Since 2013, over a series of Vines, YouTube videos, and guest spots on the likes of I Think You Should Leave and The Chris Gethard Show, comedian Conner O’Malley has developed perhaps the defining character of these troubled times. The O’Malley character is a belligerent, mealy-mouthed asshole, not bound to one ideology (sometimes he’s an Alex Jones-ite, other times he’s railing against “the covfefe man”) but always willing to sacrifice themselves and others to the altar of late capitalism. In a time when people are begging to be allowed to kill others in the name of upholding power and/or getting a haircut, O’Malley’s caricature only seems more dead-on, and it feels just right that the lockdown of the country has led to some of his most audacious, brilliant work to date.
O’Malley’s early quarantine films are some of his more meat-and-potatoes work, lacking the aggressive Windows MovieMaker graphics that run rampant over his other videos. Instead, simple iPhone-on-a-selfie-stick cinematography and chopped-to-bits editing cover O’Malley screaming about getting the stock market back on track, keeping the focus solely on O’Malley’s malevolent character. In spite of him trying to push you away at every moment, O’Malley is a magnetic presence because he offers the thrill of seeing social norms and expectations be revealed as monstrous as they really are.
GO OUTSIDE AND GET THE STOCK MARKET UP!!! pic.twitter.com/ycgRCdvWph
— Conner O'Malley (@conner_omalley) March 10, 2020
POWERADE THE STOCK MARKET!!!! pic.twitter.com/c7kXOkbJfp
— Conner O'Malley (@conner_omalley) March 16, 2020
O’Malley’s recent work starts getting truly fascinating in his epic four-part series The Bike Talk Show. It follows the same character from previous O’Malley videos depicting talk shows in a lake and a river, already formally inventive for how they distort the conventions of the talk-show medium with surreally wide-angle, Leviathan-esque images. But The Bike Talk Show is something else entirely, shot live from a fixed angle and thus removing the hyperactive pleasures of the normal O’Malley video. It’s four half-hour-long shots of O’Malley riding his bike, behind him a series of spookily empty New York locations. It’s the same old O’Malley, reading jokes that sound like a serial killer manifesto and screaming along to the soundtracks of alleged better years, from Obama-era Katy Perry hits to Load-era Metallica. But the unbroken takes allow your eyes to wander from his mischief and onto the beauty around him. The combination of the digital skylines behind O’Malley and the evershifting colored lighting on him goes far beyond the flat realism of the earlier quarantine videos and into the realm of late Michael Mann, depicting a world that looks as it does to the naked eye but feels like something much grander, a shimmering beacon piercing through the dark. But there’s so much dark to pierce through. Like Blackhat before it, The Bike Talk Show shows the city as nearing its obsolescence, advertisements ignored because nobody walks the streets beneath them, the glorious skyscrapers left hollow despite their heft. Even the O’Malley character comes to seem as sad as the desolate streets around him, a man with no audience and some tragically misconceived ideas of what he can do in the meantime (him screaming Hamilton lyrics at nobody while dressed as the Joker rings all too true with how so many have reacted to recent events).
The Bike Talk Show is a grand undertaking, running about two hours and requiring a lot of patience for O’Malley’s schtick. But luckily, O’Malley took Bike Talk Show‘s aesthetic and made it available in more accessible forms, two Collaterals to Bike‘s Miami Vice. SMOKING 500 CIGARETTES FOR 5G takes the Blackhat comparisons and runs with them, the gorgeous digital city and sky behind O’Malley seeming like nothing next to the godlike powers of 5G. And it goes much further than Blackhat in showing how the internet will poison our lives, depicting one man’s radicalization by way of Burlington Coat Factory conspiracy memes. Not even O’Malley’s transformation into more brand than man can protect him from the destructive power of having all the world’s knowledge and secrets at your fingertips. It pushes O’Malley’s demented energy into the realm of cosmic horror, earning the Ligeti it drops next to “Like a G6”.
But the cream of O’Malley’s recent crop, and possibly his magnum opus entirely, is Leather Metropolis. It takes the patience of Bike Talk Show and goes even further with it, doing away with the usual O’Malley screaming altogether and letting the images stand out without an accompanying assault on the senses. O’Malley’s restraint means that his character becomes less a capitalism demon and more a deluded Reddit user, complete with mangled Dark Knight and Avengers quotes. As he mumbles his way through a half-assed Matrix impression, nothing he says has anything to do with COVID, but the desolate Times Square he wanders through hopelessly trying to look like a badass says it all. His idiocy is all the more pronounced coming in front of the eerie beauty of these images, the digital photography rendering nighttime Manhattan in rich, textured greys interrupted by blinding Times Square ads and the bright blue of O’Malley’s shirt. Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise shut down Times Square for similar shots in Vanilla Sky, but O’Malley’s vision is more haunting because Cruise at least acknowledges the terror of what he sees. Meanwhile, the O’Malleys of the world will keep going without considering the realities of anything around them, forever flexing in front of a giant American flag.