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Gascoigne – The Construction of a Fallen Hero

July 13, 2015


(Gascoigne, Jane Preston 2015)

At the beginning of this documentary about Paul Gascoigne, released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Italia ‘90, the tournament in which his career was played out in implosive microcosm, Gary Lineker observes that Gazza the player and the person is defined by vulnerability. It’s a point that’s both so right it’s disarming to have it dropped it so early – everything about the way Gazza played and lived was enabled and destroyed by a doomed emotional naiviety – but also one that the film clings to so firmly that it fails, in the end, to look into the consequences of this vulnerability for anyone except Gascoigne himself.

Still – there are things the film does well. It allows Gascoigne to talk, and in talking to remember with a clear and still-ringing incomprehension the miracle journey from back-alley obscurity to global stardom. Watching his interviews catches you in a double-bind of pity – for the bright, impulsive talent incapable of grasping the enormity and potential of his situation, and for the damaged, reflective survivor looking back on a player who is both him and not him, who was something great and far from all he could have been.

There’s plenty of straightforward nostalgia at work, for an English man in this 30s – me, essentially – looking back on a pre-Premier League landscape of football and footballers. In this tight-shorted era England make the closing stages of major tournaments despite – or because of, in rigid defiance of Murdoch-dollar hype – uncomplicated non-stars like Walker, Pearce and Platt, and the head of England’s most expensive player can be turned by the offer of a house for his parents (this detail, which sealed Gascoigne’s move to Spurs, sets out the galling inevitability of his trajectory, given his starting position).

This somehow adds up to more than just a pleasing look at probably-better (or at least younger and keener) days. The way I experienced these tournaments in ‘86, ‘90, ‘96 – the way we all experienced them – was as a burst of hope, as if the efforts and contortions of young men hundreds of miles away engaged in a sport that’s important only because we have decided as much could really improve the way we felt and treated each other. If the film has a trick it’s in pulling Gascoigne into meaningful focus as a great cypher of English football, recognising that his bluster and impact – those tottering runs, a rolling contradiction of balance and delayed catastrophe, those strikes that look like an impossible collection of repeat-flukes – were an embodiment of how football could, on those rare occasions, make us all feel: a fleeting, fragile touch of promise.

Maybe simply watching Gazza play says all this anyway – the romance of the unachieved, the righteousness of trying so hard you break yourself. He became, for a generation that included me, a model of athletic ambition – if not to win, then to lose gloriously, exhausted, battered and honourably bewildered in the face of opposition who had found some more nefarious path to victory than brute force or emotional investment. Gascoigne played football with all the insight of a man who wore fake plastic breasts to a national homecoming held chiefly in his honour, a tragic figure of unguarded striving whose undoing – the image-fixing yellow card which led to celebrated tears, the career-defining injuries which led to depression and addiction – was to overstretch, quite literally, and to want more than he could do.

The film’s key achievement, in other words, is to recognise self-defeat as the motif of Gascoigne’s career, and to see the terms of his talent – raw and, as Lineker observes, vulnerable – as the mechanisms of its collapse. But what it fails to do entirely is extend this observation past the valiant losing semi-finalist – Gazza, the emblem of English football – to his private life, to Gazza the domestic abuser. While the highlights of Gascoigne’s England career are recounted blow-by-blow, his ex-wife Sheryl (who still supports a perpetually-recovering Gascoigne, while campaigning for victims of domestic abuse) is excised entirely.

It’s an unforgivable omission, from a film willing to explore the damaging dysfunction of Gascoigne’s talent and exposure only to the point of constructing a wistful image of an excruciating almost-man. The loss can be football’s, it can be Gascoigne’s, and most selfishly it can be ours – but it can’t be the loss suffered by a beaten wife, or their scared children.

Admitting their relationship to this history wouldn’t even contradict the film’s portrayal of Gascoigne the self-saboteur – it would only deepen it, forcing a reckoning of how a man capable of these inspiring acts can be capable of these inexcusable others, and asking what the connection between the two might be. And the film already has half the answers, drawing attention to our need to find heroes like Gazza and live in some orbit of surrogate glory around them. His most touching memories are of scoring specific goals, not for the technique or skill involved, but the crowd’s surging response to them. The film’s most astonishing scenes are of Lazio fans, after his transfer to the Rome side, swarming his car in a frenzy of uncomprehending proximity.

And yet the final connections aren’t made – between a mode of embattled masculinity cheered by a crowd, a community, a nation, and the violent misogyny that masculinity spawns. There is no irony perceived, even when discussing Gascoigne’s disgraceful treatment by the tabloid press, of the need to grant our heroes certain flaws and cleanse them of others. It leaves Gascoigne the film telling a narrative of Gascoigne the man that fails to challenge or even acknowledge the cultures and entitlements that made him want to be a footballer in the first place, that valourize endeavour and glorious self-destruction, and turn a blind eye to abuse when it’s inconvenient enough not to take place on a football field.

The Last Guardian – as seen in 2011

June 30, 2015


I found this write-up of a visit to see The Last Guardian I did for Edge Magazine in 2011 while digging through some emails. Given how similar the game looked when it resurfaced at E3 this year, I thought I’d post this for fun. Some of it’s not too bad! I’m sorry about the rest.

There’s a moment in the 15-minute gameplay demonstration of The Last Guardian in which the boy – a colour-coded echo of the horned protagonist of Ico – cups his hands and calls out to his giant feathered companion. And, for no obvious reason, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Partly it’s the animal’s indifference (this is early in the game and their emotional bond is still forming) and partly the bracing resolve shown by the boy himself, cajoling the beast into action alone among haunted stone ruins, too much responsibility heaped on slender, accepting shoulders.

This is the magic of Team Ico, the Sony Japan studio we’re here to visit in Tokyo. The studio is also responsible for PlayStation 2 titles Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, a back catalogue of unusually sophisticated, artistic games, which share with The Last Guardian minimalist visual design, a pale palette of light and shadow, and a pervading atmosphere of thick, creeping quiet.

Thanks to Team Ico’s small numbers and lengthy production cycles this is its first PlayStation 3 title (Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida calls them his “Olympic Team” as they produce every four years – this time it’s been five). Having made the most beautiful games on PS2, there is much interest in what the team’s latest will coax out of PS3. As soon as the demonstration begins it’s obvious it will be something special.

20081231203718The boy is creeping up on the sleeping creature – called Trico, both as a nod to Ico and a portmanteau of the Japanese words for bird (tori) and cat (neko) – on the ground-floor of a ruined greystone castle. Sun breaks through the broken floors and absent roof, creating a glowing patch of bright green grass at the centre of the room’s dark shadows. The whites are over-saturated, the blacks impenetrably murky, the effect like bleary eyes opening against bright daylight. Into the murkiness float luminous butterflies and sparkling specks of dust or pollen, giving a tangible, textured quality to the air.

The boy tries to wake Trico, whose head stands a little taller than he does. He tugs on the beast’s folded dog ears, but has to shout before the animal slowly stretches, yawns and rolls to its feet. It looks simultaneously realistic and unrealistic – uncannily natural in motion, but at the same time a physically impossible amalgam of parts. Trico is both alien and familiar, a feline body covered in feathers, with webbed feet and a canine head rounding out into a beak-like snout.

20090102203021He’s also huge, a factor that’s crucial to his relationship with the boy. At the controls for the demonstration is Team Ico’s chief creative director, Fumito Ueda. It’s easy to marry this quietly intense 41-year-old with the games he’s masterminded – he is focused and softly-spoken, but also authoritative. He explains that the dynamic in The Last Guardian is an expansion on those found in his earlier titles. Because of their differing size and abilities, Trico and the boy must find different paths through certain areas like Ico and Yorda, and their growing relationship mirrors Wander’s attachment to his horse Agro in Shadow Of The Colossus.

For now, though, Trico looks decidedly disinterested. The challenge in this opening area is to aid the boy’s ascent past balconies, suspended chains and walkways, to a switch mechanism on one of the higher levels. To do that, he needs Trico’s help. Ueda explains how certain items in the world act as bait for the creature as the boy waddles into a corner and picks up a steaming vat of purple liquid, his bow-legged heave recalling Ico’s strained steps while carrying barrels and bombs. There are gasps of delight from assembled journalists when the boy turns back toward Trico, whose massive head is now poking eagerly through an arched doorway, clawed paw reaching around the side, trying to get close to the boy and whatever he’s holding. And next the logical implementation, very much in the style of Ico’s satisfyingly rational problem-solving – the boy climbs a set of stairs and throws the bait over to a balcony on the other side of the room. Trico turns and rears up, putting his front legs onto the balcony, hunting for his treat. Suddenly, he’s a feathered ladder, and the boy is on his way.

20081231211734As Ueda notes, all of his games have featured a strong relationship with a non-player character. But this one is different. Where Ico and Wander were protectors and aggressors, The Last Guardian’s boy is too small to fight. The room the boy now comes to demonstrates this. It features a guard in thick, intricately pattered body armour which covers the face. The boy adopts a stealthy approach, crouching behind a low wall as the camera leans in so he fills the left side of the screen. The gameplay here looks simple – the guard patrols, the boy looks for a pattern and evades. If he’s spotted – which in this instance he is, and it doesn’t look like Ueda means to have been – he runs. The boy is faster than the guards, his white one-shouldered tunic flapping and his body leaning forward as he flashes through the dimly lit room, searching for small openings or climbable chains to help lose his lumbering pursuer.

cut_B11_01To dispose of guards more permanently the boy relies on Trico’s strength and size, introducing a powerlessness which makes just watching the game emotionally taxing. It’s a reversal that forces player engagement with Trico, to see him as more than a tool or a mechanism. You need him to like you. Ueda says that as the relationship develops Trico’s expressions and mannerisms change, something which gives new significance to the handful of The Last Guardian trailers teased out over the last two years. At last year’s Tokyo Game Show crowds saw Trico bowing his head as the boy patted his nose, and earlier, at E3 2009, the two were wrapped up together in a warm, sleeping heap.

As he plays, Ueda stresses that he wants this relationship to be natural and direct, for players to respond to the needs and understand the mood of Trico through facial expressions and behaviour alone. Recent games have featured heart-tugging human/animal interactions, such as keeping adopted stray Dogmeat alive in Fallout 3, and enjoying the unconditional love of your canine companion in Fable II (did anyone choose not to resurrect him at the end?). But these are one-sided exchanges and, crucially, superfluous to the main thrust of the story and gameplay. Even in Red Dead Redemption, in which horses not only become loyally bound to hero John Marston, but he relies upon them in the game’s wide open spaces, the animals are replaceable, interchangeable objects. The Last Guardian is attempting something more.

It’s probably no coincidence that Red Dead is one of a handful of games found in a stack beside a television in a corner of Team Ico’s unusually barren single-floor studio. Ueda has confirmed that his team are in full production now ahead of the game’s end of year release, after a long period of planning and design. But that team still only numbers around 35 (less than half that of most big console games), and the office is remarkably unremarkable. There are no desk-sprawls of toys and posters, no splashes of promos and posters on cubicle walls. The calm of Ueda seems to have filtered into his surroundings and staff. Scanned from the doorway this could be any open-plan, strip-lit office. Instead it is where they’re making one of the most eagerly anticipated games in the world.

Back in the demo room downstairs, the boy is nearing his goal. He tiptoes across a thin plank laid over a large drop, and clambers up a clanking chain. The animations are vivid but fluttering, the game’s dreamy lighting effect making his motion look almost like a hand-cranked silent film. The cloth wrapping his body flaps gently until he runs, when it moves like a kite caught in the wind. He finally makes it to the large round switch at the top of the room and presses it. Second later Trico bounds to the same level, his bulk collapsing wooden beams and partial floors in a dusty cacophony, taking just seconds to complete what took the boy several minutes. It strikes home the miscommunication which will underpin The Last Guardian – if only the boy could speak to him, make him understand – and which will make it  such a unique adventure.

Los Angeles – the city that lies for a living

June 21, 2015


Los Angeles is a strange place I’ve been trying to understand for ten years now.

Across that decade I’ve been to the city – I’ve just checked in the two passports I still have handy from my last visit – nine times. Each time something happens to my understanding of how Los Angeles works – who lives there, how the different concentrations of people coalesce, how the city functions.

My first ride from LAX into the city, all I can remember is driving over a storm drain on the freeway and thinking about Terminator 2. This is in February 2005, on a trip that also took in New York, a city I understand much better and primarily through these cinema screen references. New York is a condensed grid of angles and architecture that, when you are at it and inside it, looks like it does in the movies, and is compact enough, within the rigid borders of Manhattan island, to feel recognisably like what I feel a city should be: a layered, designed burst of too-much-humanity.

Los Angeles isn’t like this. That snapshot feeling (I actually got my camera out, if I remember rightly) happens once every few miles, not every few blocks. Most of Los Angeles is made up of a material and a living experience I can’t comprehend. What are these boulevards that stretch for miles with plant shops and tyre workshops and taco stands? And what pattern of life would bring anyone to them, in this unwalkable cross-section of endless sprawl, to buy anything in particular?

Over the years I’ve gotten to know small areas of the city, starting with Santa Monica, which despite being surrounded on all sides by either more of the city or the ocean isn’t really part of the city at all, only the county of Los Angeles. Santa Monica has landmarks (primarily the pier, which was in a film with Judge Reinhold) and shops that are arranged all together on both sides of the road in a way Santa Monica itself calls a Promenade but I would describe as a High Street. I’ve stayed up on Sunset Boulevard, which is a mile or so of things that look like they were put together on purpose. I’ve enjoyed the faded art deco grandeur of Hollywood and the old theatres downtown, a style that always strikes me as the native architecture of the city – a city built upon an industry of illusion – and which always restores me after miles of gaudy haphazardry.

Recently, after years of crawling along at ground level and peering out of cab windows, I’ve had added new perspectives on the city. I’ve cycled from Santa Monica up to Mulholland Drive – a Lynchian pilgrimage, and the more I ponder the city the more appropriate I think it is that it ended at a road rather than a place, and so didn’t really end at all – and up to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, from which on one side I saw the Hollywood sign, as close as I ever will, and the other an aerial view of downtown Los Angeles, a ripple of rise at the end of a flat, wide expanse. Finally, on my last trip, I ventured up one of those rises, the US Bank Tower – three elevators to the 72st floor like a vertical tube journey – and saw everything at once, from the mountain to the oceans, miles of stretching nothing and whatever stretching up to grey smogged borders that made it feel as though we were trapped in a huge baking snowdome, the edge of our universe clear and manifest.

All of this means that Los Angeles is at once a bitter disappointment and an object of endless, perfect fascination. Two years ago I visited the Walk Of Fame for the first time, moving past the costumed street performers and tracing the stars for names I knew for two blocks, three, when suddenly the glamour was gone and the streets, still studded with stars and undimmed memories of the screen, were dirty and bare, the tourist nexus dissipating into endless sub-suburbia. That this can happen within sight of the city’s bustling glow seems totally apt, somehow, the immaculately dressed set just a stride or a shift of perspective away from image-shattering reality.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have tried – am trying – to understand Los Angeles as a place that lies for a living and lies to itself. Its natural resource is light, and you can read for years about Hollywood being an industry of light, of images and ideas, without ever taking in what it means to be stood on a street corner in cloudless, unflickering day in the middle of what should be a desert and to be struck by the somehow solid near-tactile ubiquity of this resource. Los Angeles is luminous in a profane way, that makes it necessary to wear sunglasses if you want to see and that makes the air smell of burning on your hotel roof at midday. It’s a place made possible by stolen water and diverted rivers that specialises in a culture of self-deluded surface. Nothing there looks like the movies, really. The city is one giant, rolling backstage.

The thing that makes me think I’m wrong about Los Angeles – that there must be something here other than a trail of empty promises – are the people. The work that brings me to the city means the people I meet there fall into two main camps – unnervingly clean and symmetrical would-be actors working in hotels and restaurants, and cab drivers with humbling life stories and more perspective than can be snatched in a decade of detached bemusement. This year the cabs I travelled in were driven by a man from Ethiopia who was thrilled when he realised he’d visited London before I was born (“1976!”) and sad when I said I didn’t believe in God (“You lose nothing”). A Korean guy in his 60s drove us from downtown to Sunset and was delighted that we were British because the woman who taught him English – very well, it seems, in Canada in the 1970s – was also British. And, in a discombobulating twist as I was preparing myself for the foreignness of the city, the very first cab we got into at the airport was driven by a terrifically English man from Basingstoke. He told us about a youth spent riding his motorcycle knee-to-knee around the ring road roundabouts, so that when he got to Los Angeles and up into the mountains “Nobody could touch me.”

These cab drivers, and all the cab drivers who drive me on these hour-long jaunts through a city I can’t understand, have a few things in common. They’re always men, they’re always in their 50s or older. They’re never from the States, not originally, and they unfailingly remember the year they arrived. Most confoundingly they’re always happy – about the weather I can’t live with, about the years they’ve spent driving cars in a city throttled by traffic, about whatever promise Los Angeles delivered to them that I can’t perceive. And though I like to think about this as a city of untruth, the centre of an industry of make-believe manufactured using illusory raw material, I’m willing to concede that Los Angeles might not lie to everybody.

Why ‘Hotel Room’ is the key to the work of David Lynch

April 11, 2015

Hotel room 3

For no reason in particular tonight I became obsessed with tracking down the introduction to David Lynch’s Hotel Room. Actually, now I come to write this sentence the particular reason presents itself without too much trouble – this was a short series made by Lynch in 1993 for HBO, the cable network whose long-time rival, Showtime, seemed set to pull off the miracle resurrection of Twin Peaks until just last week.

I love the introduction to Hotel Room. I mean, I love a lot of Lynch’s work, but I love this in particular, and in spite of the fact that the show itself is, you know, fine – all the limited aesthetic range of early ’90s TV that gave Twin Peaks its fuzzy transportive warmth and, well, none of that transportive warmth.

Lynch once said that Blue Velvet was “a song, and a texture”, and there is a richness to this introduction that makes it feel like something I should be able to put in the palm of my hand and stroke. It lays out a concept for the show so beautifully realised that it feels tactile – the anxious surges of Angelo Badalamenti’s music, the clipped boyscout notes of lynch himself.

What fold this into a perfect weighted whole for me is that the introduction is itself about capturing ideas, casting the evolution of cities and the construction of buildings – the kind of solid, industrial acts of creation that Lynch is drawn to repeatedly – as a process of pulling space from the air so that people might play out their mysterious dealings and dramas inside.

And this idea of the Hotel Room, a private performative space, a crossroads of human activity – a place we “pass through” – is a perfect Lynchian mix of drama and mystery. Of course Lynch loves hotel rooms, these borrowed stages in which we step out of our normal selves, where we might “brush up against the secret names of truth” (which, by the way, is a description so a-fizz with the textured, concentrated process of what Lynch’s work is about – showing us something essential and yet intangible – that it almost hurts).

These spaces wrought with public-private tension, with a loosening of the constraints of identity turn up all over Lynch’s work: John’s hospital quarters in the Elephant Man, a healing white space interrupted by gurning guided tours, Dorothy’s apartment in Blue Velvet, a stage of voyeurism and twisted sado-masochism, the Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks, Fred’s apartment in Lost Highway, a private place somehow permeated by an videotaping observer, and Betty’s aunt’s apartment in Mulholland Dr, which becomes the meeting ground for Betty, a would-be actress embarking on a life of becoming other people, and Rita, a star who’s lost herself and become someone else instead.

These are all different framings, stagings and sightings of the same idea – different rooms in the same hotel. And that’s why I love the introduction to Hotel Room so much, because it’s as close as we will ever get to Lynch saying “This is what my work is about” which is terrifically exciting even if – and because! – saying something is about “the secret names of truth” isn’t really saying what it’s about at all.

But watch it, though. And listen to it. And feel it. It’s wonderful.

The Once And Future Him

April 8, 2015


I saw Terry Jones at the weekend. He was giving an hour-long Q&A before a screening of Monty Python And The Holy Grail at my local cinema, the Little Theatre, as part of the Bath Comedy Festival. The Q&A did not go as I’d expected, and, as a result the whole evening turned into an odd, sad stretch of realisation and reflection.

I’ve given lots of thought to if and how I should write this, but the core of the issue is that Jones was not his right self on Sunday evening.

Watching a bad interview is always a squirming, uncomfortable experience – watching an interview during which it slowly, dreadfully becomes clear that the interviewee is incapable of answering meaningfully is a hollowing and mortifying one. Initial hesitations and quiet pauses seemed like warming up, but soon became the established pattern of every response. Jones grasped agitatedly for names, never offered an answer containing anything more than a single strand of meaning and, very often, simply parroted a confirmation of the question using the same words. When he tried to mount more intricate responses he occasionally seemed to see connections of thought and memory which he couldn’t convert into language, and which he’d eventually have to let go with a shrug and an apologetic “I can’t remember.”

I need to say two things. Firstly, that I don’t know anything of Jones’ situation, bearing or behaviour outside of the hour I saw him on stage. And secondly that although I was by turns bewildered, galled and furious during that hour – furious at anyone and everyone who had cleared a path to this stage and enabled this to happen – if anything serious is going on then the discomfort of a fan doesn’t register on the scale needed to record the distress of those directly affected.

The overriding sense was that we were seeing something private, and that something, it seemed to me at that moment, was about an unravelling of self. A sad and fascinating thing happened towards the end of the hour, when Jones apparently called time on the interview and asked for questions from the audience. The same people who always pop up at this point then popped up, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s asking the same questions-that-are-really-statements-about-themselves-with-a-question-mark-at-the-end, all apparently oblivious to the evening so far.

It says something about what we seek from a connection with fame, or heroes – not necessarily contact with the person themselves, but a rush towards the image and idea we have of them (which, as it happened, was all of Jones I could see on stage) and to grab at it, see ourselves reflected in it. One man asked how Jones writes such inventive stories, because he’s been trying to write and can’t get anywhere. “I just make them up.” Another spoke of an Anglican upbringing during which he didn’t understand the Pythons’ humour, which prompted a confused cul-de-sac from Jones about his mother dying of a heart attack while he was in Paris (“…she always had a heart attack when I was in Paris”). The questions still came – the audience was so concerned with presenting a piece of themselves to the person they’d come to see that they were somehow incapable of seeing that he wasn’t there. “I’ve forgotten my memory” Jones said at one point.

And then the film started, and to a certain extent everything was washed away. This, despite the fact that the pain of the evening was quite specifically seeing the terrifically sharp and talented person in that film now on-stage and diminished. Part of the reason I wanted to write this piece is because last summer I went to see the Monty Python reunion show at the O2, which turned from something I was skeptical about revisiting to an emotional reminder about the joys of enjoying  things.

I wrote this at the time, trying to explain why the show made me cry and not stop until I was halfway home.

What played a part was certainly that vertiginous rush of remembering how integral these people were to my earliest conceptions of myself, to the humour and skepticism that still lights my way dimly through the world. And there is an incoherent swirl of sensitive things best marked simply as “the past” which were also involved, along with that occasional, cascading sense of how completely in our possession and also completely lost to us the past is.

And so Sunday was the cold correlative of last year’s unexpected joy – surrounded by people for whom Terry Jones was clearly also integral to their conceptions of self, and overwhelmed in a  more sobering way by that sense of holding tightly and having already lost the past. Terry Jones, he’s right there in the film. Terry Jones, he’s onstage and slipping away. And if there is a consolation – and there should be, because we all slip away – it’s that the joy and life of the work, silly and funny and dazzling, stands apart from the people who created it when they can’t be these things any more, and gives us something of them that we can hold on to.

Edge Of Tomorrow: Gaming The Language Of Film

April 5, 2015

Edge Of Tomorrow

Last year on Edge Online David Valjalo argued convincingly that the blockbusters of 2013, and Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium in particular, were evidence of the growing influence of videogame aesthetics on Hollywood. “Elysium is the boldest embrace yet of videogame language in the cinema,” he wrote, describing a film packed with respawns and plasma shields that is “steeped in the iconography and pace of the multiplayer deathmatch.”

He’s right, of course, although one of this year’s big-hitters goes even further. Edge Of Tomorrow, a science-fiction blockbuster starring Tom Cruise, not only uses the language of games, but their grammar too, thereby raising fundamental questions about the core conceptual mechanics of games and films and whether they’ll ever be usefully compatible.

This isn’t to trample on Valjalo’s optimistic assessment that Elysium’s constructive borrowing had for once taken the derogatory sting out of the description “like a videogame”, but it is to set it in context. Yes, there is a growing aesthetic overlap between cinema and games, one built substantially on a common vocabulary of violent action, tech fetishism, and the easy cultural shorthand of military narratives. War stories, science fiction, guns and gunmen – as Hollywood streamlines its blockbuster storytelling for an overseas market that now pays more than half the bills (nuance, after all, travels badly) these things constitute the growing point of intersection with videogames, where story has always been subservient to action.

If last year felt like some kind of watershed it’s more likely down to the unusually high number of science fiction films it contained than because it was truly remarkable. 2013’s disproportionately bumper crop of slick, futuristic genre movies, which as well as Elyisum included Oblivion, After Earth, Pacific Rim, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Riddick and Ender’s Game, offered us disproportionately abundant evidence of a shared visual language, but really formed a sharp spike on an already upward curve.

And that’s because this is a visual language that already exists, sprawling and inextricable, in a constant feedback loop of films, games, and animation. Games didn’t invent dropships, mech suits or weaponised bio-augmentations, though they might have had a hand in refining them and pulling them in and out of fashion. This visual feedback loop isn’t limited to visual media, either – one of the richest veins of influence involves the the hardass roughnecks and rough-hewn hardware that run from James Cameron’s Aliens, through Bungie’s Halo (and its countless imitators) right up to Edge Of Tomorrow, and which in large part originated with Robert A. Heinlen’s 1960 novel, Starship Troopers.

In other words, I find it interesting but not particularly significant that the props, scenery and action beats of games have become more prominently than usual in our popcorn cinema. The toy-town simplicity of Transformers and Battleship, the Heinlen-styled exploration of real and simulated action in Ender’s Game, and even the exhaustively referential irony of Scott Pilgrim – this is all so much surface. What would be more remarkable is a structural, rather than visual acknowledgement of games in cinema – perhaps even the incorporation of elements which assumed familiarity with the structural conceits and conventions of games. This is where we inch closer to Edge Of Tomorrow.

There are far fewer examples of this kind of conceptual influence. I’d argue that Christopher Nolan’s remarkable and intricate Inception is one. It is a film arranged as a series of levels, a layer-cake of stacked dream worlds including, much to the wry amusement of anyone familiar with the generic shooters of the mid ‘00s, its very own snow mission. More than this, Inception’s notion of designed dreams is about world building – the impressive, intimidating shot of a Paris street, townhouses and all, curling impossibly up to the heavens evokes both a creative flexibility and a malleability of the physical world which corresponds to the greybox potential of videogames.

Even more crucial to the structural assumptions of videogames is their notion of time. As mentioned earlier, for games story is always subservient to action, the knock-on effect of which is that time is shattered and pieced back together as required, the narrative cohesion of one moment leading to the next sacrificed in the name of getting the action just so.

Recreating this on film isn’t new. Episodes of both the Twilight Zone (‘Shadow Play’) and The X-Files (‘Monday’) have featured time loops, and Harold Ramis’ comedy Groundhog Day has become synonymous with the conceit. But I’d single out two films – Duncan Jones’ Source Code as well as Edge Of Tomorrow – as particularly relevant because as they’re so clearly located within that shared visual and thematic space of explosions and technology.

Despite what its own characters initially tell us, Source Code isn’t really about time travel at all. In the film Jake Gyllenhaal’s disembodied war veteran slips into the body of a teacher on a train, repeatedly reliving the teacher’s final eight minutes while looking for clues to identify the train’s bomber. It has the iterative learn-and-reload of a videogame, it foregrounds the notion of entering a mission environment through an avatar – ‘playing’ somebody else – and, in the final reckoning, the source code project itself is revealed to be not a conservation of a dead man’s memories, but a quantum gateway into other universes like ours. The technology generates fresh ‘instances’ of time which are just as real and valid as our own, with each reboot visually prefaced by a wireframe world dissolving into the real one. It’s an analogy for the function of game engines and the experience of playing games – thousands, millions of players existing invisibly simultaneously in the same space as you –  which has also been explored by Irrational Games’ philosophical shooter, Bioshock Infinite.

What makes Edge Of Tomorrow distinct even from Source Code, though, is a more faithful recreation of the experience – the priorities and the consequences – of playing a videogame. Tom Cruise’s initially reluctant soldier is forced to participate in what’s effectively D-Day 2, a Normandy invasion against an alien force that brings together strong echoes of Heinlen (exosuits, grunt talk, and Aliens’ Bill Paxton) with a replay of the beach landing sequence from Saving Private Ryan which deeply influenced both subsequent action cinema and first-person shooters from Medal Of Honor onwards.

On his first run through the invasion – and please beware that spoilers follow – Cruise’s soldier is killed, before waking abruptly back on the airstrip tarmac. Like Gyllenhaal – like us – he learns and reloads, using his countless lives as training exercises. He gets better at the game, and Cruise’s attitude, his glib detachment from his mortality, makes it feel like a game, muttering to himself about surprise attacks and enemy positions he needs to remember on his next playthrough.

In fact it’s this glibness which defines Edge Of Tomorrow’s unusually sophisticated relationship with games. It’s revealed after a while that Cruise’s ability to reset the day is an alien power accidentally conferred upon our hero. This gives him both an objective – kill the boss alien who controls time – and a fail state, because if Cruise lives through to the next day his power disappears.

This leads to the film’s funniest scenes, which involve an injured Cruise protesting uselessly as he’s executed by co-star Emily Blunt in order to trigger a restart. These comically brutal moments reflect the way many of us play games, stepping on a grenade or walking into enemy fire to wipe a botched attempt back to a checkpoint if we know we haven’t the ammo or health to take on the rest of the mission. In so doing it also recognises the difference between death and failure in games, which are sometimes the same thing but not always – failure meaning the inability to complete an objective, and death on its own meaning just the inconvenience of a restart.

Game designer Jonathan Blow has touched on this subject when discussing the origins of his platformer, Braid, which is built around manipulating time in various ways. He was partly inspired by dissatisfaction at Ubisoft’s Prince Of Persia series (I dread to think what he made of Gyllenhaal’s film version) and a friend’s extreme-sounding suggestion that players should be able to rewind every game, at whatever point they wish. Death, this friend argued, is a hangover from the arcade model of pulling coins from pockets, an inconvenient structural convention the medium has never shrugged off. Where lives once had a monetary value to us players, now death is essentially consequence free – and in recognising this Edge Of Tomorrow isn’t just about games, but very specifically about post-arcade games, and how we play now.

This is a sufficiently sophisticated response to ideas which exist only in videogames that I’d argue Edge Of Tomorrow would be unthinkable without them, and is a much richer experience with an understanding of them. That said, the film doesn’t really mimic the temporally fractured nature of videogames – it only pretends to.

On the surface it’s about jagged respawn-and-repeat, but the film itself weaves these moments together into a continuous, perfect whole. In other words, the film itself is still not directly analogous to games, although perhaps the act of filmmaking is. Film production is an imperfect stop-start process in which certain moments – certain scenes – are repeated until they’re successfully completed. Few people remember the existential cul-de-sacs of failed gameplay – instead our minds, like a film’s editor, cut together a continuous experience from the loose reels. While the unique properties of interactivity mean playing and watching will likely remain unbridgeably distinct activities, recognising this might be the next stage in what’s best described as the relationship between – rather than the convergence of – cinema and games.

*This article originally appeared on Edge Online

Crafting people – a fine art

March 29, 2015


Here is a post that explains why Marvel’s Agents Of Shield is a work of art.

Are you ready?

(The correct answer is that an agent of Shield is always ready.)

This is a story about something that I’ve written about before – the anxious attempts to shape your children into good, happy people – and something just about everyone else has written about before, the idea of art.

Really it’s about a specific definition of art that I like. I struggled for a long time to find one of these, bouncing between the untethered intellectual criteria that fix the popular idea of art – aloof, elitist, liable to slip into pomposity – and the concrete bedding of the economic realities within which all art has been produced. Luckily I happened upon this idea, by the Scottish author Alasdair Gray:

I believe the more people are stimulated into thinking about their feelings, and feeling about their thoughts, which is what a work of art does, the less we’re likely to be taken in by the mindless power of government or manipulated by those who regard themselves as the bosses; and that makes political disaster, cruelty and, in the long run, unkindness less likely.

This makes art a matter of sympathy and humanity. We experience it to better understand others, and ourselves. It is against mindlessness, a massaging of the internal currents which make us people, and it properly identifies the only useful test of whether or not an object should be considered art as the impact on the individual. Does it make you think about your feelings and feel about your thoughts? Do you have a heightened sense of the person next to you and all they are? This is all you need.

Gray’s quote has been rattling around in my brain recently because of my children. I’ve written a few times about the doomed but inescapable urge to help your children by encouraging them to do certain things or be certain ways. It’s an urge that can lead to smothering enthusiasm, reluctant ballet classes, and much worse. In the case of my son, Jay, it led to something quite unexpected.

Here’s a paragraph from a recent Eurogamer piece which explains why Jay and I played FIFA:

One part of being a young father is remembering with still soft-shelled vulnerability all the anxieties and defeats that shaped the adult you’ve not quite become. This is OK because you have a few months at least during which it’s impractical for children to leave the house alone, time which can be given over to indoctrination and the provision of a map clearly marking all the pitfalls and snares in which some part of you is still trapped… As a sporty kid who read David Gemmell books down the school corridor and was never ritually beaten, I’ve always understood that boys who are good at football are typically immune from bullying.

This worked. It worked really well. Where I was desperately conscious of being half-in and half-out at school, captain of the 1st XV who skipped the team’s Christmas night out, awkward in a body that was never quite the shape I hoped it would be, Jay is athletic and confident. No adolescent escapes the self-sabotaging doubts that fill our minds as our bodies rocket to adulthood, but Jay seems to have escaped the particular doubts I was so eager to protect him from, the ones I knew hurt.

If anything, actually, I began to worry that he wasn’t anxious enough. Not sufficiently sensitive and generous, and all the other things I admire from the ridiculous vantage of twenty years later and almost certainly wasn’t either when I was his age. I worried I’d pushed him unwittingly the other way, away from the over-thought sensitivity of teenage geekdom and into something less familiar. He barely reads. (We’re always demanding the children read. And actually the house does it for us, the packed shelves and random piles. Reading is a change of pace from screens, we say, fuel for thoughts you won’t even have for years but will be so important when you do.)

But then this Christmas Jay and I decided to watch Marvel’s Agents Of Shield. I can’t even remember why – it was a project, an excuse to stay up late, and anyway he’d enjoyed The Avengers. And my jock son – the footballer, the reluctant reader, the gamer only in a sense divorced from nerdom that comprises just FIFA and CoD – he fell in love with the show.

This was great – an excuse for late nights together sneaking in an extra episode, and seeing him enjoy something a little different, a palpable nudging outwards of taste and experience. And the very best moment came during a late-season episode featuring the discovery of a deadly betrayal and a high-stakes double-bluff (the show is basically Mission: Impossible with the occasional charming Whedon script pass) which forced the show’s female lead, Skye, to maintain a romantic facade with a villain.

The moment wasn’t loud or obvious, but then that’s not how art works, most of the time. Jay watched these tense scenes and said “Oh, man, I would hate to do that. Dad, do you think you could do that?”

And slowly, through a haze of mince pies, I felt a slow tide of pride and relief at this, the question of a boy who is thinking about his feelings and feeling about his thoughts.


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