My Life as a Geek (Part Five)

April 03, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

And so we come to the end of "My Life as a Geek"... (Figuratively speaking, that is.)

Actually, most of the autobiographical details have already been filled in. Now it's time for a broader discussion about nerds and geeks in general and how Hollywood perceives them. This is where I get a little more serious because, as a group, we have not been well treated.

Few would argue with the statement that geeks are treated better today than they have been in the past. There's a reason for this: computers. For as long as there have been computers, there have been geeks. ENIAC was invented by geeks. The early home P.C. market was aimed squarely at geeks. High school computer classes were attended by geeks. I've had a computer of sorts since I was about 15 years old. I started with a TI-99 4/A and eventually graduated to an XT clone and so forth. I learned most of the important languages of the time: Basic, Fortran, Pascal, Assembly, etc. (Somehow I missed Cobol.) Back in those days, computers were for geeks. Why would anyone else have interest?

Today, of course, that has all changed. Now, everyone uses computers and they have infiltrated all areas of daily life. The P.C. is no longer just a nice little toy in the corner. Geeks remain closely wedded to computers. They control the industry and that gives them a lot of power. Bill Gates (love him or hate him) is a geek. He's also one of the most influential men in the world. So it makes sense to be nice to the geeks. Imagine what a conglomeration of pissed-off nerds could do if they put their minds to it. Most geeks aren't malicious by nature. In fact, most of them are timid. But society has decided that it's a good idea to "play nice." So the label of "geek" has transformed from a term of derision to a mere classification. There's no more stigma attached to it than there is to "jock" or "stoner."

In general, Hollywood has not treated geeks with warmth or respect over the years. People suppose that since I'm a self-professed geek, my favorite movie must be about geeks or at least "geek-friendly." I was recently asked in a public forum if I could quote a few lines from my favorite movie. They were aware of my geek credentials and were therefore expecting something along the lines of "May the Force be with you" or "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one." What they got was: "I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country... We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we're not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're going to go through him like crap through a goose!"

The typical movie geek is a blind stereotype with no room for variability. The geek is typically intended to get laughs, not to be a well-rounded individual. Revenge of the Nerds is among the worst offenders when it comes to pigeonholing and denigration. The geeks populating this film are outright caricatures with all of their social inadequacies accentuated for supposed "comic" effect. (If you get the idea I don't like the movie, you are correct.) We end up rooting not so much for them as against the assorted bullies and jerks they come up against. It's productions like this that give nerds a bad name. Sadly, many movies featuring nerds/geeks aren't much kinder. Hollywood likes to view the nerd as an offbeat pet whose antics can be used to generate a few cheap laughs.

Another area where the movies invariably get things wrong is in presenting geek romance. Generally speaking, in real life, like attracts like. Or, to put it another way, geek boys are attracted to geek girls. There's a reason for that: relationships involve more than sex and a geek couple will have common interests and plenty of things to talk about outside of the bedroom. That's not to say that geeks aren't attracted to cheerleaders and jock girls but the attraction is typically fleeting. The average geek might be interested in seeing the busty blond he passes on campus naked but it's unlikely he would be interested in dating her. It may sound like a cliché but there is a strong intellectual element to a geek relationship. Hollywood discounts this and figures that all geeks yearn for cheerleaders. This makes the average movie geek seem rather pathetic. And it really doesn't matter who the geek eventually ends up with - the fact that he's pursuing the gorgeous blond is what's embarrassing. (So writes the geek who spent half his college years in a relationship with a busty blond. Oh well.)

Fortunately, there are geek movies that get it right, or right enough to be worth mentioning. To keep this column to a reasonable length, I'm going to limit my list to four titles, all of which I can unreservedly recommend. None are "classics" in the traditional sense of the word but all treat the geek as more than a comic foil. An attempt is made in each case to make the character a real person rather than just another "movie nerd." Feel free to add to them as you see fit. There are others out there.

In fourth place is Amy Heckerling's Loser, which puts Jason Biggs in the title role. Admittedly, the "loser" aspect of the character is overplayed in the early going but the film gets two important things right: the nerd is allowed to change and develop in a credible way and the object of his affection a reasonable choice. Mena Suvari's Dora is cute but not drop-dead gorgeous. She's exactly the kind of girl a geek guy might fall for. The plausibility of their relationship and the likeability of Biggs' character makes this a solid choice for a geek date movie.

In third place is last year's Oscar nominated Juno. Face it - Juno is a geek. Part of the reason why this may not be obvious is because she's not a cartoon movie geek. She's smart, articulate, and isn't costumed to look like the drabbest girl in school. Granted, the average geek girl doesn't get pregnant in high school, but there wouldn't be much of a movie if that didn't happen. And, as with Loser, the boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is credible. Juno doesn't pine over some unattainable hunk; she wants the dweeb she's with.

In the runner-up position, Amy Heckerling has her second entry on the list (saying something about her insight into geekdom). This time, she's partnered with Cameron Crowe. Fast Times at Ridgemont High provides multiple crisscrossing storylines, one of which features the longing of geek Mark Ratner for the seemingly demure Stacy Hamilton. (Emphasis on the word seemingly.) Jennifer Jason Leigh's good looks are toned down enough to make this couple believable, and Stacy is portrayed as the kind of girl someone like Mark could fall for in high school. The movie treats both of these characters with sympathy and allows them to find a little happiness together – at least as much happiness as can be obtained in high school.

Finally, my pick for the best motion picture depiction of a geek goes to Lucas. (What, you thought it was going to be Napoleon Dynamite?) Before the drugs and the "two Coreys" phase of his existence, Corey Haim showed some talent by playing that rarest of rarities: a geek who never strays into the realm of stereotypes. Lucas is a real person from the moment we meet him. The girl he is pursuing has ensnared him by doing something simple: being nice to him. He's not interested in her because she's pretty (which she is), but because she's kind. It's the size of her heart, not her breasts, that matters to him. In the end, he is paired with geek girl Winona Ryder, which helps to salve the wound of a broken heart. Another nice touch - the film's jock (played by Charlie Sheen) is not an anti-geek jock. I have to admit that when I was in high school and college, I didn't have a lot of interaction with jocks, but the few I knew were nice guys and didn't hold my nerdiness against me.

So there you have it... a rambling five-part discourse on all things geeky. I'll admit it was self-indulgent but hopefully it didn't put too many readers to sleep or turn them off to ReelThoughts altogether. I can't promise that I'm completely done with the subject, but it's time to move on to other things.