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Domino Effect

Steve Price

Lily Topples the World (2021)

In the United States, right now, there are about 15 professional domino artists – that is, people who make a living setting little plastic disks up to knock them down in beautiful, complicated patterns. Only one of them is a woman, Lily Hevesh, who began posting her domino art videos on YouTube age nine. Now she has millions of followers (2 million the time of filming; 3.15 million as of March 23, 2021) and a career with enough momentum that it was worth dropping out of her freshman year of Rensselaer Polytechnic to pursue it. Jeremy Workman, who directed, edited and co-filmed this documentary, spent three years with Ms. Hevesh as she goes to work in her 19th and 20th year. This is a movie about work, and the ways in which work feeds into your virtual identity and vice versa. But on both of these issues, it is strangely guarded, which means the movie sets up a great many questions which it fails to knock down.

Ms. Hevesh was abandoned on the doorstep of a Chinese orphanage in 1998 and adopted by Mark and Catherine Hevesh when she was a year old. They raised her with two other siblings in a small town in New Hampshire where she was the only nonwhite child. They were clearly loving parents, but Ms. Hevesh was lonely throughout her childhood, without friends in school, and shy. The satisfaction of creating the patterns with the dominoes, filming the results, and building up her YouTube channel while in school was, and remains, something she clearly enjoys. The shots of Ms. Hevesh working on her projects, clearly able to make complicated calculations in her head as she arranges the dominoes – actually plastic bricks of all colors and sizes – are shots of someone completely focused on her work, certain of what she is doing. She’s able to coach others in the best ways of filming the patterns and even teach seminars to children and adults with the combined assurance of a great expert and the cheerfulness of a friendly young woman. She often works with other domino artists, who are with one exception all young men who also began as kids, and who, pleasingly, clearly respect Ms. Hevesh’s skills and achievements while being aware and respectful of their personal differences. (Seeing young men speak about their female peers like this is very pleasing proof that feminism’s long game is working.)

But of course her gender is a thing – Ms. Hevesh did not reveal the face behind her avatar, Hevesh5, until she had been posting for over six years; a lot of people hadn’t realized she was a girl. And of course her race is a thing – it’s very clear that her social isolation was directly tied to this, and the only time YouTube comments are shown are to highlight some racist ones. But these issues are allowed to slide. Mr. Workman is a terrible interviewer – just look at the talking-head interview with Ms. Hevesh which begins with her yawning in his face and doesn’t improve from there. It’s incredibly frustrating to think what more insightful questions could have brought to the table, especially since her guardedness is an obvious side effect of the life Ms. Hevesh has chosen for herself. As she makes appearances at Vidcon, or has meetings with toy companies in an attempt to create her own line of dominoes, almost everyone she meets is introduced onscreen with their name, their social media identity, and the number of YouTube followers they have. Even the dorky little kid who is beside himself with excitement at a meet-and-greet. Even Will Smith – Ms. Hevesh did the domino art for “Collateral Beauty”; even Katy Perry. It’s made explicit that this reduction of artistic skill and energy from novel-length movies to influencer clout and short, loopable videos has been the major development of the last decade and the main thing the kids of the last 15 years have grown up with.

The impact this has had on visual art is being felt already, but in the direction in which things are headed, it almost doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you have lots of people watching you do it. For all the work we see Ms. Hevesh doing – including projects in Paris and Athens, as well as for the “The Tonight Show” – money is never mentioned, not once. A lot of work around her domino range is shown, but the firm impression given is that the product is the dream itself, not the money she’ll get from it. Ms. Hevesh spends a week on a project for the launch of 368 NYC. From its website, “We aspire to act as a bridge between creators and partners, building relationships that are greater than a business transaction,” a sentence this critic has read repeatedly without being able to work out how any of these so-called creators are paid. Even if the Heveshes don’t want to discuss their precise business set-up, it’s weirdly disingenuous to pretend that the only clout which matters is your number of followers. The strong impression this creates is that work is about getting enough attention to encourage other people to pay you for a share of that attention.

But who are they kidding? Capitalism goes so much deeper than that, and this shallow focus on chasing the dragon of short-term popularity is a major missed opportunity - for young creators and this movie alike. On Ms. Hevesh’s Wikipedia page there is a section discussing the time YouTube itself retweeted one of her videos without crediting her. Unusually, she received a public apology. This is not even mentioned in the movie. Considering that YouTube is the platform on which her career has been built, and this casual clout theft required a public call-out to correct, their treatment of her has broader implications a smarter movie would have delved into. For a film with the message that Ms. Hevesh found herself through dominoes, and therefore if you have a beloved hobby of your own so can you, silence on the details of how this can be monetized is remarkably coy. How is a person meant to build a sense of self in the public eye if this self is perennially up for sale? Mr. Workman doesn’t seem to realize his movie should have asked these questions too. Obviously you can fake authenticity, and these days even the littlest kid knows that image isn’t everything, but it would be very interesting to learn more about what an authentic image is worth, or how much it costs to have one. It is probably not a coincidence that the second-most-popular domino artist featured in the film is a handsome, muscular young man who seems to dress exclusively in pajamas. Or are best selves supposed not to notice such things.

So “Lily Topples the World” is about the ethos that success is only possible by being your “best self,” but framing the markers of that success as a naked popularity contest while keeping the true markers hidden. Or was the true metaphor Mr. Workman was going for here right there in the intrinsic nature of domino art? All this hard work, concentration and focus can come crashing down in an instant. Ms. Hevesh says right up front that her time at college is the happiest she’s ever been, but she cannot risk spending time on her studies when she has her career going. After that, unbelievably, the topic is closed. Mr. Workman has made a good documentary about the ephemeral nature of success, work in the age of social analytics and the newest generation of celebrity in spite of himself. If only he'd noticed he could have made a great one.

Corrections: March 25, 2021
An earlier version of this review misstated that there was only one talking-head interview with Ms. Hevesh, as well as the length of filming. It was three years, not 18 months.


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