Alpha nerds kicked ass

In the immediate wake of last week’s Golden Globe nominations, I had awards season filed as a straight run-off between the old and the new; inherited wealth versus the dotcom billions.

The King’s Speech (South African release: February 2010) stars Colin Firth as stuttering George VI, who finds his voice on the eve of war.

The Social Network casts Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who conjured up friends for everyone but himself. Both, at the time of writing, look set to be run close by Darren Aronofsky’s boxing drama The Fighter.

Even so, I’m betting the lion’s share of Oscars get divvied up between the king and the nerd. So far, so scripted. Except the more I think about it, the less distinct these frontrunners become.

Constricted old George has communication issues of his own. As played by Firth, he’s the whelpish little brother who fell on to the throne; the timid mouse that learned to roar. One might even say that he’s something of a nerd himself.

Plucking a single overarching theme from the year in film is like herding cats. Stare too long and the pictures start to blur. 2010 was the year in which 3D became a part of the furniture and 1980s nostalgia had the run of the multiplex. But it may also have been the year when the nerd came of age, when the ridiculed outsider took centre stage. By God, it’s been a long time coming.

Judging from the dictionary, a nerd is something you don’t want to be: “a boring or unpopular person, a stupid or feeble person”. In pop culture, he (and it usually is a he) has his roots in 1950s teen culture. He’s the skinny sprat in the Charles Atlas ads, the comic relief in beach party B-movies.

These days, though, we have learned to view him differently. He’s been upgraded and relaunched: he’s Nerd 2.0, whose nerdish elements are no barrier to heroic feats of derring-do (beating baddies, making money, finding love). Are we even allowed to call him a nerd any more?

This year gave us Kick-Ass, in which lowly Dave Lizewski rebrands himself as a costumed superhero, saves the planet from evil and is only tangentially a figure of fun. It also threw up a brace of X-chromosome nerd movies in Easy A and Whip It — outriders for a still fledgling sub-genre that takes its lead from Juno and Ghost World.

Then there was Scott Pilgrim vs the World, with chinless Michael Cera as a badass indie kid, a hipster Hercules who battles “seven evil exes” in order to win his fair damsel. In a previous era, Pilgrim would have played the role of the clown, or the sidekick. Here he’s both a plausible romantic lead and a bona fide action hero.

The film respects Pilgrim and demands that we do the same. In fact, argued writer Matt Zoller Seitz: “He’s treated no differently than the young Tom Cruise would have been treated on screen circa 1984 or so: as a desirable viewer surrogate, who’s free to move about in his cinematic universe, unencumbered by preconceived notions.” Pilgrim, he went on to point out, is a Nino: a nerd in name only.

So where did Nino spring from? It’s tempting to trace the evolution back to the mid-1970s, when Woody Allen patented a new movie- hero model: the wimpish intellectual who gets the girl.

The decade also saw the rise of the movie brat; film-school geeks turned industry titans. Perhaps recent developments owe something to wider changes in the culture at large — to a dotcom boom that has provided new supermen, and a new site for drama. Lynn Batholome, president of the Popular Culture Association, reckons the nerd’s ascent “has a lot to do with the computer revolution, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Those guys were quote-unquote geeks and for baby boomers they’ve now got what’s important – prestige, money and power.”

And then there was Mark
And now there’s Zuckerberg. As portrayed in David Fincher’s thinly fictionalised The Social Network, the Facebook billionaire is not so much Nino as alpha nerd — a constrained, cold-blooded dysfunctional who stumbles on a fortune after being dumped by his girlfriend.

“Listen,” she tells him in a scene that could serve as the film’s mission statement. “You’re going to be successful and rich, but you’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that this won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” And so it comes to pass.

In interviews, Fincher has said he doesn’t care if this character comes across as unsympathetic. Instead, his intention was to create an epic coming-of-age tale, “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies”, focusing on a “fringe shit-stirrer who became the centre of the eye of a hurricane of technological innovation”. If anything, he identifies with the guy.

Zuckerberg, Fincher suggests, is not so different from how he and his friends were, back in the day. “I guess today we’d have been bloggers,” he said. “But at the time, we were just dorks hanging out and trying to figure our way into the movie business.”

These days, Fincher is safely at the heart of the machine and the great geek takeover is all but complete. Hollywood, of course, has been in thrall to what might traditionally be referred to as nerd-friendly blockbusters for years – whether they were sci-fi, fantasy, comic-book or game adaptations.

But that influence has now percolated, or metastasised. In films like Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim, the consumer has become the character. The age-old image of the nerd has been fleshed out, retouched and brought to life by hydra-headed Cera and Eisenberg (two sides of the same coin; the John Wayne and Gary Cooper of the gamer generation).

Inevitably, this has meant some hasty reordering of language. “Nobody in the media with half a brain says ‘comic-book nerd’ or ‘sci-fi geek’ any more,” Zoller Seitz pointed out. “They say ‘comic-book fan’ or ‘sci-fi fan’. Why? Deference to power.”

Does the rise of the nerd signal a kinder, gentler, less openly macho era? You’d hope so, wouldn’t you? But I wonder. Early evidence suggests King Nerd is every bit as ruthless, every bit as despotic as the odious he-men who once gave him wedgies in gym class.

Put this down to what New York magazine writer Adam Sternbergh referred to as group polarisation — the “tyranny of the fanboys”, who gang up online and comprehensively flame anyone who doesn’t, for instance, agree that Inception was the best summer movie in the history of summer movies.

“Once the outcast underdogs, fanboys have become the new bullies,” he wrote. Or to put it another way: power corrupts. Like the cowboys, cavalry men and settlers of old, the new-model nerd has the wind at his back and a kingdom to claim. It’s manifest destiny all over again.

If the western is the established ur-text of American cinema, it stands to reason that the text must adapt and refresh itself to survive. I used to think there was a neat inverted western to be made about the online era.

It would rustle up a land where fortunes are made and lost at the drop of a mouse, where boom towns live cheek by jowl with long-abandoned URLs, and where gambling dens and porn sites flourish on a largely unregulated frontier. But maybe these films are with us already.

For what are Lizewski and Pilgrim but contemporary updates of the Wild West gunslinger, heroes for our time? And what is The Social Network but a chatterbox riff on There Will Be Blood?

In his sweeping tale of Facebook’s founding father, Fincher may just have given us the genre’s first revisionist epic. He’s taken poor, rich Zuckerberg and installed him as a modern-day Daniel Plainview; a man who gains the world but winds up hunched miserably over his PC; refreshing, refreshing for all that he’s worth. — Guardian News & Media 2010

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