Monthly Archives: November 2015

Hand Gestures: Review

This piece was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print.

Director: Francesco Clerici

Release Date: 2015, with an exclusive release in the IFI from the 24th November.

History is important, and no one understands that more than director Francesco Clerici. His debut feature Hand Gestures is an ode to the manual labour and history associated with craftwork. He films a group of sculptors in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan, Italy, as they work on one of artist Velasco Vitali’s famous ‘Off Leash’ bronze Dog Scultpures. In doing so he captures each stage of the process of lost-wax casting in great detail, from early to final design, eschewing narration and music in the process.

The film begins by telling viewers that the lost-wax casting method was developed in the 4th century BC and that, despite advancements in modern technology, the process of production has remained completely unchanged since this time. The film cuts intermittently to archive footage of people using this method to create statues, and the chosen images from decades past match each stage of production in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in 2014. Sound effects from the contemporary footage carry over into archive footage as the craftspeople work, making for an engaging way to emphasise the importance of history and intergenerational teaching. The method of lost-wax casting is handed down by generation, so history is important to these craftspeople.

This feature also acts as an ode to craftsmanship and manual labour. Multiple close-ups of workers’ hands are shown, to highlight the grit and grime of their work, and the stages of production of the bronze statue are depicted in meticulous detail. Without narration or music to break the silence, viewers are made concentrate entirely on the techniques, sounds, and procedures associated with this unique field of work. This never feels like a chore to watch, however, as there is something inherently appealing in watching the project come together. Each stage of production is enjoyable to witness, and when the bronze statue is finally completed there is strange satisfaction in seeing it take its place amongst Vitali’s other pieces.

Without the signifiers of traditional documentary filmmaking (narration et cetera), there is an overbearing sense that we, the audience, are there with the craftspeople as they work. It feels like we have been let in on a secret, like we are bearing witness to a centuries old craft that few know. For this reason, Hand Gestures is an unusually engaging film.

In A Nutshell: Hand Gestures is an ode to manual labour, history, and intergenerational teaching. By eschewing narration, dialogue, and music, Francesco Clerici invites us into this world in a captivating way. This is one not to be missed.

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History, Reality, and Star Wars

This article was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print. 

In light of comments made about John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars, David Monaghan looks at the importance of history and reality in film, TV, and other popular media.

On October 19th, the trailer for much-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, and fans worldwide took to social media to express their excitement. Two stars of the film were particularly vocal; John Boyega uploaded an Instagram video of himself jumping over a couch in anticipation and Daisy Ridley had a nice cry. The number of tweets about the film reached 17,000 per minute with the hashtags #TheForceAwakens and #TieFighter trending for hours after its initial airing. Everyone was pleased. Or so it seemed.

A small but vocal minority took issue with Boyega. Not for his performance or his costume or anything to do with the trailer as a whole. No, these people took issue with the fact that he was a black actor in what they considered to be a predominantly white world. Angry white nerds took to social media websites to jumpstart hashtags like #BoycottStarWarsVII. “#BoycottStarWarsVII because it is anti-white propaganda promoting #whitegenocide,” writes one twitter user. “If white people aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either” said another. To these people the inclusion of black actors in Star Wars is ‘social justice gone mad.’ They fear that, by making popular franchises multicultural, they will no longer be represented in the things they love.

These fears are unfounded. Never mind the fact that white actors are privileged in the film industry –many white actors have even been cast in roles originally written for people of colour, such as Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in Pan – Star Wars has always been multicultural. The original trilogy featured black actors James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams as Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian respectively, and the prequels featured Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu.

Of course, it is not only the race of certain characters that these people take issue with. When writer Chuck Wendig released his Star Wars novel ‘Aftermath,’ another small but vocal minority accused him of propagating the ‘gay agenda’ for featuring queer characters.  In response to these critics, Wendig wrote: “You’re not the Rebel Alliance. You’re not the good guys. You’re the fucking Empire, man. You’re the shitty, oppressive, totalitarian Empire. If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars.”

The real world is diverse. Ireland and the USA have both recently legalised same-sex marriage, instilling a new confidence in LGBTQ+ people. In 2014, Ireland became the fourth country in the world to celebrate Black History Month as 1.3 per cent of the population is of African origin. It is only normal that creators want to reflect this reality in popular fiction, as these groups are also consumers. The anti-diversity Twitter brigade will claim that blockbuster cinema should be escapist and reject reality, but what they feel to realise is that history and reality are integral to some of the best-loved franchises.

“THE ANTI-DIVERSITY TWITTER BRIGADE WILL CLAIM THAT BLOCKBUSTER CINEMA SHOULD BE ESCAPIST AND REJECT REALITY, BUT WHAT THEY FEEL TO REALISE IS THAT HISTORY AND REALITY ARE INTEGRAL TO SOME OF THE BEST-LOVED FRANCHISES.”

Dominican American writer and critic Junot Diaz, when speaking about representation, said “without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Colour, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense… If it wasn’t for race, X-Men wouldn’t exist… If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense.” Diaz is right.  When writing the X-Men series, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with Professor X acting as a stand-in for Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto acting as a sci-fi version of Malcolm X. This metaphor was carried into the X-Men film series by Bryan Singer, who also included vague LGBTQ+ themes. X-Men 2, considered by many to be a high point for the series, includes a ‘coming out’ scene in which a young Bobby Drake has to tell his parents he is a mutant. In the comics, it was recently revealed the Bobby Drake is also gay.

When conceiving the Star Wars, George Lucas wanted the Rebel Alliance, the ‘good guys’ of the original trilogy, to have American accents, while the evil Empire had to have British accents. This immediately draws parallels with real world history. At the height of its influence, the British Empire was the world’s largest global power and had control over American colonies. In the film series, the Galactic Empire also destroys multiple planets and people in order to gain more power. The influence of imperialism that Diaz discusses is at the very surface of the film franchise.

Reality is intrinsically linked to Iron Man’s backstory. When “quintessential capitalist” Tony Stark is injured during the Vietnam War he designs a power suit that will help him survive, and early Iron Man stories saw him fighting the dangers of communism. When the character was adapted for the big screen in 2008’s Iron Man, he was transported to the modern day, receiving his injury against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan.

Real life is integral to the development and success of popular entertainment, and director J.J. Abrams is keenly aware of this. Shortly before the trailer for The Force Awakens aired, he posted an image to his Twitter that read, “We cannot wait to share the trailer with you tonight. I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, Jawa, Wookie, Jedi, or Sith. I just hope you like it.” What Abrams understands, and what some people fail to grasp, is that popular media is exactly that: popular. It is for everyone, not just a select few. It reflects reality and mimics it. Speaking once again about representation for people of colour, Junot Diaz writes: “Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together.”

Filming a Queer Revolution: Conor Horgan

This work was originally printed in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

David Monaghan sits down with Conor Horgan to discuss his upcoming documentary about drag queen activist Panti Bliss, The Queen of Ireland.

Conor Horgan is the director of the moment. The man behind the woman of the biggest LGBT documentary to come out of Ireland this year, he has no doubt found himself inundated with interview requests and press junkets. Tapping away on his phone he breaks intermittently to apologise. “Sorry,” he says. “This week has been manic.” No doubt. One cannot make a documentary about the country’s most outspoken drag queen and the biggest social revolution we have experienced in the 21st century without experiencing some attention.

The Queen of Ireland maps the journey of Rory O’Neill from his childhood in the market town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to his accidental activism as Dublin’s charismatic Panti Bliss. Filmed over a number of years, it captures notable events in O’Neill’s life such as the infamous ‘Pantigate’ fiasco, as well as the viral sensation that was the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre, where Panti Bliss made a rousing speech about the RTÉ controversy. The speech went viral on YouTube, amassing over seven hundred thousand views. And finally, he captures the historic marriage referendum in May 2015, which saw the Irish people vote overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. “I always knew that interesting things would happen,” says Horgan. “We had no idea how interesting or what things indeed, but we started filming because I knew Rory and I knew Panti and I knew that we had this really interesting central character who’s very politically astute, extremely articulate, and wildly entertaining… Then when the actual story arrived, it arrived in spades,” he laughs.

“And another thing about Rory is that Panti is always camera-ready. Panti is always very sassy and very quick and very smart and very funny. There’s such a disparity between them as characters.” So at what point does this disparity become noticeable? “All of the front of house stuff happens through Panti, and Rory is really quite shy. If they were both exactly the same kind of character, just one wore a dress and the other one didn’t, I don’t think it would have been interesting.”

Production on this film began immediately after Horgan’s last feature film had been released, and was born of a meeting between him and his producer, Katie Holly. “She knew I knew Rory. I’ve known Rory since the mid-90s, when I started doing pictures of Panti for the Alternative Miss Ireland posters.” The Alternative Miss Ireland was an annual drag queen beauty pageant organised to raise funds for Irish AIDS charities. The very last one, held in 2012, is depicted in the film. “Rory, when we first approached him, said he’d been approached a number of times before but he never really felt like it, but he trusted me enough to say yes. I knew it was a big deal for him, not least because he comes from a small country town… He has a horror about being seen to have notions about oneself, which is a very Irish thing.”

The film ends, rather surprisingly, with Rory returning to do a show as Panti in his native Ballinrobe. Why was this ending chosen over the more obvious passing of marriage equality? “It was our decision [to do that]. When we first approached Rory, he said, ‘you’re not going to ask me to walk down the street in Ballinrobe wearing a dress, right?’ It was quite a big deal for him to agree to that… The film is about the intersection between the personal and the political, so you have a political climax, which is May 23rd, but then the personal. As Rory actually says himself in the film, the personal always trumps the political.”

In the film, O’Neill describes the secrecy that came with being gay in Dublin in the 1980s. As they danced in underground nightclubs, straight people went about their everyday lives, totally oblivious to what was happening. Gay people had to hide away and there are huge gaps in Irish LGBTQ+ history as a result. By featuring footage and interviews from this time, does Conor hope to fill this gap? “Basically, almost everything of that, that exists, is in the film. All a minute and a half of it. RTÉ would have gone in there with a camera crew maybe twice. We looked elsewhere to see what else there was, and there really wasn’t anything else. Does it fill a gap? I suppose any documentary, especially when it’s about, ultimately, how a country is changing is going to become part of the historical record of that country.”

The passing of marriage equality on May 23rd marked a significant turning point in Ireland. With overwhelming support for the ‘yes’ campaign, it signified to many that the country had finally moved on from a repressive past, 22 years after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Irish law. “I think the entire country was gobsmacked by just how big a deal this was,” Horgan says. “Everybody I knew had this emotional investment and really felt it when the thing went through, because it was about the country becoming a better place for everybody.” Conor had the privilege of being at the centre of events. “There was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been for that day, other than chasing Panti around with a camera.”

The Queen of Ireland is the director’s second feature film, following One Hundred Mornings in 2009. A post-apocalyptic drama filmed in the Wicklow Mountains, it details the breakdown of society and the loneliness that would ensue from such an event. “Of all the lies we tell ourselves,” he says, “the greatest is that there’s any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society. A lot of people, especially younger people, just go, ‘well great, it’ll be like Spring Break forever, except with guns, and we can do whatever the hell we want and go tearing around the place and shoot people and all bets will be off,’ and it wouldn’t be like that. It would be boring, and cold, and lonely, and scary, and I just wanted to make a realistic film saying, ‘is this what you want?’”One Hundred Mornings won an IFTA for Best Cinematography and a Special Jury Award at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival.

So what can we expect to see next from the filmmaker? “Nothing. I’m retiring now, that’s it,” he laughs, before his phone starts buzzing once more. “No, I’m working on a science-fiction love story with another writer called Pierce Ryan and we’re having a lot of fun doing that, so that might very well be my next film.” Quite a departure from following a drag queen around Ireland.

The marriage referendum created reverberations all over the world, as did the story of Panti Bliss and her noble call. This film captures that story and acts as a time capsule for this unique period in Irish history, and it is thanks to director Conor Horgan that it is on record. Whether he is detailing the breakdown of society, or following a man in drag, he undoubtedly has interesting things to say about the changing social landscape in Ireland.

The Queen of Ireland is in theatres now.

The Queen of Ireland: Review

This work was originally published in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

Director: Conor Horgan

Starring: Rory O’Neill (Panti Bliss), Niall Sweeney, David Norris.

Release Date: 21st October/Out now.

“My job as a drag queen is to commentate from the fringes, to stand on the outside looking in, shouting abuse.” This is the battle cry of Rory O’Neill, also known as drag queen Panti Bliss, the subject of Conor Horgan’s new documentary The Queen of Ireland. The director’s first feature-length film since his post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings, it details Rory’s journey from childhood in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to international recognition as a key gay rights activist.

The documentary captures a huge moment of social change in Ireland, the passing of Marriage Equality on May 23rd 2015. While Panti was at the centre of events, and it plays a huge role in the narrative, it is simply used to punctuate the film by appearing at the beginning and end. Equal emphasis is placed on Rory’s upbringing, his anxieties about growing up gay in small country town, the club scene in 1980s and ’90s, and how he dealt with his HIV diagnosis. Any one of these subjects would have made for an interesting documentary, but The Queen of Ireland manages to balance all of the above without faltering; at no point does a discussion feel like it has overstayed its welcome.

Where the film really succeeds is the way in which humour is balanced with the serious. Comedy underpins every aspect of this film; after a very solemn opening that briefly recounts the events of May 23rd, we are immediately transported to a dressing room in which Panti is getting ready. She converses with herself in the mirror: “Panti,” she says, “you look fucking amazing.” “I know,” her reflection responds. This sets the tone for the rest of the feature. When Panti returns to do a show in her home town of Ballinrobe it is a significant, poignant, and emotional moment for both the character and the audience. When she gets up on stage, however, she immediately tells people that she is “crapping it.” Whenever moments of serious reflection are introduced, they are hushed almost instantly. These two aspects of the film never feel disparate or at odds with each other, instead they come to reflect the contrasting sides of the Ms. Bliss’ personality, and make for an emotional rollercoaster.

Another aspect of the film that must be commended is its editing. Conor Horgan followed Panti around and filmed the events in her life over a number of years, and likely had days worth of footage to sift through as a result. To condense all of that down and make it into a coherent 82 minute narrative is truly astounding; not once does it feel like a moment in Panti’s life has been skimmed or not treated with enough gravitas.

Also of note is the positive message the film carries for LGBTQ+ people. The drag queen’s power, as discussed in the film, comes from taking something that was once used as an insult (being too ‘girly’ or effeminate) and turning it into something powerful, and this is exactly what Panti does, meaning the greatest voice of the Marriage Equality Referendum was a man in a dress. And that’s nothing to be scoffed at.

In A Nutshell: The Queen of Ireland acts not only as document of a changing Ireland, but also as a powerful LGBTQ+ piece about our country’s most outspoken drag artist. Funny, emotional and poignant, this is an unmissable piece of work.

Distorting Reality: How Unique is Irish Comedy?

This work was originally published by the University Observer in October 2015.

David Monaghan looks at what makes Irish television unique when compared to its American and British counterparts.

Whenever discussions around television comedy arise, two distinct styles are often pitted against each other: British and American. British comedy champions the downtrodden, all-too-human hero, while American comedy offers a more positive and uplifting outlook on life. While this is a slight generalisation (there are a few American comedies that feature underlying negativity, just thinkArrested Development or South Park), in most cases it is the accepted norm. Irish comedy, much in the vein of its British counterpart, also stems from a culture of negativity, but is there anything unique about it?

British comedy, while funny, also displays scenes of intense sadness or pity. Audiences laugh when Ricky Gervais’ David Brent hijacks an office training session to play his comically-misguided guitar songs, they squirm when he attempts to upstage his new boss with a terrible dance. They sympathise with Dawn when she, in the very same show, describes how disappointing her life has turned out to be. Similarly, people remember when a frustrated Basil Fawlty thrashes his car with a broken tree branch, when Del Boy falls through an open bar, and when Blackadder and company make the final leap over the trenches and into war. The humour in British comedy is often physical and at a character’s expense, and is punctuated by moments of reality.

American comedy, on the other hand, is distinctly different. While tackling moments of sadness, as well as elements of reality, it tends to wrap things up in a nice, neat narrative; rarely is anything left sad or ambiguous. In the sitcomScrubs, for example, a storyline involving Dr. Cox’s alcoholism and depression is brought to a conclusion when JD helps the misanthropic doctor get back on his feet, and most episodes end with a life lesson or a moral. Friends concludes with Ross and Rachel getting back together, ending a long-running plot thread. This is in contrast to the final episode of something like the UK’s The Thick of It,in which Malcolm Tucker is arrested, his future left uncertain.

So, where does all this leave Irish comedy? Like British comedy, it wallows in negativity at times, but unlike British comedy, reality is often distorted or rejected. A very introspective form of comedy, it sees the faults in our culture, or our society, and it exaggerates them to the point of parody. It is no coincidence that Father Ted came to our screens in the 1990s, when people began to question the failures of the clergy in decades past. The show follows three Catholic priests on a small island off the west coast of Ireland – a simple, realistic premise. It is only when they do strange things like enter a version of the Eurovision or fend off an invasion of elderly women that farce comes into play. Both Father Ted and Father Dougal display incompetency at their jobs, and in one episode Father Ted attempts to woo a female writer on the island, a very controversial depiction. Writer Graham Linehan explains that they’re “just two people who happen to be [priests].”

This parody of Ireland’s reality can also be seen in shows like Republic of Telly.In a mock news segment, for example, host Bernard O’Shea sings in sean-nós style about emigrants’ longing for Tayto crisps while abroad – bringing Ireland’s emigration problem to the fore and playing with it. In a sketch from the same show, titled ‘Edward Hurleyhands,’ a blatant spoof of Edward Scissorhands, a character, dressed head-to-toe in black and with hurley sticks for hands, uses his strange gift to master the game of hurling. Irish culture and reality are once again brought to the fore, but are mocked or distorted to the point of parody.

While British and American brands of comedy continue to dominate the scene, Irish comedy, while holding some similarities to its British counterpart, is a unique creature. Seeing the flaws in its own culture, it chooses to parody them instead of embracing them. So why is it that it teeters on the edge of discussing something real, only to take two steps back? It can be argued that it has something to do with an Irish cultural reluctance to discuss things frankly, but who knows for sure? To paraphrase one Father Dougal Maguire; “the whole thing’s a bit of a puzzler.”

The Man of Many Voices: Mario Rosenstock

This work was originally published by the University Observer in October 2015.

Mario Rosenstock sits down with David Monaghan to discuss his work in TV and radio as a comedian and impressionist

Mario Rosenstock is known to many as the voice (or voices) of the satirical breakfast show Gift Grub, in which he lampoons various political and sports figures throughout Ireland. On television, he is known for The Mario Rosenstock Show, a sketch show featuring his repertoire of characters in unusual situations; like Joan Burton riding a wrecking ball, or Donal Skehan breaking his nice guy act to beat up some local scumbags. Taking a well-deserved break from satirising the country’s elite, Rosenstock speaks about working in television and radio, his friendship with Ian Dempsey, and the pressure he feels when creating content.

Spawning numerous albums and singles since its inception in 1999, Gift Grub is the first port of call for many people when seeking Irish political satire. However, its success came as a surprise to Rosenstock. “When I started, everything I did was depending on the radio station I was working in being successful,” he says. “[It was] called Radio Ireland, and it just didn’t know what it was at the beginning. It was known in the papers, mockingly, as Radio 0%, and Radio Direland.” Radio Ireland eventually changed its name to Today FM. After recruiting Ian Dempsey to host the morning show, it began to grow in popularity. “It started to really, really appeal to people. I started working with Ian on the breakfast show [and] it was in tandem with this Bertie Ahern thing that was happening. I was the only one in Ireland doing sketches about him every day and that kind of caught the imagination.”

Rosenstock has collaborated with Ian Dempsey ever since. “We have a very special relationship. Some people describe it as a husband and wife; I don’t know who’s the man and who’s the woman. No one knows his audience better than Ian [and] he’s also a really great judge of an audience in relation to me. He’d look at stuff I do and go, ‘what would people love to see Mario doing?’ And he’d know better than I would. He often points me in the right direction.”

Having worked almost exclusively in radio over the years, The Mario Rosenstock Show was a slight departure for the performer. “In radio you can go, ‘Imagine if Joan Burton suddenly became Alexander the Great back in 20 BC, and there’s an army of 50,000 people with elephants.’ You could do that on the radio that day, and peoples’ minds will see [it].” Rosenstock, who often plays multiple characters at once on radio, simply cannot mimic this approach on television. “Radio is good for getting the ideas out there tomorrow. Television takes weeks.”

Mario Rosenstock’s sketches often veer into the absurd. Since breaking out onto the scene, we have borne witness to Alan Shatter as a 1970s TV cop, Gerry Adams as a starship captain, and Bertie Ahern as a culinary chef. This surreal approach will draw comparisons to the style of British comedy troupe Monty Python. “I was exposed to the absurdity of Monty Python. I would have been very impressed with Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, [that was] the stuff I really enjoyed.” Rosenstock also speaks of his love for American sketch showSaturday Night Live. “I love idea that you do sketches which are topical each week in front of a live audience. I love that up-to-date topical comedy.”

SNL features sketches written over the course of a week, to be performed live in front of a studio audience on the Saturday. As a result, actors can sometimes break character, forget lines, and crack up. Rosenstock is no stranger to this type of pressure. “Yes, [but] there’s pressure and there’s stress,” he explains. “Pressure is really good. [It’s] bringing the best out of yourself, rising to the occasion. I [feel] a lot of pressure doing things that I have, but I now realise that feeling is a good feeling. Stress is not a good feeling. Stress is when something is preventing you from working. You’re sick, you’re run down, you can’t think straight – that’s stress. Pressure is when you’re a bit worried, but feel of creative intent and energy.”

In 2005, Mario Rosenstock surprised many by topping the Irish Christmas charts with a parody of Will Young’s ‘Leave Right Now.’ “I’ve always loved music. I can actually hold a note really well when I’m in character – not so much as myself! I think music is a beautiful, glorious thing. You can also write stuff in music that is like poetry – rhymes and stuff – and put them into characters mouths, like politicians, or people like Paul O’Connell, and it makes them funny for a minute.” Indeed, seeing Joan Burton perform Wrecking Ball à la Miley Cyrus is not a sight many people can take seriously.

Three years ago, Rosenstock created minor controversy when the Catholic Communications Office took offence to a sketch depicting a character spitting into a bucket before receiving Holy Communion. Has the writer-performer stirred any other note-worthy controversies? “I’m careful to observe the law of defamation,” he says. “I’m also careful to observe a natural law, which is [not to] go off on somebody in a poisonous, malicious way. Satire has to be funny first. Otherwise you’re just a taxi driver giving out: ‘Them fuckin’ government, that fuckin’ bunch o’ clowns!’ So my thing would be, I don’t want to say that unless I can make it funny.”

Rosenstock’s comments bring to mind the recent developments surrounding the Denis O’Brien/Waterford Whispers News conflict; the media mogul threatened to sue the satirical news source over its depiction of him. “Waterford Whispers News published something, he threatened to sue them, which he’s entitled to do as a person,” says Rosenstock, whose radio station is owned by O’Brien. “Should he be allowed to do that? Well, he is. It’s the law. Is it right for him to do that? Maybe not, but he can. Say you live in a house, and I want to build a gigantic railway and a shopping centre right next to your house. You can object, but if I win the objection, I can build my railway and shopping centre near your house. It’s legal. It’s not nice, but it’s legal. So, we have to deal with those parameters as well.”

After a succession of albums, live performances, and a television show, what can Mario Rosenstock do next to surprise us? “[I have a] new TV show coming in November and December. It’s Saturday Night Live-based idea, so some studio based sketches, pre-recorded sketches, music, and hopefully live guests. There’s a lot going on; possibly an election – it’ll be pre-election time anyway – the 1916 anniversary, and also lots of rugby and soccer things coming to a climax. So, it’s going to be a very, very interesting time.”

While Ireland is undergoing many social and political changes, it is comforting to know that one thing will remain consistent; Mario Rosenstock will be there to point the finger and laugh. Just don’t ask him to sing out of character.

Revenge of the Nerds

This work was originally published by the University Observer in September 2015.

David Monaghan looks at how the archetype of the nerd has changed in and outside of Film and TV.

We are all familiar with the trope of the nerd: a bespectacled, basement-dwelling mess, usually depicted with horn-rimmed glasses and a love for niche science-fiction. This image permeates nearly every aspect of popular culture, from movies to TV, comic books to literature. Almost anyone can identify these characters through appearance alone, but how true is this archetype to reality?

Typically portrayed as outsiders, traditional ‘nerds’ are usually defined by their difference to other more ‘normal’ characters. Steve Urkel, protagonist of the long-running American sitcom, Family Matters, wears braces, a striped cardigan, and speaks in a shrill, high-pitched voice, much to the chagrin of the Winslow family. Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons displays more negative characteristics, using his differences and love of niche subjects as a means to belittle other people.

A brief visit to both Dublin Comic-Con and its sister event MCM Comic-Con, it can be said that the archetype of the nerd, which will be forever embedded in our collective pop culture conscience, holds very little bearing in reality. Or rather, the reality is a little more complicated than one might initially imagine. Movements like ‘Gamergate’, a campaign of harassment against female games journalists, seem to only reaffirm the standards set by characters like Comic Book Guy. Events like aforementioned conventions show that the communities can be both welcoming and warm.

“It’s okay to like [comic books] now. It’s the cool thing to do,” says Trudie Mitchell, a student, dressed from head to toe in Captain America’s familiar red, white and blue. “Due to the movies and the popularity of the video games, it has gotten big for all generations,” says Darragh Gallagher, complimenting Trudie’s outfit with his very own spin on Peter Parker. One glance around the halls at both events proves them right. Parents and children, dressed as a selection of characters from the world of popular culture, like Groot and Rocket fromGuardians of the Galaxy, or Geralt the Witcher from the eponymous video game, run from stall to stall buying a mix of comic books, games, and movies – a far cry from the basement-dwellers of popular myth.

So why has attending cons become the ‘cool’ thing to do? Why has a nerd gone from a subject of derision to being dominant in popular culture? This might have a lot to do with how accessible certain niche media has become. In the 1980s and 1990s, the ‘nerd’ character in fiction typically had an encyclopaedic knowledge of certain subject areas, like science fiction or comic books. This knowledge was often obtained with great patience and difficulty (for example, finding a copy of the difficult-to-source Star Wars Christmas Special, or obsessively watching episodes of a TV show), and was therefore inaccessible or alien to most other characters. This was the perception of nerds in and outside the land of Film and TV.

In the 1990s, however, we begin to see a shift. Filmmakers Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, amongst others, use their love of comic books and movies to litter their own films with pop culture references. Smith’sClerks and Mallrats contain normal, everyday people discussing, without irony, the architecture of the Death Star, as well as their favourite Star Wars films. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction contains numerous references to, and replicates many shots from, his favourite films, including Psycho, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Great Train Robbery. ‘Nerd’ characters are no longer the socially-awkward, loud, annoying tropes we expect them to be, but instead they have become the people we see everyday; the man in the corner shop or on the street. In Tarantino’s case, becoming obsessive over something will not lead to derision, but instead will lead to a successful movie career. Indeed, with the development of the internet and the ability to share information with a mass of people, these filtered versions of all things ‘nerdy,’ once thought impenetrable, have now opened up to allow more and more people to feel welcomed.

It would not be strange to suggest, then, that this only opened the gate to the development of more comic book and sci-fi films. No longer seen as something alien or strange, people now flock to see films that would not have been made as often or as regularly nearly twenty years ago. Speaking to Simon Fisher-Becker, Doctor Who’s Dorium Maldovar, at MCM Comic-Con, he offered up a differing view: “I totally accept that there are a lot of people who think sci-fi is just phooey and they don’t understand it at all. For human beings, and for society as a whole, sci-fi is important because the fantasies of today become the realities of tomorrow, and the proof of that is Star Trek! I mean, Captain Kirk had the original flip-phone. We all use a video screen of some sort nowadays. And now with the 3D printing, that’s the start of the replicator! And there are writers of the past – Jules Verne, HG Welles, and to some extent George Orwell – I mean, 1984! We have CCTV everywhere. Big Brother is here.”

Many of our anxieties about the future are reflected in the popular media we consume. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films look at persecution through the mutant metaphor. The Dark Knight examines terrorism through the anarchic Joker, and every Fantastic Four film successfully reminds us how terrifyingly bad superhero films can still be.

While the trope of the isolated nerd will never truly go away, more and more people feel welcomed now than ever before by media once deemed inaccessible. Despite protestations from hate groups like Gamergate, people of all races, genders, backgrounds, and sexualities find comfort in attending conventions and speaking about their love of games, movies, and comics. The nerd is no longer an outsider. The nerd is now the everyman.