There is nothing that geeks and nerds love more than to analyze just about everything; almost anything becomes fodder for debate, classification and taxonomical discussion… up to and including just who is or isn’t a geek.
Seriously: there are raging Internet debates over what differentiates a nerd from a geek. (Spoiler alert: the answer is “math”)
And there is nothing that a nerd dislikes more than another nerd. Especially a nerd he or she feels is an impostor.
Every time an outsider culture has a moment where it reaches a certain level of cultural critical mass, where it escapes its niche and becomes part of the mainstream, there’s a moment of almost xenophobia amongst its old guard. Science fiction had its moment with the New Wave of SF, when science fiction was no longer the province of scientists and engineers but culturally aware writers like Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock and Ursula K. Leguin. Anime fandom went from being the province of third-generation fan-copied VHS tapes to a phenomenon when Fox acquired the license for Pokemon. And now geek and gamer culture is having its own Renaissance, with all of its attendant growing pains.
For old-school nerds, their interests in fantasy, science fiction, comics and gaming were a refuge from a world that didn’t — or couldn’t — understand them. It was a community of the oppressed and the ostracized, where they could be themselves with people who understood them. But as the years progressed, geek culture has become pop culture, with superheroes, monster hunters, vampires, boy wizards and science-fiction epics dominating both television and film. More and more people self-identify as geeks. These geeks fit seamlessly into mainstream culture, and may enjoy comics or games or fantasy novels but don’t bear the same emotional, and occasionally physical, scars as their geek predecessors. They tend to be more self-assured, more socially adept. Many of them are even jocks — formerly the natural predator of the nerd, another overturning of the “natural” order.
Small wonder that many geeks feel threatened by their presence. These Johnny-come-latelys have even appropriated nerd clothing. The image of the “nerd” that was codified by the Revenge of the Nerds movies and nerd avatars like Steve Urkel — the high-water pants, conspicuously thick-rimmed glasses, vintage-store clothes and rainbow colored suspenders — are now the province of the hipster; ironically, the stereotypical look of an outsider culture has become the mark of the self-consciously cool and stylish:
The Nerdist-produced indie film Zero Charisma is an excellent representation of the modern conflict between the old-school and new-school geek. Unlike The Big Bang Theory, a show which often rubs geeks the wrong way, we’re not invited to laugh at the characters. It’s very much a film by geeks for geeks and an unapologetic love-letter to table-top gaming.
But at the same time, its clear affection for geekdom is tempered with a sharply critical look at its own people. The laughs are tempered with a profoundly uncomfortable level of awkwardness that can only be fully appreciated by somebody who’s been on the inside.
What makes Zero Charisma so interesting is the treatment of its main character. Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eidson) is a profoundly unsympathetic protagonist. He is, by all appearances, a stereotype of the modern nerd: he’s a hulking figure, Meat Loaf by way of San Diego Comic-Con. Every outfit he wears consists of shorts, dragon-festooned black t-shirts, ill-advised facial hair and an absolutely massive chip on his shoulder. He’s the almost prototypical man-child, coming across as a spoiled brat who can’t handle even the slightest confrontation or disappointment without throwing a temper tantrum. His social skills are next to non-existent, he holds down a crappy job delivering Chinese take-out (purely temporary, he assures his former co-worker, until he finds a publisher for his home-brew RPG system) and a never-ending belief that the universe is out to screw him specifically. He stomps through the world carrying a smoldering mixture of anger and entitlement — as far as he’s concerned, everything in his life is somebody else’s fault.
In fairness, he has reason to be upset. The film goes out of its way to show us that Scott was callously abandoned by his spectacularly selfish and castrating mother (Cyndi Williams) as a child and dumped onto his grandmother who barely tolerates his existence. When Scott’s mother blows back into his life with his future step-father in tow, she wastes no time upending his life, gleefully humiliating him in front of his friends as she plots to sell his house out from under him. He’s recently lost his job at the Wizard Tower and he’s desperate to bear up under the withering disdain of the only family he’s ever known. Every day is a reminder that he’s a failed adult, especially when compared to his grandfather who, we are told, had a job, a family and a house by the time he was Scott’s age.
It’s no surprise, then, that he loves table-top gaming and role-playing games: they’re the only things he has that make him feel like he’s in control, that he actually matters. Games give him purpose — gaming to him is the modern incarnation of mankind’s tradition of communal storytelling. But like many nerds, he drastically overcompensates: he has virtually no life outside of gaming and rules over his gaming group like a petty tyrant, incapable of believing that anything could be more important than game night.
His response to finding out that one of his players is leaving the game to save his crumbling marriage? “OK, so let’s take a 5 minute break and you can get over it.”
His world — already on shaky foundations — is rocked when Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the group. Miles is everything that Scott is not: popular, thin, stylishly dressed, and funny. Scott is an uptight control freak while Miles is laid-back, with a we’re-just-here-to-have-fun-man attitude. Yet despite his hipster appearance, Miles is an alpha geek, with a beautiful girlfriend and a phenomenally successful pop-culture blog; within five minutes, he firmly charms Scott’s players by definitively solving an age-old geek conundrum: which is faster, the Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon? His very presence undermines Scott’s position as supreme leader; he provides much appreciated publicity for the gamers’ fan-films and destroys Scott’s long-held insistence that the Wachowskis stole The Matrix from him.
Everything comes to a head when Miles impishly refuses to play along with Scott’s carefully crafted campaign, jokingly trying to assassinate a quest-giver rather than spending the next several sessions collecting plot-coupons. To Scott, gaming is Serious Business. To Miles, it’s a goof, a game, a way of having fun. Scott’s childish temper tantrum ends up being the final straw, shredding the last scraps of control he had as his players abandon a game that has become bitter and tedious.
Miles and Scott’s conflict is a metaphor for the broader battle for the soul of geekdom. Scott, representing the old school, resents Miles. To his mind, Miles is a tourist, a dilettante who’s slumming it for laughs. Miles is emblematic of the new school of geek, the ones for whom it’s all so much easier. With the advent of the Internet, being a geek isn’t defined by obsessive research and collecting; with everything available forever, it’s possible to sample bits and pieces of the culture without having to dive headfirst into it.
Ultimately, however, the real issue is that Miles is quite literally everything that Scott wishes he were. Scott likes to imagine himself as a tortured genius for whom success is forever just around the corner, if he could just catch the right break. He believes that he will eventually be rewarded for having devoted his entire being to gaming. Miles neatly destroys all of those illusions. In the end, Scott is the poser while Miles — the erstwhile tourist, who used to game back in high-school — seems to be the real thing. Charismatic, charming and talented, Miles has it all: the hot girlfriend, the awesome life and the success that comes from being a geek, not despite it.
At his core, Scott is a self-loathing nerd. As much as he may love gaming, he’s also ashamed of it; he’s internalized the cultural perception of nerd-as-loser. Every day for him is a struggle to remain the King of Turd Mountain, looking on the people he thinks of as his friends with barely-concealed disdain. And yet, Miles isn’t necessarily the clear winner either; despite his geek cred, he’s still very clearly part of the “in” crowd and prefers keeping the hoi-polloi at arm’s length. His parties are for the cool and the stylish; his gaming buddies are quite pointedly not invited.
Fittingly, Zero Charisma doesn’t take the easy way out and have Scott learn an Important Life Lesson and win his friends back and finding fame and glory. Nor is it a descent into Todd Solondz-esque misery porn as Scott falls to greater and greater depths. While directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthew clearly sympathize with Scott, they also don’t shy away from the fact that he is the ultimate agent in his own undoing. The squirm-inducing comedy is in watching Scott’s awkward flailing about and the distinctly uncomfortable — in that most enjoyable, knowing way — feeling of “Oh man, I know those guys.”