SHOT MISSING: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and the New History of Found Footage

Orson Welles invented a genre, and died before anyone found out.

Had it been released, as intended, in the 1970s, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind would have completely redefined the found footage genre. Well, “redefined” isn’t the right word. After all, found footage cinema didn’t exist during the film’s production. Welles was inventing it. So had it been released back then, it’s more accurate to say that The Other Side of the Wind would have defined the found footage genre in a way entirely different to our current understanding of it.

The concept of fiction which takes the form of a “real life” collection of documents is much older than film itself. Epistolary novels told their stories as a collection of letters between characters. Welles himself translated this idea to radio with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, which was written and acted as though it were a real news broadcast. Found footage has been with us for a very long time, but Welles would have been the first to bring the concept to the cinema.

As history stands, though, the most widely cited originator of found footage is the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust. It set down the genre’s rules and structure, a format that would popularly codified with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Though there were examples in between (Man Bites Dog being perhaps the best-known entry in the genre during this time) it’s safe to call these two film the mothers of found footage film. The guidelines they created were rarely deviated from by their imitators. For one thing, most found footage films that followed in their wake were also horror films. Blair Witch proved the possibility for terror which a locked perspective could inspire, and the success of Paranormal Activity nearly a decade later proved to studios the utility of the genre’s cheap-and-easy production model. Found footage became irrevocably associated with horror, such that painfully few filmmakers ever experimented with the form outside of that genre.

Another important aspect of found footage is that, obviously, the footage must be found. The use of the form implies a terrible fate for the people at the film’s center, usually spelled out in a Shakespearean prologue before we even see them. The finder of the footage is rarely relevant. They are typically unseen and unheard from, acting as invisible editors. Sometimes, as in Blair Witch Project, the implication is that the credited crew themselves are behind the assemblage of the footage. Most of the time, however, it’s simply a question left unanswered. We aren’t supposed to care about the person who found the footage and presented it to us. The motives behind their choice to present the film the way they have is, we’re told, irrelevant.

But what if the genre’s forefather had not been Cannibal Holocaust, but The Other Side of the Wind instead? It’s not a horror film, for one thing. Had it been released in the 70s, the entire concept of found footage would have been borne out of a drama with comedic elements. Would this have convinced filmmakers that the form was more elastic than it is commonly considered today? I think it would have. I also think found footage would be respected as the bold cinema experiment it is, rather than the cheap throwaway production style it’s so often perceived as today. Coming from Welles, it would have been appreciated as a brash step forward for the medium, if not in its time, then at least down the road.

But this isn’t the history we’re living. The Other Side of the Wind was released in 2018, following decades of other found footage releases. So let’s look at it in that context, in how it breaks some rules and follows others, and how it still manages to redefine the form.

The film opens, like so many found footage films do, with the reveal that the main character dies at the end. Voiceover from Peter Bogdanovich, in his character as a much older Brooks Otterlake, explains that the film is assembled from footage shot by many different people at the 70th birthday party of director JJ Hannaford, who drove off a bridge to his death at the end of the night. “The choice of this material,” he says, “is an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man himself as he looked through all those different viewfinders.”

The genre significance here isn’t clear until the film is over. Here we have a found footage film whose perspective is driven not by the footage’s shooter, but by its editor. There is no one point of view through which we see Hannaford, but dozens of them, and they are only made somewhat coherent by Otterlake decades later. The film’s perspective is created in editing, and it’s still disparate and schizophrenic due to the sheer number of people filming. Everyone at the party sees Hannaford differently, and it takes Otterlake decades in the film’s narrative to put aside his own feelings about how he comes off in the footage and put together a representation of Hannaford. It’s impossible not to see the film as both tribute and repudiation of Hannaford by Otterlake, whose conflicted feelings toward his mentor are clear even at the time the footage was shot.

It’s easy to see the allure of this concept for Welles. He was a filmmaker who was more fascinated by the power of editing than of the camera itself. Early in the film, a film student interviewer asks Hannaford, “Is the camera a reflection of reality, or is reality a reflection of the camera eye? Or is the camera merely a phallus?” Hannaford answers: “I need a drink.” It’s clear that Welles found this approach to cinema, at best, a silly waste of time, and at worst a grating misunderstanding of the medium he so loved. His final real feature, F for Fake, is consumed with the mysterious power of film editing, and he would have iterated on that in The Other Side of the Wind. Welles seemed to want to experiment with this massive jumble of perspectives, to see if he could find something singular through their combination, or else to disorient and befuddle by the same token. For him, found footage was less about a collection of images which imitated reality and more about what could be found through the coherence or incoherence of those images. What if he could find a throughline in them, and what would it mean if he couldn’t?

An odd aspect of the film is how cameras are both universal and absent, visible and invisible. Oftentimes Welles employs a shot-reverse setup which does not show the camera that ostensibly is shooting one or both angles. At other times, though, cameras are everywhere, crowding the image, intrusive and domineering. Welles doesn’t insist upon the found footage angle in the former moments. Rather, he suggests that even if we can’t literally see every camera, these people are constantly being surveilled in ways even they cannot see. The camera is ever-present in The Other Side of the Wind, even when we don’t see it.

In the latter moments, though, cameras are unavoidable. If the camera really is a phallus, you could call Hannaford’s birthday a sausage party. His house is filled with an amorphous panopticon, oozing through every hall like The Blob, intent on absorbing Hannaford. It’s interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t. The planned ending of the film would have had Hannaford kill himself by crashing his car through the screen of the drive-in where his film was playing. It’s a playfully provocative image, and it would have implied a final surrender to the onslaught of cameras, a last desperate act captured for eternity. The finished film doesn’t contain this shot, however. It was never filmed by Welles before his death. Presumably Bogdanovich and his collaborators either were reluctant to shoot new footage or found it too difficult to create the shot without the also-late John Huston.

Whatever the case may be, the absence of footage of Hannaford’s death in the final film could be seen as the man escaping from the oppressive pressure of all those viewfinders, rather than succumbing to their power in a public display. This is so antithetical to how we think of found footage that it’s kind of astonishing. An important aspect of the “bad ending” so many found footage films have is that we have to see it on camera. At the very least, as in The Blair Witch Project, we have to see the moment just before it happens. We get no such satisfaction in The Other Side of the Wind.

This positions The Other Side of the Wind as an anti-found footage film of sorts, but also as the most honest expression of what the form really means. Found footage purports to capture the truth of its subjects, with realism and a constantly open eye. But so often in these films we see people performing for the camera, putting on a persona that exists only because they know they are being filmed. The camera, which is supposed to capture truth, creates lies by its very nature. Welles saw in the medium what few other found footage films have ever comprehended. He understood how the presence of the camera generates falsehood in its subjects, and that if such a thing exists as actual truth, it cannot exist on film. The panopticon tried its best to capture Hannaford, but it could only see him as he performed, not as he was. The only truth we know about him is that he chose to die, and no camera sees that moment of choice. Even in Welles’ planned ending, we would only have seen the aftermath of that decision.

It’s hard to imagine where found footage would be if The Other Side of the Wind had come out on schedule. It’s possible that it wouldn’t have altered the genre’s history at all, or that it wouldn’t have been considered part of the same lineage as Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project. Maybe found footage wouldn’t be considered a genre at all, as its genesis would be untethered from horror. Maybe the found footage landscape would be completely different. But it does little good to speculate. The Other Side of the Wind is a 2018 film. It is here, it is now. It exists in the context of decades of found footage work, despite having been shot before all of them. It makes me wonder what Welles would think of all those films. Would he see the value in their use of the medium he surreptitiously invented? I can say only this with confidence: I bet he’d be glad that people know he got there first.

A Jewish Perspective on ‘BlacKkKlansman’

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

“Jewish? I dunno, am I?”

You probably recognize the former quote, even if you don’t know its origin. It’s a saying by Jewish Talmudic thinker Hillel, one of the most significant figures in Jewish history. It’s echoed early in Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman by the famous black activist and organizer Kwame Ture, who history classes taught me was named Stokely Carmichael. He’s speaking to members of a black student union in 1979, unaware that he’s being secretly recorded by police detective Ron Stallworth. Ture doesn’t cite Hillel by name, the saying having long since outlived its speaker. Yet still we have an icon of the struggle for black liberation stirring his audience with the words of an icon of Jewish cultural values. BlacKkKlansman is a film as much about one as it is the other, and we see this with the speaker of the second quote.

Flip Zimmerman is a white cop. He’s teamed up with Ron in an undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron makes contact over the phone, and Flip plays Ron in the in-person meetings. Before his first contact with the Klan, Ron advises Flip to take off his “Jewish necklace.” “It’s not a Jewish necklace,” he insists, “it’s a Star of David.” “I didn’t even know you were Jewish,” Ron says.

“I dunno, am I?” he replies.

Jewishness in America wasn’t always a subclass of whiteness. Jews were a step lower on the racial hierarchy, an “off-white” if you will. It wasn’t until the horrors of the Holocaust became public knowledge that anti-Semitic prejudice became more or less taboo and Jews were assimilated into American whiteness. It’s a privilege we’ve enjoyed for decades, but with the knowledge that it’s a tenuous one. We take for granted that a white person who is Jewish isn’t a non-white person. But a member of the KKK would disagree, because whiteness is a construct meant to empower itself. These questions of identity and belonging are key to the modern Jewish experience, and Lee draws a direct line between this and the modern black experience. BlacKkKlansman is a movie about a black cop and a white cop. But to the KKK, it’s a movie about two non-white cops. It’s this lesson that Flip has to learn over the course of the film. “To you it’s a crusade, to me it’s a job,” he tells Ron. Ron retorts, “All that hatred, doesn’t it piss you off. Why are you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?” At this point, Flip doesn’t realize that Ron’s crusade is a shared one. He’s a part of this fight whether he likes it or not.

“If I am not for myself, who is for me?”

Critics of BlacKkKlansman (most notably director Boots Riley) point out that the real Ron Stallworth never partnered with a Jewish officer, and that this invention is part of the film’s campaign to propagandize the police to marginalized people. But this misunderstands Lee’s entire project. He takes two people who are refused entry to “whiteness” by its violent gatekeepers, and shows how they cooperatively create an identity to infiltrate it. The film’s use of Judaism — and its invention of Flip—is a brilliant approach to an examination of whiteness as a construct.

Flip and Ron at one point discuss the idea of “passing,” that a non-white person could pass as white to gain access to its privileges. Prior to this, Flip hadn’t considered himself as a Jewish person at all, or indeed as anything but plain old white. When confronted with the anti-Semitism of the KKK, he’s forced to take stock of his identity and think about what whiteness means to him. In the act of adopting whiteness to fool the KKK, he becomes aware for the first time of the extent to which whiteness belonged to him in the first place. I don’t mean that Flip considers himself non-white, or that he has any right to do so. I mean that Flip must reckon what it means that his whiteness can be so quickly and violently revoked. “Maybe I have been passing,” he says.

It made me think of the times in my childhood when I was suddenly made aware of my difference from my friends and classmates. I grew up in a town so clueless about Judaism that I was once asked if I was allowed to celebrate Halloween. When my sisters and I were in elementary school, my mother would come into class and educate the other students about Hanukkah traditions. A few days after one of these lessons, I came into class to find a small manger on my desk, a message from another parent. Growing up Jewish in America means being the same as “everyone else,” until you aren’t. I wouldn’t dare compare this to the racist violence which black people are subjected to in this country; it’s not remotely on the same level. It’s Lee who draws a line between these struggles.

“And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?”

It’s this section of the Hillel quote that’s most significant to the film. BlacKkKlansman is all about the struggle to reconcile your personal identity with the box in which race and whiteness as a monolith tries to contain you. Who is Ron Stallworth? Who is Flip Zimmerman? Lee gives us so little information about either of them outside of their relationship to this case. They exist only in relation to whiteness, and their non-membership in it; they exist only as constructions in a white supremacist medium.

BlacKkKlansman is equally obsessed with the history of American cinema and its use as a tool of racial oppression. He opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, he has his two main black characters debate the value of films about black cops, and he goes on to show the KKK laughing and shouting approvingly at The Birth of a Nation. Ron and Flip are not real people, any more than their combined “Ron Stallworth” is a real person. They are constructs by Lee, designed with the goal of examining the loss of identity that comes with being the victim of racist violence. The contradictions of a black man working in a white supremacist system, or a Jewish man being anointed a member of the KKK by David Duke himself, are contradictions brought on by the existence of whiteness itself. Are Ron and Flip ever “for their own selves”? And if so, who are they? It’s a uniquely Jewish question, respectfully adapted by Lee for his own purposes.

“If not now, when?”

The urgency of activism is one of the most important elements of Jewish faith. We are compelled to act, with our whole selves, and to act not sometime but now. BlacKkKlansman asks us to consider the nature of “action,” and the significance of acting within a system to change it. Ron argues with his girlfriend Patrice about the value of changing a system from within. She (not knowing at the time that Ron himself is a cop) insists that white supremacist organizations like the police can only be changed from the outside. Whether or not the film ultimately sides with Patrice or Ron is up to your interpretation, but it makes it very clear that Ron accomplishes very little in his investigation.

(Here we get into spoilers for the ending, so be warned).

After the KKK fail to bomb Patrice’s house and end up blowing themselves up, Ron and Flip’s chief call off the investigation, citing “budget cuts.” Some time later, Ron and Patrice find the KKK burning a cross outside Ron’s apartment building. Lee then cuts to footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, and footage of the murder of Heather Heyer at the event. It’s a harrowing conclusion, and the message is clear: Ron ultimately accomplished very little by working within the system. In showing footage of Trump letting the neo-Nazi marchers off the hook, he also questions the efficacy of Obama’s time in office. BlacKkKlansman demands that its audience account for its lack of action by depicting Ron’s project as ultimately a failure. It implores you to not try and make change by playing by the rules, because the rules are designed to thwart you. Ron couldn’t finish the job then. What will you do now? Lee deliberately invokes the Jewish activist spirit here.

Though Flip’s arc doesn’t have a clear conclusion (one of my main issues with the film), BlacKkKlansman is still primarily a work about the ties that bind Jewish people and black people together in a shared struggle against white supremacy. Our enemy sees us as one and the same, Lee says, so why should we divide ourselves? We must confront our enemy together, or not at all. BlacKkKlansman is a rallying cry of solidarity to all oppressed people. I found myself thinking of another Hillel quote, perhaps even more famous than the one Kwame Ture recites, and one I heard again and again growing up: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”

No Man’s Sky Doesn’t Need Multiplayer

The game’s most-desired feature would spoil what makes it great.

I want to tell you a story about an experience I had earlier this year playing No Man’s Sky, the 2016 space exploration game that became the center of a violent internet mob when it released without features that were supposedly promised by the developers. Most of these “missing” features were never explicitly promised to begin with, their absence resulting mainly from assumptions made by the media and general public based on the wide-eyed aspirations of the game’s director, Sean Murray. The most egregious one in the mind of the game’s detractors was the lack of multiplayer. No Man’s Sky takes place in a galaxy full of trillions of planets, all procedurally generated so no two are alike. While players explore the same galaxy simultaneously, at the time of the game’s launch there was no way to interact with others within the game’s space. For players who wanted an almost-infinite space MMO, this was unacceptable.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, not at first anyway. I want to talk about this experience I had.

First, a bit of history. When the game launched, the lack of multiplayer made it overwhelmingly lonely. Even if you happened across a galaxy discovered by another player, they’d be long gone by the time you got there. All that was left to find was lingering memories of them, like whatever creatures and plants they’d named. I think a lot of people who were disappointed with the game wanted a sandbox that they could conquer. They wanted to feel like they had some control over whatever corner of space they wanted. But No Man’s Sky gives the player no such satisfaction. This is a game about feeling small, and solitary, and completely overpowered by the enormity of it all. And I loved it for that. I loved exploring a planet, knowing that I’d probably be the only one to ever see it. But I never felt like the planet belonged to me, because before long I’d be back in my ship blasting off to another, leaving it behind for no one to find. At launch, there was no way to leave your mark on a world besides giving it a name, no way to claim it as your own, because none of these worlds belonged to you. See the title?

The studio that made No Man’s Sky, Hello Games, worked diligently to improve the game over the past two years. By “improve,” I mainly mean adding features that I never thought the game needed to begin with, but to their credit they’ve made some changes I’ve really liked as well. I Last summer, for the first time, they added a sort of multiplayer. Now, should you run across other players, you’d see them represented as floating orbs of light. This was the version of the game I was playing earlier this year, when something interesting happened.

I had seen a post on an online community about the game that referred to a player-built farm where one could gather resources to build rare and expensive technology. I wanted to get some money to buy a freighter, as well as pad my pockets in advance of an upcoming game update, so I decided to check the farm out. The problem: It was on a planet halfway across the galaxy. The solution: Portals.

Portals are rare, towering structures which can be difficult to find. Entering a planet’s coordinates using twelve alien glyphs, a player can instantly teleport there without having to slowly warp system-by-system. I walked through the portal to find myself on a toxic world, full of violent poisonous storms which chewed through my suit’s protection. The glyphs I’d found online were slightly incorrect. The farm was on another planet in the same system. I could see its beacon if I looked skywards. But here’s where I ran into another problem: I had no spaceship to get me there.

See, the portals are player-sized. You can walk through them, but not fly. Once you’re on your new world, your feet are on the ground for good. You can always walk back through the way you came, of course. But getting your ship onto the new world involved exploiting a complex loophole in the game’s rules. I needed to find a habitable base in order to get my ship back. Unfortunately, the nearest base was a forty-minute walk from the portal. I decided to hoof it.

But before I did, I noticed something. One of those orbs of light was bouncing around near the portal, as if it was waiting for someone to come through. I said hello by jumping up and down a few times, and then set off for the base. A few minutes later, I noticed that the orb was following me.

They couldn’t share resources with me. They couldn’t give me a lift in their ship. They couldn’t even really communicate with me. All they could do was join me on my long trek to my new home. And that they did. We fought through those poison storms, took refuge in small huts, danced around some hostile creatures, and finally made it to the base. It was a sublime moment, the most profound experience I’d had with the game since it came out. We two people had found each other, but were still so far away. Our every interaction was a pounded fist on the walls that separated us. I claimed the base as my own and decided that was enough for today. At this point I took out my headphones, as I was listening to a podcast or music or something, and I heard a voice.


The orb was talking to me.

I didn’t even know this game had voice chat.

Being the mess that I am, I panicked and turned the game off. This was too much, too sudden. The profundity of the moment was ripped away. We weren’t two ships passing in the night anymore. We weren’t floating anomalies, the barest representations of humanity sharing an hour of struggle and triumph. We were just people playing a video game.

This, to me, is the fundamental problem with the upcoming No Man’s Sky update, which adds full multiplayer with customizable player models and various emotes. It turns a beautifully solitary game, an experience defined by separation and distance from others, into an outer space party with your friends. It takes something that I found beautiful and deeply immersive and makes it just another game.

I know a lot of people are really excited about this update, and I’m happy for them. It’s not my business to stomp on people’s pleased reactions. And I know that the scale of the game makes multiplayer pretty much optional. It’s just disappointing to me to see something that I thought was great bend to the will of people who couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. Maybe that’s the fault of Hello Games, for overpromising before the game’s release. Maybe it’s the fault of Sony, for not standing by their developer and allowing a hate mob to dominate discourse about their product. Maybe it’s my fault, for having the wrong expectations. In any case, I’m excited to see what else the new update has to offer. May I never meet another player again.

Tom Cruise Wants To Die On Screen

Why does one of the last movie stars want to martyr himself?

The age of the movie star is dead. We still have celebrity actors, yes, but their names and faces are less significant now than they’ve been in a century. Black Panther wasn’t a success because Chadwick Boseman was on the poster. The internet means that you can see your favorite stars whenever you want, no need to wait for their new film to come out. We’re in the age of the mega-franchise, where films themselves act as marketing for their fellows. The people in them are interchangeable and mostly irrelevant.

Of the top-ten actors with the highest grossing resumes, most are part of massive franchises with large ensembles. Samuel L. Jackson, with his parts in everything from the Marvel movies to the Star Wars prequels, sits at the top; Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson are present as well. Harrison Ford, who starred in Indiana Jones and Star Wars, ranks highly, though he hasn’t been a leading man for some time. Only two names on the list are currently working lead actors who work mostly outside of franchises. Tom Hanks is one. Another, rounding out the list at number ten, is Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise is the person you picture when you hear the words “movie star.” He’s a conventionally attractive white man with a toothy grin and a rambunctious attitude. For years he played essentially the same character: The bad boy who’s not too bad, just dangerous enough to be exciting, the spitfire kid who just needs to get his act together. He was never the everyman, never relatable. You wanted to be like him, but more than that, you wanted to be better. In his review of Days of Thunder in 1990, Roger Ebert laid out the building blocks of what he called the Tom Cruise Picture, a cinematic blueprint which Cruise had adhered to in almost all of his projects. And aside from that handful of years in the late 80s and early 90s when he really wanted an Oscar, it was a blueprint he clung to.

But time went on, and Cruise grew up. You can’t play the hotshot young upstart forever. A change was gonna come. What would the adult Tom Cruise Picture look like? In 1990, he became involved in the Church of Scientology. Six years later, he starred in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. And history began.

It’s the Mission: Impossible franchise that best tells the story of Cruise’s strange spiral. Though it didn’t start out this way, over time the series became a vehicle for Cruise himself (not a stand-in) to pull off terrifying and death-defying stunts. In Mission: Impossible 2, he free-climbed a cliff without a safety net and allowed a knife to come within millimeters of his eyeball. In Ghost Protocol, he climbed the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. In Rogue Nation, he clung to the side of a plane as it took off. In the upcoming Fallout, he jumped out of a plane at high altitude over a hundred times. The series became a sort of stunt spectacular with Cruise as star performer, pulling off daring leaps and thrilling escapades. The draw was less Cruise himself than what crazy thing Cruise would try to do for the ostensible sake of “realism.” In behind-the-scenes interviews, Cruise often talks about how viewers can tell if something is phony. This, he explains, is why he has to do things for real.

In 2008, a video stolen from the Church of Scientology by 4chan users leaked online. As excerpts from the Mission: Impossible score play in the background, Cruise speaks enthusiastically about the effect that Scientology has had on his life. He’s using the same tone of voice as in those behind-the-scenes interviews to heap praise on “KSW,” which stands for “Keeping Scientology Working,” a sort of policy guideline for the organization. “When you’re a Scientologist,” he says, “you see things the way they are.” Cuts are accompanied by the sound of camera shutter snapping, suggesting his celebrity even in a private, internal video. He smiles that familiar smile, and laughs that laugh, and goes for the hard sell. “It’s rough and tumble, and it’s wild and wooly, and it’s a blast. It’s a blast.”

It’s important to note that the Church of Scientology tried their damnedest to suppress the release of this video. Cruise’s value to them was never as an out-loud pitchman. His was the front-facing position, the “all is well” smile for the outside world. He was meant to normalize Scientology for the pre-converts, but to do that he had to be casual and humble and a little hush-hush about his involvement. The video was meant to encourage and excite people who were already members by implying association with Cruise. He talks a lot about “we” in it, about “our” responsibilities. But he didn’t get famous by being relatable.

Information about the inner workings of Scientology is hard to come by, but it’s been suggested in the past that Cruise is treated as a key figure in the organization, to be shown the utmost respect and adulation. He’s been told again and again for decades that he has an important role to play in the ascendency of Scientology, maybe the most important role. Religions need prophets. They also need martyrs.

On the set of Rogue Nation, as he clung desperately to the side of that plane, exhaust fumes filled Cruise’s lungs. He didn’t tell anyone. Instead, as the plane landed, he gave a signal to the director that he wanted to go again and get another take. His disregard for his own physical safety is more than evident here. Getting the shot is more important to him than his own life. It used to be that Cruise’s existence was the film’s message. “Come and see the star” was the old way of marketing movies. Now you can see Cruise anywhere, whenever you want. Now Cruise is a vessel. The shot is the message.

Does Cruise have a death wish? I don’t feel too comfortable pathologizing him. That being said, he wouldn’t do these stunts if he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of dying for the sake of a film. He was over a hundred stories off the ground when he climbed the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol. Any more than a handful of stories, he said, and you’re dead no matter what. I don’t know if he fancies himself a Christ figure, but he sure seems to want to die for us. He likes to refer to the Mission: Impossible series as just “Mission.” Would that make him a missionary?

In some ways, Cruise is the perfect tonic to the post-movie-star world we live in. While he’s part of a large franchise, it’s one of the few that markets itself on something besides simple brand recognition. He’s figured out a way to attract moviegoers that isn’t just cynical regurgitation of recognizable images. To see a Mission: Impossible movie is to glimpse a better—not perfect, but better—modern Hollywood cinema.

Movie stardom is dead. Long live Tom Cruise.

Copy of a Copy: Resident Evil and Digital Reality

We don’t live in the real world anymore. For decades now, we’ve shared our real lives with the internet and digital media, giving more and more of ourselves over to an alternate world-within-a-world. We like to pretend that the lines are distinct. There’s the real world, the one with our physical bodies, and the fake one on our computers and in our phones. It’s easier to do this than acknowledge how complex our definition of “reality” should be. After all, the internet exists without our “real” world. It’s entirely the result of actions taken in “reality.” Why do we insist, then, that it is less than real, or somehow separate from what is real?

It’s a complicated question, and because it’s a recent one, few films have engaged with it in a meaningful way. The six-film Resident Evil series does so with bravado. These films—particularly the latter three directed by Paul W.S. Anderson—are concerned with the importance of artifice and the reality of the unreal. Resident Evil: Afterlife, Retribution, and The Final Chapter form a trilogy of their own, exploring the problem of reality in a shared digital world.

This article will cover those final three films primarily (and SPOILERS for all of them, there’s your warning) so here’s a quick recap of how we got here. Years prior, and despite Alice’s best efforts, an incident in an Umbrella laboratory led to the T-Virus being unleashed upon humanity, turning most of Earth’s inhabitants into zombies. The T-Virus bonded with Alice’s DNA, giving her unique and powerful abilities. At some point after this, Umbrella created hundreds of clones of Alice and began running them through horrific gauntlets designed to test their survival abilities, hoping to use a perfected clone as a weapon. Having assembled an army from these clones at the end of the previous film, Afterlife opens with Alice and her clones storming Umbrella’s Tokyo headquarters.

This opening sequence bravely holds back on establishing where the “real” Alice is. It could be any one of the dozen or so Alices we see fight and die over the course of the battle. It could be none of them. The film deliberately confuses your sense of what is real and what is artificial, but the point it’s trying to make is that there’s no difference between the two. Each Alice has a body, a mind, a soul, thoughts and feelings and intentions. Why should she be considered any less real for the nature of her creation? Interestingly, the person who eventually draws that line is the villain, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), when the original Alice confronts him as he attempts to escape the facility. “Nice to see the real you,” he sneers, robbing the dead clones of their personhood and agency. To acknowledge a single Alice as more real than the others is depicted as an act of evil.

Later in the film, Alice takes refuge with a group of survivors holed up in a prison in Los Angeles. In the prison’s basement sits Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller), supposedly the last living inmate, locked in a cell by the others. Chris insists that he’s actually a guard, and that no one will believe his story. He has no choice but to sit in his cell and hope the zombie horde outside doesn’t break through. The apocalypse has essentially erased his identity. No one left alive knows who he truly is. Even his sister Claire (Ali Larter) has no memory of him. He has no real self anymore. In the world of Resident Evil, your reality is not something inherent to your being. It’s imprinted on you by the people around you. We see this all the way back at the beginning of the first film, when Alice wakes up in that mansion with no memory of who she is. Her selfhood is instructed, and she has no reason to question it.

It’s in the next film, Retribution, that this theme is examined in more detail. After a bravura opening sequence which shows Umbrella attacking Alice and co. first in reversed slow-motion and then again forwards at normal speed, we cut to Alice….waking up at home. She’s in bed next to her formerly deceased ally Carlos Oliveira (Oded Fehr), whose name now is Todd. She has a daughter named Becky. She has a normal life, and seemingly no memory of what we’ve seen happen to her. And then the zombies start breaking down her door. She rushes outside with her daughter and is almost run over by Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), another dead friend. She hides Becky in a closet, and dies. And then she wakes up again.

Retribution takes place entirely in an underwater Umbrella facility in Russia. This was where they originally tested the T-Virus’ capabilities as a chemical weapon. There are perfect recreations of several city centers as well as the suburban neighborhood we just saw, created as sites to run outbreak simulations. The Alice and Carlos and Rain we saw were yet more clones, just reused assets meant to fill out the simulations and be killed in the process. They were born to die.

The Alice we’ve followed throughout the series wakes up in a torture chamber, where she endures sleep deprivation at the hands of brainwashed former ally Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). Once again, Umbrella’s apocalypse has robbed Jill of her self and forcibly given her a new one. A power failure gives Alice the opportunity to escape, and she quickly finds herself in Umbrella’s recreated Tokyo. Everything there is fake, and yet the stakes couldn’t be realer. The artificiality of the zombies doesn’t mean they can’t end Alice’s life.

The movie could easily have played this as though Alice was the invader from reality trespassing in fake spaces, in danger because she doesn’t belong. It sets itself up to draw those lines more distinctly than ever. But it doesn’t. Instead, Alice finds Becky, the child of her dead clone, still hiding in the closet. Becky immediately embraces Alice as her mother, and Alice chooses to embody that role. “None of this is real,” Wong insists. “It is to her,” Alice replies. Her compassion extends to supposedly artificial life. She immerses herself in Becky’s fiction. After all, what difference does it really make? Everything about Becky is a lie, and still she’s standing in front of Alice asking for a mother. It doesn’t get much realer than that.

Shortly thereafter, Alice runs into an Umbrella goon squad comprised of clones of her allies from the first film. Yet another Rain is among them. Umbrella has repurposed their bodies to serve new functions. It’s deeply disturbing to see these resurrected corpses forced to perform labor for their former enemy. (The anti-capitalist themes of the series were never put in starker relief than here.) The film flirts with distinguishing this group as “unreal” here, but again steps back when Alice meets up with the suburban Rain clone we saw in the opening. Both Rains were created as tools of Umbrella, and one seeming more human than the other doesn’t mean one is more human. The second Rain’s relentless, cold-blooded pursuit of Alice makes her seem less sympathetic, but she is no less a victim than the first Rain.

Retribution is an extraordinary film, my favorite in the series. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the film in the series that most resembles a video game. Alice and friends traverse locations like levels, defeating enemy encounters and mini-bosses on the way. These spaces are entirely artificial. Like a level in a game—say, a Resident Evil game—they only exist within the boundaries of their intended purpose. To draw a further comparison, they’re like shots in a film, which capture specific images within the limits of a frame. We know these images don’t depict something real. But don’t they? Those actors really stood in front of that camera, they really moved their bodies and said those words. Even films entirely comprised of animation or CG are touched by elements of reality. As I keep saying, the lines are not as clear as we like to think they are. Neither are they in Retribution. Alice may not be in the real Tokyo, or the real New York, or the real Moscow, but her feet still meet solid ground as she runs.

This all comes to a head in The Final Chapter, which fully recontextualizes the series narrative. Alice is convinced to return to the Hive (the underground laboratory where the first film took place) by the Red Queen, the AI which still controls the facility. The Red Queen explains that Umbrella are hiding an airborne anti-virus which can destroy anything infected with the T-Virus and put an end to the zombie infestation. Though the Red Queen was the villain of the first film, Alice decides to ally with her for the sake of ending the apocalypse.

Once Alice gets back to the Hive, she’s confronted by Wesker and Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen), a former enemy who Alice thought to be dead. The two explain that the person we thought to be the original Alice has actually been a clone all along. She was based on Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the Umbrella scientist who created the T-Virus. Alicia suffers from progeria, and the T-Virus was a failed attempt at a cure. Both Alice and the Red Queen are constructs of an Alicia without the disease; Alice can grow up at a healthy rate, and the Red Queen can never age at all. They are mirrored simulacra, neither any more real than the other. When we first saw Alice wake up in that mansion, we saw her first moment of consciousness. “Sometimes I think this has been my whole life,” she says at the beginning of the film, because it has.

The series poses a final question to its audience. You’ve spent six films with this character. What does she mean to you? Do her stories feel less significant now? Do you feel you’ve been duped? Or do you not think it makes any difference? Alice being a clone of a “real” person doesn’t take away the personhood we’ve seen. Her experiences, her relationships, her actions were all real. So, the film asks, is she?

The Final Chapter ends by granting Alice a parting gift. Alicia gives Alice her childhood memories, bestowing on her a personal grounding which Umbrella never bothered with. It doesn’t matter that the memories didn’t happen to her. A memory is just the ghost of an experience, a shadow flitting on your mind’s walls. They feel real to her. And that’s all reality is.

The final three films of the franchise switched from shooting on celluloid to digital cinematography. Digital shots don’t exist in our physical reality the way that reels of film do. You can’t hold them in your hand. These images are ephemeral. When the screens turn off, when no one is looking at them, they cease to exist. And yet you can look at them. Are they less real for being visual imitations? Is Alice less real for being just the same? The Resident Evil films demand that we think more deeply about our own personhood in the digital age. No part of ourselves is fake by virtue of where or how we express it. Online or off, digitally or physically, we are always just us.

The True Man’s World: The Men of Michael Mann

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Miami Vice

Has a director ever had a more apt name than Michael Mann? Throughout his career he’s always made films about capital-M Men, and not in the casually chauvinist way of most Hollywood fare that takes maleness as a default setting for protagonists. His films are all about men, and what it means to be masculine. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this sounds like the last thing you’d want to watch. Don’t we have enough art about manliness? But incredibly, and against all odds, all his films are also immensely compelling and thoughtful. Watching a Mann film makes you forget that you’ve been force-fed stories about men for your entire life.

Mann’s masculinity is unusual in a number of ways, but they all come back to interiority. Most stories about men are about being assailed from the outside, struggling against exterior foes. We are rarely allowed emotional access to these characters, because these works associate having interior lives with femininity. Men act, women react. To react is to feel, and to feel is to be feminine. Mann’s films have no such fear of emotion. One of his earliest films, Manhunter, is premised on a protagonist who has a preternatural ability to empathize. Will Graham, played by William Petersen, is a retired FBI criminal profiler who is brought back into the fold to track a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy. Graham’s capacity to get inside the heads of murderers made him good at his job, but the work left him emotionally scarred. The film never suggests that he is less of a man for his emotional gifts or the resultant trauma. He is a hero precisely because he can feel, just as the Tooth Fairy is a villain because he cannot. Will Graham became a template for Mann protagonists going forward. These men tend to be the best at their particular job, yet so consumed by it as to suffer emotional trauma.

William Petersen in Manhunter

The empathy of Mann’s protagonists shows up in his camera, too. All his films show a respect for dead characters, lingering with them much longer than other filmmakers might. He has a deep concern for the humanity of everyone on screen. No one is there just to die for the audience’s amusement, they’re all people with lives and souls. For comparison, look at a film like Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. I mean, don’t look at it, don’t watch that film. Just take my word for it. The characters in Hacksaw Ridge exist only to die, and to die epically and brutally. They are mannequins for carnage and gore. Gibson doesn’t see them as people, he sees them as props. Mann is often considered a macho filmmaker, but his visual compassion sets him apart from the Gibsons of the world.

At the end of Manhunter, Graham collapses into his wife’s arms after his harrowing ordeal. “Most of them made it,” he says, tears in his eyes. There is no celebration of his victory, just a bittersweet acknowledgement that he couldn’t save everyone. Mann refuses to end the film on a fist-pumping heroic note. After all that brutal violence, how could there be any true triumph?

There is little glory in success for Mann’s men, and even less reward. At the end of The Insider, after his expose on the tobacco industry is finally allowed to be aired, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) doesn’t celebrate. He quits. He may have gotten what he wanted, but the road he took to get there has ruined his reputation. How, he asks, could any whistleblower trust him with their story after such an ordeal? Meanwhile, whistleblower Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe) doesn’t happily reunite with his wife and children. His life was blown apart, and it can’t be put back together by the end. Heat and Miami Vice don’t end with their police protagonists being awarded medals for heroism. Like Manhunter, both conclude on melancholy notes of appreciation for the simple fact of their survival and mourning for those who didn’t make it.

Al Pacino in Heat

The interiority of Mann’s protagonists may be unusual, but their trauma makes them somewhat revolutionary. Mann came out of the gate with a lead character whose masculine posturing masked deep-seated emotional scars. His first film, Thief, is about a safecracker named Frank (James Caan). In the film’s central scene, Frank and his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) have a late-night meal at a diner. Jessie talks about how her ex-boyfriend got her involved in the drug trade and abandoned her in Columbia after the relationship ended. She talks around it but clearly intimates that she was raped during this period of time. “Things did happen,” she said. (There’s an article to be written about how rape is inappropriately used as a blunt screenwriting tool to characterize women, but it isn’t this one.) Any other film would have used this as a moment to define Frank in opposition to Jessie’s ex—he would have been drawn as a patriarchal defender of her honor. A “real man” is a shield for women.

This is when Thief does something extraordinary. In response to her story, Frank relates his own of being raped while in prison. He uses the same words as she does to describe the same experience. “They jumped all over me, and did a lot of things,” he says. It’s the last thing you expect to hear from a character like Frank, a macho tough guy who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Perhaps, Thief posits, it’s exactly what you should have expected. Frank’s toughness isn’t compromised by his past, it’s informed by it. His steely bravado is a defense mechanism. For Frank and for Mann, masculinity is not a natural state of being but a learned behavior with a specific purpose. Frank acts the way he does to protect himself from emotional harm. “I am Joe-the-boss-of-my-own-body,” he asserts, because feels he has to assert it.

Tuesday Weld and James Caan in Thief

This is perhaps the single most consistent detail in Mann’s filmography. Almost all of his protagonists put on masks to shield themselves. We see this best in his theatrical reboot of Miami Vice, where Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) take on invented identities as part of their work. In Miami Vice, identity never comes from within. It’s always applied from the outside, an exterior shell protecting the unseen “true self.”

We know about Crockett and Tubbs’ real selves beyond their love for and dedication to each other. I wouldn’t say that any of Mann’s films are particularly homoerotic, but he is unafraid of his work being seen as such. From Miami Vice to Heat to The Insider to Public Enemies to Blackhat, we see stories of men entangled in complex and emotionally fraught relationships. Mann’s work examines male bonding both inside and outside the context of violence and death, a theme to which it is so often restricted. Their bonds are deeply personal, no superficial brotherly camaraderie. In Mann’s work we see love, and affection, and care for one another. The final shot of Miami Vice is quietly profound. We watch from a distance as Crockett enters the hospital where Tubbs is waiting with his girlfriend. Originally, the script ended with Crockett saying a final goodbye to Isabella. He wakes up, and she’s gone, and he has nobody. Instead the film leaves us with a reminder that he does have somebody: His partner. Miami Vice ends with Crockett committing his life to Tubbs, a gesture of undeniable love.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

The fragility of Mann’s men extends to their physical bodies. Men in action movies rarely find themselves in a state between healthy and dead. Injuries tend to be superficial, blood treated as body paint. Mann’s protagonists are all glass cannons. Their moments of heroism come at a physical cost. One of my favorite examples comes at the end of Blackhat, his most recent film. In preparation for his final showdown with the villain, Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t charge in with an invisible main character shield. He duct tapes phonebooks to his body as rudimentary protection. He may have the body of the guy who plays Thor, but in a Mann movie that’s not sufficient protection. Cut Mann’s men and they will bleed, but more than that they’ll hurt.

I’d be the first person to argue that we don’t need more art about masculinity. But Michael Mann movies show us the possibility space of the topic better than any other filmmaker. His men are tough, dependable, good at what they do. They’re also sensitive, traumatized, capable of showing profound love for each other. His men are not Hollywood men, his masculinity is not what men are so desperately told they should emulate. If only there were more artists willing to delve into what masculinity really means to the people who are pressured to perform it. Because masculinity is a performance, after all, and one that Mann is perceptive enough to see right through.

How God of War’s Long Take Experiment Fails, and How Editing In Games Can Succeed

There’s a running thread in the new game God of War, a reboot of a series that once exemplified the loud and frenetic action of mid-2000s entertainment, where main character Kratos finds himself unable to pat his son on the back. In classic rule-of-threes style, he twice reaches out his hand and then pulls back, and finally finds the strength to show his son some affection on the third try. But the game finds itself unable to treat this payoff with the weight that it’s due. There’s no close-up on Kratos’ hand, no insert shots of either of their faces reacting to this gesture, nothing that would suggest that this is a payoff at all. The camera just floats behind them, unfocused and untethered, prisoner to God of War’s self-imposed cinematography rule.

See, God of War doesn’t have any cuts. Applying terms of cinema to a medium that uses an entirely different set of tools is difficult, but in this context a lack of cuts indicates an image unbroken by loading screens or fades in and out of pre-rendered scenes. From the moment you start the game to the final credits, the virtual camera never turns off, flowing seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene and back again. That is, assuming you play the forty-plus-hour game all in one sitting without ever dying or pressing pause.

I’ve long been irritated by the single take as a cinematic trick. While it can be an effective dramatic emphasizer, the visual equivalent of underlining a scene, it’s too often used in film as a show-offy example of a director’s technical skill. “Look what we pulled off,” it seems to scream, while failing to actually say or show anything interesting. The interminable film Birdman is the worst example in recent memory, its “the whole film is one shot! gimmick” belied by its drab imagery and haughty story. It’s often a technical accomplishment, but rarely an artistic one.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

God of War isn’t even the first game in recent years to attempt this gimmick. The interconnected world of Dark Souls made it possible to play for hours on end without hitting a single loading screen or cutscene. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain pulled a similar trick to God of War, shooting most of its cutscenes in single takes and having them flow directly into gameplay. But Phantom Pain didn’t flow the opposite direction, from gameplay into cutscene, making it a half-measure compared to God of War. Phantom Pain’s cutscenes also ran in contrast to God of War’s staid and dull photography, with simple shot-reverse scenes composed with a madman’s abandon, running back and forth across the digital set and abusing the zoom function. Phantom Pain director Hideo Kojima’s next game, Death Stranding, has been advertised with one-shot trailers, indicating a return to or evolution of this style. A recent trailer for The Last of Us Part II is also in a single take. All of this foreshadows a trend in prestige game design which we probably won’t be able to shake for years to come. God of War’s sterling critical reception may be a sign that this is to become expected of games on this scale for the time being.

In a way, this is the promise of any open world game, and furthermore the promise of the past decade of AAA game trends; the ability to play freely uninterrupted by level segmentation or story cutscenes for as long as you want stands right alongside the single take. God of War stands alone for its commitment to the bit. Its promise to never ever cut away turns a cinematic gimmick into a back-of-the-box promo, right alongside “brutal action” and “a massive open world.” The game’s developer, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, have taken their flagship franchise as the basis of a game design experiment.

And it doesn’t work.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

Part of this is down to the game’s story. It follows perpetually mad demigod Kratos and his son Atreus, on a journey to the top of the realm’s highest mountain to scatter the ashes of their wife and mother, respectively. It’s a deliberate 180 from the tone of previous entries in the series, which reveled in their protagonist’s barbaric violence. The Kratos of 2018’s God of War is melancholy and emotionally restrained. He still partakes in ferocious combat, but only in defense of himself and his son. The game seeks to overturn the series’ previously uncritical penchant for bloody murder and instead tell an intimate story about a grieving father and son.

The word “intimate” is key here, and it’s the main reason why the single take doesn’t really work in God of War. The cut is a powerful tool in creating empathy. In connecting two disparate images, an emotional bond is created between them in the viewer’s mind. God of War is a game entirely about an emotional bond between two people. Why would you willingly give up the cut in attempting to tell that story? There are so many moments in just the first hour of the game when an inserted reaction shot or reverse angle or wider view could’ve enhanced the drama and emotional impact of a scene, but the game is shackled by a camera that can do nothing but hover listlessly around the central figures. It flattens the the emotion of every scene, turning what might have been genuinely touching moments into dull and banal ones.

The above sequence from early in the game gives a good overview of what the technique looks like, as well as showing off a sneaky problem caused by the refusal to cut. Near the end here, we see Atreus being attacked in the background of a shot, and Kratos in the foreground. Atreus calls out for Kratos, and it takes a couple beats before Kratos responds in any way. With editing, the scene could have gotten closer to Atreus in what ends up being an important moment for him, while letting enough time pass during that shot for Kratos to finish his struggle with the bandit and immediately respond. As it stands, we’re too far removed from Atreus, and Kratos’ delayed reaction feels awkward.

There are also simple logistical issues that cutting could have solved. In one scene, Kratos fixes the strap of Atreus’ quiver. But since Kratos is quite a bit bigger than Atreus, he physically blocks his son from the camera’s view. We can’t see what he’s doing at all, nor can we see Atreus’ reaction to his father’s little teachable moment. There are a shocking number of moments like this, where the camera struggles to capture all of a scene’s relevant information without cutting to show specifics in isolation. This leads to bizarre instances where the camera will shift in and out of Kratos’ point-of-view to make sure the audience gets a good look at whatever the game wants them to see. If this is to be the future of AAA game design, someone should at least teach these people about blocking. The scene linked below shows this off well, though it’s from late in the game so beware of SPOILERS.

Furthermore, making the entirety of God of War a single take removes the capability of distinguishing certain bits from one another. Action beats can’t stand on their own because they’re blended together with slower and quieter interludes that would normally keep them separate to help them stand out. The ostensible intention is to put the player fully in Kratos’ perspective, but the inherent limitations of the form prevent the full one-to-one connection that this seeks. There’s a reason why tools like editing exist, and it’s to shepard the audience’s perspective towards the intention of a work. Abandoning these tools is a step backwards, not forwards.

Then there’s the issue of the blend between cutscene and gameplay. The action in God of War is relentlessly vicious, with Kratos and Atreus taking on everything from ten-foot trolls to colossal dragons to skyscraping giants. Normally, a game like this would allow the player some breathing room between these fights. But God of War is incapable of truly separating its uptime from its downtime. Its loudest and quietest moments just sort of blend together into an indistinct mush. The game can’t draw any real contrast between them because they’re all forced to be part of the same single image.

All of this is in addition to the fact that, as alluded to at the beginning of this article, a single take game is never going to function as such in practice. God of War has a pause button where you can do things like read up on the world’s various enemies and change Kratos’ gear. Checking these menus cuts away from the otherwise “unbroken” image to show something entirely different. And it’s not like you’re not going to be pausing regularly. The game constantly pops up little text boxes imploring you to check some new detail that’s been added to your journal—a new quest, a new monster, a new bit of lore.

Not to mention the fact that God of War is a loot game, meaning that you’re constantly changing the gear that Kratos has equipped as you pick up new items. It’s also possible for Kratos to die in combat, which causes a cut to black and another cut back to the most recent checkpoint. Even playing on the easiest difficulty, I died several times over the course of my run through the game. There’s also the game’s length to consider. God of War took me around 30 hours to complete, over the course of several days. It is interminably long, even for a release of this magnitude. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to finish this game in a single sitting without pausing or dying, but that’s the only way to experience it as a single take. It really only exists in single take form in theory. The most the average player will get out of this experiment is a lack of loading screens during their multiple sessions with the game.

Oh, and by the way, the game cheats.

I’m not going to make any grand pronouncements about whether or not the single take can ever work in games. God of War doesn’t bode well for the technique’s future, but I can’t say that there’ll never be a game that figures out how to do it well. What I can say, however, is that editing is an art that games should really engage with more frequently. When they do, the results are often fantastic.

Older games used to make more frequent use of editing, due primarily to technical limitations. One of my favorite examples is the original Resident Evil. The game has you exploring a spooky mansion that’s been beset upon by zombies. As you move through the 3D space, the game cuts to different fixed angles to better show you the surrounding area. This is used for more than just practical effect. You’ll be running down a hallway when you hear an ominous groan, only for the game to cut to an angle that shows a zombie bearing down on you. These camera placements, full of melodramatically canted angles, were terrifically gothic, taking inspiration from silent horror cinema as much as classic zombie fare. But they could only be so effective because the camera didn’t have a full range of motion. A single-take Resident Evil would’ve forfeited these images.

For a more recent example of editing in games, we can look at Firewatch,. Unlike God of War, Firewatch has no cutscenes and is experienced from a first-person perspective. You are always in control of main character Henry as he explores the state forest where he’s taken up a job as a fire lookout. The beginning of the game cuts between short bits of Henry travelling to his outpost for the first time and text-based flashbacks of the events that led him there. When you first play the game, you’re unaware of where Henry is headed or who he even is. As the text segments flesh out his backstory and lead him to the moment when he accepted the job, the player walks Henry further and further into the woods, committing to the work more with each step. It’s not until the sequence ends that you realize the terrible choice Henry made by coming out here, but by that point it’s too late. You’ve already propelled him to his new fate. The intercutting here is genius. You think you’re moving Henry towards something right up until the moment you realize he’s really running away. It’s a revelation that only exists because of editing.

Property of Campo Santo

NieR: Automata’s editing is probably the boldest I’ve seen in any game. It splits the player’s time between different playable characters. You play through the first half of the game with one of them, then again with another. This separation can be thought of as a sort of cut, a distinguishing line drawn between two distinct images, with new meaning born from their contrast. This almost recalls the dialectical origins of film editing itself. Where things get really interesting is in the second half, when the time spent with each character before switching off gets shorter and shorter, until finally the cuts back and forth come at such a rapid pace that the two characters seem to blend into one. This contributes so much to the fabulous tension of the game’s final act.

I’m not optimistic for the future of the single-take game. Most players and critics have fallen so hard for it that it’ll surely pop up again in major releases for years to come. Maybe there’ll be a game to crack the code, a game that’ll find a place between Phantom Pain’s frantic nonsense and God of War’s styleless dullery. But I’d much rather see games learn to make use of editing techniques than try to master a challenge with so little reward. I just don’t see any good reason to make your game in a single shot. And if there is one, God of War didn’t find it.

Casting a Shadow: Why Did Everyone Forget How To Communicate Scale?

Recently I played the game Shadow of the Colossus for the first time. I don’t know if you’ve heard anyone say this before, but it’s very good. It’s at turns exciting and disturbing, hollowing you out and letting you stew in the emptiness. It’s the rare “modern classic” that lives up to its reputation.

One thing that caught me by surprise is how well Shadow of the Colossus imparts the scale of its titular creatures. The player character, Wander, is dwarfed by his sixteen foes. The smallest of them is still the size of an elephant. The way that the game conveys this shows a deep understanding of the language of cinema. It got me thinking about how many games and movies seem to have forgotten these techniques in recent years.

Here’s a shot from the upcoming film Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Property of Universal Pictures

These are the Jaegers, gigantic mechs designed to take on equally gigantic monsters called kaiju. But in this shot, they don’t feel gigantic. The blue Jaeger in the center is shot straight forward and from the waist-up. It’s framed in the same way you’d frame an ordinary person. The three Jaegers behind it look to be about half as tall as it, and all four of them look tiny compared to the buildings in the background. They’re supposed to be these towering titans, but they look like action figures. They feel about as tall as one of those flapping tube men outside a car dealership.

Here’s a shot from last year’s Kong: Skull Island.

Property of Warner Bros. Pictures

This one is just hilarious. Kong looks like a kid in a Halloween costume here. It’s even worse than the Pacific Rim example because you can see the director making an effort to show off Kong’s size. See that tiny human down there between his feet? The problem here is that the human is barely visible at a glance. They’re not the focus of the shot, being on the same plane as Kong himself, so your brain doesn’t even register their presence. Instead you see Kong, pinched between two mountains that dominate much more of the frame than he does. This shot is trying to communicate how big Kong is, but instead it makes him look so much smaller.

Now for a good example, here’s a shot from a late-game cutscene Shadow of the Colossus.

Property of Sony Computer Entertainment

This is our introduction to the fifteenth colossus, nicknamed Argus by the game’s fans. Here we see a better version of the Kong example. Wander is clearly visible in the foreground, marking a distinct contrast between him and Argus. In the background, Argus absolutely dominates the image. His body spans the diagonal length of the frame, and his weapon nearly does the same on the other axis. Note that unlike the Kong shot, this one is still from Wander’s perspective, rather than the perspective of an anonymous floating camera. We feel as dwarfed by Argus as Wander does in this moment.

Property of Sony Computer Entertaiment

It’s not just the colossi that make the player feel small. Even the environments in Shadow of the Colossus are oppressively large. The photo above is of the entrance to the area where you fight Argus. Before the colossus even shows up, you’re made to feel like a tiny intruder in a much grander space. You feel like you’re not supposed to be there, and you aren’t. Part of the narrative of this game is that Wander is literally an invader, breaking into each colossus’ home and murdering it. You’re not meant to feel powerful after finishing each fight. This isn’t a world you can conquer. Even when every colossus is dead, the broken-down arches and pillars still loom overhead, intimidating reminders that these lands don’t want you here.

For a good example from a recent film, here’s a shot from 2016’s Shin Godzilla.

Property of Toho Pictures

It was hard to single out a good example from this film. Director Hideaki Anno has been doing this masterfully since his giant mech show Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that experience comes to bear here. This shot is more akin to the Pacific Rim one above. In both shots, skyscrapers tower above the being that’s the focus of the shot, but that’s not a liability in the Shin Godzilla shot. Like Argus, Godzilla commands this frame, and he doesn’t even take up the majority of it. The purple light on the buildings ensures that Godzilla monopolizes the image. The low-angle camera helps too, a classic technique for making the audience feel smaller than the subject of a shot. It doesn’t matter that Godzilla isn’t the biggest thing in this shot. It feels as though he is.

Property of Toho Pictures

I like this other close-up shot as well. If you’re wondering how to communicate the scale of something without direct visual comparison, here’s a great example. Godzilla is so big that he bursts past the edges of the frame, so big that it’s hard to even coherently construct an image of him. If this was the first time you’d ever seen Godzilla, you’d still be able to tell that he was a titanic creature.

So why do films like Pacific Rim: Uprising and Kong: Skull Island fail in this department? Besides a general incompetence and inexperience on the part of many blockbuster directors, I think it’s largely out of a desire to display the effects that so much money was spent on. Notice that the shots I pulled from both films frame their subjects in such a way that best shows off their designs. The Jaegers are framed like ordinary people in costumes, and the head-to-toe shot of Kong screams “look at how realistic this big monkey is!” In neither shot was it a priority to suggest the scale of these things, despite that being the most interesting thing about them. Shadow of the Colossus was originally released in 2005, but today’s filmmakers and game designers could still stand to learn from its excellent direction.

These Are Our Woods: Wolfenstein II and the American Nazi

In The New Colossus, Nazism is as American as apple pie.

Nazi General Engel speaks in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and the Amazon Prime TV show The Man in the High Castle operate from a similar premise. Both take place in an alternate America where the Nazis won World War II and took control of the country. I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, but it’s hard to avoid its marketing. It all plays on American iconography being tainted by Nazi iconography. A popular poster shows the Statue of Liberty draped in a swastika sash and doing a sieg heil salute, with another swastika looming over the New York City skyline. The message here is that America has been painted over in bright red Nazi colors. These classic American images have been poisoned by Nazism, but the poison can be removed and the old country restored.

You don’t see much American iconography in Wolfenstein II. There are no shots which ominously dwell on a swastika-covered White House, no Mount Rushmore with Hitler’s face. The Statue of Liberty is briefly seen in the underwater ruins of Manhattan, but it’s not even the focus of the single shot it’s seen in. In a key scene, a massive Nazi rally takes place at the National Mall. The game’s main antagonist, the despicable General Engel, speaks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You can just barely make out the statue of Lincoln in the background. Decades after the Nazis took over, it’s still there. Wolfenstein II refuses to acknowledge the America of old as a thing that could be soiled by Nazis. Instead, it loudly declares that America was always a violent, oppressive, white supremacist nation. All the Nazis did when they moved in was change the color of the drapes.

In one level, we walk through Roswell, New Mexico. The KKK has been given some measure of control over the American south, and robed-and-hooded members patrol the streets alongside Nazi soldiers. The two groups chat about the KKK’s German lessons. Nearby, a woman pops out of a storefront to let her aunt know that she’s getting married. Her aunt gleefully congratulates her on the engagement, and asks her to let her dad know that she’s auctioning some “hard-working slaves” in a couple days. In line for a movie theater box office, two men rave about the latest Leni Riefenstahl movie. They praise its moral purity compared to the degenerate filth that used to be made.

It’s a stereotypical all-American downtown. The Nazis haven’t changed it so much that it’s unrecognizable. They didn’t need to. Wolfenstein II shows us how cleanly Nazism integrates with white American society. For the straight, white, Christian Americans of the game’s world, the laws imposed by the Nazis weren’t too different from the laws already in place, and certainly not objectionable. America so often depicts itself as the crusading hero of anti-Nazi narratives. In Wolfenstein II, America was already complicit in many of the same crimes.

Grace Walker and Super Spesh greet B.J.

This, more than anything, is what makes Wolfenstein II stand out among a deluge of Nazi-fighting simulators. Not a single revolutionary in this game is interested in taking America back to how it was before the Nazis invaded. For protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, that America is represented by his father, a virulent racist and anti-semite who berates and abuses his Jewish wife and son. For the black freedom fighter Grace Walker, it’s a land of oppression and segregation. For her lover Super Spesh, it’s a fascist police state that silences dissidents. For the former concentration camp prisoner Set Roth, it’s the country that failed to save him (and in real life would have denied him entry). For the communist labor organizer Horton Boone, it’s an exploitative capitalist hellscape. For all of them, it’s a place run by those who would happily sell them out to ensure their own survival. None of these people want to take America back. They want to make America better. When they triumph, they don’t raise the star-spangled banner. They raise their fists.

This is the game’s answer to what would otherwise be a troubling question. If they win freedom for their country, what will they do with it? Will they re-instate the presidency and Congress? Rebuild the old intelligence agencies? Will they pick up where they left off? Wolfenstein II gives all these questions an emphatic no. In one scene, Super Spesh passionately rants about the government “pigs” who persecuted activists like Grace before surrendering to the Nazis. In any other game, he’d be treated like a well-meaning crank, by the filmmaking if not the characters. Wolfenstein II takes him at face value. Yes, it says, the FBI is full of pigs. The White House is too. Fuck ’em.

But this game isn’t just about the why of revolution, it’s about the how. Only a few short years ago, it was the received wisdom that Nazis were played out. To make them the villains of your movie, your TV show, your video game, was to take the easy way out. They were like storytelling shorthand, something for the heroes to fight that didn’t require explanation or characterization beyond their aesthetic. We all know Nazis are evil, after all. Right?

This has been the necessary assumption of the Wolfenstein games since their inception. When Wolfenstein 3D pioneered the first-person shooter genre in 1992, Nazis were the recipients of the shooting. It was a sensible choice. The game put you behind the eyes of someone pulling a trigger on hundreds of people. Making those people Nazis made it easier to pull that trigger again and again and again. There was an unspoken agreement between the game’s creators and its players: Nazis deserve to die.

B.J. suppresses a Nazi’s freedom of speech

Wolfenstein II comes to us in a much different time. In 2017, even non-lethal violence against Nazis is the subject of finger-wagging discouragement. The media at large has welcomed their re-entrance to the public sphere, and insisted that their beliefs must be respected even if one disagrees. Committing violence against a Nazi makes you just as bad as a Nazi, we’re told. Better to take the high ground and meet them on the battlefield of ideas. When they go low, we go high. This bromide for the sensible center has become a liberal rallying cry. But it’s useless in application.

The problem is that when you invite the Nazis onto that battlefield of ideas, you’ve already lost, because you’ve granted them legitimacy. You’ve raised them to the moral high ground with you, rather than stomping them into the ground where they belong. Wolfenstein II takes on this center-left perspective just as strongly as it takes on the alt-right. In one section, I snuck a pair of Nazis chatting about the “terrorists” (that’s me) who had been attacking them. “How can they promote violence towards us, just because we hold a different point of view?” asked one. The other agreed, “We are humans too, aren’t we? Violence just begets more violence.” “You’re right,” replied the first. “Acts of violence are never okay. Never.” I threw a hatchet into the head of one of them, and swung it deep into the other’s chest.

Besides the irony of Nazi soldiers condemning violence, what struck me was how these two were using liberal talking points to argue for their worth. In the name of fairness and free speech, self-labeled progressives are handing Nazis the rhetorical tools to justify their propagation.

Wolfenstein II isn’t having any of that. Its message is the same as the series has always had: Nazis still deserve to die. And oh, how they die. Early in the game, B.J. picks up his first hatchet and thinks, “Lotta things you can do with a hatchet and a Nazi.” The game follows through on that promise with aplomb. There are dozens of unique animations for carving up Nazis, and that’s just for melee attacks. You can shoot them with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. You can blow them up with grenades and sticky bombs. You can melt them with lasers and set them on fire. Just like with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, there’s no wrong way to kill a Nazi.

The context of the killing is significant as well. B.J. enters each level in secret, unbeknownst to the Nazis within. You can kill them all stealthily, without them ever knowing you were there. B.J. never enters a level and is immediately fired upon. The Nazis only attack once they realize you’re attacking them. You are the aggressor, the invader, the instigator. Except that you’re really none of those things. This is how the game manages to make Nazi enemies interesting. B.J. is a Jewish man. The Nazis want him dead on that basis alone. To wear a swastika armband is to tell B.J. that you want to exterminate him. Wolfenstein II contextualizes the killing of Nazis not just as a moral imperative, but as an act of self-defense.

B.J.’s Jewishness has never been explicit in the series until now. He’s never been a practicing Jew; it’s hard to find time to go to services when you’re on the front lines of a revolution. But the reveal that his mother is Jewish is confirmation. Judaism is a matrilineal culture, meaning that Jewish identity is passed down through one’s mother. B.J.’s mother is Jewish, so he’s Jewish. As a Jewish person, I was thrilled at the (surprisingly rare) chance to play as one in the fight against Nazis.

For me, killing Nazis just means something more when it’s a Jew doing the killing. Even more so in a world where the Final Solution was carried out and the Jews were all but obliterated. Of course, B.J. is still a cishet white man. His “Aryan features” are remarked upon more than once. But his Jewishness is what truly defines him. B.J. is possessed by the spirit of his people. He is their instrument of righteous vengeance, pulled back from death’s door time and time again to channel their rage. He wreaks havoc through Nazi facilities like a furious poltergeist, an intangible specter of bloody comeuppance.

The creators of Wolfenstein II couldn’t have predicted that their game would speak so powerfully to its cultural moment. It was in development years before Nazis like Donald Trump and his cronies seized power, before Nazis marched openly in the streets and murdered their protesters, before the media rushed to give Nazis a seat at the table. It would have been a smartly written game regardless of who was elected president in 2016. Nevertheless, it comes to us now, when we need its voice most. It rejoices in the act of snuffing out Nazism. It proudly champions leftist perspectives and celebrates leftist activism and social justice. Most of all, it honors the marginalized and oppressed and exiled as the true representatives of America, the ones who put in the work to usher in a brighter future. They aim to build a country that lives up to the poem from which the game takes its name:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That poem never truly described America, even long before the Nazis took it over. The hope at the heart of Wolfenstein II is that maybe someday it can.