John Rudolph Drexler

John Rudolph Drexler is a healthcare researcher in Indonesia. In his spare time he is a musician and writer.

The Ethos of the Geek

Simon Pegg and his pals Nick Frost and Edgar Wright are not only fabulous and hilarious filmmakers: they represent the ethos of the geek, and are therefore tremendously important cultural figures. In 2004, these Brits half-stumbled-half-exploded onto the film scene with their zombie parody Shaun of the Dead and it was met with nearly universal praise. Since then, Pegg has made several more genre parodies: Hot Fuzz, Paul, and The World’s End (he even played Scotty in the recent Star Trek reboot), giving him perhaps the strongest claim to the throne of the geek kingdom.

It is a recent phenomenon, largely spurned on by the existence of the Internet (but that’s another discussion entirely), that “geek culture” has emerged from the basement and become acceptable, and even cool. In its most romantic classification, the geek is identified by cultural effusiveness, nostalgia, and non-ironic devotion to current and bygone cultural artifacts. Here is Pegg’s oft-quoted explanation:

“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

To be honest about this sort of adoration is to admit the enormity of a niche in your own life and its humorous smallness in the grand scheme of things. Each of his films is set in a painfully plain context from Pegg’s humdrum upbringing, from the drone of city life to the quiet English countryside to the milquetoast suburbs. When Pegg actually lived as a young geek in such places, his affections turned to supernatural and heroic stories.

In an interview with Marc Maron, Pegg called himself a child of popular culture. He described Star Wars as changing his whole perspective on culture and media. On the silver screen, Pegg takes on fantasy villains in his hometown; he imports the imagination of George Lucas into his simple circumstances. From the zombies in Shaun, to killer robots in The World’s End, to a secret cult of serial killers in Hot Fuzz, he brings all his dorky Hollywood nostalgia into the places where real-life geeks live and work. Along the way he lampoons genres, film tropes, British culture, and most poignantly, himself.

Contrast that with Scary Movie or its many horrible derivations (Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. ad infinitum). Scary Movie lacks real characters and affection for the genres it attempts to satirize. Those films lack a geeky mentality toward themselves and toward their genre. They rework the surfaces of other films rather than getting into the deep logic of a genre. As a result, they are less funny, less interesting, and generally bad films. In the words of Michael McKean (co-writer and co-star of “mockumentary” films like Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind), “We couldn’t make fun of these topics if we didn’t truly love and revere them.”

Shaun of the Dead faithfully adhered to the formula of the great George Romero zombie classics Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but jokingly focused on the charming, admittedly inane relationships of the characters instead of the struggle against zombies. Where Romero used zombies as a device to critique Capitalism and Consumerism, Pegg and Wright used zombies to joke about the genre itself, and their own depressing lives.

Shaun, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End focus on humanness and culture in the face of sensational action, and in many ways, that’s what drives the comedy. Frost and Pegg’s characters remain largely unfazed by the turmoil around them, preoccupied with drinking beer, how best to channel the spirit of Keanu Reeves in Point Break as a reference point for good police work, or deciding which vinyl records are disposable enough to be thrown at a zombies as a weapon (Purple Rain? “No!” The Batman Soundtrack? “Throw it.”)

Nostalgia, unfortunately, can limit as much as it can inspire. All of Pegg’s protagonists are driven by something they once had but cannot get back, whether that be their youth, their girlfriend, or their job. In The World’s End, Pegg, Frost, and their other 40-something friends go home to finish an epic pub crawl they couldn’t finish in high school. It turns impressively dark in the scenes when Gary (Pegg) is confronted by his ex-buddy about his pettiness and his alcoholism.

In Pegg’s complex psychological profile of the geek, perhaps the most compelling idea is that all of his villains threaten to homogenize. Tellingly, the first hint that their hometown has been overrun by robots is that all the colorful, unique pubs of yesteryear have been “Starbucks’d” into an identical chain of pubs. Pierce Brosnan’s character reasons with them, “[The robots are] here to straighten us out, to prepare us for the big league… And guess what? They want us along for the ride! Pretty cool, huh?” Behind the veneer of the robots’ normalcy, their Britishisms, and their niceness, there’s something sinister. It’s just like the cordial townspeople in Hot Fuzz with murderous night jobs who offer Pegg and Frost life if (and only if) they join the cult. The most obvious manifestation of homogenization is the image of the zombie hoard in Shaun of the Dead mindlessly devouring, short-circuiting brainwaves, and forcing their victims to join the group.

The plight of the geek is to resist homogeneity and to cling unflinchingly to his collection of shitty records. That plight is actually much cooler than clinging to something cool. Pegg’s geekiness is like punk that is too punk to be hip. And now, with the rising acceptance of geeks in the mainstream, the plight becomes more complex: like all subcultures, won’t geeks lose some of their realness if Hollywood likes them? Will that spurn on a new derivative form of nostalgia for a time when dorky nostalgia wasn’t cool? Are you still a geek if you’re a geek at a time when it’s respectable to effusively love Sci-Fi?

Regardless of abstract wondering, these films embody the mind of the geek in vivid and hilarious detail. The nostalgia is palpable, but not obnoxious. The characters are sad, but not quite pathetic. The laugh lines are ridiculous, but not overblown. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and especially The World’s End walk a razor-thin line between stupid and brilliant, and somehow manage not to teeter. As a microcosm of geek-acceptance in pop culture, their movies are partially comforting and partially awkward, but also sincerely relatable and honest to their own geekiness.

Ocean’s Wonder

Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film is brilliant for many reasons I won’t pretend to fully understand. But at the center of all its nuance is Fellini’s ego. In , Fellini created a complete picture of his soul, his ambitions, his sexuality, his narcissistic attitude, and his interpretation and creative organization of the environment around him. He synthesizes all of the poignant elements of his life into a new narrative with as much emphasis on dreams as on reality, and with as much detail in the characters’ dialects as in their dialogue. The result is odd, indirect, and poetic, and as a unique glimpse of human nature, it’s as vivid and as challenging as a piece of art can be.

What’s interesting about 21st-century creative work is that, due to the revealing nature of the Internet, fans can become aware of an artist’s narrative prior to encountering the art itself. With the help of a couple quick wiki searches and a trip through some credible blogs, the public can become experts on an artist’s background and aesthetic inclinations. In many ways, this can hurt the artistic process: art no longer stands by itself because it must be accompanied by an online marketing campaign. Listeners might fail to meet art on its own terms because of the source through which they discovered it. Artists may find their art glossed over in the mass consumption of streamed music and film. The list goes on. In some cases, this runaway commodification can benefit the artist and his work; in these cases, there is a sense in which it allows for the telling of a three-dimensional, all-encompassing narrative à la .

Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE may be permanently defined by the online letter he wrote to his fans two weeks before the album’s release. In the letter, Ocean chronicled his confused sexual history in profound poetic language. The takeaway for most mainstream media sources was that hip-hop and R&B were finally becoming civilized: a popularly accepted black artist came out of the closet, thus transforming the rift between black music and the gay community into an accessible platform for principally pluralistic conversation.

While this may be the case, what shined through more clearly was Ocean’s intimate understanding of the human condition, and the unique vision with which he sees it. Toward the beginning of his cryptic letter, he laments, “In the last year or three, I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.”

Frank Ocean is no stranger to turmoil. Through the course of channel ORANGE, he notes the financial troubles of his youth, the foul nature of his own self-indulgence, his sexual anxiety, masturbation, the harshness of urban life, and unrequited love. He weaves each of these tragedies into the sprawling narrative of his own experience, making use of a number of fascinating characters.

There’s his mother in “Not Just Money,” a junkie in “Crack Rock,” a romantic in “Pilot Jones,” filthy rich suburbanites in “Super Rich Kids,” and of course Ocean himself bookends the album with the opener and blogosphere favorite “Thinkin Bout You”, and then the heart-breaking “Bad Religion.” His place in his own narrative becomes clearer in the big picture of the album: he’s the only character whose problems are all internalized. In a world of drug struggles, crimes, low incomes, and rampant sexuality, Ocean stands out as the troubled artist who sees things simply and seriously as they are, and is able to explain them eloquently.

What’s more is that he creates this stunning mural in such a musically rich context. Comparisons to Stevie Wonder are unavoidable: his buttery voice and intricate musicality harkens back to Stevie’s daring pop-oriented aesthetic. He’s not the musical innovator that Stevie was, but his capacity for phenomenal melodies and his fresh take on R&B lyricism prove him to be comparably gifted.

As a lyricist, Ocean communicates through a topsy-turvy dialect of extended metaphor and cleverly juxtaposed imageries. In “Sweet Life,” he describes the relationship that his real life characters have with his music:

The best song wasn’t the single
But you couldn’t turn your radio down
Satellite needed a receiver
Can’t seem to turn the signal fully off
Transmit the waves
You’re catching that breeze ‘til you’re dead in the grave.

Later he continues, “But you’re keepin’ it surreal / Not sugar-free / My TV ain’t HD / That’s too real.” Perhaps the pseudo-realism of popular media, whether in television or in his own art, is too much to bear. He and presumably his listeners are overwhelmed by the realness, the sweetness, the intrigue.

Drake describes the state of hip-hop and R&B this way: “A time where it’s recreation / To pull all your skeletons out the closet / Like Halloween decorations.” But where Drake and others (see The Weekend or The Dream) use their music as an outlet for harsh confessions, Ocean goes deeper: he sings with poetic integrity, creates fitting, elaborate musical soundscapes, and invites his audience to engage in the reality that he has constructed. This isn’t The OC, this is .

Without a boring moment, a twinge of artistic self-indulgence, or triteness, Ocean opens a window into the human condition, and peers in fearfully. It’s beautifully simple. In the summer of 2012 this unexpected masterpiece was a breath of fresh air compared to the drone of the radio (I’m looking at you, Pitbull). I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for Frank Ocean. Here’s hoping he gets that manna.