Saturday, May 7, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

by Jimmy "We love you when you're mad!" Callaway

Everything’s gonna be great.

When I was younger, I never believed this. But you go through some shit, you come out on the other side of it, and then you’ve got that experience, so you know that everything will be fine, even if it won’t be sometimes.

I think knowing this may be the nerds’ greatest revenge, one that in itself gives the rest of the asshole jocks and face-men out there the experience to learn that the world is not as decisively split as it is in a football game. But that’s a more meta-interpretation, one that actually gets explored a bit in one of this flick’s mostly unwatchable sequels. As this film stands on its own, I’m including it here with the revenge flicks rather than the fucking or drinking movies, because moreso than its conceptual progenitor, National Lampoon’s Animal House—which as I’ve written before is more about garnering revenge by living wellRevenge of the Nerds deals with a more direct approach, but only when living well starts to get your ass stomped. By that logic, this movie should be called Justice of the Nerds, but that’s not nearly as catchy a title. So let’s see if we can’t suss out the difference between justice and revenge herein.

For openers, though, I’ve always had a little bit of a problem with the setting of this film, but I think I’ve more or less hammered it out for myself with this viewing. My own college experience was not what I’d have called typical—I was a bit older than most of the student body, I was a transfer student from community college, and I went to a commuter school. So my version of campus life was pretty far removed from what I would have then termed “normal.” Like so much else about my culture and surroundings, I gleaned my concept of normality in this regard from TV and movies: college is just like high school, except there’s far less adult-supervision.

So in Revenge of the Nerds, the social-caste system that is in place—jocks up here, nerds down here—just seems silly to me. Maybe that’s how things went at San Diego State, but I wouldn’t have known because I was only on campus for classes, having already established my own autonomous social life. If a buncha jocks had begun chanting “Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!” at me, I woulda just rolled my eyes. Plus, I also live in the post-ironic early 21st century wherein nerdiness is actually not as socially polarizing as it used to be, and is even something a lot of girls are into (a fact which still delightfully surprises me each time I realize it).

But watching this flick now, I think this clinging to high-school tradition might be what makes the movie work. The Alpha Beta fraternity is made up by a buncha guys who have always been on top in their little world, and they (nor I, even) certainly see no reason to change that. But as the film opens, the nerds who are the targets of their abuse don’t really give a shit. It’s a bummer that they have to live in the gym and that Betty Childs sets Lewis and Gilbert up to be hazed by the ABs. But whatever. Lewis, armed with his eternal optimism, takes it all in stride. The guy is a Zen master up there with Eric Stratton and Jeffrey Lebowski.

So the nerds roll with the punches, and really, everything is going fine. They find and fix up a sweet pad, they party with the Omega Mus, they’re up for possible sponsorship by the national fraternity organization, Lambda Lambda Lambda. But the Alpha Betas are relentless in keeping the nerds in their place—the caste system must remain intact or the house of cards these fuckheads live in will go up in flames as much as their actual house did. And it is at this point that the Buddha-like attitude of the future Tri-Lambs briefly takes a back seat to that coldest dish of all: revenge.

There are technically only two acts of revenge enacted by the nerds in this movie. Firstly, they run a panty raid on the Pi Delta Pis and install surveillance cameras in their sorority house in order to make sure they’re all mostly naked at all times. Then they spike the football players’ jocks with liquid heat. Both of these pranks have two things in common: they utilize the nerds’ grasp of science and technology, and they target their enemies where they live; namely, their groins. Since these frat-brats so often utilize nothing more than the lizard part of their brains, this method of attack only makes sense. It’s a battle of brains against brawn, and brains have got brawn on the ropes.

Once their revenge has been enacted, the nerds officially become Tri-Lambs, but from here on in, their actions are simply a matter of justice. In order to have any kind of a say in how they are officially treated, on what their official status is, the Tri-Lambs need to win the homecoming carnival. Stan Gable and his corrupt Greek council are still utilizing their power to oppress the nerds and keep them down at the level of untouchables. The Alpha Betas lighting a flaming “NERDS” sign on the Tri-Lambs front lawn is certainly not an accidental analogue to the KKK and their tactics of fear, no moreso than the nerds being part of a predominantly black fraternal organization is to be read as coincidental. It may seem disrespectful to associate this group of merely socially awkward white kids with the civil rights movement, but truly, while any of us are oppressed, none of us are free.

First up, we have the quasi-athletic portion of the homecoming competition, a kind of frat Olympics. The Alpha Betas are definitely gonna take these events overall since they often involve athleticism, but this doesn’t mean that brains are completely without recourse. Take the tricycle race for instance. Twenty laps around the course, with each lap completed requiring a beer to be chugged. Physical exertion combined with binge drinking sounds like something any Alpha Beta should be able to handle in his sleep, right? But since the nerds have made-up science on their side, this event goes to them. Same with the javelin throw: the nerds use their brains to give them the edge the Alphas would normally own. Granted, the Alphas come out of this phase on top, but even when they win, they lose, as with the tug-o’-war: “You win,” says Wormser, with the unsaid addendum to that being, “You also look like the buncha assholes you really are.”

But with the charity fundraiser, even Stan can see the writing is on the wall. Sure, a Pi kissing booth should be a dead lock for them, but the Tri-Lambs are able to up them by selling pictures of Betty’s ass instead (thanks again, technology!). And then here’s where my only real problem with Revenge of the Nerds brings itself to bear:

Lewis Skolnick is a rapist.

I really wish there were a way around it. The peeping-tom cameras I can chalk up to revenge, and like I say, they came in handy in the fight for nerd justice. But dude, penetration without consent is just that, even if it seems Lewis just went down on Betty as opposed to engaging in actual vaginal sex (though I’m still confused as to how he could do that without removing his knock-off Vader mask). Betty consented to receiving oral sex from Stan Gable, her boyfriend, not from anyone else. The fact that she was totally into it after the fact not only doesn’t change anything, but makes it that much creepier. Not to sound like an old lady, but I shudder to think of the college boys who may have somehow coerced an otherwise unwilling partner into sex, keeping their fingers crossed that their mad doin’-it skills would get them off the hook a posteriori (a little Latin humor there). If I can be perfectly frank, I consider myself an especially cunning linguist, but I still wouldn’t roll those bones. “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls?”, indeed.

Ugh. All right, shake it off, we’ve still got the dénouement to get to. So now the nerds are ahead, and all that remains before they wield ultimate campus power is the comedy/sketch show. This one was over before it started. The Tri-Lambs have already proven themselves to be far more creative and imaginative than the Alphas (Gilbert is able to knock together a little 8-bit computer cartoon with just a few strokes of the keyboard; Lewis designed and built a robot that can peel the panties off an Omega Mu at ten paces). I will grant you that their actual little rap song is super lame, even by 1984 standards. But within the film, are you kidding me? You’re gonna put that old traditional jock drag act up against an original song and performance with a goddamn CoCo? No, you’re not.

And so, beaten at their own game, the Alpha Betas turn to violence, first destroying the Tri-Lamb house and then beating Gilbert up. And even though Bernie Casey (Bernie fuckin’ Casey!) and the other Tri-Lamb brothers show up to see to it that Coach John Goodman and the other thick-necks don’t go any further, their threat of violence is only implied, only in the interest of seeing justice done. Gilbert and his brothers still rely on their words, their own conscientious actions (except for the rape-y bits), and what they prove to be the basic decency of most people to see their cause win out. And win out it does. If you don’t get chills from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of “We Are the Champions,” consult your family physician as you are most likely dead.

Animal House is destructive, where Revenge of the Nerds is constructive. This is merely an observation, not a judgment, since both result in a happy ending and both look like they’d be a lotta fun. The boys from Delta House, when they were up against it, sought to destroy the homecoming carnival and, by extension, the bullshit class system it represents. The Tri-Lambs want to change the system from within. If they have to smudge some moral boundaries here and there to do it, they will, but essentially, they remain true to their sense of fair play and good times for all, and they still manage to show the beautiful people that there are a lot more of us than there are of you.

And it’s gonna be a great year.