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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: Why hasn’t geek culture grown up?

It suddenly occurred to me when I was writing about the trailer for Never Let Me Go the other day that I was surprised that we don’t see more movies like that one these days. See, 25 years ago, when I was 15, if someone had told me, “By the time you’re 40, geeks will have taken over the world. Everything that you think is cool right — computers, science fiction, snarky humor, self-publishing — all those things that make the other kids think you’re weird… all those things are gonna be so hot in 2010. Geekitude will triumph!” I’m not sure I would have believed that.

But if I had, I might have thought that the pop-culture landscape of 2010 would be dominated by geeky grownup things… since my generation would have been grownup by then and eager for geeky stuff that is also grownup. The popular science fiction movies that geeky adults couldn’t get enough of would look like Fahrenheit 451 and THX-1138. Maybe someone would have made a Mean Streets in space, or a science fiction Taxi Driver. I would have expected, if I could have foreseen what was to come, more movies like Children of Men and Never Let Me Go — that is, science fiction stories that explore complex adult themes — garnering mainstream audiences, and fewer to no movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
I might have expected more deeply interactive social games that weren’t about visiting exotic realms and killing the creatures you meet there but about exploring those realms and perhaps getting involved in complex stories: less World of Warcraft, more immersive Lord of the Rings roundrobin fan fiction soap opera, perhaps. (Maybe Second Life is getting close to that.) Maybe a more intricate and plot- and character-driven Myst.

But instead of an adult pop culture, we have the likes of Grown Ups — I suppose the title is intended ironically, but I’m not sure the movie is smart enough for irony — which has us debating why it seems that an entire generation hasn’t grown up at all.

Why hasn’t geek culture grown up?

I’m not talking about individual geeks, of course, many of whom have grown up perfectly nicely. And perhaps some of what I might have expected is starting to happen on television, with the likes of Caprica and Stargate Universe… but even those shows are niche, and nowhere near as popular as shows on broadcast networks. (One possible exception, at least in the U.K., is Doctor Who, which garners a huge mainstream audience at home, if not in the U.S.)

Or perhaps the question is: Why are only the trappings of geekitude popular with mainstream audiences? If true geekiness really is a kind of intellectualism — and I think it is — then perhaps it isn’t that geeks haven’t grown up but that this particular brand of intellectualism was never going to be any more popular than any kind of intellectualism ever has been.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • fett101

    Wow is packed to the gills with lore. http://www.wow.com/category/lore/

  • scurvy

    Not that your question is specific to America, but American’s aren’t exactly encouraged to grow up, geeks or no. Obsessing over games, never tax me ever, national marketing campaigns to the basest desires…Can anything popular be grown-up at the same time?

  • That’s why the Jane Austen movies were so popular a while back and the Merchant-Ivory films as well. Because Americans don’t like grown-up stuff. ;-)

    I’ve said it before: dumb movie-goers have a natural advantage over smart movie-goers in that most dumb people have a reasonable idea of what a good “dumb movie” would be like while smart people tend to disagree a lot on what counts as a good smart movie. And short of bringing on a new era of intellectual conformity–which would undoubtedly make things worse–smart people will always disagree on what constitutes a good smart movie.

    That said, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by the movies coming out this summer myself.

  • Martin

    Whilst I’m sure that the old adage of the people that run Hollywood aren’t geeks so you don’t see good geeky stuff isn’t as dead as we’d all like it to be, I figure it all comes down to lowest common denominator. Lowbrow stuff sells better than highbrow.

  • I think geek culture HAS grown up, but you’re looking in the wrong places.

    Geek culture is thriving in places like video games and television shows. Movies have been dumbed down due to ‘lowest common denominator’ needs of movie producers to appeal to as many people as possible. Problem is, they’ve dumbed down too much: hence the sucky box-office this year. Meanwhile, video games and tv shows appeal to specific audiences (the splintering of cable to 800 choices in particular), so there’s little worry about appealing to lowest-common. For television shows, you nab a particular audience that’s bound to tune in for smart and inventive scripts, dark complex characters and solid acting.

    There are great examples for TV scifi and fantasy geekery – Dr. Who, Lost, Heroes (for a brief shining season), Stargate, Battlestar – but also genre-themed dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men have geek flavors. Breaking Bad, by the by, is made by X-Files vet Vince Gilligan (whose production crews are veterans from that show as well), and while it’s not all conspiracy and aliens stuff BB is more “High School Scientist Gone Evilz”. Mad Men is powered by the geek love for nostalgia (in this case, the New Frontier era giving way to the harsh history of the late 60s).

  • Lady Tenar

    Mary Ann, I think you answered your own question with your last sentence. I don’t think true geekiness actually is more popular than it ever was, it’s just that geek culture has been watered down and commodified for the masses. I think having computers and the internet go from being a fringe interest to the basis of all communication in developed world in the past 10 years or so has done a lot to make geekiness go mainstream, and so inevitably you’re going to have other aspects of geek culture go mainstream with it.

    Like science fiction. But the thing is, most people aren’t into science fiction for the same reason true-blue life-long geeks like me are. Among the reasons I like sci fi are because it often provides really astute social commentary and explores issues of politics, morality, gender etc. in hypothetical, fantastic settings which opens up a lot of new story-telling possibilities. Also (and this was especially appealing to me as a child), sci fi/fantasy frequently features characters that get to be heroes in other worlds for the same reasons that they are misfits in their own, like their intelligence, their imagination, their anti-authoritarianism. This was a lot of the appeal of books like A Wrinkle in Time or The Neverending Story for me growing up. But the thing is, most people don’t relate to the genre on this level, any more than they ever did. Most people want to see explosions and shiny things. So that’s what most “sci fi” movies are, pretty much just dumb action movies, except they include aliens, or some weak dystopian future framing device that sets things up for Our Hero to take down the man with Really Cool Weapons or Martial Arts. Even “The Matrix” which is generally thought of as one of the smarter sci fi movies of recent years (which it is) is still pretty much just a slicked up, watered down rip-off of the 90s cult anime classic Ghost in the Shell. I don’t think much has actually changed, Hollywood just saw dollar signs in geek tropes that have existed for a while.

    Mad Men is powered by the geek love for nostalgia (in this case, the New Frontier era giving way to the harsh history of the late 60s).

    It’s really interesting to me how many people read Mad Men as a nostalgic show, while I read it as one of the least romantic, least nostalgic depictions of that time period I’ve ever seen. When I watch it, I’m just constantly struck by how much it would have sucked for me to live in those times, before that “harsh history.” The only thing about those women’s lives that I would want is their wardrobes. LOVE those pencil skirts.

  • While I agree with what Lady Tenar said about Hollywood’s relationship with science fiction, I think we should also remember that most people’s gateway drug into SF is the action adventure SF. A famous SF writer said, “the golden age of SF is 12,” refering to the age when someone can easily suspend their disbelief and yet be smart enough to get the message. For some maybe it’s younger; I started in on Asimov pretty young.

    I was at a Readercon panel in which the SF writers bemoaned that SF literature was getting better quality-wise but less popular. It is probably because SF writers are so busy being literary that they forgot if someone isn’t reading SF by the time they graduate high school, they probably never will. Right now I’m reading a SF trilogy written by Alastair Reynolds (first book was Revelation Space) and while the series is mind-blowingly amazing, I’m 39. If I had picked it up at 12, not a chance. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get “Left hand of Darkness,” I thought it was dull, but loved the “Earth Sea” trilogy (both written by LeGuin, which is why I compared them); when I came back to “Left hand of Darkness” in my 30s, I got it. If you want to hook a kid on SF, you’re better off giving them something by Asimov, Norton’s military SF, or similiar Old Guard writers.

    So while I agree that there’s something wrong with an individual geek that hasn’t changed in his or her tastes over decades of life, geek culture needs the fun and simple but smart SF, too. As for the dumb stuff, I wonder how many dumb Greek plays were written, but lost to time because who would bother to keep copies laying around? Our century may be doing itself a disserve by becoming so good at keeping copies of everything.

  • Boingo

    Hollywood will exploit an original geeky film and
    turn it into a watered down, money making form of
    a copycat/spin off. It’s like Sears selling hippy clothes-far from authentic, but the masses don’t understand originality.

    Original geek fare will rise from the ashes as
    always. Then the cycle goes on.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I might have expected more deeply interactive social games that weren’t about visiting exotic realms and killing the creatures you meet there but about exploring those realms and perhaps getting involved in complex stories: less World of Warcraft, more immersive Lord of the Rings roundrobin fan fiction soap opera, perhaps. (Maybe Second Life is getting close to that.) Maybe a more intricate and plot- and character-driven Myst.

    That sort of depends on your definition of complexity. :)

    Not sure if you play WoW, but as fett points out, there’s a pretty immersive backstory to the world which is available to the dedicated explorer, with recurring themes of corruption, revenge and redemption. Regular patches not only release content for players to explore, but modify the world subtlely to reflect the changing political situation over time. The new expansion not only updates the original world to bring it in line with the modern game-play mechanics, but it’s also significantly advancing the storyline in the game, with the shifting politics between the two factions of players. The depth of that story is actually part of the appeal of the game: those who actually read the quest text get a good feel for the political backdrop and plot progression in the world, and we care enough to find out what happens to background characters like Thrall, Jaina and Varian.

    Granted, that plot is all top-down. Wow players are dropped into a world comparable to Middle-Earth to explore, but the plot advances according to the Author, not the players. Second Life goes completely the other way; there are no goals and no narrative except what the players themselves impose upon the world, which pretty much disqualifies it as a narrative or a game by itself, even if games and narratives emerge within it’s world, based on the sort of social experiences the players wish to experience.

    Perhaps the spaceship simulation MMO EVE Online is the closest to what you’re discussing. It has an internal framework put forward by the developers with a background storyline, but the politics in the actual game are a completely emergent property, based on the interactions between the players. Wars, partnerships, betrayal, and the like, comes out of player decisions, rather than those of the game makers. For instance, an office-mate of mine playing the game was trading in sector when a rival clan took over the system. He had to organize with other players in his clan to stage a raid on one of the enemy systems so he could sneak out without being destroyed.

  • I agree with what Paul said. As far as written SF goes, there’s a lot of really smart stuff (in my opinion) being written for the juvenile/YA audience–M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and its sequels, Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember books, among others–stories that aren’t just about the shiny stuff or the cool-looking dystopia but about fully-realized complex characters and challenging ideas about how societies are set up. My impression is that these books have a large following, which is a hopeful sign.

    Whether or not movie adaptations can do justice to the books is another matter (I don’t think the City of Ember movie succeeded).

    I wonder how many dumb Greek plays were written, but lost to time because who would bother to keep copies laying around?

    You can blame the damn mob that destroyed the Library of Alexandria. (At least according to the movie Agora.) ;-)

  • Knightgee

    I had a professor who was a fan of science fiction explain to me once that the reason sci-fi was allowed to get away with things it wouldn’t be able to otherwise in terms of politics, social commentary, etc. was because it existed on the fringe, on the outside of what was deemed acceptable and literary. Now that sci-fi and general geekdom has gone mainstream, it only sort of makes sense that it’s losing one of the advantages it had as a fringe interest.

    I do think geek culture has certainly grown up, but not unexpected areas. It’s almost ridiculous how many video games are about overly complex political intrigue, or are games like Bio Shock, which in addition to being good, is a take on Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Again, that’s a video game tackling philosophy as a part of its central story. If you told me that would be happening back when Mario was considered the best thing around, I wouldn’t have believed you, much less thought such a game would be fun.

  • Jester

    Because by and large, the Boomers won’t step aside and give up the reins. Until they do, there’s no reason to grow up.

  • Lady Tenar

    So while I agree that there’s something wrong with an individual geek that hasn’t changed in his or her tastes over decades of life, geek culture needs the fun and simple but smart SF, too.

    Of course it needs the fun and simple but smart stuff. It’s the simple but dumb stuff that I don’t like. I agree that a lot of really good sci fi/fantasy is young adult (both the titles I mentioned in my own post are and my name is from the Earthsea books which you mentioned–except now there are 6 of them, not 3.) There’s a difference between something being accessible to youth and just being stupid and brainless. A lot of sci fi films that come out now are just stupid and brainless. I’d be absolutely thrilled if Hollywood started making sci fi/fantasy films of the calibre of the books we have mentioned (or non-sucky adaptations of those books.) It ain’t happening. It doesn’t need to be the “The Left Hand of Darkness” (which I first read in college and loved) to be interesting and good.

  • Boingo

    Now that sci-fi and general geekdom has gone mainstream, it only sort of makes sense that it’s losing one of the advantages it had as a fringe interest.

    “Fringe,” is a better choice of wording vs.” originality (my 1st post).”
    In my personal experience, I find your prof to be
    correct (in my taste).Some like the idea of finding a
    “playground” others haven’t yet “trampled the grass.”
    I remember when the “X-Files” was not yet successful-
    I was hooked. Then, it went full blown, and I lost
    interest. Back in the 60’s, there wasn’t the internet
    to announce a great book. I read Arthur C. Clarke’s
    “Childhood’s End.” It was so different,and overwhelming in the scale of things-now it seems bits
    are hi-jacked in other Sci-fi movies,i.e. “District 9,”etc..Trying to be fairly “up,” on “fantastic imagery ( painterly,etc.),”
    from the 60’s-70’s, it thrilled me that some directors were knowledgeable about the European artists,e.g..Moebius (influenced Blade Runner),H.R.
    Geiger (Alien). I thought of myself as fairly honorary semi-geek to have known of these artistic
    influences, but now, the ” membership certificate” is in the dust with the mass exposure (still glad it made some of these talented “unknowns” successful).

    The underground comic influence has made an impact
    (Daniel Clowe’s “Ghost World.”),and it’s still a
    wide open potential for fresh geek meat.

    I still say, somewhere, some filmmaker or visual
    artist is working on something totally new that will
    be first discovered by the “houndogs of geekdom.”

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