On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing.
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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: If This Is What A.I. Sex Looks Like, Maybe We Have Nothing to Worry About?
Cinematic dystopias come in many forms. Ridley Scott looked to classic film noir and Asian urban architecture to craft his fallen neon hellscape in “Blade Runner.” Bong Joon-ho juxtaposed railroad opulence with an arctic wasteland in “Snowpiercer.” And for “Creative Control,” Benjamin Dickinson dared to imagine what would happen if characters from a Noah Baumbach movie could make their own interactive porn.
Dickinson’s 2015 sci-fi drama obviously isn’t a dystopian film in the conventional sense. It essentially takes place in the present day, depicting a society that’s hooked to the same IV drip of technological bliss that’s slowly turning us all into apathetic, pleasure-addicted zombies on our long march towards cultural decadence. Its characters have just been plugged in for slightly longer than we have, as demonstrated by the fact that their technology is slightly cooler than ours.
“Creative Control” plays out like a Spike Jonze thought experiment set in a black-and-white New York that could easily be “Frances Ha” or “Manhattan.” Dickinson stars as David, a successful-but-miserable ad man who takes on a campaign for a groundbreaking augmented reality technology (picture what Google Glass could have been if anyone had given a shit about it). While typical New York Movie Problems like relationship friction sparked by differences in career success distract him from his work, he uses his Augmenta glasses to have something resembling an affair with the digital avatar of his friend’s girlfriend.
His digital mistress is more humanlike but infinitely less human than the Scarlett Johansson-voiced A.I. lover that Joaquin Phoenix falls for in “Her.” But while that film made sexual A.I. experiences seem so believable that you’d be forgiven for wondering if relationships were about to become obsolete, David’s bland digital quickies almost inspire confidence about humanity’s ability to persevere against the robots.
While “Creative Control” raises some interesting questions about 21st-century ethics, you could arguably learn more about the importance of consent from “Any Which Way You Can.” But Dickinson’s film really shines in its depiction of our ongoing desire to customize every detail of our lives to maximize our comfort. As it turns out, occasionally straying from Your Best Life in order to participate in human society isn’t the fate worse than death that we’re all tempted to view it as.
At first glance, “Creative Control” might seem like an odd choice for a column that’s interested in things like Arnold Schwarzenegger giving birth through his ass and Ringo Starr’s alleged “acting career.” But one of the core ideas behind IndieWire After Dark has been exploring how the arthouse and midnight movie scenes can operate more symbiotically. With its stylish cinematography and a score that resembles a New Yorker article in audio form, “Creative Control” might seem like it was grown in a test tube stashed in the basement of the Tribeca Film Festival. But its actual subject matter is provocative enough to hang with flashier genre films, and the juxtaposition of mild dystopia against stylish indie filmmaking only adds to the disorienting effect. It’s living proof that we should be mining the arthouse bargain bins of yesteryear for new midnight movies — ill-advised studio productions don’t deserve to have all the fun! —CZ
The Aftermath: These Augmented Reality Glasses Are Making Me Thirsty
If Kramer’s one line for a Woody Allen film managed to snag itself a pro-creative bork with the publicist from “The Idol,” then I imagine you’d get something like the Phalinex ad from “Creative Control.” “PHALINEX put me back in the pilot’s chair.” “PHALINEX put me BACK in the pilot’s chair.” “PHALINEX put me BACK in the PILOT’s chair…emphasis on FUCK, Jerry!”
In keeping with its themes of personal piracy, Dickinson’s sophomore feature frequently feels like a grab-bag of ideas remixed from other movies and series. Logan Kiben’s “Operator” — starring Mae Whitman as a young woman whose voice is replicated and misused by her anxiety-ridden boyfriend — comes to mind as a stronger take on sci-fi-assisted partner coercion, though that movie came out a year later than this. And countless older films and shows join a 1981 Rick Springfield song in having done the best friend’s girlfriend trope significantly better. (Jessie’s girl wouldn’t be caught dead in an Augmenta and you know that.)
Still, the Phalinex scene is a standout example of the laugh-out-loud funny, quotable moments you can sometimes find in lesser arthouse works. From “It’s super-interesting…” to “Total boner, ladies!” to “It’s fine, it’s great, we’re all going to Cannes,” this movie’s zippy, strange dialogue would be more thoroughly appreciated by the back-talking, midnight movie crowd who can turn odd phrasing on the page into ritualistic cinematic worship.
Just imagine the H. Jon Benjamin scene taken to its participatory extremes; an entire audience chanting in unison, “I’m not saying fuck people in the sauna.” Would we do the whole “orgasm where your body disappeared” monologue or just part of it? And what to toss at the screen when the homeless lady commercial/experimental art piece finally plays in the board room? Glasses? Garbage?
Some of “Creative Control” worked for me on its own; Adam Newport-Berra remains one of the few cinematographers I can identify without IMDb, and his work here is particularly stunning. But plenty else didn’t; dressed up or down, my patience for scorned yoga teachers, C-tier “Black Mirror” episodes, and celebrities playing themselves has simply run out. (My apologies to the generally charming Mr. Reggie Watts, seen here playing the spectacularly, brutally, painfully annoying Mr. Reggie Watts.)
Dickinson and fellow screenwriter Micah Bloomberg’s story doesn’t rise to the satirical heights needed to support concepts like armless child miners and its ending is a remarkable bore. (Get David ideating an ad deal for Coca-Cola in some khakis before the credits roll, and then maybe I’ll hate him less?) But with lines like, “If you don’t have enough to do, you can always remember you are a conscious individual…” and, “Give me a pound, let’s blow up this rock!” “Creative Control” is worth a couple midnight viewings. —AF
Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Creative Control” on Amazon Prime. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…
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