Nerdist, the War Over Nerd Culture, and a Tip of the Nib to Alison Bechdel

A resource that’s been a god-send for me since moving to LA is Chris Hardwick’s behemoth project, Nerdist. I don’t nerdily follow every nerdy thing the Nerdist puts out – I’m a picky nerd, and with my highly sophisticated palate I don’t have time for lesser nerdist pursuits. (And here the knives come out! A true nerd can’t tolerate a slight to his obsession, joking or not.)

The Nerdist Writers Panel, and the newer Making it with Riki Lindhome, give me wallflower access to the entertainment industry. They supplement my harder book studies (haha) with the human drama of how entertainment actually operates – starting with how writers get their start as interns, unpaid, or as assistants, paid in left over bagels. How actors get agents, how TV show runners land a pilot, how everyone gets their first production credit because A. you were sucker enough to do all the extra work, B. you were sucker enough to take a credit instead of money, or C. you were under Joss Whedon’s wing and he nurtured you through the entire process of your rebirth as an enlightened, self-actualized artist.

Joss Whedon comes up a lot in my nerdy podcasts. So does spending ten years in an apartment with no mattress but a couch made of Chef Boyardee cans, curtains made of ramen packets and a pet rat named Edina Monsoon when you’re home and “Maaaa” Estelle when your roommate’s home. Or at least that’s how I envision it! Sigh. The dream.

These podcasts are simply wonderful, magical, so exciting to listen to! They make me dance down the Santa Monica sidewalks (acceptable on Broadway and Colorado, but nerdy on Pico) and they get my blood rolling for the day my turn will come! When will I get my pet rat?

That’s all the stuff that honeys my tea. I am a literary nerd. A book lovin’ ink-stained hyper writing nerd currently in development for TV, internet thingies, and film.

Now, if you’re into video games, comics, pop culture, comedy, music, video game music, or sex, the Nerdist has you covered in all those areas too. And boy are they expanding their repertoire every day!

Nerdist Industries was founded because Chris Hardwick wants to harness nerd power to take over the world. I think he’s kind of serious about that – it seems like there are multiple projects in the works, some secret and some not. I theorize that some projects are innocent-faced decoys, others more sinister concoctions that will contribute to Hardwick’s brew of ultimate world domination.

In the meantime, before that brew hits the fan, we get to enjoy the many nuances of nerd culture that Hardwick has lovingly teased out of the nerdiest nerds and curated for our brainwashing pleasure. Information and expertise that used to take hours, days, years of digging for and acquiring, earning, is now available at a click of the mouse. We don’t even have to read – most of the Nerdist material is audio and video. Just sit passively, and the nerd culture fairies will tramp through your earwax and found a village in your brain.

Nerdist.Com gives the passionate a space to not only heartily pursue their love, but to also share it with others. The site is a nerd-to-pop culture, easily navigable, and increasingly busy conglomerate. It encourages (rather than the tradition of discourages) people to sate their curiosities, to whatever degree. Importantly, Nerdist is social. The podcasts and videos are current, conversational, and inclusive. The creators survey the scope of their industries, drag on guests, and constantly expand their knowledge base.

SUPER LAUNCHPAD!

Compare all the above to the older, harder way of doing things: shamelessly inhaling an entire case of magazines at the 7-11, looking for months or years for the rare issue of Archie and Woodie Guthrie’s entire catalog, taking a 2-hour road trip just for a weekend game of Call of Cthulhu. And, god help you if you were Japan-crazed, or Power Ranger-crazed, or ABBA-crazed. God help you feed your passion and not get clobbered by the neighborhood kids in the meantime.

The boom of multimedia and its accessibility, both from a viewer’s and a creator’s standpoints, has totally changed the way we learn and explore. Now: Click, done. The problem of accessibility and exclusivity is gone. The problem of geographical banishment is gone. The problem of interactivity, and socialization, and having someone to be excited with, and being affirmed as psychologically okay because look these other real people are into this too…poof! gone!

Print publications are outdated as soon as they fall from the printer, now, but more than that they’re extremely isolating. Books and journals and magazines are harder to understand than interactive media and they demand more time, pulling you away from groups of people. Maybe this is part of why the “nerd” stigma got started in the first place. You remember, back when it wasn’t cool to be a nerd? In those hanging-with-mom, hiding your hentai, starving-during-lunch-cuz-too-scared-of-the-cafeteria days? Back when your passion set you apart from the crowd, was exclusive from the crowd, until eventually it became your only solace and friend?

Now, though, with interwebbiness and a new culture of openness, being a nerd is almost a social requirement. Nerdiness simply translates to passion + skillz. If you’re not nerdy about something, you’re boring, cold-blooded, dead. Only nerds are going to the cocktail parties now.

“Old-School” Nerds Can Hide Their Heads in the Sand

Some “real” nerds are not happy about the mainstreaming of their culture. Or the hijack, exploitation, or theft of their culture – as they might put it.

I don’t want to go into the very real victimization that some people experience growing up and, in some cases, throughout their lives. I don’t want to downsize or in any way belittle the psychological, physical, and social struggles that all of us have undergone at one time or another – only some of us much, much more than others.

Video game journalist Leigh Alexander wrote an excellent friggin’ response to the recent Forbes.Com bomb “Dear Fake Geek Girls,” which caused a lot of online bickering last week. Alexander uses a beautiful, spot-on metaphor to express the importance of a geek’s passion to his well-being, to his downright protection while growing up:

…for some reason, the normalization of “geekdom”, the fact we now have the freedom and ability for everyone to get obsessed with whatever they want whenever and share it with whomever or not, is super threatening to a lot of people.

And it’s not that I don’t understand: You made a secret fort to hide your heart in when you were a child who was hurting, and now you feel like people are trying to take your fort away. (italics mine)

“Real” nerds’ pain should be acknowledged and hashed out. It’s because of previous generations’ endurance and strength that “geek” and “nerd” are now safe things to be. But, as Leigh Alexander again nails it:

…part of becoming a damn adult is understanding that shit can’t hurt you anymore. You can keep yourself safe.

Most old-school nerds, once grown up, learned how to cope and just Not Care anymore. Now though, being a kid nerd will automatically be safe (or at least a lot safer than before) – diverse interests are cool now.

Unfortunately if something is safe, at least in the Western half of the world, that also means it’s marketable. It’s safe…in order to be mass produced, prettily packaged, and shipped out pre-assembled and easy-to-swallow to those who “don’t deserve,” didn’t “earn” the nerdiness – the skills that are a badge of honor to old-school nerds, that took years to acquire, that prove your passion, and that, maybe a little bit, signal to other nerds that you’re “one of them,” a safe buddy who “gets it.”

The internal rewards that come with defeating the top boss or finding the Easter eggs in a game, the pride and coolness that comes with knowing about that band before anyone else does, the ironic honor of having the guts and personal strength to blaze your own trail rather than fit in with the rest.

Being pleased with yourself for meeting your own goals and affirming your own worth when no one else will – or if you’re very lucky, when a treasured, small number of comrades will.

There’s a titan, crusty-edged glory to being a nerd or a geek. (We haven’t hijacked “dork” yet, have we? I guess “dork” is just too dorky, still?) Old-school nerds and geeks don’t want to give the glory up.

There’s bitterness, resentment, sometimes downright hatred of the mainstream: the jock and cheerleader from high school and their mommies and daddies who buy them 3 mustangs (the first 2 totaled in unprosecuted DUI accidents); the right genes, which excuse preps from the babbly, pimple-faced splodge-fest that is many nerds’ science-experiment bodies; the hegemonic school, church, and community, which systematically reinforces winners to win and “weird-os” to lose.

Some old-school nerds are unwilling to make amends with the tormenters of their past, to admit that everyone must develop from a blank-slate baby to a fully functioning (or at least passably functioning) adult, and that everyone’s path of development is different.

I think everyone is an asshole through some phase of their lives. Usually we don’t realize it at the time, I hope. But the degradation some nerds endure is so raw that they can’t find it in themselves to forgive their peers for, at a young age, being human. That is, being an underdeveloped, imperfect, selfish little king or queen, rolling in the arbitrary benefits of looks/class/parenting, with complete disregard for others. E.G. an asshole.

The complaints are fair. No one wants to watch their tediously earned and self-made culture be co-opted by the capitalist system, especially not for the benefit of the assholes. Embittered nerds today will need to invent new social markers if they want to keep their street geek cred. Angry backlashes against the capitalist and social hijacking of nerdiness will only frustrate and exacerbate the dilemma, and some “maladjusted” souls will end up outcasts all over again, only this time of their own damn nerd-town that they helped to build.

Or Nerds Can Choose the Upper Path

It’s friggin’ confusing because in a way YOU WIN, geeks and nerds! You have arrived!

There are now constant music videos, movies, shows, books, and articles showing that when you get out of high school with your arithmetic-loving, D&D playing, Greek lit. reading little selves, you will conquer the world, won’t you? You will be adopted immediately into Silicon Valley and rise up the ladder and own a penthouse and 3 yachts by the time you’re thirty. Your high school quarterback will clean the yachts’ decks but not be allowed to host the dinner cruise parties since he’s too unpleasant and uncouth to your lady guests, you’ll tell him. You’ll tell ‘em all!

(I hope we’re careful with our media myth-making – because we know all of that’s not necessarily true, right? Good good.)

I hope we’re careful with the new myth that football players and cheerleaders are automatically the stinkiest slime that’s ever graced the underside of a shoe. Or at least, that all preps damn well better prove themselves human, and have a good excuse, and apology, and genuflection, for their heritage and the inherent evilness that resides in their soul.

In 30 years are we going to launch a major discourse about how terrorized jocks and cheerleaders are (in a way to be taken more seriously than the alleged persecution of white males just now, I mean)? In 30 years, will traumatized prep adults rage because the mainstream is wearing jerseys and cheerleader skirts even though they didn’t earn these badges by suffering through cherry-bombed footballs, leotard wedgies, and locker room assaults?

Couldn’t athletes complain that their identity is being hijacked now? Couldn’t they demand that fans not water down and insult athlete culture by stealing their clothes, nerding up on statistics, and talking about their games, because how could anyone who hasn’t gone through years of brutal and acute training possibly “get it”? Couldn’t music artists, farmers, surfers – whoever we idolize and emulate – all make the same argument? How dare you pay attention to me and copy me? What do you think I am, a role model?

An Example of History Repeating Itself: Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For and ’90s Assimilation

I just read The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a seminal comic strip by Alison Bechdel that chronicles LGBT issues, politics, and culture throughout ‘80s and ‘90s NYC.

At a point, fringe homosexual culture is suddenly accepted (“accepted” is made of egg shells, here) into the mainstream. I think Mo and her lez buddies know because the megalith bookstore chain starts carrying titles like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Wetter, and Pussy Tails and cultural “tourists” start visiting the indie, gay-centric book shop where our protagonists work and play.

And yeah, some of the gay women and men are pissed. And confused, and threatened, and spun on their heads: is what was cool or anti-patriarchal or comforting yesterday still okay today, or is it now corrupt? Has the mainstream completely usurped their lives? Can “the enemy” be trusted? What is the gay identity if homosexuals are largely cast out of society, yet the mainstream is emulating parts of their lifestyle?

For years (1984-2001) Mo and all her super-progressive, wax-philosophical, vegan homosexual buddies fought on the front lines for the political and social rights of their community. If any group has been bullied, excluded, dehumanized, made to feel shamed, threatened, endangered, terrorized, and killed over the years…well, yes, “dykes” and all gay/trans/bi/curious/forever-evolving-labels people get a seat at that dinner party.

Eventually, Mo and her buddies adapt to the mainstream’s less-than-hostile acknowledgement of their existence. They don’t “move on,” per say, but they are partially assimilated. They continue advancing their causes, many in a more moderate manner than before, because suddenly the mainstream is listening to them (so they don’t have to scream so loud), and because suddenly people in the mainstream don’t seem all bad. The world, eventually, folds large elements of homosexuality into the mainstream, and time heals the wounds.

I know, nerds – “We never WANTED to be accepted by the mainstream! We hate <insert names of people or group>!”

If that’s true, it doesn’t matter. Tough, you’re accepted now. And maybe the mainstream folks don’t “get it,” no. But we all still enjoy sports, or music, or films, without understanding everything about them, without nerding out all over every single thing.

Maybe the mainstream will never get you, but they still suddenly want to emulate you and hang out with you. So you can either be a good host and show them your stuff, or waste away alone and bitter. Don’t think you can hang out with other “real” nerds, either – you “don’t get” the younger generations (Mo is aghast at the younger lesbians’ behavior), and most of your old nerd buddies will go over to the dark side-mainstream.

Try to take it as an honor that some phony hipster is wearing your Nintendo controller belt buckle. Sure, your passion is being exploited by predatory marketers who have been ripping off great innovations from savvy street kids for decades. But the guy or girl wearing the NES doesn’t know that!

If you still must harbor that dark little edge of resentment, smile at how the “sheep” suck up your culture and go get in on Chris Hardwick’s world-domination thing. In the meantime, study up on your craft and show off. Bill Gates, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Alan Moore own their own banks to laugh in, they have a good time, and they’ve maintained self-respect and sanity. Why shouldn’t you?

Leigh Alexander’s quote was taken from her blog post, “About That ‘Fake Geek Girls’ Article,” posted March 27, 2012. Follow Leigh at sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com

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Ender’s Game and Censorship

I had thirty pages left to go in Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game, when I coincidentally stumbled upon this article. As I often do when reading such asinine news, I checked the dateline for a location, and yes, of course, the story originated in South Carolina.

An aside: I was born and raised in South Carolina, lived there until four months ago. A lot of us Carolinians do cuss every time Sanford or some jackass embarrassment makes national news. A lot of us do feel a little bit more validated by Stephen Colbert (from Charleston), or Aziz Ansari (from Marlboro), to give two examples. Just sayin’, it’s not all bad.

A middle school teacher in Aiken (pretty close to where I used to live) has been suspended for including Ender’s Game in his curriculum for 14-year-olds. Nevermind that Card’s novel has won a Hugo, a Nebula, and a gazillion other awards, and that Commonsense Media – an organization that works with educators, researchers, and companies to improve the monitoring of media – says the book is appropriate for children over twelve.

One helicopter parent thinks the novel is “pornographic,” plus it contains some wirty dords (sssh, I’m watering down “dirty words”). So, you know, totally makes sense to CALL THE POLICE and have the teacher CRIMINALLY INVESTIGATED for traumatizing the children.

The teacher’ll be alright, I imagine, and he probably isn’t that surprised that this has happened at some point in his career. I get to say this because right before moving to California I finished training to be a high-school English teacher in South Carolina. The education system now, at least as far as I’ve seen it, gives relentless preferential treatment to parents, extremely little support or protection to teachers, and a case of cutthroat neurotic CYA (ssshhh, “cover your ass”) mentality to administrative figures. In the education world, everyone’s running scared. I’m sure this isn’t just in South Carolina.

Back to Ender’s Game. It’s not only long overdue that I read this, but it’s also timely, as it turns out. The novel is compelling, clever, and intellectually challenging – I’d wager that it’ll prove timeless in these regards, which is one mark critics and historians look for when determining what’s been “important” and particularly influential in a society.

Despite the story being techy (I’m pseudo-tech and pseudo-gamer, but can’t claim to be an expert in either) and male-oriented (sorry, got a thing for you know, trying to balance out the paternalistic hegemony and all), I connected with the characters a lot, and they’re what I cared about. The story is overall human. The tech is scary and challenging and relevant to real life, the fantasy world is exciting and escapist and alarming, the philosophy seems abstract but grave; but above all the story is human.

When I get a chance, I’ll go on in the series. (There are eleven novels, plus a slew of comic books and short stories.) Since Ender’s Game was released in 1985 and it’s a consensus that it’s awesome, it seems silly to do a big ol’ review of the novel itself. I recommend it. And I’m not a sci-fi junky. Go read it.

I thought instead of doing a textual review, it’d be cool to discuss how Ender’s Game is becoming relevant (or, more relevant) again today, and how we can use it to guess about future trends in entertainment – namely films aimed at kids, video games, and how parents might freak the hell out.

Ender’s Game is being made into a movie. It’s a big-budget high-profile movie too: Harrison Ford plays Colonel Graff (main adult dude) and the kid from Hugo which I totally *cough* still haven’t *cough* seen, Asa Butterfield, plays Ender. The film’s set to release in 2013, and you’ve gotta wonder if Production is already eyeing the franchise potential here. The first EIGHT top grossing films in 2011 were sequels. This puppy could launch a series of films, TV shows of varying formats, and an endless pile of toys, figurines, and board/card/electronic games. It’s making my pockets burn, for god’s sake.

Action-adventure, kid-aimed films are hot right now. Hunger Games is still making its splash at the box office and we’ll see three more films before they’re done. Twilight, for all its blue-tint open-mouth horniness – I guess some people might want to call it action-adventure – is winding down. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and one-offers like Spielberg’s Super 8 have all offered a slightly to radically different twist on our real world. They’ve presented intriguing ethical and social challenges, built into the plot, that kids from 2 to 20 mull over with the protagonists. Everyone figures out how to navigate the new world, under the new rules, together. This isn’t comic relief entertainment, it’s not learning the ABC’s of our current practical world. It’s learning how to think when the world is flipped upside down.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world is constantly flipping now. Tech has changed everything – new ideas are generated, adapted, and put to use in the time it takes you to make a sandwich, every day, every second. Sci-fi, which might be the master of the “what if” construction, is an excellent medium for helping us apply the “what if” to real life. What if Hitler or Martin Luther King, Jr. had never been born? What if we can travel at the speed of light? What if there’s a nuclear war? What if my couch was installed with biologically functioning hands so I could have a massage anytime I wanted it?

All that reading about robots/aliens/magic/post-apocalyptic societies? Consider it training in case the world changes suddenly, or changes gradually. Reading, watching TV or movies, playing games – whatever you’re into – it’s all processing information to solve the problems in our “what if”s and to work out the kinks in our collective innovation. It’s all highly sophisticated teaching of practical knowledge and critical thinking skills. The more sophisticated and challenging the content of our entertainment, the smarter we will become. Theoretically.

Censorship is a bit of a hot button issue right now, too. Bully, a documentary following the lives of 5 children who are tormented daily, was just successfully re-released as unrated. Overnight Update: the MPAA, under pressure from the Change.Org petition, is now rating Bully PG-13. The Motion Picture Association of America originally ruled, by one vote, that the film’s “brief vulgar language” justified its being rated R. Kids are intimately familiar with the explicit content of the documentary on a daily basis, in their real lives, but seeing it on screen might have been too much for them.

Or, seeing it on screen might have forced some who like to pretend these things don’t exist to acknowledge that they do. “I don’t care what happens to other children, so long as it doesn’t happen to mine.”

John August (a very successful screenwriter, maybe best known for Big Fish) recently blogged about the history of the film ratings system and “The Pressure of PG-13”. PG-13 films make more profit than R films, overall, so in post-production a film may be edited to lose some of its vulgarity, as well as (possibly) some of its artistic integrity and ring of authenticity. At least some industry-insiders and serious film buffs attribute the “dumbing down” of films to the ratings system; what would fly as PG in 1980 might be PG-13 today, for example. Wizard of Oz (1939) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) were rated G in their times. I doubt they would be today.

The films that helped shape me as a kid were stuff like Labyrinth, Little Monsters, and The Neverending Story. All alternate-reality, mysterious films with kid protagonists figuring out the rules of a changed world, meeting mentors and friends, and rising to the challenge to take on Baddies. Cool thing about stuff like this is that you can cut and paste it into real life – despite the fantasy settings, the heroic plot arc applies. If you want to be a smart, virtuous person, do X, Y, and Z – oh, and get a little brave while you’re at it, because there are real monsters in the world.

The Goonies – everyone loves The Goonies – had some totally unnecessary (but still great) fantasy in it. Even though it was set in the real world, it was still mysterious and challenging to kids. It revealed edgier, dangerous characters and concepts that kids are usually “protected” from. Stand By Me? Remember, from Stephen King’s novella The Body? Stand By Me was mysterious, and edgy, and fascinating, and very popular. It was completely set in the real world, yet it still had all those qualities that drive kids to it…

Technology might be moving too fast for us to keep up, and with the globalization of the world, culture’s only going to speed up radically too. If a bunch of kids-turned-“adults” can’t adapt every ten minutes, let alone every two seconds, well…thank the helicopter parents for their protection when they were sprites. Again, the more sophisticated and challenging the content of our entertainment, the smarter we’ll become. Theoretically.

What is it that fascinates us in these darker, more mysterious, more “dangerous” films that we remember? Why are so many banned books incredibly important and formative? And why are some people so afraid of them, convinced that they’re corrupting?

I don’t believe in original sin and I don’t think civilization is declining into moral bankruptcy. I think great films, books, TV, games – again, any entertainment medium – is an opportunity for a safe space. We work out our “what if”s, our best and worst case scenarios, moral options, and carnal instincts in our safe spaces. Kids aren’t drawn to the “naughty” because it’s naughty. Kids are drawn to it because they acknowledge the existence of less-than-perfect (or less than socially acceptable) nuances in themselves and want to work those out.

Children aren’t only fascinated by rapid-fire technology, explosions, violence, sex, and drugs. Entertainment doesn’t have to deliver a bigger bang. Despite how the world changes, kids continue to be fascinated with us. They’re fascinated by their parents, by their older siblings, by the kids in the older grades at school, by anyone on the street who looks or talks or behaves even slightly different.

It’s because they’re learning. Kids sap everything up like a sponge. They learn exponentially faster than adults, developing and incorporating knowledge and striving for genius, all to navigate the world in which they were born. They look up to the next level, to the next age, to the next dark mystery to be understood. This is why kids are attracted to edgier, darker films. They want to understand what’s in the darkness – they’re not instinctively afraid of it. They want to investigate.

This is natural and this is why humans survive. Kids want to learn, they can’t help but learn. Label too many things to protect a kid from, and you forever pervert and complicate those things. You mess with the natural processing that involves creating an accurate world view, one in which kids acknowledge the existence of less-than-perfect things but also rise to the challenge of navigating those. Maybe improving on them, maybe remedying situations all together. In a way whatever we didn’t process in our youth is a failure – when the brain slows down, and the stagnation of the adult’s “finished” point of view hits, it becomes harder to acknowledge problems, let alone fix them.

Our art and our entertainment all take us through brain exercises. The sophistication of these exercises depends on the level of “what if” intelligence we allow in the content. Our sophistication depends on what we trust ourselves to handle, our audiences to be receptive to, and our children to understand.

Ender’s Game plays with the idea of what it should mean to be a child. Children are exploited for their brilliance and adaptability in using new technologies and skills, and their innocence is intended to be protected. There’s a lot of talk about pushing a child to his breaking point, about what a child should and shouldn’t know, and about the differences between games and reality. Or maybe, to be more broad, the difference between “safe zones” and the real world.

Read from this point of view, Ender’s Game is more divisive than conclusive. But the point is that it is extremely thought-provoking, that it engages readers with new concepts that we can’t immediately resolve. Too bad there’s a shower scene with a couple naked boys. (That’s the only thing I can think of that is anywhere close to being “pornographic,” unless the parent’s upset about the aliens being called buggers.)

Ender’s Game explores carnal instincts, flaws in logic as well as morality, and hard facts prerequisite to survival. The reader travels with Ender through all the “what if”s that he is challenged with. In the end, Ender is unique because he advances far enough in training games, film footage, and cultural lore to truly understand the buggers, the proclaimed enemies.

If we want to keep advancing in our endless cultural and technological frontiers, we’re going to need a lot of Enders. We need advanced learners who’ve processed all the information, and then adapted and added to it.

“…It came down to this: In the moment when I truly understand my enemy,understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them themselves.” (Ender, confessing to his sister)

If we ever want, you know, world peace, we’re going to need a lot of Enders too.

▲Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. 1985. New York: First Starscape, 1992. 238. Print.

Hunger Games

Saturday Code Alice (heretoforth my husband’s alias) and I hopped the Hunger Games bandwagon. Considering what a special event this was (us paying full price for movie tickets) we went all out and visited the Landmark, acclaimed by a couple friends in the know as being the classiest, most elegant cinema in Los Angeles.

Well, I really don’t get that. It’s in a mall. You can’t hear films blaring from neighboring rooms, that’s nice. And there’s three hours of free parking, which is also nice. Other than that…I don’t know, people in LA are really weird and picky about their movie theaters. I miss my $2.50 old films cinema at home, which unblinkingly played Air Bud 2 next to Synecdoche New York. That’s the sort of place that rocks my socks.

ANYWAY. Hunger Games.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

Like a lot of snobs pretending to be hipper than hipsters, I rely on MetaCritic a bit too heavily to “inform” my decision. Hunger Games’ score on MetaCritic just now is a snob’s paltry 68 – it takes at least a 70 to make me go hmmm. But I enjoyed the books, like Jennifer Lawrence, and damn if they didn’t advertise the hell out of this film. They’ve earned their strong opening weekend.

What I appreciate the most about the film is the starkness that it maintains throughout. I expected the characters, wardrobe and setting to be much glossier, all Hollywooded up. I expected Gale to be a chest-heaving hunk in line with Jacob from Twilight, for him to get a lot of close-ups, possibly catch Katniss in his arms at some point, and to have a constant scowly face. I had similar expectations for Peeta to parallel Edward – elegant, artistic, so soulful. At some point, undoubtedly, both “men” (teenagers, in such a hurry to grow up…) would have an extremely sexy injury in an extremely sexy place that Katniss would get to/ahem have to treat.

Giant thank you to creative directors or what-have-you for fighting off any executives wanting the film to go in this direction! The target audience, I think, appreciates it too – they laughed in a very much “at you not with you” way during the Twilight trailer before the flick. They probably would have been pissed if the Games had gone all bubble gum.

Back to the starkness: I did not expect the almost documentary-style focus on District 12 that sets up the film. Color was sapped out, clothing was appropriately modest and barely functional (didn’t look too warm or durable), and the people looked to have real problems and not give a damn if they conveyed them in a hot and dashing way. Think The Lottery or 1984, rather than Logan’s Run and The Island; dust over glitz. These people have moles, frizzy hair, and big yellow teeth. As sad as it is, this is striking in a Blockbuster film. District 12, and later District 11, are thus underdogs we can very much relate to.

Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, et al. emphasize real life over glamorized spectacle     throughout the film. Effie Trinket looked about as I expected her to – an even more colorful spinoff of Umbridge from Harry Potter. But rather than allow her self-assumed gaiety and prettiness to affect the audience as it must affect the Capitol, the camera stays tight against her during her speech to District 12. Rather than ooh and aah at her matching pink skin and hair we’re forced to acknowledge the costume – the caked on makeup, the plasticky wig, the dark, blood-black lipstick. From then on we understand that any power Trinket has is a guise; any happiness that she or others like her exude is a political or sad psychological put-on.

The camera and audio work of Hunger Games uses this same trick to deny Seneca Crane, the game master, any real power. Repeatedly the shots toggle between Crane’s microphoned and bare voice during his speeches, immediately exposing this artificial amplification of his power.

Meta-level perception and commentary are delivered to us on a silver platter throughout the film. The Games commentators’ explain events and their implications to us, and we’re privilege to the strategies at play in the Games engineers’ room. We know when Crane’s in hot water with President Snow, we know when the Game Master is just exploiting Katniss for entertainment, and we know when he’s working with Haymitch to help public hype. This is a bit of a shame, as it kills the sense of isolation, confusion, and err…you know….total friggin’ danger and terror that Katniss goes through in the book. On the other hand, it’s nice to see a new angle on the story-telling. I mean, not many people would be on the edge of their seat about “Is the protagonist of the first film in a trilogy gonna survive???”

So I totally respect Hunger Games’ narrowing of the themes of the book to make the film more focused. Just seeing a not-generic plot arc is very refreshing. And it does astound me how Collins can write about a fantasy situation – e.g. teenagers hacking each other to bits – in chilling realism, and write about the frivolities of fashion, food and entertainment in a sociologically serious manner. The book’s a bit like the Manson family obsessively flipping through Seventeen Magazine, in that. Somehow Collins makes it work in the novel, and happily they pull it off in the film too.

In the film’s being so grounded and stark in its portrayal of the districts, and so analytical and meta in its portrayal of the political system, it does lose a lot of the lush detail that makes Collins’ imagined world come alive. The kids aren’t in elaborately and beautifully designed outfits in the arena; they’re just in camping gear. They’re not shown gorging, for the first time in their lives, on all the varieties of foods they could never have even dreamed about; there’s just a lot of food around, and they’re too busy shaking in terror to care. Maybe it would have been indulgent to extend the film by half an hour to show Cinna’s masterful makeovers and Katniss’s discovery of lamb stew, but the first Harry Potter film got away with this. I totally respect the filmmakers’ decision to cut these indulgences, but then I’ve read the books – what did the unfamiliar viewer think?

The film gives cursory nods to the elements that make District 1 what it is: shallow citizens telling Katniss Congratulations for being sent to her death, rainbow colored fashion designers, a penthouse with the ugliest furniture ever designed. But everything that makes District 1 so intoxicating and ignorance-inducing is lost. We feel no sympathy or rage toward Capitol citizens; any relationship is simply not there. The same can be said of Cinna, Katniss’ main clothes designer and stylist. The audience doesn’t get a chance to understand how different he is from the other citizens. He’s just Lenny Kravitz with gold eye shadow, being awesome and fatherly.  The same problem exists for Haymitch too. Oh no he’s a drunkard! For like twenty seconds, and then he pulls his act together and serves as an effective, but generic and distant mentor. I’m betting viewers who hadn’t read the books didn’t feel so attached to these characters. I only hope the slack’s picked up in Catching Fire.

The film also sacrifices internal sympathy with Katniss. We don’t get to go inside Katniss’s mind in the arena, to feel the tension she must feel while sleeping strapped in trees or listening for breaking branches in the woods. We barely register the possibility that Peeta has turned traitor, if we register it at all. We don’t feel hopelessness, we don’t feel isolation. We do very much feel the violent jolt of unjustified death – of children murdering children. The action sequences and close-up, shaky camera work do an excellent job depicting the horrors of war. Likewise effective is Jennifer Lawrence’s shaking and sobbing. But this is all external and fast-paced, going back to the action-adventure format. Any tension and suspense that Collins creates in the book, by more closely following Katniss’s thoughts in isolation, are stripped out.

While I commend Hunger Games for choosing a fresh angle for the film, for showcasing the Capitol’s system of oppression rather than just creating a psychological action thriller, I have to wonder what they’re going to do in the next movie now. The filmmakers chose to skip out on some wonderful material: Katniss’s internal struggles in and outside the arena, the heady immersion into the rich Capitol lifestyle, the ambiguity of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship.

In Collins’ second book, Catching Fire, the political system, President Snow, and the history of the Districts come under more scrutiny. Of course there’s plenty more fodder for a second film, though a lot of the cat is now out of the bag regarding how the Capitol operates. One critical move for the second film has to be character development. Many of the characters are short-changed in Hunger Games: Haymitch, Cinna, Trinket, if not Katniss herself. No matter how cleverly Collins’ world comments on our own (real survival is getting others to like you, for example), and no matter how intriguing the Games themselves, nothing can replace character. Character is us, after all – it’s why we care about the story in the first place.

In Collins’ novels, the perspective works from the inside outward. We get attached to Catniss and everyone she encounters through her eyes; we come to understand the Hunger Games and the Capitol as she does. The film version of Hunger Games chose a different route, emphasizing the outside of this structure first and accelerating the pace of the action. This will work, I think, so long as the inner workings – the characters, the human spirit of the Districts, understanding and forgiveness of the Capitol citizens’ flaws – are picked up again in Catching Fire. It might be make or break for the trilogy as a whole, but Hunger Games definitely caught my attention, I greatly enjoyed the first installment, and I’m patiently looking forward to the next.

So in 142 minutes, Hunger Games does an incredible job with:

Creating a stark, realistic world that viewers can relate to and believe

Pointing out the importance of real life over glamorized spectacle (which should resonate as a good lesson for our own world…)

Providing a meta-level understanding of how the Districts came to be, how the Hunger Games work, and how the government is run

From the book, the film sacrifices:

Lush detail filling in settings and characters

Internal sympathy and connection with Katniss (with that goes tension and suspense)

The we-give-a-damn affection and conflicts we feel for characters*

*To be fair on this last note, we do come away caring about and intrigued by Seneca Crane’s character, don’t we? The poor guy gets knocked out in the first round, but this does show that the filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing…

I’m betting Catching Fire is in good hands.

Squaresville

I just watched the first webisode of a new web series called Squaresville, and I’m already a big fan. The subject matter is familiar: Zelda (Mary Kate Wiles) and Esther (Kylie Sparks) are high school misfits in a suburban town with freak-all to do. From the first episode, I guess the town’s best attraction is the parking lot of “Price N Pack.”

I can relate.. But at least where I’m from, people crowd that parking lot during weekly tailgate parties. Not to support any sports event or anything. The regularly scheduled, Friday night tailgate is the event. Zelda and Esther are worse off; they only have shopping carts for company.

There’s a reason certain subjects gets rehashed again and again in Hollywood – So many of us are destined to work through our psychological baggage via any art form we choose. It’s much cheaper than therapy and we’re far too self-centered a race to create true fiction. So Squaresville relies on the guarantee that its viewers, no matter how hard we try to resist, will be drawn into the delicious squirminess that is our own familiar, dysfunctional past.

There’s a lot to be said for universal themes and characters. I can relate a little bit to Felicia Day’s The Guild – hell, I met my gamer husband on the internet, so I know about social bonding via in-game Ventrilo rages. I can relate hardly at all to Jane Espenson’s new project, Husbands – I’m not male, I’m not famous, and I’m not gay (though my mom and the occasional passerby do ask). I like both of these shows, but I don’t see myself in them. They don’t pull my little heart strings.

Other web series I’m sampling now – Web Therapy and Odd Jobs – also have specific characters and situations that are intriguing and entertaining, but not so comforting and relatable. These aren’t shows that’ll stand in for Dr. Freud’s daddy-scrutiny or Joseph Campbell telling me I better get my ass full circle. Bread and butter entertainment sticks around because we’ll play it again and again. Studios return to the “boring” plot of 2 Broke Girls, even when the trend is to go the other direction. (I saw many critics huff when 2 Broke Girls premiered, but not a peep when the show won Favorite New TV Comedy at the People’s Choice Awards). There’ll always be room for plain Janes and underdogs getting by in Nowhere-land.

So, Squareville has major potential right from the get-go. I love the time Matt Enlow, the writer and creator, takes to establish the atmosphere of the show. With web series running, I don’t know, between three and ten minutes long an episode, a lot of them seem to dive into their plots with surgical precision. This can mean that secondary elements like setting (both time and place) get left out, let alone a more refined tone and sense of characterization. Enlow B-rolls shots of suburbia with the girls’ phone conversation, though, saving himself precious time and accomplishing two goals at once: establish the setting, establish the situation.

Here’s another thing that already strikes a chord about Squaresville, and that would stand out (at least to me) whether this were a TV show, film, or book. The dialogue is incredibly realistic.

Now, we know dialogue isn’t supposed to be realistic. Writers need to entertain you, not put you to sleep. You should feel thrilled by “Yippy ki-yay, mother fucker,” impressed by “You can’t handle the truth,” swooned by “You had me at hello,” and funny-boned to death by “You’re really doing it aren’t ya, you’re shitting in the street!”

So, pick up any book I know of about writing, and it’ll warn you against the deadzone slobberfest “dialogue” that is our nightly “I dunno…where do you wanna eat?”

Squaresville has already characterized Esther as the slightly downing, cynical pin cushion and Zelda as the wide-eyed dreamer. But it does so without cliché dialogue.

Esther doesn’t give a BS, snarky as hell answer to what city she wants to live in – instead she says “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.” That’s pretty much what I would have said to tons of questions put to me when I was 16. Zelda doesn’t know exactly what she wants out of life. She doesn’t deliver an amazing soliloquy. She doesn’t have an epic plan to make their time in Nowhere-land more tolerable.

Cool as hell, anthem-worthy stuff does not happen in the first episode of Squaresville either. Enlow takes the route of authenticity instead. The girls plant a tree. They hang out in a parking lot for an hour. And apparently Zelda even researched how to make the night as cool as this: if you’re going to renegade garden, you’d damn well better do it properly!

So many films, TV shows, books, music – whatever – portray teenage snots as sophisticated, self-aware, and wise. The truth is that most of us were just, actually, total friggin’ snots. We were in development, with all the gooshy, messy, effed-up chaos that that implies. We were vulnerable, and we were brats, and we hadn’t even asked ourselves what we want, let alone answered the question. So as entertaining as Ferris Bueller, Clueless, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are, it’s hard to really relate except to develop a giant, adult-after-the-fact inferiority complex when you think that everyone in your HS was as put together as these characters except YOU.

Unless Esther and I are alone on this? In which case, oh well, I’ll skip another night of drinks to study the Freud.

Finally, there’s a lot of sucker-punch indie style in Squaresville, already. You know, the stuff that my husband always falls for, even when it’s so nauseatingly overdone like in Garden State. The stuff that Lost in Translation is made of. The perfectly cued soundtrack when Zelda bolts from the truck, the distant shot of her running in the street at night, the quiet closing scene of a strong little tree planted next to an imposing trash can, triggering my English degree mind to enter symbolic analysis for God’s sake.

The stuff that makes you go “Aaaahhh. That’s Nice.” No hatin’. Enlow does it well.

So far, Squaresville is getting my thumbs up for :

atmosphere and character being established so, so quickly

strikingly authentic, cliché-avoiding, yet not dull dialogue and situations

“nice,” nuanced style to make you go “Aaaah” (even if it might be borrowing a bit from the 80s)