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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Has the nature of the modern movie geek changed?

Devin Fararci at CHUD.com posted a provocative essay recently decrying the dreary mainstream tastes of those who call themselves movie geeks these days:

For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to wrap my head around an increasingly vocal segment of our readership – people who seem to hate weird, offbeat, unique and difficult movies. They came out in force lately for Splice, but they’ve been around for a while. I still get emails and comments from people who are angry with me for recommending Observe and Report to them; I’m baffled by that because I always thought that our readership was tuned in to dark, edgy, odd and downright bizarre stuff. Especially genre stuff.

I’m not saying everybody has to like the same things – that would be boring – but it’s been weird seeing so many people utterly turned off by anything that wasn’t safe and mainstream.

I disagree, obviously, that Splice is “unique” or “difficult,” but Faraci’s point is taken: even geek tastes tend to have gotten watered down, in seems. More from Fararci:

I wonder what it would be like if Evil Dead 2 were released today. Would it get relentlessly run down on the internet for being too silly and for the performances and production value? Have we become a world of film fans who can only accept movies that look like they cost a hundred million dollars, that have no tonal variances, and that adhere to Robert McKee-style rules of structure? I wonder how Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi would have fared if there had been an internet when they were making their first films.

Faraci is probably right. On the other hand, Evil Dead II was not a wide-release mainstream studio film: it was an indie that never played on more than 310 screens. It wasn’t meant to appeal to mainstream audiences.

I think the issue is more one of how Hollywood has coopted geek-favorite genres (Faraci touches on this too): it’s not that geek tastes have gotten watered down, it’s that mainstream audiences — who will likely never have the patience or inclination for films that are “unique” or “difficult” — have learned to like the trappings of geek genres.

It’s an interesting coincidence that in my review of Observe and Report — which Faraci considers a milestone in this change-of-geekitude — I wrote about how the doesn’t entirely succeed precisely because it is afraid alienating unthoughtful mainstream viewers:

[A] more forcefully satirical version Observe and Report simply wouldn’t have been a movie marketable to mainstream audiences.

It bothers me deeply that I can’t help but suspect that Hill held back from making what could have been a brilliant, sour work of acidic genius in favor of a movie that was focus-group approved and preascertained by studio accountants to earn a certain acceptable number of millions.

I think the people we would have called movie geeks 25 years ago are still around, but in the same small numbers we were then. It just seems like there’s more of us because it’s much easier to talk about movies today (online) and increasingly easier to revisit movies (on DVD and now on-demand).

What do you think: Has the nature of the modern movie geek changed?

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

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  • FYI you go back and forth between “Faraci” (correct) and “Fararci”.

    I think the problem with modern movie geekdom is everyone is a movie geek. When I became a movie geek in the early 2000s (with the publication of EW’s Top 50 Cult Movies of All Time, back when the magazine wasn’t just a costumed version of US Weekly and People) it wasn’t quite mainstream to be a geek yet. I think back then movie geeks were just happy to see people embracing cult material as acceptable and not weird. Now there are so many and so many are considered to be disingenuous that the movie geeks who are out there are bitter and unwelcoming. Don’t like a geek-friendly property? Prepare to get flamed on movie message boards. Even I’m guilty of doing this, I’m sure (re: Scott Pilgrim, probably).

    That said, I hated Splice, so I just wish he’d picked a stronger film on which to hang his argument.

  • Brian

    Yep, you nailed it: It’s not so much that “geeks” have changed, it’s just that they’ve had their favorite genres co-opted and often lobotomized for maximum multiplex appeal. It’s the cinematic equivalent of seeing a band you love “sell out” — it’s just not as fun when everybody’s wearing their t-shirt and flocking to the local corporate-branded sports stadium to see them, and you have to resort to mumbling, “I like their early stuff,” to avoid identifying with the sheep . . .

    The truth is that geeks *like* being outside the mainstream, and they’re having a hard time finding a place to stand now that it’s overflown their tributary.

  • Erik

    It’s good to remember that Devin spent a couple of months ranking on the die-hard Firefly/Serenity fans. It seemed like he had a new piece written almost every day about how the movie was a failure and it was the fans fault, like he took some perverse pleasure in it not doing well because he thought it was so-so and therefore the people who were passionate about it were lame. It came across to me as “How dare they be so passionate about something I don’t care about instead of ‘Running Scared’ or another movie I deem worthy of geek love!” Devin just seems to me to be really offended if you vary from his tastes. If “Serenity” fails, it’s because it wasn’t good. If “Running Scared” or “Slither” fails, it’s because people are stupid. Still really enjoy his site, though.

    There is a lot also to the feeling of “I liked that before it was cool” and now that something is mainstream, it’s not hip, you are not longer part of this special club. We geeks, like it or not, like feeling special & unique, we like introducing people to things that they have never heard of, being outside normal pop-culture and when we aren’t, it kind of annoys us…or at least me. I know if I love a song or artist that no one else knows about and then I hear them in a movie soundtrack, I get annoyed. “Aw, now people won’t think I’m special for listening to them, they’ll think I just jumped on the bandwagon.” I am also the first to admit this is stupid and, frankly, immature.

    You make a good point, MaryAnn, that things seem to be diluted because of the internet and now EVERYONE can make their opinions known (he types, making sure everyone knows his opinions) and so casual fans or people who maybe just like one genre or even just one movie become part of this world. Can you imagine what the internet boards would have been like after “Return of the Jedi” came out, or “Aliens” or even “Doctor Who” in the ’80s? My God, the flaming that would have been going on over Colin Baker & Sylvester McCoy! We just had our circle of friends to talk and get excited with. Must admit, kind of miss those days of concentrated geekdom. Cons where only 300 people were there and not only did you actually get to talk to the celebrity guests…you got their signatures & pictures for free. Ah, memories…

    Frankly, if Hollywood sees money to be made in something, they will do it. Right now, they see money to be made in the things geeks love. When they stop making money, they’ll leave us alone and we’ll be back to trading copies of obscure movies no one else knows exists. In the meantime, just enjoy what we enjoy and not worry about other people. You will always find someone who loves and someone who hates the same thing. Hell, one of my best friends is an unabashed lover of Star Trek V. As The Dude would say, “Well, that’s like…your opinion, man” and we should leave it at that.

  • Nate

    Can you imagine what the internet boards would have been like after “Return of the Jedi” came out, or “Aliens” or even “Doctor Who” in the ’80s?

    I think all you need to do is replace the word “Avatar” with any of those.

  • Nate

    Though I also think there are still instances when the “geek” or “internet” taste differs from the mainstream. See: Watchmen, Moon, and Kick-Ass

  • Keith

    With the sheer number of people and volume of material, it can be problematic to classify people into a category like “geek.” Being a geek or non-geek is hardly a binary state and is often a matter of perspective.

    Compared to the average main-stream culture consumer, I’m pretty geeky with my love for sci-fi and gaming. Compared to people considered geek archetypes, I’m probably fairly normal.

    People are quite diverse; even in particular niches (which I consider a good thing). However, no matter what sort of group you consider yourself in, the moment you start thinking you are somehow better than everyone else, you have a problem. This is always a danger when getting too caught up on labeling and classification.

  • Knightgee

    it’s not that geek tastes have gotten watered down, it’s that mainstream audiences — who will likely never have the patience or inclination for films that are “unique” or “difficult” — have learned to like the trappings of geek genres.

    I don’t think this is entirely true. I think audiences are open to such things, but the makers of film constantly underestimate the average viewers inclinations and think they know what viewers will like when they don’t. Having decided that “unique” and “difficult” films are simply too much for audiences and thus won’t sell, they make the mistake of thinking that the geeky films that the audiences will settle for are all that they can or are willing to handle.

  • It probably is harder for movie geeks to distingish themselves from the herd than for others, since most people watch movies.

    Book geeks have an advantage in that all you have to do is step into their home and see how many books, and what kind, dominate their home’s decor. D&D geekdom (by this I include all paper and pen roleplayers) requires a huge investment in time, and true D&D geekdom basically means a regular party of friends to play.

    You film geeks out there need to go hunting for the alternative/indie films, watch the rarest films you can find, support the unpopular with your dollar, and get your street cred back. I remember when I met a elite film geek in person; he loaned me a DVD of the original, pre-Bogart “Maltese Falcon.” The acting in that movie sucked, but the point is, I learned something from the experience.

  • JohnnyInc

    I don’t get his point. Because people on his site didn’t like Splice, they must want a more watered down premise in their movie? Couldn’t they hate it just because it wasn’t good? Just because it was a sci-fi/horror flick, doesn’t mean they owe it any less criticism than a mainstream movie. It is this “You geeks should eat this up” mentality that got us Catwoman, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. The studios assumed the geek demographic was built into supporting those films so they went about making awful movies for mass consumption.

  • nyjm

    Before discussing how today’s geek has changed (for me, “modern” is a really loaded term) – I’d like to know what people mean by “movie geek” in the first place.

    From some of the posts above, it seems that many feel that a movie geek is someone who prefers independently-produced films vs. Hollywood, considers him- / herself counter-culture or at least oppositional and self-identifies as part of a minority, even a social niche.

    This seems vague to me. Could anyone elucidate?

  • Mo

    Basically exactly what Brian said.

    I got really, really into Coldplay in the early days when they didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard on the radio. The transformation that that fandom has gone through over the years from indie buzz band to mainstream and overplayed is almost identical to what’s happening in geekdom now, minus the brutal backlash- so far.

    I got into so much interesting and different music because of other Coldplay fans. Some of them have really adventurous tastes believe it or not. But after the third album (their weakest) came out and threw them headfirst all the rest of the way into the mainstream the average age of the fans dropped by about 10 years, their playlists got smaller and more boring, and a vocal group of them like to whine about every song that doesn’t sound like Fix You. They think Viva la Vida was terrible because it didn’t sound like X&Y. They think Brian Eno should be banned from the studio because he’s ruining them by making them try new things. They attack other fans for liking things that aren’t mainstream. The level of conversation with some of them has disintegrated to the purely infantile. I’m not being fair to other fans as a whole, but with mainstream exposure comes a whole group of people with that sort of mentality. It doesn’t matter if it’s music or anything else.

    The one way the modern, watered-down hollywood geekdom has gotten a free pass is that there isn’t that tendency in movies to attack anything vaguely mainstream the way that there is in music. (How many of you cringed the moment I said “Coldplay”?) I think it may have something to do with access- music is much cheaper and easier to put together, record, perform, and distribute. But I can’t help wonder if there is going to be a backlash soon. Just look at the box office this summer- it’s starting.

    Are we in for a decade of gritty realism soon? All it takes is one great movie everyone wants to copy for a paradigm shift…

  • Brian

    @nyjim: Excellent point. Defining one’s terms is always a useful thing.

    I think the specific variety of “geek” discussed here is not merely a cinephile.It’s the kind of folks who often read (and write for) sites like CHUD and AICN: Movie lovers whose preferences have always leaned toward genre films, particularly the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. (And they often gravitate to these genres in literature, too, not to mention comics and graphic novels.)

    Those particular genres have spent much, if not most, of movie history somewhat outside the Hollywood mainstream, at least until the “blockbuster” era began with Jaws and Star Wars. But especially in the last ten years, genre films have exploded as the movie biz rediscovered the power of the franchise property — to the combined delight and chagrin of the geeks. They love to see their favorite stories and characters on the screen, but will be the first in line to crucify anybody who doesn’t do those stories and characters justice (whatever their particular definition of “justice” may be). Then there’s the whole resentment of the mass appeal that has already been discussed.

    Does that seem like a pretty reasonable definition of the kind of “geeks” we’re talking about?

  • Then there’s the whole resentment of the mass appeal that has already been discussed.

    I’m not sure I get this, to be honest.

    It’s one thing to resent a movie for not “doing justice” to the source material, or for dumbing it down because of the filmmakers’ assumptions about the audience. But resenting something simply because of its mass appeal, or assuming it’s crap because it’s popular, is puzzling to me. I want more people to like what I like, and I’m happy for the unknown writers and musicians that I love who later make it big. I love the Beatles, and I’m glad millions of people share that love; I’m glad they didn’t remain a hip, obscure band playing little clubs in Hamburg. I think the Harry Potter books are great, and I’m glad millions of people agree. Now I hear that U.S. publishers are commissioning English translations of other previously-obscure Scandinavian mystery novels, hoping for the next Stieg Larsson; I’m glad for those authors, and for their new American readers, but I wonder how many of their Scandinavian fans are going to be grumpy that their “little secret” has been discovered.

    I think I feel this way partly because, when it comes to discovering cool new books or shows or films, I’m sometimes late to the party. And I appreciate it when the people who are already at the party greet me with open arms — rather than making me feel unwelcome and dismissing me as “not a real fan.” :-)

  • I’ve been late to the cultural party my entire life… haha. A cultural movement has to hit a certain critical mass before I notice it, and by then it’s burning out or mainstreaming.

  • I suffer from a similar condition. No sooner did I become a regular Buffy viewer before people started talking about how it was going downhill. No sooner did I discover Star Trek than it became unhip to like Star Trek. No sooner than I grew to appreciate the same The Twilight Zone reruns my father used to watch than my local stations stopped carrying said reruns.

    On the other hand, there’s times when I like being un-cool or not “with it.” After all, most of the people who were most kind to me in school and respectful toward me in adulthood were not the hipper-than-thou folks who were always in fashion. It was the not-so-hip people. For example, the guy in my high school English class who liked movie musicals. The CCD teacher who introduced me to Carole King’s Tapestry album. The married guy at the local comic store who liked comic books. The college English teacher who liked Bette Davis movies. The college English teacher who liked West Side Story. The woman in my Catholic Singles group who liked Abba. The older female friend who enjoyed dancing to Chubby Checker.

    More often than not, when I did encounter someone who aspired to have more cutting-edge tastes than yours truly, I found the experience to be a miserable one. Granted, I didn’t have the best social skills as a young adult but I can’t help noticing that it usually wasn’t the Black Flag fans or the Talking Heads people or so on and so forth who invited me to hang out with them. It was people like the un-hip folks I just mentioned.

    In addition, the fact that I already felt like an outsider because of my mixed ethnic background and the fact that my family had moved so much when I was younger made me feel silly about adopting the usual traits of outsiderhood. Yes, such things as tattoos and body-piercing were okay for some people but not necessarily for me. And in an ideal society, the conversation would stop right there and go on to another subject.

    Because no matter what you see and read and listen to, sooner or later there’s going to come a time when people no longer consider it cool. Which is why it seems so futile to try and choose your art on the basis of what’s fashionable as opposed to what appeals to you. After all, if something doesn’t speak to you as a person, you’re not going to enjoy it, no matter how much persons A, B and C may do.

    Besides, it would be a dull world if we all liked the same thing at the same time.

  • To add to my previous post: Speaking as a former struggling musician, I can say honestly that my band would have killed to “sell out” and play larger and larger venues. And every single other band we knew would have done the same. I’m sure we had some fans who were fiercely possessive of us and wanted us to be some kind of “best-kept secret,” but if they’d said so to us, we would have been tempted to slap them silly.

    It’s basically a balance between being true to yourself and your vision, and, well, making yourself marketable enough to club owners, booking agents, event organizers, and audiences in general so that you can actually get paying gigs. Starving artists can be noble, but they can also starve. :-)

    So when I see artists retooling their music/book/film to appeal to more people, sure, part of me is sad that they aren’t being appreciated in their “pure state,” but I can’t really blame them. It’s work, and we all need money to live.

    And I’ve said this before, but a personal rule I had as a performer is that, if the audience isn’t digging my work, I never blame the audience. It’s my job to connect with them, and if I’m failing then I need to figure out what *I* should be doing better. The audience owes me nothing. The attention and appreciation of strangers is a privilege and a gift.

  • MC

    The way I see it is if I like something and it becomes popular, then there are more people to talk about it with.

    And if it is a series, a band or a game, well, then whatever I like will more likely than not get more stuff to explore. How is that a bad thing?

    I am having a weird flashback to an article I read a few weeks ago about the hardcore gamer community being upset that the next Mega Man game was going to have an easy mode (thus, making it more accessible for more players).


  • RogerBW

    I’ll post this here, though it links to the Black Death thing too: it’s not that the genre audience has changed, it’s that the definition of that audience has changed. There are just as many people who’ll watch a quirky SF film – but “the sci-fi audience” includes both them and the rather larger number of people who aren’t into the strange stuff but do want breasts and exploding spacecraft.

    So when a small film gets small film earnings, it’s regarded as a failure, because those “other” films did better…

    Yes, if you want big money, you have to dilute the strange stuff to appeal to the masses. This is hardly news.

    Quirky music is doing rather better than it used to, because selling MP3s directly is starting to work. Quirky film will go the same way, once the parasitic costs of “name” salaries and theatre chains can be got out of the equation.

  • Shane Toodles

    I haven’t seen splice, and I will probably never watch it. I fail to see what’s so subversive or difficult about a monster horror movie. There is literally one of those playing in any given theater in any given day of the year. Plus, there are about 100 every year that are made for nothing and get no exposure. It’s not a matter of them being ostracized from mainstream society, they are just poorly acted, poorly written garbage. This applies to science fiction to a lesser extent, because the material the genre deals with usually has a higher barrier to entry in terms of budget. But tune into one of those ‘syfy’ movies of the week and you have the same phenomenon, where the things that may have been ‘odd’ enough for MST3K fodder are now just relished tropes to excuse poor film-making and a kind of intellectual bankruptcy.

    The great thing about Observe and Report is that there is someone commenting in that very article about how Seth Rogen’s character date-raped Anna Ferris and how the movie’s use of violence was “vile.” Which I don’t agree with at all, but it’s interesting that a film that was atleast marketed as a mainstream movie and had a major release incites that kind of commentary and a very very polarizing effect on its viewers. Most of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes either echo the sentiment that it’s vile or declare that it’s one of best movies of the year. Although I suspect his reason for praising Splice fall more in line with him viewing it as some kind of commentary on parenting or abortion. I think there is something to the idea that great movies should be polarizing. They should be hated by as many who love them, and with the same level of intensity. I’m thinking of The Thin Red Line, where there is a new post on it’s imdb every day about how terribly boring and pretentious it is.

    What does this mean for geek culture? I don’t really know what it means to be a film geek in the first place. I always just assumed it was someone who watched alot of movies, especially foreign and old, with bonus points awarded for movies that were both old and foreign! Maybe I’m misreading the comments wrong, but I have never equated liking films adapted from comics or other geeky sources like Star Trek makes you a film geek.

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