Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Trouble with Geek Culture

If you haven't read this splendid piece by the American actor Patton Oswalt, http://m.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_angrynerd_geekculture/all/1
you really should, as it's the most interesting thing anyone's written on popular culture in years. Have a look, too, at these two pieces: http://www.edrants.com/review-the-green-hornet-2011/
http://sotcaa.net/blogcaa/?p=18

These three pieces focus on the same point: that the fans are becoming the creators. We can think of further examples: Kevin Smith puts a few lines of amusing dialogue about Superman in one of his screenplays, and is commissioned to write a Superman movie. Jonathan Ross's famous comic collection has recently made him a comics writer, and his wife Jane Goldman has gone from writing books on The X-Files to scripting superhero movies (she wrote Kickass, which is rightly demolished in the second of the pieces linked above). Mark Gatiss began by doing skits on his favourite horror movies in the comedy series The League of Gentlemen and indulging his love of Doctor Who in fan-produced videos and Who novels, but now he's a writer on Doctor Who itself, as well as BBC One's Sherlock and his own horror series - Crooked House - for BBC Four. A glance at the poster for Spielberg's multi-million dollar Tintin movie reveals Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish listed as screenwriters: the former began by doing cute little SF and movie pastiches when he directed the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced, while the latter would engagingly recreate movie scenes with toys on the late-night The Adam and Joe Show (the third credited writer on Tintin is one Steven Moffat, whose name rings a bell. Did I mention him on this blog?)

If the geeks (fans, nerds whatever we call ourselves) have take over, I don't think it's a cause for jubilation. Fans are consumers. They aren't necessarily creative talents. Sometimes they are, of course: Spielberg, Lucas and Tarantino are heroes in this regard (though, God knows, there are limits to those three talents), but their work delighted because of its freshness: for all the influences proudly put up there on the screen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Pulp Fiction feel, from the start, like nothing else you've ever seen before. It's dangerous to start believing that you should be a filmmaker just because Tarantino too once worked In a video store, even though the chances that you could are increasing.

Just because you have an extensive knowledge of comic-books doesn't mean that you have extensive gifts for writing them. Alan Moore - one of the greatest writers in that medium, and probably the single greatest writer to do anything with superheroes - had little regard for comics except for the work of Will Eisner; his imagination was stimulated by Blake and Pynchon. Robert Holmes, the greatest of Doctor Who's writers, had little interest in the show before he started work on it: like Douglas Adams, he cheerfully set out to write what he felt would make good TV, not what he grew up with Doctor Who as.

I loved Mark Gatiss's A History of Horror on BBC 4: it was infectious and uncliched, and he adapted Wells's The First Men on the Moon pleasantly enough, but is he really the Nigel Kneale of his day? His three Lucifer Box novels and his work for Doctor Who all seem to be pure pastiche. The Who episode The Unquiet Dead was instantly proclaimed a modern classic, but isn't that because it uses all the ingredients we associate with classics? Victoriana, Christmas, snow, Dickens, gaslit romance, lavish special effects: enough to make Doctor Who Magazine's Reviewer, Rebecca Levene, declare that a generation now had their very own Talons of Weng-Chiang. Lawrence Miles probably put it best when he observed that Gatiss's Doctor Who novel Last of the Gadarene (which opens with a preface in which Gatiss remembers reading the novelisation of Planet of the Daleks when off sick from school while his mum brought him chicken soup) was acclaimed in reviews by numerous SF magazines for being "perfectly Pertwee", despite the fact that resembling an earlier work is by itself hardly a guarantee of quality (interestingly, the reviewer of Michael Moorcock's Doctor Who novel for Doctor Who Magazine, who found the book a bit difficult, commented on how much he'd rather read Last of the Gadarene). Miles points out that producer Barry Letts would never had commissioned something so banal (even though many of the stories of that period were much rougher around the edges than Gatiss's effort). Similarly, Unquiet Dead isn't half as good as Talons of Weng-Chiang (the story of the Iclelandic Alliance, the Peking Homunculus and the Butcher of Brisbane): it merely resembles a recollection of it. The Talons of Weng-Chiang was a lot more interesting than Victoriana.

More dubious, though, is Charlie Brooker's elevation to satirist. His Guardian columns are diverting, and his Newswipe/Screenwipe shows are informative, but when Channel 4 runs trailers announcing a series of satirical dramas from Charlie Brooker, one wonders exactly how such a thing came to be seen as an event (especially if you remember Nathan Barley, Brooker's unremarkable attempt at a sitcom, and his truly dreadful drama Dead Set for E4, which Brooker himself described as bit of nonsense about zombies but which gained a BAFTA nomination). It's not necessarily surprising that the first (I couldn't face the next two) of the Black Mirror trilogy, The National Anthem, was worthless: do any of Brooker's talents suggest he could depict human beings believably, or had a distinct satirical point to make? His fans think so, and so it got made.

The second piece I linked to mentions a more cynical motive for the ascension of geek culture: the idea that film producers, TV executives and franchise owners can use fans to test reactions to their products, and to convince their customers that the films, TV shows, games or comics are being made by one of them. Champion mentions Harry Knowles being flown to press junkets and the BoothBabes at ComicCon. I would add The Big Bang Theory as another example: a carefully marketed show made by people uninterested in SF, but smart enough to realise that fandom has become a lucrative target audience (note the presence of merchandise, the references to ComicCon, and the guest cameos from people all associated with well-known and still lucrative franchises: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Terminator, Marvel).

As Oswalt's article mentions, in the age of YouTube there aren't really any niches for interesting bits of culture to hide in anymore. When Evil Dead 2 was just a cult film that the odd fan would try and persuade you was really, really hilarious, that was fine: you still didn't have to watch it. Nowadays its director, Sam Raimi, is given millions to make three Spider-Man movies, and his wretched ideas of characterisation, humour, plotting and depth are up there for all to see. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was stimulating because of the low expectations in which one watched it: low budget, poor acting and reliance on zombies, the most deeply uninspired of all monsters. As the central characters barricade themselves in a shopping mall, and live a strangely utopian existence, and the zombies become pathetic rather than scary when a biker gang interrupt the paradise and start shooting them, at one point even pushing a custard pie into a zombie's face, the film becomes oddly affecting, and seems to play with our response to horror. Like funny videos on the Internet, this becomes less surprising and amusing when money and mainstream hype is poured into it. The witless plot of The National Anthem was taken from a few navel-gazing sentences in one of Charlie Brooker’s Guardian columns ten years previously, just as Nathan Barley was plucked from a description on a page of spoof TV listings. The best warning, though, of how something genuinely affecting in minature can be milked to death is provided by the offspring of Rob Brydon and Hugo Blick's excellent 10-minute Marion and Geoff monologues: a 50- minute special in which we had to see many of the things that had already been so brilliantly described, a second series, now of half-hour episodes, which was more self-consciously ‘dark’ and ‘sad’; and finally another full-length series that absurdly attempted to turn the character into a Mrs Merton/Dame Edna-esque spoof chat show host. Let’s hope no-one tries to turn the brilliant Downfall meme into a TV series. The magic would fade.

Another problem is that geek culture can often be quite conservative. The best episodes of Doctor Who are the ones that are nothing like Doctor Who, and these tend to alienate fans. To anyone interested in good writing, Love and Monsters is precisely the kind of innovative script that Doctor Who should be doing, but to fans it's abhorrent because it's got silly humour, a silly monster and Peter Kay in it (older Who fans will remember Doctor Who Magazine's poll of 1981 in which Kinda, one of the most extraordinary Doctor Who stories to date, came bottom, perhaps because it didn't have any Cybermen in it). If the fans become the writers, we might end up with films, books and TV shows written to strict genre guidelines (much the way Doctor Who is written now).

Oswalt's solution - killing off geek culture - is amusing but, as Champion suggests, not quite feasible. A better solution would be to improve the standard of criticism for popular culture: we need critics that can tell the difference between the quality of something and the genre tropes it wraps itself in, critics who can see Life of Mars as an empty Sweeney knock-off rather than mistaking its use of time-travel and nostalgic clips from old tv shows for cleverness or postmodernism, that Battlestar Galactica and The Dark Knight have nothing to say about Bush's America and that the Scream movies aren't any better than other dull slasher fodder just because every now and then someone says "this is just like we're a slasher movie." Why have standards of print TV criticism fallen so low that AA Gill and Caitlin Moran are somehow our most famous tv critics? Why do so many reviews of Bond films begin with the assumption that everyone hates them, unlike Paul Cornell's fabulous review of Casino Royale on his blog? Why must Lawrence Miles's blog be the only place we can find intelligent criticism and good writing on Doctor Who? Why were SOTCAA the only ones to see through Ricky Gervais?

The kind of criticism we need is not dissimilar to Clive James's concept of the "Metropolitan Critic", something we also find in the splendid writing of John Carey, using wit and personal response to texts to counter the stupidity of the academic approach to literature, but unashamedly erudite so that accusations of dumbing down won't wash. The Internet certainly seems to offer better criticism of popular culture - look at this excellent piece at The Quietus http://thequietus.com/articles/07434-ricky-gervais-mong-face on Life’s Too Short - but the web is so vast and democratic, it's difficult for it to make the same impact. These pieces need to be sought out so they can make ripples and provoke discourses. I'm not sure if geek culture needs to die, but it certainly needs to grow up.

4 comments:

  1. Richard: Thanks very much for incorporating my essay into yours. One of the big problems with geek culture is that it has taken the sting out of the truly outré. If you're a fringe filmmaker or an author working in some genre mode (even if you're constructing something out of pastiche), you may very well be hiding in plain sight for a while. But as an artist grows older and has a need to support a family and keep the bills paid, there are very often questions of compromise which kick in.

    Attracting talent from fans is hardly a recent phenomenon. Ronald D. Moore got his start with STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION as a fan. And while you're bringing up DOCTOR WHO, don't forget that Moffat spent a great deal of time banging out speculations with fans on USENET groups years ago. What is new is YouTube and Kickstarter, where the fringe artistic impulse becomes more entrepreneurial and some of the more commercial needs stub out the former. I think one of the reasons a movie like SHOOT 'EM UP is so fun is because director Andrew Davis truly did not believe it would be bankrolled. (The story behind that is that Davis created an animated storyboard of the actions scenes and this so impressed the backers that they gave him money. Not an obscene amount, but enough for him to make something fairly worthwhile.)

    But guys like Davis are rare. If you're a filmmaker and the marketplace decides that it can use your talents for commercial ends, then it will simultaneously attempt to neuter or take the sting out of the vivacious innovations that attracted notice in the first place.

    In pre-Internet days, geek culture was underground, not as commodified, the stakes much lower. You could find that trusted guy at the video store who knew about RE-ANIMATOR and who would hook you up with Dario Argento or Fulci. And some of your mainstream pals wouldn't get why you were so fascinated with Argento using his own hands for all the murders, much less the high style of his seemingly lowbrow offerings. But Hollywood made many mistakes in the wake of the Knowles geek wave that publicly announced this quiet arrangement and made people with money truly aware. Hollywood allocated more money for geek projects, but didn't understand that the mass audience who swarmed into Comic-Con wouldn't necessarily translate into a mass audience. I think they were getting some idea that it wasn't going to work, which is why they said no to Guillermo del Toro's IN THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. But the most recent example of this is the incredible financial failure of JOHN CARTER, which will, if there is any financial sense or wisdom left, staunch the swarm of mainstream geek movies attempting to calculate the market. (On the other hand, a gloriously silly movie like DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS probably still operates with the limited audience that EVIL DEAD 2 once had, before it was commercialized with endless special edition DVDs, video game tie-ins, and so forth.)

    So it isn't just about raising standards among what remains of the underground geeks. It's also about the underground raising hell towards those who have softened their edge for the cash. (And that includes critics. It saddens me that many of io9's contributors were once bona-fide upholders of the misunderstood. But they adapted quickly when people gave them cash. Same goes for Heidi MacDonald, who actually defended that terrible GREEN HORNET film.) There needs to be some spirit of rebellion again, whether from within or without, if you want to have the kind of fun and dangerous movies we enjoyed twenty years ago. But in our age of test marketing and Facebook tracking and savvy manipulation of anyone who blogs or tweets or changes a few minds, can such a Renaissance (the name of Raimi's early production company) actually happen?

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  2. Thanks for stopping by, Edward. Good points. I shall watch Shoot em up at the first opportunity.

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  3. Hi Richard - tired of howling alone in the wilderness and needing a break from a book project I need to have finished by next week (but which I won't), I decided to squander my afternoon google searching for scurrilous attacks on Steven Moffat.

    I didn't expect to find such an excellent, insightful and erudite series of blogposts as these, and have thoroughly enjoyed the last two hours' magical mystery tour through a far more diverse set of subjects than simply the narrative sins of The Moff. (Though the fact that a similarly heartless, brainless contemporary Simpsons episode can be dimly heard in my room from the lounge only adds to the sense of reverie.)

    This entry particularly delighted and provoked, not least because of your brief but full-blooded defense of Lawrence Miles, who I do not find a particularly problematic figure. I'm not sure I'd want to be his mate in real life - and it's quite likely neither would he - but as a critic and analyst of Who I find his work galvanising and often profound. Most importantly, he has real imagination - and though I don't recall Miles ever noting this in so many words, it's the absence of that very quality he most bemoans in his writing.

    I was also buoyed to read your passage on the utterly loathsome TL:DR - I stopped posting online, anywhere, more or less entirely when I encountered that nasty, depressing little acronym. I just didn't feel that a community which would allow that was a place I wanted to be a part of, though I don't think I was being "elitist" or "thin-skinned" in that decision.

    It's a bit like being somewhere with, say, an ongoing tradition of stoning criminals - I'm all in favour of cultural difference, even when I might find some of those differences impossible to endorse, but frankly I'm not going to apply for residency of that country.

    Anyway. I do realise that part of my pleasure at reading these posts is because - unlike the type of commentators this post addresses - I do agree, and do understand your arguments; I am therefore predisposed to approve of them. But the quality of the writing, and the construction of the argument, is what most impressed and delighted - the extension and articulation of my own dimly-held opinions rather than simply the fact that yours were similar to them

    You have given me more words with, and an improved framework in which to discuss these issues with friends who do not understand why I bristle when, in the opening moments of "The Bells of St John", the Doctor and a monk make a "Women, huh?" gag for no reason other than Steven Moffat decided to preempt the usual calls of misogyny by pretending he's doing it deliberately and with irony.

    Or when Amy and Rory show no concern that they never got to raise their child. Or at the fact that any of the dialogue spoken by The Doctor, Clara, Rory, Amy or River Song - once the catchphrases had been removed - could be interchangeably reassigned between them without anyone noticing. Or that whole tracts of the show now pass me by which I am unable to remember moments after watching.

    RTD had his issues, certainly. But as ill-conceived as the Simms Master was and the episodes in which he appeared were, he gave me the incredible scene in which the Master laughs and high-fives himself for two and half minutes, sometimes in drag. I will forgive all of "Last of the Time Lords" for a season later giving me that.

    Of course, that scene is particularly loathed by fans, much as Emo-Spidey is in "Spiderman 3". Even though, like the Emo-Spidey scene, it's absolutely wonderful and outshines the rest of the material surrounding it. Of course fans hate it - it's brave and embarrassing and mad and unclassifiable.

    Which is, of course, exactly what Doctor Who should be, and do.

    Thank you again for this blog - I look forward to reading upcoming entries.

    William Muirhead

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    1. Thanks very much, William. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

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