Issue 38 (2012)
Oleg Sentsov: Gamer (Gaamer, 2012)
reviewed by Svitlana Matviyenko © 2012
“Gaámer” is how “gamer” is pronounced with a heavy Ukrainian or Russian accent. The word is adopted without a translation along with many other terms such as “configure,” “upgrade,” “train,” “frag,” “champ,” “control,” “map,” and others that constitute the language of game culture. The film invites us to a nameless Russian speaking Ukrainian city, most likely Kyiv (the film was shot in Kyiv and Simferopol, Ukraine), but really, it does not even matter: it could have been anywhere. Gamer might look somewhat eventless for a film about videogames, yet it does not leave you indifferent.
Shot in a documentary style, the film follows a young videogame player, Lyosha (Vladislav Zhuk), known among the club gamers as “Koss.” Most of the actors are non-professionals; they are real gamers, as we learn from the credits. Sentsov’s documentary style endorses the feeling of distance, alienation, or foreignness. It connects with many themes of the film to create the sense of proximity to a secret without a possibility to touch it. The film is built around islands of the unknown: nothing too mysterious really, just the unknown of everyday life which we encounter on every corner, in any creature or in any object. Cinema has always been praised for bringing us close to a secret, and for reminding us that the unknown is the foundation of knowledge itself. Instead of imposing an interpretation of events, Sentsov’s “documentary” demonstrates the impossibility of revealing one’s thoughts and feelings without constructing them cinematically.
Lyosha is a student at the technical school, which is now called “college,” also an adopted foreign name, perhaps the only achievement after the recent reforms of the Ukrainian system of education. Since gaming is extremely time consuming, Koss misses classes and is eventually expelled from school. The film picks up his story when he is invited to join a game club after reached third place in the Quake competition at the local computer center.
Koss in not without emotions, but he is rather reserved and keeps his feelings to himself without sharing much with his friends or his mother. This is his way of “being a man.” The film explores his uncertainty as he finds himself on the threshold of adulthood. Coming of age always means leaving something behind, making decisions, and taking on new responsibilities. A student, he is still supported by his mother, a university lecturer who also works as a translator and finally finds a cashier job at a convenience store which apparently pays much better than teaching. Envisioning his own future in a similar manner—between an unpaid job in the field and the flea market or, in the better-case scenario, a grocery store, Lyosha explores an unusual alternative option of becoming a professional gamer. “To game or not to game?” is his question. He chooses the middle trying to find out how he can make a living out of gaming.
At first, things go great. Koss trains new gamers and plays for the club. Soon he wins the national Quake competition and travels to Los Angeles for the championship, where he, unfortunately, loses the Cup to another player. He returns to Ukraine disappointed, although he has taken the second prize, which still brings him sufficient recognition at home. His mother tries to be understanding: she opens a bottle of champagne and they celebrate together. At the same time, she insists that a university degree is the safest option for her son. Lyosha quits the game club and transfers to the department of geography at the local university.
Following the main character through the entire film, we learn little about Lyosha’s thoughts or worries; and because he is the only connection to the game, the game itself remains inaccessible for us. In fact, the game is completely excluded from the film’s narrative. When Koss is playing, there are no sonic or cinematographic clues that would suggest what happens in the game, whether Koss is winning or losing, or what he feels. This makes Sentsov’s work rather unique in the context of films about videogaming where so called “gamespace” (McKenzie Wark) is shown as a powerful, dangerous, and affective realm threatening to undo identities, beliefs, and meanings. Wark has argued that computer gaming “has colonized its rivals within the cultural realm, from the spectacle of cinema to the simulations of television” (7). Steven Shaviro’s notion of “post-cinematic” captures the aggressivity and power of the new style; cinema, he claims, has lost its dominant cultural position. He writes: "In their engagement with new technologies and new media forms, no less than in their explicit content, [post-cinematic works] explore the possibility space of globalized capitalism, mapping this space both cognitively and affectively" (Shaviro 135). Sentsov's film, though, engages the viewer emotionally. The more distant the protagonist, the closer is the coming of age as such. Instead of the affective flow of information, media effects and capital, which constitute post-cinematic aesthetics, we are exposed to the flow of time which takes the form of passing from childhood to adulthood.
Both in the earlier films about video games and in post-cinematic films, the major events are all generated within the haptic and life-changing “gamespace,” whether we take David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) or Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer (2009). Sentsov, however, turns the game into a void around which the narrative evolves, and it is this void that holds the film together. The game does not affect Lyosha’s life directly: it does not change his views by means of some unpredicted encounter within the virtual. Unlike eXistenZ or Gamer, the virtual and the actual do not intersect here.
There is one scene in the film, though, during the championship in Los Angeles, when a very short fragment of the game is shown. The shot of Quake is unrealistically slowed down. The slowness is further intensified by a soft melody suggesting some sort of “lightness of being” as Koss’ avatar is slowly flying through the space in a long leap, despite shooting and explosions around. At this moment, the camera cuts away from this shot to a different reality: also in slow motion: Lyosha is on a swing carousel somewhere in an imagined or remembered amusement park. Crosscutting between the two shots highlights the contrast: the cold dark space of a dungeon and the open space of the park fully lit by the midday sun. What is the connection between them? Maybe, in the end, the game is not so immersive. Instead, it is a flat but flexible bouncing surface that propels the player towards his/her memories, fantasies, and dreams. Suddenly, Koss’ avatar is shot down.
Toward the end of the film, Lyosha comes to the rehearsal of his friend Pasha’s band. Pasha manages to keep his hobby in addition to his studies at the university. “I will never stop playing music,” he tells Lyosha, “I simply won’t be able to give up my passion.” Lyosha cannot help comparing himself to his friend and he recognizes own failure in quitting Quake. To cope with his feelings, he drinks vodka alone in the park. At home, as he gets ready for bed, he has a sudden flashback: a song from a popular 1975 Soviet cartoon known to every child from post-Soviet space. The cartoon is about a sport championship between animals; it is focused on a frog bragging about his superpowers. Yet, as soon as the frog touches anything, it falls apart; unexpected obstacles appear on the way, and the frog is caught in a slapstick comedy. Despite this, in his song, the frog keeps enthusiastically insisting on his talents, strengths, and superiority.
This sudden splash of sonic memories makes the final scene of Gamer truly ambiguous. The childish song really stands out among the other tracks used in the film, from “ChopSuey!” of System of a Down to “The Legion” by the cult Russian rock band Agatha Christie. Such a contrast suggests a tension between childhood and adulthood, where adulthood is always about sacrifices. However, nobody tells the teenager that becoming an adult is a process that is never complete, and that the signs of adulthood we acquire are really deceiving. The song from the cartoon may be a farewell to his childhood; but it also may be his intuition that adulthood is only another pretense, another game. Lyosha’s lips move as he sings without actually singing, because he sings with his “inner voice.” As the silly song goes on, the frame frizzes, capturing a rare moment: he is smiling.
University of Western Ontario
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Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007.
Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010
Gamer, Ukraine, 2012
92 minutes, color
Director: Oleg Sentsov
Scriptwriter: Oleg Sentsov
Director of Photography: Egor Petrik, Evgeniia Vradyi, Gennadii Vesel'kov :
Producer: Oleg Sentsov, Ol'ga Zhurzhenko
Cast: Vladislav Zhuk, Aleksandr Fedotov, Zhanna Biriuk
Production: Cry Cinema
Oleg Sentsov: Gamer (Gaamer, 2012)
reviewed by Svitlana Matviyenko © 2012