SXSW Film Review: ‘Creative Control’

Apple meets Antonioni in Benjamin Dickinson's coolly impressive second feature.

'Creative Control' Review: Benjamin Dickinson's Fresh Take on the Future
Photo by Adam Newport-Berra

Well timed in light of the unveiling of the Apple Watch, “Creative Control” reps a big step forward for its co-writer/director, Benjamin Dickinson, following his promising 2012 debut, “First Winter.” The story of an ad exec who finds his priorities rewired while testing a pair of eyeglasses that constitute “the first actually convincing augmented-reality system” doesn’t exactly have new things to say about technology and alienation. But a contemplative tone, a zigzagging narrative, superb widescreen black-and-white cinematography and an infusion of dry humor make it feel genuinely fresh. Critical nurturing could help this moody, offbeat indie find its audience.

Dickinson’s “First Winter,” set at a yoga farm, was a survivalist picture that hinged on a reversal of expectations; its characters approached the abyss and stared back. In some ways, “Creative Control” tells a similar tale in the tech realm. David (played by Dickinson) has taken charge of a dream account, Augmenta, whose product is a pair of glasses that create a virtual-reality experience for the user. The plan is to run an ad campaign that incorporates the ideas of the comedian-musician-“disinformationist” Reggie Watts, who plays himself. (The device’s inventor is played by Vimeo creator Jake Lodwick, who’s also credited with directing a second-unit dance video in the film, while David’s boss is embodied by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes.)

“Creative Control” establishes its cool near-future vibe immediately, with a Steadicam that swans around David’s unnervingly sleek office. A soundtrack of classical music — Vivaldi, Bach, the Handel “Sarabande” that moviegoers will forever associate with “Barry Lyndon” — creates a soothing effect, while occasional dabs of turquoise (and later other colors) highlight the special effects and other technological elements in the mise-en-scene.

The glasses function as a kind of living PDA; David air-taps on a keyboard that only he can see. Given the eyewear for a test run, he uses it almost immediately to create a fantasy avatar of Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen, “Proxy”), the girlfriend of his philandering photographer pal, Wim (Dan Gill, who looks a bit like Kurt Vonnegut). Wim’s “Blow-Up”-esque model shoots evoke Antonioni, one of Dickinson’s acknowledged influences. “A Clockwork Orange” is referenced, too.

Apropos of the dehumanization themes in both, David is growing distant from his yoga-instructor girlfriend, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), who in one interlude goes off to a yoga farm herself. (Paul Manza, the real-life yogi who played the lead in “First Winter,” has a role here.) The pairing of the two characters calls to mind “Computer Chess,” which, although completely different in tone and style, also drew a contrast between tech-heads and New Agers seeking nirvana. David is drawn to the real-life Sophie, who mostly rebuffs his advances. As his relationship with Juliette becomes increasingly fraught, David retreats to a high-rise hotel for a decidedly one-sided affair — “Her” this isn’t — with Sophie’s holographic avatar, who blooms into full color and, to him, at least, becomes indistinguishable from his flesh-and-blood crush.

Shot in New York locations, “Creative Control” uses a few canny bits of set design to suggest that it takes place a few years from now. (Everyone has transparent iDevices.) But more crucially, it also conjures a sense of isolation in a corporatized city; these characters live in a world of skyline views and rarely seem to have a feel for life at ground level (or perhaps interact with many people outside their tax bracket). In a bacchanalian moment, David, a substance abuser who smokes a palliative manufactured by a hard-to-please pharmaceutical client, attends a strobe-heavy party at which drunkenness and virtual reality contribute to a new sort of hangover.

Lensed on the Alexa by d.p. Adam Newport-Berra, the movie might be overcomposed to some tastes, but it has a surfeit of stunning high-contrast images. One nighttime shot juxtaposes David and Juliette’s illuminated bedroom with a hotel in the darkened distance. A dinner scene uses mirrors and candles to suggest doubling and facades. The final shot might reach even those who haven’t by then succumbed to the movie’s spell.

All of this might be a slog if it weren’t for a wry sense of comedy. Watts has a recording advising anyone who wants to reach him to “obviously, hire a shaman,” and there’s a dark humor to the speed with which David, despite having free rein with a technology that allows him an unprecedented ability to multitask, immediately jumps to using it for sex.

Judicious effects contributions from the Paris-based studio Mathematic give “Creative Control” a clean, edgy look that should be relatively novel at the arthouse.

SXSW Film Review: ‘Creative Control’

Reviewed at IFC Center, New York, March 10, 2015. (In SXSW Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: A Ghost Robot production in association with Green Card of a Mathematic co-production. (International sales: Coproduction Office, Paris.) Produced by Craig Shilowich, Melody C. Roscher, Mark De Pace, Zachary Mortensen. Executive producers, Cameron Brodie, Greg Steward, Emily Wiedemann.
  • Crew: Directed by Benjamin Dickinson. Screenplay, Dickinson, Micah Bloomberg. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Adam Newport-Berra; editors, Megan Brooks, Andrew Hasse; music, Drazen Bosnjak; music supervisor, Meghan Currier; production designer, John Furgason; art director, Katie Hickman; set decorator, Erin Beaupre; costume designer, Gina Correll; sound, Paul Hsu; re-recording mixer, Hsu; visual effects supervisor, Drew Arnold; visual effects, Mathematic (Paris); stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; line producer, Aidan Sleeper; assistant director, Josh Hartsoe, second unit directors, Jake Lodwick, Robin Comisar; second unit camera, Vincent Peone, Matt Clegg; casting, Eve Battaglia.
  • With: Benjamin Dickinson, Nora Zehetner, Alexia Rasmussen, Dan Gill, Gavin McInnes, Reggie Watts, Paul Manza, Jake Lodwick.