Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Gamer suffered from such an abysmal marketing campaign that I never once even cared enough to bother looking at the names listed under the director credit. A film targeted at the attention-deficit, violence-inured current generation, it met with general derision in trailer form before a host of the same mindless entertainment it clearly wanted to comment upon. Even your friend and humble narrator joined in the chorus of sighs that greeted the final shot of Ludacris telling the audience, "This is not something you can control!" with all the actorly sincerity he could muster, and only the presence of the handful of proper adults in this college town theater stopped youths from making the dismissive hand-wanking motion, a sort of cynical version of The Wave. Nearly a year elapsed until I finally discovered what I'd somehow missed: Gamer was a Neveldine/Taylor project. Why, oh why, didn't I look into this beforehand.

Taking into account the self-admitted attention deficiency of the filmmakers, allow me to be brief: Gamer is one of the most daring, avant-garde mainstream films in recent memory, alongside Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Inglourious Basterds and Domino. It is, as much as any sociopolitical tract, a movie about The Way We Live Now, but rather than sit back and discuss cultural perspectives in a way that allows critics and other audiences to more easily dissect its meanings, it embodies that which it examines. There are innumerable examples of films in the first category being provocative and great -- The Social Network, for example, mines the same territory as Neveldine/Taylor's movie via dialogue and more lyrical direction -- but Gamer belongs in that rare breed of films that do not always work, but only because they reach for something fare more difficult to grasp. Jean-Luc Godard rightfully viewed filmmaking as the purest form of criticism, because all art is commentary on some level and film allows the critic to criticize through embodiment of that which is being critiqued. To be sure, Neveldine and Taylor are not critical in nearly the same fashion as Godard, but their frenetic embrace of the way information has processed in the two decades since Internet usage has completely rewired the brain makes them the best filmmakers currently depicting an attention-deficit world.

A title card cheekily informs the audience that the film occurs "some years from this exact moment," a wry bit of humor but also a way of communicating that, like all dystopic fiction, Gamer is directly extrapolated from from sociopolitical conditions of the present. Thus, it projects a future that is even more dominated by the immediacy of self-satisfaction than the one we have now: the masses consume the latest fad like a swarm of piranha, stripping it to the bone in minutes before moving on to the next big thing. Coupled with a more philosophical extrapolation of Moore's Law, the accurate prediction by Intel's co-founder that the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on a computer chip doubles every two years, this rapid consumption of the new fuses the exponential breakthroughs in technological advancement with a consumer base hungry to make all those breakthroughs turn huge profits.

Thus, Gamer exists in a neoliberal nightmare, in which consumerism has grown to such mania that the entrepreneurs of the world have effectively taken over governments. As with a number of dystopic films, Gamer posits a society that uses death row inmates as entertainment, teasing them with the faint hope of freedom in exchange for putting their condemned bodies on the line to risk grislier deaths than they'd ever suffer in a lethal injection. By broadcasting these events, the man behind "Slayers," Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), creates such a lucrative enterprise that he single-handedly pays for America's penal system, which is brutally taxing state budgets back here in the present, to the point that privatization of prisons is already occurring. The use of death-row prisoners as slave labor no longer has the connotation of mere satire: prison labor is already happening, a means for corporations that invest in penitentiaries to get cheap work in return, maximizing their investments.

John Tillman (Gerard Butler), renamed Kable by an adoring crowd that needs a snappier name, becomes the unofficial star of Slayers for surviving 27 games, far more than any other prisoner. If he completes 30 matches, he gets to go free, though everyone appears to look forward to the potential release of a killer they also feel deserved a death sentence. Like a college football player, Kable makes millions for everyone but himself, luxury labor that makes the owners rich but the actual workers unpaid. He doesn't even realize how many people around the world are cheering him on; if he had any concept of the money he personally brings in to Castle's empire, he might reasonably demand some of those profits. But then who would pay a prisoner?

But the corruption of America's prison system does not particularly connect to the kinetic, addled vision of the modern world: to make matters more interesting, Castle's Slayers runs on a technology the wunderkind invented that allows people to control other human beings. In effect, Slayers ups the ante considerably over, say, Death Race 2000 because it turns the carnage into a video game that necessitates direct involvement over passive spectating. Death Race 2000 was extrapolated from a generation that still looked to television for mindless entertainment; Gamer represents the cultural evolution of the present. A society raised on video games and the consumer power of the Internet, in which everything from entertainment to facts themselves can be programmed according to taste, is more apt to demand hands-on interaction.

And because they've spent a generation or two growing increasingly inured to violence, they can gather in stadiums to watch inmates be controlled by teenagers and fat shut-ins and cheer with each death. Castle's other invention to come out of his nanite technology is Society, the ultimate endpoint of The Sims and Second Life, where people are paid to be the avatars of players who can control an actual human being and live out their fantasy life. Naturally, the section of city carved out for Society is a lurid, hedonistic explosion of glitter and cum, a den of sin that projects the aesthetic and sensual hollowness of a strip club onto a large section of metropolis. Where Slayers feeds into bloodlust with its desaturated look, cloudy haze and urban rubble, Society is shiny, shiny, too shiny. It looks as if a hentai cartoon vomited on a Lady Gaga album cover.

What links Society and Slayers is the uncomfortable suggestion of the future of the working class. With menial labor being outsourced to save corporations even more money or being done by programmed machine, the disparity between skilled and unskilled labor in terms of wages and living conditions is wider than ever in this country. Kable's wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), must makes ends meet with her husband in prison by becoming one of the Society avatars. Each day, a fat man glued to a chair consuming junk food sends her out to be screwed so he can watch a hot woman reamed. Even porno is interactive, it seems. (that too, to my utter amazement, is not an invention but merely an expansion of something that exists now). The poor, then, become the literal playthings of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy after spending so many centuries as figurative playthings. As Castle sees it, one can be paid to be a character or pay to be a player. Capitalism in action. (This treatment of Angie also suggests that, even in a world that caters so exclusively to the id as this, slut-shaming is still ingrained in the patriarchal consciousness.)

This neoliberal lack of any sort of regulation, of reveling in the misery and indentured servitude of human beings, is founded on a harsh vision of Social Darwinism: Angie goes to see her caseworker about regaining custody of her daughter, but the man notes that she has been placed with a wealthy family and that the girl wouldn't have as good a life with "people like you." Class warfare continues to rage, and those who must prostitute themselves or risk their lives are viewed as inferior. Of course it's alright to cheer for the deaths of the I-Cons; after all, they went to prison, right? And no one has ever been falsely imprisoned, especially when corporations can tap the inmate pool at will for labor. Simon, the rich, spoiled 17-year-old who controls Kable in battle, views him as a toy, having justified the man's sure guilt in his head and done his best to keep the man alive simply to prove his own prowess as a gamer. Simon hasn't had to work a day in his life, yet he literally holds power over a man's life (and the lives of all the other prisoners he kills through Kable). And until a mysterious, anti-Castle organization known as Humanz (a revolutionary cabal as led by Banksy), sends him a modification for the nanites in Tillman's brain that allows two way communication, he never once considered what the man he operates thought about all this.

Earlier I compared Kable to a college football player, and the same hypocrisy that surrounds the ethics of not paying players extends to the ludicrous sense of good form here. Simon gets flagged for cheating for (reluctantly) letting the man he controls go free before his time, and the fans turn to jeering detractors who spam his wall with cries of "Cheater!" By displaying a slight amount of humanity, Simon will be casually dismissed with the same flippancy that he himself previously called things "gay."

As for Castle himself, he exists in pure B-movie fashion, the identifiable head of an organization that has infiltrated society to such an extent that taking down one person could never undo it. But, in the movies, all you need is to take down the head. However, Castle recalls numerous heads of mega-corporations specializing in entertainment and leisure. Neveldine & Taylor say they modeled Castle as a loose amalgam of "Mark Cuban and Bill Clinton," but he could just as easily stand in for Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, figureheads who become the personification of a brand. When someone complains about Facebook's privacy issues, is a personal insult on Zuckerberg's exaggerated personal stake into reading everyone's secrets far behind? The entire reason Castle arranges for Kable to be killed before reaching his 30th match is to ensure he remains the true face of Slayers.

But the questions of identity raised by the film compound the issue of who, if anyone, could be considered the face of anything. Tillman becomes Kable to further emphasize his loss of identity, and though his face adorns the Slayers ads plastered on every building, it is Simon who is the top player? Or is it? Back at the prison/training ground, one of the guards at the rifle range reverently asks Tillman, "Who aims? The player or the Slayer?" Kable responds that his player might see what's going on, but it's ultimately up to him to pull the trigger as the split-second lag between Simon's command and his brain receiving the information could leave him open to death. Ergo, Tillman deserves more credit for his success than simply being Simon's conduit, but that also means he shares in the culpability of mass murder for spectacle. Castle's overriding use of nanites allow him to take over more than simply a player in a gruesome game of his making: having made Tillman one of the first test subjects of his technology, he owns a piece of Kable's identity as well, and his way of connecting millions, maybe even billions through his entrepreneurship, might soon become more literal.

All of these ideas swirl around what is, fundamentally, a conventionally structured science fiction thriller. In their (often hilarious) commentary track, Neveldine and Taylor acknowledge the influence of '80s action films on Gamer, and it is by far their most straightforward picture in terms of plotting. We move from seeing Kable in action to slowly uncovering his back story and how it conveniently connects him to the grand villain, leading to a showdown that pits massive social upheaval on the outcome but is ultimately fought on more personal terms.

Yet the film also displays the duo's typical avant-garde aesthetic, now condensed just enough to turn the pure anarchy of the Crank series toward a more honed form of satire (and even a bit of anti-satire, for the filmmaking team are as gleefully turned-on by their antics as they are revelatory of a cultural mindset). Even outside Society and Slayers, the epileptic pops of light roll over the film, whether flashing in strobes through the holes of the prisoner transport that takes what few I-Cons survive back to the penitentiary or exploding in holographic computer displays that fill entire rooms with images of porn, commerce and entertaining violence. Their vision of the future is so chaotic that even the conservative groundswell of humanism that is Humanz could never be mistaken for a Luddite group for all their anti-technological screeds because the members themselves have grown up in the same wild environment, and even their hacks have an element of childish amusement to them (they use crude and lewd animations to insult Castle).

It never ceases to amaze me how Neveldine and Taylor can be so arrhythmic with their editing yet create a decently clear sense of continuity. Where, say, Michael Bay continues to haphazardly edit his action scenes in an inept fashion, a garish display of thick-headed cluelessness, Neveldine/Taylor rank with Tony Scott as some of the few filmmakers who can not only push action cinema to its gaudiest extreme but make something that flows out of the insane result. Behind-the-scenes discussion on the home video release reveals that the duo did not storyboard their giant Slayers and Society sets, simply setting loose extras, stuntmen and effects teams and following behind with a camera, catching all that caught the eye. It's a seemingly random approach, one informed by their A.D.D., but it leads to a presentation that teases the audience even as it adds up to a complete picture. They may foist a loose hodgepodge of imagery and sound onto us, but it works. For all their trickery, I have had a much easier time sorting out the spatial relationships of objects in the frame during the most frenetic moments of Neveldine/Taylor films than I do with the average work of sub-Greengrass shaky-cam action. And only Neveldine/Taylor can get away with the use of 1st-person camera in shooting scenes, recalling video game playing in such a way that, while we are still frustratingly spectators instead of controllers, that frustration is played against itself to show how quickly a film audience will turn on the medium when reminded of something that lets them interact with their entertainment.

Gamer inspired as much derision as all other Neveldine/Taylor movies upon its release, and I certainly didn't rush out to defend it, though I might have if I'd been interested enough by its marketing campaign to check who helmed the project. There have been defenders, however, and none more impressive than cultural critic Steven Shaviro, who penned a towering, 10-000 word defense of the film that goes into much greater detail on the neoliberal extrapolations and the crises of identity posited by the film. I feel critics too often avoid saying they don't understand something, so it behooves me to admit that I don't get large swaths of Shaviro's essay (I always had to work at understanding philosophy, so when he wades into it I occasionally get lost). But it is a fascinating read that breaks down the film in ways that the makers most assuredly never thought of. Shaviro says that Gamer isn't really satire but an embrace of its warped view, and that's probably true: in their commentary, neither Neveldine nor Taylor discuss any deeper thoughts to their process, even if the sheer cleverness of the details of their action shooting suggests more active minds than they let on*. But they also display a keen ability to gauge society as it is now and expand from there, and if the critical element is underdeveloped, the sheer accuracy of its projection allows the audience to make its own commentary without the setback of being forced to sit through a lecture.

Very much a genre film, Gamer is also proof that people should stop considering that some sort of setback. I don't know when critics stopped accepting B-movies as legitimate artistic endeavors (presumably some time after critics accepted B-movies as the only legitimate artistic endeavors), but Gamer offers more than exceedingly well-made action sequences. If it is not a commentary, it is at least a summation of our times. Apart from a deliciously show-stealing performance from Hall, all Southern drawl and arrogance, everyone else is very much locked into the more rigid, inexpressive roles defined by their types. But that is merely the identifiable anchor for the rest of the film, which breaks so many boundaries that one forgets how normal its structure is. The Crank movies may be better examples of the pure artistic anarchy Neveldine and Talyor are capable of, but Gamer demonstrates how daring they can be when actually aiming at something. Perhaps it will grow in stature as the years wear on, or perhaps not. Either way, I can only regret not seeing this ingenious work when it came out and will do my best to make up for lost time. But that's the great thing about genre movies: not only can they be smart, they're a damn sight esier to return to with frequency.

**They are, however, magnificently witty, and their commentary, apart from being surprisingly revealing when it came to their aesthetic, was also delightfully freewheeling. My favorite excerpt: "We hired a speech coach to beat the Scottish out of him [Gerard Butler]. As you can see in this scene, he was an overpaid speech coach."


  1. I agree on the sociopolitical context, it's really interesting though it deals with the usual sci fi topics of control and power. So nothing new per se, but always fascinating.
    I'm not with you on the action. Tsui Hark did Time and Tide long ago and, well, I haven't seen a US film looking for that kind of action actually do it in the same way yet.

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