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Rise of the Geeks

by James Bray Rating: Release Date:

The first decade of the 21st century has seen something of a vindication of geek culture, which has now been fully embraced by contemporary consumer media. A predisposition to the internet and video games no longer denotes social incompetence, pop culture fandom is something to be celebrated and living vicariously through the media you consume is considered a legitimate lifestyle. Comic book and manga culture is mainstream and Judd Apatow movies are highly successfully. What's more, English super-geek Edgar Wright is making big budget Hollywood films. Overall, in recent years there really has been a kind of groundswell for geekdom.

In the context of cinema, the ascent of the contemporary geek began with John Hughes in the 80s, who gave nerdish sensibilities more depth and credence; one could argue that Hughes' most famous creation, Ferris Bueller, was the first uber-geek. This new sensibility really took off in America in the 90s with directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, who combined the banality of daily life with the collective fantasy of pop culture to create something that was dynamic and innovative. These two pop media junkies took the energy from their frenetic but passive consumption of comics and movies and used it to actively produce their own media. Smith and Tarantino have both fully incorporated themselves into the entertainment industry, creating their own world that fans can inhabit.

In the UK, this new approach to media got moving in the late 90s with programmes like The Adam and Joe Show and Spaced which both celebrated bedroom culture. The makers of both of these programmes are united by their mutual love of the Star Wars films. Star Wars movies are, as we all know, deemed to have almost religious significance by geeks of a certain age. Spaced, a sitcom were characters see the world through the prism of the media and culture that they consume, took Star Wars and brought it back to earth, or more precisely to Tufnell Park in north London (where the programme is set). This show was an important point in the legitimisation of British geek culture. The success of Spaced paved the way for the more acerbic geek humour of other home grown talent like Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant of The Office fame and David Mitchell and Robert Webb, stars of Peep Show. Ricky Gervais, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have all gone on to have successful careers in Hollywood.

After the sleeper success of Spaced, Wright, Pegg and Nick Frost made hit movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. In both films, Wright and co reconceptualise everything they have assimilated from modern media and put it in the context of humdrum British life. The films are like a rapid fire collage of pop culture in the context of a suitably dreary England. This serves as a template for Wright, Pegg and Frost's typically self-deprecating and absurdist humour.

Edgar Wright's recent film Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is his first Hollywood production and his first big film without Pegg or Frost. Michael Cera, who is Hollywood's leading super dweeb, plays the title roll. The movie is chock full of evocative references to pop media, especially that of indie music, comic books and video game culture. Even the famous Universal Productions theme that plays at the beginning of the movie been reprocessed and played through a 16-bit soundcard so it sounds like a vintage Nintendo soundbite. This style of music, known as chip-tune, is very popular at the moment with groups like Crystal Castles incorporating these electronic sounds into their music.

Another remarkable scene in Scott Pilgrim... involves Wright alluding to hit American sitcom, Seinfeld; during a scene between Scott and his roommate, the theme from Seinfeld plays briefly and there are short bursts of canned laughter in between the lines of dialogue. Wright also makes great of use of visual effects to give the film a distinctive and contemporary look that lives up to the style of the comic book on which the movie is based. This is all very geek-chic and the team that worked on Scott Pilgrim... obviously invested a great deal in their new approach to film-making. However, for all its extravagant style, they seem to have lost sight of the fundamentals of story-telling. The script itself is mediocre and this really holds the film back. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World was a flop in the US but at the moment it's not doing too badly in the UK. Maybe success is breeding complacency among these righteous geeks or, perhaps, their style is already becoming the victim of its own conventions.

In any case, it seems that the ascent of the geek is complete and that their style is now well and truly part of the establishment; geek culture and values are now entirely mainstream. For example, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (from Adam and Joe) have been working on the script for Stephen Spielberg's next blockbuster film, Tintin. The rise of the geek parallels a growing acceptance of certain tropes, especially among males, such as introversion, sentimentality, diffidence or a passion for various esoteric interests. Our media saturated society, which is, to a certain extent, pasteurised of real aggression and violence, has given rise to a more varied group of acceptable male attributes. Up to a certain point, wit, whimsy, eloquence and sensitivity are more viable in the modern world than the brashness and arrogance that characterised a lot of successful young people only a generation ago. Or maybe it's simply that in the 21st century, geekdom has come to be recognised and accepted as the expansive and profitable demographic that it is.

This more sophisticated idea of geekiness is a now an established style and scene that no longer suffers from overwhelmingly pejorative connotations. The few worrying things about this culture are its slightly retrograde brand of sentimentality and its approach to women which is, to say the least, questionable (see any Judd Apatow film.) It's interesting that the muscles and moral absolutes of old school masculinity recently trounced geekdom 2.0 at the box office; Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables took much more money thanScott Pilgrim Vs The World at the box office. The geeks have already made it, let's hope they haven't got too light-headed by their sudden rise to the top.

Comments (3)

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Great article, James. I would say, however, that The Expendables actually itself represents the triumph of geek culture. Rather than being an unselfconscious celebration of pec-flexing he-man like the Rambo and Rocky films, it's a very knowning...

Great article, James. I would say, however, that The Expendables actually itself represents the triumph of geek culture. Rather than being an unselfconscious celebration of pec-flexing he-man like the Rambo and Rocky films, it's a very knowning reclaimation of a part of pop culture which was until recently viewed as naff, with the film's stars, who previously represented an unobtainable peak of masculine perfection and the triumph of the American dream, being in on the joke and celebrating it. In short, I can't think of a better example of the way geek culture has permeated every corner of the mainstream.

Conversely, what struck me about Scott Pilgrim was how the usual tropes of geek culture - video games, pop culture obsession, social inadequacy - have been elevated into highbrow culture where audiences are expected to be up on all kinds of oblique references and stylistic tricks and how, ultimately, this made the film feel a bit elitist and empty.

Anyway, that's my two pence worth!

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yeah your probably right about that, but it just didn't fit in with my pet thesis. you know how it is.

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

yeah your probably right about that, but it just didn't fit in with my pet thesis. you know how it is.

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