Friday, July 16, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Know-It-All

It was a lazy Saturday night. My girlfriend and I, on the spur of the moment, decided to check out the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. You know, the one where Snape kills Dumbledore.

So we went to a video store nearby. This was honest-to-god independently-run video store, next to an empty parking lot illuminated by a single streetlight. The windows were covered up by peeling movie posters whose colors had long since faded. It was as if this place had pressed the pause button in 1994 and existed out of time ever since.

For the past decade, I had grown used to the sterility of Blockbuster - the bright fluorescent lights, the white DVD cases locked shut, the dead-eyed unhelpful employees. But here, the interior was dimly lit, cluttered with DVDs in the original cases that shared the shelves with VHS tapes. (Yes, VHS tapes). The upcoming releases were scrawled on a chalkboard, along with the trivia question of the week ("What was the last Best Picture nominee to have actors nominated in all four acting categories at the Academy Awards?").

There's a lot to like about independent stores such as this one. Part of the appeal is aesthetic, part of it is sticking-it-to-the-corporate-man, part of it is pure nostalgia for a time that is almost done. But the best part about stores like these is the people there actually know about movies. Another customer started a conversation with us about The Lives of Others, a German film that more people should see. I chatted with the lone employee about the new foreign releases (he liked the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and the upcoming Mark Zuckerberg biopic (he expressed ambivalence toward David Fincher as a director).

The Glory of the Pop-Culture Geek

This employee was a guy who knew movies and liked movies and even made recommendations without being snobbish or condescending. He was a true old-school pop culture guru, one of those slackers who labored and toiled to amass their impressive knowledge in a pre-digital age. But I can't help but wonder if there's a place for pop culture geeks like him in the modern world.

Once upon time, video store were the only places to go to bone up on film. Famed pop culture superstars like Quentin Tarantino got their start working at such stores, burning through thousands of movies and gaining an eclectic knowledge of long-forgotten subgenres. The same for music, for comic books, or any other similar obsession. You had to go to the source to gain knowledge.

When I worked in a mall snack bar in high school, the ratty antiques store nearby was the meeting ground for the military antique collectors throughout the county. It was like their clubhouse - they would hang out and chat and trade with each other. These stores, independently run, staffed by people who knew what the fuck they were talking about, exuded the aura of cultural geekdom. The vague aroma of coffee and cigarettes always hinted toward an obsession - employees working a dead-end job in pursuit of knowledge of a useless field.

I never had any desire to be one of these obsessive people, but it was always nice to know that they were around, the guardians of pop culture. The worst of them lorded it over you, overly proud of their fiefdom. But, for the most part, they were laid-back, happy to talk with you about their favorite field and maybe even give you a recommendation or two.

The End of an Era

But the world has changed. Everyone's an expert now. My video store's handwritten trivia question isn't nearly as fun now that I can look up the answer on my iPhone. Netflix has a robot that recommends movies to me now. Amazon does the same for books and music. That mall where the old military antique collectors used to gather is dead; they probably buy and sell on eBay, sitting alone at home.

The time of these pop culture gurus is at an end. We don't need them anymore. The Internet has become the purveyor and arbiter of popular culture; it holds more knowledge than any individual, and parses it out in easily-digestible pieces. Music and movies are now easier to get a hold of. This is not a bad thing, and I don't want to act like a pop culture elitist; companies like Netflix and Amazon have made available hundreds and thousands of titles that might have never come to small town America otherwise. The advantages of mass availability are not to be overlooked. But there used to be a time when hunting down your rare pop culture arcana was half the fun. The thrill of the chase is gone now that everything is a mouse click away.

So my video store employee will probably continue to sit there in the underpopulated store, handwriting his trivia questions each week and administering his recommendations to diminishing crowds. The video store will eventually close and so will the gathering ground for my town's film geeks. There will be a sad article in the local newspaper about how independent video stores are an endangered species and everyone will be nostalgic for about twenty-four hours or so, but it won't change the fact that no one really cares and Netflix is way more convenient and why talk to a real person about movies when the Internet can work some complicated algorithm to give you a list of "Dark Critically-Acclaimed Foreign Dramas" that you're sure to like and you can get them at home and watch them by yourself and never realize that you missed the dude in the store who was going to recommend that you watch The Lives of Others which, after all, is a really fucking good movie.

The world has changed, partially for the better. But I think it's important to realize what we've lost. And we've lost the pop culture geek, at least in his slacker 1990s form. The pop culture geeks on the Internet just aren't the same; I can never tell the devout from the dabblers, and the fans from the fanboys. No one will care about the dude who spent years tracking down the bootleg copies for all three installments of The Decline of Western Civilization; it's all there on torrents now. The passion of the geek doesn't seem as sincere when mediated through a backlit screen. Everyone's a nerd now because of the Internet, which really makes nobody a nerd at all.

So go see Inception this weekend. If you're lucky, you might see your out-of-work film geek sitting in the back. He'll be by himself, bearded, wearing a ratty old THX-1138 T-shirt and reeking of cigarettes. He's been following Christopher Nolan since Tarantella aired on PBS in 1989 and he hates all the Johnny-come-lately Memento and Dark Knight fans.

He's a bit of an asshole, actually.

But you're going to miss him when he's gone.