Monday, June 30, 2008

You say passive, I say AWESOME: 5 TV shows and movies that inspire rabid devotion

1. Gene Roddenberry
For better or worse, every discussion of fan culture, and particularly of television-based fan culture, has to begin with Roddenberry and Star Trek. Although Star Trek conventions weren't the first science fiction conventions, they developed a following that set the tone for science fiction fandom to come: self-identified social misfits gathering together to bond over their love of a particular narrative. To this day, the classic image of the obsessed fan is the Star Trek fan, most famously sent up in William Shatner's 1986 SNL skit (the full transcript of which can be found here) where he asks Jon Lovitz's pudgy Spock-ear-wearing geek if he's “ever even kissed a girl.” Roddenberry himself has come to serve as a kind of shorthand for the can't-we-all-just-get-along version of liberal humanism Star Trek is famous for: the show hosted the first televised interracial kiss, but Kirk and Uhura had to be controlled by aliens for it to happen. To Roddenberry's credit, he had originally hoped to make the Enterprise's second-in-command a female character, thus taking bigger chances in terms of diversity with the central cast than the ultimately limited roles offered to Uhura and Sulu (secretary and asexual navigator, respectively). The “radicalism” of Star Trek doesn't look too radical by today's standards, but Roddenberry set the bar for cult science-fiction, inspiring a level of creative output in fans that remains unparalleled. Whether you are interested in love stories between Kirk and Spock, needlepoint of the cast of the original series, videos that show the gay subtext between Kirk and Spock (watch out, there's cursing!), or S/M short stories featuring the cast of Voyager (I'm not linking this one, but trust me), it starts with the story of Star Trek.

2. Joss Whedon
You might call Joss Whedon the feminist's answer to Gene Roddenberry. Although he'd been working as a writer in Hollywood for years, even winning an Academy Award for the screenplay of Toy Story, he rose to fame with the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of a “normal” girl who is saddled with a sacred duty--to catch and kill vampires. As luck would have it, her family moves to a town (Sunndydale, CA) that's situated directly above a “hellmouth”--a mystical convergence of demonic energy. More precisely, the high school is directly above the hellmouth, which lends itself to an almost inexhaustible series of metaphors for high school life. A group of bullies gets possessed by feral hyenas, an unpopular wallflower (Clea Duvall!) becomes actually invisible, and most famously, Buffy's boyfriend turns out to be a vampire himself. Whedon intended the show as an answer to the tendency in horror movies for girls to get punished for their sexuality, saying in series commentary that “The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy was the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.” Like Roddenberry, Whedon has inspired a massive cult of personality, with his fans congregating on his blog and attending conventions. What sets Buffy apart from similar science fiction cults (like Doctor Who or Babylon 5) besides its politics is the amount of attention the show has gained from an academic audience. Whedon's whole oeuvre has inspired its own academic journal, Slayage, and collections of scholarly essays like Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy fan (a full academic bibliography can be found here). The annual conference hosted by Slayage shows how, particularly in relation to Whedon, the line between critic and fan has become almost indistinguishable.
None of this is to say that Buffy fandom isn't distinguished by the same host of stories, videos, and art that have arisen from Star Trek. Sing-alongs to the season six musical episode even happened in theaters nationwide until Fox shut them down for copyright infringement. However, while Roddenberry kept returning to the Star Trek well for ideas, Whedon branched out to Angel (a spinoff from Buffy about her (first) vampire boyfriend) and then Firefly, a genre-bending sci-fi/Western that never made it past the first season. Upon cancellation, Whedon's fan base launched a letter-writing campaign that, while it didn't save the show, made a film sequel possible (the awesome Serenity). Whedon now runs midnight showings of Serenity as benefits for his feminist nonprofit Equality Now. He's recently made the leap to comics, continuing “Season 8” of Buffy, and writing arcs of comic versions of Angel and Firefly as well. He's made the leap to more “classic” comics as well, penning arcs for The X-Men and Runaways. A rabid fan himself of comics and Battlestar Galactica, Whedon thinks like a fan, refusing to stay within the boundaries of a particular genre or medium--more often than not, hard-core Whedon fans think of him almost as a friend. Tellingly, the ultimate sign of a hard-core Whedon-head will be her tendency to refer to him as “Joss.”

3. David Lynch
If Roddenberry and Whedon inspire creative expansion on their narratives, then David Lynch inspires his fans toward exegesis of his. From his first film, Eraserhead, to his recent sprawling (and self-financed!) digital-video epic Inland Empire, Lynch has relied on dense narrative systems that may or may not have some underlying logical thread tying them all together. This scene that opens his film Blue Velvet showcases Lynch's pet obsession: the dark, consuming underbelly of idyllic American life. In 1992, he rose to national fame with the television series Twin Peaks, which hinged on the mystery of the brutal murder of prom queen Laura Palmer. Kyle MacLachlan (the star of two previous Lynch films) played Agent Dale Cooper, the Buddhist Sherlock Holmes charged with rooting out Laura's killer. This famous scene of Cooper's dream shows how Lynch was able to take chances with the television medium that permanently changed what people thought television could do. The show was hugely popular until it became clear that Lynch was much more interested in the journey toward discovering Laura's killer than he was in the identity of the killer himself. After the first season ended with the mystery still unsolved, viewers grew angry and disaffected, but those who remained became more and more obsessed with sorting out the mysteries, and finding the clues that would ferret out the killer. Lynch finally caved to industry pressure and revealed the killer, after which the show went off the rails, piling up more and crazier subplots every week. Lynch's work continues to inspire the same kind of explanatory fervor, however, with fans clamoring to reveal the “true” meaning of his films, particularly Mullholland Dr. Other people see his reliance on symbolism as over-the-top and nonsensical, as shown by this youtube parody. Of course, they might not be too far off the mark. Recently, Lynch has become an active proponent of transcendental meditation, seeing that practice as a way to get in touch with the creative process. His work might be the best example of the way TM can help people try to get in touch with their unconscious minds, since the experience of watching a David Lynch film is still the closest experience I've ever had to a waking dream (sorry this is in Spanish...).

4. Monty Python
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery--that might explain why Monty Python fans find ways to shoehorn quotes from the British comedy troupe's TV show and movies into almost any conversation. The high quotability of Monty Python might be explained at least in part by the show's reliance on absurd humor and abrupt transitions. Classic bits like The Ministry of Silly Walks and The Spanish Inquisition showcase the basics of Python's appeal: it's like Saturday Night Live for Anglophiles and history nerds. Instead of celebrity impressions and pop culture parody, Monty Python builds its humor by mixing “high cultural” references (Biblical narrative and Arthurian Legend in its two most famous films Life of Brian and Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail) with the bawdy mainstays of poop, violence, and cross-dressing.
The fan activity around Python follows this imitative logic, allowing fans to come up with their own silly walks. Even among Monty Python fan art, fans generally reproduce funny scenes rather than bending as far off the narrative track as they might in relation to another text. In that way, it's like The Simpsons: the sign of hard-core fandom is exhaustive knowledge of the source material, not building on that source material.

5. Star Wars
Star Wars might be the best example of how corporate structure affects fan production, both limiting fans and giving them a greater sense of legitimacy. According to Henry Jenkins, "Lucasfilm has been one of the most aggressive corporate groups in trying to halt fan cultural production." Although George Lucas has supported fan projects like the embattled film Fanboys, he has also shut down fan fiction that wasn't "PG" and argued that "expansive" fan projects infringe on his intellectual property, issuing a "cease and desist" order against a Star Wars usenet site. When he has encouraged fan participation, it's always explicitly (and economically) linked to Lucasfilm. For instance, he set up an ongoing competition for the best Star Wars fan video, but those videos then became property of Lucasfilm.
As you might have noticed, most of these films are parodies, which seem to be distinct for Lucas from other kinds of fan fiction. Following that logic, he has given full approval to the Family Guy parody Blue Harvest and the Kevin Smith film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Parodies of Star Wars have proliferated over the years, giving the Star Wars fan community more of a sense of contemporary relevance than, say, Star Trek fans. The images from Star Wars have been used to skewer figures on both left and right, not to mention ineffectual middle managers. Watching Star Wars, we always encourage with the Rebel Alliance, but Lucas's strategy of moving fan production into the control of major corporations sounds more like the Empire to me.