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I Saw The Tv Glow

I Saw The TV Glow: Cosmic Static

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WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for I Saw The TV Glow

When I was either 13 or 14, I had a dream in which I was able to time-travel simply by blinking my eyes. Even by that point, the forces of nostalgia had been deeply embedded within me, especially once it became apparent that my earliest days of waking up before the sun rose, PlayStation 2 controller in both hands, and rummaging through the same theme park simulation launch title just so I can activate the first-person mode and wander aimlessly around a digital world I could never actually find myself within, would cease as soon as I became old enough to make sense of the once abstract feelings it bestowed upon me. I had no interest in what the future held, as long as the comforts of the past remained seemingly attainable. The thing is, when I travelled through these memories in said dream, none of them were any I could recall. It felt as if I was forcibly hijacked into the subconscious of a complete stranger. What should’ve allowed a surplus of nostalgia-induced pleasure and tangibility instead conveyed the kind of dread that you should only feel as someone very young. Too young to understand but too old to ignore.

What is it that has made this dread survivable for me well into adulthood? Was I always just supposed to acclimate to this way of thinking while that fear metastasized like terminal illness? Does that way of thinking extend into the very body I occupy? Is my feeling of “wrongness” a fault in of itself? I could only have blinked further and further, faster and faster until the horror reached a crescendo; one final blink sends me back on my bed, left with only the sound of my primal gasping. I stay awake for a moment, I subconsciously process the experience as a now-false reminder that I have no choice but to accept myself and my experiences as unchangeable and then slowly drift into a dreamless sleep. But the mere remnant of this experience remains channeled to this day. All I have to do is blink and I’m elsewhere, unbound and embraced by both the real and the unreal. For the sake of this writing, I can blink to a very specific and most definitely real occasion.

It’s the night of January 31st, 2021. I’d been on my couch all day binging that particular day’s worth of programming via a newly virtual Sundance Film Festival. I had been mostly bored throughout but was only eager as long as I could make it to the final film of the night — Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. I knew nothing of the film and its creator, so admittedly, all that kept me determined to watch was the prospect of hearing brand-new compositions by its composer Alex G. Instead, I came out positively haunted by the film’s existence. What I saw on many occasions throughout the film was me, looking to make sense of the self through horror, fiction, and virtual communities and maintaining an endless parade of progressing from one community to another once I realized I didn’t belong in it. Even typing this out in 2024 makes me feel as if those behaviors never changed, in spite of the various efforts I’ve made to change myself into someone truer and less prone to hiding. I can comfortably (and, I suppose, proudly) say that I now write these words out as a non-binary person and creator, instead of one who, by that point three years ago, would rather have slid into a cold, barren shell before having to reckon with whatever I was told to do in order to “be a man.” On a bad day, I’d personally like to spit in the face of that very notion. But upon coming out, the fullness I had hoped to feel wasn’t quite there; yet on the precipice of the act, I had no one but myself to tell me it was the right decision, and it was made so much scarier because of it. I’ve since been able to confide these things to my loving partner and an equally loving support system, but oftentimes I struggle with a recurring internal question — what took you so fucking long to find yourself?

I blink again, and it’s just over a week ago. I’m with my partner, watching Schoenbrun’s newest film, I Saw the TV Glow, after admittedly two years of obsessively tracing down every element of the project’s development since it was announced. I knew from the moment Schoenbrun opened their previous film that their style was one for me to latch onto like a barnacle. A predominantly queer vision that at once recalls the cosmic millennial angst of Richard Kelly or Gregg Araki and the contemplative beauty of Tsai Ming-liang, you never have to worry about thinking of those names more than Schoenbrun themself as they make a quantum leap from the micro-budget scale of World’s Fair to the $10 million, A24-certified price tag attached to I Saw the TV Glow. But like any successful work of art, where the film’s grandness lies is the narrative itself, centering around ’90s nostalgia, suburban malaise, and how those two things entwine through the film’s two leads, played impeccably by Justice Smith (younger version played by Ian Foreman) and Brigette Lundy-Paine.

I Saw The Tv Glow 2Growing up in a northeastern U.S. suburbia that is simultaneously adrift in alien haze and alarmingly familiar are “Owen” and “Maddy,” played by Smith and Lundy-Paine respectively, whose paths cross in 1996 through their mutual interest in a late-night YA television series titled The Pink Opaque (yes, named after the Cocteau Twins LP) — starring Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan and Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline) as Tara and Isabel — a pair of psychically-bound teens who spend each episode fighting grotesque monsters sent by the show’s Big Bad — a moon-shaped monstrosity named Mr. Melancholy who ominously hovers over our protagonists like a galactic specter. “Owen” is taken by the show without being able to truly articulate why, while “Maddy” sees it as a platform for escape from her abusive home life. We trace these two over several years as they drift and reunite while gradually being more and more unable to thrive in their mutually assigned reality. Eventually, “Maddy” returns, except it’s no longer “Maddy.” Adopting a new name and having spent time within another side of existence, “Maddy” recognizes “Owen” as having the same inclination of escape from the mecca of early-aughts self-repression. “Owen” is invited to embrace life on that same side, knowing deep-down, well within the trauma and anxiety burrowing beneath, who she must become in order for life to be worth living.

The unshakeable tragedy of Schoenbrun’s film, and the root of its deliberate universality, stem from its awareness of how easy it is for children to be failed by their own upbringing. “Owen” is initially comforted by the loving presence of her mother (Danielle Deadwyler), slowly succumbing to cancer, but is eventually left only to come home to the voided presence of her father (a terrifying Fred Durst), who communicates only in pale stares and reinforcements of cis-heteronormativity that often vary in life-diminishing emotional violence. While moments like these are generally emblematic of the kind of horror that the film operates in, Schoenbrun follows up the most haunting moments of their previous film with imagery that at once pays respect to the shows that inspired The Pink Opaque yet paralyzes in its ability to put you at unshakeable discomfort. Like Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink — another great ’90s-set horror film about the betrayal of nostalgia, I Saw the TV Glow weaponizes its initial comforts at the surface until they reveal themselves to have malicious faces that fill the fame, taunting you from above as you inevitably collapse, desperately crying out for people who no longer exist. Come the final fifteen minutes, the level of emotional exasperation I found myself in could only be compared to how I felt watching the finale of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. An alarmingly naked primal scream that contains only the faintest trace of soothing within the most existential despair. If you’ve spent countless years of your life questioning yourself, your body, and your existence, it’s likely best to watch this film with a loved one who will not only understand what Schoenbrun is saying but will also understand how you understand. I feel certainly lucky to have had mine beside me.

That trace of soothing within its final minutes rests upon a recurring chalk drawing on a suburban street that opens the film, eventually revealing itself as containing the message “there is still time.” Many have been right to dictate this as one of the film’s central theses, but the devastation of its ending can’t be ignored. It will never be too late to find yourself on that other side, the same way it’ll never be too late to continue building myself and learning how to live without needing to immolate everything that I’m loath to have defined me. But of course, knowing this doesn’t make time any less finite, and a key sequence before the film’s final shot confirms to me at least that Schoenbrun knows this, perhaps enough for any viewer who took this in the way I did to take their own kind of action. For anybody who has ever felt that their body isn’t their own, that this isn’t their home, or that the thought of not making it to a particular age before you can begin that pursuit paralyzes you from starting, know that you already have all you need to begin. To have even just one other person in your life awaiting your embracing of a new self is something everyone should be entitled to. All you have to do is echo the words of “Maddy” — never apologize.

I Saw The TV Glow screens through Thursday, May 23rd.
Monday, May 20th – 8:15pm
Tuesday, May 21st – 3pm, 9:45pm
Wednesday, May 22nd – 2:45pm, 5pm, 8pm
Thursday, May 23rd – 1:30pm, 8:15pm
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