September 6, 2019


Requiem for a stream

By Michael Sun


The promise and politics of livestreaming in ‘Present.Perfect.’ and ‘Jawline’

In Present.Perfect., a person dances, a flurry of reflected light from an unseen disco ball shimmering across their body like satin. Their backing track of choice: “跳舞街” (“Dancing Street”), an ’80s cover of Angie Gold’s “Eat You Up” by Cantopop singer Priscilla Chan. It sounds tinny in the way only songs of a certain period can – all gated drums and melodramatic synth riffs – and Chan turns the original tale of post-breakup revenge into a giddy wave of sunsets, and swaying breezes, and dancing with a lover. She interprets the music at its most plain, and it feels something like earnestness.

The dancer, too, seems unburdened. Clad in drag and mouthing the words of the track, they gesticulate with a frenzy lifted from Chan’s pure, unfettered joy. Dance like nobody’s watching, goes the mantra – except here, thousands most definitely are watching, via livestream. It’s the first and last time we’re treated to such explicit theatricality in a documentary that’s composed entirely of screen recordings capturing dozens of China’s livestreaming anchors, spliced together by director Shengze Zhu without pretence or narrative. Some anchors (like vloggers, in real time) recur, some flash across the screen as if appearing in a dream, some proselytise new religions, some find comfort in the mundanity of urban existence. All possess a trance-like quality, daring us to continue watching an endless succession of clips.

Why do we watch? Is it voyeurism? Attributing it to this kind of base desire may have sufficed two decades and hundreds of social media platforms ago, when being online was a pastime, not a condition of existence. In 1996, JenniCam – a grainy webcam broadcast of a college student’s bedroom, and all the prosaic things she did in it – sent the world into mass hysteria. It felt revolutionary for its blurring of the boundary between private and public, but that boundary is now so porous as to have almost disappeared altogether. We routinely spy and are spied on. New privacy concerns emerge like weeds, spreading faster than we can eradicate (or even identify) them. We willingly sacrifice fragments of our identities to the ether – an unquantifiable mass of FaceApps, Sesame Credits and Cambridge Analyticas – such that voyeurism is no longer a novelty, but a given.

So what is it, then?

To enjoy watching a livestream requires a certain trust: that we briefly indulge in a suspension of disbelief. Like cinema, which (mostly) necessitates that we believe its core tenets, its characters’ motivations, its narrative arcs – however fantastical – to derive entertainment and meaning, the livestream demands that we cast aside our cynicism towards its artificiality to fully appreciate its semblance of honesty. Even as the dancer in Present.Perfect. shimmies for mass spectacle, we must pretend they perform for themselves alone, as if dancing towards bodily absolution. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone else caught in real-time rapture, which only the livestream can facilitate. The space between an idea’s formation and its vocalisation is collapsed; there’s no room to mull, or plan, or even think, in a format where immediacy reigns supreme. Unlike Instagram grids or Facebook feeds, which are filled with content (that dirty word), livestreams feel like expression in the most old-fashioned sense – a reprieve from an age where social interaction is otherwise quantified.

Of course, the expression is merely illusory. Like all things, livestreaming is transactional – a push and pull between maintaining the illusion of reality and, in Present.Perfect.’s case, flying under censorial radars. In one clip, a young woman on a rural pig farm chats and gossips with her viewers, but pauses to use the bathroom. “You’d better not watch this,” she says, resting her phone on a ledge outside. “My showroom will be shut down if I show you the toilet.” The promise of unfiltered, unblemished communication is marred by a quiet awareness of state surveillance. Candidness comes with caveats.

This is nothing new: celebrity has always been subject to demands – those of a fickle public, or the bottom lines of studios and labels and parasitic managers. But online, these demands are sublimated into a desire for truth. Viewers expect an “authentic” personality, and livestreamers must deliver a show that’s convincingly unscripted, but not so raw that they alienate their followers. Whether consciously or not, the final broadcast persona ends up merely a simulacrum of selfhood.

In Liza Mandelup’s Jawline, we see the persona stretched and moulded to its extremes, so misshapen that its original owner becomes hard to locate. Jawline, a documentary so named for the razor-sharp one of its subject, follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester on a quest for fame – not any specific type of fame but a nebulous, all-consuming desire to be known, and to outgrow the working-class Tennessee town he calls home. Perfectly anodyne, with hair almost as high as his hopes, he bids for success through nightly broadcasts on livestreaming service YouNow, where he repeats cheesy clichés of inspiration (“be yourself, love yourself”, and a thousand other variations) to an enamoured audience of teenage girls.

Still, his following is meagre compared to that of his heroes – people like the Jara twins, whose celebrity status seems preordained. One could imagine they emerged from the womb as fully formed influencers, so painstakingly effortless is their presence. “Their joy is making us happy, making us feel like we mean something,” an adolescent fan says, waiting in a long queue outside one of their live shows, which consist of little more than the twins frolicking on stage. “I feel like he’s a friend, but he doesn’t know yet that we have that connection,” adds another. Afterwards, at a meet-and-greet, the floodgates open: tears stream down faces already puffy with anticipation, breathing becomes shallow as fans horde around their teen idols.

Mania, as it relates to fandom, has a long and storied history – we saw it just last year in I Used to be Normal, a documentary observing the lives of four boyband fans. In The Monthly, Anwen Crawford writes of the film’s fangirl archetype: “Her consumption of pop music opens up a maw of feeling that, in turn, threatens to consume her.” But something shifts when the pop idol is substituted with a livestreaming celebrity. The hierarchy between fan and idol muddies; the feeling consumes both.

With no discernible talents other than chiselled jawlines and the ability to turn live-love-laughs into quasi-religious maxims, the identity of livestreamers like Austyn and the Jaras rests precariously on the adoration of viewers. They are famous because of their fame, and just as easily as their celebrity is self-affirming, it can also be self-defeating. Midway through Jawline, Austyn gets noticed by a hawkish talent agent, who primps him with a new wardrobe and boot-camps his every mannerism to commercial perfection. He’s prime product, until he isn’t – as his follower count increases, so does the heat to sustain an unfeasible level of bombastic energy. The façade can’t hold. In one terrifying sequence, Jawline crescendos in a phantasmagoria of streams, selfies, sobbing fans. The screen flashes, and we’re back in Tennessee – as is Austyn, dropped by a ruthless manager.

On returning home, Austyn opens his laptop again to broadcast. This time, though, it feels wrong. “If you have a dream, you gotta chase it,” he recites flatly. “Don’t let anyone’s opinions affect you.” His dream of celebrity is dead; he’s no longer convinced. And neither are we.

If Jawline sounds like a Banksy-esque, technophobic cautionary tale, let it be said now that it’s not, no more than Present.Perfect. is a wholesome story of human connection. At the heart of both documentaries is a longing for that sense of connection – an ode, perhaps, to some simpler model of livestreaming, ungoverned and unsurveilled – but an awareness that this desire is a pipedream. We imagine the ideal livestream as a utopian haven in a dystopian internet, an antidote to the loneliness engendered by social media’s attention economy. Yet the livestream is no less lonely.

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

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