Saturday, September 16, 2006

The second time as farce

Tuscany is a fierce place. Locals are famous in Italy for their imaginatively blasphemous way of swearing, their biting sense of humour, and their propensity for practical jokes. Citizens of different cities have rivalries that go back hundreds of years, and in some cities, like Siena, there are centuries-old rivalries between neighborhoods. Thanks to books like this, however, many Americans have an image of Tuscany as an extended, mellow, countryside where gentlemen sit in the gardens of their villas dipping fresh produce into olive oil, in the time that is not consumed by flirting with foreign women.

In fact, the theme of idyllic, if backwards, countryside/small town recurs even in the few Italian movies that achieve wide distribution in the US. (For example Io non ho paura or, a long time ago, Academy Award-winning Nuovo cinema Paradiso.)

Sometimes, people who have to listen to me complain about the above, or who are planning a trip to Italy, ask me what movies they could watch to get a sense of what Italy is like. Unfortunately, my first recommendations (Il Caimano or Aprile by Nanni Moretti, anything with Alberto Sordi) cannot be found in the US. Two good choices are Caro diario and La meglio gioventu', but it is L'ultimo bacio which comes to mind first.

(Note: I am not talking about the best recent movies from Italy, which are definitely Ozpetek's movies, but the best movies about Italy.)

L'ultimo bacio is mostly about the character flaws of the four male protaganists, all in their late 20s. The movie was a sensation among my friends (who were also in their late 20s and early 30s when the movie was released), and it spoke to them very personally. They saw an unflattering image of themselves, but, at the same time, the movie is sympathetic to its characters. I had already lived abroad for several years when I saw the movie, and it still felt too close for comfort. This was perhaps the most intensely and specifically Italian movie I had seen in a long time.

Now, however, there is an American remake. This sounds as implausible as an Italian remake of American Beauty, and I wonder what the producers were thinking and whether the movie will work at all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The trouble with "nerd pride"

When the movie The Revenge of the Nerds was released in Italy, the word "nerd" was not translated because it had no analog in Italian. American movies set in high schools or colleges would always bring very foreign notions, such as fraternities, cheerleaders, school cafeterias, elective classes in high school and so on. But, just like after watching a few pirate movies you get a sense of the conventions of the pirate lifestyle, after seeing a few of those movies, they started to make sense. The notion of nerd, however, was more difficult to figure out. To be sure, we have terms of abuse for the academically achieving, and high school and college students are fond of creating identities and cliques. Such identities, however, tend (I should say, tended, in the late 80s and early 90s, I don't know how things are now) to be defined more by class and by politics than by other factors.

Then I spent a year at MIT, I saw Richard Stallman, I heard stories about him, and I finally understood. And so came the realization: I am one of them! For the non-American, see here and here for an explanation.

After Dr. Free Ride launched a nerd-off, Sean Carroll wrote an essay on the matter. I agree with every single word. On the one hand, it is right that there is no shame in having a specialized technical knowledge, be it on the Klingon language, on gender and class in Elizabethan poetry, on the PCP theorem, or whatnot. On the other hand, social awkwardness and a certain strain of anti-intellectualism (both highly associated to the "nerd" identity) are not things to be promoted.

Besides, what is really poisonous is the notion that technical knowledge and social inadequacy have to go together. There are surely more important and complex reasons that, from K-12 to college to grad school, push girls and women away from the study of science and engineering, but this association certainly plays some role. And that's not all: we all know a few girls and women who fit, and even embrace, the "geek" and "nerd" stereotype. And, if you are reading this, I am sure you know many white and Asian men who do as well (probably, you are one yourself). How many black men do you know who do?

(Here, I am not trying to follow the lead of Governor Schwarzenegger and say that blacks have it "in their blood" to be cool, or that women have a "grace gene." The point is that the dynamics of peer pressure can be very different in different groups.)

What about the solution of nerdifying the world? I am all for a society that does not look down on specialized knowledge (of any kind), but I think we already have enough men with ponytails and witty T-shirts as it is.