Thursday, May 23, 2013

Silence and Three Nerd Heroes

(May 2013) 
I've attended another yearly Victoria Day "Otafest," the weekend festival for otaku: fans of Japanese popular entertainment. We all had a good time. Usually I will write a whole essay afterwards; this time I have only a few remarks.

I continue to be struck by how Americans, unlike the Japanese, are so weird: They can't handle silence. For example, I was amazed last year to catch a clip on Youtube of the beginning of the British dubbed version of the Japanese feature film The Secret World of Arrietty. Having already seen the American version I could compare: I learned the poor Americans, just as they will rush to fill silence in a conversation (a rush that visa students have been warned about) had rushed to gratuitously add dialogue. Such a pity. I've heard the Americans really screwed up Kiki's Delivery Service—When I go to Britain, I know what I'll buy!

On Sunday I enjoyed some episodes of the animated Yokahama Shopping Log, subtitled Quiet Country Cafe, or in Japanese Yokahama Kadashi Kiko. In the twilight of the human race, the camera lingers on silent vistas of clouds, trails in tall grass, blowing signposts... with no humans visible, let alone talk-talk-talking... So beautiful.

Years ago I was delighted as the camera kept showing young Lain Iwakura walking the same stretch of sidewalk, and kept lingering on humming (internet) street wires. Lain is one of my three nerd heroes.

Three TV Nerd Heroes
America loves its TV stars. Here's three: There's that handsome cop my girl watched every week, that starship captain, and how about that crazy redhead? "Luuucy!, I'm home!" Here's my three favorite nerd stars:—but wait! Nerds can't be a show's main hero. Or Can they?

I recall a high school TV movie, from over a decade ago, where the hero is clearly one of the smarter kids. The show opened with chemistry class. Within the first few minutes some other nameless kid in glasses was briefly on stage and then never seen again. This "four eyes" was shown to be the smartest in the class and then was laughed at by everyone when a cupboard slammed on him. The kid's brief role had a purpose: He was to be a foil to prove the star, although smart, was not a nerd: Because the star always has to be a "regular guy." Except for this past decade.

In the old beach movies the foil was a suave ladies man. I suppose Archie has his Reggie. I see a continuum: At one end is the suave guy, always glib and easy, while in the middle is the regular guy, mostly relaxed and friendly, and at the far end is the nerd: unconfident, stiff, both physically and socially awkward. This "stiffness" is what I focus on to define "nerd" although, of course, that is not all there is to it... For further information, there is a long list of nerd characterists recited near the end of a modern beach movie, Revenge of the Nerds II. 


Happily, once we leave school, or so it seems to me, nerds start vanishing like soap bubbles. I suppose getting out and rubbing shoulders in the real world quickly smoothes out the rough spots noted in the aforementioned list. Besides, as the nerds are growing their peers are growing up too—and swiftly becoming too confident to worry that someone is "too smart" with computers. Growth is good.

I remember an episode of Angel. The folks at Angel Investigations are only a few years out of Sunnydale High when a spell makes them regress: We see them once again as they were during their nerdy Buffy days. Oh, how far they've come! ...My three favorite nerd stars, unfortunately, are challenged by more than mere items on a nerd list, items to be easily noted, fixed and checked off... For those three heroes rubbing shoulders is no remedy, not when their stiffness comes from a much darker place, a place still too dark for today's TV viewers.

My three favorite nerds are a girl, a boy and a man.

The DVDs for the girl are unique: Although they are, appropriately, marked for "age 16 and up," the heroine, Lain Iwakura, is only 13. Call her a "quiet loner," or, "a nerd with no friends." As a fan on the web wrote, "She is a nice kid, too bad she's so messed up." Lain's complete story is told in Serial Experiments Lain over one season in Japanese animation. (anime) I watched it dubbed on VHS. At first I wondered if there was a "translation" error for the voice of Lain's mother. She is so bizarrely unmaternal: dry, detached and unaffectionate. No error—Surely this is a clue to explain poor Lain's demeanor. I like Lain because even after she receives criminal child abuse she is still like a selfless car accident victim, still thinking compassionately of others.


The boy, Maxwell Evans, is 16 with spliced half alien DNA. Once an orphan, today his adoptive parents don't know he is one of the alien teens passing for human. The town of Roswell is small enough to still have angle parking and it's surrounded by desert. This means it's very hard, if the kids are ever discovered, to hide or run. The series Roswell lasted for almost three full seasons. On the DVD pilot commentary you can hear Ronald Moore, years before he made the dark Battlestar Galactica, laughing to say something like, "Look, he's almost smiling—hey, there's a flicker..."

Imagine: A teen hero who doesn't smile! Not like a popular student. It's understandable: Max is carrying a lot of weight because the children's real parents, after their saucer crashed, were hidden away by the government, experimented on and killed. The other alien kids say Max is the leader. As with Lain, the result is a certain stiffness. I see Max as the flip side of an angry blond anarchist, Grace Polk, on Joan of Arcadia. Grace actively pushes other students away to keep the secret that her mother is an alcoholic. Maxwell is so quiet because his secret means life or death.

One of my favorite episodes is Toy House where a girl says she wants to tell her adoptive mother. A boy responds, "You can't. What if she turns us in?" (to the government)

"But she's my mother!"

"How do you know know she'll still be your mother?"...silence, a tear... I am reminded of how so many defenceless girls with allegedly "nice religious mothers" have to wait until after they are adults before they dare tell a single soul they are homosexual.


In one episode an alien boy sneaks off with Max to Vegas to have fun. Soon they get into a big fight because Max just won't lighten up... I like Max because he never escapes into clowning or drugs or denial of how they are in danger. He just never quits.

An actor from Alberta plays the adult nerd. On the DVD commentary for Firefly he explains trying to tell creator Joss Whedon that he couldn't see himself playing the part, saying (I forget) something like,"This character is a hollow man, with no plans or dreams, nothing springing up inside, no joy. He is just going to just...keep on going." The character of Malcolm Reynolds, captain of a tramp freighter, is unique: Although he used to be a regular guy, now he is a nerd.

In the opening credits, in a flashback, he kisses his religious medal; now he is a hard atheist. Once he learned the social skills for dancing and mingling; now he wouldn't care to go to a dance, not even if one were held right beside the port.

Something happened: he was a sergeant at the lengthy famous battle of Serenity valley. Every single officer was killed while Malcolm led the remnants to fight on... Only to have their idealism betrayed. When Malcom finaly left that valley of shadows he left his light behind.... I am reminded of a Vietnam veteran who cried out in the night.


The series lasted less than half a season, which makes it sound like a real bad show. But since then? The DVDs have been "flying off the shelves" at amazon due to word of mouth... leading eventually to funding for a feature, Serenity. (The name of his freighter) However, the movie failed to re-launch the series. Why? Perhaps because the film was a compromise, being written, I think, partly to appeal to fans who had seen the TV series. Never do that.

I like Malcolm because, unlike a timid middle-aged man, all of his inner conflicts have been burned away: He is very clear. When he strides to do something even a big muscular criminal steps aside.

...This past decade of TV has probably been a fluke. I don't expect to see any more nerds as TV stars. Still, I am awed at my good fortune to have known the glory of Malcolm, Max and Lain.

Sean Crawford

May 2013.20


~ I put a link at the end of Silence (music is from the ending of Wreck-It Ralph) partly because I like the patches of Calgary snow in the background. No other such camera work (for a cosplay music video) in any other city would show such snow—"you gotta love your hometown."

~ It is no coincidence that the old Enterprise transporter room was made for only six. I remember seeing the opening credits for Young Riders, where they ride abreast, and groaning, "Oh no" after counting six (or seven) people. The problem? I think six is the absolute maximum number of main characters for a story- unless you are doing an ensemble piece. Better to use five or three.

For Firefly to get away with nine characters they needed A) a gifted writer like Joss Wedan and B) a two hour pilot. Which was done.

Then the Fox "suits," unfortunately, A) made Joss improvise a one hour pilot giving him a deadline of a single sleepless weekend to write it and B) aired the episodes out of order. The real pilot was shown dead last—too late!

Critic Roger Eibert said, "What a crock" saying Fox should have given Joss, because of his success with the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the benefit of the doubt and gone with his intended order.

~ David Gerrold, in his book about Star Trek, portrays a clear understanding of how a movie is a different animal from a TV show. I thought that Serenity had a very blurred understanding which I interpet as being due to a compromise.

~ Sometimes I joke that I am a nerd, but no one ever believes me. (I was not always the man you see before you)

No comments:

Post a Comment