Sci-Fi and Sincerity: Looking Forward to James Ponsoldt’s The Circle

#2017Preview

The indie director of The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour is pushing his career to new heights.

At first glance, writer-director James Ponsoldt may not seem like the logical choice to adapt The Circle, Dave Eggers’s sci-fi thriller about a mysterious and powerful internet company. The dystopian outlook and chilling themes feel more like something in David Fincher’s wheelhouse than that of the Spectacular Now director. But based on a recent trailer, The Circle seems poised to propel Ponsoldt’s already-impressive career to new heights, commercially and thematically. And a closer look at his work might explain why.

Ponsoldt is, above all, a humanistic director, concerned with the nuances of behavior and relationship. Since his 2006 debut, Off the Black, he has focused on stories about two people navigating their vulnerabilities with one another. Through Spectacular Now, this was all he needed to generate emotionally complex drama. But with 2015’s The End of the Tour, a road film about novelist David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, Ponsoldt upped the stakes. In that film, the specificities of Wallace and Lipsky’s relationship became a vehicle through which to explore broader themes of cultural cynicism, the damaging impact of television, and the hollowness of fame.

This approach finds precedent in the work of David Foster Wallace himself: though his thoughts were densely philosophical, he famously said that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Said Ponsoldt of Wallace, “He wasn’t wrestling with string theory, usually, although he’s the type of guy that probably would have. He wrestled with the exact same things we all wrestle with on a day-to-day basis.” Ponsoldt’s eschewal of irony and intellectualism – his commitment to honoring his characters’ emotions – places him firmly in the tradition of the so-called New Sincerity, a movement Wallace helped to define and popularize. Indeed, Ponsoldt identified himself with this movement as early as his first film. Part of what distinguishes Spectacular Now from other coming-of-age films, for example, is the manner in which it dignifies the feelings of its young protagonists. That film’s warm hues and anamorphic aspect ratio constitute a cinematic complement to Wallace’s compassionate, un-ironic prose.

Before going to Columbia Film School, Ponsoldt majored in English at Yale and wrote his thesis on suicide in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. The scope of his work to date could not accurately be called Shakespearean, but a literary sensibility – a sense of the tragic sweep of human experience, taken seriously rather than cynically – has undergirded and elevated his films from the beginning. The profundity of these films comes not from scale but from sincerity – from the earnestness and attentiveness with which he regards even “simple” human situations.

How might The Circle suit this sensibility? Dave Eggers, the novel’s author, has long been identified with the New Sincerity and was heavily influenced by Wallace. Eggers’s breakout work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, told a story of two brothers coping with their parents’ death that could easily have been an early Ponsoldt film. Eggers gradually progressed from the intimate to the sweeping and, like Wallace, his work has collapsed the distinction between the personal and the political. With his adaptation of The Circle, Ponsoldt seems likely to do the same.

For better or worse, “what it is to be a fucking human being” now intimately concerns technology. It is no longer possible to make an honest account of modern humanity without addressing the ways in which the internet has effected privacy, relationship, and even identity itself. The film explores these ideas through Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a young tech worker who ascends through the ranks of The Circle, a Google-like Internet powerhouse. Things begin to get Orwellian when Mae learns about the company’s plans to roll out portable cameras streaming real-time video, intended to provide total transparency. Bailey (Tom Hanks), the company’s Jobs-like visionary leader, declares in the trailer that “knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.”

What might Ponsoldt bring to this subject matter? For starters, an understanding of character, the lack of which often plagues even the best sci-fi fare (hello, Westworld). A visceral, small-town suspicion of technology, perhaps. (Ponsoldt’s Twitter presence is ambivalent and delightful.) But the most interesting ground here might be that most vulnerable of human desires – to see and be seen. Ponsoldt’s films all feature characters hiding from one another, striving to present their best selves, suffering when reality pours through the cracks. What does it mean to “be seen” – to let another in – when privacy is obliterated? To make our humanity fully “transparent” might erase the very vulnerabilities that make us human.

Seen in this way, The Circle becomes a tale of Promethean overreach with distinctly personal consequences. In The End of the Tour, Jason Segel’s Wallace struggles to maintain control over the telling of his life’s narrative, against Lipsky’s attempted incursions. One of the principle sorrows of fame, we come to understand, is this loss of autonomy. The same could be said of our online lives – the way in which we expose ourselves to scrutiny and interpretation, the self-consciousness this engenders. How much truer might this be in a world where a portable cameras capture our every move and made public for the world to see? Is this merely the pinnacle of sincerity, of authenticity? Or the death of it?

These are difficult questions. But, humanist that he is, James Ponsoldt is sure to have some fascinating answers. The Circle is set for release in April 2017.