The year is 2028. The setting is any multiplex in Texas. You’ve come with your family to check out Hollywood’s latest offerings, and you’re considering the choices. On one screen is Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City 12, the newest entry in the slice-’em-and-dice-’em graphic-novel franchise, once more featuring Jessica Alba and a stripper pole (digital effects make it so that Alba still looks nineteen). On another is septuagenarian Mel Gibson’s remake of Clash of the Titans, which transforms the mythological fantasy into a bloody war thriller, complete with dismembered limbs and ooze-dripping CGI monsters (it’s rendered in an ancient Greek dialect that Gibson perfected with the help of the UCLA classics department). Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s double feature Hot Babes Kickin’ Ass and More Hot Babes Kickin’ Still More Ass; these grind house efforts have shown limited commercial appeal, but the director has been making them since 2007, when his Death Proof was inexplicably embraced by critics as a glorious example of the auteur theory in practice.
You may wonder, as you weigh your options, why every movie requires 3-D glasses. (Back in the day, you don’t remember feeling cheated because Helen Mirren failed to poke her scepter at your head in The Queen.) You may also wonder whatever happened to folks like Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Laura Linney, those intense, often heartbreaking performers who weren’t much interested in acting in front of a green screen—and who eventually disappeared from the movie business altogether.
As you buy your tickets to Spider-Man vs. Predator, you may even begin to think about how this unfortunate state of affairs came to be. How is it that fanboys—a pimply-faced, pasty-skinned set that in previous generations would have been kicked into the dirt by the bullies on the playground—emerged as the arbiters of twenty-first-century film culture? If you think hard enough about it, you might even realize the surprising answer: This turn of events can be traced back to Austin, circa the nineties and early 2000’s, where the seeds of Geek Nation were first sown.
Our history lesson begins with Rodriguez, the DIY filmmaker who, in 1992, poured all of his juvenile energy into a physics-defying action movie called El Mariachi. Initially, it seemed as if he might become another Jonathan Demme or Brian De Palma, directors who made their marks with genre quickies before moving on to more-complex material. Except Rodriguez never moved on. He was the first of a group of Gen-X filmmakers, weaned on the works of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who clung to their adolescent fantasies—and who, emboldened by emerging digital technologies, kept refining those fantasies. With movies like Spy Kids and Sin City, he created a brand of technically exacting whimsy clogged with nerdy backstory and arcana. Other filmmakers, including Rodriguez’s buddy Tarantino (Kill Bill), Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), and onetime Austin resident Guillermo del Toro (Blade II), rapidly followed suit. So that by the time Rodriguez’s acolyte Frank Miller and director Zack Snyder released their blockbuster 300 (2007), with its nonstop bloodletting, fantastical creatures, and camp sexuality, a movement as monumental as Abstract Expressionism had taken grip. It suddenly seemed as if just about every story—be it a political thriller like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a literary adaptation like Beowulf (2007), or even a coming-of-age memoir like Perseopolis (2007)—had to first be filtered through a graphic novelist’s sensibility before it could hit a movie screen.
Of course, movements can’t occur without an audience or a few tastemakers to coax those sparks of hype into a bonfire. Again we must look to Austin, where people like Harry Knowles, who launched his Ain’t It Cool News Web site in 1996, and Tim and Karrie League, who founded Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 1997, were providing the space, both in the cyber world and the real world, for all this juvenilia to flourish. Knowles’ site, particularly, with more than 600,000 unique visitors per month, became a place for mostly twentysomething men to stoke their enthusiasm about upcoming comic book adaptations and franchise films. The Leagues, meanwhile, lent an air of hipster sophistication to the run-amok geekiness. Although the Alamo mainly specialized in revival screenings of B-movie obscurities, it also began hosting festivals like Tarantino’s collection of trash classics, QT-Fest, and the Knowles- and League-founded Fantastic Fest. Here was a temple for arch, weirdly elitist moviegoers, who gathered to exalt genre junk as high art and who cheered on ever more outlandish portrayals of violence. Hollywood studios embraced the fervor and soon began launching new movies in Austin. Indeed, by the time Gibson sidestepped all the major fall 2006 film festivals in favor of a sneak preview of his Apocalypto at the Alamo—a sadistic, gory cartoon that earned widespread praise as a bold, otherworldly vision—the cinematic universe seemed to have gone topsy-turvy.
A few film critics tried to put up a fight. They argued that these movies were soulless, that these filmmakers were rendering traditional storytelling irrelevant. But other critics, especially those who grew up reading Knowles instead of James Agee or Pauline Kael, predominated with their blustery cheerleading. It didn’t matter if the movies were stultifyingly dumb or morally bankrupt, so long as they served up an enjoyably gruesome time. (Sample geek review of 300 by Scott Weinberg, of the Web site Cinematical: “It’s got more battles, brawls, monsters and maniacs than the entire Mad Max series and it approaches each new gimmick like it’s the world’s coolest new action figure.”) Besides, what good could any critic do against the sheer force of commercialism? By 2006, only one of the top ten grossing films, The Pursuit of Happyness, was CGI-free. The runaway success of so many of these titles made it so that the studios no longer had a reason to produce movies for anyone over the age of forty.
As the closing credits for Spider-Man vs. Predator roll, you let out a sigh: Maybe geek culture isn’t so bad. The movie you’ve just watched certainly featured some exciting action; your teenage sons, at least, seem exhausted with delight. But as you drive home, you find yourself unable to remember the plot details, and you’re puzzled that your kids are debating the special effects the way you might have once debated a story’s meaning. A week later, you return to the theater with just your spouse, eager for something quiet and challenging. But there’s nothing to see. What few adult-minded works are made these days play on one or two screens in New York and Los Angeles and then are available for download on your laptop a month or so later.
You walk away in defeat. You wonder if, back in the 2000’s, you should have paid more attention to Texas filmmakers like Richard Linklater or Jay and Mark Duplass, whose tender, character-driven movies, like Before Sunset (2004) and The Puffy Chair (2005), might have pointed an alternative way forward for the cinema, if only they had caught fire at the box office. You marvel at how a group of technology-obsessed directors and Internet trollers have taken the most democratic art form we have—the shared experience of watching images flicker on an enormous screen in the dark—and turned it into their exclusive domain.
Welcome to the future of American movies.