ReelThoughts: March 13, 2008

"My Life as a Geek (Part Two)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Where did I leave off? Oh yes - King Kong. Well, if I didn't, that's where I should have left off. The problem about writing these poorly organized pieces is that I tend to wander down blind alleys chasing tangents, then lose track of where I am and where I'm supposed to be going.

December 1976. I was about as into movie monsters as it was possible for a nine-year-old to be. I had books. I read Fangoria magazine. My prized possessions included three Shogun Warriors (one of which was Godzilla). So it was only natural that I had to see the new version of King Kong even though I had never before been inside a movie theater. That's right - nine years old and a theater virgin. Try to find one of those today, geek or not. My father, who I'm sure had less desire to see the Dino DeLaurentiis movie than to spend a couple of hours in a gas line, nevertheless agreed to take me while my mother brought my sisters to a Disney cartoon.

In retrospect, I have to admit that the 1976 King Kong is pretty cheesy. I retain a degree of fondness for it and still enjoy watching it from time-to-time but, at age nine, I was blown away. It's tough to say how much of that reaction was caused by what I was seeing on screen and how much was the result of this being my first time in a movie theater, but it left a big impression. So big that the first thing I started doing when I got home was to write a book about monsters invading the world. That, I think, is a typical geek response to something overwhelming: either overanalyze it or overreact to it. Writing 125 pages is definitely an overreaction. To compound matters, my fourth grade teacher found out what I was doing and had me stand in front of the class at the end of each school day and read a chapter. At the time, it was kind of cool. Looking back, only one word can describe the experience: mortification.

We moved. I lost all my friends. In my old school/community, I was a "cool geek." By that I mean that, although I was undeniably a nerd, I was also popular. Kids liked me. Teachers liked me. I don't recall having any "enemies" (to the extent that a nine-year-old can be said to have enemies). I was not nervous around girls; in fact, I had more female friends than male friends. But everything changed after the move. I became more insecure and withdrawn. My new friends were exclusively male and most were nerds or outcasts like me. "Popular" was not a word that would be paired with my name. This is when I really began to understand what being a geek meant. in 1977, it was all about not fitting in. It was about going to the movies to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind rather than Saturday Night Fever. It was about watching Star Trek instead of Charlie's Angels. It was about reading a book because I enjoyed it rather than because a book report was due. Most of all, it was about hanging around with like-minded kids and becoming part of an ostracized minority. Yet I enjoyed it. And I was never beaten up. In fact, I was only ever involved in one fight and I knocked the other poor kid on his ass. This resulted in a visit to the principal, and I never saw a more surprised expression on his face than the one he exhibited when he saw who his next disciplinary victim was going to be.

Yes, Star Wars was a big deal. There wasn't a geek alive in 1977 for whom this wasn't true. By the time it arrived, I had shrugged off my King Kong obsession and returned to movie theaters for a few more experiences - Pinocchio, The Rescuers, and maybe something else. The first time I saw Star Wars was at a drive-in, and, like a typical geek, I was more interested in the movie than in sneaking around the parking lot spying on teenagers making out. I would later see Star Wars inside, but it never seemed quite as grand as on that steamy early summer night under the stars. (This is how nostalgia pollutes memories, because the Atco Drive-In was a terrible place to see a movie by any standards other than those of a nine-year old eager to watch the most talked-about movie of the summer.)

Thus began a period of science fiction obsessing. Over the years, I have learned that most nerds become obsessive about things. They find something they enjoy and throw themselves into it. This is why I write movie reviews. In 1977-78, however, it was all about Star Wars. Then I started watching Star Trek. Then Doctor Who. My favorite prime time series was, I believe, The Six Million Dollar Man. It's hard to be sure because I was also into Masterpiece Theater. Yes, that's right. I was into Masterpiece Theater - stuff like "Poldark" and "I, Claudius." I'm not certain whether, for a ten-year-old, that's considered geeky or just plain weird.

A word about the "geek level" of movies and TV shows is warranted. In 1977, Star Wars was mainstream. Everyone was seeing it. In fact, I think we nerds were a bit perturbed that our sacred territory of science fiction was being encroached upon by popular kids and jocks. It was sort of like having a hidden, out-of-the-way playground suddenly discovered by every kid in school. So, watching Star Wars was normal. Buying the paraphernalia was also normal. Collecting the action figures was also not considered extreme (assuming you took them out of the box and played with them rather than developing a shrine to them in their pristine, unopened condition). But writing a 300-page Star Wars-themed book went above and beyond what was expected. Therefore, this is what I did. (Note to Lucasfilm I did not use any of the names of people or places, nor did I mention The Force.) And for my pains I was accorded the unparalleled honor of reading a chapter a day to my fifth grade class. Different school, different teachers, same result. One would think I sought out this attention.

But while most things Star Wars were mainstream, Star Trek wasn't. That would change in the mid-'80s, but in the pre-STTMP era, Star Trek existed in major geek territory. It was a theorem of geekdom: Nerds watched Star Trek. The corollary: Star Trek was for nerds. Since the episodes were syndicated five days a week (airing at 4 pm every weekday afternoon), it took only about five months to get through all of them. So they reset and I watched them again. It was pretty much accepted that if you identified yourself as a Trekkie (the term "Trekker" didn't come along until later), you were deficient if you hadn't seen "Bread and Circuses" at least a dozen times.

Doctor Who occupied a special corner of geekdom. Since its availability in the late-70s was so limited (it became more widespread during the '80s), being a fan wasn't a necessary component of the nerd's catalog of traits. But it was a given that in the United States, Doctor Who watchers were geeks. Who else would watch a show with wobbly sets, godawful special effects, and a guy wearing the longest scarf in the history of television? In England, this was a mainstream family show, but in America, it was cult fare.

Speaking of cults, that brings me to D&D - the quintessential pastime of true '80s nerds. Before there were video games and monochrome computer monitors, there were funny dice and graph paper maps. But that's a subject for next week and Part Three. So I close with four signs that someone is only pretending to be a nerd:
1. His or her clothing matches.
2. He or she talks about how cool Doctor Spock is.
3. He or she does not burst out laughing the moment Denise Richards appears on screen playing a nuclear physicist.
4. He or she thinks the words "Space, the Final Frontier" come from the opening crawl of Star Wars.

[Geek trivia: When the prototype space shuttle "Enterprise" was wheeled out for its public unveiling ceremony, what music was played? The theme from Star Wars, of course.]


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