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'The Book of Eli': Who knew that videogame writers were...writers? Plus, a thought on Eric Rohmer

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It came as no surprise when I learned that Gary Whitta, who wrote the screenplay — and I use the term generously — for the Hughes brothers’ postapocalyptic dud The Book of Eli, has a background in videogames. An Englishman, born in 1972, Whitta was one of the founders of PC Gamer magazine and also served as its editor-in-chief. In addition to writing scripts for shows like Star Trek: Voyager, he has been a consultant on numerous game franchises and, according to his Wikipedia entry, is best known as a writer on games like Duke Nukem Forever, Prey, and Gears of War. I guess I understand why videogames need “writers.” In fact, I have no doubt that whatever creative input Whitta contributed to those games, it may well exceed the level of artistry at work in his script for The Book of Eli, which is basically a videogame concept — lone warrior in sunglasses wanders futuristic wasteland recycled from a zillion other films, fighting off stick-figure hooligans along the way — that never really springs to life on screen.

What I had no idea of, until a press release that literally arrived an hour ago, is that videogame writing has now attained such prominence and prestige that it merits its own award…from the Writers Guild! The WGA nominations for Best Videogame Writing have just been announced: They include Assassin’s Creed I (story by Corey May; script by May, Joshua Rubin, and Jeffry Yohalem), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (script by Marc Guggenheim), and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (written by Amy Henning). This might be an easy thing to mock, except that it really does make sense. Why shouldn’t we honor the creators of videogame stories as writers in an entertainment universe where more and more credible Hollywood screenwriters are drawing their aesthetic inspiration from those very same games? And, of course, the standards are shifting even as we speak. Evaluated as a traditional Hollywood screenplay, Avatar, as I have argued on several occasions, is thin, derivative, serviceable, and vaporous. But taken in a different context, as a glorified act of videogame creation, it might well seem downright visionary.

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If the videogame mindset represents the most potent threat yet to the rich, classical, 20th century ideal of what a screenplay can be (let’s give that mindset a cool videogame name — like Ultimate Threat: The Annihilation of Dimension), Eric Rohmer, the great French filmmaker who died on Monday at 89 (read Lisa’s lovely tribute to him here), celebrated that ideal in every line he wrote. You can make a case that Rohmer was the one and only giant of the art-house-renaissance era who didn’t experience a creative falling off after the ’60s and ’70s. That may, in part, be the prejudice of my own experience: I first really discovered Rohmer in the ’80s, with films like the sun-dappled erotic roundelay Pauline at the Beach (1983), pictured above, and the great Summer (1986), the story of a woman, single and isolated and doomed to taking a summer vacation by herself, who is so transcendently neurotic that she brings off the singular feat of spending an entire movie talking in eloquent deluded circles around her own loneliness.

The thing is, she sounds like a real person, and that was the glory of Rohmer’s poetically prosaic conversational movies. Hooked on films like Summer, I went back and saw the movies that made Rohmer famous, the six “Moral Tales” he wrote and directed in the ’60s and ’70s, and though I found them tricky and marvelous and, in their way, quite sexy (what is Claire’s Knee but the story of a man having an obsessive, lustful affair — yet doing it so chastely that he triumphs over his own desire), to me they had less of that luxuriously digressive talky flow than his later films, which elevated dialogue into pure brainy deceptive play. To experience an Eric Rohmer movie, even a minor one like Tale of Spring (1990), is to relax into a state of being where people use words — ideas, anecdotes, memories, jokes, seductions — not just to “communicate” but to sing the complicated song of who they are. What strikes me most when I think back on Rohmer’s films is that he drew his dialogue out of the rhythmic vitality of life, and that maybe his kind of cinema is now passing because, in an age of text messaging and postmodern Facebook chatter, when talk is wired to communicate but not necessarily to reveal, our own conversation may no longer be more than the sum of its words.

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