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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon