge an unholy combination of the two that disrespects their audience’s ability to read). Early films with texting (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and almost every TV show with texting up under a few years ago used cuts to a phone screen to watch as a character reads or types. Pretty boring. But, as Tony Zhou documents in his video essay, a new formal convention arose to solve this problem.

The problem was that texting was boring to watch and was pervasive enough in our society that it was hard to ignore in our films. Zhou provides many examples (from Sherlock to LOL) and explains that this isn’t just good aesthetics, it’s good storytelling. We get to watch the actors the whole time, which is important when the activity is something as banal to us as talking on the phone, texting, or, now, using social media. What Zhou documents, the shifting approach to texting in films, will happen once again – is happening – with social media in films. Since The Social Network, movies have taken it for granted that audiences understand its social media sites, even if they’re their fake version of Facebook (“Social Redroom” in Antisocial, for example).

From the humble chat rooms of Strangeland to the Twitter-inept chef in Chef, the ways in which movies use social media are becoming more and more elegant. Ingrid Goes West adopts the all-encompassing, full-screen tactic that may seem outdated considering the texting evolution, but when taken in context with its thematic obsession and the social media it’s playing with, it works perfectly. Bright images and hipster captions that suck up all attention with their vapid simplicity is Instagram in a nutshell. Formally, it needed to emulate that experience for an addicted user. Where Chef uses Twitter more like texting (as it, in 2014, was more like texting and less 2017’s angry void-shouting) and Unfriended connects all its sites and software on the larger cinematic playing field of the desktop, Nerve makes strides depicting live-streaming stunts and Ingrid roasts our society’s growing need for digital validation.

Filmmakers changing the ways in which they show these parts of our lives – even regressing to great effect like Personal Shopper’s dependence on its protagonist’s physical phone – make their films time capsules and steps of experimentation describing the relative importance of certain technologies. Ingrid Goes West’s power comes not only from its unsettling depiction of social media but from its dispirited understanding that showing social media on screen is already as necessary as texting.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).