Fan service, nostalgia and storytelling

When I first heard about Warner Bros. Pictures’ plans to bring the Potterverse back to the big screen with Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them, I pretty much dismissed those plans as them going back to their favourite cash cow: a decision based primarily on monetary interests. Rowling’s book, published in between the fourth and fifth Harry Potter novels, was more of a sourcebook for the fans, so why turn this into a film – or, indeed, a series of films? For the many shiny sickles and galleons the producers would add to their hoard at Gringotts, obviously.

this_clever_fan_tried_to_calculate_how_much_money_harry_potter_has_in_his_gringotts_vault Continue reading

Review: Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World

Ah, video games. The love that dare not speak its name, at least in many mainstream media. According to TV especially, gaming is about bleeps and bloops as well as about blood and guts. Games are inherently male, inherently adolescent, inherently about power fantasies – and lest the gamer protest too much, that’s how the medium likes to present itself, at least when it comes to marketing. Boys play video games where they wield massive guns that would have made Freud go “Hmm…”, girls play video games that are pink and feature ponies, right?

How Videogames Met Your Mother. Or something.Charlie Brooker’s latest on Channel Four, the feature-length How Videogames Changed The World, was refreshing, mainly because TV seems to see games in very generic ways: either we get the embarrassing dudebro image of Call of Duty gaming, the stereotypical manchild living in his parents’ basement eating crisps and playing World of Warcraft, or we get handwringing worries about how gamers are desensitised by their chosen medium and turned into ticking timebombs just waiting to shoot up some high school. Brooker’s show looked as games as if *gasp!* they were a cultural good, for better or for worse, and should be seen as exactly that. Regardless of their cultural worth, games have become too big to ignore – and that may be one reason why they’re still presented as the sort of endeavour waiting for us to go 1 Corinthians 13:11 of them: “When I was a child, I gamed as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things, like controllers and such.”

Brooker, together with a whole bevvy of talking heads, took the programme’s viewers through games from their bleepy inception to their social-media-infused present day. Far from po-faced (or should that be Pong-faced?), HVCTW was largely about memories: from Peter “I voiced Darth Maul, so don’t you dare misspell my name!” Serafinowicz to Jonathan Ross, with various comedians and games journalists filling the ranks, talking about growing up on Space Invaders and GTA. One thing that was clear from the show: video games may slowly be growing up, dealing with issues more weighty than whether to shoot that terrorist in the face with an assault rifle, shotgun or grenade launcher, and that’s because video gamers and developers are growing up. A 30-something dev changing diapers on a nightly basis may make very different games from the guy in his 20s, and that’s definitely a good thing. The medium has become increasingly diverse over the last years, with a growing indie scene experimenting with what games can say and how they can say it differently from films or books.

Charlie BrookerFor me as a long-time gamer – ah, those heady days of writing BASIC code in between bouts of International Soccer! – HVCTW was nevertheless a qualified success at best. It was great to see Channel Four taking the medium seriously, but Brooker and his team delivered a show that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be: was it meant for general audiences without much of an idea of the medium, or was it by gamers for gamers? It was each of these at different times, but as a result it often fell between two stools. I wonder how the programme was received by non-gamers, because I’d imagine that they lacked the context to make sense of, say, the ultra-gory Mortal Kombat footage, or to understand the importance of the rise of the indie scene as told by Brooker, yet gamers who’d lived through most of the games mentioned are likely to have found much of the show rather “been there, done that”. Perhaps this could have been averted by giving HVCTW more breathing space and turning it into a series, or by ending it with an actual conversation between gamers, developers, experts and (most importantly, perhaps) people who don’t see what all the fuss is about (as long as they’re not called Jon “You know nothing!” Snow). As it was, HVCTW was several things at the same time – documentary, primer, nostalgic look back – without being any of these altogether successfully. The programme may have worked better as a statement – that video games are culturally relevant – than as an argument supporting this statement.

Now, gentle reader, you may be wondering, “Can I watch this programme myself, so I can tell this Goofy Beast guy how he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?” You can – provided you’re in the UK, or your computer is suffering from MPD and believes it’s in the UK. Just follow this magical link. For those of you unblessed with UK residency, though, here’s a short clip:

P.S.: The true test of whether you’re a real O.G. (Original Gamer)? It’s this – does the Robocop theme tune (Gameboy or C-64, I don’t mind) make you wax nostalgic?

Wrapped in plastic

When I was 16 or 17, I had a crush on Laura Palmer. Not Sheryl Lee – Laura. And not because I’d actually seen Twin Peaks, but because of the little photo of her in the Twin Peaks soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti. Yes, it’s sad – but somehow it also fits the series. The little town of Twin Peaks has a clear image of who Laura is, symbolised by the framed photo of her as Homecoming Queen. They’re in love with that Laura, and many of them have no clue of what’s going on behind that all-American façade.

She’s dead, Harry… wrapped in plastic

It’s been years since I last watched the series, and coming back to it now is weird. I watched the pilot yesterday, and my emotions were intertwined so strongly with nostalgia from the first note of the title tune and the first shots of the sawmill that I found it difficult to step back and look at it somewhat more objectively. I didn’t want all my feelings towards the series to be copies of my earlier feelings, reheated moods from the early ‘90s. Especially since television has come a long way since then: back when it first came out, Twin Peaks was clearly revolutionary, but nowadays, there is more varied, more unconvential television. (HBO, I’m looking at you! Don’t screw it up!)

The series still looks surprisingly good for television. Even at 4:3 format, it’s clear in the pilot that Lynch put a lot of effort into framing his visuals. There’s none of the stagey flatness of much of ‘80s television (American television, that is – there are some real gems of English miniseries at the time). In short, Twin Peaks still looks good.

What looks less good from a distance of 15+ years is some of the acting. I never watched the series for its acting, but I don’t think I was quite that aware of how badly acted Bobby Briggs was, for instance, or Shelly and Leo Johnson, or James “Nomen est omen” Hurley. Obviously, Twin Peaks is the wrong place to look for naturalistic acting – but there’s a difference between stylised acting that works (say Kyle Maclachlan’s Dale Cooper or Russ Tamblyn’s Doc Jacoby) and the thespian crime you get from Eric Da Re, for instance.

Special agent, in every sense of the word

Nevertheless, the series still holds up pretty well, and that’s mainly thanks to the strong undercurrent of, well, Lynch. There’s a dreamlike intensity even to the first episode which is rather short on the director’s trademark weirdness. It’s not as strong as in his most cinematic work – Twin Peaks does feel like Lynch Light – but it’s there nevertheless. It’s there in the shots of douglas firs swaying in the wind or of lone traffic lights at night. It’s there in the train waggon where Laura died. It’s there in battered, bloodied Ronette Pulaski stumbling across the railway bridge in her torn chemise. And it’s there in the synthetic sounds of Angelo Badalamenti’s unforgettable soundtrack.