Show Hide image

Ingrid Goes West is a barbed LA comedy for the Instagram age

The Matt Spicer picture’s greatest asset is its star and producer, Aubrey Plaza.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy, but comedy plus time can look simply quaint. Watching LA Story in 1991, it was hilarious when Steve Martin ordered a half double-decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon. Now that would qualify as one of the simpler items on any coffee shop menu.

Satirising fads and superficiality, especially the Californian sort, is practically an industry in itself, so the barbed new comedy Ingrid Goes West enters an already crowded marketplace. Los Angeles here is a land where the blowtorch is a kitchen essential and hosts apologise to their guests for not having shopped at the farmers’ market. A woman paid to feature products on her Instagram feed describes herself unironically as a photographer, and oversharing waiters ask: “How can I nourish you today?”

This is low-hanging fruit – low-hanging smashed avocado, to be precise. But no film in which the pages of Joan Didion’s The White Album are used as emergency toilet paper is entirely devoid of satirical bite.

The picture’s greatest asset is its star and producer, Aubrey Plaza, who has a name like a suburban shopping mall and a face like sarcasm personified: those seen-it-all eyes, that slack, sour mouth. She plays Ingrid Thorburn, an unstable and credulous young Pennsylvania woman who arrives in Los Angeles with the aim of befriending the minor Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).

We have already seen how Ingrid’s previous social-media-inspired friendship turned out (it led to a spell in a mental institution) and there is no indication this one will be any different. Lit by the sallow glow of her mobile-phone screen, she agonises over whether to post a “hahaha”, a “hehe” or a “heh heh” beneath the latest photos, humble-brags and hashtags of Taylor’s apparently perfect life. The movie is shot fittingly in greying, even jaundiced tones, so that we seem to be gazing at the world through a retro Instagram filter.

Ingrid Goes West masquerades for a while as a kind of Talented Ms Ripley, with Ingrid ingratiating herself into Taylor’s life by flattery and subterfuge. (Single White Female gets a namecheck.) She dresses like her and eats at the same hipster cafe, though she hates the food and feasts on a consoling McDonald’s at home. She rescues Taylor’s missing pooch, not letting on that it was she who dognapped it in the first place.

When Taylor flutters her hand over her clavicle in mock tearfulness or says “You are my favourite person I’ve ever met!”, these are only the outward markers of a social group that places hyperbole and insincerity over nuance and depth. But to Ingrid, these exclamations are real. Suspense in the film comes primarily from how she will be exposed as the social interloper she is (or, in modern parlance, a basic bitch). Then it’s a question of how she will react when the facade slips.

The main character of the 1987 horror The Stepfather massacred his family when they disappointed him, moving on to find another one to fulfil his ideal of perfection. Ingrid Goes West isn’t willing to get quite that gruesome, though it offers a bleak ending, not dissimilar to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which foresees no escape from the distortion and solipsism that it has diagnosed.

Masks feature prominently in the film – balaclavas worn during an ambush, a white sheet for Halloween – but the matter of whether anyone even has a real face to show remains moot. The sanest character is Ingrid’s landlord and sometime boyfriend, Dan (the endearing O’Shea Jackson, Jr) who is as expressive with his vape as Lauren Bacall was with a cigarette. But even Dan pretends occasionally to be Batman so that, he explains, the bad things in his life don’t feel like they’re really happening to him.

Speeches like these are the screenwriting equivalents of hashtags, but the director Matt Spicer (who co-wrote the script with David Branson Smith) also has some smart visual ideas up his sleeve. In one scene he fills the screen with helium emoji balloons so that the innocuous smiley faces that populate social media appear to have burst out of the phone screen and to be rampaging sinisterly through our world. Which, of course, they are. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

Show Hide image

“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist