Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tropes of Geek Cinema and Television

1. Geeks are fundamentally in conflict with jocks (frequently embarrassed / humiliated by jocks) -- see Benjamin Nugent's Amercan Nerd for definition of "jock"

2. melodrama / geek rage / victimhood (simulating / claiming a marked identity) [will ascend to white privilege like Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho, Dante becomes owner of Qwik Stop at end of Clerks 2 -- back to classic patriarchal (or fratriarchal) Oedipal narrative]

3. simulated ethnicity / post-racialism (incl. racial mimicry, "Slappin' da bass" in I Love You, Man, Randal's "Porch monkey" tirade in Clerks 2, "I'm post-racial" in Party Down "James Ellison Funeral") [Elvis impersonators / working class whites discussed by Eric Lott]

4. Voyeurism motif -- also porn consumption -- connected to media consumption and Cyberspace chronotope: American Pie, Party Down "Brandix Corporate Retreat"

5. Stalkerism (Say Anything. . ., Party Down "Brandix Corporate Retreat," Chuck&Buck) and endless neurotic answering machine messages (Swingers, "30 Rock") -- "The Big Bang Theory " episode wherein Leonard obsesses over Penny for a year or more before they date = stalking counts as a relationship.

6. Media creation and vivid fantasy life (fantasy POV: Annie Hall, Fast Times, Rushmore, The Girl Next Door, JSBSB, most John Cusack movies) -- geeks can't see themselves with an ugly girl (Roman's rating of Casey in Party Down Ep 1 or 2) -- the Heather Graham motif (Swingers, Arrested Development, Scrubs, The Hangover), which is nowadays the Mila Kunis motif as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall [Jerry Seinfeld and Zach Braff play geeks who end up with more beautiful women]

7. male bonding (bromance) and homoeroticism / homophobia -- most often buddy pairs (geek / slacker duos) are emphasized

8. marginalized and/or masculine women (domineering mothers, female geeks, butches, tomboys, lesbians) -- incl. "she turned lesbian after he slept with her" motif (Randal in Clerks cartoon, Andy Millman in "Extras") -- incl. the unappreciated woman (Veronica in Clerks, Kristen Bell in Fanboys, Michelle Trachtenberg in Eurotrip)

9. working mcjobs/ underemployment [connects to melodrama] -- Office Space, Clerks, Party Down , The Office [see also geek/slacker chronotopes]

10. slacking / lack of commitment / keep options open [connects to Gen X geek / slacker duos]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

New Video, Geek Conceit, and Geek Misogyny: "Nice Guys"

I am going to start using this blog to catalog media reflects the zeitgeist of the rise of the geek. In particular, the themes that concern me are hidden problems with the rise of the geek. I am definitely a geek myself. However, I feel that a key aspect of the rise of the male geek is its unacknowledged misogyny. The male geek rises while trying to pretend that mysoginy only exists in the world of the male jock.

The geek’s core misogynistic conceit is this: Women are too shallow to recognize the good things about the sensitive, true, honest, and long-suffering, non-dominant males. Therefore, women deserve the pain and emotional torture they experience when they are assumed to get it from dominant males.

I will start this catalog with a freshly viral video made by an Asian American male to highlight the fact that, as an Asian American Geek. I am being critical of a culture I am very much a part of and not sniping from the outside. It is a video by Kevin Wu called Nice Guys:

It nicely illustrates the geek conceit I outline above. Here are the lyrics of the chorus:
Nice guys finish last,
That's why I'll treat you like trash,
It's not what I really wanna do.
But, you only date bad guys so,
I'll give it my best try to,
Treat you the way you want me to.

There are some theoretical analyses of the nice guy phenomenon which are critical of its mysoginistic conceit but I will not go into them here just yet. Perhaps in a later blog. I will continue to track the zeitgeist of this sentiment in this blog and tag it geek rage.

A key problem in this conceit is the that it implicitly asserts that Geek=Nice Guy.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Geek Media Tropes: Spielberg, Dreyfuss, and Melodrama

[Note: What follows is adapted from a talk I gave at the University of Oregon in October 2008.  I was introducing a screening of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.]

Mainstreaming the Geek:
Steven Spielberg, Roy Neary, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I had thought to subtitle my talk this evening “Pinocchio in Space,” for in a 1980 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that he had originally intended to conclude Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his personal yet epic film about a suburban white man meeting alien life, with the song “When You Wish Upon A Star” as recorded by Jiminy Cricket for Disney’s Pinocchio, released in 1940. Indeed, Pinocchio seems to have been a central preoccupation of Spielberg’s while writing and directing Close Encounters, which he has described as emerging from his own inspirations and which still stands as one of his most “personal” projects, alongside E.T. and Schindler’s List. We learn early in Close Encounters that its protagonist, Roy Neary, has a childlike obsession with train sets and owns a music box that plays “When You Wish Upon a Star.” If these weren’t enough to peg him as a toy-obsessed geek, certainly his experiences in the course of the film—becoming a believer in UFOs and abandoning his responsibilities as a father in order to pursue them—set him apart from many traditional male film protagonists. Indeed, there is a childlike yet alienated quality about Roy Neary that makes the parallel between himself and Pinocchio resonate deeply for me. A wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy, who longs for acceptance. . .this image has strong resonances with the stereotype of the geek. A comprehensive definition of the geek / nerd stereotype would exceed the scope of this talk, but as nerd scholar David Anderegg notes, geeks and nerds are creative, hard-working types who are particularly invested in technology, math, science, computers, science fiction, and perhaps most importantly, certain types of fantasy, like role-playing games, that have an intense initial investment (Anderegg 145). Geeks like forms of fantasy that contain lots of esoteric knowledge and rules as the price of entry.

These qualities also apply to the writer and director of Close Encounters, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg (like his equally geeky pal George Lucas) always felt like an outsider to his generation of filmmakers due to his obsession with television and matinee serials (rather than film), and his self-perception as a nerd who just wasn’t hip enough to relate to his often brash and iconoclastic New Hollywood contemporaries like Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Margot Kidder, a close friend of DePalma’s and Spielberg’s in the early 70s, says that “[Steven] was more innocent of spirit and less complicated than Brian or Marty, and that’s obviously reflected in his movies.” Biskind puts a finer point on it, writing that the young Spielberg “had no sense of style, [and] was just desperate to be cool like everyone else, but didn’t know how” (260). Yet like his contemporaries and perhaps more so than most, Spielberg was impassioned to master the techniques of commercial film-making, even if it meant working in television to acquire those skills. Further, by his own admission, Spielberg loves video games and computers, a passion that may help explain his penchant for directing digital effects-laden action pictures like Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and War of the Worlds, as opposed to the grittier fare of his generational cohorts.

Spielberg and Lucas are, in short, Boomer nerds. They were part of the first generation of American directors to go to film school, earning themselves the moniker of “movie brats” or what we might now call film geeks. Indeed, right in line with his orientation toward technology, Spielberg admits that he prefers the editing room to the set (Steven Spielberg Interviews 103), much as Lucas, a true innovator of film special effects, notoriously cannot direct actors. Both Spielberg and Lucas love computers and Spielberg in particular is a self-proclaimed video game “freak” who speaks lovingly of “marrying” his computer via phone line to George Lucas’—in 1982, long before this was a common practice (Steven Spielberg Interviews 100, 104). Spielberg’s geekiness arises from his childhood: he describes his younger self as “a wimp in a world of jocks” (Steven Spielberg Interviews 109).

In terms of how Spielberg’s geekiness translates onto the movie screen, actor Richard Dreyfuss serves as a key figure, especially in his early works like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like Spielberg, Dreyfuss is Jewish, a bit nerdy and cerebral, and tend to play characters who are obsessed with traditionally geeky pursuits like model trains, UFOs, science, and the like. [See also Murray Pomerance on "Man-Boys of Steven Spielberg."] Drefuss serves as an onscreen proxy for Spielberg and Lucas, playing the geek hero of Lucas’ American Graffitti (1973), Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and the film we will see tonight, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

In Jaws, Spielberg diverges from the Peter Benchley novel, making Matt Hooper a short Jewish nerd rather than the more traditionally handsome WASP figure of the novel. Says Spielberg of this casting, “The book [Jaws] suggested somebody like Robert Redford to play Matt Hooper, but I felt there would be more sympathy for the character [. . .] if someone like Richard Dreyfuss played him” (Steven Spielberg Interviews 63-4). Spielberg also spares Hooper’s life (he dies in the novel) and erases a Hooper-Mrs. Brody affair from the film version. Indeed, in Spielberg’s Jaws, we like and identify with Hooper’s snarkily humorous take on events in provincial Amity, and we are impressed by his efficient analysis of the fictional island’s shark problem. Our identification with Hooper is increased when he is positioned as the nemesis to crusty (and somewhat mentally imbalanced) fisherman Quint, another switch from the novel, where the cuckolded Chief Brody is kept as the outsider of the shark-hunting trio due to his fear of the water. Spielberg centralizes the Hooper character, making him Brody’s buddy, and Spielberg even inserts himself into the narrative via Dreyfuss: the styrofoam cup scene is taken from a gag of Spielberg's (1978 interview, in Interviews 44).

In Close Encounters, Richard Dreyfuss is even more central, playing a geeky suburban dad from the mid-west. I will return to the specifics of Close Encounters and Dreyfuss’ role in it in a moment, but first let me say a few words about the long-range impact of Spielberg’s (and Lucas’) work in the late 1970s, which includes the aforementioned Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and another little film you may have heard of that was released the same year as Close Encounters, Star Wars.  Film historian Peter Biskind writes in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Lucas and Spielberg are both “child[ren] of television” who “returned the ‘70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-‘60s Golden Age of movies” (317, 343). Biskind compares the two geeks to their more subversive counterparts, claiming, “whereas the most sophisticated directors of the ‘70s, like Altman, Penn, Scorsese, and Hopper, were deconstructing genre, Lucas, like Spielberg, was doing the reverse, gentrifying discredited genres of the past” (342). Biskind accuses Lucas and Spielberg of “obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection” and concludes that “such was Spielberg’s (and Lucas’s) influence, that every studio movie became a B movie” (278).

Through these widely appealing, B-movie vehicles, Boomer Geeks like Lucas and Spielberg valorized nerdy, man-boy figures like Matt Hooper, Roy Neary, and Luke Skywalker in the 1970s and 80s, serving as some of the period’s most influential, popular, and economically successful culture producers and laying the groundwork for the rise of later geek heroes we see abundantly in the films of Generation X: note Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow, Edward Norton as the protagonist in Fight Club, even Keanu Reeves in The Matrix who is framed as a somewhat feminized computer programmer.  For example, teen-film scholar Timothy Shary writes of Boomer nerd John Hughes’ seminal Breakfast Club (1985) that “Unlike most nerd characters in school films, [The Breakfast Club’s] Brian ultimately appears to accept his nerd labeling, and his peers eventually show some sincere appreciation for the difference he represents [. . .]. [. . .] Brian may be alone unlike the others, but he has thus ironically maintained a certain independence that is not afforded to them” (Shary Generation Multiplex 35). Thus Boomer geeks like Hughes and Spielberg made the heroes of their 1980s films the newly sympathetic young nerds of Gen X, and the Gen X nerds, then in their childhood or adolescence, watched, identified with, and built upon these depictions. For example, Gen X filmmaker Kevin Smith openly acknowledges the impact / influence of Spielberg, Lucas, and Hughes in his early life and subsequent cinematic work.

For sheer popularity if nothing else, Star Wars' Luke Skywalker is the key melodramatic geek figure in late 1970s and early 1980s cinema. Luke is an awkward geek hero who suffers melodramatically at the hands of his family, [“Noooo! That’s impossible!”] saves his evil father from ultimate ruin / perdition, and, along with his mostly male buddies (and a defanged, re-feminized Leia), takes over leadership of the galaxy. He is in these respects similar to Roy Neary in Close Encounters, who is magically guided away from the provincial American Midwest—farm country, just like Tatooine—toward a meeting with extraterrestrial aliens who understand and accept him even when no one on earth, least of all his wife and family, can.

This leads us to melodrama. I argue that we should read Close Encounters of the Third Kind, at least in part, as a domestic melodrama that unfolds in the Neary family home. As film scholar Linda Williams states:

If emotional and moral registers are sounded, if a work invites us to feel sympathy for the virtues of beset victims, if the narrative trajectory is ultimately more concerned with a retrieval and staging of innocence than with the psychological causes of motives and action, then the operative mode is melodrama. (42)

Indeed, Roy Neary is a victim to his inexplicable feelings, feelings that more or less amount to an obsession with what he has seen and a seeming depression or largesse that prevents him from participating in the typical routines of his family and work life. The UFO encounter brings this on; the aliens are to blame, and Neary and his fellow UFO-obsessed compatriots are in this sense innocents, enslaved to forces beyond their control. Yet by the end of the film—or maybe even by the time of young Barry Guiler’s abduction—we know that the aliens are benign if inscrutable, and indeed it is Neary’s family, especially his wife Ronnie, who are made out to be the narrow-minded “bad guys” of the film’s narrative. Mind you, the film does not construct them as villains from the outset, and may never outright vilify them, but through its melodramatic centering of Roy’s perspective and feelings, it causes us to side with him (against his family) in an emotional register—the register of melodrama. In a moment I will show you a cut scene from the Director’s Cut (formerly the “Collectors Edition”) that demonstrates this emotional polarization between Neary and his family, but first a few more words about melodrama as a genre and mode.

As Linda Williams argues, melodrama is best understood as an American cinematic mode rather than a genre, since its conventions can be found in nearly every genre of American film:

The supposed excess [of melodrama] is much more often the mainstream, though it is often not acknowledged as such because melodrama consistently decks itself out in the trappings of realism and the modern [. . .]. [The] basic vernacular of American moving pictures consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value. (58)

I am framing Close Encounters as a melodrama, rather than as an action-adventure, in order to foreground what is usually ignored by lay audiences and many critics: that this film, as virtually all of Spielberg’s films, relies heavily upon melodramatic conventions and tropes in order to work on audiences emotionally. This is one of Spielberg’s great talents and while, as Williams argues, melodrama is really everywhere in American culture, Spielberg deploys these strategies exceptionally well, deftly blending melodramatic appeals to emotion and sentiment with the narrative structures of B-movie genres like the monster film (Jaws, Duel, Jurassic Park), A-movie genres like the period drama (Schindler’s List, Amistad, The Color Purple), and his personal favorite, science fiction (Close Encounters, E.T., A.I., War of the Worlds).

In a holistic sense Close Encounters must be seen as a generic hybrid, a science fiction action-adventure combined with a domestic melodrama. But Close Encounters also inhabits a specific subgenre of melodrama: the male-centered melodrama which victimizes and thus elicits sympathy for the male protagonist and wherein, according to Thomas Schatz, “the central conflict involves passing the role of middle-American ‘Dad’ from one generation to the next” (162). Indeed, Close Encounters deals with exactly this issue, as Neary increasingly embraces his new UFO experience and slips away from occupying the role of “Dad,” despite his onscreen claim to the contrary in the dinner table scene. (In a moment I will show you a clip that emphasizes this same point, that Close Encounters is a domestic male melodrama emphasizing the collapse of the power of the father.) Indeed, by the end of the film, the Neary children will be left literally fatherless, left to be raised by their mother like Barry Guiler and Spielberg himself. Spielbergs’ parents weren’t divorced, but his father, an electronics worker, was something of a workoholic and “was usually absent” (Biskind 256). Indeed, Spielberg reports in a 1982 interview that he was “raised in a world of women,” having a mother and three younger sisters, and worlds of women is a phrase that would come to characterize some of his early screen families like the Nearys and Guilers of Close Encounters, and Elliot’s family in E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) (Steven Spielberg Interviews 108). [also mention the aptly named David Mann’s wife in Duel (1971, TV) and Lou Jean Poplin corralling her jailbird husband Clovis in The Sugarland Express (1974).]

[SHOW “CRYBABY!” CLIP HERE: Close Encounters Collector's Edition DVD Ch. 12, after dinner and outdoor scene, 1:05:06, ends with son closing door, 1:07:47]

Note difference between Theatrical and Special Editions -- See Warren Buckland, Directed By Steven Spielberg 120.

Two more points on Close Encounters as geek melodrama before I conclude. First: One key melodramatic convention prevalent in Close Encounters is the displacement of strong emotions onto objects, props, and mise-en-scĂ©ne, which film theorist Thomas Elsaesser calls the “conscious use of style-as-meaning” that characterizes melodrama ("Tales of Sound and Fury" anthologized in Imitations of Life [ed. Landy] 77). Perhaps the best example of this in Close Encounters is when Roy Neary literally constructs a huge sculpture of the Devil’s Tower in his own living room—you can hardly have a more over-determined piece of mise-en-scene than that, a physical manifestation of Neary’s inward condition that overwhelms the domestic space of his home, displacing the family who used to live there.

And of course the melos of melodrama is music, and Close Encounters marks the second of many collaborations between Spielberg and film composer John Williams. And as in Jaws, where that two-note bass motif becomes the audio signature of the lurking shark, Close Encounters once again presents an inexplicable force whose primary presence in the first half of the film is musical, except instead of impending bloody death, this time the aliens’ five-note song is posited as a means of communication between humankind and the alien species, a joyous heralding of the peaceful meeting that concludes the film. In fact, all we really ever know of the aliens are their brief physical appearance and that song: they never speak in any other form of language (except maybe sign). Truly this must be melodrama to have music feature so centrally into the symbolic meaning of the film’s narrative and spectacular climax.

Which brings us back to the 1940 recording of “When You Wish Upon A Star” and Spielberg’s ultimate decision not to use the Disney version (sung by Jiminy Cricket actor Cliff Edwards) as the closing credits theme for Close Encounters (Interviews 96-7). (You can still hear an homage to that song’s melody in the Williams score near the end of the film.) On the basis of test screenings, Spielberg discovered that audiences preferred not to have that song play because it took them out of the “reality” of the film, revealing it to be a fantasy or a fairy tale. This kind of response is a tribute to Spielberg’s power to get audiences to believe in his fictions through creating deep emotional investments—and that is precisely the function of melodrama. In true melodramatic fashion, and like Disney’s Pinocchio, Spielberg’s Roy Neary begins his story as a wooden, lifeless, mechanistic being—a geek?—longing for something more, and like Pinocchio’s blue fairy, extraterrestrial aliens arrive to make the bewildered Roy’s dreams come true. And Spielberg’s as well, since with the success of both Jaws and Close Encounters, he had successfully launched the image of the geeky social outsider, embodied so well in both films by Richard Dreyfuss, firmly into the cinematic mainstream.

Cthulhu (2007) - Best DVD Commentary Ever

A friend just lent me a DVD of Cthulhu (2007), a not-so-great low-budget ($1 million) horror film whose main claims to fame are that Tori Spelling plays a small but tantalizing role in it, and that it features possibly THE BEST DVD COMMENTARY TRACK EVER!

While many director's DVD commentaries are all but useless, consisting primarily of self-congratulatory chatter and vapid anecdotes about what happened to a certain prop or costume AFTER the film wrapped, Cthulhu's commentary, featuring Director Dan Gildark and Screenwriter/Executive Producer Grant Cogswell, is a rich collection of technical making-of insights accompanied by hindsightful ruminations about why the project failed.  And while this may sound silly at first -- listening to a commentary track for a bad movie, wherein that commentary only confirms that the movie I'm watching is indeed bad -- it has been, in fact, one of the most instructional and gripping 100 minutes I've spent in a long time.  First-time filmmakers Gildark and Cogswell are extremely frank about what went wrong on Cthulhu, and speak in detailed fashion about what could have been done to improve the end product and make their lives easier during production.  For example, screenwriter Cogswell (who reveals that he sunk a staggering $175,000 of his own money into the project!!) states early on that his biggest mistake was writing way too many locations into the film, and that that factor cut into their budget and their time (what with extensive travel between locations all up and down the West Coast) in disastrous ways.  Both he and Gildark emphatically urge other first-time filmmakers to begin their projects with solid scripts set in relatively few locations -- a single location if possible (e.g., Tape, Clerks).  This is crucial advice from people who, sadly, had to learn it the hard way. 

Cogswell and Gildark both stress the importance of having a very good script, noting that Tori Spelling came on board the Cthulhu project on the basis of its script.  All actors, even famous ones, are on the lookout for meaty roles in good scripts, so the quality of a film's script is all-important to attracting stars, as well as ensuring a smooth production process.  Further, a script can limit or even to some extent dictate the pacing of the finished film, so revising the screenplay for pacing is key: Gildark states that Act One of Cthulhu (introducing the characters and the film's main narrative conflict) does not end until the 49-minute mark, awfully late in a film for the juicy heightened conflicts, juicy narrative twists, and increased pacing of Act Two to get underway.  Another hard lesson learned, after it was too late to significantly change the film, even in editing.  The filmmakers attempted rewrites and post-production re-shoots to tighten the first act, but to no avail: the film is just really slow for almost the entirety of its first hour.  Beautifully shot in many scenes, and well-acted throughout, but draggingly slow nevertheless.

Cthulhu screenwriter Cogswell is fairly unforgiving of his own mistakes, and while he may be correct in his assessment that the Cthulhu script was too ambitious for its budget, at least in terms of locations, I had the feeling listening to the commentary and watching the film that these two guys set out to make a horror movie that was true to the spirit of its source material (Lovecraft's novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth) while incorporating thought-provoking new ideas, including a homosexual main character.  This is bold stuff, and is the kind of risky territory that low-budget, independently produced cinema can and should venture into as frequently as possible, since the studios won't go near it.  As the Cthulhu commentary progressed, I found myself really admiring these two geeks who set off to make a potentially audacious, meaningful, smart horror film, yet who lacked the skill and experience to pull it off even to their own satisfaction (let alone the critics' or audiences').

But their DVD commentary may be Gildark and Cogswell's actual magnum opus.  Alongside the Hooper-Pearl-Hansen commentary on the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD (which the Cthulhu filmmakers specifically mention during their commentary!), Gildark and Cogswell's feature-length commentary on Cthulhu is one of the most informative commentaries I have ever heard, offering insight into how to make low-budget films correctly precisely via the candor with which it reveals how to do it incorrectly.  Only the Alien 3 special features or the documentary film Lost In La Mancha even come close to Cthulhu's commentary track in terms of accurately documenting a cinematic disaster with such admirable honesty.  I am planning to buy the Cthulhu DVD expressly for its commentary; I will make it assigned listening for future students of low-budget filmmaking practices and production.

Friday, July 23, 2010

CFP: "Geek Media and its Tropes" at SCMS New Orleans

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies announces its call for proposals for the 2011 Conference in New Orleans, to be held March 10-13th at the historic Ritz Carlton Hotel on the edge of the French Quarter.

"Geek Media and Its Tropes" Pre-constituted Panel Proposal

This panel welcomes papers on any aspect of "geek media": visual media produced by, for, and/or about geeks. This may include film, television, video games, web programs, podcasts, or online comics. While the panel seeks to particularly emphasize the analysis of geek-centered texts by and about members of Generation X (defined as those persons born between 1960 and 1981), papers analyzing the figure of the geek, its history, and its related visual media tropes from any period are welcome.

Send individual topics & summaries to Panel Chair Carter Soles:
Deadline: August 12, 2010