Directors' cuts

Afternoon tea with Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Jeanne Labrune.

3.40pm: I emerge from Green Park tube station clutching my interview notes and walk down Stratton Street to the May Fair Hotel. I know the way after last week's "Film-maker Afternoon Teas", which I attended hoping to talk to Chadian director Mahamad-Saleh Haroun about his new film A Screaming Man -- one of the highlights at this year's BFI London Film Festival. He never turned up. But I seem to have better luck this time round: having taken the precaution of booking more than one set of interviews, I'm about to get two interviewees for the price of one, not once but twice.

3.50pm: I nibble at a scone and sip pearl-jasmine tea, while waiting for my interview slot in the plush interior of May Fair bar. "This is how they lure them here," a woman sitting next to me says. Last week, she interviewed the Irish director Tom Hall who had just stepped off a plane and was surprised to find cameramen and journalists when he'd only been asked to tea.

4.10pm: The film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are ready to see me at last. They've barely tucked into their tea. It's not often that two people have a hand in writing and directing a film; beyond telling me they like to bounce ideas off each other, Epstein and Friedman are at pains to explain how their double act works in practice. They have jointly researched and written Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, whose sexually explicit poem of that title gained notoriety through the obscenity trial that followed its publication in 1955. Epstein and Friedman admit that the nature of poetic inspiration -- a subject that the Cannes winner Lee Changdong turns to in Poetry, also featured at the BFI festival -- interests them less than the poem's social and political charge. One of them claims he doesn't even like poetry.

4.20pm: There's time for one final question as the interview draws to a close. Howl strikes me as a hybrid, generically speaking: its interweaving of colour with black-and-white sequences, of filmed footage with animation, gives the film an experimental edge. To my mind, Howl shares this quality with a number of features shown at the BFI festival this year, notably Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, Errol Morris's Tabloid, and Clio Barnard's award-winning The Arbor (reviewed by the NS's Ryan Gilbey here). Do documentaries lend themselves to experimentation more than other, more straightforwardly narrative films? Epstein and Friedman, though they come to film from a background in documentary film-making, see this distinction as spurious.

4.30pm: I hardly have time to collect my thoughts when someone motions me to another table, where French writer-director Jeanne Labrune is sitting with her interpreter. Tea for two once again gives way to a triangular scenario. We start by musing on the film's English title, Special Treatment, which doesn't carry the sexual allusions of the French original, Sans queue ni tête. But much besides the title may be lost on its new, non-French audience. Special Treatment, somewhat surprisingly billed as a comedy, draws parallels between the professional realms of psychoanalysis and prostitution. The film's basic premise, as well as its reliance on linguistic puns, may strike English-speaking viewers as somewhat heavy-handed, despite wonderful performances by Isabelle Huppert and the Belgian actor Xavier Demestre.

4.45pm: I compare notes with another interviewer who spoke to Jeanne Labrune before me. The idea for the film apparently first came to Labrune by chance when she picked up a book that fell off the shelf and stumbled on the word "la passe" (meaning "trick") used in a psychoanalytical context.

5.10pm: Fortified with more tea, I leave the May Fair bar and drift towards Piccadilly.

5.25pm: My wanderings take me to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard, where Christian Marclay's The Clock is currently displayed. There's no getting away from films, it would seem. Marclay's clever montage of cinematic moments, featuring clocks, watches and the passage of time more generally, is synchronised to show exactly what time it is from the moment you arrive until you leave. Watching countless clock faces makes for nerve-racking, if strangely hypnotic, viewing. Increasingly aware that I should be on my way, seven minutes into a film that goes on for 24 hours, round the clock, I reluctantly pull myself away.

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture