The Sacred and the Popular

21 Aug 2015

A couple weeks ago, Bob Chipman’s review of Adam Sandler’s Pixels was making the rounds. His various descriptions of the film are most certainly worth the price of admission (that is, the price of admission to his YouTube channel – Google advertisements – not to the movie itself): “Retro-gamer Jumanji”; “Scott Pilgrim but for assholes”; and “the worst action movie storytelling since Transformers. The second one”. Even if you have no interest in Pixels, nerd culture, or reviews in general, there is something about it that I think will merit a chuckle or two.

Still, the review manages to grate a little bit. It is not, in itself, bad – although it does come from the “angry shouting critic” family of media commentary. Yet even then this appears to be one of those situations where that tone and manner are wholly appropriate. It grates because of what reviews like this have ended up becoming for the broader community of nerds on the Internet.

There is no point in pretending that nerd culture is A: any one thing anymore (if it ever was) and B: some sacred trust that is immune from exploitation and monetization. There have long been (often successful) attempts to, without shame, trawl through precisely the kinds of identities that exist at the margins of popular culture. Pixels is neither the most heinous nor the most abrasive. It is simply the latest. There are those that have felt it necessary to use the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’, but if there is a parallel to be drawn to between Pixels and, say, The Cleveland Indians, the difference in degree is most certainly a vast gulf. Identities are frequently borrowed for the express purpose of making people money and, very often, those people have no connection whatsoever to those identities.

As Wyatt Arndt puts it, “I assume Pixels will be an uninspired, kind of garbage movie, but it appears to be a game now of who can review it the worst”. He’s right, of course, but I suspect that the reason that nerds have come out so vehemently against this film is because we feel personally invested in that which is being appropriated and mocked. For many of us that identity was hard fought and came with a cost; and for others it was that identity which gave us solace when we were otherwise excluded (or excluded ourselves) from our peers. Pixels may be a bad film, but it is made worse because it comes across as an attack on who we were – and, in some way, still are. The characters, the culture, and the ideas belong to us, and when we see them utilized so abjectly comes across as a personal affront to that which we define ourselves as.

The problem is that those nerds grew up and, in a lot of ways, took over. That culture does not exist at the periphery anymore. The popularity of Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example. Halo and World of Warcraft too. Nor is the Web any longer a place that we can retreat into to get away from the mainstream. It is the mainstream. Even Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering have become far more popular and widespread than we, in our basements1 as young nerds, could have possibly imagined. The Internet has brought people together from vast distances and permitted collectives to form that would have otherwise been impossible, but along with this bridging of like-minded nerds is the introduction of those cultural artifacts and keystones to a wider audience. It is not that the sacred has become profane, but rather that it has become popular. We have to watch as others take part in our lifestyle, but without the having the tradition or experiences that brought it to us.

Nerd culture was once a battleground and many of us still remember how difficult an experience it was – and now we have to watch as people, as others partake in that which we fought for without any sort of respect for those that came before them. It feels like an attack and so we respond in kind. The problem is that Pixels is not an attack. It’s just another shitty movie, but rather than letting it pass us by and disappear into obscurity we’ve made it a symbol and have transformed it from yet another mindless Adam Sandler flick into an icon that we can rally ourselves against.

It can be fun to rage against entertainment that ends up not being very entertaining. There are video game reviewers that have developed personas entirely around that premise and become quite successful in doing so. For those who are particularly good at it, those reviews end up being a source of entertainment themselves.2 It can be tricky to balance being interesting with being angry with critique. I do not think it unfair to suggest that even those who are experts often end up favoring the first two aspects with their reviews. Honest, thoughtful, and nuanced analysis is tricky enough on its own, so it only becomes more difficult when you are attempting to add the other layers that are necessary for the kind of widespread popularity that is needed to succeed in these businesses.

Chipman’s reviews are a great example. Check out his recent review on Terminator: Genisys. It is a careful navigation of anger, fun, and criticism. He understands not just that the film is bad, but why it fails, what is wrong with it as both a film and an installment within a broader franchise. While you can see that same sort of interpretation with his look at Ant-Man, there is much less of the “angry shouting critic” and much more of the philosopher. Of course, his quieter Ant-Man review has 160,000 views while his Pixels review has 1.9 million. The former is a much stronger piece of criticism; the latter is funnier to watch; and I would go as far to suggest that his Terminator Genisys review is his best at hitting all three of my imagined pillars of review.3 This is not a slag against Chipman or his style, but rather it should be taken as an indication of how hard media critique can be.4 It is much easier to gain popular success by being loud than by being thoughtful.

Of course, this is precisely one of the undercurrents in angry responses to films like Pixels. Nerds do not really have a problem with movies being made about their darlings, but they want those movies to go beyond surface explorations of the culture that they are attempting to participate in.5 It is a desire for writers and directors to stop taking the easy approach and show that they understand what it is that they are making films about. They should be taking care with what they are doing instead of using nerd iconography as a backdrop for some other story. Less Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie, more Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Less Transformers, more Love is Strange. Less Fantastic Four, more The Avengers. Don’t exploit nerds, celebrate them.

I can appreciate that desire, but it seems to be a wholly futile one. The widespread acceptance of our hobbies and imagery means that the film and television industries – among many, many others – are going to attempt to capitalize on that popularity. As a long as there are people willing to watch Terminator Genisys or The Big Bang Theory, those kinds of products are going to be made. Railing angrily (and often incoherently) against them might make us feel good for a spell, but it isn’t doing anything productive.

And that’s okay.

I do not believe that everything needs to have use-value beyond satisfaction. At the same time, understanding the ways that media work (or do not work, as the case may be) is incredibly important. It provides references and frameworks for artists and creators to organize their thoughts in such a way that, with any luck, will make their future creative endeavours better as a result.6 Art is not progressive. That is to say, that novelty does not necessarily ensure that recent works are superior to prior ones, but learning lessons from those that came before allows for unexpected newness to reveal itself. It allows us to find the alien in long-familiar territory. Whether we appreciate particular instances of originality or simply discard it in favour of comfortable traditions, having access to the unexpected is a vital part of the human experience. Further, as I imagine is the case with any good liberal arts major, I believe that being able to make sense of the relationship between a society and its art tells us a great deal. Who we are, as peoples and individuals, is connected to the stories we tell and those that we choose to listen to.

Entertainment for entertainment’s sake may be a fine way for us to consume media, but it seems to me that nerds do not really believe that to be the case. That our stories and symbols should not simply be the subject of a mindless gaze, but rather that authors and directors should take care with these sacred artifacts. Yet we insist on replicating those trespasses onto the stories and symbols of others, because it is precisely that manner that allows us to gain popularity and success. The question, I suppose, is in whether or not we want to be better than that which we are critical of or simply replicate its transgressions for ourselves. It might be foolish of me to suggest that we, as whatever qualifies as nerds these days, can make a decision together and refuse to engage in that which we hate, but I can make that choice for myself – and do my best to convince others without resorting to the angry theatrics that I find so unpalatable, even if they are an easy method of achieving success.

  1. This is the common shorthand for a shared experience that may never have taken place in people’s basements – although it certainly did in my case. 

  2. Jim Sterling and Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw come to mind, but they certainly are not the only examples. 

  3. Not that I have seen all his reviews, but I feel that I have bounced around enough his backlog to get a decent sense. 

  4. This is all without getting into his “Really That Good” series of reviews, which are exactly what I want from a critical mind: lengthy, thoughtful, and careful explorations of a film and its original context, as well as the changes that arise because of its growing distance from that context. 

  5. I acknowledge that I am generalizing here. I don’t pretend to be actually speaking for all nerds, but rather to a common argument from the community. Forgive the shorthand. 

  6. There are filmmakers and writers galore that prove this point, but perhaps none better than Quentin Tarantino, whose passion for westerns, historical war dramas, and kung-fu flicks has led to his unique (and often strange) cinematic style and his mastery of the craft. Like or loathe his movies, his expertise is undeniable.