Posts tagged ‘geek culture’

September 3, 2016

#118) How not to complain #6: Friends in low places

Let’s start with the standard disclaimer: I agree with much of what is said in David Hopkins’ article for Medium in which he blames the TV show “Friends” for triggering “the downfall of Western Civilization.” I have no problem whatsoever with the phrases “American Idol” and “Reign of Terror” being used in the same sentence. I have endless sympathy for middle school chess club members who get bullied. As with other complaint deconstructions, however, the issue  is whether Hopkins will sway others to his side. Sure, the geeks who despised the ubiquity of “Friends” and its good-looking cast will nod until their coke-bottle glasses slip off their nose, but will he be able to give the beautiful people pause? Given the article’s descent from promising tongue-in-cheek to lecture, I’d say probably not.

The premise: David Schwimmer’s character, Ross, was set up as the program’s “fall guy” – portrayed in the beginning as a lovable misfit but later as an elitist nag who was too smart for the room. As Hopkins points out, “[A]ny time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas…one of his ‘friends’ was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares.” According to Hopkins, Ross’s rejection, both by the other characters and the show’s wide audience, was “the moment when much of America groaned, mid-sentence, at the voice of reason.”

The two main downfalls of Hopkins’ argument are themes that come up regularly among ineffective complaints: lack of historical context and lack of empathy/humor.

Hopkins points out that in 2004, the year the show ended, George W. Bush was elected to a second term,  Paris Hilton ruled supreme and Green Day’s Grammy winning album “American Idiot” was released. It was the year “when we completely gave up and embraced stupidity as a value.” Hopkins himself was a middle school teacher at the time, a self-appointed protector of the nerdy kids under his tutelage in the chess club: “Maybe intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point …”

Well, 2004 might not have been the cultural and political pinnacle of Western civilization, but given selected information, any year can be made to look like pure idiocy. Would Hopkins have preferred to have lived in 1965 so he could watch first-run episodes of “My Mother, The Car”? Or in ’72 so he could attend the premier of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”?* Let the record show that in 1991, four years before “Friends” and thirteen before Hopkins’ “year that reality television became a dominant force in pop culture” former Cincinnati mayor Gerald N. Springer first took to the airwaves with his perennial Emmy winner. As for persecution of nerds, it’s been happening at least as far back as the 17th century when Galileo was convicted of heresy due to his crazy idea of a heliocentric universe and has continued through Mercury Records telling a certain power trio from Canada that their songs were too long and their lyrics had too many big words. And take it from me–nerds have been shoved into middle school lockers since at least the late ’80s, just like, uh, my, uh, friend…Joey…Jim Bob…uh, Schwartz. Yeah, that’s it, Schwartz.

One could also argue that since 2004, nerd culture has been increasingly embraced, even if superficially–twee, Silverlake, Zooey Deschanel. A case can also be made that, Kardashians notwithstanding, since “Friends” television has upped its game – “Mad Men”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Walking Dead”, “The Voice” and many other shows that people tell me are awesome.

History aside, Hopkins’ admonishment to “read a fucking book” probably won’t send folks on a beeline to the library any more than “stop buying so much shit” will keep them away from WalMart. Hopkins concludes with a positive note, asking us to “protect the nerds”: “Nerds create vaccines. Nerds engineer bridges and roadways…we need these obnoxiously smart people, because they make the world a better place.” His sympathy for nerds is admirable, but to be a more effective complainer, he also needs to sympathize – or at least empathize – with the quarterbacks and cheerleaders behind enemy lines.

*The only movie I have ever had to turn off

June 30, 2016

#114) Movie review: “Atari: Game Over”

It’s the stuff of geek legend, especially among geeks who grew up in the 1980s. In the summer of 1982, Atari is seeing its domination of the home video game market faltering. The U.S. economy is slow and stores are being flooded with low-quality games. Atari has already taken lumps over the 2600 console’s poorly received version of the arcade mega-hit PacMan, so they need to come up with something big. Feeding on the success of the Raiders of the Lost Ark game, they opt to license another movie for a tie-in: the blockbuster “E.T.” Negotiations for the rights take longer than expected. With the deadline for a holiday season release approaching, game designer Howard Warshaw has only five weeks to complete “E.T.” – compared to a typical time frame of six months. The result is a product that is not only disappointing but also cited as the cause for the subsequent collapse in the video game market. In the wake of the “E.T.” disaster, millions of the unsold and returned cartridges are buried in the New Mexico desert.

Or are they?

“Atari: Game Over” (currently streaming on Netflix and available on Youtube) examines this rumor, weaving two narratives: a flashback of the rise and fall of Atari and indeed all video games between Pong and Nintendo and a present-day (2014) account of geek pilgrims lobbying the city of Alamogordo for permission to excavate the land fill and vet out the legend.

In judging such a specialized film the key question is: will it appeal to those who don’t have particular interest in the subject? In this case…probably. “Atari: Game Over” is short  (66 minutes) and engaging enough that almost anyone can find it appealing. Long story short: you shouldn’t have to beg your girlfriend to watch it with you, especially if you’ve recently sat through a romcom with her.

Director Zak Penn, noted for writing several scripts for Marvel superhero movies and for a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster, clearly has affection for the subject matter and the film plays more as a nonfiction feature than as a documentary. While there ultimately is a little more cheerleading and back-patting than necessary, the film moves at a good pace, providing engaging detail without getting too bogged down in particulars. Howard Warshaw could be seen as the protagonist. As a 25-year old he achieved acclaim with “Yar’s Revenge”, one of Atari’s most popular and well-received games. He also designed the successful “Raiders” but “E.T.” not only hurt his beloved company but sullied his reputation as well. After the demise of Atari, Warshaw moved from one industry to another, never finding the same excitement and purpose, never able to shake his attachment to the doomed game. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and xBox co-creator Seamus Blackley are among those who provide commentary and historical context. Robert Rentschler and Susie Galea (respectively the former and current mayors of Alamogordo) and waste disposal expert Joe Lewandowski are among the players in the present-day excavation.

The two storylines build to a climax on April 26th, 2014. In what has been described as “geek Woodstock”, gamers from far and wide come to witness the dig. One shows up in a deLorean; many are wearing T-shirts of classic Atari games such as “Pitfall!” and “Space Invaders.” The shovels start digging. Will the games be found? Will they be intact? What if the chemicals from the cartridges begat a bunch of radioactive pigs? Will the gathering of gamers mean redemption for Warshaw?

We love to build up and tear down and when something survives that process, be it a movie, book, song or game, it earns a special place in geek culture. Not only did “E.T.” not deserve its reputation but it also brought people together in  way that a game that was simply mediocre wouldn’t have. Ultimately, Penn is no more concerned with the results of the dig as he is with showing how the game became a touchstone for a generation and telling a story of redemption and affection for the past. As Raiford Guins, a professor of culture and technology says in the film, “I would still rather play Atari’s E.T. than any Call of Duty.”