Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: "Trekkies 2" and "The People vs. George Lucas"

I watched these two docs back-to-back, trying to clear out some of my Netflix queue, but also to try to wrap up the number of docs I'm willing to watch about folks obsessing around a particular bit of geek-culture.  It seems like there's a built in audience around these things, so they get made and we can have movies about ourselves as geeks, and that's okay.  Having a movie that reflects the culture built up around a franchise is relevant if not important in understanding the context of that bit of media and why and how it fits in with the broader culture.

The two movies catch two powerful franchises and their fanbases at about the same period, around 2009ish, as Star Trek was more or less out of production and the audience is - you hate to say it - probably in decline as it aged out and maybe moved on as the content had both diminished over a few less-than-stellar series and hadn't had a great movie in quite a while.  Star Wars was, of course, Star Wars, and the final installment (at time of filming) had left audiences with mixed feelings.

Full disclosure - I grew up a fan of both franchises, coming to Star Trek around 4th grade but growing up a Star Wars nut.  Like the subjects of the Star Wars doc, I didn't take to the most recent three movies and, frankly, mostly lost interest in the entire franchise.  I sold my Star Wars items circa 2006 before moving back to Austin and have only a few things with particular sentimental attachment left in my collection.  I'll likely pay to see whatever Disney does with the new movies, but I didn't freak out with joy that the series was "saved" when the merger occurred.  There's always been Trek I didn't care for (12 year old me outright rejected Next Generation for the first few episodes), so I'm always up for more Trek, just to see what they're doing now - and if I don't care for it, I've got the original series stuff to fall back on.

Trekkies 2 feels oddly like a garage-produced doc, maybe a bit rushed, and like nobody is all that invested, including Denise Crosby of Tasha Yar fame who hosts the doc.  They revisit one or two subjects from the original doc, but also traverse the globe from Sacramento to Sarajevo while also exploring some offshoots of the fan culture not really covered in the original doc (which I saw years ago and barely remember).  We get punk bands playing exclusively Star Trek themed tunes, something called "Filk music" which is a form of folk music that takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek approach to singing about things like Trek.

It's also a doc that treats the subject lovingly and doesn't really question the core quality of the franchise, but does sometimes ask "how far is too far?" without trying to answer the question - knowing what the first doc had to say on the matter - ie: this is something people take to bizarre extremes.

It's a nice companion piece to the original documentary, but it doesn't stand alone terribly well.  As someone who believes in a Star Trek future, I appreciated the focus on how the culture that's built up around Trek comes from ideas of tolerance, problem-solving and finding solutions rather than blowing the crap out of each other with phasers and photon torpedoes, and the interviews in Sarajevo were particularly interesting as the fans saw Trek as an alternate route to the lives they'd known under a decade of war.

However, The People vs. George Lucas is probably the better-made of the two films.  There's a continuity and narrative to the film that the narrow focus of how and why the fan base wrestles with both Star Wars and Lucas as Uncle George that makes for a fascinating launching point for questions about audience intention, ownership and fan culture vs. auteurship, corporate needs, and intended value of the product.

Rather than get into a rant about my particular perspective, I think the filmmakers do an excellent job of recognizing the bizarre but not-unique to Star Wars relationship with creators, the creation and the audience.  The movie takes us from what happened in 1977 to build the audience and what happened from 1997 and the re-releases of Star Wars and then to the first fifteen minutes of Phantom Menace unspooling to 2009ish and fans trying to make up in their own minds what it all means when you've grown up loving something and it changes and fails to meet your expectations.

I've been surprised that so many of my generation - who made a sport out of hating Star Wars - continue to love the series when I've become mostly indifferent to the film.  As relatively easy as its become to make a fan video, original or adapting the work, I've never quite got my head around why I would do this, but that's also never been my passion.  The movie actually almost exclusively uses the fan films rather than footage from Star Wars and depends on fair use rules for what it does use.

The movie also looks at Star Wars as something we loved as kids, which is loved by today's kids, who embrace the new films, Jar-Jar and all.

I don't want to make assumptions, but I will point out that Trekkies 2 was not about older fans furious with the franchise and filling the servers at YouTube with personal rants against Gene Roddenberry for doing nameless things to their childhood.  Even if you see hiding behind the Star Fleet uniform the subject wears every day to their job as a shield from reality, there's a whole lot less anger about misappropriated feelings from the Trek fans and the possibilities of what the show presented to them.

But, nobody I know showed up in Trekkies 2, whereas Brandon Z shows up in an uncredited appearance in The People vs. George Lucas.

Both series show a lot of fan co-option, but The People vs. George Lucas, for all the important questions ownership of art better tackles the questions of fan entitlement as its one of maybe three serious questions of the film.  How much does anyone owe you for spending money on these franchises?  When does your say stop and start except as a participant as a consumer?

I did spend time during the Star Wars doc pondering how my relationship with DC Comics and Marvel has changed over the past few years, especially as fans sulked or raged about "why did I spend all this money just for you to ruin it for me, Uncle George?"  And, yeah, the past 18 months or so with DC have felt very much like that.  But I also went through the feeling of forced eviction with Star Wars from that moment of clarity 6 months after the release of Episode 1 when I realized "I really, really do not like this movie".  I suspect that's why I've been both even more disappointed in DC - they had a chance not to repeat the things Lucas did to alienate some of us, but chose that route.

I very much appreciate the question of who owns the art, works or world, and how the internet has changed that and how someone like Lucas has really embraced the internet's varying reactions and reinterpretations of his mythos (while tightly controlling the official LucasFilm releases).

I kind of hope for sequels to both docs as the Disney-produced Star Wars franchise takes off and as Star Trek gets re-invigorated with the latest films and the action-centric reboot.  Surely the lifelong fans and new fans will all have something interesting to say.  Just as I expect the new Superman film could spontaneously create new Superman fans even while fans like myself will be rolling our eyes at many details changed, misunderstood or missed for the film.

It's all part of the fandom continuum, and I'm not sure there's been all that much exactly like it prior to the 20th Century or what the 21st Century brought to access, re-mixing and a sense of not just ownership, but fan entitlement.

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