The Rear-View Mirror: With a Little Help from My Friends (1967)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

The year 1967 stands out for a number of reasons.

It was a powerful year for movies: the world got the likes of Bonnie & Clyde, In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner blowing open the doors on what was previously considered taboo in the US.

It was a powerful year for history: it was the year James Bedford died. It was also the year James Bedford became the first man in history to be cryonically preserved. It was the year the United States stepped up the war in Vietnam. It was also the year that, in the middle of race riots and violence, the world seemed to unite for a single moment in opposition to Vietnam, and the Summer of Love was born.

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Shredding geeks

Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!

Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.

There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”

But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:

However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness:

It happened at the movies… (3)

(… although technically that should be (4), since my entry on The Departed was also part of this tightly plotted, carefully laid out series. Ah well.)

I wish I could remember the title of this movie…

Christopher Nolan made an impression on me with his second film, Memento, which I thought clever, affecting and fascinating. Insomnia, his follow-up, didn’t do much for me, well crafted and acted tough as it was. It didn’t have the conviction of the Norwegian original, sitting uncomfortably between Hollywood thriller and harsh morality play.

The Prestige is probably Nolan’s best film since Memento. His reboot of the Batman franchise was good and intelligent, but its plot was predictable. The Prestige, a film about 2+ rival magicians at the turn of the century is at least as cleverly conceived and told as his amnesia thriller. Judging from the plot of the original novel (as given on Wikipedia), the film adaptation has been changed quite a bit, so it’s all the more surprising and impressive to find such an intricately structured, yet elegantly executed plot in the movie.

What struck me most was Nolan’s witty use of repeated motifs that, in a second viewing, might look like obvious hints at the twists in the movie. Every element is carefully laid out, and the film plays fair, yet when the viewer thinks he’s figured it out and smugly leans back, chances are he’ll realise half an hour later that he’s underestimated Nolan’s Chinese box.

And apart from The Prestige‘s cleverness (which has a slightly arch quality to it, just as some of the voiceovers), there’s something admirably goofy about casting David Bowie as an aging Nicholas Tesla, perhaps the truest magician of the piece yet the least mysterious, least self-dramatising character in the film.

Is there life after Mars?