Creative Control

Benjamin Dickinson’s indie comedy Creative Control uses luminous black-and-white cinematography to tell a New York story of two young, white advertising hipsters and the women they cheat on. David, an account executive at a Brooklyn ad agency, feels himself pulling away from his yoga-instructor wife, Juliette, and falling in love with Sophie, the 18-year-old costumer who’s currently sleeping with his randy photographer pal, Wim. There’s also a trendy tech angle: as the movie opens, David lands his company the launch campaign for Augmenta, a new brand of “augmented reality” smart glasses, and in testing out the product, he learns how to incorporate his video capture of Sophie into a lifelike avatar that crawls right onto his lap.

The movie is like Manhattan with mobile phones, and in fact the idea of constructing one’s own reality fits right in with the Woody Allenesque tone. Allen’s films are rife with characters walking into their own fantasies—The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris—and critics have often accused him of retreating into his own narrow social circle. Manhattan (1979) may have been the ultimate valentine to New York, but his vision of the city as a Gershwin tune come to life signaled the kind of upper-class myopia that has plagued his movies ever since. Creative Control shares this sense of privileged ennui and glassy enclosure; though it’s set in Brooklyn, there’s barely any sense of the place. Most of the action plays out in bright, minimally decorated loft spaces where the characters live and work, high above the street. Like so many of Allen’s recent movies, this one gives you the feeling that you’re living inside a fishbowl.

Creativity is the movie’s buzzword, and for David (played by Dickinson, himself a director of TV commercials), creatives are the ultimate elite. “Let’s change the conversation,” he insists during the pitch meeting for Augmenta. “Instead of talking about what the technology can do for you, let’s talk about what you can do with the technology.” His big idea is to recruit a “genius-level creative”—rapper and filmmaker Reggie Watts—let him play around with the glasses, and see what he comes up with as a promotional tool. “We might have a new art form on our hands,” David boasts. This worship of creative elites also pervades Allen’s contemporary New York movies, in which almost every character is a professional artist and the ones who aren’t wish they were. For David, creativity is also a matter of ego—as he points out to Juliette (Nora Zehetner) during one of their frequent arguments, the Augmenta launch is the first time he’s gotten creative control of an ad campaign.

Dickinson takes pains to establish Juliette as the natural counterpoint to David. In contrast to his dream weaving, her yoga requires exacting physical discipline, and when she wanders into an affair with the lanky, bearded Govindas (Paul Manza), a fellow instructor at her school, he is quick to snap her out of her subjective experience. (“Hey—there are two people here,” he tells her during their first sexual encounter.) Unfortunately her own attempts to do the same for David bring nothing but derision. As husband and wife eat together, Juliette tells him about a New York Times story she’s read reporting that Augmenta glasses are made using a rare mineral that’s harvested by child slaves in the mines of Congo. To David, who’s begun popping pills to keep his professional anxiety under control, this incursion of unpleasant reality seems almost an abstraction, and he launches into a tirade against Juliette, throwing her rich parents in her face and calling her on her own lack of social commitment before he storms off.

Creative Control evokes Manhattan most strongly in the tangled friendship between David and Wim (Dan Gill), an easygoing hedonist reminiscent of the philandering husband Michael Murphy plays in the Allen movie. A fashion photographer, Wim has a steady relationship with Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen) but also gets some on the side with Casey, a hard-partying model he first humiliates during a photo shoot and then brings to heel later. David is sworn to silence about this affair, though Wim persists in snapping cell-phone images of his sexual conquests and e-mailing them to his pal. “You live in a movie,” David tells him enviously. Sitting in a darkened room at a wild party, Wim shoots video of Casey going down on him, while in a top corner of the frame, a drunken David tries to flirt with an attractive woman but suddenly vomits on her. Of course, Wim sends this file to David as well.

The fishbowl quality may be heightened by this narcissistic gadget worship, but the strongest factor by far is John Furgason’s austere production design. Aside from a few brief, colorless street scenes, Creative Control takes place entirely indoors and far above street level, the city populace suggested only by a few disembodied car horns. The agency office has a spacious open-seating arrangement with long, white Formica desks, clear Plexiglas computer terminals, rows of tall windows, and nothing visible outside but the orderly vertical lines of another building across the street. David and Juliette’s penthouse apartment is another sparsely decorated, blindingly white space, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony whose glass door Dickinson uses to separate them emotionally. The living spaces are as antiseptic and artificially bright as the TV studio where David supervises a commercial shoot or the swanky art gallery where Sophie debuts her clothing designs.

In a director’s statement, Dickinson attributes the movie’s handsome look to cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, noting that, in addition to Manhattan, they were heavily influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 60s trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse), in which “everything looks great but something’s missing.” Given that Creative Control opens with a close-up of a pill dropping into David’s palm, and that Dickinson returns to this motif later as David adds more designer drugs to his cocktail, I couldn’t help thinking how, over the years, Antonioni’s black-and-white imagery of easy-living characters and cool, arid spaces has been mimicked not only by filmmakers like Allen and Dickinson but also in the TV commercials for big pharmaceutical companies that flood the airwaves. Style, no less than David’s high-tech glasses, is a lens, with its own power to shape consciousness and its own problems of distortion.  v