Gaming still: how videogames are represented in films


What follows is a full on article that I wrote and published some time ago about a beautiful movie dedicated to the life and craft of songwriting wonder Townes Van Zandt. Probably one of the best thing I wrote to this day. Hope you like it.

Sometimes gaming culture pops up in the most unexpected places. Last night I watched Margaret Brown’s Be here to love me, a 2004 documentary about Townes Van Zandt, a master songwriter recognized by the most prestigious of his peers, yet who remained a well kept national mystery. 

The rumor has it that the man died out of his lifestyle and hard work combined. His songs were his living. And his living was the songs as he was still playing the same local venues when the likes of Dylan thought of him as an equal in songwriting. His first woman, just after they wed, tells he locked himself in the smallest closet to rehearse and write one of his first song, Waiting round here to die, not exactly a thing she would expect for their start in life. 30 years later, the Tindersticks cut a Kathleen cover and the Coen brothers ended their best film with his own definitive rendition of the Stones‘ Dead flowers.

The closing credits of the present film intertwines Townes’ personal footage with the production names behind the documentary. Lookin straight at the camera and the viewers alike, he’s switching different american caps, from a cowboy hat, looking much like he did on the cover of his signature 69 record Our mother the mountain, to Exxon and most ironically Sun records (!). Striking serious then smiling poses, there’s this precious strange moment where he puts on a Pac Man cap with a smile and pretends to play the game just like it was in the arcades back then.

According to his haircut and demeanour, the footage seems to come from the other 1983 to 1988 clips shown through the movie. And we know that Pac man was all the rage in the US at the beginning of the 80’s, something very popular and fun appealing to the whole country. As “Pac Man”, “Exxon”, “Sun Records” or “Galveston Islands” branded caps suceed to one another, we get to see how he thought of himself, how he presented himself to the world: an everyday, humble, hard working american man. And yet an ongoing mystery.

“The american psyche” says Martin Scorsese about The SearchersSongs like Saint John the Gambler or Tecumseh Valley allow one to get there in a minute. The scope and the poise blend austerity with romantism. It is almost terrifying in its uniqueness. After a running time of 1h30 of never seen before footage, from american television to personnal archives and Guy Clark testimonials, we keep wondering, watching the guy jokingly switching caps: who is this man? Getting the feeling that he’s looking at you in an utmost humble and personnal hello/goodbye gesture, with the rapturous High low and in between playing along, you get the sense of what we’ve lost, and what we’ve found.

Update 04/13/2014: Margaret Brown, director of Be Here To Love Me, just made my sunday a bit brighter.

Sake of the song



The picture
This time it was impossible to just pick one shot from Piranha by Joe Dante (1978), so I took two!  These two stills come right from the opening credits and the cab comes right after the Jaws nod. First time I saw the movie, I went totally bananas, as it was totally Joe Dante’s style and humor to do such a thing.

The game
The game is Shark Jaws, an Atari cash-in arcade adaptation from Steven Spielberg‘s 1975 smash hit, a film who reputedly marked the end of the New Hollywood era of directors. According to Alexis Blanchet‘s Pixels in Hollywood (Des pixels à Hollywood, p.74-75, PixNLove éditions, 2010), Atari couldn’t negotiate the rights for a proper Jaws game, so they created a fake company called Horror games to release a Shark Jaws in order to avoid law suits while still cashing it in, proeminently lettering the word JAWS on the cabinet.

Seems like a NES game was produced as well in the 80’s. In 2006, a Jaws unleashed sprang out of the water to attack the Xbox, PS2 and PC platforms.  The game’s reputation is to be cheap but fun, as you play the shark killing everyone that swims.

Some meaning
Joe Dante started his career with a joke which in time revealed to be an avant-garde coup. It was 1968 and it was called The Movie Orgy, a fluctuating, massive montage of different sources: odd movies, commercials, television shows of the time etc. Its never been “officially” released in any form as it was more like “a way to spend a fun evening with friends”.  This way with sources and quoting others work, giving it some tongue in cheek, counter-culture humor and attitude was to be a strong point in Dante’s coming filmography, up to the Louvre visit in Looney Tunes Back in action in 2003, where the characters chase through masters paintings, embracing each “tableau’s” visual dynamic in the process.

When he directed Pirahna, his first proper feature under Roger Corman‘s New World Pictures rule, the preceding Hollywood Boulevard being much like a test, fabricated with pieces of another film, he started it off with a bang by directly quoting the model and industrial raison d’être of Piranha: Jaws. And he does it with a fraudulent videogame adaptation, which is an incredible layered pop and trivial move since videogames were in their infancy and considered like a fad.

Undermining his debut by superimposing his own name with an hinting videogame cabinet, that’s what I call smart, pop, and beautifully trivial. That’s why in november 2011, I asked him about this in Amiens, during an hommage dedicated to his career (he ushered himself in front of hundreds of 8 years old, telling them “You look a lot like Gremlins to me”, a sight to behold). And he was quite upset by the “Jaws” rip-off question, wich he probably heard a million times already. “Of course It was a rip-off and we wanted this to be out of the way quickly”. Hence quoting the original movie model during the opening credits. The story goes that Spielberg found the rip-off to be good, and hired him to do Gremlins. Many years later, Spielberg directed Catch me If you can, one of his most personal films where he introduces himself as a fraud through the main con-artist character, as many winks are given toward Truffaut (the running away from 400 blows) Hitchcock (the Saul Bass inspired opening credits) and the image of a spoiled kid playing with fake “billets de banque” and finally playing for the Man, as Peter Biskind wrote that Spielberg became an overnight millionnaire with Jaws. Joe Dante, in his own words “is now looking for work in Europe”. He was said to have a meeting with Europa Corp boss Luc Besson. We went to see his latest film The Hole at the Max Linder theater yesterday and couldn’t help notice another game-within-film reference. I will add it later on;)

But If you like TheNightShift and the work of Joe Dante, stay tuned, for something cool may happen soon…

The picture
With a tenuous link related to last week’s entry, this comes from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzaï across the 8th dimension. This flopcorn(tm) was released in 1984 and I remember it clearly from my youth’s firt videostore. Though it had an attractive effect on me at the time, I got to watch it… last year. In spite of its charms, it bombed at the B.O. The end credits tie a forthcoming sequel that never came to fruition. The poster bares it all as a mix of Mad Max, Back to the Future, and every possible silly idea available at the time. Its quite ambitious ways coupled with its failure gives it a cult movie flavor.

The game 
The game is fictionnal!

Some meaning 
This my friends, is our first entry in the “Fake games within movies” category. And a sub-division of it for that matter: “Fake games bearing the hero’s or movie’s name”. The main character is a surgeon, a scientist, and an accomplished guitar player, among other talents. Going in all possible directions, Buckaroo Banzaï is a mish mash of pop culture, many years ahead of its time. The idea was clearly to set up a new reccurrent hero figure that would reflect the explosion of the  pop culture in the eighties. Hence the idea A > to include an arcade cab B > To name it after the hero. If we never got to see its sequel hit the video stores, it apparently made it into a proper videogame adaptation!

The picture
This week, Robocop is back with a vengeance in the 1990 second installement of the series, in order to clean up the streets of drug ridden Detroit.  This extract comes from a whole “raid” sequence into an arcade, the usual hang out of a twisted Gavroche baddie.

The games 
All games within the  whole sequence are Data East branded: The Real Ghostbusters, Slap shot and a few others. Data East is famous for having produced games like DragonNinja and Atomic Runner Chelnov. They were the official provider of the initial Robocop arcade adaptation. As a fan of the original Verhoeven movie, one of the highlights of my own gaming life was sitting with my cousin who just bought the first Robocop arcade translation for the Atari ST, trying endlessly to make a copy of it. But the game was protected;)

Some meaning 
The presence of all Data East cabinets is obviously a commercial tie-in. As far as the arcades go, their reputation as social and fun places went down in the 90’s. At least that was mostly the case in France. And while the first film was about a few adults struggling within a completely inhumane and corrupted capitalistic system, Robocop 2 relies on violence among children to show the situation is now even worse. That’s why we’re shown some unruly kids wasting their time and innocence in this godforsaken place. But this segment and the action in Robocop 2 is so way over the top that it can’t be taken too seriously. It’s gruesome, but the first one was much more disturbing.  What’s even more interesting is that Detroit, “the motor city” have this image of a steel city that was thriving in the fifties and the sixties, and went through a long downfall forever since. Hence its specific place in these movies. Requiem for Detroit, a recent doc directed by Julien Temple, shows the present reality of the city. And believe me, it goes way beyond the fiction in many aspects.

The picture 
Let’s start with a fang. This capture comes from Let Me In, the american make-over of the 2008 swedish film Morse by Tomas Alfredson. A young bullied boy meets a girl. But the girl reveals herself to be twice a surprise.  This segment at the arcades serves as their first date out.

The games 
From left to right: Mrs Pac Man, Gorf, Space Wars, the button mashing Track & Field and the reflect of a pinball glass top on the forefront. These specific games emphasize the American locale and the action, seemingly taking place in the beginning of the eighties, 1983 according to a precise Ronald Reagan broadcast on TV.

Some meaning
Whether intentional or not, the most proeminent arcade of the present shot, Mrs Pac Man, whom some may argue that it’s just Pac Man with lipstick, mirrors key character elements. Matt Reeves did an already remarkable work with the former Cloverfield. The cinematography in Let Me In is quite beautiful and it shows here. It’s warmer than the original. As I recently found out that he has been a longtime friend and collaborator of James Gray, way prior to his partnership with Abrams, I suspect the guy to be gifted. This own blending of teen, first-date-out fun with a darker setting is pure melancholy.

Bueller girl

The picture 
All apologies for the hiatus. A couple of months ago, the Paramount Channel launched in France and the other night I was able to catch up with Ferris Bueller’s day off. Directed by the late John Hugues, master dude of the 80’s teen film, it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of light comedy, starring Alan “Spin city” Ruck, Matthew “Wargames” Broderick, Mia Sara and Jenifer “Dirty Dancing fame approaching” Grey.  This movie is likely the main inspiration of the future Parker Lewis can’t lose, a series that was a bit popular in France in the early 90’s. Very light and young at heart, John Hugues films show the turmoils of the middle white class american youth. Its fair depiction of teenagehood, boasting Cabaret Voltaire posters and other pop references, remains refreshing to this day and captures, with a semi realistic flair, an innocence and a certain  ennui that was gone when films like Menace 2 Society and Pulp fiction came out in the early 90’s.

The game
The game is Karate Champ. Which is very interesting because it was developped byTechnos, who in 1987 will be behind the legendary Double Dragon.

Some meaning
Here the principal (Jeffrey Jones) is looking for Ferris and thinks he just caught him in a pub. We see that a woman is playing. Which is already startling since the game is quite “male” and the whole thing, along with jeans, haircuts and the pepsi drink, brings us back to a time when it was socially cool to play a Karate video game in public (in France,well, all the social coolness we are shown at Flynn’s place in Tron kind of never materialised). The arcade is shown like a piece of public leisure time, and its ok for a young couple to hang out. The principal interrupts the game and utters, in impeccable french, the very old fashion yet exquisite “Les jeux sont faits”, indicating that he thinks he “gets” the situation. But then he says, in english “game is up”, instead of “Game over”. Within two sentences, the character is shown out of place. He then faces the guy who is not Ferris and happens to be a short cut haired woman. She pretends to look at him in an interested fashion. And then throws her drink in his face, inducting that “Game is up” wears a sexual “double entendre”. Bottom of the line: two attractive young women are enjoying a Karate Champ game.

Sylvain Thuret
Work in progress


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