Courtesy of A24

June 24, 2024

FATTAL | ‘I Saw the TV Glow’: Incomplete Reflections on Film, Self and

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I’m not crying on the subway, per se. I don’t really do that — perhaps a vestigial emotional blockage that comes from being raised a man. But I am reading (if you can call a promotional email reading) and I can’t help but find Jane Schoenbrun’s letter about the making of I Saw The TV Glow to be deeply moving. It’s about the first summer of their life, in a sense. 

Schoenbrun presents a narrative of trans affirmation, which — much like the film it surrounds — could be externally projected into one’s own experiences of coming of age or finding community. It makes me think of moving to New York at 18; it makes me think of my last semester, begun with a day-early return to Ithaca, tail between my legs; it makes me think of my own unfinished (rather, barely started) expedition into my own queerness. And so here I am, not quite crying on the L-train on my way to L-train vintage as I embark on my own first, twenty-first summer of my life. 

Two weeks earlier, at the actual start of my first “uncertain” summer in years, I found myself making my way uptown to watch I Saw the TV Glow. Knowing the queer subject matter and thinking about my own subject position as Schroedinger’s nonbinary person, both out and not out, queer and cis, at any given time depending on the audience or the exact rhetorical position of my internal monologue, I rehearse an inevitable post-film coming out conversation with my friend. I am already fully anticipating that the film will retap that repressed feeling of uncertainty and excitement that inevitably rears its head each time I consider my own identity. 

Well…if Schoenbrun’s letter reflects a tale of trans affirmation, I Saw the TV Glow offers a nightmarish B-side — the horror story of trans rejection. It’s about a person’s lifelong journey with a TV show, The Pink Opaque, and the role it serves as pressurized nostalgia, signifier of emptiness and reminder of receding opportunity. Owen, played brilliantly by Ian Foreman and Justice Smith at different age intervals, flits from childhood to adulthood with a sense of enforced emptiness.  And each of Schoenbrun’s reference points functions brilliantly both as literal and allegorical — depictions of specific universal experience crystalized in amber. 

The film bleeds with the plasticky, high-contrast color palette of childhood memories — fittingly constructed from materials we now know to be toxic. Though born a decade late for Schoenbrun’s exact ’90s milieu, the lines of their semi-nostalgic reminiscences still strike a nauseating chord. Each scene exudes an uncanny faded quality, not quite tangible as real, physical space, but liminal, as one might look back on a fifth birthday party or first day of middle school. Elevated by the pops of neon and occasional hyperbolized clips of VHS-recorded television, the film attracts and repels in equal measure — memories significant of hope, giving way to dread and indicative of emptiness, but reminiscent of a time when the opposite felt possible. It’s a lo-fi vibe unmatched in recent cinema, entirely singular and produced in service of an overwhelmingly bleak, but felt narrative. Schoenbrun has constructed a contemporary masterpiece. 

Ultimately, though, the film is at its core a story of queerness, even if its visual and narrative pleasures offer an enjoyment beyond that central metaphor — and even as critics have misguidedly managed to elevate other spurts of allegory above the auteur’s primary stated aim. As fable, the film is unambiguously terrifying — that vibe of infectious surrealistic horror rarely seen outside of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or David Lynch paired with a strict adherence to “reality” (that is, a lead character who refuses to admit that their nightmare is, in fact, a nightmare). Each shot oozes with the sense that “something is wrong,” each line radiates with that same sensation of uncanniness and yet, at every turn, Owen opts for the sensible choice, adhering to his myopic reality out of a fear that the path to escape remains dubious and uncertain. And to be fair, the film doesn’t allow us the easy answer of a dichotomy between status quo and better world — rather, every suggestion of the latter is marked up with the possibility that it could be as fantastical as the rest of the film is nightmarish. 

Still, the film mourns Owen’s continuous rejection, and paints domesticity with as scathing a brush as has been seen in American cinema. The skin-crawling failure of the film to ever find its way out of Owen’s cage functions as an assault on the quietly complacent and questioning queer viewers. This is your life in the closet: take it or leave it, but don’t pretend it’s anything more than a perpetual hellscape and accelerated, blurred existence. 

I can’t say the film (or the successive letter) left me with any easy answers on a personal level. Awed by its technical prowess and chilled by its conclusion, I can’t disagree with that impulse towards uncertainty in the face of bleak continuity. But, as with any metaphor, it gets a bit muddier when applied to the specifics of personal experience. I suppose I am now out, in that I publicly described myself as such. I even had that conversation with a friend I’d been practicing on the way to the movie — albeit exploiting goofy metatextuality in order to evade excessive earnestness. Still, I’m aware that my experience of queerness — that is, I suppose, my experience with life, remains incomplete, and (to an extent) unfulfilled. Whatever side of the nightmare I’ve ended up on, I cannot say for sure. Regardless, I might hope to find solace in that one flash of optimism written in chalk on a late-scene suburban street in I Saw the TV Glow

“There is still time.” 

Max Fattal is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They* can be reached at [email protected].

Let’s Unpack That is an arts column that traverses autocriticism and borderline psychotic hyperfixation through the lenses of pseudo-intellectualism and film analysis. It runs occasionally throughout the year.