by Paul T. Riddell
Maybe it's the culmination of the ongoing obsessions over science fiction cinema, or maybe the famed Star Wars Generation is starting to suffer its first mid-life crises, but fandom is suddenly a subject for popular inspection and introspection. Some self-appointed authorities claim that this introspection stems from fandom reaching critical mass; personally, I suspect that the current overkill on all subjects fandom lies with the unprecedented economic clout held by science fiction fans (they may still live in their parents' basements, but they're also making $80k a year as C++ programmers, Intranet designers, and database operators). One way or another, it's starting to attract the interest of Hollywood.
As a sociological phenomenon, fandom and its various permutations offer material for an entire generation of Ph.D. theses. Considering that the whole zine movement started first with SF zines and then punk zines, fandom is responsible for the boom in small press book and magazine publishing that goosed the magazine industry in the early Nineties. The various factions of fandom, ranging from the Society of Creative Anachronism to comics collectors to the current Klingon wannabes, begs for a serious, investigative overview. And for the most part, this hasn't happened.
Oh, sure, fandom has been the subject of news reports before. These are generally referred to as "Look At The Freaks" reports, where a newspaper or TV reporter (generally some loser whom, as the joke goes, wishes that s/he had a necrophiliac or drug dealer in the family so that s/he would have someone to look up to) travels to a science fiction convention, interviews the most outrageous no-life at the con, and then produces an article/report that makes out every other attendee (and anyone else interested in science fiction) in the same mold as the no-life. These are great for providing evidence of life forms lower than journalists (which takes some effort), but they do nothing for serious investigation of what makes science fiction fans tick.
This is why the release of Trekkies, Sex, Death, and Eyeliner, and Free Enterprise is so intriguing. Laughing about the wankers in fandom who want to bob their ears to pass for Vulcan or elf, as well as the defensive response of fans who take umbrage but come off just as defensive and elitist, is all well and good, but the field needs a decisive report for non-fans on why the rest of us act and think the way we do. After all, nobody thinks anything of looking at the lives of football face-painters and rock groupies, so why not the fannish equivalent of Pamela Des Barres' I'm With The Band?
Trekkies, directed by Roger Nygard and distributed through Paramount Classics, intends to do just that, and generally succeeds. Executive produced by Denise Crosby (who also narrates), Trekkies tries to make sense of the cult of Trek, or what I like to call "The Church of Saint Spock the Pointyeared". It intersperses interviews with fans at conventions and at work, including a dentist who remodeled his office in complete Star Trek decor, with interviews with stars of the four major Star Trek franchises and tries, in the space of nearly 90 minutes, to give a basic overview of why Star Trek fandom managed to survive 33 years and counting.
Popular representations of Trekkies (or "Trekkers", to the more anal retentive among them) consist of ill-adjusted geeks locking themselves in their basements and living vicariously through a TV show, and Trekkies doesn't hesitate to show the more extreme examples. The film dedicates quite a bit of time to Barbara Adams, world-famous after appearing as a jurist on the Whitewater trial in a full Next Generation uniform; the fact that she wears an official uniform really isn't that strange, but the fact that she refers to herself as "Commander" is. (She refers to her membership in and responsibilities to Starfleet and her ship, which reminded me of the members the Provisional Government of the People's Republic of Texas; while her involvement in her group gives her a sense of meaning and peace, the line between this and shooting at ATF agents is deceptively smudged.) The only other potential news story is the "Spinerfemme", one of many fans of Brent Spiner who follow him from convention to convention and maintain Web sites that chronicle his current projects. While her interest in Spiner may be seen as borderline stalking (she bought a house in his neighborhood, and keeps her photos of Spiner in a fireproof safe), most outside of Trek fandom also don't realize that this mild obsession is familiar to soap opera stars as well, and nobody calls for soap opera fans to get a life.
The subject matter of Trekkies deserves a full miniseries: besides the obligatory interviews with DeForrest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy (whom, along with other members of the original series cast, still can't grasp the popular appeal of the show; they were all certain that the fan movement would burn out by 1976), it covers snippets of the "slash" stories (fan fiction/porn involving Kirk and Spock, Wesley and Worf, or even "Mistress Janeway" and the rest of the crew of the Starship Voyager), the Klingon movement, actor response to all of the hullabaloo, and fans who use their interest to accomplish good in their lives. For every character who exhibits borderline disturbing behavior , we get five who know it's all fiction, but try to live according to the precepts in the whole Star Trek experience. The nuts are downplayed (after all, this was distributed by Paramount, which has an interest in keeping its cash cow running in fine form), but the remainder of people influenced by Star Trek shine.
Sex, Death, and Eyeliner is a slightly different take, as it focuses on goth society. Directed by W.K. Border (director of the equally entertaining Six Days In Roswell, as well as the producer of Trekkies) and premiered at the USA Film Festival in Dallas in April 1999, SD&E peers through a slit at the ongoing evolution of goth society. Although horrendously misunderstood by the general public (especially after the popular response to the Littleton Massacree, which equated a casual interest in KMFDM and an urge to cull the jock and cheerleader herds to people who never even heard of goths until they became subjects for the evening news), SD&E manages to demonstrate that goths are easily the most well-adjusted members of fandom, if they can be categorized as such. (While technically a completely separate movement, goth culture and general fandom tend to overlap; more often than not, the best conversations at a science fiction convention come from local goths who showed up to look for Lovecraft or Barker collections.)
Sex, Death, and Eyeliner starts with general perceptions of goths, starting with attacking the assumption that all goths are vampire freaks. Although many enjoy aspects of the popular perception of vampirism (baroque outfits and the omnipresent fangs), SD&E also examines why so many goths get into it (one interviewee explains that it's just an excuse to dress up all year around), as well as balancing this with goths who have nothing to do with the "vampire wannabes". Goth culture is highly sexually charged (after all, Stephen King argued in Danse Macabre that vampirism is "the ultimate zipless fuck"), and SD&E doesn't shy around that aspect: leaving out the sexual factor would have gutted the documentary. It also looks at the home lives of goths (including one mother who discovered goth culture relatively late in life, and how her teenage daughter deals with her mom's new artistic impulses, and a goths-only apartment building), goth art, goth music, and goth gatherings (quite a bit comes from clubs nationwide, but a considerable amount of the film consists of footage from a Dracula convention).
Speaking as a nice bluecollar goth (think of Bill Paxton in Near Dark instead of Tom Cruise in Interview With The Vampire, I enjoyed the fact that as the film progressed and showed more of what's generally considered "goth culture", the definitions fall apart. Even more so than in Trekkies, Sex, Death, and Eyeliner may not explain to those outside of the culture why goth life is so appealing to its members, but it at least tries to impart understanding. As soon as this becomes available in general release, I'm buying tickets for friends, and getting the videotape for my grandmother.
William Shatner, Rafer Weigel and Eric McCormack
Robert's life gets more interesting with the appearance of Claire (Audie England), a babe who just happens to have fandom's interests at heart. They spend so much time in conducting photo shoots at the desert location for the first season of Star Trek (complete with Claire in official miniskirted uniform) and getting it on in a hottub that Robert loses his film editing job, forcing Claire to make a decision. Either Robert gets a sense of responsibility, or Claire leaves his unemployed ass. She leaves, he seeks solace in a threesome with a friend and his random date, and then comes to his senses and offers to get his life in order with Mark's help. Meanwhile, Mark alternates between Logan's Run flashbacks as his thirtieth birthday approaches, and the ongoing search for the perfect girl. He finally meets her at his surprise birthday party (she's the girl done all over in green body paint who jumps out of his cake), and they run off into the sunset to make a film about Robert's fannish days back in high school.
The only break in this little misogynistic fantasy comes from the appearance of William Shatner, who plays himself. Robert and Mark run into him at a bookstore (where he's perusing the skin magazines) and start up a conversation; he's trying to get financing for a musical version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which he plays all the male roles, and all they want to talk about is his work on Star Trek. For once, Shatner's incessant hamming actually works to good effect: he knows it's all a joke, and actually manages to get the film moving when it threatens to collapse on its romance subplots. Most of his scenes seem to be improvisation, which is a blessing, as the script (co-written by Altman) elsewhere has little of the wit of Shatner's sadly infrequent scenes.
(A full disclosure is in order. Producer Mark Altman is the former editor-in-chief of Sci-Fi Universe, a genre film and television magazine previously published by Larry Flynt and then by Sovereign Media, the folks who bring you Science Fiction Age and Sci-Fi Entertainment. Mr. Altman is apparently proud of his former position, seeing as how every interview with and article by him carols that achievement, to the point where he recently received the nickname "the Al Bundy of Fandom". At the screening at the USA Film Festival in Dallas I attended, his insistence to trumpet "As you know, I used to edit Sci-Fi Universe... when it was good... before it got sold" led one certain motormouth punk paleontology addict to sit up and yell back "YEAH, AND THEN IT GOT BETTER!" As a contributor to and columnist for Sci-Fi Universe after it got better, I would never advocate that sort of behavior... except when directed toward a whiner who horrendously overestimates the influence of Sci-Fi Universe on the world at large, and who can't deal with the fact that his magazine was unprofitable enough that its publisher decided to cut his losses and sell it to someone else. End of full disclosure.)
At first, the claim by Burnett and Altman that this is a film "for the fans" holds true: only a diehard fan could keep up with all of the indulgent genre references spread through this. (At the USA screening, one of the viewers, who was most assuredly not an SF fan, asked about a glossary in order to keep up with all of the references; any film that requires a separately packaged reference to allow its viewers to catch all of the in-jokes needed a drastic rethink and rewrite before it ever went in front of the camera.) The constant flow of self-referential comments could be compared to a Dennis Miller rant, only Miller's rants take on the whole of popular culture, not a tiny subsector that almost prides itself on its isolation from the rest of the population. (I almost expected the old "Fans are Slans" battle cry from the Fifties; instead, appropriate considering the age of the writers, we get the old "One of us! One of us!" chant from Todd Browning's Freaks: the characters in Free Enterprise want to be accepted by the rest of society, but also want to be held above it as superior, solely due to the packrat memorization of facts from otherwise unremarkable TV shows and movies.) Then I learned to stop caring and love Free Enterprise, because it's the biggest Lieutenant Mary Jane story ever filmed.
The "Lieutenant Mary Jane" story is an old nickname from the fanzines, particularly Star Trek fanzines. The usual story involves one Lieutenant Mary Jane, a very thinly veiled wish fulfillment avatar of the author, who arrives aboard the Starship Enterprise (or Babylon 5) and quickly causes the character of his/her choice to fall in love with him/her. Suddenly, while the rest of the crew of the Enterprise (or Moonbase Alpha) sits around with its collective thumbs up its collective arse, Lieutenant Mary Jane heroically saves the ship (or the TARDIS) and ends up in the arms of the character of his/her choice before the curtain drops. Lieutenant Mary Janes are generally frowned upon even in fan fiction (hence the reason why Wesley Crusher generally disappeared from Star Trek: The Next Generation right after Gene Roddenberry died), but nearly every beginning fan writer has one in the archives somewhere.
In this context, Burnett and Altman should be congratulated: not only did they pitch what was effectively a Lieutenant Mary Jane story for the screen, but they managed to get someone to pay for its production. Not only did they present themselves as much more virile than in real life, alternating between collecting action figures and boffing babes who would never have anything to do with them in real life (trust me, folks: Mira Sorvino and Quentin Tarantino were a fluke), but they managed to achieve a fan dream (meeting William Shatner) by making a movie about that dream. Somebody call my agent: any chance of my being able to meet Rik Mayall and Terry Gilliam by making a movie about meeting them?
The real shame about Free Enterprise is that I went in hoping for a film that somehow illuminated the fandom experience. Unlike Trekkies or Sex, Death, and Eyeliner, Free Enterprise does nothing to explain why otherwise seemingly rational people spend their time collecting genre toys or memorizing trivia from TV shows and films. Instead of investigating the characters and how their fascinations and their real lives interact, which would have made a fascinating film and was already done to an extent in both Clerks and Chasing Amy, Free Enterprise feels, to borrow from a quote in Shock Cinema, "like a wet dream written by guys who are still waiting to get laid." Terminal fanboys, the sort who get into fistfights over whether Next Generation was better than the original Star Trek, will go nuts over the pseudo-Tarantino dialogue and the constant rain of in-jokes; everyone else, especially those who don't know anything about fandom but might be interested in learning, will walk out in disgust.
Chris Gore, the editor of the defunct movie magazine Film Threat (who gets a non-speaking cameo in Free Enterprise), once referred to Star Wars as "our generation's Vietnam", which says a lot about his (and my) generation's general level of shallowness. Just as baby boomers engaged their sense of future shock with films such as The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus Seven, their kids, now reaching their thirties, will spend the next ten years financing films about life encapsulated by Kiss concerts, Panama Jack T-shirts, and screenings of Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately, nostalgia run amok turns into navel-gazing, and navel gazing turns into public masturbation. With the release of Free Enterprise, this summer gets its second dose of public masturbation: the first was Star Wars: Episode One. Let's pray that we never get a third.
Paul T. Riddell is a regular contributor to Tangent, Sci-Fi Universe, Carpe Noctem, and other general statements of our times. Those seeking further abuse should visit The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness at http://www.hpoo.com.
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