Films that make you feel old

Five videogame-related movies to savour.

 

Sometimes a film comes along that makes you feel like an enthusiast for the hand-cranked gramophone in a world of downloads. Mine was Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s self-congratulatory graphic novel adaptation Sin City, which I didn’t respond to at all on any level. (Occasionally it’s nice for the critic to be off-duty, to see a film about which one is not required to build an argument for or against or somewhere in-between, and to simply say, like Tom Hanks in Big, “I don’t get it.” Not having been required to write about Sin City, I was able in that instance to give the critical synapses the night off.)

I felt it to a lesser degree with the new 3D Disney animation Wreck-It Ralph, about a character in a 1980s-style arcade game who tires of his role as a baddie and starts to look around for opportunities to be a hero. The story itself is familiar enough, the standard Be True To Yourself message that is always being promoted by the largely conservative, lily-livered, risk-averse mainstream film industry. And the film is often a hoot, with some resounding and well-played emotional beats, not to mention a good movie role at last for the abrasive comic Sarah Silverman, even if it is in voice only. (Yes, she had her own concert film, Jesus Is Magic but until now her film acting highlight has been her profane cameo at the start of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun.)

But I was keenly aware that the screenplay’s numerous videogame references and in-jokes were whooshing straight over my analogue head. It isn’t that I’m the wrong generation - Atari Tennis is my Proustian Madeleine. (Top tip: you can always tell those of us who have never read Recherche le temps perdu by our prodigious mentions of the only detail we have picked up from the text.) But I was never a videogame nut, unless you count the clunky, late-1980s game Gumshoe, which involved pointing an unwieldy plastic gun at the TV screen and pressing the trigger, thereby causing the squat detective hero to jump. Primitive isn’t the word. If memory serves, the image was comprised of around six pixels. Eight at a push.

I’ve been keeping in with Tetris. Well, you have to do your bit, don’t you? And one of my children downloaded Temple Run for me. It’s all go around here. But as if to prove that I’m still alive and able to ascend the stairs without pausing for breath more than three or four times, here are five videogame-related films that I admire - and, more to the point, that I can watch without having to resort to annotated notes from any nearby teenagers.

eXistenZ 

David Cronenberg’s foray into the world of virtual reality gaming was anything but sterile: the fleshy consoles pulsed, jacks are plugged into human flesh and a gun is constructed from bone and gristle. One of his strongest and funniest movies.

The Last Starfighter 

This charming 1984 adventure got trampled in the glut of cheapo Star Wars knock-offs, but it’s an altogether different and more delightful movie in which a boy’s success at a crummy arcade game serves as his inadvertent audition to join an intergalactic battle.

Ra.One

Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan stars in this ambitious 3D fantasy about a virtual reality villain who breaks out of the game and into the real world to hunt down his adversary. The same plot was used much less effectively in Virtuosity, starring a pre-superstardom Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington.

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World 

Edgar Wright’s musical-action-comedy doesn’t feature much actual videogame action, but that’s because it all spills into the “real” lives of the twentysomething Canadian characters who’ve grown up on Zelda, Final Fantasy etc. The quest of Scott (Michael Cera) to vanquish his girlfriend’s seven evil ex-lovers is structured like an arcade game, while even the Universal imprint at the start of the film is remade in 8-bit, old-school, 1980s videogame style.

Tron

You didn’t really think I’d leave this out did you? This may not be as good as you remember it, but its retro charm is something to be reckoned with, and it looks even better next to the travesty of its tardy sequel, Tron: Legacy.

"Wreck-It Ralph" is on release.

A still from "Scott Pilgrim vs The World", Edgar Wright’s musical-action-comedy.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism