Massive transitional periods, such as the first explosion of mass communication from the printed page or the digital watershed we are currently experiencing, raise many questions with answers that only become clear decades after they occurred. PressPausePlay is a documentary that explores those questions, specifically as they pertain to culture in this, our digital age. A stylish, entertaining doc that is itself appropriately steeped in remix, PressPausePlay resembles a Gary Hustwit documentary that is all high design, thumping music, intellectual interviews, and pretty photography.
Documentary filmmakers David Dworsky and Victor Köhler do a fantastic job of laying out the current environment of art and culture, more specifically music and film. From Napster to iTunes the music industry has been irrevocably kneecapped economically, while both the music and film industries are shifting creatively from the availability of cheap, powerful tools. The film is incredibly of the moment, to the point that in five years it will likely be distinctly outdated. It’s a perfect time capsule of the uncertainty present now at the opening of the second decade of the new millennium though, so in that sense it will remain valuable for how well it captures a very specific moment.
While a dozen stories are told and many through-lines develop, this particular documentary ultimately boils down everything to the questions that we all are trying to wrap our minds around, as the overwhelming overflow of media envelops us. While the implications and reactions to these questions are varied and vague among all of the different pundits and commentators in the film, they essentially distill down to the conflicting views of optimism and pessimism about the future of culture. Are we seeing art becoming democratized, or cheapened? Are we gaining more signal, or simply drowning ourselves in more noise? Are we facing a new technologically utopian future, or some kind of murky future of sameness: mediocre “grey goo” covering everything (thanks Moby)? Two quotes from the film sum up the divide in opinion quite well:
“WE ARE ON THE VERGE OF A NEW DARK AGE. THE CREATIVE WORLD IS DESTROYED. ALL WE HAVE IS CACOPHONY AND SELF OPINION.”
—ANDREW KEEN, AUTHOR, THE CULT OF THE AMATEUR
“THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. THE INDUSTRY IS DEAD. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE AN ARTIST.”
— SETH GODIN, ENTREPRENEUR, AND PUBLIC SPEAKER
For anyone that is the least bit savvy about tech, art, and the internet, PressPausePlay is not likely to paint a profoundly new and mind-blowing picture of the world. There’s no shortage of commentary anywhere about how much the internet and technology has changed and accelerated paradigm shifts in every aspect of our lives. What the documentary does do that is valuable though, is present a balanced view of today’s relevant questions. For many people, the idea that powerful music editing programs and high-quality DSLRs are anything but a gift to culture could certainly be new. Frankly, I found it specifically refreshing to hear someone flat out say that not every person has talent, and when everyone is a photographer or a filmmaker or a musician, then no one is. The point at which there is no longer such a thing as an audience, and you’re only playing for people who are waiting for their turn on the stage… At what point do we start losing masterpieces and serendipitous flashes of genius? That said, how can it not be a good thing that control of culture has been wrestled out of the hands of the few with an agenda, and brought back to the many?
Like any upbeat, entertaining documentary, PressPausePlay achieves this dialogue by including thoughts from interesting people over beautiful footage, interspersed with relevant anecdotes. Moby, Hot Chip, Ted Shilowitz of the RED camera company, and countless interesting media pundits/writers all give their perspective on the possible cultural roads down which we may travel, and they’re organized beautifully in a manner that gives the doc a cogency and a satisfying structure. The score is varied, but is driven by electronica that at several points becomes a brilliantly mixed frenzy of sampling that matches evocative visual montages. The doc does not lack for style.
There are a few missteps that I wish the doc had managed to avoid, including a central storyline of a hybrid pop/classical artist and his journey to perform with a full orchestra, which is never paid off with even a glimpse of that actual performance! For the most part though, the film’s focus and choice of material serve it well, which for a documentary on such a huge subject with an obvious wealth of footage to draw from seems like an especially impressive achievement.
Unafraid to cast doubt on the absolute value of democratized culture while still inherently celebrating the revolutionary spirit of the times, PressPausePlay is a uniquely provocative documentary that you should not wait to see. This is a film truly deserving of an instant watch, as it begs to be viewed in the moment before the questions it explores become quaint artifacts of a bygone era. Fortunately it’s so hip, energetic, inspiring, and entertaining that it can be recommended without a second’s hesitation.
It seems the documentary is available for free on their website, so for real: watch the damn thing.