Biting the hand

I’m sometimes amazed at the way icons of geek culture will seemingly bite the hands that feed them. “Weird Al” Yankovic, who counts amongst his biggest hits a retelling in song of the plot of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, wrote and recorded a “You’re Pitiful”, a parody of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”. The object of the singer’s pity? The classic nerd stereotype: a 40-something guy who lives in their parent’s basement, makes their own Star Trek uniforms, has no romantic prospects, a dead end job and plays Halo 2 while slobbing around on the couch. Needless to say, no nerds I know fit this bill, though mainstream culture thinks we do: games are childish, sci-fi is for those without social skills etc. It seemed like such a blatant grab for the mainstream market (“hur, even Weird Al thinks you’re a loser!”) that I stopped buying his albums. (I also think he missed a trick by not making the original song the target of the parody; as Tom Gleeson pointed out for great (if perhaps over-milked) comic effect, it’s “man watching someone with their boyfriend on a train” premise is actually kind of creepy.) It’s for similar reasons that I have a love-hate relationship with Big Bang Theory, which – while a well written sit-com – I always characterise as setting nerd-human relations back at least fifty years. It also presents appalling stereotypes of women, who are either nerds in the same mould as the male protagonists, or presented as “normal” – which translates to being traditionally attractive with great social skills and little intelligence. And yet, these “adorkable” characters are beloved by geeks and anti-geeks alike.

I had a similar moment today when listening to episode 72 of “The Talk Show”. Hosted by 5by5 chief Dan Benjamin and Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber, it’s a very nerdy beast. They don’t pigeonhole themselves in a particular topic, but given the people involved, talk usually revolves around Apple, Google and Microsoft technology and software, but also popular culture, especially films. Gruber is quite the film buff, a very nerdy fan of Kubrick, and both are devotees (though not uncritical ones) of the James Bond franchise. One of my favourite quotes about cinema is from Kubrick, and I found it via Gruber, who posted it on Daring Fireball:

The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.

Apparently, though, the affection of Lord of the Rings movie fans doesn’t really count. As they enter a chat about films, Dan mentions Gruber’s tweet describing the films as shit. (Later tweets inform us his wife would have preferred to suicide than sit through Fellowship of the Ring, and that people who consider Jackson a good director are deluded.)  There follows ten minutes (from about 12:30) of talk trashing the films and their fans.

John has plenty of opinions I don’t necessarily agree with, for example he thinks Connery is the best Bond (a majority opinion, I know, but my favourite is Timothy Dalton, though I agree License to Killwas terrible). I don’t normally feel the need to respond. I’m not even a huge fan of the films; I think the first one is the best one, and I think the series has some interesting problems. My issue isn’t that he dislikes them, though even there this segment isn’t great. Do I agree with John Gruber’s critique of Lord of the Rings? I’ll never know, because all the “reasons” he gives for not liking it are unhelpful: they’re “terrible movies”, “everything looks fake” (this from a man who prefers the original version of the Star Wars films!), “everyone looks sweaty”. He says they have “terrible stories” while also claiming to enjoy the books. He spends more time describing the problem with Jackson’s King Kong – a film I publically hated – than he does on Lord of the Rings. (He also describes the The Hobbit as a tiny story, unworthy of being filmed, likening it to a small town mayoral race of someone who later becomes President. Well, maybe, John, but no small town mayoral race has dragons, trolls, giant spiders and a war involving five – count ’em! – armies.)

So what? He didn’t like a film, he doesn’t have to justify that opinion if he doesn’t want; but if he’s not going to do so, why talk about them for ten minutes? The kicker is this: he dismisses everyone who complained about his comments. People who like Lord of the Rings “don’t like movies”. They wouldn’t list a Kubrick or Scorcese film in their top ten movies, so their opinions don’t count. In fact, deep down they know they’re terrible movies, even though they love them. Now, I know what rabid fans are like – they take attacks on things they like as personal insults and respond in kind, out of all proportion. But John Gruber isn’t just saying “I didn’t like it, I think it’s bad, get over it”; he’s suggesting that somehow no-one can think that these films are good, that people who like them are kidding themselves. That their affection, to use Kubrick’s term, is misplaced.

John: imagine someone said this about Star Wars. I think you’d rightly take them to task for being ridiculous. Sure, Star Wars and its sequels (let’s leave the prequels out of it for now) are flawed: the dialogue is terrible, the style and story and mythology are cribbed from a dozen other sources, some of the acting is hammy as hell. But those films took people somewhere they wanted to go, they resonated with an audience who loves them, who have a deep affection for them that remains strong despite decades of better films that have come after. Some people – I bet John Gruber is one of them – would list Star Wars or maybe The Empire Strikes Back in their top ten films alongside the work of Kubrick and Spielberg and Wells. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are one of a handful of series which have garnered an affection even close to that of Star Wars – maybe Back to the Future managed it in the 80s, and for a younger generation the Harry Potter films now occupy a similar space. Why is your love for one better than someone else’s love for the other? Why treat them with such derision? Why not tell me what you actually thought was wrong with the films, if you’re going to fill ten minutes of your podcast with talk about it?

Oh, and then they finish off with a crack about there being no “girl Hobbits” because they have hairy feet, and who would want to see that? That managed to combine a whole bunch of sexist business into one tight package:  marginalisation of women in cinema (it’s even worse in the fantasy genre, though Jackson has arguably had a few attempts at redressing the balance), infantilisation (they’re Hobbit women, not girls) and conventional ideas of beauty (body hair isn’t automatically unattractive).

Maybe Gruber doesn’t think his audience really cares about Lord of the Rings or his opinion of it. Maybe he figures if he loses anyone over this, it’s good riddance to bad rubbish. I don’t know. But come on, guys: you know your audience are nerds. By all means disagree with us, argue with us, tell us to lift our game where it counts, challenge us, but don’t engage in this sort of “my opinion is right, your affection doesn’t matter” kind of stuff. It just smells like clickbait.