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Surface is everything, and depth is for the uber wealthy, for people who can afford the quarter mill’ trip to the bottom of the ocean, and even then, they implode. With the raft of coyly-shrugging-Bill-Hader-dancing-in-a-box video responses to the Titan submersible incident, the internet has spoken. Superficiality is Queen.

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SNL. Bill Hader dancing in a box.

"Then dancing out of her own box comes Barbie"

Then dancing out of her own box comes Barbie, riding on the velour coattails of #bimbocore – in fact the premise of Greta Gerwig’s new blockbuster hinges on the trend’s central tenet: ‘less thoughts, more vibes’. The plot gets underway during vibes-vibes-vibes group choreo, as Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) begins to gain self-consciousness (the enemy of vibes). Her thoughts of death start her on a journey to the real world where she encounters the patriarchy and unwittingly delivers a crash course in the double standards forced upon women living under it: ‘Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.’ Surely, this is the generative tension in bimbocore too: actively deciding ‘no thoughts, just vibes’ within a rigged system is a pretty big thought in and of itself — one that metabolises the patriarchy and turns it into glitter.

In our era of CapCut and endless filters, where it’s all too fun and easy to turn surface into yet more surface, the mash up that is Barbenheimer was always destined to be greater than the sum of its parts. For anyone who doesn’t take her Old Fashioneds with a side of candy floss, allow me to explain: like the ‘Speedball’ before it, Barbenheimer is a cinematic experience consisting of an upper and a downer but not in that order. You get Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer out the way in the morning, obviously, so that feelings of plastic fantastic overwrite any lingering contemplation of one of humanity’s darkest moments ready for bedtime. Taken separately, two really exceptionally good films, go see them, whatever. But together: aesthetic whiplash. The experience of ‘ilinx’ – a kind of play that creates a temporary disruption of perception – or perhaps a second shot at the ‘Freedom Day’ we were all too stunned to seize fully in 2021 when the pandemic restrictions were lifted here in the UK.

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"less thoughts, more vibes"

Framed by the drawn-out admin of the Oppenheimer security hearing, and following the eponymous American scientist’s development of the atomic bomb – with some Sanskrit verse thrown in for good measure – it seemed at first that Christopher Nolan’s latest might provide that out-of-vogue sense of depth otherwise lacking in contemporary pop culture. After all, Nolan is a director who almost fetishises depth, from Batman’s spelunking to the many dream layers of Inception; even his choice of 70mm film is preferred for its greater depth of field. Oppenheimer’s is a story encompassing the dark recesses of human nature; it spans the image of distant stars imploding right down to invisible quantum particles.

Barbenheimer ig feed v2

By Sean Longmore for Layered Butter

That may be so, yet so much of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic style consists of tropes also typically used in trailers: wide, swooping establishing shots that promise the viewer something far more expansive than a claustrophobic set (in fact Nolan always prefers real locations over studio work). Elliptical cuts (which lend his films that oneiric feeling) with slick dialogue often running across scenes and locations. Nolan’s films seem scored throughout by what trailer makers call preview pulses – percussive bass swells – that then repeat, merge and build into a soundscape to raise the stakes. Here, whilst Geiger counter clicks ratchet up and evolve into thundering drum rolls, the U.S. government is assembling a team of the country’s best scientists and they select Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to lead it, meaning he must then assemble a team (which gives ample opportunity for shots of the handsome talent) of yet more of the country’s best, handsome scientists, and there is a strange way in which Oppenheimer protracts this assembling-of-a-team far longer than a film even in the heist genre could. I’m here for it. I love Christopher Nolan trailers — the build-up — almost as much as the films themselves, so I was delighted to see his latest unfold with the prolonged, finessed aesthetics of its own marketing.

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Martha Rosler, Photo Op, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c.2004 - 2008)

"feelings of plastic fantastic overwrite any lingering contemplation of one of humanity’s darkest moments ready for bedtime"

Similarly, it’s difficult to separate my enjoyment of Barbie from its masterful marketing campaign – each sugardrop breadcrumb, from the first fan-snapped multi-colour Dayglow outfits to the teaser parodying Stanley Kubrick, has been delicious. The film is, of course, unavoidably, also a two-hour toy advert in and of itself. But then, in the West, in 2023, marketing oneself both on- and offline feels inextricable from being a human being: perhaps it’s no surprise that our two most beloved cultural artefacts of the summer play, in part, like product placements for themselves, collapsing notions of artwork and commodity like the giant, expensive, shiny balloon-dog surfaces of Jeff Koons.

Before hipsterism made it lame, there were tribes – mods, goths, emos – which came with their own aesthetic. Of course, tribes lived on long after the gods punished hipsterism by turning it into a heap of shipping containers called BoxPark, but with the growing sophistication of the internet they became more specific: after all, why limit yourself to skinny jeans or a zoot suit when you could be a scumbro on a Friday and a seapunk on a Saturday? Oppenheimer in the morning, and a Barbie at night? In fact, one of the internet’s latest aesthetic trends, corecore, satirises the oversaturation of niche subcultures with its ironic use of the -core suffix even as it croaks into existence, already death-rattling: on TikTok, Adam Curtis-lite, dada montages lament epidemic ennui and technological disarray.

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Custom 'cap-sac'. Source: @alineailinh

"our two most beloved cultural artefacts of the summer play like product placements for themselves"

Whether it's corecore or Barbenheimer, it’s clear that there is something about the surface safety of a good old mashup that is allowing us to have some deep meaningful conversations, from what it’s like to live under patriarchy to the will to power. Paradoxically, it’s as if we need works of art to first announce their superficiality in order for us to take them seriously, depth sneaking in like mixing the dog’s pill in with her food. ‘It is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath,’ said the writer Italo Calvino. ‘But the surface of things is inexhaustible.’


An attendee points at her Barbenheimer shirt outside the convention center during San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California, on July 20, 2023. CHRIS DELMAS / AFP

Popular culture has answered Susan Sontag's call, in ‘Against Interpretation’, for models of reading that ‘reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.’ Yet the reason why now feels different to the depthlessness of previous postmodernist moments is because of the widespread, dawning realisation of the ways in which we are forced to commodify ourselves; try coupling this with a growing sense of disillusionment with stories like voting with our wallets (lol) as a solution and you come up against another of your box’s plastic walls. Coyly shrug. Nothing for it but to dance à la Bill Hader or Barbie. If all that sounds depressing, can I recommend Barbenheimer? See the double-bill and watch the existential angst turn to glitter.

By Sammi Gale


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