by Niles Schwartz
As far back as I can remember, I was always looking for my cultural, or “subcultural,” niche. The bugger has eluded me. I’ve shamelessly tried many angles over the decades: Young Republican, drama kid, religious fundamentalist, sporto, ballroom dancer, stripper, badminton specialist, raver, doper, drunk, bourgeois accountant, cow tipper, process server, misogynist, feminist, annoyingly sincere pony-tail bald poet, annoyingly cynical leather-clad bed-head non-poet, and plain annoying acoustic guitar strummer. I’ve lain with the Hegelians, Kantians, Marxists, had love affairs with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and finally hooked up with the People Who Claim Never to Have Read a Philosophy Book Inc. I’ve worn all black, all white, yellow-shirts-with-yellow-socks, long hair and no hair, and sung like Geddy Lee and then converted to Eddie Vedder before settling my voice on that one guy from Smash Mouth. I even pretended to like Björk for a while. Belts, then suspenders, then belts and suspenders, and finally sans belt and suspenders while just walking around with no pants, bringing up the choice of boxers, briefs, boxer briefs, and commando.
And so, I merge with the Children of CON. CONvergence. Conference for Geeks. Bloomington. Thousands of people congregating, attending panel discussions, gaming events, dances, and parties associated with science fiction, videogames, role-playing, anime, fantasy, and men in kilts. Seriously, a lot of men in kilts. (That’s something else I tried out, being a man in a kilt. It didn’t work out).
I don’t do gaming, role-playing or video. I’m not really into anime. Science fiction appeals to me in special bits, where it’s metaphorical for current issues, and not simply otherworldly fantasy. But I’m a movie guy. Some would say a “movie geek.” So I qualify for a place at the Geek Table of Convergence. In recent years, I’ve inched closer to attending. Two years ago, I stopped by the Doubletree Hotel to visit a girl I was dating. As she had access to everything, in her Alice in Wonderland dress, I remained stuck outside, peering it at a fascinating place. Last year, I bought a last-minute pass, missing most of the first two nights and wandering aimlessly, without costume, and driving back home to Southeast Minneapolis in the early morning.
But this year I was going to do it right. Book a cheap room for three nights at the motel down the road, get suited up with a good costume, have lots of alcohol and food on hand, attend a plentitude of panels, make my voice known, and rock out, blending into the rich Pokemon colors of late-night cartoon fantasy and catharsis. It would be my vacation, almost like visiting my old college stomping grounds in Iowa City. Except, whereas now when I hit the Iowa City bars, with their constantly recycling flow of 18-22 year-olds, I can’t help but feel pathetic and creepy while struggling to hold onto a lost youth, at Convergence, everyone is embracing those bygone years of the past. Sure, there’s also the flux of 18 to 22-year-olds wearing kinky clothing, but CONvergence is where we can all feel open about the whole “pathetic and creepy” thing. Oh, glorious!
Not that CONvergence is a bastion for hooking up with random people. You learn early on that the delectable eye-candy on hand is kind of like the Glengarry leads from Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’re Jack Lemmon (unless you’re Alec Baldwin; I’m not Alec Baldwin). My point is, in theory, all inhibitions should probably be checked at the door here. Do you have anything to be ashamed of? Are you feeling self-conscious about a facial blemish, some out-of-place hair, or unflattering pants? Why? Just look at the fellow dressed as Wonder Woman, in a thong, or the guy so poor he had to be a Gobot instead of a Transformer, while packs of folks hustle around in top hats, looking like they walked out of a goth-fetish version of Gangs of New York, or you see a woman, with an insanely tight corset mashing her innards, willingly putting her liver where her heart should be.
What am I? I’m the Driver, Ryan Gosling’s immediately legendary and enigmatic protagonist from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. (Ed. note: Read Niles’ review of the film over at the Niles Files.) With his custom scorpion jacket, almond boots, driving gloves, and apparent invincibility, I justify my costume choice by voicing how Gosling’s Driver is essentially a superhero, and Drive is, perhaps with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the best superhero movie ever made. If dozens of girls can go as Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), also a kind of unexpected and tortured “super-hero,” why can’t I be the Driver? Suited up accurately, with the right shirt, shoes, gloves denim jacket, official scorpion jacket, toothpicks, and hammer, I was pretty sure I’d be a hit. Confident, I put off finalizing my registration and hit the empty swimming pool.
But as I walked through the crowded halls of Vulcans, Darth Vaders, Sailor Moons, Hunger Games Katnisses, Avengers, Watchmen, Hunter Thompsons, and Hobbits, the Driver, much like the movie (which I expected to be a big hit when first I saw it), didn’t really catch fire. More often I was mistaken for the asshole bully from Karate Kid. No matter. I skipped from room to room, drinking complimentary shots, sitting in on panels, and hitting the Cinema Rex movie room, this year featuring female-themed entrees like Kill Bill, Elektra, Enchanted, Hanna, and that disgusting extended steam-punk rape-fantasy Sucker-Punch. In every space what you notice is the enthusiasm of people. This is a playground, a city of lost dreams, where people can remain children.
So why did I still feel seriously out of place here, almost like an illicit wedding crasher? Maybe because I’m not a geek after all, but a snob. Panel discussions on movies and television, from Alien to Tarantino to the troubling dynamic of models and mattes to CGI, didn’t really evolve into serious discussions, but were stuck in a kind of “it sucks” or “it’s awesome” dimension. I think the question I was asked more than any other, related to film, had to do with how I felt about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. This can’t be answered in one sentence, or even one paragraph. (The shortest answer is “I’m still not sure what I think of it,” and this requires a lot of clarification). The retorts from the other side were of the “it sucked” variety. This only riles up the snooty douchebag within, fists come out, people get hurt, cops show up, and insurance companies pay up.
The lingering affect was melancholic. A drive to have fun was, by the midnight hour, running on fumes with a growing sense of displacement and “What the hell am I doing here?” A costume contest in progress, a friend of mine chimes in with amazement at the array of opulent get-ups, commenting on how the models are all female variations on “the Doctor.” “Doctor who?” I ask, and no, that’s not a bad joke. I have seriously never seen an episode of Doctor Who.
Later on, everyone is jumping up and down to LMFAO’s “Party Rock,” and I’m about as home at CONvergence as I would be at a trendy downtown club, which is to say, cautiously fascinated but stuck in a bubble, in spite of alcohol. A friend of mine (dressed as Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, even having a little triceratops doll with her!) sits with me and admits, “I don’t know why I still do this.” She’s exhausted with it now, maybe having broken through that fourth wall; it has the same taste of the Renaissance Festival or a Pioneer Days field trip, where the surrounding “in character” design is unbearably annoying; but then again, everyday life with performed lines such as “hot enough for ya,” trifling stories, and snarky post-modern commentary feels just as inauthentic. So there’s no escape from tedium. “I don’t know if I’ll even come next year,” my friend says. It’s like the new Spider-Man movie. It’s utterly pointless, but the hype entices you to nevertheless buy a ticket. And damn, you’ll probably also see the sequel, hate yourself, and then Part 3, after which you’ll try to gag on a spoon. Then you’ll give up, in line to see the second reboot.
CONvergence’s growth has coincided with the transcendence of Geekdom in recent years, what with the Marvel and DC Comics movies conquering the box office, the fermented seeds of Spielberg/Lucas generation, developing in the 1990s and exemplified by the reflexivity of Kevin Smith, and finally the ever-flowing Geek Goo in the last decade with Scott Pilgrim, the references of South Park, Robot Chicken, and Family Guy, and nostalgia trips like Super 8. Videogames have grown more realistic and aim to resemble movies, while movies have become increasingly like videogames.
Currently controlling the movie box office is Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, about a 35-year-old car dealer, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), who’s too attached to his talking, childhood teddy bear. Although MacFarlane’s feature debut probably is no more than an intermittently hilarious Family Guy episode, Ted is an appropriate symbol for the modern Geek Man’s inability to grow up and assume real-world responsibilities, like showing up at work on time, and marrying Mila Kunis. So wrapped up is Ben in his fanboy past, that he risks all, ditching a party thrown by his girlfriend’s lecherous boss to meet his childhood hero, Sam Jones aka Flash Gordon. Earlier generations grew up with World Wars, the Depression, Vietnam, and Watergate. The current generation, John Bennett’s 30-something circle, has action figures, VHS playback, Thundercats, and E.T.’s Reese’s Pieces. And we’re proud. To sound bombastic about it, maybe we’re all a bunch of Neros, fiddling away on our Gameboys while Rome burns.
Before I packed it in for the weekend, having finished my last drink and ready to stumble to sleep in my cool motel room, a young woman approached me to chat up. She talked about what brought her to CON, like her love for science fiction, anime, and videogames. “It’s such a great place with so many different people coming together!” she said. I admitted I didn’t play videogames, and it was amazing to see how this disclosure so viscerally turned her off. It was like I farted. She was seriously done talking to me. I tried to talk literature and movies with her, anything to turn around the momentum. She was finishing up the 50 Shades of Grey books, and while she disliked Drive, she was fond of Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. She said she disliked reading about current events and non-fiction. I asked if she was going to vote this November, and she said of course she was. “Who are you voting for?” she asked me. After replying “Obama,” she almost spit at me, disgusted. “How could you? Even after the insurance mandate? And granting asylum to illegals?! He’s not even an American citizen! He couldn’t even produce a simple birth certificate!”
Yeah, I thought she was joking too. But she wasn’t. This really happened. A birther flirted with me at CON. And such a detour out of reality into pure fantasy, which at 4:30 a.m. felt more like Kafka than Zelda, probably nailed the whole experience better than anything else over the last four days. Birthers exist, so why not fairies? Okay. Whatever. I’ll probably still come back next year. With my Human Centipede costume.
More CONvergence 2012:
Click HERE for photos from CONvergence 2012 by Clement Shimizu exclusively for l’étoile.
Click HERE for Jeremy Messersmith’s review of CONvergence 2012 exclusively for l’étoile.
Click HERE for Anthony Enright’s column for the Rogue Epicurean on five overlooked sci-fi novels by female authors.