Mind Control Double Feature #100: Perfect Squares

Our fanatical devotion to cinema has come to fruition.

Through the sweat of our brows, the strain of our eyes, and the callouses-ness of our typing fingers, we have compiled for you — week by week without interruption — a full one-hundred double features. That’s 100 double features, each a full evening of paired cinematic entertainments, variously strange and wonderful, inane and insightful, mysterious and familiar.

Only serious nerds could achieve such a task. As just such serious nerds, we will now celebrate our 100th Mind Control Double Feature with a double feature about serious nerds. Or, if you will, ‘perfect squares.’ Like the number 100, which is also a perfect square.

See? Nerd humor for nerds! But nerds whom you adore due to that inexplicable nerd-chic fashion that is blanketing the nation with boxy black eyewear and obscure comic book in-joke t-shirts. Also with undeniable lust for those who maintain fanatical enthusiasm for niche subjects.

Does anyone want to talk about Hal Ashby’s terrible films? Anyone?

Never fear, though. From this week hence, the double features will continue, just not so much with the regularity. We will post them when they creep into our nerdy, cinephile brains. When you least expect them. Perhaps late on a Tuesday evening? Maybe we shall wait until the leap year to strike!? No one can say. No one will say. Fewer will understand.

Except you. You, gentle reader, you will understand, and watch this double feature and future double features, and rejoice in the fact that there are — like you — other devotees of fine and forgotten films lurking along the internets.

And you will sneer at the johnny-come-lately nerds and their nerd fashions. Or you would if you ever left the house.

Real Genius (1985)

real-genius-posterThere is one exceptional thing about Real Genius, the 1985 college comedy from director Martha Coolidge: it is about nerds, but not about nerds vs. non-nerds. While generally films — such as the previous year’s Revenge of the Nerds — depict socially challenged, highly intelligent types as curiosities who only make sense in contrast to other stock types (see: jocks), Real Genius goes in fully cocked.

Like an extra-terrestrial villain in some creepy adult Japanese manga.

Real Genius is about nerds and, also, super nerds. It is not about people whom you can laugh at before a saccharine ending reminds you that nerds are people too, but rather about people you can relate to and whom you like from the beginning. Because you are also a nerd.

So how does a film about brainiacs begin? With lasers. In a prologue, we see the C.I.A. testing a space shuttle mounted laser that can snuff terrestrial targets (see: drones). The trial of this assassination contraption goes poorly, which puts the pressure on smarmy Pacific Technical Institute (see: CalTech) professor Jerry Hathaway — William Atherton, whom you should recognize as the dickless wonder from Ghostbusters. Hathaway, in charge of death laser development, attempts to get the secret project on track by accepting fifteen-year old science prodigy Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) as a student and research assistant.

Real Genius laserMitch, like most everyone else, doesn’t suspect the laser’s military applications. He’s just psyched to be rooming with the fabled physics genius Chris Knight (Val Kilmer, in his best role that doesn’t involve imitating Marlon Brando). To Mitch’s surprise, however, Chris is irreverent, unfocused, and more concerned with pulling practical jokes than building a five-megawatt laser. College is also rough for a small, nerdy teen — particularly when Professor Hathaway disrupts the social order by putting Mitch in charge.

There is much more to Real Genius, too: it includes one of my favorite screen romances, sparky dialogue, intrigue, and someone living in the bowels of closet accessible only by theme-park ride. You ask if it’s as good as its better known nerd-world peers — WarGames and Weird Science? No. It’s better. Real Genius is one of those ’80s films that dances cleanly through the icky minefield of the era. Michelle Meyrink (also in Revenge of the Nerds) is great as Jordan; beautiful in a way nerds can believe and not just there for the gawking at. Robert Prescott’s Kent — the film’s primary antagonist — manages to be a joke without being impotent. Or rather his impotence doesn’t keep him from wreaking havoc.

Michelle Mayrink Real Genius

Compare Michelle here to, say, the fabricated, idealized woman in Weird Science.

And that havoc is authentically emotional, even if Real Genius‘ climax centers on a house being destroyed by popcorn.

Director Martha Coolidge and the film’s trio of writers (Neal Israel, Pat Proft, Peter Torokvei, plus a few script doctors) made a film that seems crazy, except much of it has basis in real life, and even real life at CalTech. The contest scheme closet dweller Lazlo (Jon Gries) comes up with? Really happened. The character of Real Genius Val Kilmer Chris Knight I Love Toxic Waste t-shirtJordan? Based on a real CalTech student known as ‘Tigger.’ The Tanning Invitational party? It was an annual staple.

Giant lasers that will kill you from space, on the other hand? The C.I.A. claims they do not currently have such a device, but who you gonna believe?

My faith lies with a young Val Kilmer, even though he cannot, right now, nail a six-inch spike through a board with his penis.

After all, a guy has to have his standards.

Office Space (1999)

Office Space posterMike Judge’s Office Space is to 1999’s software nerd what Real Genius was to the swinging physics nerds of the 1980s: a paean to their undervalued ascendancy.

While I certainly hope all of you have seen Office Space — a film currently being lauded for helping the world rid itself of ‘flair’ — perhaps some of you have not. It is a film that did not dominate the box office, only gradually becoming known as a cult favorite. And a favorite of mine.

Why? Because it perfectly achieves a nearly impossible task: it makes your own horrible life funny. The comedy of Office Space, of which there is plenty, all revolves around the reality of shitty jobs. Its characters aren’t superheroes or even super nerds, just everyday nerds who happen to be locked in a hypnotic state.

Allow me to explain:

office_space_peterPeter Gibbons (Ron Livingstone) works for Initech. His job is a nightmare of pointless bureaucracy and mismanagement. His colleagues, Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman) are, like Peter, at their wits’ end. Simple frustrations like copy jams threaten to kill them all by aneurism. If you work in an office, I’m sure you can relate. 

Peter is so unhappy that his girlfriend forces him to see an occupational hypnotherapist — who hypnotizes Peter and then dies of a heart attack before he can wake Peter up. This is the best thing that has ever happened to our hero. Left in a state of permanent relaxation, he skips work, lets his cheating girlfriend go, and then shows up at Initech to tell everyone — including the consultants hired to thin out the workforce — exactly how stupid and pointless everything he does at work is.

Office Space Stephen Root MiltonIt is, frankly, your dream come true. Especially as Peter’s frankness does not result in his dismissal; it results in his promotion. And from there, we work our way into a plot about getting your own back from your corporate overlords. Jennifer Aniston plays Joanna, Peter’s waitress love-interest; Gary Cole is perfect as Bill Lumburgh, the detestably oily manager; and Stephen Root steals the show as Milton, the co-worker who doesn’t realize he’s been fired.

Office Space should be required viewing for every college graduate. If you’re a nerd — and you are — you can take solace from it and its heartening message: you can’t win, but at least you’re not alone.

You nerd.

10 responses on “Mind Control Double Feature #100: Perfect Squares

    • Many thanks, Trinity. Somewhat stunned we pulled it off without missing a single week. And looking forward to missing a few weeks as we continue to write them…

      • Hooray! We did it. Well done, us. Anyone wanting an education in film could do a lot worse than watching these 200 movies.

        I should watch Real Genius again. I loved it as a kid. Saw it many times. But it’s surely been a good 20 years since I last watched it. It’s because of the scene where Val Kilmer rolls quarters over his fingers that, back in high school, I learned how to roll quarters over my fingers, a trick that has proved incredibly useful in life.

      • Hey! A little rest is fine but don’t overdo it please. I mean if you want to ensure that your brainflogging filmblogging has maximum effect, you can’t allow those cerebellums of your audience to overindulge in rest, otherwise they might just heal and have those synapses firing idly without the beneficial effects of your wickedness-triggering catalyst.

  1. ‘Real Genius’ first cast its spell when I was 11, and since then I have watched it approximately one to two vigintillion times, forced every person to whom I am related on this continent to watch it, and forced anyone who had aspirations towards friendship or romance with me to watch it.

    But until I read this, I never fully realized why.

    It’s not because I’m a nerd of the same flavor as Mitch and Chris and Jordan. I love math, physics, and cosmology, but I could never aspire to the dizzy heights at which they live. It’s because ‘Real Genius’ captures the true essence of nerdiness in a way few other films ever have or will: We don’t measure ourselves against other people.

    No nerd worth her salt gives a damn what people who are uninterested in her obsessions think of her actions in pursuit of them. Other nerds, who know as much as we do about whatever the subject of our adoration is, get to comment; everyone else is irrelevant, and so is what they think of the fervor of our devotion.

    So-called ‘normal’ people seem constantly to measure themselves against everyone around them, and to mock those who don’t fit their own narrowly defined template of ‘acceptable’. Nerds have their own templates of acceptability. Nerds rely on both deep knowledge of an external subject as well as valuing the way that subject is processed individually by others who have an equal level of knowledge. People who have the latter part of the equation, but not the former, aren’t nerds: They’re fans.

    Fans are great. They’re a mark of success and industry endorsement and are crucial to the realities of paying for art. But theirs is a different conversation. It’s the difference between conversations about music amongst people who make music and people who consume music (or people who work in any metier versus people who consume that metier).

    The above is why I hate ‘Revenge of the Nerds’, which commits the twin offenses of using the label ‘nerd’ for people who are social misfits but need not have any specific area of passionate expertise, and having those so-called nerds measure themselves against an external standard of acceptability. Well, that and the film’s raging misogyny.

    Whew. Sorry, EG. I had no intention of starting an essay here, but that’s what happened. Given its genesis, would you mind if I linked to this post when I post the finished essay on my blog?

    And, as always, thanks for the insight.

    • You are welcome to all and sundry. Glad I could spark a realization for you. I love Real Genius, too. And I love that you’re amusing yourself trawling through our back catalogue of posts today.

      • blushes Yes. That’s all too obvious. An apology would be disingenuous, as I’m not the least bit sorry, but I’ll try to be less noisy as I cruise the back roads.
        I love this blog, love your team’s devotion to cinema, and when I have time like to remind myself what intelligent, informed, passionate interest in a particular art form looks like.

  2. Pingback: Real Nerdius | WickedEye's Quotient·

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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