I was listening to the @Nerdist podcast recently when Hardwick and Wheaton began to discuss the concept of “earning” your nerd cred. My first reaction was to cry foul and just fast-forward through the rest of the discussion, but I started thinking about my own ownership issues with certain icons of nerd culture and I have to agree that there are things you can’t come by easily, things you should have to discover on your own or obtain through terrible difficulty.
Understand that I’m not endorsing the current rapid fracturing of the nerdiverse. My thoughts on that subject stop at reminding the adherents of various faiths that they are lucky to have a faith to adhere to at all and that in a not very long ago time, everything they loved was mocked and dismissed. So, basically: Shut up and enjoy your victory.
But I will stake my claim to certain levels of authenticity that latecomers can never truly understand. Because, what good is a painting if you can’t authenticate that it is, indeed, an original Rembrandt and then lord that fact over everyone who comes to see it?
Last House on the Left, The Town That Feared Sundown, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Cannibal Holocaust.
Latecomers simply can’t comprehend the experience of seeing these movies first run in the theater. Streaming Cannibal Holocaust on your laptop while sipping chai lattes in bed doesn’t even touch on the rite of passage movies like this one provided for drive-in bound teenagers whose only connection to the world was blurted out in bursts of static from the AM radios embedded in the dashboards of their American made cars.
Every night, driving my Mustang from one pizza joint to another (I went to high school in a small town) I would be subjected to the terrorizing influence of the commercials for the midnight only showings of movies of this ilk. I’ve written before that I was too scared by the very advertisements meant to entice me to ever see Chainsaw but I did go to the drive-in to see Left and Sundown and to a porn theater in Fairfax to see Cannibal Holocaust with a gay friend who found the violence to be vomit-inducing.
Before the internet, before the wide expanse of the cable landscape, there was a feeling of isolation to life outside the few really big cities and, even then, I’m pretty sure kids who lived in the suburbs of those cities were just as clueless as kids like me growing up in small towns.
If you think I’m doing a “kids these days” bit, you’re missing the point. Think back to when the first rumors about The Blair Witch started trickling out across the trembling appendages of the Web 1.0 infrastructure. You were convinced this was real found footage of an actual thing that happened. These days “found footage” movies are so commonplace they’ve become tiresome, but back then, Blair Witch struck a resounding blow for all those who lived in a degree of isolation that allowed them to believe it might be real.
Well, hold onto your hats kids, because the producers of Cannibal Holocaust were dragged into court because of their “found footage” so they could prove the actors hadn’t been raped and murdered for real.
And even though they weren’t successfully prosecuted, we still believed it was real because instead of a thousand in-the-know, behind-the-scenes whisper-blogs by industry insiders, we had our older cousin who had seen the damn thing and could tell us for sure that the rapes and murders in that movie were real. Cannibal Holocaust, for us, was a snuff film.
That’s an extreme case, I’ll grant you. So let’s talk about the common experience of edge dwellers from those days: Rocky Horror Picture Show. Just as with The Groove Tube and Holy Grail, Rocky Horror existed in the egg sack of its own nascent genre for a good ten years.
I was at a Mickey’s Big Mouth party when I first heard about it. For the record, Mickey’s Big Mouth was a potent malt liquor concoction that came in short, barrel-shaped bottles with wide mouths that made it easy to get really drunk really fast. Back in the late 70s and early 80s if you were looking to start trouble on a large scale, you’d have a Mickey’s party. Forty minutes into the thing, everyone was drunk enough for fights to break out, affairs to be exposed, and sexual preferences to be tearfully confessed. Also, the whole group could be easily convinced to up and decamp to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror.
That first virginal trip to the midnight show, I had no idea what everyone was talking about. There were no blogs to inform me and Ain’t It Cool wasn’t even born yet much less palpitating over the latest spoilery information about new releases. But I went, because that’s what we did. We couldn’t Google it. If we wanted to know, we had to go.
The first time I saw MST3K, I was surfing channels looking for something to watch and paused momentarily on a black & white film I had often enjoyed when I was a kid. I can’t remember which movie it was, just that I was annoyed by the silhouettes down front talking over it.
I almost clicked off, but Joel or one of the bots got off a good one and I started laughing and took my thumb off the detonator. The only reason I gave them a chance at all was that one joke and something called Short Attention Span Theater, which I vaguely remember as a late 1980s clip show with comedians overdubbing lines in clips from old movies. SAST was hilarious… as I recall, so I gave MST3K a shot and became hooked.
When Star Wars debuted, there was no promotional campaign that I remember. I was looking for something to do, decided to check out the movie times in the paper and came across a line drawing of the poster that would become famous in short order. But to me, it looked like a Japanese science fiction movie. Something along the lines of The Green Slime. So I called up a friend of mine and invited him to join me at the Reb Yank (this name made perfect sense to kids in Manassas, Va) movie palace for a good chuckle at the latest badly dubbed, rubber suit monster movie.
I probably don’t have to tell you that when that destroyer passed overhead during the opening shot, I became vaguely aware that we were not, in fact, about to see Green Slime 2: The Enslimining.
This is unarguably the best way to see a movie that will go on to change the course of entertainment. I saw it again in Grauman’s Chinese Theater later that year when I traveled west. It was technically a better experience in that the theater was amazing, the sound system was amazing and the screen was enormous but it was not a superior viewing because I knew what I was there to see.
I’m no good at chess. I suck at math. A brain cramp in my three dimensional thinking makes it impossible for me to solve a Rubik’s cube. And, to quote Sam Cooke, I don’t know what a slide rule is for. I spent all of my time in high school and college chasing skirts instead of going to class or running for student council.
But I was raised on science fiction. I love horror movies. And I’m obsessive about the details of the things I crave.
I’m a brown coat wearing, Buffy-ologist of the first order who read the entire Dark Tower series front to back twice.
The fact that I was reading Stephen King when he was still tapping out his masterpieces on a portable typewriter in the HVAC closet of a single-wide trailer makes me a hipster. Being able to talk at length about his growth as a novelist over the course of his first six novels makes me a nerd.
To quote Hardwick (or Wheaton, I can’t remember who said it): It’s not what we love that makes us nerds. It’s how we love it.
Now go forth and discover new things to love with nerdly intensity so you can bring them back to the rest of us who hunger for the next Death Race 2000 or Blade Runner or Last Starfighter or Soldier or Moon or Space Station 76.
What are you doing hanging around here? We’re waiting.