Wanna feel old? Contrary to popular depictions of millennial youth as being disenfranchised, politically feckless and bone idle, the eye-opening documentary The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution might be the bazooka that’s needed to shatter all those cozy assumptions. So of-the-moment is Ondi Timoner’s latest work that it premiered almost exactly when the collapse of SVB made international news, and though that particular eventuality isn’t foreseen here, it won’t take much post-festival fine-tuning to bring her film bang up to date.
After last year’s Last Flight Home, an emotionally intense but beautifully calibrated meditation on her father’s right to medically assisted death, Timoner returns to her forte, which is an uncanny ability to intuit the vicissitudes of pop culture while embedding herself in it while it’s happening. With awards season now a year away, it’s hard to say whether the immediate relevance of The New Americans will make it last the course, given what just happened with Laura Poitras’ once sure-fire winner in the space of six months. But the world that Timoner uncovers here is not going to be changing any time soon.
After a jarring, in-your-face overture, using garishly lo-fi gaming visuals in a way that will more than pay off at the end, the film opens with an excerpt from an interview with Jordan Belfort, the original Wolf of Wall Street. It will shortly follow this up with comments from the infamous Anthony Scaramucci, who spent six days in the White House as Donald Trump’s Director of Communications. And when you suddenly realize that these two might actually the voices of reason — especially later, when The Mooch says, “How much crazy can you accept?” — you just have to pay attention.
Belfort makes a very good point early on, in saying that the USA as we know it was founded by settlers on a flight from reality, noting that one of the key factors of the “American Dream” is that “if you fail, they let you start again.” Like a video game, in fact, and Belfort’s comment unwittingly reflects what is about to become the film’s main thesis, which is that the influence of gaming culture has destroyed the lines between the physical and the digital world. And in this respect, The New Americans might be the first post-pandemic film that reflects the real way the Covid lockdown had an impact on American culture, not only giving context to the SVB meltdown but also to the January 6 insurrection — both coming as a direct or indirect result of communities formed in isolation.
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For deeper history on America’s financial institutions, Michael Moore’s 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story is a very good and surprisingly non-partisan primer. The New Americans is very much in the now, though, in particular with the recent rise of “retail traders” — ordinary citizens who work the stock market using intel from websites like Wall Street Bets and Robinhood. This subculture went overground two years ago when the share price of GameStop, a high-street electronics store, became a thing, although a minor quibble is that even this accessible, breezy film struggles explain to the layman how that worked.
The look of it takes some getting used to, with lots of cartoonish CG visuals and, more importantly, memes that at first sight seem to be there as light relief, a funny kind of palliative. But to cite Marshall McLuhan, the visionary Canadian philosopher who has become slightly forgotten since the things he predicted came quite strikingly true, the medium here really is the message. We are where we are now precisely because of the Balkanization of the way we consume information, where a tweet can hit as hard as a headline. It also fills in a lot of information about cryptocurrency, its strength and its fallibility, in ways that are surprisingly human, and that are now playing out with SVB.
How we’ll cope with all this is still anybody’s guess. But what’s comforting about this sometimes overwhelming barrage of information is that, as she always has been, Timoner is ahead of you and is just as alert and open to the questions that her film raises as you are. Plus the music is great.
Title: The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution
Section: Documentary Spotlight
Director-screenwriter: Ondi Timoner
Running time: 1hr 42 mins
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