Welcome to a round-up of ALL THE FILMS OF 2015 – that is, all the films of 2015 that I, a human man with a job that does not require me to watch films and two children who positively prevent it, have seen this year. It’s myopic to the point of irrelevance, but I’ve been doing it for years and momentum carries me onwards like time to the abyss. Also, spoilers: Star Wars is the fucking best.
January retained its regular air of parochial self-importance – the greasy manager of a second-run fleapit, probably played by Michael Palin – as a well-dressed set of Oscar hopefuls arrived weeks after their American release. These latecomers varied from the politely empty – The Theory Of Everything was the second film in as many months to celebrate a Cambridge man doing maths – to the actually evil, as American Sniper uncritically flag-waved remembrances of a life spent ending others, and couldn’t have celebrated America’s erection for technology and killing any more gratuitously if it had simply featured Bradley Cooper fellating a .300 Win Mag for two hours. Better was Foxcatcher, another true story digging into dark American pathology – this time “letting rich white dudes do whatever the fuck they want even when they’re fucking crazy” – which sadly mistook flat storytelling for a gripping stillness, and better again was Birdman, a film which, among many other things, pitted our current age of superhero mythologising against wrinkling mortality and an urge to do something meaningful while we can. Best of all, though, was Whiplash, a film ostensibly about drumming but which used the fitful dramatics of rhythm to say something primal about compulsion, potential, and – like Birdman, which slithered to its own frantic drum score – performance.
Outside of the awards crowd Enemy was a controlled and atmospheric tale of dopplegangers with the slightest tang of dystopia, and Taken 3 continued to be a series in which women can only be owned and men can only do violence or – at a push – cry when they can’t do violence fast or good enough to stop their women being dead. In contrast Ex Machina was a piercing piece of science fiction that not only dismantled the construction of femininity in both literal and theoretical ways, but also featured Oscar Isaac, a man who spent 2015 being in really great films, another of which was A Most Violent Year, a New York crime drama just surehanded enough to stay afloat amid the flood of classics it conjures. The month was seen out by Kingsman: The Secret Service, which had a certain swagger but was also an extended rimjob of institutionalised privilege, so fuck it in the eye, Inherent Vice, which was vague and vacant enough to be nothing in particular, and Big Hero 6, which might have been about robotics, Blade Runner-esque cultural fusion and a conspicuously marketable novelty character, but was nevertheless a more convincing embodiment of traditional Disney values – family, hope and friendship – than we’ve seen for ages.
In February Jupiter Ascending was a terrific throwback to the age of true fiascos – an over-exuberant dazzle of preposterous science fiction and runaway production that resulted in the nearliest blockbuster since Dune (I loved it, but then I love all films in which Sean Bean plays a bee. Bee-n). Further Oscars overflow arrived in the welcome shape of Selma, a determined if slightly staid civil rights drama that broke all irony meters everywhere when it was accused of not giving white lawmakers a fair shake. The Shaun The Sheep Movie was bright, eager and able to have fun without making fun – a fading art – while Coherence was a people in a room sci-fi thriller with a low budget and a big enough imagination to stop me from describing it as a “feature-length episode of the Twilight Zone with swearing” even though it basically was. Blackhat was the application of Michael Mann’s towering boner for all things man and manly to the world of cyber espionage, a film which essentially just added an extra bullet-point to the CV of the same hero that he’s been making films about for 30 years: “Professional, straight-talking, emotionally unavailable, great at shooting, can program a little”. The fractured eroticism of The Duke Of Burgundy prised open a world of poised power relationships and meaning and then – like Strickland’s previous, Berberian Sound Studio – lacked the smarts to do anything with it except to point and say “look”. Predestination was a strange, circular time-travel drama that might be a complicated way of calling Ethan Hawke a wanker, Catch Me Daddy was a grim and probably over-brutal story of honour killings in bleakest Yorkshire and the only film I saw this year in which someone gleefully pisses over their own hands, and Focus was the movie made by God to convince me that Will Smith really isn’t watchable in anything, especially if that thing is a Vegas day-tripper’s conception of a convincing con-artist drama in which aside from the Olympic-standard acrobatics deployed to simply lift fucking watches nobody mentions that stealing things is a bit of a dick move. Luckily the month was seen out by It Follows, a horror of spare style and insistent anxiety that riffs on the ever-present Jungian fuck-yous of the genre – sex, death, and the urge to do one even while the other watches from a dark corner.
Some really fucking stupid films were released in March. Chappie put another dent in the idea that Neill Blomkamp is a lo-fi sci-fi visionary, a clumsy bit of existential philosophising that basically amounts to thinking about batteries running out and screaming “WHY?” Insurgent continued the vapid Divergent series, a self-deconstructing YA dystopia that lays bare the cycle’s tropes through uncushioned exploitation (“I’m different! I’m special! I’m DIVERGENT!” – fuck off). Slightly less worse was Run All Night, a daft tough-talking gangland thriller that at least gave Liam Neeson a chance not to be in Taken for a while, and then there was Home, an aliens-on-Earth story starring an entire race of rubbery, calculatedly mis-speaking stress toys I would happily genocide in a vat of pure fuck.
April brought with it Fast And Furious 7, the latest in a blockbuster series that has thrown off the prevailing laws of Hollywood and indeed reality so completely that this most recent instalment plays like a lunatic’s daydream of how it might feel to be Vin Diesel while simultaneously over- and under-acting in the role of himself. It’s strange, awful, fun and touching, and has tapped into something so inexplicably lucrative that it’s unlikely to ever stop – this is, after all, the film that digitally resurrected Paul Walker in order to have him perpetuate the very speed, cars and hard-ons culture that killed him. Speaking of killing, Keanu Reeves did lots of it in, John Wick, which is similar to the Fast films in that it’s rubbish for long stretches but has its star do the thing the audience will forgive most other things to see (fighting and acting spaced out, in the case of Keanu). And finally The Avengers: Age Of Ultron did not repeat the glorious synthesis of the first film, suggesting that we might be desensitized to scale and novelty and that some new escalation is needed to keep Marvel’s balloon expanding.
For my birthday in May I got Top Five, a walk around New York with Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson that has a mix of contrivance, romance and light intellectualism that might make you think of Woody Allen if thinking of Woody Allen wasn’t really fucking depressing these days. I also got Pitch Perfect 2, a competent sequel to a brilliant film that adds nothing except a few low-hanging fat gags, Tomorrowland, a lovingly over-ambitious interrogation of the faded optimism of Disney’s 1950s, and Mad Max: Fury Road, a film which somehow recaptured the peculiarly Australian grotesque of the original trilogy and packaged it in an action film that was relentlessly and repeatedly right, like having an amazing conversation with somebody awesome who keeps saying brilliant, world-altering things you agree with, and the things are on fire.
Spy arrived in June not only to remind everyone that Melissa McCarthy is brilliant, but that when he isn’t headbutting thought itself Jason Statham can be really funny. Jurassic World followed soon after and, if the original film was an investigation of provocative speculative science constructed from a classic cinematic vocabulary, then this was a parade of growling action figures justified by idiot size and Hollywood’s enduring belief that just because it can remake things with better effects it should. It wasn’t the worst film of the month, though, because also released was Entourage, the empty howl of five awful men trawling through the cloudless hell of LA for fame and money, a deathless worship of skin and status where the purpose of consciousness is reduced to successfully convincing people to touch your cock. In contrast Minions was a Bergmanesque essay on virtuous mortality, although really it was a set of yellow bollocks with funny voices taking money from your children, and so thank rigorous fuck for Slow West, which arrived at the end of the month, a meditative and wry odyssey across the plains that was reminiscent of the Coens without really trying to be.
In July Arnold Schwarzenegger was allowed to age, twice: first in another retread of Terminator, a series so full of cynical revisionism that Terminator Genisys basically feels like playing skip-rope with timelines, and then in Maggie, a zombie drama apparently starring Arnie as a weathered, plaid-wearing dad protecting his infected daughter from the apocalypse, but which was actually just him watching her die slowly for a couple of hours. Ant-Man was the smallest and best Marvel film of the year, Inside Out was the best thing Pixar have made for several years – layers of fantasy deployed to give an honest account of how it feels to grow up – and Mission: Impossible 5 – Rogue Nation passed like pleasant scent of millions of dollars on the air, a huge production that folded away into nothing as soon as it was seen.
August brought its own remake of a ‘60s spy show, The Man From UNCLE, in which Henry Cavill displayed the obscene looks and suited sophistication that should have made him a brilliant Clark Kent, while the film itself played period charm against a knowing irony to be – what? – quite good. Not good were either Fantastic Four – hardly the cosmic catastro-wank billed, but a stroppy teen drama filmed in a tin can – or videogame invasion comedy Pixels, which pulled its arcade characters into reality with unexpected imagination but needed more from Adam Sandler than whatever the fuck this was in order not to be awful. Seeing out the month were two films about love and life: Diary Of A Teenage Girl was a dark film brightened by the energy of its adolescent, comic book-inspired presentation, a story of the excitement and inequalities of sex; and Trainwreck was lust on a more equal footing, Amy Schumer writing and starring in the kind of autobiographical, pop-psychological romcom that director Judd Atapow regularly turns out with samey men, here sharper, fresher and funnier from the less-seen perspective.
Thanks to September’s Building Jerusalem I have cried at every film I’ve seen featuring Jonny Wilkinson, a record unlikely to be broken any time soon. Legend, meanwhile, was a flaccid celebration of charismatic violence, a dwindling sparkler jammed into the cock hole of Tom Hardy’s affliction acting and bravely helicoptered to underwhelming effect. Much more enjoyable was Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, another contrived YA prison of tests and status mutated into an unexpectedly not-shit zombie thriller, while gardening sci-fi The Martian proved Ridley Scott still knows when less is more, even if he forgot while he was making Prometheus.
We are nearly finished. In October I saw Sicario, a drugs war drama that’s sleek and nasty like a shard of glass between the ribs, and then I saw Crimson Peak, a beautiful ghost story from Guillermo del Toro that was an authentic piece of Gothic fiction, in as much as it featured oppressive architecture, inscrutable spirits, and I was bored way before the end. I nearly loved The Lobster, which presented a desparing, absurdist satire of the tyranny of both being in and out of a relationship, and then ludicrously gave up on it halfway through and sat in the woods in a mac.
In November I only saw one film, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies, which re-re-re-reconfirmed Tom Hanks as our Jimmy Stewart, and Steven Spielberg as our Steven Spielberg. And then Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrived in December, giving me back a piece of myself I’ve gotten used to pretending I didn’t mind was missing.
And that’s everything. The things I feel stupidest for not having seen are Force Majeure and Brooklyn, and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema was either seeing Blade Runner at a near-empty late-night screening, or High-Rise at the Bath Film Festival (or actually it was walking out of Star Wars – my second time – with my children alight with excitement like I’ve never seen at the movies). The best TV I watched this year was probably The Jinx, the extraordinary HBO documentary about Robert Durst which edged its way slowly into the story it presented, and Netflix comedies The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Master Of None, which is patchy but beautiful.
(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.
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.
The 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.
He’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.
As 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.
To 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 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.
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.
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.
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