Smith: Fyre (2018)
In some ways, it’s a bit surreal to see the Fyre Festival recounted on any other platform than Instagram, since it was so wedded to that particular app that it almost seemed to have been birthed from it. To distance himself from Instagram, and differentiate his project Fyre as a documentary film, director Chris Smith goes for a more dispassionate approach, adopting the “flat” style that has become typical of Netflix non-fiction in recent years. This works brilliantly with the 2017 Fyre Festival, which is more than sensational enough on its own terms. The broad strokes of the story are well known by now: entrepreneur Billy McFarland, described here by a colleague as an “operational sociopath,” joined forces with hip hop artist Ja Rule, to create a musical festival on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas that was meant to launch a new era of networking and influencing. Instead, they radically and knowingly mismanaged the event, resulting in no real infrastructure or amenities for the guests that paid to show up.
In retrospect, the Fyre Festival (and Smith’s treatment of it in Fyre)plays like an urtext for two dominant trends in contemporary media. On the one hand, it foreshadows the elite wealth satire that has emerged out of the pandemic, and plays as a prelude to texts like The White Lotus, Triangle of Sadness, The Menu and Glass Onion that focus on the uber-rich as they retreat to exclusive enclaves that are resilient enough to withstand the pressure of Covid. While the Fyre Festival occurred before the pandemic, it’s not hard to see it as a peak pandemic experience, since influencing only skyrocketed further during lockdown, as Instagram icon after Instagram icon tried to retain their exclusivity brand in the midst of an all but universal experience of isolation. At the same time, Fyre anticipates what might be described as a turn towards the scammer-industrial complex, in the form of 2020s texts that seek to periodise the 2010s not in terms of novel technology, but novel forms of coercion and manipulation. We see this especially in television – in series about Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes, the formation of Uber, the formation of WeWork – so Fyre feels right at home at Netflix, again functioning as a prelude to this manner in which the 2010s would be periodised.
The paradox of Fyre, as Smith understand it, is that it offered nothing more tangible than the promise of further networking, and further influencing. It started as a web conference, and as a networking and booking app, that was touted as being the next horizon in coordinating and liaising with celebrities. Fyre, as an event, was designed to launch this app, by both providing and embodying an epicentre of influence that coincided with what now feels like the very peak of Instagram. Not only did McFarland link up with Ja Rule through Insta, but their early marketing took place almost entirely on the site, and involved a two-fold approach. First, they invited “the titans of the modelling industry” to spend a week on a Bahamian island, in a kind of teaser trailer for the Fyre event. Then, they targeted the top influencers on Instagram, and paid them exorbitant fees – $250 000 USD for Kendall Jenner alone – to post a fire-orange tile, which turned out to be the symbol of this most exclusive of influencer events. Some of these Insta stars were also promised a luxury villa in exchange for their post.
Yet despite all this hype, the Fyre Festival didn’t promise anything specific beyond an immersion in the Insta aesthetic, meaning that the event really only consisted of these early promotional stunts, and the allure of influence that they evoked. So powerful was this sense of influence that McFarland seems to have understood it as a currency, or a commodity, or both, using it to sell stuff he didn’t have, and buy stuff he couldn’t afford. Part of the power of Fyre lies in how methodically it outlines McFarland’s delusion that the Fyre Festival could be run on influence alone. Not only did he refuse to compromise on massive payouts to influencers, but he seems to believe that this was sufficient, in and of itself, to compensate for the fact that his crew were trying to set up the entire infrastructure of a festival in a mere eight weeks, rather than the requisite twelve months, and with a last minute change of venue.
Watching it from the present, it’s remarkable how the logic of influence mirrors the logic of crypto. Like crypto, influence thrives on non-fungible exchanges, leading McFarland and his team to see other apparently unrepeatable events in the past as so many NFTs and blueprints for influence in the present. In particular, they continually focus on Woodstock as a lesson in influence, noting that nobody now remembers the hundreds of cars stuck in traffic, the lack of food, the decimated landscape, or the drug overdoses. Instead, they remember the music, the people and the atmosphere as an epicentre of influence that McFarland seeks to mirror and exceed in the present. The more precarious and downright dangerous his situation becomes, the more he is compelled, despite himself, to invoke the alchemical power of influence to restore order from chaos – and for a beat it seems to work, since even the most explicit online predictions that the Festival will be a disaster barely make a dent in a virtual environment whose capacity for influence has been entirely caught up in Fire’s vortical sway.
Still, even the most ardent belief in influencer culture is ultimately powerless to repress the central spectacle of Fyre – namely, the messy material substrate of influence, the 200 Bahamian day labourers (McFarland enlisted as many workers as possible) who are still owed a quarter of a million dollars to this day (or the local restaurant owner who had to pay these workers $50 000 USD out of her own pocket to defray Fyre’s expenses). This is a very different kind of labour from that of influence, even if influence depends on it for its subsistence, as the guests realise when they arrive and encounter the material substrate of their influence, rather than the augmented fantasy of influence that they were expecting. The comedy and horror of Fyre peaks with them realising the building site is their accommodation, the world’s most airbrushed and manicured aspirants now reduced to squatting in squalor. Not only does this undercut the splendid isolation of influencers – they’re all squeezed together, on the beach, in tents, in holding buildings, back at the airport – but it renders them totally banal, since they’re all sharing the same generic backdrop now, the same bland Instafied good life.
This is both scary and funny, but it becomes genuinely spooky when the first night of Fyre falls, as many of the influencers later seem to realise: “There was a definite turning-point when the sun went down, when the camaraderie was over.” The narcissistic unconscious of influencers now emerges, precisely as they retreat to the damaged psychic spaces they post from, as Fyre turns into a vision of what happens in the invisible and connective tissues of social media. Blank or traumatised faces emerge and recede from an eerie darkness, reminding me of the strangely empty expressions that occur periodically throughout Bodies Bodies Bodies, a horror film that also seeks to visualise the virtual world in real time and space. By the time it’s fully dark, most of these social media celebrities reputedly reverted to a “looting mentality,” hoarding food and basic amenities much as they hoard likes and followers.
In other words, the business of influencing is subsumed into the economic flows of the Global South. Some influencers are detained at the airport, like illegal immigrants; others compare the festival to a refugee camp, amidst leftover emergency tents from Hurricane Matthew; others still are overwhelmed by local labourers flooding the site and demanding payment. Rumours soon spread that these labourers have ordered hits on the Fyre organisers, forcing the management team into the same squalor, including a senior executive who resorts to swaping clothes with a service worker and hiding behind a urinal, as insurrection breaks out.
For all the horror of this spectacle, however, Fyre remains somewhat sober about the future of influence. To be sure, this is partly a vision of the precarity of influence, by way of an event that was initiated by celebrities posting orange tiles, and eventually brought down by a Twitter influencer with only a couple of hundred followers posting a photograph of a scrappy cheese sandwich. But Smith also presents the Fyre Festival as a lesson in the resilience of influence, its capacity to absorb and even embrace crisis, not unlike the crypto sphere that shares many of its traits. The last note of the film is the revelation that McFarland started a completely different scam, while he was out on bail, and awaiting trial for Fyre, even though it was clear that he would be easily detected. Certainly, this reflects McFarland’s deranged addiction to influence, but it also suggests that the scammer-industrial complex is now a reflexive part of our economy, a rote response that Fyre raises as a question, but can’t answer.
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