Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2016

Creative Control

Crisis of subconscious

Creative Control's ebullient creative energy is delightful but conflicted

Creative Control
Magnolia Pictures
Director: Benjamin Dickinson
Screenplay: Benjamin Dickinson and Micah Bloomberg
Starring: Benjamin Dickinson, Nora Zehetner, Alexia Rasmussen, Dan Gill, Gavin McInnes and Reggie Watts
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

All that's missing from Creative Control is a scene of its discombobulated protagonist getting stuck in an exhaust-filled car in the middle of a surreal traffic jam before escaping through a window and gliding into the clouds.

Being flown like a human kite is optional, but given the "augmented reality" device around which this story revolves, that's certainly a possibility.

But no, writer/director Benjamin Dickinson saves the subconscious for later. Instead, he finds equally familiar ground at a strategy meeting in which David (Dickinson again) is besieged from all angles by partners, creatives, secretaries and salespeople - all with a different set of questions, needs, suggestions or anecdotes with which to bombard him as he prepares for what could, or should, be his most important professional triumph. And so an existential plight very clearly inspired by (among many others) begins, the opening sequence a highly choreographed dance of terse interactions between our hero and those orbiting around him, the camera perpetually darting ahead as he moves through an expansive Brooklyn office, palpably echoing Marcello Mastroianni's Guido fielding questions from actresses, writers and hangers-on in that expansive hotel lobby. In fact, a few scenes later, just in case the connection needed to be made clearer, David is greeted by a friend with a playful "Ciao, Guido!"

Yes, this is one of those movies that some will hold in instant contempt because of the obviousness of its influences and references, while others will immediately embrace it for the same reason. At one point, we find David walking along the carpet from The Shining - and the film makes damn sure we get a good look at it - in a moment scored to a new but similarly electronic version of the Handel piece that famously opens Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. At times like these, Dickinson is just nakedly announcing his references apropos of nothing else. The message is just, "I have seen and enjoyed le cinema de Stanley Kubrick."

But in general referential terms, Creative Control is more like Fellini crossed with Woody Allen (which, you might say, makes it Stardust Memories, which ... eh, kinda) - crisp, quiet black-and-white photography that drifts through city streets and parties and bedrooms like a disembodied witness, observing the neuroses of New York hipsters and their competing romantic entanglements, the film fully preoccupied with the narrative thrust of a tortured, disconsolate creator sinking into an artistic and moral crisis.

Except that's the thing. What is his crisis, exactly? The script is built entirely on the fact of there being one, and yet it's unclear quite what is supposed to be burdening him so. It's hard to detect - let alone accept - any romantic sense of the tortured artist. David is, after all, just an ad man - he hasn't created anything, he's just inherited a product to sell. There are brief hints about his latent creative ambitions - he probably refers to himself not as an ad exec but as a Multi-Platform Publicity Artisan or something - but we see little evidence that he has any such ability. Even once we see the ad campaign he's ostensibly overseen, it's entirely the brainchild of an actual artist (Reggie Watts, playing a version of himself) that David commissions to test the product in order to guide his strategy. It could be irony or cynical commentary or just pure misjudgment, but Dickinson is using an -like template to examine a character whose artistic bona fides are virtually nonexistent. The actual artistic genius the film presents is a side player, an enigma kept almost completely separate from the main action.

As for David ... well, I'm not sure what he actually does. He is given a chance to "create," per se, when he gets to take the product for a test drive. The product is Augmenta, a device (which here comes in the form of glasses) similar to but beyond the capabilities of Google Glass, not just an online augmentation of your field of vision but something closer to virtual reality. (Or at least, that's one possible use.)

David's own experiments with it crystallize the film's internal dichotomy. It isn't nearly as interested in its sci-fi premise - the technology itself - as it initially seems to be. David is the only person through whom we experience it, and all he does with it is create a virtual version of the woman he wants to begin an affair with (Sophie, played by Alexia Rasmussen), who happens to be the girlfriend of his friend Wim (Dan Gill, excellent). Dickinson's interest in Augmenta is solely as a means of reiterating the romantic/sexual complications. David, like so many Fellini and Allen protags before him, is caught between two relationships (only two, though; I mean, he's no Mastroianni) - one in its exciting embryonic stage, the other (with his live-in girlfriend Juliette, a yoga instructor played by Brick's Nora Zehetner) stagnant.

The presence in the film of an actual artist (Watts) is used only as a buffer between business and personal - which ultimately ends up being the point, intended or not. David's career and relationships are in conflict, but he uses the former only to reconcile the latter. The primal instincts win out over the creative ones (if there are any creative impulses for David at all), and it's not close. But the two things never really illuminate one another, except in the most literal technological way, the Augmenta sunglasses offering him the opportunity to have virtual sex with "Sophie" before making his move on the real Sophie in the real world. Creation? OK, sure, his experiments with the technology make him a creator of some sort, but only in the same way that every Augmenta consumer presumably would be.

But beyond the very convenient "struggle" of choosing between two beautiful young women, David doesn't really have any quandary to speak of. Again, I'm not sure how aware Dickinson is of the triviality of the stakes here. There is some lip service paid to the virtue of what he does for a living - Juliette confronts him over dinner about the fact that the company he works for takes advantage of child labor - but that never becomes an issue of actual concern to the film.

Still, Dickinson and his actors show a real ease with each other, physically and personality-wise - and given that level of comfort, it's no great shock that Creative Control is most sure of itself when just dealing with those interactions - in all their inelegance and tension and want - while leaving the rest to be thematic decorations and plot devices. It is effectively and unabashedly sexual; desire is tangible, visceral, instead of merely functional, which is essential to the ways the film works best.

Creative Control may wear its influences too squarely on its sleeve, but still manages to find funny and entertaining ways toward its own meanings and conclusions. The obvious filmmaking lessons are still lessons learned well; it's all very imitative, but eloquently so - and, at least eventually, knows what it is and what it isn't. The movie may get its name from an artistic principle, but its true interest lies elsewhere.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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