Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Consider the FIREFLY: Further Thoughts on Fandom

Time to get Whedon with it.

In an earlier post/manifesto I floated the idea of the T.A.R.D.I.S. as a metaphor for fandom. Alogn with the "bigger on the inside" implications for community, I like the transportive connotations of a ship that can move you through time and space. But the T.A.R.D.I.S. is alien technology, and can have an attitude.

That door is about to slam shut right on her fingers.

A viewing of the excellent documentary Done the Impossible: The Fans' Tale of Firefly and Serenity,

Totally streams!

led me to, well,  consider the Serenity as an even more promising objective correlative for what it means to be a fan.

And she's such a beautiful ship.

First of all, It aims to misbehave. Thanks to my favorite browncoat librarian for reminding me of this quote on a recent Facebook post. It's a reminder that Firefly is a show that privileges subversion and mischief. The crew, comprised of sympathizers to a lost cause, are dedicated to undermining the totalitarian Alliance by harboring fugitives and perpetuating the black market. The ship Serenity makes all that possible. The ship is literally pointed towards resistance and transgression. Their rebellion depends upon their mobility.

What does this have to do with fandom? Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, Inara, Book, the Tam sibs, are all marginalized people. They are rebels, mercenaries, and prostitutes--all out of bounds in the universe they find themselves in. These are not the overachivers and popular kids of Starfleet Academy. They are the freaks and geeks of the sci-fi pantheon.

I will celebrate this show at any possible opportunity.

Fans, particularly fans of a show canceled after twelve episodes, can probably relate. Being a fan, specifically the type of fan that produces fanfic, cosplays, goes to cons, or compulsively rewatches, is a transgression. In addition to committing the sin of excess by being "too into" a show, superfans subvert the barrier between fiction and nonfiction. The familiar jibe that "it's just a show" is the nonfan's desperate and doomed attempt to re-establish the barrier that fandom of a cultural text renders obsolete. These fans don't "act like" their favorite shows or movies are fiction. They refuse toe accept the parameters of a screen. They direct their lives towards confounding the definition of what counts as reality. They aim to misbehave.

Second of all, It does the impossible. The Serenity itself is a contradiction. Its name simultaneously points towards peace and satisfaction and violence and disappointment.

Named after a battle, after all.

The ship is a class of transport-ship deemed "Firefly," which borrows its name (and its shape) from an insect that is in itself an impossibility.

And also very beautiful.

Fireflies are chock-full of luciferin. They produce light without heat. This is something that the humans haven't really been able to master yet, organically or artificially. Therefore, the Serenity is an object that shouldn't be--not only legally (the ship is unregistered, enables crime, and, you know, the fugitives)--but also ontologically.

And yet . . . there she be.

Serenity exists because of the will of her captain and crew--it's a grown-up, sci-fi version of clapping to save Tinkerbell's life. And you know what other impossibility exists because of collective will and communal spirit?

I'll give you a hint: It's also called "Serenity."

The cinematic expression of the Firefly 'verse happened because fans, ahem, made it so. Done the Impossible borrows its name from this fan-generated refusal to let Firefly die. But any piece of fan art or writing is of the same transport-class. Fans create impossible objects all the time.

Case in point.

The Serenity is fandom, and in contains fans, as evidenced by the majority of the cast appearing in the documentary, and identifying themselves as such. And to be honest, the real reason I've thought this through is I'm really desperate to get one of these in the house and write it off as a job-related expense:

I'm looking at you, biffle.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Horror, Puberty, and Ryan Gosling: An Existential Look at GOOSEBUMPS

Much as The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, my soul was claimed by horror on the pages of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. 

A fraction of my collection.

It was probably also where my propensity for binge-watching began. I could knock out a couple of these slim novels in a day, and there were always more. As I transitioned into Poe, Lovecraft, and King, though, Goosebumps was relegated into the Sweet Valley High Memorial File of Series I Don’t Read Anymore. There was a frisson of recognition when I sat down to watch I Know What You Did Last Summer and realized that I did, in fact, know what they did then and what they were going to do when a crazed fisherman begins picking them off one by one. What really got me nostalgic for Goosebumps was seeing there was a streaming television series!

Whereas detective fiction is classically concerned with introducing disorder so order can be reimposed, the mystery solved, the truth found and justice done, horror is a genre that excavates chaos—how the unexpected can (and does) erupt into our lives and there will be no promise that the center will hold even if the monster is vanquished. Horror shows us that order itself is a fiction. Sounds a lot like high school, doesn’t it?


I want to revisit Goosebumps to see how it imagines chaos in the setting of adolescence, so the biffle and I chose “Say Cheese and Die." 

For obvious reasons.

The plot follows three kids who sneak into the abandoned factory where the local creeper lives.

Twin Peaks fans, sorry for any "Bob" flashbacks.

One walks off with what looks to me like a space helmet for a hydrocephalic alien, 

Would you think camera?

but they immediately recognize as a camera. Oh! And did I mention that the kid who ganks the camera is 





It turns out the camera photographs not what it is pointed at, but what the subject is pointed towards. The camera works Polaroid-style, and the image reveals an impending disaster--a fall, a car crash, a disappearance. As the episode progresses, it seems that the camera actually causes these disasters. Ryan Gosling reluctantly takes a photo of his friend, she doesn't appear in the print, and later disappears. Gosling is a baby-faced Cassandra in this episode, explaining that the camera is evil while his friends and enemies alike request, with a baffling insistency, that he take their picture. Had these kids never seen a camera before? The episode concludes with Ryan Gosling trapping the creeper in the camera . . . only to have him released by the local jocks/bullies, upon whom he seems about to open a can of whup-ass when the screen fades to black.

What does this say about adolescence? That when we're teens, our own bodies are hurtling towards a fate we can dimly glimpse, and it's terrifying. The narcissism that propels us prescribes a future that cannot be resisted, only documented. Also: Ryan Gosling.

Hey girl. Goosebumps rules.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

GALAXY QUEST: The Most Important Film of Our Time

Okay, so maybe I'm overselling. A bit. But I watched it two nights ago, and this has been simmering ever since.
It doesn't stream. A crime.

It seems like all of my posts for this new blog have dealt in one way or another with the power and pleasure of fandom. The first three films I wrote about were documentaries explicitly about fans. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a movie about obsession--the chefs obsessed with creating artful sushi, and the consumers and food writers who experience and celebrate the results of their experimentation and expertise.

An element of Mary and Max that I didn't mention in my review, but that immediately resonated with me and my partner, was that the bond between these two very different characters was partly forged through and sustained by their shared love for a cartoon.

They have all the action figures!

All of these films suggest that being a fan is a *language*. Fandom gives one access to a shared vocabulary with which to speak yourself into being (through fan art, fanfic, ahem, writing blogs); or a way to speak to others (through conventions, message boards); or both--through simply (though what can be more complicated and revelatory) articulating your love for a cultural text. Galaxy Quest includes, intensifies, and celebrates all of these aspects of fandom's grammar.

"Galaxy Quest" is both the title of the film and the fictional sci-fi television series that gives the narrative its shape. And in the seeming redundancy of "fictional television series" lies the argument of the movie. Aren't all television series fictional? Are you sure about that? Galaxy Quest puts its cinematic finger on the sore spot of this question and pushes. Hard.

Any serious fan of a created universe has encountered some version of the question: You know it's all made up, right? Depending on the answer, this question is usually followed up by the helpful descriptor, "It's just a [t.v. show, movie, book, etc.] and perhaps some version of the directive to, well, get a life.

By answering the question with an audacious, "it's not," the plot of Galaxy Quest refutes and undoes the premise governing the directive. Galaxy Quest, we learn, was a popular sci-fi show in what looks to be the early 80s, and is clearly a thinly veiled citation of the Star Trek universe. We have a "handsome" and narcissistic captain,

Who's really not that handsome and conceited, PLAYED BY AN ACTOR WHO IS NOT THAT HANDSOME AND CONCEITED!

a second-in-command from an alien race
Who's really a Shakespearean actor, PLAYED BY A SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR!

a child prodigy pilot

Played as a kid by a CHILD PRODIGY ACTOR!

 a redshirt

Played by "that guy," AND THE CHARACTER'S NAME IS GUY!

and a woman

Played by a woman.

The show has become a nostalgic relic, and the actors, with the exception of Nesmith, make their careers off of attending fan conventions. When the waning survivors of an oppressed alien race, the Thermians, transport Jason Nesmith/Cmmdr Peter Quincy Taggert to their spaceship and enlist his aid in defeating their enemy Sarris, the distinction between Jason Nesmith and Peter Taggert collapses. The alien race consider the television series to be "historical documents" of a real ship's adventures. Nesmith, who initially angers Sarris by assuming he's still acting, returns for the rest of his crew to save the Thermians. The "real world" of the Thermians' plight mirrors the universe of Galaxy Quest (and Star Trek) closely. The ship does come apart, they do need to transport (or "digitally convey") Nesmith out of a dangerous situation, and the crew does save the day by outsmarting the evil Sarris. Because the Thermians believed the show was real, it became that way--they designed everything from their ship to their moral code to replicate fiction, and in so doing rendered it non-fiction. They, quite literally, make it so.

Similarly, by the end of the battle with Sarris, there is no significant difference between Nesmith and Taggert. They both captain a ship and they both defeat nefarious foes. The same is true for all the crew members who must become their characters. Lt. Laredo, the pilot, must learn to fly the ship, and he does so by watching old tapes of the show and mimicking his movements. Nesmith contacts a cadre of superfans to help him and Gwen navigate the ship's interior. These same fans had earlier been dismissed by Nesmith as "too into" the show, but their immersion in the universe of Galaxy Quest the series makes the climax of Galaxy Quest the film possible.

What makes Galaxy Quest brilliant, and important, is that because it is aligned so closely with Star Trek, collapsing the distinction between Nesmith and Taggert also narrows the space between William Shatner and Captain Kirk. Because Galaxy Quest is real, they're all real--Star Trek, Middle Earth, Sunnydale, Narnia--all of them. Because "real" just means significant in the etymological sense. These universes signify. They matter, so they have matter on the intellectual and emotional registers. Galaxy Quest literalizes the way that being a fan, and immersing yourself in a cultural text, makes that fictional space experientially "real." And it's a space that is bigger on the inside. No matter how many episodes or pages the text includes, there is room for millions of people and thousands more creations. They're all real, and, to quote Brandon the superfan when Nesmith tells him the same about Galaxy Quest, "I KNEW it!"

Friday, January 24, 2014

MARY AND MAX will rip your heart out, but you should watch it anyway

It streams for you here.

I am not one naturally drawn to claymation, or any "mation," for that matter. Sorry, Wallace and Grommit. My apologies, Everything Pixar Has Ever Made. But every once in a while, when I am, well, the verb that comes to mind is coerced (thanks, baby!), to watch an exceptional animated film, my heart explodes right out of my chest. Mary and Max is one of those films.

The movie indicates in the opening titles that it is "Based on a True Story." I never know what that means, and I don't care to know what that means especially in this case, because there is nothing more true than a story about two lonely people who find each other against all geographical and demographical odds. Mary and Max begins when Mary,

a socially awkward eight-year-old living in Australia (voiced by Toni Collette)

randomly chooses to write a letter to Max

Philip "I can do anything" Seymour Hoffman

a clinically socially-awkward forty-something living in New York City in the 70s. She asks him where babies come from. They both end up finding out where life comes from--sustaining and authentic connections with other people.

Throughout the course of their multi-year correspondence, both Mary and Max make each other laugh, make each other think, and make a few big mistakes. They hurt each others' feelings and misunderstand each other and lose hope. Sometimes Mary and Max aren't careful enough with themselves, and sometimes they're too careful, but they always give each other chocolate and drawings and a reason to keep writing. I won't tell you if they ever meet, but they learn much more about each other through writing than some people who have "known" each other their whole lives.

Mary and Max is a movie where the medium is a perfect complement to the content. Though the two main characters are at times unbearably lonely, the sets the filmmakers created are bursting with life.

There are fish and phones and chocolate and blenders

and mimes

and roosters named Ethyl

and flowers and trees and neighbors voiced by Eric Bana.    

 It's a lovely materialist reminder that no matter how lonely you feel, the world is fundamentally more giving than not.

Monday, January 20, 2014

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI: Can you love your job too much?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The title of  the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not surreal, it's descriptive. The 85-year-old master chef the film follows defines himself completely by and through his work, down to the subconscious. Told by his father AT 9 YEARS OLD that he had no home to come back to and had to make his own way in Tokyo, Jiro Ono apprenticed himself to a sushi chef, and is now considered to be the finest in the world, earning three Michelin stars. The film begs the question, though, is it a blessing or a curse to fall in love with your job?

Herbert Marcuse bemoans the unsatisfying nature of work in the modern age in Eros and Civilization, a post-Freudian look at what makes people sick in a capitalistic society.

That's right. It just got Frankfurt School up in here.

Not only Jiro, but many of the chefs and food dealers featured in Jiro Dreams of Sushi seem to have escaped this element of modern life entirely. Perhaps that's because they are not laborers, but artists.

With the surest and gentlest hands you can imagine.

It seems quite apparent that Jiro will die the instant he stops creating sushi, and his two sons also light up when they talk about their craft, even when describing the difficulty of working for their father, a man who does not settle for less than perfection. A tuna trader in the film, who could probably also serve as the subject of a fascinating documentary, explains his philosophy this way: "Out of all the tuna, there is one that is the best. If it's not there, I buy nothing."

Said tuna dealer deciding whether this is the best tuna.

The entire film makes perfection seem like a choice this simple. The sushi Jiro and his sons create (which is the only appropriate verb for it) are elegant and spare--you won't find a Halloween-themed zombie roll at Jiro's ten-seat, $300-per-person restaurant. But the dish has a history-- fish massaged for 50 minutes, marinated for ten days--that enriches its flavor. Seeing his devotion to making something beautiful that is by beautiful necessity destined to be destroyed was exhilarating, and the filmmakers do an excellent job letting the simple shots of sushi inversely suggest the complexity of its taste.

The chef's own history and interiority isn't nearly as interesting to him. Does Jiro have a wife? Who knows. Do his sons? Who knows. All that matters is the work. Jiro speaks to his sons, and loves his sons, through their shared calling and the beauty of what they create. But I was left wondering if families can live on bread, or fish, alone.

That's kind of heavy. Let's end on some more food porn.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Trilogy of Fan Flicks Part 3: The Return of the TREKKIES

Trekkies 2

In case anybody is worried, you do NOT have to have seen Trekkies, The Original Documentary, to enjoy Trekkies 2. It's sort of like Troll and Troll 2 in that way.

Thankfully (or not?) that's pretty much the only way it's like Troll 2

Trekkies 2 does take up the general raison d'etre of the original, following Denise Crosby as she interviews fans of all the iterations of Star Trek.

And we all try not to be distracted by her breasts.
After watching Room 237 and Bronies: Incredibly Long Subtitle, I have to admit being slightly underwhelmed by Trekkies 2. Sure, it's amusing to revisit some of our favorites from Trekkies: TOD:

Hey, Gabriel!

Remember the Whitewater juror who showed up in uniform? No? Remember Whitewater? Exactly.

And Crosby takes Trekkies 2 international, visiting fans in places expected (England) and un- (Serbia!). But she doesn't bring anything new to the story or the phenomenon of Trekkers (my dad assures me this is the correct terminology, so I'm sticking with it), or the style of documentary filmmaking, for that matter. I could have done without the endless talking heads and the references to the first film, which come off as at best filler and at worst self-serving. Really, the only reason to watch Trekkies 2 is the music.

The film profiles a matrix of bands from Sacramento that write and perform Star Trek-themed music of varying genres and quality. Their names all reference the classic TOS episode "The Devil in the Dark" (No Kill I, No Kill I: The Next Generation), and seem to be comprised entirely of people who might not be able to play their instruments, but with whom it would be fun to have a beer. Here's a sample:

Additionally, Trekkies 2 features some bitchin' filk music.

There. Now you don't have to put it on your queue at all.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Trilogy of Fan Flicks Episode II: The BRONIES Strike Back

Stream it here
Full disclosure: My domestic partner and I streamed this one with the intention of making fun of it. We were looking forward to it, actually, but were only mildly disappointed when we ended up being way more moved than amused by the way the movie shows that being a fan of something, anything, is a way to discover the truest and best version of yourself.

First, the Ick Factor:

You know this is what you initially pictured.
Bronies doesn't (Flutter)shy away from addressing the fact that many people are made quite uncomfortable by the thought of post-adolescent men and boys watching a show designed and marketed for young girls. (For the uninitiated, a "brony" is defined as a post-pubescent male fan of the reboot of the My Little Pony television series called Friendship Is Magic. It totally streams too if you want to get a taste.) On the contrary, the movie investigates the cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality that underpin that response. Why are we not similarly disturbed by the idea of older men (or women) watching a television show or movie that is marketed towards young boys, for example? Why does it matter that all the main characters are female? Cross-gender identification is something that is expected of girls, but culturally suspect for boys. This PBS Idea Channel (Do you watch Idea Channel? You should. It's smart and way more theoretically sophisticated than it has to be.) episode is a particularly smart take on the gender play of bronies:

It's unsurprising, therefore, that many of the bronies describe severe anxiety about telling their friends and family about their devotion to the show, and several of the subjects the documentary features suffer emotional and physical repercussions, ranging from a father's tacit disapproval to death threats (thanks, small town in North Carolina).

Get over it, Hank.
It's also unsurprising, therefore, that Bronies conventions in Europe and the U.S. provide a desperately needed safe communal space for fans to affirm that they aren't alone in this. Anyone who has been to any kind of convention (with the possible exception of the soul-compressing nightmarescape that is MLA) can relate--it's a powerful and, dare I say, magical experience to find your tribe.

The strength of Bronies is in this affirmation of the way fandom, whether online or physical, isn't isolating or strange but rather a way to connect with others and your own authentic self. The film looks at men and women who were inspired to become artists and writers because of My Little Pony, and one fan with Asberger's who confronts some of his deepest phobias to make it to a convention.

Brohoof, dude.
The strength of Bronies is NOT in convincing the viewer that Friendship Is Magic is some sort of genius show--really, how good could the writing be?--but that's really not the point. The show is a space, not an artifact--a pastel-tinged gathering place for people to be creative and connect with each other. And let's be honest, there are creepers and weirdos in every fan community.

Yeah. He's totally getting his ears surgically elfed.
Give Bronies a stream and see if, at the very least, it doesn't give you the wiggins.

Also, this guy is in it. I'm told that's very important.