[Left: flesh and blood avatar, Kable, controlled by teenage gamer, Simon]
Gamer has been christened "a futuristic vomitorium of bosoms and bullets" by the NYTimes. This fascinating insight into our cybernetic cultural production as being parallel to the decadence of the late Roman Empire is, of course, never followed through in any review I've read. Instead, a consensus of sudden high-mindedness has emerged not about the gladiatorial carnival of flesh and blood in which we live; rather, the media puckers its sourpuss face at the "already-passe fear of a Web-based world" (NY Daily News), pegging Gamer as a Xeroxed dystopian film about mere postmodern technological anxiety. The LA Times review imperiously notes of the directors, "thought is antithetical to these guys' absurdist, Red Bull action aesthetic." We should be wary of such hasty conclusions.
Gamer opens with 1999 Marilyn Manson gem "Sweet Dreams", letting us know that we are in a different sort of action movie, "some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused." A whole set of human desires produced by spectacular capitalism is called into question.
But let's discuss the "Red Bull aesthetic" for a moment. Now that most summer blockbusters (see Transformers 2: Rise of the Fallen) are catering to a generation of youth who cut their aesthetic teeth on 50-jump-cuts-per-minute Britney Spears music videos (indeed many of the new film directors like Michael Bay got their start on pop music videos), we mustn't blame curmudgeonly Baby Boomer culture vultures for staring dumbfounded at the constant stream of cultural references in this genre. (How many of them were confused by the comedic moment in the first Transformers film when the teenage hero was referred to by his Ebay alias, dating Optimus Prime as an older bit of technology?) They'd rather pump us full of Aderrall, tell us to calm down and pretend they don't all have Internet porn or gambling addictions than actually understand the fast-paced, seemingly meaningless cultural products of late capitalism. In actuality, the Times content advisory -- "Women lift their shirts, and men lower their IQs" -- reads more like a statement of fact about our world in general, rather than a warning to parents about media content. Not to mention that this mediatic criticism, so quick to point out "clichés" that we will instead recognize as tropes, is itself a cliché. What film today doesn't entice heterosexuals with tits and masculine idiocy? The brilliance of "the Red Bull action aesthetic" of this new crop of films is that it displays an utter disdain for bourgeois character development, romance or novelistic identification, which plagued the action film genre for so long (think of the animal cracker scene between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Armageddon (1998), or the stupid ending to the Matrix trilogy, Matrix: Revolutions (2003).
So what do we get out of films that have abandoned the supposedly important dimension of the inner psychic lives of their subjects? Social commentary? A reflection of the set of crumbling libidinal investments and political dystopias that underpin capitalism in decline? Perhaps. This idea, which I'll venture here, is the agument Jameson makes in the LRB about a new dystopian book from Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood:
The Year of the Flood is neither sequel nor prequel, but rather both at once, in what might better be called a parallel narrative, where the godlike figures of the first book (the figures who became gods, let us rather say) are reduced to secondary roles and walk-on parts...All the characters and their stories are thereby diminished, but this is no weakness: it results from an enlargement of narrative perspectives to include the deep space of institutions and collectivities, and a rather different kind of historicity from that projected by the individual fable of the first version. Here we are more clearly able to perceive the breakdown of modern capitalist society...Is the seemingly pointless violence and sex of Gamer merely an empty aesthetic of a future Web-based dystopia or an expensive form of spectacular entertainment that already exists? That the Iraq war -- whose initial raison d'être turned out to be a sham and whose continued justification became some vague idea of spreading "freedom," which really meant arming ethnic militia groups -- has caused the violent deaths of 600,000 to 1 million people since the 2003 US-lead invasion also seems antithetical to thought, absurd even. This is not to mention that 25% of total search engine requests are porn-related. The worldwide adult entertainment industry pulls an annual $57B, $12B of which is US revenue. To put this peculiar form of entertainment in perspective, the US porn industry makes more than the combined revenue of all US sports franchises combined. Or alternatively, double the combined revenue of CBS, ABC and NBC ($6.2B) [Stats pulled from Internet Filter Review]. For whatever intents and purposes, we already live inside a "futuristic vomitorium of bullets and bossoms" and cock. It is frankly refreshing to see a film grab our culture by its twin horns of blood and tits
[Below: injured Iraqi child, photo: Chris Floyd]
Whatever brief economic benefits this $684B war has given defense contractors and other business interests, whatever oil revenues it has secured, from the vantage point of the long economic downturn in late capitalism, which we now live as "real," this 21st century Babylonian expedition appears largely as a spectacular investment in processing and disposing of human meat -- an elaborately orchestrated circus as bloody and brutal as any Nero ever dreamed up. Whether the human lives destroyed in this bloodsport have been poor Iraqis, moudjahadeen from elsewhere, or men and women from the South Side of Chicago who joined the Army to pay for college, the common thread connecting these individual life stories is that these people are seen as expendable, unnecessary and "collateral damage" from the perspective of those who orchestrated the conflict. Assuming an average human body weight of 150 lbs, the Iraq war has destroyed 90,000,000-150,000,000 pounds of human flesh: a high price to pay for vacuous ideas, lies, and endless media fanfare. But in a war such as this, what is the difference between price and product?
But what of the supposedly low-brow sexuality of Gamer?
[Below: On left, Angie who works as an "actress" in hedonistic game-world "Society;" right, death row inmate, Kable, from self-explanatory game-world "Slayers." ]
Although there is a hetero family unit reunion thread that drives some of the plot in Gamer, this story is so one-dimensional and underdeveloped that this couple essentially stands for the Janus face of the new form of "near future" entertainment, the Adam and Eve of a cultural and political decline into barbarity. In this near future, a protracted US economic downturn has caused the massive expansion of our already enormous prison system (1% of the US population) and the entertainment industry's abandonment of scripts and actors altogether in favor of a collection of reality TV scenarios, Internet video-stars and gossip shows. Enter Internet mogul, Ken Castle, who creates two flesh and blood gamer worlds in which gamers around the globe control a live human using a new nanotechnology that colonizes and replaces neurons inside the human brain. This game is streamed live to the outside world of onlookers who ravenously consume a literal staging of a nano-cybernetic master slave dialectic.
[Below: Angie and "Society" avatar, Rick the Rapist]
Interestingly, the game "Society"-- an endless party of gossip, sex, drugs, art and electronic music -- introduces the new gaming technology, making it socially acceptable. Not surprisingly, the game quickly eclipses the Entertainment world. Those who have fallen upon hard economic times and wealthy masochists who get off on giving up control are made to have sex with other flesh and blood "avatars" by gamers controlling them from outside the borders of the game world.
"Slayers" is created later as a joint venture between Castle's media empire and the government as a solution for the exploding population inside US prisons. Death-row inmates are given a chance at freedom if they survive 30 rounds in a game-world of killing fields while controlled by their gamer masters. The upshot for those managing the prison system is that it is finally transformed into a socially-acceptable death camp, in which prisoners chose to enter an incinerator for the chance at becoming a media superstar, while the State and a private corporation split the profits derived from broadcasting their deaths live. "Slayers" begins causing controversy when Americans start murdering one another for the chance to be put on death row and participate in the game.
Although such an assertion would require a much more detailed exploration, I would argue that Gamer (2009) culturally registers a new historical conjuncture by comparing the film to The Matrix (1999), Westworld (1973) and THX 1138 (1971). The historical shift in which we now live is marked by a new set of cultural anxieties that have eclipsed those of earlier postmodern cybernetic dystopias. In a much longer argument, I would attempt to make the case that Gamer represents an exciting return of history, a return of the dialectic, in very literal master/slave terms, proving that 1990's era rumors of the death of history were greatly exaggerated.
Late Capitalism and the Re-emergence of the Dialectic:
With the abandonment Bretton Woods in 1971 and a market downturn of 1973, THX 1138 and Westworld could be viewed as markers of the beginning of the long economic downturn in which we now live. The advent of computers, which were being used economically to crunch large sets of market data and politically to track large sets of population data, produced a whole set of anxieties about cybernetic technology. Given the sense of impending economic collapse, the very beginnings of de-industrialization and the abandonment of the gold standard, the villain of an incipient speculative or spectacular capitalism appears, culturally, to be the cold calculating logic of computer technologies. In THX 1138, this cybernetic rationality is used by humans administer a cost-efficient and rationally planned human society, whereas, in the case of Westworld, cybernetic technology is used in a high-tech theme park for the super-rich where the machines slowly become sentient, and begin to run amok. In the former film, cybernetics appear threatening when installed as the rationality of the mode of production; in the latter, the threat is conceived as the danger of corporations unleashing a destructive artificial intelligence which poetically destroys the disaffected class of super-rich. Both films are marked by what Fredric Jameson has characterized as a postmodern malaise, a flattening of affect. A technological advance and economic downturn were registered in these two late capitalist dystopias as a dialectic between a heroic figure of man and the menacing cybernetic rationality of machines.
In 1999, the economy was swinging, Clinton-era prosperity lifted stocks, and the Silicon Valley miracle was improving productivity everywhere with 1s and 0s lubing up the sluice gates of capital by transmitting information around the globe at the speed of light through fiber-optic cable. The Matrix crystalises this period's excess as an illusion of the mind; something was horribly wrong. Strung out computer programmer, Neo, knew deep down that there was a real beyond this shimmering techno-scape and searches for the truth on the Intertubes. As everyone knows, that truth turned out to be a world in which machines became sentient and waged a war upon their human inventors, a war that ends in a last gasp human attempt to destroy the machines with nuclear weapons to block out the sun, which was the machine's source of power. Human bodies are then enslaved as batteries for the machines and their minds are inserted into the matrix, a virtual world identical to that of the height of human civilization: the late-90s. Again, what follows is a heroic struggle between human slaves and their cybernetic masters, perhaps, reversing the scenario of Westworld where machine slaves revolt against their human masters.
We could read this whole crop of dystopian films as registering a further alienation of humans from their labor, which appears in the monstrous form of a takeover of the world by computers.
In Gamer, humans maintain control of the technology, but an economic crisis is used as a pretext for introducing the enslavement of one set of humans by another in a new economy of blood and sex. The new economy on offer here is one in which freedom is literally traded away by one class for the entertainment of another. But everyone willingly accepts this new economic reality as socially necessary. Humanity is divided not along the lines of a mind/body dialectic (as in THX:1138 and The Matrix) -- indeed, the economy introduces a new market for trading and sharing minds and bodies -- and not along the lines of flesh and blood hero vs cyborg villains (as in Westworld or the Terminator series). Humanity is instead split between a class of spectators and entertainers, both of whom are chained by either economic necessity or boredom to the spectacle.
Right when Gamer feels like it is about to turn into a simple heroic narrative of slave family (Kable, Angie and child) and renegade hacker group Humanz, prevailing over billionaire-CEO Ken Castle, a surreal dance number in the home of the Silicone Valley entrepreneur stages a master slave dialectic that ruptures any simple divisions between entertainer and entertained. Rabble rousing group, Humanz merely manages to broadcast this dialectic live to the world of fans whose own consumption of the images of both these men -- and movie audiences are directly implicated here, as most of the film is shot as it would be broadcast to these "near future" viewers -- would presumably continue after both of their deaths.
The final scene [See screenshot below], poses more political problems for our historical era than it answers.
Castle: "I think it, you do it. I'm in your mind, boy"
Kable: "Well think about this knife entering your entrails"
This scene, in which the slave gains recognition from his master in an act of spectacular violence, stages a new historical situation. The master dies, metaphorically and physically, with the thought of the slave gutting him with a knife. But what happens when the line between consumers and producers is erased, and when immaterial production enters a decline? What happens when late capitalism comes to an end and a teeming mass of surplus populations lives at the margins of global cities, unemployable in previous forms of labor?
The film offers few answers to these questions: Kable simply requests that Castle's employees turn the two game worlds off. With the push of a button on a tablet PC, his wish is fulfilled. But what happens to the audience of this carnival of flesh when the screens go blank? What fills the void left behind? Perhaps, reason being the ruse of history, only a real political struggle of forces will decide? The conflict to come, and current anxieties about this conflict, are now decisively human.