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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

obviously I felt like geeking out today…

District 9, Avatar, District 9, Avatar

I’m such a dork.



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  • This isn’t such a bad thing. But I have a question for you…as a self-professed geek.

    Is there a “geeky preference” as opposed to a “non-geeky preference”?

    I have to imagine that the number of non-geeks outnumber the geeks. And if that is so, why would any movie studio/network/media outlet cater to the geeks?

    Is there a middle road of geek/non-geek tastes that can draw in folks who are decidedly (or determinedly) non-geeky while still retaining some geek appeal?

    Star Wars seems to tread that line (until they derailed into this Clone Wars nonsense)

    Shows like Fringe and the recent changes wrought by Syfy/Sci-fi seem to be aimed at that blurry line.

    I wonder about your views on this.

  • David Wender

    Further update on latest Sam Worthington project.
    Will be first true story played by SW and produced by Oscar winner Eva Orner.

  • MaryAnn

    Is there a middle road of geek/non-geek tastes that can draw in folks who are decidedly (or determinedly) non-geeky while still retaining some geek appeal?

    This is a great question, and I could probably write a book about it. (I’ll add that to the idea list.) Short answer (as relates to this post, too): I think *District 9* is doing that. I heard a decidedly nongeeky woman talking about the film tonight, and she loved it, thought it was sooo sad, hoped for a sequel so that Wikus and Tania could get back together. She found the least geeky aspect of the film — the relationship between the protagonist and his wife — and focused on that.

    I think most movies that we think of as geeky straddle that line. They have to, just from a financial perspective, because hardcore and medium-core geeks (I’d call myself medium-core) are a small slice of the population. But the mainstream has gone kind of geeky in recent years, even if the mainstream probably looks at the things geeks love in a different way than geeks do.

    I gotta tell ya: I’ve met and spoken to Neill Blomkamp, and I’ve met and spoken to James Cameron, and pretty much the coolest thing about them (as geeks) and the most attractive thing about them (as men, to this woman) is how they make geekiness smart and creative. Which is true of lots of geeks, but they’ve made a special effort to go out and do something with it. And they’re so enthusiastic about the geeky stuff without being the kind of negative-stereotype of a nerd that is unfortunately all too prevalent (and for good reason, sometimes, because those people do exist). Seriously: Listening to James Cameron talk about actively working over the last 15 years to push film-camera technology ahead to the point he needed it to be at to make *Avatar*… Talk nerdy to me, baby!

    Oh, but there’s a reason for me to mention these guys apart from just drooling over them: I think that if left to their own devices, and if they didn’t have to worry about selling a movie to a mainstream audience, they’d be making movies that are *waaay* geekier than they are.

    One thing Blomkamp told me that I didn’t put in either of the pieces I’ve posted about him is that he does pretty much know what his next project is, and it’s definitely another science fiction film. He wasn’t willing (or able, maybe — it sounds like it’s in early stages) to go into any detail, so it wasn’t really worth including in either piece, but it does make me very eager to see what he comes up with next.

  • Jolly

    But the mainstream has gone kind of geeky in recent years, even if the mainstream probably looks at the things geeks love in a different way than geeks do.

    I liked Daniel Clowes’s commentary on this, in his collection “Pussey!”:

    “…through some unfathomable cultural downgrade, the elves, ninjas and super-champions of my youth have infiltrated and overtaken the world at large! Has our world become so terrifying that even the masses now seek assurance in what was once the sole province of the socially unfit?”

  • amanohyo

    I don’t know if it’s that the world has become terrifying so much as that the kids who were into elves, ninjas, and super-champions were disproportionately the ones who grew up to be creators and/or artists. A similar thing has happened with cowboys, aliens, kung fu, and vampires over the years.

    On the other hand, the rapid pace of technology is terrifying in its ability to completely outstrip our emotional and intellectual development as a species. I’m not talking just about biological/atomic weapons. It’s baffling that we’ve had the ability, when it comes to technology and resources, to give every human on the planet (and certainly every human in the US) clean water, a safe place to live, a decent education, and enough food to eat (to say nothing of health care) for decades now, but we never stop to find the will to use that technology to improve ourselves. No, no, we must boldly push on towards tinier phones and faster connections. The fact that the quantity of communication is increasing while the quality of the content plummets is seen as a triumph of the individual voice. When I look at youtube and twitter, I see the future, and it’s horrifying. The abundance of elves, ninjas, and super-champions doesn’t reassure me one bit.

    The most depressing thing for me as a geek is that in science fiction and fantasy, the genres which allow you to imagine anything you want to, I continue to see the same ancient ethnic and gender based stereotypes appearing without being deconstructed, questioned, or even examined.

    I’m proud to be a geek and a gamer, but part of the reason that elements of geek culture can be assimilated by the mainstream so easily these days is because “geeky” projects very rarely challenge any of our basic preconceptions anymore, not even on an ultra-superficial Twilight Zonish level. That’s one of the admirable things about District 9. It’s entertinament first, and not a deep analysis of society by any means, but at least it’s forcing the viewer to maintain a slightly uncomfortable and limited perspective. Most of the people who don’t like the movie say that Wikus is completely unsympathetic. I feel the exact opposite. His flaws mirror those of most of the geeks I know, and without them, the movie wouldn’t be worth watching a second time.

  • That’s one of the admirable things about District 9. It’s entertinament first, and not a deep analysis of society by any means, but at least it’s forcing the viewer to maintain a slightly uncomfortable and limited perspective.

    I’d agree that District 9 uses science fiction wrappings to tell a more-or-less traditional story of a man who is forced by circumstances to make choices that alienate (pun intended) himself from everything he finds familiar while aiding someone who may or may not help him in the future. And it was brave to leave that hope hanging.

    It seems to me that this general outline could be applied to the plot of the not-so-sci-fi The Painted Veil. Which goes to show what geeks have known all along is that Sci-Fi is just fiction divorced from the limits of the real world. It can be set in the future or the day after tomorrow or, in the past if you really want to.

    It seems to me that the term ‘geeky‘ (and its attendant association) is the problem. We set ourselves apart from the mainstream by choice and we want to see the limits of storytelling and the bounds of our chosen medium (video/ film/ comics/ games) pushed to the breaking point. The geek community gladly embraces our auteurs who try to break free of the mainstream (Whedon, Gilliam, Cameron, Blomkamp, Miller and many, many, more) while decrying those who would try to appeal to us through the mainstream or who left us behind when the mainstream caught up to us (Speilberg, Lucas, Scott, Snyder and nearly any Hollywood blockbuster)

    We have to take responsibility for our own outrage at some point and realize that we are elitist consumers. We cannot complain if we get the occasional bone.

    We can either broaden our horizons or try to educate and refine the tastes of the broader public. We might get fewer Transformers movies while keeping the Star Trek films and the occasional D-9.

  • Jolly

    The most depressing thing for me as a geek is that in science fiction and fantasy, the genres which allow you to imagine anything you want to, I continue to see the same ancient ethnic and gender based stereotypes appearing without being deconstructed, questioned, or even examined.

    I put the Clowes quote up because it tickled me when I read it and it seemed relevant to the discussion. What Clowes does recognize about geekdom is that comics/science fiction/fantasy/video games are first and foremost forms of escapism that are maybe just a little bit more fantastical than other traditional mainstream distractions. [Note: I originally mistyped mainstream as “meanstream”…a Freudian slip?] I’m not sure why you would expect escapist pieces authored mostly by white males (or at least it was when I was immersed in the stuff) to spend much time with genre deconstructions or addressing stereotypes, other than of course the poor, stereotyped “geek male.” And when roles are reversed, it’s generally embarrassing…think of the busty Power Girl, or Red Sonja in her scanty scale mail bikini.

  • amanohyo

    Geekdom is a realm of escapism, but why should the imaginary worlds that creative, open-minded people choose to escape to include (and often magnify) many of the worst qualities of the real world? I can understand wanting to escape to a land of cardboard characters and scantily clad sex objects as a teen; however, (and this is probably my inner elitest consumer speaking), shouldn’t we move toward a point where the average geek is no longer satisfied with simple-minded, power fantasies with a little soft porn on the side? It seems as we live longer and chatter more, adolescence is being stretched in both directions to consume as much of our lives as possible. What passes for news sounds like high school gossip, what passes for romance sounds like a soap opera, and what passes for science fiction sounds like a child’s cartoon. Everyone wants to escape to a simpler world now and then, I just wish that simpler world grew with the person who imagined it, or at least that the imaginary prison bars gradually came into view.

  • Grinebiter

    IMHO the least escapist and most thought-provoking SF writer is Greg Egan, but I seriously doubt that any of his cerebral stories could be turned into films. A gender-bender who might, just possibly, be filmable is Sherri Tepper. I gather that someone has filmed “Earthsea”, but that was never my favourite LeGuin work anyway. Has anyone ever tried to film “Left Hand of Darkness”? I started to re-read “Always Coming Home” recently but then lent it to a friend; that could be a N-part TV series, possibly, with gradual revelation that the future world isn’t quite what we assume at first.

  • Jolly

    @amanohyo

    It’s not that I don’t sympathize. However, I think there is some truth to the idea that people simply outgrow the genre, rather than the genre growing up with them. And if I accept your premise that people are extending their adolescence, then perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that traditionally “geeky” pursuits are rising in popularity.

    This is not to say that I don’t think that SF/fantasy conventions can be used to tell thought-provoking adult stories. However, here I agree with Grinebiter…it’s more likely to find such stories in print. My exposure is generally limited to Hartwell and Cramer’s “Year’s Best SF” anthology, which most years I find worthwhile.

  • amanohyo

    Yeah, I see both of your points. It would be almost impossible to make an entertaining movie out of a lot of the most thought-provoking sci-fi stories (doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see someone try though). Maybe if I wait a few years, the quality of sci-fi movies/games will catch up. I guess it took a while for Dick and Lem to make it to the big screen. I’ll just continue working and try to be patient.

  • Jolly

    Well, there’s two types of impossible: the “it wouldn’t be entertaining to any audience” and the “it wouldn’t have broad based appeal, which means it would never be filmed.” I suspect a lot of SF fits into the second category…as long as making movies is a costly endeavor, it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator to recoup the original investment.

    I have a general disdain for “popcorn” movies, where I’m told I should check my brain at the door. What I find entertaining generally does involve at least some minimum level of intellectual engagement. The various comments surrounding the last Star Trek movie have filled me with dread. The original series wasn’t really all that cerebral, but the last installment is being praised for making the series more accessible. Unfortunately, accessibly came with a story that could have been penned by a twelve year for a creative writing assignment. I literally felt I was being assaulted by that movie. In District 9, I could at least live with the plot contrivances. And in hindsight, I realize that I shouldn’t have bought into some of the reviewers’ hype about the “powerful allegory.” I don’t really think it functions as more than an action SF flick with an inventive setting.

  • Grinebiter

    I guess it took a while for Dick and Lem to make it to the big screen.

    Hmm, that several Dick stories made it to the big screen is certainly grounds for hope, and brownie points for Hollywood. IMHO, though, the first “Solaris” was far more Tarkovsky than Lem (just as “Stalker” was far more Tarkovsky than the Strugatskies); I haven’t seen the Clooney version.

    Funny thing, but a Lem idea may have inspired both “Contact” and (eek) “Species” — the notion of ET broadcasts being instructions to make stuff. Which may or may not be in our best interests…. However, in “His Master’s Voice”, the 5% of the broadcast that we think we decoded (and we’re probably wrong about that) enabled us to make stuff that (a) is weird as hell but has no discernible use or (b) stuff that we fear will be a superweapon, but then in the end it isn’t. And so we end up with a very radical agnosia, just as in “Picnic by the Wayside”. Curtain. Not things that man was not meant to know, but things that man cannot begin to know, in a cerebral style that is above all a parody of academia, cf the Institute of Solaristic Studies. Not, I think, filmable. I don’t think even his lighter stuff is; how, for example, do you deal with Ilon Tichy and his deadpan throwaway lines about his spaceship breaking down and so he had to walk home? A visual of that would just be ridiculous. I think all we can do with Lem is to steal individual ideas and run with them to our own destinations.

  • amanohyo

    Jolly, I agree that the allegory is pretty flimsy in District 9, but at least it’s there. The choice of setting forces the viewer to attempt to draw some deeper meaning from the movie (even if it’s nowhere to be found for some). As you mentioned, fluff like Star Trek actively works to prevent the viewer from thinking (and this is seen as a good thing because it’s “just a popcorn movie”).

    Grinebiter, I can imagine a lot of cool animated shorts based on Lem stories (I suppose some Futurama episodes could count as extremely loose Lem adaptations), but you’re right, it would be tough to stretch them out into a live action feature. It might be possible to combine several of them into a movie though, since the Lem universe is pretty consistent from story to story.

    And in case you were curious, the Clooney Solaris is mediocre; it completely sidesteps the main thrust of the novel about the utter inability of humans to understand the “organism(s)” on the planet, and manages to transform all the weirdness and horror into a mundane sci-fi romance.

    I guess if you told me in the 1970’s that “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” would be made into a successful popcorn movie starring Conan the Barbarian, I would have suggested that you stop smoking weed and reading crossover comics, so I think if we’re patient, a few drops of the contemporary challenging material will trickle down into Hollywood’s desperate hands.

  • Grinebiter

    And in case you were curious, the Clooney Solaris is mediocre; it completely sidesteps the main thrust of the novel about the utter inability of humans to understand the “organism(s)” on the planet, and manages to transform all the weirdness and horror into a mundane sci-fi romance.

    That is what I would both expect and dread. After all, one of the reasons I read good hard SF is to get away from romance.

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