Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Souvenirs of Geekdom: Swords and Star Wars -The Lightsaber

The lightsaber may well be the greatest piece of science fiction design work ever to sear its way into our collective consciousness.

While the success of Star Wars relied on a cocktail of factors, the use of a sword-like weapon that pre-empted rave culture by about a decade surely played a massive part.

It marries, with startling effectiveness, the sci-fi and fantasy traditions. It does so without being hokey or creating incongruity or, worst of all, being a bit silly. There's something visceral, dirty and personal about a sword fight that a gun fight - particularly one with lasers - can't quite match. Particularly one that was filmed 30+ years ago, before we could do fancy-pants slow motion and bullet time. You've seen a phaser fight in Star Trek, right? *Yawn*.

With lightsabers, the Star Wars production team brought the drama of the sword fight to an sf (or whatever the abbreviation for 'science fantasy' is, if you want to be fussy about it) setting without having to resort to characters carrying around shonky metal weapons. Weapons, it needs to be noted, that are unarguably centuries out of date by the time other folk are dueling with laser pistols. While other players on the Star Wars stage might view the lightsaber as archaic, with its ability to swat away laser fire and cut through pretty much anything it clearly has a place in its wielder's arsenal.

Combined with the Jedi and Sith traditions, though, the lightsaber does more than allow medieval combat into a science fictional setting - it evokes the romance of high fantasy and knighthood. Wielders of lightsabers are more than just utilitarian warriors - they're linked to a long and noble tradition. It's a visual reminder that the Jedi are more than simple soldiers. They partake in a greater destiny than that.

And, man, when someone pulls out a lightsaber you hear that hum... That sound was created by sound designer Ben Burtt. It's a combination idle interlock motors from ancient movie projectors and the effect a television has on an unshielded microphone. In the minds of millions of nerds worldwide, ancient AV tech as the sound of science-fictional warfare. There's something weird and a little haunting about that.

But wow, that drawing of the lightsaber - watching the blade flare up. It's the same effect as a gunfighter drawing his pistol. It has that immediacy. It's that same call to action. The moment it's drawn, a situation is irrevocably changed. It becomes, very very suddenly, dangerous. When a lightsaber's drawn, something big is going to happen, and it's not going to have anything to do with words or thought. It's going to happen through action and violence. On a more primal level there's something very appealing* about that sudden move to action - especially to a generation and a subculture largely defined by passive, cerebral pursuits. Perhaps, too, to a generation that feels it lacks the power to effect change.

The lightsaber is a brilliant coalescence of science and magic and nobility and violence that digs into a whole great knot of things going on in the nerd's subconscious.

It should also not be forgotten that glowing things flashing around in the dark look really cool.

*The Space Between Panels does not endorse the solving of problems through the medium of lightsaber duels. Lightsaber duels should only be entered into after all diplomatic avenues have been explored and under the supervision of a responsible adult.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Souvenirs of Geekdom: Mallrats

Souvenirs of Geekdom. Or nerddom. I like the word 'nerd' better, but 'nerddom' doesn't look right. So... 'Souvenirs of Geekdom'.

It's going to be a series of short essays on the detritus of our subculture that's barely even a subculture (or that is maybe really a whole cluster of subcultures) any more. A poke around what makes us nerds, what makes us beautiful and what makes us woefully lame. It's inspired by Douglas Coupland's superb Souvenirs of Canada, which offers up a fascinating meander through the flotsam of Canadian life, providing a sense of the country's identity by way of anecdote, history, consumer goods and pop culture reference. That's the sort of thing I'm gunning for here, but our lot's primary point of convergence isn't quite so straightforward as geography.

First up: Mallrats.

There are numerous cultural and social forces that pushed geek culture into the mainstream over the last couple of decades, and anyone who tries to give too much credit to any one film/book/comic/ANYTHING is clearly a maniac. That said, Mallrats surely helped. More significant than the film's impact on our acceptance into the society around us, however, is its impact on the nerd's self-image.

(Catch-up! Kevin Smith's Mallrats is basically the film John Hughes might have made if he was a great big comics nerd. It's about two guys wandering around a mall, chasing a couple of girls and talking about comics A LOT. It also had an early film cameo by Stan Lee.)

As a nerd growing up in a world that hated and feared you, Mallrats gave the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you could be a little bit cool. Yeah, Jason Lee and Jeremy London - the two nerd leads - might play a pair of slackers, but they play a pair of slackers who go out in the world, interact with society at large and, in their own way, are... if not cool, very likeable, kind of good-looking, a bit charming and generally the sorts of chaps people like to have around. More importantly, they play nerds who go out with girls played by Claire Forlani and Shannen Doherty.

While neither of these guys is exactly (Robert Downey Jr's) Tony Stark, in 1995 nerds in moving pictures were generally of the bestpectacled, pocket-protector-wearing, might-just-shoot-you-while-you-eat-your-cheese-strings variety. All of a sudden, here were nerds who fit in comfortably with the zeitgeisty, dumbed-down, slacker interpretation of Generation X. Here was a vision of the nerd that fit comfortably alongside the Pepsi ad version of what young people were. In the Mallrats interpretation of Geekdom, you didn't have to be an outsider to be a nerd. You could be in.

No, it's not as good as Clerks. No, it's probably not even all that good, full-stop (although it is interesting that the Metacritic critics' rating of Mallrats is a paltry 41/100, while the user rating is up at 7.5/10). Still, it made many of us feel - even as our balls were still in that awkward mid-drop (free-fall?) phase and our strongest claim to physical intimacy was linked to a Witchblade comic - that one day the opposite sex might one day look at us with something other than contempt or half-formed pity.