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GAME ENGINE: AS I LIVE AND BREATHE
Film/game divergence at Cannes.

BY GRAHAM LEGGAT

Masahiro Kobayashi’s Bashing.

For the past five or six issues I’ve written about the film-game convergence. My interest in video games and the game industry is a fairly recent phenomenon. It’s the result of being steeped for 15 years in the film-exhibition business, first at Cornell Cinema and the American Museum of the Moving Image, then at the Museum of Modern Art and now at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, as a communications director, writer and editor, and occasional programmer. It’s been perfectly natural, thus, for me to discuss games and gamemaking as if they were a form of filmmaking and part of the film world, even if in many ways they are not.

I’ve thought of this column as a shuttle between the two mediums, carrying ideas and practices from one to the other and exploring correspondences and differences. But so far I’ve focused on how certain aesthetic and industrial aspects of gamemaking mirror in true or warped form mirror various aspects of film-making. I’ve said little about how films mirror, are influenced by, recapitulate or, for that matter, ignore or reject the formal, aesthetic or industrial practices of the game world.

This column aims to address some of these ideas, which were thrown into sharp focus for me this past May, when, instead of attending the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the game industry’s annual nuthouse in Los Angeles, I went for five days to Cannes, the film industry’s annual nuthouse on the Riviera. The relationship between games and films was on my mind, since I would be writing this column on return. But apart from that I had few professional obligations beyond attending screenings, going to parties and soaking up the atmosphere. I was able, thus, for the first time in several years, to watch world-class contemporary films with an open mind and innocent eye, for pure pleasure.

It’s not that I don’t get to see good films. I watch dozens every month for work. But I watch them industrially, with a relentless determinism, and the overall effect is like looking at the screen through the wrong end of a telescope. This visit to Cannes was different. Free to watch whatever I wanted and to take each film as I found it, I felt as if I experienced the 13 films I saw in a deeper and truer sense than usual. I felt like I saw them as they were.

Thus Dominik Moll’s Lemming, the flawed festival opener; Masahiro Kobayashi’s beautiful unsung chamber piece Bashing; Johnny To’s greatly satisfying Triad potboiler Election and Michael Haneke’s tragic psychodrama Caché (a.k.a. Hidden); Im Sang-soo’s ribald black comedy The President’s Last Bang; the talented Mr. Woody Allen’s uncredited, and possibly unconscious, channeling of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels Match Point and Gus Van Sant’s anti-biopic Last Days; Amat Escalante’s minimalist miserabilist Sangre; jury member Fatih Akin’s energetic compendium of the Istanbul music scene Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul; and even to some extent Kim Ki-duk’s polished and hollow The Bow and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s pointless video horror story House of Bugs — all these films for me were like windows thrown open onto extraordinary living and breathing worlds.

As I wandered each day from the Salle Debussy to the Palais and along the Croisette to the Quinzaine screenings in the Noga Hilton, ham sandwich in hand, I asked myself repeatedly whether I saw or sensed in one or more of these films any structural, narrative or conceptual elements that reminded me in part or whole of video games and gamemaking. The answer, in short, is that I did not. Not once. Not for a moment. Not even a whiff.

This is perhaps not a revelation to many readers, but it was interesting to me. Below are several instances of things I saw in these films that games rarely if ever begin to approach.

  • The many differentiated shades of sorrow — among them poignancy and bitterness and heartbreaking grief — experienced by the three main characters in Bashing, a story of the irrational persecution of a young woman and her father and stepmother, following her return to Japan after being held hostage in the Middle East. And the way in which so much of this is communicated without dialogue, through gesture or stillness, in scenes devoid of action but full of emotion.

  • Scarlett Johansson’s flagrant beauty and unabashed sensuality — reminiscent of a young Marilyn Monroe — and the palpable carnal sway it holds over Match Point protagonist Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, driving him first to almost ruinous adultery and then to murder. The inquiring, ravenous and desperate looks that pass between the two lovers, and between them and us, the viewers, drawing us into the roles.

  • The evolving meld of Asian and Western musical and social culture in the metropolis on the Bosphorus in Crossing the Bridge. Einstürzende Neubauten bassist Alexander Hacke happening on an impromptu singalong by street musicians in downtown Istanbul. Turkish rapper Ceza ripping rhymes at light speed in one scene and articulately eschewing thug life in the next.

  • Director Michael Haneke’s methodical and inexorable peeling back of the layers of Daniel Auteuil’s psyche in Hidden. His meticulous rendering of the awful commonplace cruelties that lie below, or rupture, the surface of civilized lives. The scenes in which Juliette Binoche, despite reasonable and impassioned efforts, fails to persuade either her husband or her son to open his heart to her. Out of nowhere, the indelible shock of a razor across the throat. The sudden arterial spray and the sickening knowledge that this is a human being who has destroyed himself.

  • The way in which Last Days is and is not about Kurt Cobain, just as Elephant was and wasn’t about Columbine. The dislocation that occurs when Michael Pitt’s face appears from behind the stringy hair and it’s not Kurt. Lukas Haas and Scott Green kissing. Kim Gordon playing a hard-ass record exec. The talismanic repetition of the Velvet Un-derground’s “Venus in Furs,” clearly meant as a moldering heroin-addled cliché but still somehow charismatic and malevolent, an incubus presiding over a house of death.

And so on.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are many ways in which films and games are converging. And it’s interesting to observe and catalogue this. But equally or more so, for the time being and perhaps for the duration, there are many ways in which the two mediums are entirely different kettles of fish.

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