“Don’t you see? Senseless violence is not entertainment.”
“What is it then?”
I think I saw BRAINSCAN a long time ago and thought it was stupid. And I was right. But watching it again I think I give it a little more credit than I did back then. It’s definitely not of the quality one would hope for from the director of ROLLING THUNDER and the writer of SEVEN. But even in its dated technology (it’s about an evil interactive CD-ROM) it’s kind of ahead of its time, and it has a very ominous tone to it, darker and more unsavory than the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels it was aping.
Like, in the opening scene Michael (Edward “and if you want to shine them on it’s ‘Hasta la vista, baby”” Furlong) is talking to his best bud for life Kyle (Jamie Marsh) on the phone while watching his neighbor Kimberly (Amy Hargreaves from BLUE RUIN) change her shirt. When he comes away from the window he turns on the TV… but then we see that he’s watching her on the TV from a camera he set up. Then he makes a hang up call and watches the footage of her answering in slow motion. At least he’s not jerking off as far as we can see, but jesus. This is our protagonist?
Michael is not that bad a prediction of what life is like for a big chunk of society now. He’s a kid who spends most of his time in his bedroom with his technology. He has a voice activated animated “Igor” on his TV screen that he tells to dial numbers for him or hold his calls or other things. It’s unclear how intelligent it is. He talks on speaker phone and the TV screen shows photo montages of his friends. He’s ahead of his time.
Where he gets this technology is not really spelled out, but his only parental interaction during the movie is a voicemail from his dad telling him he loves him and that “Business is going well here. I wish you were here with me to see all the new equipment.” His mom died in front of him when he was a kid. It still haunts him, and is implied as maybe the reason he’s so attracted to the morbid shit.
Kyle tells Michael about an ad in Fangoria for this fucked up CD-ROM game called Brainscan, so he skeptically calls and talks to the operator, then it just shows up. Supposedly they scanned his brain over the phone to make a game specifically for him. All it is is he watches a bunch of trippy designs on the TV and gets hypnotized and then experiences what it’s like to sneak into somebody’s bedroom and murder them. That part is done POV style kinda like STRANGE DAYS or the remake of MANIAC, giving you a little bit of that same dirty feeling, implicating you in the murder. The scene is kinda silly (the guy having a big tattoo on his foot so we will be able to identify it later is a little forced) but also kinda disturbing (stumbling around with a bloody sheet stuck to his back by a knife is an odd, messy detail that makes it feel more real).
Michael and Kyle are obviously meant to capture a little of the ol’ zeitgeist for what some teens may or may not have been feeling at the time. You know these young people, they’re real morbid and feel misunderstood and hate the man because fuck you, teen spirit. The soundtrack has what I believe is a pretty legit line up of alternative rock type business that was popular in the couple years before: Butthole Surfers, Primus, White Zombie, and Seattle’s own Tad and Mudhoney. Some of the rockin out during horror scenes sounds pretty cheesy, but the score by George S. Clinton is really effective, reminded me more of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks shit than Clinton’s MORTAL KOMBAT and what not.
I’m always okay with Furlong as an actor, because he saves the world in the future and he likes Public Enemy. But there’s a couple parts here where he kind of overdoes his “I’m upset” business, dropping things and pulling his hair back over and over. On the other hand there’s one part where he rides a scooter which in my opinion is a good use of his motor bike riding skills from T2. Adds production value.
Michael’s supposed to be sort of a lonely outcast. Homicide detective Frank Langella claims that when he asked his schoolmates about him they described him as frightening, strange, weird, a freak. But it doesn’t seem like Kyle is his only friend. Michael started a horror club where a bunch of the other kids with long hair and shit sit in a classroom and watch what looks like a ’70s Hammer movie with gore called DEATH DEATH DEATH PART 2. The uptight principal shuts down his club, but hey, at least somebody let him start it in the first place. There is some room for him to be himself.
But himself is a dude who is attracted to death and violence. And this is obviously supposed to explore that in some way. This game makes him feel like he committed murder, and he tells his friend how intense and awesome it was, but of course all the sudden they find out that this really was a murder that happened in the neighborhood. Playing the game seems to make him black out and murder people, but he can’t stop playing the game because he’s being threatened.
This brings me to the indisputable #1 reason why this movie doesn’t work, which is the villain, “The Trickster” (T. Ryder Smith, John Brown on The Abolitionists), the host of the video game who comes out of the screen and makes a mess out of the house like the Cat in the Hat. He’s obviously supposed to be a Freddy type character, but based on the later, lame Freddy that makes bad puns and does magic tricks (breaking his own fingers, spinning a CD on his finger). Also, he looks like he’s wearing an outfit stolen from Michael Jackson’s GHOSTS and has a ridiculous receded-all-the-way-to-the-back glam rocker hair. Actually he’s as much Drop Dead Fred as Freddy Krueger. This guy sucks. Arguably dumber than Wishmaster.
This pulls the old classic of showing The Three Stooges on a TV a couple times, which could be interpreted as showing that violence in entertainment is not a new phenomenon, or as a relatively cheap way to get something recognizable on the TV. Or maybe it’s supposed to be deep. The stupid fucking Trickster seems to think he’s teaching Michael a lesson about his attraction to violence. Like, oh yeah, you like DEATH DEATH DEATH PART 2 and have a subscription to Fangoria, well what about if you were tricked into going around committing a series of actual murders? Not so fun now, is it?
But of course Michael is 100% correct: there is a difference between imaginary violence and real. A huge, very obvious and definable difference (one is fake and has no consequences, the other is real and hurts real people). It’s not like there’s some blurry line between fake movie violence and actual stabbing of people. Maybe to an asshole monster rock star guy with giant hair who has the power to walk in and out of a TV it’s hard to tell the difference, but to actual humans it’s very clear and not a reasonable comparison. So fuck off, Trickster.
But despite that dork I gotta say it’s a really good fear they’re exploiting here. Usually in movies you’re scared of the bad guy killing you. Being scared of you killing people is less common (though used in werewolf movies of course, and the first part of NIGHTBREED). It’s just a really upsetting nightmare, the idea that suddenly you wake up and you’re guilty of murder, your whole life is ruined forever. Since the protagonist is accidentally doing thrill kills and then having to sneak around and burn evidence and try to hide his guilt it’s a real sleazy kind of dark not seen in many teen horror movies since A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2. So I think it’s kinda nice that (SPOILER) it ends up pretty happy. Yeah, it’s easy to guess that the whole thing is the game, but I never would’ve predicted how invested it would be in the IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE ending, having him tell his friend that he loves him and missed him, and actually spending time dealing with whether or not he gets the balls to ask the girl out.
Of course then there’s some bullshit in the end credits where the Trickster says “Forgetting something?” and it goes back to a scene from the beginning. No, I’m not forgetting something, I was already told this shit didn’t happen. You’re not making any sense. Go play air guitar by yourself in a closet or something. Make up some new tricks for the sequel that you’re never gonna get. Nobody wants to see or hear your dumb ass ever again. You were born obsolete.
The one notable thing about that stupid tacked on scene is that it involves a dog from earlier in the movie, and of course we all know that John Flynn’s OUT FOR JUSTICE has a weird tacked-on-after-reshoots last scene that also involves a dog from earlier in the movie. Maybe that was his curse, having to get stuck with scenes like that.
The weirdest, most uncomfortable aspect is the voyeurism part from the beginning. I mean, I don’t think it’s supposed to be sweet that he’s making recordings of her taking her clothes off. But we find out that she has a crush on him too, and they fall in love. There’s no subplot about having to hide that he’s been recording her. The way they resolve this is to have him find a folder of photos she took of him through his window. But those aren’t as much of a violation. He’s just brooding and what not, he’s not taking his clothes off. It’s a false equivalency in my opinion.
So I do think this is one way the movie is kinda observant, even if I’m not 100% sure what exactly it’s observing. The technology developed since then has mixed with young people’s weird sexuality and turned into a mess. I think of the recent incident with hacking of celebrity nude photos. It used to be that a peeping tom was the scum of the earth. Now with technology we can all be the town pervert from the comfort of our living rooms.
Because of celebrity hacking there’s been this problem I’ve had on Twitter: if a celebrity name is trending I think “Oh no, did they die or are they just on an awards show right now?” But you gotta weigh your curiosity about if they’re okay vs. your aversion to the possibility of their naked photos popping up. This happened to me with an Academy Award winning actress, I honestly didn’t know, the photos just appeared when I clicked her name. And I cannot lie, they were impressive photos. But she didn’t make those to be shown to us, they were stolen from her, this was a sex crime, and for a minute there I was involved. It feels gross. But there are plenty of other people who don’t even see the problem, they feel like they’re entitled to see everybody naked just like they’re entitled to download any movie or song they want for free. So that’s where we are right now. I blame The Trickster.
* * *
The inspiration for renting this again was all this “#GamerGate” business. Hopefully some of you never heard of it, especially if you’re reading this in the archive. Right now it’s a controversy in the world of video games that has poured over so loudly into the human world that even people like me who don’t play video games (except the occasional Ms. Pac-Man) ended up seeing enough references to it to get curious and try to figure out what it is. In that sense it’s exactly like when I see some gibberish phrase trending on Twitter and I click on it and read up on it for 5-10 minutes before deciding it must have something to do with the boy band “One Direction.”
Here’s my understanding of what “#GamerGate” is:
1. A guy who used to date a lady who made a small independent video game posted a long too-much-information blog post claiming she was a real meanie who cheated on him with multiple dudes
2. Thousands of video game nerds started harassing the ex-girlfriend, telling her they were going to rape and kill her, exposing her home address, calling up her dad and telling him she was a whore, sending her co-workers her nude photos, saying she faked it and fun pranks like that. Just joshin’ around though, nothing serious. Internets will be internets.
3. Also they said that games journalists were corrupt because allegedly one of them had slept with the video game designer, although he had only written about her before that and didn’t review her game
4. Notoriously dickish actor Adam Baldwin (COHEN AND TATE) linked to a video about it and used the hashtag “#GamerGate.”
Now the group of angry videogamers is called “GamerGate” and “GamerGate supporters.” It’s not clear if they understand that the “gate” from “Watergate” implies a scandal to expose rather than a movement to support, and I’m not clear why Baldwin thought the second G should be capitalized. But I guess it’s kind of late to change it to something good.
5. Other women in the world of video games keep having to leave their homes or cancel speaking engagements because of creepily specific threats. Most recently it was a lady who did a series of videos analyzing sexist tropes in video games, and she got a long letter promising a massacre at the school where she was supposed to speak. Basically these little shitbags harass and threaten them and then when it becomes public the same shitbags or their associate shitbags accuse them of making up the whole thing to get attention. Just real classy stuff like classy gentlemen do.
(Here’s a good take on the movement or whatever from somebody who’s researched it much more thoroughly.)
The biggest contention between GamerGate and the rest of the world is about what GamerGate even is. According to them they’re an ethnically and politically diverse group of women, girls, other women, many different minorities and one or two white men (if any, but most likely not) who are trying to stop corruption in video game journalism. According to everyone else they’re some assholes who hate women and like to harass them online and also play video games.
Why, the GamerGaters want to know, do all the articles focus on misogyny and harassment done, they say, by a very small anonymous group of trolls who coincidentally started at the same time as them for the same reason using the same name and targets and arguments and goals but are otherwise completely unrelated and there’s nothing they can do about them? Why don’t the articles not mention that and instead talk about the totally different issue of “ethics in video game journalism” that they want to talk about?
Well, no offense GamerGate, but the answer is that most people don’t give a shit about that. The number of people who play video games AND read about them AND think there’s an epidemic of compromised reviews AND are angry enough to want to read and campaign about that issue is not enough to get this much attention. If that was all this was ever about none of us would have heard of you. But we do hate sexist assholes, so when we hear about some weird Nerd Taliban’s harassment campaign against women who they suspect of sexual activity or video game analysis it piques our interest. So those guys who you don’t know and are completely opposed to and unaffiliated with are the ones we’re talking to. They’re the ones whose crazy, hateful and deluded tweets and blog posts have pulled us into a masochistic sinkhole of fascinating awfulness. If you’re a different GamerGate don’t worry about it, we’re talking to the other one.
You know, this is kind of like when the World Wildlife Foundation sued the World Wrestling Federation for having the same abbreviation. It’s not about the Camel Clutch and the DDT, it’s about pandas in natural habitats.
After weeks of reading GamerGate shit this is the conclusion I’ve come to: these are people who can’t accept their video games being treated as art instead of product. They, or other gamers, have been whining for god damn years about respecting games as art. If Roger Ebert was alive he’d tell you how many fucking letters he got about it when he said they didn’t deserve that. Now it’s happening and these guys don’t know what to do.
Look at who their targets are. That first one they went after was known for creating a free indie game about depression. It won awards and people hated that because they don’t consider a minimalistic, self-expressing, message type of thing to be a game. If they respected games as art they’d say “Not my thing” and go play something else. Instead they fixated on her, tried to uncover some kind of wrongdoing, any kind of wrongdoing. That people who write about games for a living (or as a passion) did find it interesting and wrote about it killed them. There’s no room for artistic movements in video games.
My guess is these are the video game equivalent of the dummies who watch movies but don’t really respect them and still feel the need to open their big stupid mouths about them. The people who see DRIVE and try to sue the distributor because it was different from FAST AND THE FURIOUS or see THE AMERICAN and are outraged that it’s quiet and low on explosions. If they see something arty they can’t just say “That’s not for me,” they get mad that somebody must think they don’t get it and they say they hate “critics” and if somebody liked it they must’ve gotten paid off. Or in this case sucked off.
Sadly this is promoting the popular stereotype that people who play video games have never had sex. In some of these cases you gotta assume it’s true. Look, I’ve never had sex, but I know what it is. It’s when the parked car shakes up and down in Grand Theft Auto. And it is how small independent games that aren’t what I’m into get positive write ups on websights.
Their other obsession is a lady who did a series of Youtube videos analyzing sexist tropes in video games and other pop culture. They hassled her so much they made her kind of famous and got her onto the Colbert Report, and as far as I can tell she has no connection to the topics of ethics or journalism. But she does analyze video games, and find things that they disagree with.
The thing is, if you love an artform you love to dissect it and look for meaning in it and find new ways to do it. I haven’t watched all these videos, I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff to legitimately disagree with, but they are obviously heavily researched and based in a reality that women are often portrayed in degrading ways in pop culture. If she didn’t have a point they could easily just ignore her videos, like the whole world does with 99% of stupid Youtube videos. If you don’t agree with her conclusions you rebut them or make your own argument or you ignore her. This discussion and debate is part of what art is about. It’s part of the fun.
Are you a horror fan? Do you use the term “Final Girl”? Well, that term and entire concept came from a feminist analysis of slasher movies, Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws. This type of study can be both fun and important. If video games are so great that you base your life around them then they can fucking stand the examination, you ninnies. Jesus.
Are you afraid of anybody looking too deep into games, or are you just afraid somebody might think your favorite game is sexist? In reading what these people write, it’s clear that for many of them, possibly most of them, this is a backwards, conservative type of movement. They constantly use the words “feminist” and “social justice warrior” (usually abbreviated to SJW they use it so much) as insults, seemingly unaware that justice and equality are considered positive concepts to normal, not-crazy people. For example here are just a few of the comments on this video of a heartbroken nerd spending 8 minutes responding to one anti-GamerGate tweet by Joss Whedon:
(To answer that last guy, Whedon wrote and directed a movie called THE AVENGERS a couple years back, but I don’t think much came of it.)
Like Rush Limbaugh and his “feminazis” (also a word I’ve seen GamerGaters use), these pricks have redefined feminism to mean anti-male. They’re those “men’s rights advocate” dipshits with the persecution complex where they really believe whatever minor inconveniences they’ve experienced from being male (If I walk close behind a woman at night she thinks I’m a rapist!) is as bad as actual oppression. I remember a guy 20 years ago saying to me “If there was a channel called White Entertainment Television people would say it was racist!” I always think about that one when I come across another one of these type of knuckleheads. They make my blood boil.
In addition to the feminist analyst, many GamerGaters fixate on two female game makers who they always label as feminists even though it’s rarely relevant to the allegations of ethics violations that they claim are their only concern. They’re at least sexist enough that many of them un-self-consciously refer to one of their hated enemies as “5 Guys” in reference to claims of her having multiple sex partners. They’ve attached themselves to the nutball right wing tabloid Breitbart.com. Some of them probly don’t like this, but they’re perceived as backwards enough that they’ve gotten the support of the white supremacist sight Stormfront. That’s not a problem that most ethics campaigns have to deal with.
Despite that right wing bent they’ve fallen in love with enforcing the kind of rigid sensitivity that conservatives call “political correctness.” They have a separate, cryptic hashtag campaign (#NotYourShield, whatever that means) to promote all the women and minorities who support them, and they accuse opponents of “silencing minority voices” by not agreeing with them. They specialize in finding tweets that they can take literally or simply misinterpret and accuse the person of insensitivity and demand an apology, or for their employer to fire them, or for all other feminists to disavow a moronic misinterpretation of somebody’s words. And it’s nearly impossible to tell if these people know they’re completely full of horse shit (ha ha, I’ll pretend to be upset to get them in trouble) or if they’ve fallen into some undercover-in-too-deep type situation where they can’t even tell where their true feelings end and their phony ass whining campaign begins.
It’s ironic that they’ve adopted those tactics, because I think some of them are in it out of a fear of censorship. After weeks of reading up on this and being as confused by the GamerGaters as the people who fuck My Little Pony dolls (no overlap implied), I finally came across a comment on an article that seemed to illuminate some things. In the middle of a bunch of hysterical, hard-to-translate-for-outsiders claptrap about the movement this guy said something about somebody trying to ban video games. Of course I would be against that too, but as far as I can tell there’s not anyone making a serious attempt to do that, and even if some asshole tried to do it, in today’s world of downloaded content I just don’t think it would be possible. So it’s ridiculous. But the fact that this guy is scared of it is significant I think.
I think that’s what it is for some of these kids. They think that anybody critical of their video games is like Michael’s principal in BRAINSCAN, or Tipper Gore and the people trying to ban dirty lyrics in the ’80s. They think they’re protecting their shit.
But they’re doing the same thing the PMRC, the Reverend Don Wildmon and other anti-rock or movie or TV scolds of the ’80s did: contacting advertisers and employers of people who wrote columns they disagreed with and pathetically threatening a boycott. In one case they actually got some nitwit at Intel to pull advertising from Gawker by pretending to be too stupid to understand a tweet (!) by one of their writers and shaming them as “pro-bullying”. (Intel later tried to distance themselves once they figured just who it was they had caved in to.)
Honestly I’ve got more respect for the PMRC because at least their tattle-taling and snitching was based on authentic prudery. Look how these weiners crowdsource finding old posts to pretend to be offended by.
And of course these campaigns have been aimed at writers of editorials they disagreed with for saying that the culture of the stereotypical gamer dude was obsolete. Again, as far as I’ve seen none of these things have any connection to the crusade for “ethics in video game journalism” they talk about. In fact, encouraging writers to cater their content based on the demands of their advertisers is the opposite of promoting ethics in journalism.
Have you ever been in a place of business and some douche is unhappy with some policy or perceived failure in service and they make a big scene and demand to see the manager and all that? Those are the worst fucking people. Even if something completely outrageous happened you could usually try to be calm and polite, but these people have a sense of entitlement. They believe that “the customer is always right, no matter how obviously unreasonable and dickish” is enshrined in the Constitution. And also they probly never worked a job like that and see service people and low wage workers as subhumans.
Well, that’s what GamerGate does. They can’t rebut an argument without sounding crazy, so instead they write letters to the bosses. They want to see a manager. It’s a movement based on the techniques of the crazy asshole you wanted to get kicked out of the store or the high maintenance grandma who embarrasses her family at a restaurant.
But you know, I’m sure some of them actually are concerned about the ethicalness or whatever, and that’s not a bad thing. Obviously there are bigger fish to fry in the world of journalism (do they know about Judith Miller?) but I’m sure there is shit going on that’s worth complaining (not rape-threating) about.
But this brings me back to my original point of them not accepting video games as art. They’re not talking about hard reporting here (whatever that would be in video games), they’re talking about reviews. They refuse to accept the reality that reviews are (and should be) subjective. They don’t want intelligent criticism or good writing, they want soul-less consumer reports.
I can think of one example of a serious ethics violation in criticism, but it was in music. I remember in the early 2000s I started reading The Source magazine again to try to stay up on the newer hip hop. I liked some of the things they were doing but at that time they had a weird vendetta against Eminem, spending an inordinate number of pages attacking him in everything ranging from essays by well known scholars comparing him to Elvis (in a bad way) to juvenile comic strips making fun of him. They called him racist and even dug up a tape he made as a teenager where he dissed a black ex-girlfriend, tried to make a big tabloid style scandal out of it. Another thing that seemed odd at that time, every issue had multi-page ads for a group called Made Men, who I never heard of anywhere else. I kept wondering, how big is this label’s advertising budget?
What I didn’t know at first was that a Boston rapper named Benzino who hated Eminem had become part owner of the magazine and was pushing this anti-Eminem agenda. More importantly Made Men was his group, and they received a cover story and a 4 out of 5 mic review. It was fishy, to say the least.
I haven’t seen accusations of anything like that going on in the video game world. I think there are only accusations of hobnobbery. They believe that the people who are passionate enough to write about video games should not be friends with the ones passionate enough to write about them. This is a well-meaning sentiment, but weird.
As a critic in a different artform that has worked by an unusually rigid samurai code, I think I’m qualified to comment on this. I’ve been uncomfortable sometimes with a phenomenon I call “Friends of the Internet,” where directors and people who write about movies have built some kind of friendships over the course of junkets and film festivals and it seems to me like sometimes it makes the writers see way more in their movies than a normal person would and overrate them. This was my theory for the internet popularity of KICK-ASS, for example.
I don’t really think that’s ethics, though. Criticism is not journalism or science. It’s not about facts. It’s about interpretations, connections, feelings and ideas, and it’s the responsibility of the writer to either catch themselves being too easy on a movie because of their personal relationships or communicate that that relationship is part of their subjective view of the movie. Writing a review that’s too affected by a personal relationship is something I as a writer strive to avoid, but it’s not fucking Watergate. And even if it was I don’t think anybody should be sending out naked pictures of Matthew Vaughn or threatening to stick something up his butt.
And although personally I try to avoid reviewing things by people I’ve had some interaction with there is not a code of ethics that requires this. You think Roger Ebert didn’t become friends with a bunch of directors and actors over the years? Of course he did.
In fact, look what I just uncovered. Roger Ebert once dated Oprah Winfrey. Source: Oprah Winfrey. AND THEN HE GAVE THE COLOR PURPLE A 4-STAR REVIEW AND CALLED IT THE BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR!!! Smoking gun! #ThumbsUpGate
Or maybe it’s okay for artists to know critics. These things happen. It’s okay because we can tell when a critic is full of shit, including in Benzinogate. It’s fine.
But seriously you guys, just get a different name besides GamerGate if you’re not about the things it’s associated with to the rest of the world. Do you think the makers of the Brainscan CD-ROM would’ve kept the same name if it had really caused a murder spree? “No, that’s not us, that was the Trickster. We never condoned that.” Come on fellas. Use your noggins.
* * *
Wrapping up, I guess the relevant question is “Would Michael from BRAINSCAN support GamerGate?” It’s hard to know. Due to his experiences with the principal shutting down the horror club he might have that fear of censorship. He’s not yet able to intelligently articulate a defense of violent movies and games, but doesn’t want to lose them. Due to a childhood without a mother and his limited experience with girls, except in an electronic spying capacity, it’s possible that he would be a strongwomanphobe, but I don’t remember any evidence of that in the movie. As far as ethics in video game journalism I think he probly doesn’t care, because it’s not like he looked up reviews for Brainscan. He just saw the ad and ordered it. He likes there to still be some mystery in this world. (But Fangoria reviews horror games now so he has it covered.)
Maybe GamerGate is kind of the same as the Horror Club. It’s people trying to protect something they love from people they think don’t understand it, but they can’t make a good argument because they don’t really understand it either. Michael could’ve grown out of that, or he could still be holed up in that room, more reclusive than ever, talking to a super-advanced version of Igor, running GamerGate, a gore movie subreddit and a network of bathroom spy cams via voice commands. We don’t know.
But I doubt it. It was only a game, and he didn’t even like it in the end. I bet he turned out okay.