The Oscars are happening! Every year I write a post about the movies nominated for best picture, attempting to catch the quality in each film as well as reaching around the back to grasp at the reason it was nominated by the Academy in the first place. This is, after all, a party Hollywood holds annually to celebrate itself, and the best picture nominees are in this way like the carefully curated top 5 you put on social media to make that person fancy you that time.
The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the nominees? Probably not – many of them are simply glib fillets of true-life stories presented with a patronizing benevolence, and at least one of them is about cheerfully murdering foreigners. Let’s get started!
In which we learn: That genius and struggle are still shortcuts to awards contention.
The Imitation Game is the sort of cynically tidy and self-congratulatory drama Harvey Weinstein has been flogging for 30 years, and it’s fine. It tells the story of awkward genius Alan Turing – who mathsed Britain to victory in World War II only to face prosecution for homosexuality – as a neat bundle of flashbacks and payoffs, re-arrangements and dramatic conveniences. While there’s a defence of the film that says it tells a thousand small lies to reach a larger truth about a great man’s contribution and subsequent mistreatment, there’s also a savaging of the film that says these lies are fucking stupid, and needlessly reduce a complex set of characters and circumstances to a pre-chewed Happy Meal of history.
Furthermore, the savaging goes on, why does a film about the mistreatment of a gay man seal him off narratively from his sexuality, pairing him a female lead whose affections he wins ahead of his rivals while relegating his same-sex encounters to off-screen unseens? The Imitation Game is emotionally and dramatically heterosexual, paying lip-service to acceptance while moving all the conventional pieces in the conventional places and (ironically) not showing any gay snogging at all. Sanitised and self-satisfied.
In which we learn: That a dash of ostentatious formalism still goes a long way with the Academy, especially in the service of easy-swallow life lessons.
That’s probably unfair to Richard Linklater, who has made an experimental, independently spirited film with no eye on the bottom line, that must have been precarious in its production until the last year or so of filming. But that film has the misfortune of privileging the male experience – why Boyhood, and not Girlhood, given that Linklater’s own daughter plays the sister role? – in a year when Academy votes have made manifest its lay sexism in a nominee line-up all about guys and the stuff they do and being guys all the time.
There are other problems – for all the talk of how the production ‘lucked out’ the central performance is unextraordinary – although that probably feels extraordinary when 12 years of work are on the line – and really the magic sauce of it all comes down to the passing of time. Patience, rather than a compelling story or performances, is what Boyhood raves are drawing on. I dunno. Did you guys not watch 7 Up? Lifetimes of tragedy poured into a few dense hours of heartbreak. In comparison ‘kid grows up and is awkward for a bit’ feels like the ladybird book of coming-of-age experience.
In which we learn: That Hollywood really never does get bored of hearing stories about itself.
Although, of course, Birdman is ostensibly about Broadway, and a fading film star’s attempt to mount a performance of Raymond Carver. But all the elaborate staging and theatricality only serve to make it more about cinema, about choices and cuts, and the lasting impression those flashing lights and images leave on us, somewhere not on the eyes but behind them.
What am I going on about? The idea that cinema, and specifically the superhero form currently playing out as its – and therefore the world’s – dominant mythology, is about power and entitlement, action and celebration. It is a promise of our importance and this, being cynical, is what makes Birdman so attractive to the Academy, the aging and retired bank of old Hollywood hands – Michael Keaton being tempted and tormented by his past success. It is a film about ego, the cost of performance, and what happens when the circus leaves town (spoiler: our faces go saggy and then we die).
In which we learn: That the Academy itself is due an award for services to tokenism.
Which is to say that Academy voters have identified Selma as one of the eight best films of the year, but haven’t recognised its actors or director for having anything to do with that. The handsome historical drama is nominated, while the individual black people who made it are passed over for a spread of white folks who chipped in to apparently inferior films.
It’s a spectacular balls-in-mouth moment that’s able to highlight the startling relevance of the race drama it is fuck-handedly attempting to celebrate. Although, in fairness, that relevance had already been demonstrated by the various staggering what-the-fuck-century-is-this clashes 2014 witnessed between violent white authorities and victimised black communities. In other words, Ferguson shows why Selma is an important film, even if it doesn’t make it a good one – but that doesn’t get you off the hook, Academy, because it’s better than the fucking Imitation Game.
In which we learn: That eight best film nominees is probably too many.
Why? Because this is the same fucking film as The Imitation Game, about a great academic and the delivery of his gift to the universe despite the obstacles the universe places in his way (a fact underlined by the fact Cumberbatch already played Stephen Hawking back in 2004).
It’s good in a meaningless, British-as-an-exportable-commodity way and deadened by an air of inevitability: we know Hawking falls ill, figures out black holes, that the film will cut and paste years and events to present us with a packaged moment of meaning near the end, probably at sunset in a garden or somewhere equally English. The fact Eddie Redmayne clearly spent a long time learning to control his body as if he couldn’t control his body doesn’t really mitigate the Academy’s staggering lack of diversity and imaginationg as evidenced by the fact that two films about Cambridge men doing big sums somehow squeeze onto the same best picture nominee roll.
In which we learn: Wes Anderson can still endow what seemed a tattered bag of tricks with sincerity and purpose.
Let’s be clear here though – these are the same tricks, a fetishism of fastidiousness and miniaturization, a love of uniform and duty, a sense of dash and ironically unironic adventure. It’s just that here they’re played in the right parts for fun and fury – out with the shoegazing and mistaking the maudlin for meaningful, and in with the construction of a rigid order so that it might be subverted.
This is Anderson’s motif, at his best, a nerd-punk that sees pathetic rebellion as life’s highest calling. He might be right – and certainly, playing as it does like a live-action Tintin movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel can win as many Oscars as it likes (which will be none, as it’s not virtuous or serious enough, just excellent).
In which we learn: That it’s been a long time since The Hurt Locker, and longer still since Unforgiven.
Seriously – what the fuck, America? American Sniper is a crusade movie which unquestioningly celebrates the work of a paid killer in the service of contemporary imperialism. There is no pretence at neutrality here, from a fatherly flashback asserting an outright fascist sorting of humanity into three camps (“Sheep, wolves, and the sheep-dog”), to hero sniper Chris Kyle claiming a clear conscience as his kill-count climbs into scores and scores.
Director Clint Eastwood made a masterpiece in Unforgiven, a stark contemplation of life lived in service to violence, a reckoning with his own legend that made clear the impossibility of killing leaving no mark on the killer. That he should now find himself in a place of greater certainty and infinitely less grace is almost as shameful as the Academy following him there, flags waving.
In which we learn: That I have saved this one until last to cheer me up.
There’s something about the choice of instrument in Whiplash – a movie about ruthless teachers and ambitious students – that makes a clear and ringing sense. It’s about a drummer: a combination of the physical exertion of drumming and the fitful dramatics of the instrument’s rhythm and noise course through a film which – like Birdman, another movie set to the tripping tension of a beat – interrogates the cost of performance.
JK Simmons delivers certainly the best performance I saw in 2014 – intensity given form as forearms and a stare, a mentor intent on squeezing greatness from the gifted. In a nominee field characterised by relentless didacticism – giant spoons of fuckheaded wisdom flown into our toothless minds – he enables Whiplash to explore and embrace a desperately needed ambiguity. There is no right or wrong here, just desire and desperation, sacrifice and bloodied fingers
It’s the best film here by a stretch. It’ll never win.
Welcome, welcome, to the fifth annual heavily disclaimered review of the year in film, in which I, a man with children and shoes and other things to do, cast a myopic eye over the things I’ve been able to see that were released in 2014.
January again brought an overflow of awards consideration, with two films that themselves considered troubling darknesses at the heart of the United States: The Wolf Of Wall Street held such a lurid mirror up to greed it was in danger of becoming a disco ball, while 12 Years A Slave showed us a past of hatred and racism we all wish was further away than the subsequent events of the year suggest. American introspection was then balanced by weaponised cock-waving, first in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – a solid bit of Cold War nostalgia – and then in Lone Survivor, which is the closest a nation’s uncritical attitude of militarist interventionalism can get to fellating itself without spilling bullets everywhere. All of which means probably the most fun you could have in a cinema in January was either watching Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a Latino-focused spin-off of Jason Blum’s microbudget series with enough quality to nudge it away from tokenism towards actual diversity, or sitting quietly in an empty screen thinking about silence and stories made of light.
February gave us two different looks at our relationship with technology. Her built a credible future so casually that it featured high-waist slacks, then smartly ignored it in order to tell a story about loneliness and the emotional legitimacy of loving things. Meanwhile Robocop seemed on the verge of saying something perceptive about a few of the year’s recurring themes – humanity, the military, policing – but was too enchanted by the hardware it was scrutinising (specifically, Joel Kinnaman’s shiny metal buttocks) to deliver. The Lego Movie over-delivered, demonstrating how anti-corporate stances can earn corporations like Time Warners hundreds of millions of dollars and still leave audiences unironically humming conformist anthems, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues had the overwrought, under-nourishing feel of a reformed supergroup, and Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club for the ability to deflate himself like a balloon.
In March 300: Rise Of An Empire offered an interrogation of masculinity roughly equivalent to staring at a novelty chocolate penis, while, on a level of filmmaking so distant it seems appropriately alien and inscrutable, Under The Skin tore apart conceptions of sex, power and people with traumatic force. Also very good was The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which Wes Anderson revitalised his flagging meticulousness by filling it with people who for once seemed more than carefully dry-brushed miniatures. The Zero Theorem offered glimpses of Terry Gilliam’s masterful eclecticism but hadn’t the budget or scope to do much apart from echo earlier excellence, while, in the way of the comic book adventures which now seem the principal conduit for Hollywood to tell us stories about ourselves, Captain America: The Winter Soldier threw unimaginable amounts of money at achieving something quite small: being a decent conspiracy thriller with a great lead.
Richard Ayoade’s The Double arrived in April and was similar to The Zero Theorem in being a bit like Brazil and lacking the impossible exuberance that made Gilliam’s classic fly. Star Mia Wasikowska then swapped shadows for sunlight in Tracks, a film about her interesting face and the impractical size of Australia. The Raid 2 was also defined by scale, the sequel upsizing a film built around compact brutality for a looser whole that nevertheless delivered its quota of broken limbs. And then Divergent saw out the month with the sort of passable dystopia we should all get used to seeing around these parts now they’ve run out of Hunger Games books.
For my birthday in May I got the knife-like simplicity of Blue Ruin, the sort of ruthless revenge thriller than will drown you in a fucking puddle and you should watch it. Softer and sandier was The Two Faces Of January, which dabbled in jealousy and revenge but never really got under the crawling skin of Patricia Highsmith’s writing. Edge Of Tomorrow harnessed the intuitive grammar of video game progression to Tom Cruise’s ability to make being existentially beleaguered look really fun, above all underlining that he is a star, and he endures. Also enduring was X-Men: Days Of Future Past, a remarkably functional bit of blockbuster acrobatics that contorted itself around a time-slip plot to make possible the inclusion of old and new versions of heroes and villains who get to be friends and enemies all at once, while still providing a leading role for the newly-huge Jennifer Lawrence and lovingly mending the dropped-plate bullshit of X-Men 3. Conversely Godzilla was a blockbuster about a massive lizard who wakes up, and also included humans who were near him, for some reason.
In June I watched nothing, apparently, perhaps in preparation for the stupidity of Transformers: Age of Extinction in July. Michael Bay’s film was marked by a savage empty proficiency, the screeching bellow of a soulless machine tearing at sex, industry and nationalism in the search for significance and only finding a senseless abyss. Luckily the rest of the month was great. Boyhood allowed the passing of time to tell its story – an old one, a flick-book of photographs, but loaded with underplayed emotion – and in rediscovering its allegorical core, that we are them and they are us, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes made a fine drama about trust and violence. The Purge: Anarchy finally delivered the politically keen and Carpenter-esque night of danger in the city the first film promised, and Guardians Of The Galaxy was the kind of fancy dress outfit you get away with if you’re really confident and popular – good and fun, and not just because it reminded me of Firefly.
August was shit – The Inbetweeners 2 was an exhausted bank of cock jokes and sixth form characterisation that’s lost its home counties yearning on the way to becoming a feature length Lad Bible viral. The Expendables 3, the comeback that keeps coming back, is perhaps the first of the series to qualify as an actual film rather than a disjointed fight card of yestermen. It’s also not very good, but still better than Lucy, a slick, squalid action nothing which gradually accelerates to nowhere.
In September A Most Wanted Man was a chance to say goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman as he stomped around a beautifully shot Hamburg like a sad espionage bear. The Equaliser was also about espionage, specifically the sort that doesn’t exist but does give retired CIA man and not-Edward Woodward Denzel Washington the ability to make a machine gun from a cup. And then there was Maps To The Stars, Cronenberg’s first film about Hollywood, and one which steadfastly snares that loop of agents and egos, that air-kiss uncertainty of a business that coalesces and disperses according to the jagged rhythms of art and profit. Mia Wasikowska is in this too, and her face is still interesting.
In October the largest part of Gone Girl’s shock and pull came directly from its thriller source, something which overshadowed the excellence of its adaptation, its frozen photography and precise plotting. Fury gave us the metal howl of tank battle drama but landed on a grim nihilism when it seemed to be aiming for plain old horrors of war, while The Maze Runner was another of those young adult fantasies that recreate the social perils of high school with life and death consequences attached. Then, suddenly, two of the year’s best films were here. Nightcrawler was partly about the miasmic sprawl of LA and reality viewed through lenses, but it was lent brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal’s imitative inhumanity, a figure of singular impulse and threat that bears cross-coast comparison with Travis Bickle. And then there was The Babadook, a film elevated from door-knock horror by an Essie Davis performance of fraught, human sympathy, and a bump-in-the-night story good enough to reach for truths about grief and motherhood.
I only saw one film in November – The Drop, an aimless bit of Dennis Lehane exploitation and small Brooklyn kitchens featuring Tom Hardy, who increasingly seems to have learnt acting from a still image of Marlon Brando. December brought Get Santa, which was less Christmas magic and more card-trick-from-a-cracker (and, after Black Death, featured a frankly disappointing lack of pagan brutalism from director Christopher Smith). In St Vincent Bill Murray played on idealised public conceptions of himself – warmth masked by an inscrutable exterior – in an otherwise unremarkable parade of sentimentality. And, finally, there was The Interview, which is crass and useless in a way that almost makes its international scrutiny profound, but then doesn’t, although James Franco’s relentless stupidity might make you laugh eventually, like a dog who repeatedly runs into a wall.
And that’s everything. The things I feel stupidest for not having seen are Interstellar and Pride, and the best film I’ve caught up with this year was the stark madness of Wake In Fright (a perfect, poisoned backdrop for Tracks). The most fun I had seeing movies this year was at a screening of The Last Temptation Of Christ at Wells Cathedral, although fun is probably the wrong word – the film is serious, the setting was cold and lofty, and warmed only by a sense of the forbidden. The best television I saw this year was Utopia – imperfect, but brilliant in that initial burst and the first episode of season 2 – and Dennis Potter’s Karaoke, which struck me like a version of Mulholland Dr as filtered through the nicotine haze of my Nana’s Clapham flat in the mid-’90s. Oh, and it wasn’t officially released in the UK this year, but I saw Snowpiercer this year, too. What the fuck are you lot on about? It’s rubbish.
I wrote more in 2014 than I have done for a while. Right at the end of 2013 I left my job at Future Publishing and it drew into sharp focus something that had been true for a while: I don’t write for a living. I produce videos.
This made the writing that I choose to do feel much more like my responsibility. I don’t need to do it – so why should I do anything I’m not proud of? Why should any of it be bad?
And the answer is because writing is hard, and sometimes it goes wrong. But the point stands – for the first time in years, I set out to write more, and much better. I read more and I thought harder, and I’m happy with at least some of the results. And, because every now and then we should give ourselves a fucking break already, I decided to collect together ten of the pieces I’m happiest with as a way of saying “Well done, Nathan, that wasn’t shit.”
I’m also doing it because my wife, Sarah, told me to. She’s done a post like this as well, here. A sensible person would read it.
Here are mine
“One Chants Out Between Two Worlds…” – Twin Peaks, cinema and television
the quote in the headline above, from Twin Peaks’ sinister poem recited by Mike the One-Armed Man, catches something of Lynch himself, and his career-long oscillation between cinema and television. I thought of how Blue Velvet pre-figured Twin Peaks, how Mulholland Dr was planned as another ABC series and then warped and wrangled into a prismatic self-contained cinematic whole.
Edge Of Tomorrow and the growing overlap between cinema and video games
….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.
Avant Garde Dogs
BAFTA’s meeting with Naughty Dog is an encounter of two curious parties at the border of interrelated worlds. BAFTA is the film body with a growing interest in interactive experiences. Naughty Dog reaches out from the other direction, a games studio that has studied the story craft of Hollywood closely and adapted it with great success.
Left Behind: The different futures games imagine for our sons and daughters
My son was being told, is told every day, that he can join the ranks of the elite athlete superstars we have elevated to the highest strata of the cultural firmament; that he can earn the instant adoration of thousands with a sharp turn and a kick of the ball. That he can win the World Cup. My daughter was being told that, if she got her eyeliner just so, and matched her clutch bag flawlessly with her earrings, she could fulfill her own potential by becoming an accessory in turn for the protagonist of a different story.
And, well, fuck that idea.
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost
Here are some recent thoughts of mine: I am playing too much Destiny. Also, games might be an expression of the futility of the human condition.
Monty Python – A Night at The Circus
I had forgotten. I’d forgotten not just that I know the words to everything, as became clear during the opening Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but that I know the rhythms and variations of the old Drury Lane, Hollywood Bowl and Secret Policeman’s Ball performances that I used to fall asleep listening to during what was quite obviously an utterly sexless adolescence.
A short stride and a head turn ago
I’m regularly surprised by how much I’ve forgotten, how much I missed, and how differently the other mes, drifting behind somewhere unreachable but still connected by a thin cord of remembering and responsibility, thought about everything. The idiots.
Going back to Chinatown – the nea-noir classic at 40
What the film is about – what Gittes becomes obsessively drawn to – is something deeper than sleaze or scandal, which are after all part of the accepted language of Hollywood. The film, and the abusive incestuous secret it conceals, capture something about perversity and its relationship to power, and the entitlement of the powerful to abuse and exploit.
Guardians Of The Galaxy – So Serene On The Screen
…it strikes at how ideas work, circling and charming before manifesting in ways sometimes the thinker doesn’t see, and because it acknowledges how ideas also have to be reconciled to a system of production and an industry, and how the two often invisibly together to make things.
Remembering Bob Hoskins
Bob Hoskins was already a person before he became an actor. It’s one of those facts that makes a revelatory sense when you hear it – that by the time he won his first part at the Unity Theatre in 1969 (accidentally, while waiting for a friend at the bar) he was 27, and had worked as a lorry driver, a window cleaner and a market trader. In other words, he had lived, and in doing so had gained a gift for the kind of effortless un-performance that defines his now closed career.
David Lynch and Mark Frost announced recently that Twin Peaks will be returning as a nine-episode series on Showtime in 2016.
My immediate response was: this is a great thing. In the widening gap since the release of Inland Empire I’d been wondering whether I’d be lucky enough to see anything new from Lynch on-screen, and now I will, as he’ll be directing all nine episodes of the Showtime series. It’s easy to take for granted outstanding artists working among us – mark this, because we will be watching the end of one of the great Hollywood (though not-really-Hollywood, and all the more about Hollywood because of it) careers.
There’s also a bit of fairytale to the return of this show in particular. The sense of loss and longing around Twin Peaks has always seemed hopeless and wistful against the implacability of studios and networks, ever since the days when the show was buffeted ominously about the late-night TV schedules by ABC. But now that feeling has not only been recognised, but alleviated. There is something odd and human in the way that certain precious, imperfect cultural objects, impractical in their own time, gradually accumulate value through their absence – a swelling reservoir of that loss and longing – until making them real again suddenly seems like the obvious thing to do. It’s almost an act of collective forgiveness – like Alvin’s journey to reconcile with his brother in Lynch’s The Straight Story, it’s about the truth that wanting to be together again while we still can is more important than the details of why things didn’t work in the past.
Although obviously I – and lots of people who love Twin Peaks – do care about why things didn’t work in the past. And that’s why the best news about the new series, as far as I’m concerned, is where and how it’s being made.
Lynch has always had a tumultuous relationship with television, both as a format and as an industry. I recently wrote about this relationship, and how the line from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (“one chants out between two worlds”) seems to
…catch something of Lynch himself, and his career-long oscillation between cinema and television. I thought of how Blue Velvet pre-figured Twin Peaks, how Mulholland Dr was planned as another ABC series and then warped and wrangled into a prismatic self-contained cinematic whole. His career comes packaged with a sense of contortion.
You get a sense of this contortion in the way Lynch has spoken about television in the past. Even when making Twin Peaks, he was scornful of the medium in relation to cinema:
The power of most movies is in the bigness of the image and the sound and the romance. On TV the sound suffers and the impact suffers. With just a flick of the eye or turn of the head, you see the TV stand, you see the rug, you see some little piece of paper with writing on it, or a strange toaster or something. You’re out of the picture in a second. In a theater, when the screen is big and the sound is right, a movie is very powerful even if it stinks.
On the recent Twin Peaks Blu-ray set, though, there’s evidence that Lynch’s position has softened. In one of the extras included in the set Grace Zabriskie suggests that there’s “something to be said for home viewing.” Lynch agrees:
If they get good sound systems and big screens, it could be pretty good. Shut everything off, get your bag of popcorn, and get into it
Note that Lynch hasn’t budged on the things that make a good viewing experience, and rather he addresses them – sound, image, distraction – point by point. But he does recognise that the technological improvements made since Twin Peaks was broadcast mean it’s now possible to recreate that experience outside the theatre.
And this is the point – television has changed, both the form, and the industry. The new Twin Peaks will be on Showtime, a cable channel that’s as far removed from network television in 1991 as your 46-inch plasma is away from the glowing, rattling boxes crammed into the living rooms of the last century. Thanks to The Sopranos, thanks to a shifting marketplace, thanks to the way audiences watch television now and what we expect from it, cable – not just HBO but FX, AMC, and Showtime – has attracted and fostered an extraordinary creative community, synonymous with quality storytelling and long-form filmmaking.
It’s tempting to see cable as a natural home for Lynch, a third place between television and cinema, a place that combines the possibilities of continuing storylines which he finds so intriguing with the power and elegance of cinema, a place where he can stop oscillating and contorting and let his ideas take shape. And here’s a thing – Lynch has actually worked on cable before, with a mini-series called Hotel Room on HBO – before it was HBO – back in 1993. The wonderful opening sequence featured these lines, spoken by Lynch
For a millennium the space for the hotel room existed – undefined. Mankind captured it, gave it shape, and passed through. And sometimes when passing through, they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.
This might be my favourite idea in all of Lynch’s work – the industriousness of construction, of snaring a space in mid-air to become a stage for the significances that pass between people – but here it’s particularly meaningful, as I hope that Showtime can be that place, that hotel room, that Lynch can once more pass through.
Yesterday I was listening to 99% Invisible. It’s a podcast series, and if you don’t listen to it already you should try, because it’s well produced and tells interesting, concise stories about design. This is design in a wider sense, a sense that always makes me think of something that ex-Naughty Dog developer and current academic Richard Lemarchand said when I profiled him for Edge a few years back:
At the end of the day design is about human psychology, and that’s a subject that’s always been fascinating to me. Who are we? What makes us tick? How do we see the world, and how do we interact with it? To my mind it’s really just to do with being inquisitive about everything in life.
So 99% Invisible is about design in a larger way, which means it can be about anything to do with things which are deliberately crafted, or how we interact with them. Episodes I recommend particularly urgently include Thomassons, which is about vestiges of maintained but non-functional civic infrastructure, Future Screens Are Mostly Blue, about the imagined interfaces of science fiction consoles, and Hand Painted Signs, about the fading art of manual sign-making. Listening to the show will make you think about dozens of small, constructed areas of life and your relationship to them, from priority queues to pedestrian crossings. They are always relevant.
The one I listened to this evening, as I did the washing up, was called Broken Window. It was a story about Melissa Lee who, as a teenager in Baltimore, accidentally broke an apartment window with her friend. They’d fled, initially – they were good kids and felt a drop of panic and dread – but then tried, and failed, to find the owner of the apartment. Melissa grew up and went to college, travelled the world and began a career, but every time she came home, for more than 20 years, she would see the window, and it would still be broken.
There’s no grand or subtle hook to this episode. It’s a story about how an event marked physically in the space around us can draw us back to a particular time and moment. Melissa is always 13, always sad and sorry when she sees the window. But also, as it so unfailingly seems to manage, the show broke in on my experience and included more than one ‘Oh, man, me too’ moments.
Well, three, specifically. That is the number of windows I can distinctly remember breaking in my life. The first was with a football, in the garden of the Victorian terraced house we lived in for a few years after we left London – actually it was the next-door garden, and not our window, and I remember watching with a prescient horror as the ball, half-deflated and heavy, swung and dipped and couldn’t miss. That drop of panic and dread – I shared that with Melissa (‘Oh man, me too’) as I hopped and turned from the house like I could wish it all away. It’s why I wanted to write about the episode. The ball left an impossible circle in the frosted bathroom glass, a cartoon mark of my crime, which stayed there until my dad took it out and replaced the pane.
The second window left a different mark, that I can still see on my hand. Six years later, I am 14, and out aimlessly with aimless, bored friends. Running down a street in town and banging on every door seems like a good idea, the houses tightly boxed together and pushed up to the pavement with no front garden. We’re banging and laughing and running, and then my hand goes through one of the doors, the noise and the empty air something I don’t understand, until I look down at my wet, red hand. Unlike Melissa, I do not even try to find the owner of the house to explain. The S-shaped sliver between the furthest knuckles of my left hand reminds me of this every time it catches the light. (‘Oh man, me too’).
The last window I remember the clearest of all. It’s April in 2000, and I am 18 and at university in Sheffield. This is the night I see Fight Club for the first time. At university I am studying film for the first time and trying very hard to become a person, and Fight Club seems important because of this. We see it in a mixed crowd, the guys from my flat, the girls from the flat above, a few months after the theatrical run, in the Union auditorium. We have a drink, before or after, and there’s an electricity to having seen something powerful (we group-read American Psycho in this first year, a year of fumbling ironically and frantically with being men). None of this had any bearing on the window, though. We walked back up to Broomhill from the Union, the rain that settles over Sheffield from October to May greasing pavements and roads, and I run over a crossing with hands in jean pockets, slipping on a wooden trap door, up the step of an Indian restaurant, and shoulder-first into their menu board.
There’s a drop of panic and dread, and I run 30 yards down the road. But then I stop, and think, and go back to say something. (‘Oh man, me too’). The restaurant is busy, and the guy I speak to listens at first and then looks through me, says it’s fine. I offer to leave my details – I remember writing them down – but there’s a sense of me wasting their time on top of their money, and the meaninglessness of my contrition. There’s a suggestion among my friends, the ones further back down the road, that Fight Club made me break a window instead of rain and pockets, but none of them know that I’ve already broken a window through mischief, and I won’t do it again because I am becoming a person, just slower than all subsequent versions of me would like.
This is what reflecting on design can do: bring you to the realisation that you’ve had the answer to Ed Norton’s question for 14 years already. ‘Is that what a man looks like?’ A man looks like someone slipping on wooden boards with his hands trapped inside his pocket, and then saying sorry.
“What kind of dickhead would give this game a 6/10?”
I did Destiny’s raid this weekend (if you don’t know: Destiny is a game about space, the raid is a particularly challenging part of the game that can only be attempted after about 40 hours of play and with an organised team of six, and the chances of you getting anything out of the rest of this post are imperceptibly small).
The above quote is what one of our six-man party exclaimed, about two hours into the seven-hour marathon that constituted our assault on the Vault Of Glass, as we approached an enormous expanse of subterranean architecture that stopped us all in our tracks. I laughed really hard – at that moment the ridiculousness of dismissing Destiny with a score, or indeed summarising it at all without a solar system’s worth of caveats and contradictions, struck me as particularly funny.
Of course, I am the dickhead who gave Destiny 4/5 for the Observer, a score I more or less knew was indefensible as I gave it, despite having played the game (including the alpha and beta) for around 30 hours at that point. Here’s a bit from that review:
While the game’s presentation is striding and confident, its attempt to expand the social possibilities of a historically lonely, linear genre can leave the world feeling strangely empty. Players can team up for co-op missions, explore the semi-open world together, or meet strangers purging fallen Earth of unwanted enemies. But the flexible structure enabling this social freedom prevents the game from feeling tightly curated – the lush, colourful landscapes slightly detached from the action they host.
This is basically right – and there’s an argument here about the function of a review, and the idea that a lot of people interested in whether they should spend £50 on Destiny on that initial weekend will never play for 10 hours, let alone 30, which confers a legitimacy on these early verdicts (I say verdict, I tried, awkwardly, to be as circumspect – and yet authoritative – as possible. In 250 words).
Still – it’s not an argument I particularly want to get into, except to acknowledge that I understand why these early reviews exist, and why some of them were 6/10: because Destiny is split between an essential hollowness that borders on insanity, and a mechanical superiority that makes it endlessly playable regardless. The game is consciously designed around a principle of futile repetition – players beating the same bosses over and over only for things to remain the same. It doesn’t have no story, it actually has a sort of structural anti-story, a self-erasing lack of narrative that’s only bearable because we’re all having so much instant, mindless fun.
It’s a problem. Destiny is half-brilliant, on the way to somewhere rather than having arrived. The imperfect integration of its elements allows us to peek in and watch those constituent parts – gameplay, story, Skinner box compulsion – wriggle and contort without ever meshing into a truly viable whole.
And then there’s the Vault Of Glass. I really wanted to write this because, if there’s anything left of the original hopes of what Destiny could be – that truly viable whole – I think it’s found in the Raid.
The Raid is a kind of experience that doesn’t exist in any other game. Expensively produced and marketed games like Destiny are made for mass audiences. The cost of hauling them into existence demands they appeal to as many people as possible (which is almost certainly why Destiny’s story has been neutered into a flat nothing, rather than risk an alienating complexity). And yet the Raid makes incredible demands: that you spend dozens of hours reaching level 26, that you find five other players who’ve done the same, that you collectively commit several more hours (between seven and ten seems average, to finish in single session) to the attempt itself. And then once inside, it demands you work together in a way no other shooter – certainly none that hope to attract the gaming everybody – ever has. It demands hours of trial and error, of effective communication, of repeated wipes, of optimistic restarts. And it demands throughout that you aim steady and move fast, because this is still a shooter, among the finest.
It’s not a perfect experience. Actually it’s hard to say what it is. It’s fascinating. And it is new – yes, traditional MMOs have been doing raids for years which, from a top-line perspective, demand very similar things, but shifting these demands and this experience into a console shooter changes them in a way that makes them substantially different.
What does all this mean? It doesn’t fix Destiny, which might anyway be unfixable and, at the same time, in need of no fixing. It wouldn’t change my score – I’d still give it 4/5, though this time I’d feel like less of a dickhead doing it. And it doesn’t really tell us where Destiny is going – it will expand and change, and any forthright predictions we make about it now will only make dickheads of us all in time. But do play the Raid – find friends, earn your levels, and experience something that none of you ever has before.
The reviews for Alien: Isolation emerged this week – the game follows next Friday – and while the game scored pretty well, what’s really interesting is the divide between the scores given by UK and US-based critics.
At the top line, at least (and let’s be clear – I refuse to do any maths or real research about this) the UK went for 8s and 9s, the US for 6s and 7s: Eurogamer liked it, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly loved it, while IGN, Gamespot and Polygon were less enthusiastic.
This is interesting because, while there’s a chance the UK writers are unconsciously rooting for an English studio (the game was made in Horsham by Creative Assembly), I actually think the divide springs from the thing that I find most interesting and valuable about the game: the way it presents space, and specifically, the very British way it presents space.
This isn’t an accident – Creative Assembly has always been clear that Isolation takes inspiration from the frigid horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien, rather than its action-heavy sequel (which, as I discuss in this Edge piece on Edge Of Tomorrow, casts a long shadow over video game aesthetics). Here’s a passage from my review of the game:
And what is being shown? Panels. Fat-keyed computer consoles. Hexagonal architecture. Isolation hasn’t so much copied the worn, antiseptic future of Scott’s film as it has absorbed it on a molecular level. The game is beautiful – not just film grain and lighting pretty, but artfully constructed in a way that makes it deeply pleasurable to simply be inside.
The last bit is really the key – it is a science fiction that is so intelligently put together that simply taking it in is compelling, without action or violence. I described this on Twitter as “Pinewood craft”, meaning it has the same detail and depth of setting as the great influential science fiction movies filmed by British technicians in the ’60s and ’70s, with their diligent practical effects and precise camerawork – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Alien.
It turns out this was a perfectly moronic thing to call it, as Star Wars was shot at Elstree, Alien at Shepperton, and 2001 at a combination of the two, though I think the point still stands. What Alien: Isolation achieves is an environment so practically and perfectly realised that it heightens the very reality of what we’re seeing. It’s the shadows that fall across the surface if the Death Star, the flawless invisible rotations of 2001’s gravity walks, the grim industry of the Nostromo.
There’s a romance in this idea, for sure. Al Hope from Creative Assembly has talked about digging up old sound reels from the production of Alien, complete with gruff cockney voices bookending each effect with references and suggestions – this is a great PR gambit because we (certainly I) want to see a correlation between the hands-on modellers, set-builders and craftsmen who built these films, and the tactile blue-collar futures they present. This is why we’re all so pleased Star Wars VII has come back to England (it really is Pinewood this time), to help us flush away the green screen nothing of the prequel trilogy, and the pervasiveness of digital effects everywhere. Realities look better when you build them.
A thought I’ll save for another day is how this practical streak runs through the also very British apocalyptic fiction I’ve been steeped in recently, with writers like John Christopher, Nevile Shute, Sir Fred Hoyle and – of course – John Wyndham pinning down the precise ways in which we’ll fall and be broken apart, a pragmatic approach to the end. But that’s what also convinces me that there is a particular sensibility, a particular Britishness, that runs through Alien: Isolation, and accounts for its bumpy travels.