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The Once And Future Him

April 8, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edge Of Tomorrow: Gaming The Language Of Film

April 5, 2015

Edge Of Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*This article originally appeared on Edge Online

Crafting people – a fine art

March 29, 2015


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

Are you ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Too – The Different Futures Games Imagine For My Son And Daughter

March 26, 2015


It’s curious what can happen when you don’t write something. There are obvious things, like you don’t get paid, and nobody reads it, but sometimes, as in the case I’m about to describe, the thing you didn’t write gets more interesting for not having been written, as though it’s silently accruing wisdom from its spot shuffling through magazines in the gloomy waiting room of pre-existence.

All of which is of course a grasping overcompensation aimed at convincing everybody – me included – that the piece you’re reading now, which I first pitched just after the BAFTA game awards in March, is better and more insightful these many months later. This is desperately self-indulgent, but then so is taking four months to write a blog post, and, luckily, I also think it’s true.

The piece was conceived around the different lives that games imagine for my son and daughter. Specifically, it was conceived at the moment I heard my daughter, who’s eight, explaining that she had just “earned” a footballer as a boyfriend in the salon styling, make-up and accessorising game she was playing on her tablet. Normally my reaction to this kind of gendered cultural ick is to explain to my daughter why the thing she’s just encountered is limiting or offensive, without destroying her enjoyment of the thing itself. But this time, in the same room in which my patient bit of super-liberal parenting was to go down, my 12-year-old son was playing FIFA.

Those of you with 12-year-old sons will realise this isn’t a huge contrivance of fate, as playing FIFA is often what 12-year-old sons will be found to be doing at all times and locations. What struck me, though, was the aggregate potential being revealed by games to my children in this moment. 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.

“Fuck that idea” was to be the elegant core of the original piece, although tempered by some positivity and hung on a hook of timeliness. This is where the BAFTA game awards enter the story, as this positivity was provided by two awards nominees: Gone Home, the exploratory first-person drama from indie studio The Fullbright Company, and Left Behind, the short prequel to PS3 blockbuster The Last Of Us, both of which tell stories about the awkward wonder of adolescence from the perspective of young women. Here were two games breaking dramatically with the standard tendencies of character, perspective and sexuality in our industry. They won awards, I arranged interviews – this was going to be a positive piece about how things might be changing.

And then I didn’t write it. Initially because I was waiting for interview responses, and then, when they arrived, because of the tumbling inconveniences of life (which now include rigorously vetting the games installed on various devices around the house). And these tumbling inconveniences of life turned out to be a good thing, perhaps not for the editor who was patiently waiting for the piece, but certainly for me and – I’m willing to concede, more importantly – for the balance of residual truth. Which is to say that the passing of time revealed that things weren’t really changing, as the ending I had originally planned soporifically hoped they might.

First, Tomodachi Life happened, a vibrant circus of life and all its possibilities which drew criticism because, in the corporate imagination of Nintendo, those possibilities did not extend to people of the same sex falling in love with each other or even having a bit of a kiss. This was a strange moment, because Nintendo had produced a game which many saw as characteristic of the company itself, devoted to playfulness and joy, only to find that the irreverent playground was underpinned by a rigid set of unspoken, uncool values.

The Tomodachi episode made it obvious that issues of representation were still pervasive in games, but actually before that Steve Gaynor, the creative director of Gone Home, tweeted something which made me question my own approach to these issues. It was about the kind of request I’d made to him in the wake of the BAFTAs, about how journalists typically approach him, rather than the others in his small, diverse team, to speak about his game. And it was a totally legitimate thing to point out: “Hey, Steve, tell me, a guy, about how you, another guy, are sorting representation in games with that team of whoever it is over there.”

Of course it does make a certain amount of sense to contact Gaynor – he’s the creative lead on the game and the most visible member of the team. But the fact I did so uncritically without exploring the alternatives was also indicative of exactly the kind of biases and tendencies I was writing about. In the same way it’s tempting to see awards wins for unusual games as a handy end-point to a discussion, it’s tempting to see ourselves as existing outside the things we discuss. I’m pleased that laziness and fortune prevented me from doing either.

In the end Gaynor had the much better idea of me talking over email with Kate Craig, Gone Home’s environmental artist. Among the many interesting things she said, one which struck me as particularly relevant to the way my daughter experiences games is how she described playing Left Behind with her wife: “I didn’t know how much I needed to see a story like that in mainstream game.” So often this is what my daughter is refused – the chance to see herself in the stories games tell. When she found me playing Bioshock Infinite she asked if I could “be” Elizabeth, and wandered away disinterestedly when I said no; when she walked in on me during Beyond: Two Souls and asked “are you the girl?” she responded with a fist-pump and a “YES!” when I said I was.

Helpfully underlining this issue of representation in the meantime was E3, where Ubisoft offered us the co-op Bro Force of Assassin’s Creed Unity and the hostage theatrics of Rainbow Six: Siege, in which women were invited to play a role often filled by a flag, briefcase, or bag of money. A thorough and destructive takedown of the various positions taken by internet commenters in defence of Ubisoft, which accumulate into a depressing miasma of cultural conservatism, can be found here.

For me it’s simpler – I want my daughter to grow up able to play games which offer her a vivid, diverse, ridiculous set of adventures and ideas which make her think about the kind of person she could be and the things she could do. Yes, girls can and do identify with and enjoy playing as male heroes. But this would seem like a more creditably balanced and rewarding exchange if female leads and perspectives weren’t in the overwhelming minority.

So I’m glad this is the latest piece I’ve ever written. This is a long game: the fight for representation and equality will never be won, just swung this way and that, and like Nintendo, like Ubisoft, like me, we’re all involved in this fight whether we recognise it or not. To put it another way, Kate Craig sums up where we were, and where we should be heading to: “…the creation of a game (or any media) centered around women or girls isn’t always a statement or a response to something else. Sometimes it is, certainly, but I hope one day games about women and girls can be created without them being considered a response, and can exist in their own right.”

This article originally appeared on Edge Online under the title ‘When will the games industry’s view of women change?’

The Oscars 2015: What They Tell Us

February 8, 2015

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!

The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game

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.

The Theory Of EverythingTTOE_D17_ 05356.NEF

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.

The Grand Budapest HotelBudapest

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).

American SniperAmerican sniper

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.

A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2014

December 31, 2014

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.

img1January 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.

1174829 - ROBOCOPFebruary 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.

Under the skin 2In 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.

The DoubleRichard 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.

Blue-Ruin-DwightFor 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.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-starlord-flyingIn 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.

expendables-3August 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.

A-Most-Wanted-Man-DIIn 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.

BabadookIn 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.

THE DROPI 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.

Ten of the best from 2014

December 22, 2014

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.

About David Lynch, the textures of different mediums, and the importance of ideas.

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.

Can films absorb the grammar, as well as the langauge, of games?

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.

How Naughty Dog patrols the border between cinema and games.

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.

Why skewed representation in games is a stupid, bad thing.

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.

Something to do with grinding, checkpoints, and the progress of human civilisation.

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.

On seeing Monty Python, and in defence of the joy of enjoying.

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.

A family visit to my early childhood home in London, some play with thoughts and memories.

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.

How Roman Polanki’s noir captured the abusive soul of Hollywood that would lead to his own prosecution for rape.

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.

On Guardians Of The Galaxy, Serenity, and the perseverance of ideas.

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.

I try to nail the bruising warmth of a brilliant performer.