It’s Not in the Stars
Caden Mark Gardner on Onward Lossless Follows
This column features essays about films made in the twenty-first century that deal explicitly or implicitly with matters of American identity.
When I wanted to show the Internet that I was skeptical over something, I would post a GIF of Whitney Houston telling Diane Sawyer, “I wanna see the receipts!” If I was enraged, I would post the GIF from the scene in Waiting to Exhale when Angela Bassett throws a cigarette into her husband’s car, which she just set on fire. When I was disappointed, I would post the “Crying Jordan'' meme, a jpeg of NBA legend Michael Jordan with red eyes and tear stains all over his face. Why these images existed or where they were sourced from was inconsequential—they distilled a feeling that felt like appropriate shorthand, and that explained everything going on with me while having to explain nothing more. I became accustomed to doing this because I saw everyone else on social media also doing this. It was a new language, just scroll and you could find like-minded opinions and feelings portraying one’s thoughts through esoterica and kitsch.
But then the world changes, and everybody in one’s algorithm feels similar in a certain, bad way. Your memes get darker, or you use a common refrain, perhaps that image from the webcomic Gunshow where the Question Hound, an anthropomorphic dog, sits at a table with a cup of coffee as the entire room surrounding him is on fire. Unable to comprehend a terrible situation verging on potentially devastating escalation, Question Hound’s response is just, “This is fine.”
When the world is on fire, one can become galvanized to try and fix it. Others take the road of Question Hound and exist in a state of denial, an acknowledgment that users of the meme are unable to provide answers. The Internet may simply be going too fast for our brains to process and react. Such rapid change can feel disempowering, but nonetheless, people willingly lose their place in the world through a newsfeed or a social media platform. You are now “doomscrolling.” Cinema has gradually adjusted to capturing the Internet on-screen, but Michael Robinson’s short Onward Lossless Follows is perhaps the first and best of its kind to communicate doomscrolling as a cinematic language, capturing the Internet as a feeling.
Robinson’s body of work has long had a relationship to camp images and objects that have found their way into meme culture. His 2007 short Light Is Waiting turns the gauche family sitcom Full House into a phantasmagoric nightmare of strobing, mirrored images in slow-motion. Such pop cultural reappropriation is a recurring aspect of his work; he has also reconfigured fragmented images and scenes from the soap opera Dynasty (The Dark, Krystle), Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us), and Little House on the Prairie (Hold Me Now) into darker, deeper commentary than those slick monocultural works ever intended. These short films emerge as melodramas with a sensorial rush that cuts deeper than a simple nostalgia trip to the analog era. Onward Lossless Follows is a successor to prior Robinson shorts in the way it reworks familiar images to conjure a different response, except here Robinson is even more in conversation with the Internet age not just as a delivery system of memes but as a prism from which collective American trauma was unfolding in real time. He writes of the film in the German publication Revolver, “In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, reports of clowns behaving in mysterious and threatening ways spread all over the United States, then continued internationally. Beckoning children into the woods, following people home, lurking near schools… Pornhub also reported a 213% increase in searches for clown-related pornography during that same period. During the numb, deeply sad weeks after the election, a meme went around social media using the phrase ‘At this point, if a clown invited me into the woods, I would just go.’”
Like many Americans, the 2016 Presidential Election put Robinson into a dark place. He called the atmosphere around Trump’s election “a collective sadness and trauma unlike anything I have ever experienced.” Onward Lossless Follows began premiering in shorts programs at international festivals in 2017; its 16-minute downward spiral felt true to the moment without explicitly making connections to 2016. Apocalyptic reality in the age of Trump showed that digital landscapes could no longer be seen as an escape or refuge, but rather sources of these cursed realities.
Robinson begins Onward Lossless Follows with a series of stock photos of women behind computers lifting their arms in euphoria as red lights strobe the screen, the sounds of applause on the soundtrack. Crossfaded into these stock images are shots of a driving path descending down a hill that shifts from wintry conditions to a sun-soaked desert. The Internet is all about searching, and searches within searches that can lead to rapid environment shifts. The sound of applause fades into a recording of a preacher, identified by Robinson as Dr. J. Vernon McGee from a Southern California church in the late 1960s. Fascinatingly, this preacher’s sermon is conspicuously absent of invoking God or Jesus. He snarls and rails against science, space research, and essentially, astrology; of the ways people were becoming obsessed over the concepts of “looking up at the stars” to find answers to their problems. But Robinson does not use the sermon to mock it. Vernon is a stand-in for the social media “main character,” who amasses a large digital following, as this man of God did in real life. Robinson also uses this sermon to reflect on modern times (he had first come upon this decades-old sermon on a Christian radio station in 2014), connecting it to climate change and a Silicon Valley that prefers a privatized outer space to live and travel to as opposed to allocating money to assist citizens and nations in an increasingly perilous need. McGee references the droughts that impact the “parched” greater Los Angeles, inferring that these problems on Earth should be more pressing than whether or not the planet Venus has water. Such a statement could be deemed reactionary during the height of the space age, yet to modern ears comes off pragmatic. You can imagine ideas like McGee’s passed around, quoted, linked, and retweeted approvingly, going “viral.”
The film shifts from the desert to a shot of the moon to old footage Robinson took from his undergrad years in the mid-2000s, shooting a shirtless man mowing the lawn outside his window. The camera jerks around, unable to focus on its initial subject, partly out of fear of being caught, which only increases the sense of voyeurism. The parasocial attachments we have toward other people and things online can take on a similar dynamic of unreciprocated following, but there is also the fact that this working man going about his day is unaware of the surveillance he is under. The McGee sermon plays over the scene, the preacher becoming aggressively incredulous over the “pure bunk” of astrology, asking his listeners directly what is actually wrong with them to think they could find structure and answers out there. “There’s no help in the stars for you!” he derisively calls out, exhorting them for seeking intangible spaces. Robinson reminds us here that seeking online spaces is its own kind of stargazing. The image of the moon appears, an orb that moves like a scrolling computer mouse into another realm.
Next, Robinson cuts to a “stranger danger” PSA, Never Talk to Strangers, in which a woman tries to trick an underage girl into her van. The girl makes the right decision, asking the perplexed stranger for her “password” and then bolts the other way with her friends. As with all PSAs, it is hokey, presenting earnest, non-professional acting. But it too becomes reconfigured as something completely different. After that scene ends, there is a subsequent text bubble of communication between these two individuals, restructured as if this previous scene was not about child endangerment or predators but rather how a potential romantic relationship formed online and via text gets off to the wrong start when the two try to interact in IRL. This shift is disturbing, and yet these introduced parallels are jaw-dropping. Behind these texts Robinson inserts two intertwining plants growing together, the possibility of love blooming and the promise of human entanglement even if there is very little foundation for that beyond the spaces of tele-communication. These individuals attempt to negotiate what to do next, to avoid the mutual embarrassment of flaking once more. A tunnel appears with an insert of a ticking clock to underline the sense of simultaneous momentum and anxiety.
Robinson returns to a montage of women in front of their screens exhilarated by their computer-generated gratification, and we once again hear McGee’s oration, decrying the dark universe we live in. “Men are restless today! They’re peering into space looking for help,” he shouts with indignation. The number of women on-screen reacting to their computers increases, as does the flicker effect as McGee’s words become more intense, reaction to him affirmed in thunderous applause. The darkness McGee alludes to is now represented with a shot of a lunar eclipse. The PSA returns again, this time showing the other result of the “stranger danger” scenario: the young girl believes the lies of the stranger and enters the van. We learn from their texts that they each want to shed their identities and start anew. McGee’s pessimism contrasts the impulsive actions of these characters, seen by any reasonable person as ill-advised and dangerous. But a bad feeling is at least a feeling, and so they ride on.
The screen flickers with the hyper-speed views of a road through the desert highways, then switches to found footage of a tractor trailer collapsing on the highway. The crowd roars in the breakdown. An unknown site in the forest is shown as McGee paraphrases from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “It’s not in the stars... but in ourselves.” McGee continues, “And our problem today is not that we got under the wrong star, our problem’s right in here today, friend. There’s no help in the stars for ya, there’s no help in the stars.” Robinson’s devastating conclusion to that prescriptive admonishment seems to be that those who attempt to turn inward may find an empty vessel, from which hopelessness only increases.
A group of workers try to airlift a wounded horse from an indecipherable wreckage. A cacophonous children’s choir covers the FM radio hit “A Horse with No Name” by the band America, which hauntingly plays as the horse is carried out, fading into more images of the shirtless man in the backyard, now joined by another male companion. Life goes on as the fate of this mammal remains suspended. When watching Onward Lossless Follows, I thought of the Louise Glück poem “Telescope,” a less harsh, more personal, but equally devastating alternative to McGee’s sermon, which also identifies the false sense of escape in looking outside of your reality. Glück’s words express to me how our relationship to digital spaces can ultimately be a chilling revelation of isolation.
“You’re not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.
Then you’re in the world again.
At night, on a cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.
You realize afterward
not that the image was false
but the relation is false.
You see again how far away
each thing is from every other thing.”
The story of American identity in the 21st century cannot be told without acknowledging that social media has shifted the ways we talk, interact, and forge communities. Robinson shows the power of that identity taking shape through the seduction and instantaneous gratification in being engaged with our screens, which may ultimately prove little more than a dubious retreat from loneliness in a vast, dried-up country. A collage of psychic collapse in the digital age, Onward Lossless Follows strikes me as a major inflection point in American cinema. Robinson contemplates how our inner turmoil is informed by digital spaces, especially in response to national trauma. There are no shortcuts to get out and there are no hard resets, especially when it means having to rebuild yourself and the world around you. There is but one world and one body.