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Stream Slate #1: Dirty Looks to Netflix: The Circle contestant Alex Lake's experimental film roots

by Jon Dieringer


The Circle (Netflix)
William E. Jones I'm Open to Anything (print)
William E. Jones on Fred Halsted interview (Screen Slate)
The author's brother winning Wheel of Fortune (YouTube)
Richard Serra's Boomerang (YouTube)
Richard Serra's Match Match Their Courage (Ludwig Forum, excerpt)
Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin (e-reader)

New York City art film website Screen Slate is proud to transition to Stream Slate by interviewing one of the stars of the Netflix reality show The Circle. The series features contestants in isolated apartment units who never meet face-to-face, instead communicating through a specially designed social media app. Some play as themselves, and others “catfish” in other identities.

Several weeks ago, during a time that I was coincidentally both sick and working remotely on my day job due to ongoing building construction, I decided on a whim to reach out to my friend Alex Lake to ask if he would be up for an interview. The circumstances leading to this were improbable. From my end, it started last year, when our mutual friend Karl McCool showed me this photo:

Very cool, and a normal thing someone would show me, since my day job basically has something to do with transferring video tapes of naked people doing stuff. (Media Art Conservator.) Then Karl showed me this photograph of Alex:
Screen Slate exclusive photo courtesy of Alex Lake

According to Karl, Alex was going to be on a Netflix reality show “about catfishing.” This immediately became my most anticipated upcoming moving image work. Before his relatively recent move to Los Angeles, I’d known Alex as an integral part of New York City’s film culture as a print inspector at experimental film distribution center The Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the projectionist of itinerant queer screening series Dirty Looks. To learn — as I was advised to keep absolutely secret — that he would be catfishing on a marquee new reality series from the world’s largest streaming giant seemed like a brilliant interventionist project: analog film guy catapults into the digital firmament.

Our conversation took place January 31, 2020, and we touched upon things including how Andrea Dworkin influenced Alex’s catfish portrayal of uber-masculine “Adam,” the resonance between The Circle and media art about technological intervention, and which New York experimental filmmaker is most deserving of a spot on the next season.

Tomorrow we’ll follow up with streaming recommendations from Alex, including an off-the-radar giallo, an exploitation film by one of Gregory Markopolous’s favorites, and links to some of his and Screen Slate’s favorite artist filmmakers.

Jon Dieringer: I thought it would be funny to do this as a Screen Slate piece.

Alex Lake: A Netflix show is the last thing on the planet that you would ever cover.

JD: It’s interesting that The Circle characterized you as an artist, a former cheesemonger, and an opera enthusiast, but they didn't really play up the experimental film buff angle. Did you talk with them about how they were planning to contextualize you as a character?

AL: I guess they thought it was quirkier that I liked opera than that I liked film. I brought a Bolex, and I tried to show it off, but they just completely cut it.

JD: And also, of course, you're wearing a Dirty Looks t-shirt at one point. Are there other experimental film Easter eggs that you tried to sneak in?

AL: Not really, I should have gone harder with that. I was so focused on playing the game that it was hard to think about anything other than figuring people out. I brought a copy of William E. Jones’s I’m Open to Anything, with that ridiculous penis statue on the cover. They couldn’t clear that, so it doesn’t appear on the show. [Ed note: Karl McCool spoke to William E. Jones for Screen Slate earlier this year.]

Alex Lake in his Dirty Looks Presents: Sesión continua, A 24-Hour Porn Theater t-shirt

JD: You went to the Art Institute of Chicago. Are there any specific artists that you studied with?

AL: I studied with the great Tatsu Aoki, a master optical printer. I studied with the late Sharon Couzin and the late Shellie Fleming. It was a great environment, and everybody was super supportive.

JD: Can you talk a bit about how you got on The Circle? You mentioned that you watched the British version, followed seeing a Deadline article and a casting call, then you went in for an interview. Could you pick it up from there?

AL: How DID it go? I applied, and they contacted me for a Skype interview, and I thought, "Oh sure, I can do that.” After the Skype interview, we did an in-person interview. They hadn’t scheduled me properly and had to carve out time. I was like, “Okay, this is a strike against me, I’m out of it.” They really liked the way I dressed, they thought it was great.

JD: Do you remember what you were wearing?

AL: I was definitely wearing a sweater my wife Gina made, from her line Soft Haus, that had a yellow circle on it, like yellow sun. I did think it was appropriate. I don’t think I was wearing overalls. Maybe lavender pants? Maybe Birkenstocks with socks? I can’t remember. Maybe I can find the selfie I took that day before I went in.

Screen Slate exclusive photo courtesy of Alex Lake

JD: Did you consider being yourself, or did you know that you wanted to catfish? And did you find Adam [the man Alex used as his avatar], or did the producers cast him?

AL: So I went in thinking, “I wanna catfish.” The winner of the first UK season did it by cat fishing, so I thought that was the way to do it, to try to play somebody that you're not.

So I started looking through Instagram for male models, and I finally found a guy. Cold asking people if you can use their pictures to catfish on a TV show does not get a lot of responses, but finally this one person said “sure.” That’s all the DM said, just, “Sure.” I sent him the release, and he signed it. I thought I was covered, but a few weeks later the producers tried to contact him, and he just ghosted. At that point Netflix emailed me a dozen pictures of beautiful men, and I picked one that I thought embodied Adam the most.

JD: I am not sure if I can ask this, but early on, a friend showed me a photo of a guy…as I recall…

AL: With a VHS tape over his crotch?

JD: So that wasn’t Adam?

AL: That picture was a random person that I had talked to. That's the guy who signed the release that fell through. I was looking at Instagram on Labor Day weekend and thinking, “Where do beautiful people go on Labor Day weekend?” I ended up looking at the geotag for the Fire Island Pines, thinking, “Gay men are incredibly attractive.” I found a video of this guy shotgunning a beer on the beach and I was like, “Oh, fuck this guy. I'm totally gonna DM him.”

JD: So I’m curious about the actual set. When my brother was on Wheel of Fortune, I was in the studio audience, and I remember thinking that it was kind of like an expanded cinema experience, like [mediamystic] Bradly Eros should be there or something.

The author (center) and his brother, who won Wheel of Fortune

AL: Oh, Bradley Eros should be on The Circle, I would love to see that.

JD: Bradley seems like someone who would do really well playing as himself.

AL: Yeah, Bradley would make great television. Why doesn’t he have a show on Netflix yet?

JD: Did you feel like there were parallels between The Circle and experimental film, expanded cinema, or contemporary art? Maybe it’s a reach…

AL: It’s a bit of a stretch, but you are in a room with, I don't know, maybe 20 cameras that are moving around you? It is kind of a weird, weird art space, and I definitely took it to be sort of a performance. If I had completely bombed on the show, I could have written it off as performance art, right?

JD: Well, maybe there is a durational performance aspect to it. How long were you actually there?

AL: I was away from home for a month. The span of the whole taping was fifteen days, and I was in it for seven days.

JD: I do think there's something interesting about the way that the show has all these people mediated by a single technological apparatus. There are other media artworks that also kind of deal with that, like Boomerang by Richard Serra. Nancy Holt is wearing these headphones that plays a delayed feedback loop of everything she's saying, and she's talking about the experience of being in this auditory loop as she experiences it.

AL: Wow, I haven’t seen that.

Nancy Holt in Boomerang (Richard Serra, 1974)

JD: There's also a generally unknown and sort of recently rediscovered version of it called Match Match Their Courage in which Charlemagne Palestine and Nancy Holt are looking at each other through a television and they can hear each other and themselves on a delayed loop, trying to communicate back and forth and talking about how surreal it is to be communicating in that way. And I, again, this is the pretentious Screen Slate reach…

AL: I love it.

JD: …but I do think it's interesting to have this social experiment where people’s relationships are 100% mediated by this custom apparatus that emulates social media, but is really its own thing. And inevitably, a lot of talk on The Circle is about The Circle.

AL: At one point, yes, it’s a performative act, but in all actuality, it’s how so much communication happens now, over these weird social media apps. You have five different messaging apps on your phone, Twitter and Facebook and text, now TikTok. On the one hand, it’s this bizarre thing, and on the other hand, it’s just what we do, it’s how we communicate in the 21st century.

JD: There's a real special moment in the series where you meet your fellow catfish Rebecca [a contestant named Seaburn playing as his girlfriend] face-to-face. Did the producers nudge you in that direction?

AL: I was always fairly confident that I would choose to meet Rebecca, if that time came. I could have chosen to go meet anybody, but at that point I’d been kicked off, and she was partially responsible. I knew there was something fishy with her. I can’t tell you definitively that the producers encouraged me to go on that date with her early on, but they may have slightly pushed for it. Still, at the end of the day, all the decisions and everything I said on the show, both good and bad, were made by myself without hindrance.

JD: Actually, the show has an interesting relationship to gender and sexuality, which are very fluid on the show. People make intimate connections based on these false constructs. Is it fair to say there is a queer angle to the show?

AL: I think there absolutely is. I hope in future seasons they really push it. These are things that are very, very topical right now. This season at least three characters identified as queer.

JD: You spend a lot of time in the bathtub in the show. Do you have any bath tips?

AL: Living in Los Angeles, I have a real bath, something I didn’t have for many years. I strongly recommend essential oils and bath salts. A good book and a warm bath is a beautiful thing. I read the Andrea Dworkin book Last Day at Hot Slit over a series of baths before I went on The Circle.

Instead of streaming, consider reading.

JD: Do you feel Andrea Dworkin influenced your game at all?

AL: I wish I had taken more of her words to heart before playing! That’s why I was so forward and weird. Reading about how all men are awful, I was like, all men are awful, I'm gonna say whatever I want.

JD: So, you weren’t just playing a parody of a straight man, but you were playing the part of a second-wave feminist’s version of a straight man.

AL: Yeah.

JD: Do you stay in touch with your fellow cast members?

AL: Yeah, there's a big group chat that everybody participates in. I might be going to Miami next week to meet with some of them. That’s sort of up in the air. It's weird, because I'm not old, but for the most part, the people on the show are about 22 years old.

JD: Do you feel like you exposed anyone to experimental cinema?

AL: Not as much as I wish I had!

Tomorrow Alex posts some streaming picks...

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