If last year’s SXSW darling Fort Tilden was an Instagram snapshot of Williamsburg as it was present-day, this year’s oft-listed Creative Control shows us Williamsburg five minutes in the future, in crystalline black and white.
It’s just barely science fiction, with the tech a hopscotch forward in time, the pills the lead character subsists on designed like cute buttons in a Brave New World. The mod yuppies of this film are aesthetes who work hard and hustle, and David (played by co-writer/director Benjamin Dickinson) finds his big break at his advertising firm derailed by his obsession with his best friend Wim’s girlfriend Sophie. (Alexia Rasmussen, who plays Sophie, is tasked with the difficult challenge of appearing as both a lovely and flawed human being and also as the computer-generated avatar of a man’s sexual obsession).
This stylish and somewhat lugubrious film almost glistens, its most beatific scenes achieved via lighting and archaic slo-mo, in contrast to the (quite well-done) special effects necessary to sell us on the Augmented Reality glasses—the latest high-tech gadget that drives the plot. A ride in a convertible under the JMZ smoking a blunt becomes the apex of indulgence; a drug-addled club scene becomes hypnotic before taking a turn for the awful. A yoga class with David’s estranged wife and the douchiest of all yoga instructors is shot so beautifully one almost falls for him, and the film’s Wizard of Oz moment—a glimmer of color in an otherwise grey world—is nothing short of stunning.
We caught up with Dickinson via phone just before his film premiered in Austin to talk about his bonafides, and he confirmed that he’s been hanging around Williamsburg since about 2002, and lived in Bushwick after graduating from NYU.
You’ve got some in-jokes about ‘Billburg, like the line “It’s not main street, it’s Bedford Avenue,” and quoting a car driver as saying he’d be “five minnit.” Do you think this will read outside of New York?
Maybe it will, I just didn’t worry about it, that was part of what I was trying to do. That’s for people who know what it means. Most of the movie is very relatable to everyone who’s living in our time right now, so those were just to amuse myself. To give it a specific time and place.
Woody Allen always says, when people watch Manhattan, he hopes people will get a sense of what it was like to live in Manhattan, in the pseudo-intellectual milieu of the late ‘70s, and—not to name drop one of the greatest filmmakers— I wanted to do something similar, and give a little portrait of Williamsburg five minutes in the future.
Your film seems less of a mediation on gentrification than on the balance of money versus a fulfililng creative life. Aren’t these “rich people problems”? No one in your movie seems worried about making rent.
I think it’s an important milieu to talk about, because it’s aspirational for a lot of middle class people. The idea [that] you can play an artist by working in advertising but still have a comfortable life. It’s attractive to middle class people who grew up with a certain expectation of lifestyle, who are attracted to the artistic life but don’t necessarily want to make the sacrifices of a starving artist. And I think it’s so much of what’s marketed to us in the technological utopia we’re being sold all the time by technology companies. This amazing future and these beautiful offices and we’re creating this brave new world.
Anecdotally, on a personal level, sometimes I feel like a lab rat on crack. I can’t put it [my phone] down. For me… it’s not so much about social media… but, “did I get an email?” I have to be on point all the time. I’m a freelancer, I can’t let stuff slip through the cracks, I always have to be hypervigilant. So there’s this feeling of the phone just being in my brain. And I have pain, I get carpal tunnel, my hands fall asleep, I get pain in my wrist. I don’t understand how me as a human mammal, and then me as a half computer brain, are supposed to co-exist. So there’s a personal anxiety there. And I’m also concerned about what it’s doing to our interpersonal relationships. There’s a lot of sacrifice, interacting only through social media. And I think we’re getting alienated from our actual feelings, from our bodies, how we actually feel, because we’re becoming abstracted. At the same time, I don’t think technology’s to blame, I think it’s a tool. We have the agency to a certain degree to determine how we’re going to interface with it.
In David’s job he juggles the pharma gig that he hates, which he could do more with if he cared, versus the Augmented Reality gig he likes that is nonetheless co-opted. Is there any hope for an artist anymore without corporate funding and therefore corporate ultierior motives? Is there such thing as creative control?
I think there’s a larger structural issue going on that’s really difficult to see… It’s a little bit beyond most of our’s ability to conceive. The way the governments are structured, the inequality rate is the highest it’s ever been in America…. So we have this huge inequality problem going on, and I think it actually has to be addressed at a political level, which is so far away from our purview. So I don’t think it’s the technology itself, the technology is neutral, it’s the systems in place that are creating this huge inequality, making it impossible for artists to do what they’re supposed to do— which is pursue beauty and truth. Because everything is focused on money. Which is not interested in beauty or truth, it’s only interested in creating more of itself. So the priorities are completely different.
There are two reasons: the number one was, I saw an opportunity to show how sexy technology is—the world is in black and white, but the technology, the virtual world, is in color, so in some ways the virtual world is becoming more real to us than our daily lives. Our relationships to other people are happening in black and white. The dopamine firing that’s happening when we check our Instagram— so we’re getting all our chemical stimulation from the virtual worlds, and the actual relating to each other as human beings is kind of falling into the background. It was a way for me to represent that phenomenon aesthetically.
And the other aspect is that I was drawing heavily as inspiration from Antonioni’s films in the early ’60s, that trilogy which were all in black and white and dealing with similar themes, in post-war Italy, and also La Dolce Vita and Manhattan were in black and white.
Most is the music is baroque. And the baroque era in Europe is this era of extremely fancy, ornate people in elaborate clothes doing these waltzes. Very controlled, it’s the golden age of Europe. So I saw some similarities there, with the gilded age of technology, the gilded age of Brooklyn.
This interview has been edited and condensed.