Liza Mandelup’s Engaging New Doc Opens Our Eyes To The Endless Struggle To Be Seen [SXSW]

Mar 19, 2023

Filmmaker Liza Mandelup can make the promise of social media feel like a dream. In her feature debut, “Jawline,” she toggled back and forth between an established social media content farmhouse and a 14-year-old Tennessee upstart who struggles valiantly at breaking onto the live stream scene, both narratives reflecting and refracting each other. Mandelup is patently aware of the dazzling prize of our new and ever-changing social media economy, not only how it’s shaping our conceptions of self but also of labor. Where “Jawline” exposed, without judgment, the work it takes to be an influencer, her newest feature, “Caterpillar,” expands and inverts some of her preoccupations, which also are certainly our obsessions. While orbiting the digital world and its ripples into the real, in “Caterpillar,” she looks at the way we see. 
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But she makes a slight departure in her approach this time around. If her previous documentary work has embodied a kind of narcotized frenzy of fandom, desire, and performance in the digital age, it’s been done to magnify and elongate feelings which might be kind of banal without the microscope. “Caterpillar” begins on the dance floor, the title cards whipping around with the lights, the viewer submerged in the same ecstatic flashing lights as our main subject, Raymond David Taylor. The only thing that matters in terms of what we can see is that it intoxicates the viewer, making the darkness a spell. But as the images become clearer, as we see the bodies in the club become more defined and their neutral expressions seem to fall the way the oily and atmospheric music of Palmbomen II, Raymond looks and looks around and the tone changes to something more distressing. 
Raymond, close to 50 and living in Miami not far from his mother, wants to change his life. He wants to change the way he’s seen; rather, he wants to be seen at all. He takes a step that he hopes will be a near final step in his self-actualization: he decides to do a cosmetic surgery to change the color of his eyes. The procedure, which is comp’ed by the online company BrightOcular, makes a hefty claim, as if someone will be born anew. The only thing that Raymond, and the four other people who go with him to New Delhi, India to have the surgery done, that he has to do is make a video testimonial and sign his likeness away so that it can be used for BrightOcular’s social media campaigns. 
For Raymond, who has experienced racism and abuse within his family because of his darker skin tone and his queerness, changing the way he sees becomes a gateway to escaping his past, shorn of any connections to an older, lesser version of himself. 
Mandelup, either intentionally or otherwise, is able to do double duty with “Caterpillar” ’s primary premise: she can examine the social and personal addictions of making oneself over in order to be desired and to find belonging in an age of deep alienation, and, by making it about the eye itself, she can also interrogate the audience’s fascination with those kinds of narratives of self-optimization. Though the film tends to nudge the viewer along with a sense of horror or at least anxiety at both the processes of this surgery as well as the decision making itself, enough of the movie is framed by a slight skepticism on behalf of both the viewer and the subject. Which is to say, that “Caterpillar” also nods to a cinematic self-reflexivity, an awareness of the morbid dedication of its viewers to see a transformation story through.  
What does an audience have to gain from watching someone take what are, even in the landscape of Ozempic, buccal fat removal, and Instagram faces, codified as somewhat extreme measures to change themselves? Describing it as a cautionary tale ascribes too much of a moralistic framework, and I don’t think that’s what Mandelup is going for anyways. But she does see Raymond, and the other people whose stories are also often rooted in trauma, as human and also prey to late capitalism’s worst impulses. The audience, too, has been conditioned to want the human interest story where someone’s life has been changed and they’re either beloved and wanted, or something to pity and gawk at. 
“Caterpillar,” though it is deliberately amorphous at times, leaning into a kind of phantasmagoric state, circles its lead subject, giving him an interiority without necessarily drilling into the most obvious facts of his life. (So if you’re looking to understand what kind of job he has, you’re out of luck.) Nor is the film especially concerned with the more precise analytical aspect of the machinations of BrightOptical’s business operations function, even in tumult. Though that more systematic breakdown of the scam would be extremely interesting, the film and its changing gaze ebbs and flows like ink bleeding into water, some ideas taking over others and swirling together. 
Mandelup’s great skill, besides her interrogation into how the social media economy has made the act of being into so much work, has been in her ability to imbue these topics with real human longing. Bifurcated by its tale of a mother and son whose jagged relationship is defined by their differing ideas of the self (and of gender too), you can tell, without judgment, that this step feels like a lifeline for Raymond. The added contradiction is that it’s unclear (as it sometimes can be) whether he wants to see differently or if he wants to be seen differently. Whatever the case, Mandelup wants us to open our eyes. [B+]
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