There seems to be a visual shorthand that film-makers employ when they want the viewer to quickly get the idea that their lead character is something of a geek. Oh, sure, there’s the usual sartorial (glasses, trousers that run slightly too high above the ankle, slogan tees) and home furnishing cues (retro SF movie posters, computers front and centre, toys EVERYWHERE), but there’s another, slightly more subtle method.
The film geek will not go to work or school in the usual means of transportation. No, we’re looking at grown men on bikes. Or cars that are falling to bits, strangely decorated or just plain don’t fit the landscape.
The humble bicycle is a great way of letting your audience know that your character is a bit … well, different. You will see them on their contraption within the first ten minutes of the film, frequently within the title montage. If your protagonist lives in a college town, or god forbid Oxford or Cambridge, then it’s a cert that they will be cycling to work. Steve Carell’s character in the 40 Year Old Virgin hits all these notes, negotiating rush hour traffic with an aplomb that he simply can’t apply to his love life. The fact that he doesn’t drive actually becomes a plot point later in the film, but nevertheless he’s easy to pick out of a crowd.
This trope doesn’t just apply to the movies, of course. Uber-geek Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory hasn’t been behind a steering wheel since driver’s ed. This again becomes a plot point in the season three episode “The Adhesive Duck Deficiency” when he has to drive Penny to hospital after she slips and falls in the shower. Hilarity ensues.
There’s a message here, of course. Geeks ride bikes because the rest of us drive cars.* If you choose not to drive, then there is by pure deductive reasoning something a bit odd about you, and the writer can use that off-key note for comic or emotional effect. Just look at John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, reimagining the universe while spinning through Princeton on a Shwinn.
If the geek can pull him or herself together and get behind the wheel of a car, then [deity] forbid that they are put into a Ford Focus. No, although the cues are a little more subtle, the geek choice of ride will be either an old banger or a wilfully obscure choice of marque. Take, for example, the Ford Pacer that Wayne and Garth cram into in Wayne’s World. Molly Ringwald drives a beautiful, if somewhat battered, VW Karmann** Ghia in Pretty In Pink. And of course, let’s not forget the geekiest transport of all – Professor Emmett Brown’s time-travelling Delorean.
I watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs this week, and was heartened to see my theory in action. The circusy recyclers of the title use a fine array of old lorries and that peculiarly French method of transport, the lawnmower-engine powered truck-trike, to get around. It’s a neat juxtaposition with the villains of the piece, who smooth about in high-end Peugeot limousines. In fact, it seems to me that the quirkier the transport, the more heroic the driver. Their ride seems to reflect their personality. Just look at the Munstermobile.
But to my mind, there is one car that rules them all. The car that belongs to fiction’s alpha geek. The quintessential loner, a technological whizz who has trouble with girls and spends more time in front of a computer in his basement than he likes.
*I ride a bike. This has nothing to do with anything.
**Due to poor research, I initially had Andie’s ride down as a Carman Ghia. Cheers to Charlie, the Readership’s motoring correspondent for setting me right.