by Matt Levine
Creative Control is absolutely a movie of our time; whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your tolerance for the Digital Age and its accompanying self-obsession. To be sure, the film condemns this shallow culture, ultimately making the point that the preponderance of digital devices and social-media platforms in our lives forces us to crave an artificiality that actually makes us miserable. But in order to arrive at this sensitive, humane conclusion, Creative Control wades through a lot of narcissism and glibness, as infatuated as it is dismayed with its characters’ flaws.
Director: Benjamin Dickinson
Producers: Mark De Pace, Zachary Mortensen, Melody C. Roscher, Craig Shilowich
Writers: Benjamin Dickinson, Micah Bloomberg
Cinematographer: Adam Newport-Berra
Editors: Megan Brooks, Andrew Hasse
Music: Drazen Bosnjak
Cast: Benjamin Dickinson, Nora Zehetner, Dan Gill, Alexia Rasmussen, Reggie Watts, Gavin McInnes, Paul Manza, Jay Eisenberg, Himanshu Suri
Premiere: March 14, 2015 - South by Southwest Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 11, 2016
US Distributor: Amazon Studios
As far as satire goes, Creative Control has selected some of the easiest targets imaginable: white twentysomething New Yorkers, the ennui of the rich and entitled, the self-absorption of people with a cell phone permanently glued to their hand. But if the targets are easy, they’re also satisfying, making for some genuinely funny dialogue and absurdist setpieces. Our main character (unfortunately, as it turns out) is David (Benjamin Dickinson), a successful ad agent inevitably decked out with tight-fitting suits and a well-manicured beard. In additional to a prescription drug named Phallinex for which he develops a campaign (and an addiction), David is tasked with pitching an ad for Augmenta, a new Google Glass-type device that allows the wearer to augment reality, adding a “magical layer” in front of the things they see in everyday life. Creative Control is set in the near-future, as evidenced by the paper-thin, transparent desktop displays for all the computers, but its entirely digitized universe is distressingly plausible, perhaps even inevitable.
In order to pitch this cutting-edge tech product, David enlists the help of “genius” musician-comedian-artist Reggie Watts, who sees Augmenta not as a Facebook-on-steroids novelty, but as a machine for abstraction and spontaneous creation that blurs the line between art and reality. The first video Reggie sends back to the ad agency is a performance of looped, thumping electronic music fractured by geometric shapes and doubled images—an entertaining scene that reminds us that technological innovation can be an ally to the making of art and human connection.
For David, though, Augmenta—not to mention Phallinex and pretty much everything else at his disposal—is a hindrance to creativity and connection, a tool that allows him to distance himself from people. Convinced by his wealth and his youth that he’s a great and desirable man with no need for improvement, David wallows in a tense relationship with yoga instructor Juliette (Nora Zehetner) but pines for his coworker Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), frustrated by the flirtatious games they play and the fact that they never reach consummation. To make matters worse, Sophie’s boyfriend is David’s best friend Wim (Dan Gill), a fashion photographer whose hipster credentials are marked by an ever-present camera and a bushy moustache. Wim habitually sends cell-phone pics to David highlighting the bodily assets and various stages of nudity of the models eager to jump into bed with him, a smorgasbord of sexual acts and positions that contributes to David’s shallowness and need for sexual gratification.
It’s little surprise, then, that David primarily uses Augmenta to serve his masturbatory fantasies, creating an avatar from Sophie’s face and the amplest body parts of the women that Wim covertly takes pictures of. This leads to disturbing scenes of David humping polygonal, CGI women, a sexual act that is as sad and asexual as possible—like Spike Jonze’s Her mixed with Cronenberg’s Crash (though not as incredible as that description suggests). Clearly David is the worst extreme of the theory that digital media have alienated and deadened us to the world and the people around us, made even worse because inventions like Augmenta seem to condone and encourage David’s tech-fueled misanthropy.
This probably sounds dreary and overly cynical, but Creative Control hides its pessimism behind the trappings of romantic comedy—albeit a comedy unafraid to show people at their worst and pettiest. The movie is essentially little more than a love triangle (or love rectangle, I guess) in which the characters’ lusts and frustrated desires are exacerbated by the media that surrounds them. As comedy, Creative Control is intermittently successful in a neurotic Noah Baumbach sort of way. A scene in which David struggles to deal with the egos and inane requests that involve a commercial shoot is as funny as it is chaotic, and the television ad that Reggie eventually supplies to pitch Augmenta is hilariously abrasive (imagine Matthew Barney creating an Apple commercial and you’ll get the idea). As romance, though, the movie is unable to depict any genuine, tender relationships, probably because these characters are all more in love with themselves than with other people—which is precisely the point.
It’s admirable that Creative Control can’t really be described as romance or comedy, considering its scenes of volatile domestic arguments and its general despair regarding these characters’ stunted emotions. But what the film provides in place of such comforting genres ultimately doesn’t amount to much. Its ideas regarding the breakdown of human connection in the digital age tell us little that we don't already know, and although its powerful ending envisions people perched on the edge of a difficult decision—basically, a choice between money and digital connectedness on one hand, and contentment and human connectedness on the other—by this point we care so little about the characters that their philosophical quandaries don’t affect us.
This might be Creative Control’s main obstacle: the characters are either thin or insufferable, and their shallowness reflects a smug hypocrisy that also defines the film in part. David and Wim are the most awful embodiments of masculine insecurity since The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg, though at least that film’s antihero was complex, interesting, and identifiably wounded. In Creative Control, writer-director Benjamin Dickinson (who also plays David) makes the mistake of assuming that attractive but unlikeable characters denote rough-edged honesty, an unflinching look at the selfishness of the millennial generation. In reality, Creative Control at times celebrates and glorifies David and Wim’s fuck-the-world apathy, painting them as victims of a callous society. Just as these two men treat people terribly but have enough swagger to compensate for their amorality (or so they think), Creative Control is not remotely as smart or unique as it thinks it is; it halfheartedly condemns its characters’ aloofness but mimics their pompous, overreaching air.
Such a grandiloquent tone is especially conveyed by the movie’s aesthetic, which features widescreen, black-and-white cinematography and a soundtrack stuffed with tongue-in-cheek classical music (Handel’s “Sarabande” makes repeated appearances). I don’t want to criticize the movie's style too much: the silky monochrome images can be a pleasure to look at, especially when we’re allowed to soak in the New York City surroundings (a few nighttime shots are stunning). But even if the tone of the cinematography is sumptuous, the compositions are often flat and uninteresting; compare Creative Control to something like Ida or Computer Chess and you’ll see how black-and-white can be reenvisioned in an interesting way. The classical music, meanwhile, seems to serve two purposes, both problematic: they either comment ironically on the characters’ machismo, suggesting that they see themselves as dukes and barons strutting through a baroque ball; or they slap a mournful tone on the sometimes silly proceedings, pointing to the tragedy underlying these men’s behavior. Either way, Dickinson’s musical choices make Creative Control seem far more weighty and profound than it actually is; the film would have worked best as a modest, minimalist tragicomedy aware of its own limitations.
More serious than Creative Control’s inflated style, though, is its treatment of women, which again is only half-intentional. Yes, David and Wim are repugnant characters, and we’re supposed to be disgusted by their treatment of their girlfriends. But the movie hardly treats its female characters with any more tact or sensitivity. Juliette is the only woman in the film with any depth to her personality—especially in the final scene, when she turns her affair with another man into a plea for love and understanding with David—but even she is primarily an object for the men to argue with and lust after. While we know exactly what most of the men would do with their Augmenta glasses, who knows what the women would do with such a groundbreaking invention? The film has no interest in pondering this. Most of the women we see are either comedic props or sexual fantasies, a sexism that reaches its nadir during a POV shot from Wim’s perspective—while he’s receiving a blowjob, naturally—and spots a drunken David across the bar, projectile vomiting on the woman he’s with. I don’t care how much we’re supposed to detest these men—for the movie to include such a scene, it has to share at least a little in the misogyny it purports to condemn.
Great movies have been made about the ways in which a digitized world has changed our human relationships. Her is one of them; I’d add several of Miranda July’s films (her features and her shorts) to that list. Creative Control, however, proceeds from the assumption that our cell phones and laptops, our Facebook and Tinder and Instagram profiles, allow us to create an ideal self and an ideal world that can only leave us disappointed—not a very original conclusion, and in any case none of the people we see in Creative Control lend emotional power to such sweeping generalizations. Inured to a world in which sleek fantasy trumps reality, these characters have forgotten how to interact with each other sincerely. Perhaps, wrapped up in the cleverness of its conceit, the movie has fallen prey to the same affliction.