16/01/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

Queen to Play (2011)

Queen to Play (2011)
Director: Caroline Bottaro
Writers: Caroline Bottaro (screenplay), Bertina Henrichs (novel)
Stars: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud


If you’re afraid to make a commitment to what gives you pleasure
See Queen to Play and feel inspired to get in the game
Because if you don’t risk, you lose – and for sure, you can’t win.

Let the unexpected reign. I love a story in which an ordinary person living an ordinary life comes upon an irresistible urge. Against all odds, such a person plunges forward. In the face of setbacks, they persist. Following an invisible line of knowing not-knowing, they work hard. They pick their way along a vein of dormant desire long ago left aside for practical reasons. In Queen to Play, more delightfully called Joyeus in French which is the feminine form for player, a forty-ish cleaning woman making a bed in a hotel room can’t take her eyes off a couple on the balcony. They’re playing chess. Even after the woman wins, they continue laughing and loving. The woman stands up, moves away from the table to stand at the railing. The man follows, attentive and affectionate. A subtle expression of surprise passes Helene’s eyes. Such a reaction goes against her expectation. The two women exchange looks as if each knows what the other is thinking. How can a woman winning a game against her man enhance her attractiveness, spur greater pleasure and intimacy? It’s a notable moment for Helene. She buys a chess set and gives it to her husband as a gift.

So much said in such a small gesture. Helene wants to feel beautiful, smart and well loved all in one swoop. She longs to open a closed door of passion. Her husband, however, simply shrugs his shoulders. Chess holds no interest for him. Helene is left on her own to discover where the desire will take her. Never before has she been challenged to go beyond being a wife and mother, beyond being married. What will it mean to follow the desire? Natural next phases of a life are often triggered by a moment of intense emotion. It’s time for Helene to learn more about herself.

In a move quite out of character for her, she asks a reclusive ex-pat, Dr. Kroger, for whom she cleans house to teach her to play. Kroger reluctantly agrees and slowly gets drawn into her determined effort. First she surprises him by having a knack for chess. Then she surprises him by beating him. Then the relationship falters, shifts, starts, stalls and withstands reversals. He makes mistakes. He’s had a bad experience failing his deceased wife in her creative efforts to be a painter. Helene withdraws. She’s hurt by his apparent duplicity, admiring her in private and dismissing her as a cleaning woman in a letter of recommendation to play in a public tournament. She has to insist, demand his respect. That’s another step out of character for her.

He makes her accountable for her own gift. As he reveals himself to her, he ventures, “No one can save another person.” But then he goes on, telling her, “You have something that can’t be taught, not by another person, not in a class, not in a school.” She requires a partner to make the discovery of her passion but her gift is not contained, limited or defined by partnership.

As she goes public with her chess playing, Helene begins to shine. She wins tournaments, triumphs over the best local players and gains an opportunity to leave Corsica and go to Paris. Not surprisingly, her opportunities threaten to dim her marriage. It takes time, takes her out of the house and takes her on her own path where she feels the conflict. She’s a woman bound to the tradition of marriage and loves her husband. For Helene, longtime wife and mother to a teenager, finding her gift as a master chess player is a little like discovering the queen is the strongest piece on a chessboard. It upsets belief.

Helene’s relationship with Kroger, intensely erotic if not sexual, rouses her to a level of intimacy in which she feels equal. She plays a determining role in what happens between them as well as on the board. Intimacy where man and woman respect one another opens an unexpected sense of doing right by the other, challenging stereotypical scenarios. We find ourselves being treated to a view of individual uniqueness that enhances rather that destroys the beauty of a situation.

As Helene steps forward as a first rate chess player, she draws upon the erotic energy of play with Kroger but she falls more in love with her husband than before. She transforms her life and her marriage. Helene’s awakening into full-blown womanhood becomes more than a delicious marshmallow for immediate consumption. She releases Kroger from his guilt and then lifts her marriage as well as her life onto another level. To see a new woman emerge from a game as old as chess…well, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

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03/01/01 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Do On-Line Games Create Isolation or Community?

Published January 20, 2001

You can write a book in six months and it may take someone a week to read it. You can make a movie in a year and it takes someone two hours to see it. On the other hand, when you create an on-line computer game, thousands of people spend mega-hours, seven days a week, and may continue playing it for two years. One of the oldest games, Everquest, is still around and continues to be played by thousands of people. Is this an addiction or a modern window of opportunity? Many people are asking. But do on-line games further the alienation of already isolated people or educate curious people in a safe venue with an unprecedented forum of creative communication.

I’m not sure I have all the language to describe the interactive entertainment that comes under the name of “On-line Games” but I’m learning and you will be too. On-line computer games aren’t new. They’ve been around since it’s been possible to go on-line. What’s new is how many people are playing them and how many are playing at the same time. Community. That’s the catchword. Players want to be a part of a community. Makers want to create community. Community is the opportunity to make yourself up, change yourself at will and interact with others who are doing the same in the same world of reality you’ve chosen. The makers of the games will tell you that individual choices are limited but when you’re playing the game, you don’t know that and you don’t feel that. As a matter of fact, if players figure out how to affect the structure of a game, they wreck it for themselves and for others. They’re called hackers. But here comes community again. The makers look at the hackers as players and plunge right in to figure out how to make a game that includes them.

For instance, one game attracted killer players. They were more interested in how to “kill” other players than they were at playing the game. Big problem. Any new player who logged on got annihilated before they ever got started. Bad feelings. Bad for business. Another game attracted hackers who learned how to go behind the scenes, rack up the maximum scores and lord it over their friends. Everyone wanted to learn how to beat the game rather than play it. Bad feelings. Bad for business. The creators of each game took different tracks. The first group took a social approach and created a reality within the game where “killer players” could play their killing game and another where it was impossible to kill anyone. They also took a social approach in one reality structure where players could sanction killer players or gang up against them and give them handicaps. The second group took a different approach and broke their game into several different structures so that playing the game or hacking it became a choice. But you get the gist of it. The makers have to be interactive with the players to survive – and thrive.

And then there are the creative players who create realities for other players who aren’t into the “kill and be killed mentality”. They create a space (website) for players to come in, choose an avatar personality and interact with other players who are also appearing as a selected avatar. Wondering what an avatar is? An avatar is an artificial likeness of a character that usually has some archetypal quality – a hero, an animal or historical figure. The player fills out their identity and comes into the game as this avatar. This can be on a low level of chat in which you come in as a cat and have conversation with dogs and monkeys. Or it could be a high level of gamesmanship in which a central avatar creates an opportunity for any and all participating avatars to engage in a particular reality – grief group meeting around the loss of a loved one, a romantic tryst a la courtly love, a circus adventure auditioning as a trapeze artist, etceteras. A player logs on, takes on an avatar persona, begins to make up an identity, joins the story at hand and finds out where it takes him or her. Identity morphs according to one’s choices. The story has a broad structure but one’s choices determine the direction and the depth of the pursuit. And you can quit at any time. It seems that most people don’t. They become part of the community and stick around for hours and hours, days and days, months and months – as well as years and years.

One begins to wonder. Does this alienate or facilitate relationships in real life? Of course, one also wonders, where does on-live and on-line begin and end? And, of course, there’s no answer. For one person, an exploration of self as an avatar may offer just the freeing up experience that furthers a relationship that has been problematic. For another, it may be an alternative that is more captivating. It is definitely time consuming. To make or create alternative realities for other people takes a major amount of time. To log on and engage as one or many avatars sucks up time like soda through a straw. But there hasn’t been much research done on what people are getting out of their experience. Some people would just watch a soap opera or randomly search the web if they weren’t playing; others take the game they’re playing and make more of the game they’re playing in real life. The latter group turns a birthday party into a survival game, writes up dialog for a cartoon series as a homework assignment and starts thinking about what games would be good for hospitalized invalids or corporate executives on a training weekend. And therein lies the dilemma. We’re back to basics. How do we raise children and educate grown-ups to view the Internet as just another tool, not a life in itself?


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18/06/99 Film Essay # , , ,

Run Lola Run (1998)

Run Lola Run (1998)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup


(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1999)

From post-postmodern Germany comes a film that gives a girl the role of Hero, the special one born with the power to prevail against the collective odds. Lola (Franka Potente), despite her punked-up hair and striking looks, is Everygirl, an ordinary young woman of today, whose mother thinks she’s going out on an errand when she’s really running for her life. This Hero, as if in a fairy tale reinvented, has a daddy who betrays her, is weaker than he looks, and turns out to be irrelevant to her problems. At best, he can’t protect her; at worst, he won’t. But the girl still manages — through her persistence and surprising good fortune — to escape the limitations of the disempowered daughter role and score a victory for the feminine.

Lola is a Hero waiting to happen. Fate interferes with her picking up her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtrue), after he pulls off a drug deal in Berlin and that misstep sets off a series of events in which Lola has to tap into an amazing ability to reconfigure consequences. Manni, calling from a telephone booth, reaches her at home on her red phone, and, after blaming her for the predicament he is in, pleads with her to come up with a way to save his life — in twenty minutes. Hapless fellow, he has lost the big bag of cash that belongs to mob bosses who are already on the way to pick it up. They will kill him if he doesn’t have their money.

As if held back only by imagination, Lola transforms herself into an animated cartoon. The sheer challenge of the impossible energizes Lola into using magical powers to rescue the Manni she loves. Her hair is dyed bright red as if to signal her affinity to the troupe of wild women who roamed the hippie San Francisco of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s fantasies in the sixties. As Lola slides into action mode on the brink of the millennium, she stretches seconds beyond minutes, banishes the past before it becomes memory, and flips the future back into the present so that she, not time, will be in charge of the outcome.

With a wondrous autonomy, Lola revisits her boyfriend’s crisis three times as if learning from her mistakes, each time increasing her focus and decreasing the constriction of circumstance. Her progressive return to the choice-points of the rescue scenario structures the three segments of the movie: in each segment she gets better at releasing herself from her parental legacy and takes on more creative responsibility for shaping the outcome. In the first episode, Lola is revealed as the daughter of a highly placed banker who could rescue her but instead viciously rejects her. In the second episode, Lola turns the tables on her father and manages to save herself but loses what means the most to her. As she repeats the same flurry of activity attempting to wrest enough money from the “world of the fathers” to avoid disaster, her internal interpretation of events shifts and so do the events themselves. Finally, Lola relies on herself, backs up her date with fate by tampering awesomely with the inevitable and walks away with a new future.

As Lola proceeds though her three scenarios and bumps into the same people one after another on her sprint through the city of Berlin, flashes of images appear on her mind’s screen like 15-second commercials, advertising the way her life is changing. Lola’s internal images align with the different external scenarios and envisioning styles. Imagination strongly figures into how things turn out for Lola, who is like an Imaginal Hero.

There’s a wonderful scene that repeats itself in each of the three episodes. A group of people carrying a huge piece of clear glass is walking right in front of an ambulance that is racing to save a man’s life. In the second episode, the ambulance crashes through the invisible barrier posed by the glass. Once this shield of time and space has been broken, the patriarchal order can’t be put back together again, and the movie shifts decidedly in another direction. In a redemptive, Buddhist way, reality becomes what Lola makes of it through her conscientious mindfulness. This insight is the boon this feminine Hero brings back from her challenge to the odds against a victory for compassion.

If I were a girl, I would like to be told “Run Lola Run” over and over again. Every night when I went to bed I would ask for the Lola story. Tykwer’s film makes me feel like it is okay to be Lola, spinning her red telephone in the air, warping time and slipping from one reality to another like an animated cartoon hero. “Tell me the part about what she did to the phone again,” I would like to beg of the freestyling storyteller.

Forget Clever Gretel who saves her brother through trickery, forget Snow White who, though fairest-of-them-all, doesn’t know a witch when she sees one, and forget that persona-struck Cinderella who goes for a guy who can’t recognize her in street clothes. I want the colorful Lola, who leaps into action when her boyfriend is in trouble, keeps her wits about her when time is running out, and manipulates her perspective like a kid with a computer game. I would insist. If I am to grow up and be comfortable on city streets, I want flaming red hair (not a short red cape) to mark my coming of age, and I want the death-defying, life-affirming ending that any decent Hero gets. I need a fairy tale where the girl is unique, triumphs over evil, and inspires hope.

Miraculously, Lola’s race against the odds is also winning at the box office.Run Lola Run has gotten a better run for its money than most independently produced foreign films: in many cities, its time on the big screen has been extended. Wherever you live, beg for this movie – insist upon it. When you see Lola go for the big bag of fairy dust, you’ll enjoy being with her, and believe again in the possibility of change.

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