The Very First Barbenheimer Celebration, in Recorded History
Okay, folx, I got word on the Internet that a brand-new subcultured would spawn in my own lifetime, and with convenient events within my postal code. I was in the wrong state for Grunge Music (and too young), I was in the wrong subculture (literary nerds) to really “get” Alternative Music (and there were no large stadiums within easy traveling distance). This time, however, this week, I stood in the right moment in time and space to enjoy my generation’s “Dark Side of the Rainbow.” That’s right, I was able to fully participate in the totality of Barbenheimer, as Athena intended. I did this, by seeing “Oppenheimer” one evening, then going to an honest-to-Athena Barbie Party the next morning. Because I’m me, I wore the same outfit to both events (I washed it between events). Because I’m me; I actually had an outfit I could use to make myself known to other Barbenheimers (Thank Athena that these films share a “cheerful nihilism” aesthetic). Hey, get busy living, or get busy dying. Yes, wore it to both events. I was the best-dressed person at Oppenheimer; I wasn’t even in the Top 50 of Barbie. Make of that what you will.
First of all, Oppenheimer was a good film. Make no mistake, but, it’s a Nolan film about a fast-paced military event, this is what he loves to do; but a film with that caliber of talent shouldn’t feel this lazy and incoherent. Let’s just say that it was good, but disappointing, but we’ll revisit the laziness in a bit.
Oppenheimer is a very weird, dark, and confusing film. and I don’t mean “Dark” as an emotional tone, I mean, “Someone turn on some lights or something; were these characters raised in barns?”
My other major complaint is that the story seems to want to be multiple separate things, at once. The story is, ostensibly about the chief architect of the atomic bomb; J. Robert Oppenheimer; one of history’s most controversial figures — as I told a friend, even though Americans may be proud of unleashing the Atomic Age; you’d have to go to a Trump Rally in Missouri to find the last few dozen Americans that genuinely believe that was an unqualified achievement. As someone who’s had some prior experience writing about controversial historic figures, I know that their stories are complex, nuanced, difficult to convey, not always linear, and even the most faithful portrayal will be met with criticism and some automatic opposition (Thanks, History Day). If I were a cynical man; I would say that Christopher Nolan was aware of criticism leveled at the historical accuracy of “Dunkirk,” and, “1917,” and he decided to avoid that criticism by telling the story of the Manhattan Project in the most incoherent, nonlinear way possible. The build up to the Trinity Test is a somewhat random series of jump-cuts between incidents involving the Manhattan Project, with people, places, and events simply named as a way to bypass mental fact-checks; all of which somehow lead up to the infamous Trinity Test, intermingled by scenes of American security and scientific leadership discovering that the USSR had tested a nuclear bomb. If Nolan wanted to do either story justice, he would’ve done those as two separate, shorter films. If Americans want a faithful, coherent adaptation of those events, we should petition Ken Burns to get off his ass and make those documentaries.
So, the first two-odd hours of Oppenheimer are really just a prelude to the infamous Trinity Test, at which Nolan cleverly refuses to give Oppenheimer his infamous line, said decades later, “Now, I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” It’s a clever, historically accurate move, but, and this can not be said loudly enough, Nolan’s occasionally high-fidelity recreation does not excuse the incoherent gibberish and lack of context for the other 95% of the film. Nolan repeats the naive, post-war belief that the options for America were, “Use the bomb,” or, “Japan peacefully surrenders, and all is well.” I’m not going to argue that bombing Japan was a good thing, but, I would point out that America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam did not work out as well as our little experiment in nation-building in Japan, and assuming the Japanese military would’ve politely laid down arms, and not turned their country into the sort of meat grinder that was Vietnam; is a little ignorant. And conventional fire bombing was getting to levels that most people would consider as form of genocide — which, like every other intriguing point in Oppenheimer, is given a single sentence of dialog, and never discussed in the other 179 minutes. Because simply referencing it is good enough if your only current ambition is to displace Ron Howard as the go-to guy for big, period historic set pieces.
But that’s just one very specific, readily-fact-checked part of it. As I said; this whole film seems custom designed to evade any easy historical accuracy critiques, mostly by inserting presentism into an historical narrative, and by spending less than 20 minutes on any given scene during the Manhattan Project. I need to be clear here; Oppenheimer is a good film. BUT, for a film of this lineage and subject, “Good” won’t cut the mustard. Which is probably why the third act is focused on events that were so new to my mind, I can’t easily fact-check or critique them: Oppenheimer’s post-war legal struggles, which ended with the removal of his security clearance, and banishment from all government work. It’s a sad, fascinating story, but, again, the minute it feels like the audience has grasped enough of that plotline to understand — and pull out their phones to see what Wikipedia says — it throws in new, random stuff. Bottom line; go see Oppenheimer, it’s good, but be forewarned that it’s a 100-minute political thriller buried in 80 minutes of weird gibberish. You have been forewarned.
So, I left the cinema on Friday night exhausted — because I’d just sat through a three-hour film edited by methamphetamine addicts, and got a good night’s sleep. Which I needed, because I had a Barbie party to go to the very next morning. If you weary of the sort of full-frontal male fragility that increasingly defines Hollywood, and is on full display in Oppenheimer, Barbie is not only the effective counterargument, it’s a salve.
Total honesty; I’m probably much more brutal — and less-interested — in Oppenheimer, simply because I’m somewhat familiar with the source material — I took an elective in 20th century history in my undergraduate days, and, shockingly, nuclear weapons were not a minor part of that century. Barbie, on the other hand, remains an opaque, pink box. I am 12 years older than my sister — this is true — and my only real knowledge of Barbie comes from her. And, to make matters worse, my only absolute knowledge of Barbie from those experiences is, I am terrible at playing with Barbies. That’s not some sort of heteronormative affirmation or anything; I got a passing grade in “Tea Parties,” which were boring, but, you get the hang of it — you pretend to drink tea, ask about Mr. Pig’s promotion, the weather, etc. It’s not a gripping activity, but “making small talk whilst pretending to eat, for the benefit of your younger siblings” is an easily-understood activity. Playing with Barbies, on the other hand, is an activity with more rules than Monopoly, and the rules are, somehow, neither written down, nor made up on the spot. Maybe my teenage insecurities made me completely completely and hopelessly ignorant about Barbie; maybe a 5-year-old girl decided to cruelly and capriciously exert what little power she had over her 17-year-old, moronic brother, maybe a bit of both; but Barbie remained a completely unknown quantity for the vast majority of my childhood and adulthood. So, I didn’t know what to expect from Barbie — both the film and the doll/action figure. I know from the marketing that Barbie was designed to be confusing, funny, and political. I might have a hard time empathizing with a womanizing physicist, and the generations of mediocre white men who missed the point by idealizing him; but madness, politics, and humor are my jam. So; I went in to the Barbenheimer experience heavily prejudiced toward Barbie.
As a Millennial, I’d mostly grown up with the background knowledge of how Barbie perpetuated impossible beauty standards on young girls, and indoctrinated children into the cult of consumerism that is modern American politics, so I was puzzled that Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie would choose to make a film about a cold, dead-eyed doll that’s come to embody American Imperialism. After a little research, I’m here to tell you; Barbie isn’t a doll for children, it’s Lovecraftian Madness in plastic. Barbie was created as an action figure for girls, and was an astronaut before women in America could have credit cards; she was a presidential candidate in 1992, 24 years before a major party nominated a woman… and she perpetuates harmful stereotypes about race, class, and beauty. You can see where the cognitive dissonance started to capture my curiosity.
At the same time, Barbie’s marketing team went hit the afterburners, and the right wing talking heads began sobbing over Barbie, which has always been a reliable indicator of quality (the Beatles, NWA, Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem; the list of pop culture hits that scared conservative Baptists is staggering), so, by the time Friday rolled around I was ready to make Ben Shapiro and/or Tucker Carlson cry harder by seeing the film (in addition to figuring out what the hell Barbie is about — the doll or the movie).
By fortunate happenstance, a local event organizer held a private screening of Barbie, which I attended. Allow me to say, firsthand, that, if you doubt Barbie’s power, you haven’t seen a parade of women in pink rollerskates and/or rhinestone astronaut outfits. Like I said, a pink-and-black Aloha shirt and a Stetson just doesn’t measure up against miniskirts bright enough to be detected from orbit. But, I did win a pink coin purse during the trivia competition for knowing when Barbie ran for president.
After a solid hour of hype, the lights dimmed. I immediately saw why fragile men were frightened of the big, pink movie; the primary messages, cleanly and coherently delivered, are;
- Women are people, too, and deserve to be treated with respect.
- Feminism is for everyone.
- Patriarchy hurts men, too.
- Everyone should have the right to be their truest selves without fear.
Yup. Woke nonsense. It makes me want to buy Walmart’s entire Barbie stock just to burn it to make a point (yes, Ben Shapiro did that, proving my mother right when she warned me, “I’m never going to see anything like this in my lifetime”). I understand why Tucker Carlson would ugly-sob about the lack of men (Kens? The only actual men in Barbie Land are Will Ferrell, CEO of Mattel, and his henchmen)(that’s right, nerds, a toy company is the nemesis in this film; as so often happens in our own lives), but that’s not the point of Ken, who has always been an accessory for Barbie. I know this, and, again; my talents in other areas may be deep, but my Barbie Quotient is low. Barbies, meanwhile, live in the glorious utopia of the matriarchy (I assume that’s the word, and it’s not the term for Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in the textbooks), I might have some issues with the details of a working utopia, but, as a man; if women ran everything, I’d wager they’d do at least as well as the men, which is a thesis that terrifies insecure men.
Anyway, Barbie is not only the polar opposite of Oppenheimer, it’s a glorious satire of contemporary sexual politics that ranks with Austen’s or Wilde’s works on the subject. I said it; a weird, experimental film about pink plastic dolls has as much to say as any of the classics. And that’s the true, weird, beautiful aspect of Barbenheimer that completely caught me off-guard.