If geeks have anything in common - varying wildly as they do in personality, temperament, class, and degrees of technical obsession - it's likely to be popular culture. Pop culture is their universal language and common interest. Whatever else they might do on a given weekend, Monday usually finds most of them asking one another, online or off, what movie they saw over the weekend and what they thought of it.
Writing for another website, I started an occasional column called "Geek Screens." I got more e-mail about movies and TV shows than any other single subject with the possible exception of Bill Gates. Geeks are obsessive about screens, even the non-digital ones. In the public interest, I started not only writing about certain movies and TV shows but picking the best of the year, in my not-entirely- humble opinion. Then I quickly stood back so everybody else could chime in and offer theirs.
Geeks may champion Linux or prefer to wallow in Windows NT but almost everybody reading this has seen "Saving Private Ryan" and has an opinion about whether it is a cinematic breakthrough or more mush from America's most middle-brow director.
What better way to kick off l999, therefore, than to re-launch "Geek Screens" on /. Remember, the opinions expressed here are my own. They are no better or worse than yours which, I'm sure, you'll quickly offer below.
My pick for best movie of l998: "Happiness" by Todd Solondz. Best TV show: "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."
1998 was a tricky year for picking movies. Most of the media hype went to "Private Ryan," which did, in fact, take special effects to an artful new level, bringing us as close to the experience of war as it's possible to get without actually having stormed Omaha Beach ourselves. Still, I was one of those who thought this movie was basically two extraordinary battle sequences; sandwiched in between the "Sands of Iwo Jima." The new standard for war movies seems to be that veterans must certify its accuracy down to the last sickening plop of a bullet through flesh.
But does this really leave enough to the imagination? Maybe war ought to be portrayed in realistically horrifying ways, but Hollywood movies aren't the same thing as documentaries and shouldn't be judged in the same way. They aren't supposed to be literal renderings of human experience. War can be conveyed in lots of different and non-literal ways. For me, one of the most haunting evocations of the insanity of war's insanity was Francis Ford Coppola's astonishing helicopter ballets in "Apocalypse Now," Wagner swelling in the background while gorgeous eruptions of napalm mushroomed from below, the most chilling evocation of Vietnam I've yet seen.
Spielberg is obviously a gifted filmmaker, and "Private Ryan" an amazing movie, but I had the sense he was hiding behind realism, rather than using it to make a great film. Effects are often the heart and soul of his movies, with the notable exception of "Schindler's List," where special effects would have been so tasteless he had no choice but to skip them and make a powerful film about human beings trying to survive hell.
"Happiness" was, for me, a much more daring, complex and powerful film, not only a taboo-breaker but a dare to consider humanity in a different way.
"Happiness" is emblematic of a new kind of brutally unsparing filmaking - critic Roger Ebert grumped recently that this genre ought to be called "geek cinema." Maybe so. Ebert uses the term in a freakish rather than technological way, but there's no doubt that alienation has become a mainstream movie theme.
Solondz made "Welcome To the Dollhouse" a few years ago, a comparatively primitive but already classic look at high school cruelty and the sometimes horrendous trials of adolescence for the individualistic young. He's on his way to becoming the Shakespeare of alienation. And alienation has been, and remains, a recurring geek theme.
"Happiness" tells the story of three sisters, their complex emotional lives,and the even more twisted tales of the people around them. A maniacal parable of despair, disconnection and sexual longing, Solondz did something I would have thought impossible to do in a single film - he makes you want to laugh, cringe, gag and cry, within moments.
American popular culture is riddled with taboos that keep artists and producers from approaching subjects like religion, sex or death. Solondz confront one of the deepest and last taboos: no figure in American life has been demonized as absolutely and relentlessly as the pedophile. Solondz chose to make one of his main characters a sexual predator of children, and while he doesn't come close to dismissing pedophilia or glamorizing, he did portray a pedophile (beautifully played by Dylan Baker) as an agonized human being, rather than a uni-dimensional monster. That we end up caring about him is in itself an amazing accomplishment. For this, Solondz's original distributor, October Films, declined to distribute his film. Fortunately for us, somebody else did.
Beyond that, "Happiness" makes us realize that it's not always possible to say exactly who the freaks are in our society. In "Happiness" we wind up feeling the most contempt for the people who see themselves as the most successful and "normal" and caring the most about people who initially repel and bewilder us.
Unlike "Private Ryan," which always does precisely what we expect, "Happiness" almost never does. It's hard to think of a movie as unnerving and exasperating as this one. Whenever we think a scene is going one way, it lurches in the other direction:
Helen: "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you!"
Joy: "But I'm not laughing!"
Mixing the bizarre with the genuinely touching isn't an easy thing for any artist. Solondz pulls it off brilliantly.
Right up there alongside "Happiness" I'd put "Smoke Signals," the hilarious and touching movie from Sherman Alexie (based on stories in his collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" about two young Indian men who set out from an Idaho reservation to collect the ashes of one's father. It's another movie about alienation and family, but gentler, funnier, almost whimsical. Also near the top of my list: "Shakespeare In Love," a joyous tribute to the birth of show biz, and "The Truman Show," as biting (and timely) a bit of media criticism as anybody has presented in a long time. Watching the House impeachment hearings a couple of Saturdays ago, I more than half-expected the camera to cut away to a giant control room in the sky, where Ed Harris (the producer in the sky) was whispering into a mouthpiece that Henry Hyde ought to get up and make a speech.
As for television series, any TV show whose basic premise is that high school is the Hellmouth through which demons pass is off to a great start. Our heroine battles vampires, chases demons, fights with Mom, learns to drive, aches for a social life, and fends off bone-headed principals. Maybe it's all the same fight.
"Buffy" (on the WB Tuesdays) is one of the most consistent shows on the tube, offering good writing and acting, very funny writing and dialogue, and a biting, contemporary sensibility.
Number Two, for me: "The X-Files" (Sunday nights on Fox). Although Chris Carter's inventive creation, the first geek drama to become a mainstream TV hit, has wavered in quality over the past two years, it's seemed to steady itself since last Fall. Anybody who wonders why a program becomes a smash by portraying government and authority (and the middle-aged men who represent both) as remote, disconnected and evil, have only to watch the evening news on any given night.
But "The X-Files" isn't nearly as political as it sometimes pretends to be. For all of Mulder and Scully's mumbo-jumbo about strange men smoking cigarettes in dark rooms, or government conspiracies to join forces with aliens, "The X-Files" has come to terms with what it's really about: one of the great (albeit unrequited) love stories of contemporary culture. When all is said and done, it is Mulder's and Scully's unwavering affection for and loyalty to one another that made this show a hit and keeps it one.
Another favorite, and moving up fast: "That 70's Show." (It precedes" The X-Files Sunday nights on Fox. Sandwiched in between the chaotic 60's and the greedy, Yuppie-led 80's, the 70's were the lost decade. The kids on the "70's" show capture that strange time. They're a raffish, geeky, appealing counterpoint to their 90's counterparts, the earnest beautifuls of "Friends."
In these inter-active times, however, we are all critics. Weigh in yourself:
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