Nostalgia brands are having a big moment at the movies.
From Air to Tetris, current filmography is obsessed with the origin story of all things retro. Fitting, then, that Parentology had the opportunity to interview Canadian filmmaker, writer, professor and cinephile Matthew Miller about his latest film, BlackBerry.
Starring Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton, BlackBerry tells the story of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the two men that charted the course of the spectacular rise – and catastrophic demise – of the world’s first smartphone.
“BlackBerry is a huge Canadian success story,” Miller says. “They’re kind of an afterthought now and they’re thought of as a joke, but they’re only thought of that way because they had such insane success.”
While the film remains irreverent and funny, hallmarks of Miller’s oeuvre which includes Nirvanna the Band the Show and Matt & Bird Break Loose, he never misses an opportunity to pull the rug out, just a little bit.
“Our film is getting lumped in with Tetris and Air, the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos movie. And these movies all share a similarity in that they tell the story of a product’s origin,” Miller says. “But I hope that our film kind of dives a little bit deeper again and becomes more about the human drama and the dynamics between these guys. That was really what ultimately interested us and why it made sense for us to make this movie.”
The relationship between Lazaridis and Balsillie resonates with Miller, who sees a distinct parallel between their origin story and his own.
“The key thing for us was discovering who these men are and figuring out an angle into that,” he says. “We realized that a tech startup in the mid-90s trying to create something with your friends that’s going to change the world is not that different from a film production company trying to make films with your friends.”
Miller has no immediate plans for a biopic about the iPhone. He says that story’s been told, and without enough space to give the story context, it would lack any real objectivity.
“The reason BlackBerry was ripe for telling was because of time. It’s been over ten years since they had a dominant hold on the smartphone market, and you always need time to look back,” says Miller. “A lot of the docu-dramas that have been coming out are too close to when the events happened, so you don’t have enough perspective. What are you trying to say about these things? We need time for the artists to look back and reflect. It’s very hard to make a movie during history that is representative of that history.”
As a parent, Miller opines that the seismic shift in technology has a lot to do with current parenting challenges and, ironically, a lack of connectivity.
“I really do think our dependence on screens is changing everything we do,” he says. “Maybe this is a generational thing and every parenting generation is going to be more challenging than it was or perceived to be. Like I said, I don’t think we’ll really know until we’re at the other end looking back.”
BE KIND, PLEASE REWIND
In a sense, Blackberry pays homage to Miller’s own analog upbringing: “I worked at a video store, ‘Hollywood Movies’, and it was right at the time when DVDs were coming in,” he says. “It was like the most fun I ever had in my life, just watching movies and talking to people about movies. All of my 90s nostalgia lies in those locations and those video stores and those tapes.”
Miller has a real reverence for film, not just for how they’re made, but how they connect us in ways that screens and streams can’t.
“At the video store, it required planning, it required strategy. You’d have to be deliberate. And if you took that movie home and you watched ten minutes of it and you didn’t like it, it’d be pretty bad to turn it off because you’d already gone to the store and paid for it.”
He laments that younger generations, including his own children, struggle to enjoy film the same way, because the ways in which they consume content is digital and non-linear.
“They have so much more choice. My kids would rather watch YouTube unboxing videos or YouTubers playing Minecraft. They’d rather watch somebody else play Minecraft than play Minecraft themselves, which makes no sense to me,” Miller muses.
With the world at their fingertips, it can be challenging to engage your kids beyond ‘disposable culture.’
“I don’t want to raise children, and consumers, who are that dismissive, because sometimes many great books, films, friends, activities, the things that kids do, they’re not always going to love it right away. Sometimes there’s value in seeing something through from start to end. I think that’s the trickle down effect of what streaming culture has done,” Miller says.
It’s the love of physical media that drives Miller to keep a collection of vinyl and DVD’s in his home, a sort of mini-rebellion against the instant gratification and impatience that’s so indicative of younger generations. In a world where smartphones have become ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget the charm of making deliberate plans and being accountable for them.
The idea of showing up on the corner at a specific time, and the consequences of not doing so, is now a thing of the past.
“These (devices) just make us lazy in all aspects of our life, and they make us dependent on them, which is a very dangerous combination. I’ve seen enough science fiction movies to know how this ends, right?” laughs Miller.
Despite the benefits that new technology provides, it has also made life more complex and demanding. Setting boundaries and guidelines on phone usage has become increasingly challenging, especially for parents trying to set a good example and find a balance in a technology-driven world.
“We try very diligently, and unsuccessfully, to have boundaries, have guidelines, have areas where being on screens is okay, but not okay, no phones at the dinner table, stuff like that,” says Miller. “But again, modern life calls, and it’s fine and good to set those rules and infrastructure up. But it’s harder when it’s 6:00 and you’re doing work with somebody in Los Angeles, and it’s only 03:00 there. These are the day to day challenges of being a parent and trying to be present and set a good example and teach good values. And it’s hard.”
The BlackBerry, once a dominant player in the market, reminds us of a time when we had to make a conscious effort to connect with each other and be deliberate in our interactions. It represented an era when accountability and punctuality were valued, and plans were made with intention.
Perhaps part of the charm of BlackBerry is that its lessons refuse to be forgotten.