Barbenheimer, or, Beyond the Nuclear Dreamhouse
A review of a movie that never was.
“See the girl on the TV dressed in a Bikini.
She doesn't think so but she's dressed for the H-Bomb…” – Gang of Four, “I Found That Essence Rare”
At first, I was confused. More than I normally am when I stand in the baffling expanse of the multiplex. I had arrived to see the film that I – and as far as I knew, many others – had waited for all summer. Finally, a widely-released movie unafraid to show the unspeakable amounts of annihilative violence that is required for any society of consumer comfort, and with blockbuster marketing to boot.
Judging by the long lines I had to wait in, I wasn’t the only one who had been eagerly awaiting Barbenheimer. But I wasn’t impatient. Far from it, I was thrilled and heartened that so many of America’s normally docile populace had been energized by news of this film. The proliferation of memes had been heartening enough, but this?
It confirmed, to my mind, what I had always said about great art, great literature, great filmmaking: it isn’t that we are uninterested in them, but rather that we are so used to being talked down to, so used to having our tastes demeaned and our intelligence insulted, that in the midst of a thoroughly alienating and exhausting life, most of us can only muster an okay fine when it’s time for leisure and recreation. But give us something meaningful, something that actually speaks to the deepest universal truths of our existence in an unforgiving imperial collapse, and we will flock to it. But then, no major movie studio, so complicit in our despair, would ever tell on themselves like that.
Slowly working my way up the line, my excitement became uncontainable. I couldn’t wait to see the masterful filmmaking that wrenched an emotional realization from us about life under late capitalism. I couldn’t wait for a return of the grand narrative. I couldn’t wait to hear and participate in the chatter as we exited the theater, as hundreds, nay, thousands of us, were inspired to rush out to the actors’ and writers’ picket lines; to gorge ourselves on the films of Godard, Anges Varda, and Ousmane Sembene; to organize a mass communist peace movement. I also couldn’t wait to see J. Robert Oppenheimer’s pasty torso in a neon pink swimsuit.
So you can imagine my surprise when, finally getting to the front of the line, I found that tickets for Barbenheimer were not available. Nowhere on the ticket booth’s digital marquis did it say Barbenheimer.
I started to panic. Of course I did. This wasn’t mere disappointment I was playing with. I was now starting to wonder if I, and many of my friends, were losing a grip on our sanity. Had we hallucinated this wonderful and revelatory film? If so then it wasn’t just a concern of one of us, but all of us. And judging by the interactions of everyone ahead of and behind me in line, it wasn’t just us either. This could very well be a case of mass hysteria we were now dealing with.
On top of everything else, I was now holding up the line. What to do now? The stares of the employees in the ticket booth, and those behind me in the queue, were getting impatient. My eyes began to rocket round the marquis, frantically searching for some sign that I wasn’t completely losing my mind.
When I finally saw the two words, for two different films, playing in two different theatres, I acted instinctively.
My panic finally subsided after I entered the lobby, though I found that my confusion had not. I held in my hand tickets to not one but two films. One was titled Oppenheimer, the other Barbie. Some part of me had, thankfully, had the foresight to buy them for different times so that I could see one after the other.
Still, I stared at these two tickets with almost the same amount of bafflement as I had the marquis. Was Barbenheimer not merely one but two movies? Had this always been the plan, and if so how had I missed such a key component of the film’s marketing? If the two pieces of the filmic experience were intended to be separate, in what way were they to be fit back together? Were we to watch them chronologically, one before the other? Or were they somehow to be experienced simultaneously, like the way we’d always heard we could do with The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, or the four different iterations of the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka? If so then this multiplex was doing a right good job bungling the whole thing, as there, far as I could tell, no showings of the two different films simultaneously, never mind a way to view them in the same theatre. I resolved to later write the owner a strongly-worded letter after I returned home.
I also resolved to see the two films in what I supposed would be chronological order. I took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from my brow, hitched up my britches, and walked in the direction of the screen showing Oppenheimer.