Civilization and Its Discontents
By Caden Mark Gardner
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Dir. Jane Schoenbrun, U.S., Utopia
Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair approaches the internet not with a cool, patronizing distance but with a knowing sense of its intangible, overwhelming intimacy and immersiveness. Schoenbrun has conjured an age of the internet that feels deeply personal, observing how our digital world has both consumed and connected millions. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is more than an addition to the increasingly diverse “very online” film canon (which includes the Matrix series, We Live in Public, Catfish, the Unfriended films). In its story of a teenage girl who descends into a horror role-playing game, it is a reflective presentation of how an entire generation was drawn into the digital sphere in response to a physical world that often left them in a despondent state of isolation, dissociation, and dysphoria.
When done right, depicting the internet as an endless, boundless stream of communal mystery, ideas, dreamscapes, and folklore has yielded a number of original and compulsively consumable works of art in various mediums, some of which also are notably queer. Dennis Cooper’s 2004 novel The Sluts was subversive in applying online forum syntax into novel form, but Cooper’s masterpiece was later reworked into an online setting: the reader can now scroll through Cooper’s fictional labyrinthian gay male escort ratings site. Cooper captured a post–AIDS crisis fatalism that ran against the time period’s current of assimilation; it remains prescient today and proved influential (trans author Jackie Ess connects The Sluts’ “forum lore” to her 2021 novel Darryl, a novel that one cannot imagine existing without earlier online queer communities). In film, there were some attempts at depicting digital spaces as a replacement for older tools of communication, such as You’ve Got Mail’s “modern” update of The Shop Around the Corner, but good films dove headfirst into trying to convey how online culture shaped and informed people’s behaviors, such as Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), itself the product of an interactive digital novel Iwai had written earlier. That film showed the factional tensions of two teenage boys, fans of Japanese pop star Lily Chou-Chou, posting frequently on online fan sites. Then there are the films that depict the internet as a space for hauntings, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 Pulse (also initially published as a novel by its director), in which ghosts leave computer screens and enter our physical world.
The creation of YouTube in 2005 further democratized the use of the moving image and introduced a new way to create different kinds of digital folklore and communities. Early adopters played with ideas of “creepypasta”-like narratives such as lonelygirl15, a vlog series that, after initially presenting as a teenage girl’s video diary, was revealed to be scripted. There were pranks, challenges, and reaction videos passed around like icebreakers in the early YouTube community that ranged from basic dares to the uncomfortably scatological (“2 Girls, 1 Cup” being the most notorious). In an age before sponsored content, influencer culture, modern social media platforms, and other forms of online monetization, digital spaces were factionally communal, smaller, and direct. While Schoenbrun does not place We’re All Going to the World’s Fair within this bygone digital world in terms of time and setting, with the exceptions of a very present algorithm and services like Skype, this film’s version of the internet is scaled down to an era of vlogging, ASMR, and self-documentation for its main character, Casey (Anna Cobb).
Casey is a loner who, notably, never shares physical space with anybody, other than one outdoor crowd scene set on New Year’s Eve. Her self-documentation makes the camera on her phone an outlet to disassociate yet remain in her most familiar social standing. She is most familiar in solitude, seen often in her pitch-black bedroom illuminated only by her computer screen. Her videos of the outside world are overall unremarkable, showing the most desolate, depressed areas of an anonymous upstate New York town, landscapes of abandoned buildings and long stretches of nothing, the footprints of a more economically active area barely visible. Casey does not have a big following; she creates these videos in response to how she sees the world mediated through her computer and mirrors other people of different experiences and backgrounds who appear to have much more going on.
As the film opens, Casey is drawn to “The World’s Fair Challenge,” a sensational YouTube collection of role-playing videos. After joining the game via blood oath, a participant is believed to be subject to a variety of real-life transformations, which vary from turning into plastic to being unable to feel self-inflicted pain; in a film ostensibly about dysphoria and losing control of one’s body, the most Cronenbergian touch is a video showing a player pulling out a long tape of yellow, paper fair tickets out of a gash in his forearm. After she starts documenting her own changes and experiences, Casey attracts the attention of a mysterious older man, better versed in the World’s Fair lore, a user simply known as JLB. Instead of obscuring JLB’s identity, making him just a gravelly whisper and an illustrated avatar, Schoenbrun wisely chooses to show us the man behind JLB (played by Michael Rogers), though we learn only so much. What he looks like, where he uses the computer, and certain eccentricities such as microwaving his milk are revealed, adding layers and crumbs to possibly why he is drawn to this digital space and his sudden interest in Casey without making him a pedantic, online cautionary tale for Casey’s story.
By having the audience know slightly more about JLB than Casey—who is withdrawn from her family life and never references school or makes any indication of friends—Schoenbrun places the viewer on equal footing with JLB as spectator in witnessing Casey’s often disturbing self-documentation in “The World’s Fair Challenge”—like JLB not exactly knowing what is a put-on or reality. This approach to spectatorship further underlines the parasocial dynamic between Casey and JLB, but Casey’s withholding of her offline realities is never inferred as dark or preferable to being too online. While the online space is at times scary and unknown, it still empowers her. As Schoenbrun states in an interview with critic Juan Barquin, “People of any age who are drawn to this place [the internet] are drawn to if for a reason. There’s something they’re getting there that they’re looking for and can’t get somewhere else.”
Schoenbrun is, like myself, a trans cinephile. (Quite to my surprise, she had cited my work with Willow Maclay in her director’s statement when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2021, though I don’t know her personally.) As several trans critics like myself have noted, this film hits differently for a trans person who came of age in the 2000s, as self-documentation of transition and trans identities were becoming more visible. Being online was not a wholly negative space. As a pseudonymous, isolated teenager and adult who perused various fan forums to escape my very unhappy life and had my share of strange if harmless interactions on AIM and message boards, I very much was Casey. So, consider this game recognizing game. Despite its images of horror and isolation, We’re All Going to the World's Fair is one of the richest and most empathetic works of recent cinema for its ability to show how digital connectedness can form communities or fortify one’s identity for the better.