Millennial Malaise 29: The Game

In Which This is All For You.

The 90’s were the perfect decade for the full flowering of modern conspiracy theories. Here we have a culture where the past eight decades of existence were defined by the greatest conflicts of time. Wars and depressions that chiseled the shape of society into discrete factions of coherent narrative. Where each piece built to create a yarn of a world locked in conflict over one thing or another. There were twists and deceptions, and certainly a fertile world of conspiratorial thinking (you can’t run a decades long Cold War without that occurring). But that brand of paranoia shifted in the decade between the Cold War and 9/11. No longer were seeking just the answers to the questions of the past (Who killed JFK? What really happened during Watergate?) the culture now opined for resolutions to the present and the future.

In a period where history was declared ended it was difficult to find a defining narrative to hang one’s hat on. After a brief recession in the early going the economy was strong, America wasn’t directly involved in any major foreign fracas, and yet the fear remained, an uncertainty about what happened next. This feeling was heightened by the quickly encroaching world of personal digital technology and the unknown possibility of what happened when the clock struck midnight on January ’00. The deep itch knowing that history can’t be over when the supposed future was around the corner. And so conspiracy was turned to. It’s not surprising that The X-Files was one of the defining touchstones of this decade, as it digs into the prevailing need for something to explain why everything seemed okay but nothing felt right.

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Thus the duel nature of conspiracy is revealed to be not one of just expected fear, but also a twisted form of a security blanket. Twinning on the hopes that there has to be some greater plan out there and that it must also be connected to you. Inculcating the belief that there is structure to the world and you are important to that structure. David Fincher’s 1997 thriller The Game is the full realization of the fantasy of the conspiracy. That there is a greater design to the world and it not only directly impacts you, but provides a form of pure emotional catharsis.

The film follows investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas)who is struggling to engage with his life of luxury. He’s haunted by the suicide of his father, who killed himself on Nick’s birthday, and isolated from his friends and family. One day his unstable brother Conrad (Sean Penn) stops by to give him a birthday present. An in life interactive game experience. Provoked more by indifferent curiosity than actual gratitude, Nick engages with the mysterious company and their game. And proceeds to get thrown into a world of frightening clown dolls, odd keys, and deception. Not knowing what’s real and what’s part of the experience, Nick slowly begins to re-engage with path of his father, and when it seems like he has killed his brother and lost all his resources, Nick jumps from a rooftop, only for his suicide attempt to be a part of the game. All engineered for him to break through his daddy issues and isolation and reach out to other people.

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The structure of The Game is the perfect conspiracy of “you.” Where the person engaged with the machinations of the plot feel like they are specifically targeted, while also being clued in to the secret underpinnings of the larger world. At one point Nick aggravatingly bemoans, “why me” as the game seemingly unravels his existence. That point is the center of all conspiracy thinking. “Why me?” one asks, but they know the answer. They willingly engaged with the material and ideas that would get them wrapped up into the wheels and plots of others. Nick choose to be a part of the game, and the questioning of his position in it is to maintain the idea that this is purely an event out of his control. The wheels of fate focusing in on him to change his life.

In a way Nicholas is right. There is a group of shadowy figures specifically targeting him, but instead of trying to con him or force him to his demise, they are more trying an extreme form of psychotherapy for Nick. Forcing him to confront the things that isolate him and make his seeming perfect life one of constant angst and sadness. This too is another component to the fantasy of the conspiracy. That once the clock-maker has laid all the plans bare, and the pieces fall perfectly into place, some transcendence is achieved, where the way of the world is understood. In almost all cases of conspiracies, both real and imagined, there is no true dark heart, just facades put up to obfuscate. There are not people whispering in rooms with master plots, but instead humans bumbling around to hide damaging information. The truth to most conspiracies is nothing more than people disappearing behind duct tape and a hope that no one will notice.

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Fincher plays with these ideas in an interesting manner. In many ways The Game is his warmest movie, a film built up to a point of singular emotional clarity. It has none of the nihilism of Se7en or the wallowing unknowable reality of Zodiac. The Game instead takes the tics of Fincher’s thriller sensibilities and sets them off on a woozy axis. Nothing in the internal game makes actual sense, but it’s all a trick. One both played on the audience and Nick in the movie. Fincher deploys a twist on the thriller style he hones in Se7en to make The Game seem like another picture of true menace. The camera glides around elegantly blocked sets, carefully hiding and revealing information and shocking the viewer, but this time to the end of trying to escape the pressure and suspense Fincher would become famous for. In fact the final jump and reveal is a bit of punchline, Fincher snickering and saying, “I put you through the ringer just to have a dumb tee-shirt gag and daddy problems resolved at the end.”

This is just another form of playing with the conspiracy, to goose emotional growth through the unfathomable force of the modern world. If we could pay the stack of bills at the end wouldn’t we all want to play the game. To have our traumas confronted without us having to go to therapy, to know that a plot out of our hands could conceivably help us. That finally a real conspiracy, one proven by the end, is 100% about you.

Odds and Ends

  • Nick’s dead dad is played by Charles Martinet the voice of Mario.
  • There’s a a nugget of an idea in here about the difference between reality and hyper-reality as compared to the intense interest in virtual reality of the type. The Game engages in a form of virtual reality, but one that takes place in the real world and leads to authentic emotional experience.
  • Between my last article on Fincher and this one he announced a new movie project. So I guess begging really does work.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

After kicking around a few months of either good or interestingly flawed movies, I think it’s time to go back to the bedrock of the Millennial Malaise: Shitty Cyber-Junk Thrillers. Next week is 1995’s Virtousity.