The Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Some Belated Thoughts on “Barbenheimer”

Curator's Note

In the flaming bowels of summer 2023—as half the world seemed to be on fire, and the other half under water—a media phenomenon swept social media. Like natural disasters on the scale of Japanese tsunamis or biblical floods, this phenomenon swept along thousands of bodies in its path; lifting them, in this case, out of their office chairs and beanbags, and back into the patient velveteen arms of the local cineplex. (The same one which has been forsaken and mostly empty since the pandemic.) Eventually christened “Barbenheimer,” this M.A.E. (Mass Anticipatory Event) began as a random observation—the fact that two very different movies, Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, and Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan—were scheduled to open on the same day (July 21). Soon enough, the amusing incongruity grew into an organic mashup meme fest, as more and more people jumped on the wagon, effectively creating an unplanned grassroots, global campaign for both films. For the first time in functioning memory, “must-see TV”—at the buzz level of Game of Thrones or Succession—had returned to “must-see movies.” (Ideally, according to the hype, on the same day.)

Even those hardcore cinephiles who have been ideologically vaccinated against contemporary Hollywood output—those intellectual souls who haunt the lobby of Anthology Film Archives in New York, and small-town equivalents—begrudgingly admitted that it was probably a good thing that “the people” had rediscovered the collective pleasures of leaving the networked womb of the home, and going to an actual building dedicated to showing new releases on the big screen. Here, that endangered -species, “the filmgoer,” suddenly found itself flocking together again—in real-time, and in the dark—with only the occasional glance at its phone. (No doubt, the nostalgic novelty of being back in a movie theater--- being part of the mid-summer fun.) Surely, we said unconsciously to ourselves—rediscovering the shimmering screening room of the dream factory—being “alone together” is better than being “together alone.” And where Plato urged the prisoners to wrest their eyes from the flickering shadows and leave the cave of illusions for the dazzling fresh air of Truth, we, in a kind of philosophical-historical reversal, surrendered for a moment the luminous fragments of the cave in our pockets to return to the original aura and experience of what Werner Herzog called “the cave of forgotten dreams.”

This unexpected triumphal return to the summer blockbuster obviously delighted industry producers, especially as studios were in the midst of two major, intertwined strikes—one by the writers’ union and the other by the actors’ guild. At present, these strikes are ongoing, and the stakes are enormous. Now that the economic model underlying the streaming landscape has started to settle and harden, it’s clear that the creative people feeding “content” to the beast are being exploited, even in relation to historical levels of wage inequality. The “stream,” in this case—as some of the more vulgar commentators have noted—could thus be considered a form of digital urine, splashing down on the heads of the lumpen-workers from on high. Trickle-down economics in its meanest form.

One of the biggest fears—and one of the stickiest of sticking points, in terms of the ongoing strike negotiations—is a perceived need by creators for urgent “guard-rails” against the mass- use of AI, both for hammering out the first-draft (or even the final version) of scripts, and for scanning the faces of actors (including background actors), and using them over and over again—unpaid of course—in whatever film the producers deem appropriate. (Including, background actors.). At the beginning of the strike, some more utopian critics expressed a hope that writers of commercial entertainment would be better off walking away from the shiny, soulless citadel of Big Streaming and start afresh, on their own terms. After all, most “content” splashed across our welcome screen by the algorithm seems to have been generated by AI already (even if that guy you got an MFA with seems to have leased a new car with his recent paychecks). But as United Artists discovered nearly a hundred years ago, full autonomy is not really possible when dependent on the kind of budgets that register in the global attention economy.

The implications of the Barbenheimer effect remain to be seen: studios may use the profits as a cudgel to beat down and blackmail the writers and actors back to work for at least a few crumbs of the action, or the “suits” may be obliged to acknowledge the debt they owe writers like Gerwig or actors like Cillian Murphy for creating products the people are willing to pay for. Speaking at the level of mass culture, however, the entire Thing has shone an especially bright, pink—even atomic—light on the question of mass attention, global distraction, and what the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler called “hypersynchronization.” During the pandemic, certain streaming titles caught the popular imagination, and punctuated our lockdowns, providing at least some sense of shared experience, even as we all binged them in different places and at different times. Tiger King was the first of these, in March 2020, followed by The Queen’s Gambit, The Octopus Teacher, and others. Suddenly, after years of scattered, demographically-driven division of viewership, “water-cooler” television was back with a vengeance (even as we could only gather by Zoom, or WhatsApp message groups).

This is all to say that the early Internet’s promise of infinite options and increasingly obscure or exotic offerings for progressively niche subcultures,, both did—and did not—come true. For even as Usenet, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, Twitch, Twitter, TikTok, or Discord host countless groups or “channels” for millions of mushrooming desires and mutating designs, we all still seem to share a surprisingly limited number of meta-cultural references. In other words, for every ten thousand edgy Chinese LED artists, or Romanian bondage poets, there is still Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and BTS, hogging all the hits, views, and percentage of “the discourse.” The very fact that the kaleidoscopic rainbow of online communities is shepherded into the same ten or so proprietary mega-platforms speaks volumes about the consolidation and capture of human creativity and communication into a handful of Silicon Valley traps (what Marc Andrejevic famously calls “the digital enclosure”).

All of which is to say, while there has always been a tension between “alternative” cultures and the mainstream—and various emblematic moments of capture and collusion (I’m looking at you, 1990s)—something new is emerging in terms of the scale, stakes, and control of the age-old mis-marriage between the urge to be “authentic” (that is, the wish to experience “deep cuts”), and the desire to invest in the expedient cultural capital of shared cultural reference points. (Barbie is itself one site of this tension—described by critics as successfully “having its cake and eating it too.” This is not, however, such an impressive feat when viewed through the glasses of Adorno or Barthes, for whom the cultural industry is nothing less than a giant autophagic baking operation.)

Despite all the hype, many will no doubt prefer to wait till Barbie or Oppenheimer come to them, via their streaming devices, rather than the other way around. This may be for all sorts of reasons: a lack of free time, a lack of burning interest, a lack of disposable income, accessibility issues, lingering agoraphobia after lockdown, a justified fear of public spaces in a country where mass shootings occur every 18 hours or so, and so on. Hypersynchronization describes our willingness to behave like sheep, in terms of our media diets, habits, and interests. My own caveat to this tendency—hypermodulation—describes the counterforce, which ensures that we are never all on “the same page” at the same time, lest we suddenly realize how empowering, and potentially revolutionary, that experience might be, if nudged in the right direction. And even though this media hoopla will soon be but a dim memory (recalled with equal parts fondness and “cringe”), the Janus-faced contradictions of Barbie and Oppenheimer will watch over the dialectical spasms of coming together, and yet missing any meaningful encounter. Such is the refinement of alienation in the early 21st century, whereby shared cultural texts are the occasion to arrange an asymptotic rendezvous in the pseudo-intimate pockets of the mutating mediascape. (“Don’t forget to wear pink!”)

One casualty of Barbenheimer was another bona fide blockbuster, Mission Impossible 7: Dead Reckoning, released a week before the other two smash hits. Tom Cruise’s labor of love certainly made a handsome profit. nny buzz around its release , however, was quickly absorbed by the other two movies. This installment of the Mission Impossible franchise was indeed spectacular, and enticed fans back to the multiplex as well, albeit in lighter numbers than its rivals at the box office. Ironically, those munching popcorn and waiting for that movie to begin were first treated to the vision of Tom Cruise’s ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, proclaiming the virtues of the cinema experience itself. In an ad for AMC—in which she paradoxically sings the praises of going to the movies while sitting alone in a private screening room—Kidman intones, over stirring, sentimental music: “We come to this place for magic. We come to AMC Theaters to laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that. All of us. That indescribable feeling we get when the lights begin to dim and we go somewhere we’ve never been before. Not just entertained, but somehow reborn. Together.” This stirring prayer for a branded baptism back into a former mode of mediated sociality was immediately followed by footage of her ex-husband sitting casually in front of the camera. Alongside his director, Christopher McQuarrie, Cruise personally thanks the audience for making the effort to come to the cinema. Rarely has a medium, or sociotechnical apparatus, been so anxious to advertise itself in such explicit—not to mention, grateful—terms. (And tellingly, the plot of Mission Impossible 7 centers around a rogue AI, known as “the entity.” The film itself is thus an allegory for Old Hollywood’s struggle against this unprecedented threat, and its own obsolescence.)  

From the perspective of those committed to belatedly tackling the climate crisis, Barbenheimer is nothing but a frustrating distraction from the urgent action that needs to be taken both at the level of government and at the level of our own lifestyles, consumption, and expectations. Certainly, many of us could confess to some level of relief when bright, playful shades of pink obscure the pulsing, terrifying splashes of red across the latest weather maps. Harnessing the attention of a significant percentage of the world population is no small thing, in the age of infinite distraction. And while Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan may not deserve all the credit for what they achieved—given it was the people themselves who first pushed the perversity of Barbenheimer into the collective consciousness—there is some dormant potential in rediscovering a sense of collectivity, albeit one pre-contained by bovine consumption. Certainly, commercial films lack the power to galvanize much beyond box office receipts, mustering at best a general, diluted sense that the world could and should be better (either through the knowing complication of sexist models and gendered norms, or the eradication of nuclear weapons).

Scrolling through the seemingly infinite choices of “good enough” shows to watch on Netflix or Hulu, as we all know, can take up more time than consuming “actual” content. (And of course, very few of these shows are indeed good enough to even justify watching more than a few minutes.) It’s almost as if the goal is to keep us clicking forever, in the vain hope of finding something which will miraculously forgive us our bulimic relation to entertainment. One thing is for certain, however. If we don’t wake up from our narcissus-Netflix trance and figure out how to work against the isolation and atomization of the on-demand paradigm (along with its scandalous carbon footprint), we will have to admit—sooner, rather than later—that “the Earth dies streaming.”

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