Just as Sundance has its coming-of-age stories, the paranoid tech parable is beginning to emerge as a newly dominant "SXSW movie." It makes sense: with an audience that crosses over so heavily with the digital community, SXSW Film is an eager, receptive audience for your would-be Black Mirror episode.
Benjamin Dickinson's Creative Control, which appropriately enough started as a Kickstarter campaign, has all the elements of a juicy near-future nightmare: a potentially life-altering gadget, an anxiety-ridden protagonist who all too easily becomes addicted to it, and a sexual obsession that's only exacerbated by it. But Creative Control, with its dreamy black-and-white cinematography and its knowing send-up of the Brooklyn creatives on which it focuses, is also a sharp satire of our present day — particularly the contradictions of being a creative person in a capitalist society. Basically: If you were already dreading a future of wearables and augmented reality, imagine that future in Williamsburg.
Dickinson also stars in the film and surrounded himself with a cast of real-life artists and media personalities, including Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, Vimeo co-founder Jake Lodwick, rapper Heems, and "disinformationist" and musician Reggie Watts, who plays himself. With them he creates an augmented reality of its own — a still-recognizable creative class both confronting and participating in the absurdities of their privileged enclave.
But Dickinson himself, a commercial director who has worked with Google in the past, sounds pretty pro-technology, especially when it comes to the VR devices that could be the progenitors to Creative Control's fictional Augmenta glasses (which, yes, look like the latest Warby Parker frames.) I spoke to him this weekend about tech culture, hipster culture, yoga, and his upcoming VR project.
Emily Yoshida: There are so many tech-oriented films this year at SXSW, and a lot of tech-nightmare films. But then you walk outside after watching of one of these dark visions of technology, and the overall SXSW vibe is "Everything about the future is going to be amazing! Lets get even MORE internet!"
Benjamin Dickinson: "This is gonna change everything! After this, there will be no more human suffering, because we'll all be able to play video games on our glasses! We'll never have to deal with the confusing aspects of life, like death, or overly complicated emotions!" That narrative's ridiculous. Have you seen the ad that Microsoft did for the HoloLens?
It's almost like a parody of itself. It starts out in black and white, and — this is amazing — he puts the glasses on, and everything is in color. (Laughs) But isn't that exactly what [Creative Control] is criticizing? The aesthetics of it. I mean, I couldn’t believe it when I watched it, I was like, you handed this to me on a silver platter, Microsoft! The inspirational music starts, there are smiling, beautiful people — that is so funny to me.
It seems disconnected with reality, because most of our interactions with our devices are for very mundane things.
It's a hammer. You know what I mean? It's a hammer or a knife.
There's a line in the film that is at once ridiculous and so true to life, when David's at his pitch meeting and says that the Augmenta is "not Main Street, it's Bedford Avenue." The same could be said of your film — one could easily write it off as "hipster sci-fi."
And all of those associations are deliberate, but they also undermine it.
But the idea of "hipsters" being a counter-culture, or somehow outside the mainstream seems silly to me. I feel like it all converged years ago.
It converged in 1971. That's what's so funny about it to me; this idea that hipsters are not authentic. Basically what people are saying is that they're counterculture consumers, which is an oxymoron. Again, the disinformationist Reggie Watts prefers to call hipsters "aesthetic bohemians." Which is a more accurate term.
"Not Main Street, it's Bedford Avenue."
That got co-opted so fucking long ago. There was a genuine counterculture movement in the '60s. It was a civil rights movement and a women's movement. People were being so oppressed, and then [it was compounded] with middle class kids out of college. It was a genuine moment; there were radical people, and they got fucking murdered. And then the powers that be were like, "how can we co-opt this to sell things?" Because money has no integrity.
It sees passion and latches on.
That's its function. And [now] people are nostalgic for the '90s when things were "authentic." That's such bullshit. The only reason you knew about Nirvana is because MTV wanted you to know about them.
You cast a lot of Brooklyn personalities; Williamsburg is the center of the film's universe. Do you think this limits the film's appeal in any way?
Well, I didn't cast them in those roles for the purpose of marketing the movie. I cast them because I had access to them and because it didn't make sense to me to cast actors in those roles when I have access to the real life archetypes. So, it doesn't have movie stars in it, obviously.
I don't think there's anything about the themes of the movie that shouldn't be relatable to anyone living in the developed world who deals with technology and has anxiety about technology, people dealing with the biggest income inequality gap we've ever had on planet Earth. There are all kinds of economical pressures going on, and I think pretty much everyone can relate to that. I don't think the Williamsburg-centric aspect of it ... that's a detail. That's a milieu I'm familiar with. I think it represents a lot of tech advertising, creative class culture in general. Not just in Williamsburg, but in San Francisco and LA and Austin, and Chicago.
So you know, [in the post-film Q&A] I keep bringing up Antonioni, but I've never been to Rome. I don't really have a sense of the references — there's all kinds of references to Roman culture in the '60s that I don't get, but I recognize the basic human problems in La Notte and L'Eclisse. I wasn't alive in the '70s, but the Manhattan in Woody Allen's Manhattan and the references he makes, you can kind of live in it. You can step into it.
"You can kind of live in it. You can step into it."
At the same time there's a heightened aspect of those films — and yours — being shot in black and white. It tells us we're definitely watching a film, watching a story.
I was aware of that, setting it apart. Creative Control wouldn't be Creative Control if it was in color and directed with a hand-held camera. I believe in that "the medium is the message" thing ... The way that you choose to tell the story aesthetically has an effect on how you experience what you're seeing in a way you can't quantify. It's a quality, it's not something you can analyze. So obviously I made strong aesthetic choices — those were just as important as the script, if not more so.
You also shot anamorphic, which is quite a contrast to all the characters who spend their day staring at tiny little screens.
That anamorphic format that just shows context. You have a sense of the spaces the people are in. It's great for architecture, and also, it's kind of more like our eyesight.
I just liked it, and I thought it was appropriate thematically. And you always feel the spaces, but still, in the center of the lens, you can get that sharp focus, so it's like peripheral vision. You can feel the environment, but you can still direct the eye. And there are shots when David and Sophie are flirting across the office on text message. And Sophie is in a master shot, she's this big. But you never get distracted.
Everything you're talking about reminds me of why people are excited about Oculus and VR for storytelling.
I think so. And I mean, you can't tell people where to look in Oculus. You have to create an environment, and then they choose where to look. So you can make suggestions, maybe look over here, maybe look over there.
I am very excited about something in my life right now. After SXSW, I'm going to LA to make a VR short film with Reggie. It was just greenlit like, yesterday. So that's our next project together. It's just going to be a couple minutes, and the guys who are doing it are giving us a lot of freedom, because we don't know what this is. We don't know what the grammar is, we don't know if it's going to work. So they're just giving us free rein with the screenwriting. And it kind of feels like [the early days of] silent cinema, where we don't really know what the established grammar will be. It kind of has to evolve over time. That's one of the things that I'm really struggling to think differently about — I can't tell the viewer where to look. I can only suggest.
Have you spent much time with any VR devices?
I have. I watched some on the Samsung Gear. And I honestly was impressed. But then ... they plugged me into the fucking Matrix, and they showed me the Valve. Oh my god. I know you guys did a story on it — it is next level. It is seamless. When I used the Samsung thing, after about three or four minutes I started to feel dizzy, and I didn't like it. I was in the Valve 20 minutes, and I didn't want to leave. It was just next level.
"Smartphones, augmented reality glasses, they're all just a hammer. You can kill someone with a hammer or you can build a house."
Your previous feature involved yoga, and in Creative Control, it's used as a kind of as a purported antidote to all the stresses of tech — getting back into our bodies and out of our heads. But now, wearables are making their way into that realm — now everyone wants to track and quantify their workouts. What do you think about tech making its way into what used to be pure physical experiences?
I don't know. We may already be living in a virtual reality. (Laughs) Even before we invented the virtual reality inside of it. Reggie likes to call the human body the "biomechanical consciousness suit." But it does feel like that sometimes, like our consciousnesses are somehow — like, are they trapped in these mammal bodies?
Yoga is like the original virtual reality machine. It's a practice to get you into feeling your body differently. What I like about yoga is that when you really get into it is it shifts your point of view. It's like putting on a virtual reality headset. It changes the dial — the anxieties, the ego goes into soft focus, your environment comes into more focus, you feel your heart more, you can feel your body more. So I think they're the same thing ... It's all human ingenuity in the interest of trying to understand the universe and who we are. So yeah, why wouldn't they mesh together?
That's interesting. I've noticed a lot of filmmakers painting these bleak, paranoiac visions of the future of tech, then turning around and saying, "But I don't hate technology!" In those terms, there's more of a continuum.
That's what I think. And I don't think my movie blames the technology at all.
Well it's like Black Mirror — it always comes down to human nature.
It's humans. And I already said this, but smartphones, augmented reality glasses, they're all just a hammer. You can kill someone with a hammer or you can build a house.
You satirize yoga culture in the film, along with this urban fantasy of moving upstate, getting a little farm house, leaving the city. It seems like you're just as suspicious of this effort to get away from it all as you are of technology.
And I'm satirizing my own tendencies. Because we all have that feeling — "I have to get out of the rat race, get into nature." And maybe I do need to do that. But I kind of feel like there's only one game in town, as a human. And whether you choose to be an organic farmer and struggle with it that way, or you choose to try to be an artist in a capitalist culture and struggle with that, there are always compromises, it's never the way you'd like it to be. There's always pain, there's always death. There's always negotiating with other people who don't agree with you. There's the dawning realization that maybe there's no ultimate truth, or at least there's not an ultimate truth that we can know. I mean, that's life. And I think you could go on top of a mountain and join a monastery, and there'd be some monk at the monastery who's a pain in the ass. No matter what, there's no escape.
"I kind of feel like there's only one game in town, as a human."
I was talking to Donald Glover about this last week, and he said it in such a funny way; he said, "No matter what, you can't get out of how weird life is." And I think he was saying that from the point of view of somebody who's had a lot of success, and a lot of his dreams have come true.
It's almost as if the most external stability you have, the more you can hear other instabilities.
And it's funny that the human mind makes that adjustment. Instead of being like, "Oh great, I have food in my stomach, and I'm surrounded by love, so no more worrying!" the brain's like, "No I'm super into worrying. I was designed that way, and I'm going to find something else to worry about now."