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Creative Technologist

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Previous: Senior Creative Technologist at OUTFRONT Media

Barbie, twin peaks and loving what you make.

Oct 2023
This article contains spoilers for Barbie 2023, all three seasons of Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and The Missing Pieces.

My first intro to Greta Gerwig was Lady Bird in 2017; while it was her directorial debut, Gerwig had already been writing and performing in Hollywood for over a decade by then. This film came to me during a time when I was "collecting auteur and arthouse pieces" for "a repository of inspirations." It did not make a huge first impression on me, and the narrative about a white girl's coming-of-age story in Sacramento certainly did not help the case. However, as it will become a consistent characteristic in Gerwig's works, the comedy stood out to me as I laughed through some of the funniest scenes I've experienced in a long time. It somehow felt genuine through the screen as I sat with the characters, trying to navigate the awkwardness and dead air. This feature, often found in a genre that I will later learn as "Mumblecore," led me to start thinking about creating stories and characters that audiences care about.

Jumping ahead five years, I just walked out of the theater with my friend, both forming our thoughts while trying to make sense of Barbie. By this time, I was a massive fan of Gerwig, who was sending out (albeit privately) hundreds of Barbie marketing memes to my friends daily, and I have rewatched Lady Bird multiple times, becoming more invested each time.

Before I start talking about Barbie, I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge my limited understanding of the feminist and maternal reading/context of the movie as a straight Asian male born and raised in Taiwan. This is certainly not an effort to discredit the work and progress made with the film. I will mainly focus on the scenes with Margot Robbie's stereotypical Barbie and Rhea Perlman's Ruth Handler.

As for how I felt about Barbie, aside from the fact that "Death Grip" is not in the soundtrack, it was almost what I expected: a messy and extremely joyful celebration of the toy line and the people/company who made it. We all knew we were getting an "interesting" Barbie when Gerwig and Noah Baumbach were announced to be attached and co-writing the script. The "2001: A Space Odyssey" teaser certainly prepared us for how self-aware the film would be. What stood out to me was how straightforward the approach was. One could argue that the core narrative conflict was introduced with our protagonist asking about thoughts of death, followed by a literal record-scratch (though interesting, I will not go into whether this sound is diegetic at the moment).

Given how blunt the film is with its messages, we are very aware of the existence of the "Real World" in the film's world. The writing also quickly and effectively established the rule of connecting the Barbies and those playing with them. With the conflict and basic rules out of the way, we then go on a journey with stereotypical Barbie to deal with patriarchy and human emotions, which I will focus on the later part.

I finished my MFA thesis last year, working on a chatbot trying to create an experience that essentially breaks down the boundary between humans and machines. During my early stages of research, I had set on two key ingredients for the experience: melancholia and acknowledgment. These two are, for me, after my research at least, two cores of being human or the "human condition." You can probably imagine how rewarded I felt with Barbie's interaction with the real world, the mother and the daughter, and finally, her creator.

Margot Robbie's stereotypical Barbie gained knowledge of the real world shortly after she started having existential thoughts, thus acquiring the intellectual agency that eventually led to her decision to become human. I found this understanding of the outside world or, to some degree, the "real world" a very interesting way of giving our characters empathy, which seems to be a genuine source of their agency and relatability.

For me, after stereotypical Barbie gains this meta-understanding, she serves as a mirror for the audiences to look at our own reflection one layer removed, a stand-in for self-introspection.

And for the most part, the message was a bitter-sweet celebration of what we are.

There is a more cynical and capitalistic reading of this message with the involvement of Mattel and the whole movie industry, and I can't say that I have a good argument against that in terms of the intention. But I would still like to mention similar character arcs in other stories like "A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)" and "Bicentennial Man (1999)", all the way back to Pinocchio; aside from the political power dynamic that contributed to the motivation on our non-human protagonist becoming human, a loose parallel can be drawn to our(human's) aspiration on becoming something that is collectively more than our sum, a quasi Ubermensch figure.

Both scenes where stereotypical Barbie is talking with Ruth Handler are presented in an isolated, almost suspended reality. One took place inside a kitchen situated in Mattel's liminal space-like headquarter(and I'm quite certain a playful nod to Jacques Tati's Playtime) , while the other is in a void of soft shader-like colors. The choices made in editing and presentation may seem jarring and out of place. I would argue, on the other side, once you are prepared, or let's say you are on your second or second+ viewing, you can pretty comfortably look at these two scenes as elevated pages in the script, where the characters are acknowledging your presence on the other side of the 4th wall. And if they're not speaking directly to you, they are at least dedicating a decent amount of their performance to you. Within these suspended spaces, we get the comfort we seek, the simple and endearing answers we want for the big questions, both as stereotypical Barbie and as members of the audience.

I see Lady Bird as a semi-autobiographical love letter to the place Gerwig grew up in, as she put in fragments of her memories to the characters, as she sent out letters to Justin Timberlake and other musicians to express her appreciation and to ask for permission to put their early 2000s songs in the movie just like how she remembered. And I see Barbie where the writers put in our understanding of how it feels to be a human, presented it as a challenge for the toy we made, an arc for our collective aspiration.

I started watching the first two seasons of Twin Peaks in the summer before the third season was announced to go on air through the recommendation of a zealous fan. By then, David Lynch was the weird and seemingly self-indulgent guy behind Mulholland Drive, a film I had watched just for its cult status. Once again, I was in my phase as a liberal arts freshman trying to strike oil in classic arthouse cinema.

I went through the first three episodes of the first season like a sniper looking out for the “Lynchian” touches, the red velvet, the little person, and the backward dialog. I finally got what I wanted at the very end of the third episode. Though rewarding, I was more frustrated with how little that part of the screen time is. It seemed like Lynch was more restrained, and I should also acknowledge that the creation of Twin Peaks(the TV shows, at least) is primarily a collective effort by Mark Frost and Lynch, for I am very guilty of often leaving Frost out of the discussion and credits. Going back to how the show was seemingly less Lynchian, it at the same time felt very retro to me, like the soap operas of the late 80s or early 90s. Not that I am a connoisseur of classic TV shows, I was barely conscious in the late 90s. It was filled with classic prime-time TV tropes of introducing multiple characters early on, the establishing shots cutting to wide shots of all the characters in the scene accompanied by the background theme.

One thing Lynchian, however, was still very much prevalent in the early episodes: The close-up shots of characters’ reactions to the news of Laura Palmer’s death. These shots, often going on longer than I used to, were the staples of my memories during the early stage of the show. Images like Sarah Palmer’s brutal response, Donna’s crying, and James breaking the pencil are still fresh in my mind, and the low frames slo-mo shots of a school girl running in distress and Sarah going down the stairs are still two of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is amazing how well Laura Palmer’s presence was established and her strong influence and connection to the town Twin Peaks in the first episode. Through the commitment of all the ensemble casts the traumatic experience was portrayed with this suspended sense of earnest given the melodramatic scores by Angelo Badalamenti. Here lies a common tension I often find with Lynch’s works: The melodramatic writing and production but approached with straight performances. When applied in the pilot of Twin Peaks (also with “Invitation to Love” - The tongue-in-cheek insert of a caricature of then-contemporary soap opera). I felt the show knew it’s being a bit to much, but it never cheapens its character’s emotions, in this case trauma. For the show can be absurd and downright slapsticks at times, but we were never invited to look down on them.

More on Twin Peaks, David Lynch and the whole “it’s a tv show about tv shows” to come...
© Billy Ho 2023

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