The Rise and Fall of the Film Geek?

Before I get into what I want to get into, I need to mention something I forgot to bring up in the last post. I want to thank Anne Helen Petersen. Not only for her fantastic blog or Twitter feed, but also, most recently, her great piece in Frames on the need for a media studies makeover. I’m currently reading at least a book a day in preparation for my doctoral comprehensive exams, making her description of blogging as not only a way to connect more fully to the material but also to flesh out ideas pretty much inspirational. So thank you! My more concerted efforts to update this blog more frequently owe a great deal to your own work. And for everyone else: if you have even the slightest interest in celebrity culture (and who doesn’t these days?) her blog is a must-read.

So, as I mentioned above, I’m currently reading profusely in preparation for my comprehensive exams. The other day I read Chuck Tryon’s Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (2009). The book aims to address some of the major changes to film culture brought about by digital cinema, which he defines pretty broadly as not only the use of digital technologies in production, post-production, distribution, and exhibition, but the various social practices it involves as well.

Each chapter focuses on a different area in which technological shifts have taken place, including: digital projection, digital distribution, digital effects, film blogging, user-made videos, and what I want to discuss today: the film geek and DVD culture.

As I understand it, Tryon discusses the role of the DVD in promoting the rise of the “film geek,” that viewer who gets cinematic education through their viewing of all supplemental features such as making-ofs, commentary tracks, and the like. DVDs also encouraged other practices such as collecting DVDs and repeated viewing of favored films. Indeed, DVDs themselves are marketed in part as a way for audiences to “build and demonstrate cinematic knowledge” (11).

I thought a lot about the figure of the “film geek,” primarily because it’s a role I have played for much of my life. Throughout the latter years of high school and early undergraduate years, I would receive fairly regular calls from friends and family that began with “I’m at Blockbuster, what I should I get?” My widely known love of movie trivia resulted in others calling me with random movie questions, some because they wanted to know the answer, while others simply tried to catch me without a correct answer. While I never called myself a “film geek” or a “film buff,” I recognize that among my various circles of friends it remained one of my primary roles.

While I recognize that I have more film-related trivia stored in my brain than many of my friends and family, it also feels a little outdated. Let me explain. A while back, I read about this study on the effect of the internet on our memory. Apparently, the experiment involved giving a group of people information that they were told to enter into a computer. Half of the group believed the information would be erased after they entered it while the other half believed it would be stored for later use. The study found that participants retained MORE memory when they thought the information would NOT be available later. As the article states:

“In generations past, [we would rely on] a friend, coworker, or reference material for the information we needed, but today the Internet serves as one of our main tools to access transactive memory [which tells the brain where to find a memory]. The abundance of a readily available trove of knowledge only serves to decrease our ability to memorize and retain information.”

I feel like this study relates to the topic at hand because of the instant access so many of us have to the internet, and therefore movie trivia, on our phones, tablets, computers, netbooks, iPods, TVs, etc. I know I’ve definitely gotten more actors, titles, and other information confused in the last few years in which I’ve given in to smartphones than ever before. There just hasn’t been as strong an urge – consciously or unconsciously – to memorize all these facts because 1) I can access it instantly on my phone and 2) others can also access it instantly on their phones. While in some cases, the knowledge is still handy, it feels unnecessary – and let’s face it, a whole lot less impressive – due to so many people’s ability to simply pull out their phones and look up the answer for themselves in a matter of seconds. Calls from friends with requests like “Can you name some of the more obscure movies that Samuel L. Jackson was in?” or challenges like “I bet you’ll never guess who was in Twister!” are a thing of the past.

[Sidenote: both calls really did happen and I still remember my answers: 1) 187, Caveman’s Valentine, Goodfellas, and 2) Philip Seymour Hoffman.]

Of course I’m only speaking here of cold hard facts of the trivia variety. I’m not talking about “film geeks” in terms of providing any kind of deeper analysis, interpretation, or critical thought related to film.

Even the role of recommending films has changed. Netflix and other digital delivery services provide not only a great recommendation system but also such a gigantic variety of choices that renders the very act of choosing borderline ridiculous. I’ve never had a harder time selecting a film than when looking at the 300+ films currently in my Instant Queue, their presence there supposedly a sign of my narrowing down of choices. Sigh.

All of this is to say that possessing and recalling movie-related trivia feels like a sign of analogue times. It’s unnecessary and somewhat irrelevant when everyone can digitally access the same information – and then some – instantly from almost anywhere.

Some final questions and thoughts to see us out:

  • Does the film geek still exist? Or has the ubiquity of instant information access erased the need for their existence?
  • Or has the role simply changed? Is everyone potentially a film geek? Has the role shifted from human form to technological apparatus?
  • Or have the stakes been upped so that the more obscure the trivia the more valuable the information provided by the “film geek?” The baseline expectation is that everyone has access to data and facts, so you need to show more than that if you want to be considered a film geek? In some ways it seems to go along with the more democratic views of the internet, no? Anyone with access to information can be a film geek…
  • Is the presence of potentially infinite cinematic knowledge in so many people’s fingertips now simply part of digital cinema’s social practices?

ABRIDGED VERSION: If digital cinema allowed the rise of the “film geek,” has it also redefined what it means and potentially killed it? In other words…I don’t know who I am anymore!


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