ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/10/09
“To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, some people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them, and, you know, suddenly one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder. And, for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed - forever - and it will really become an art form.” ---Francis Ford Coppola
One of the things that has always intrigued me about America is our odd relationship with the word “Can’t.” It’s not like we don’t know what it means, or that it’s not in our vocabulary, or anything hokey like that, nor is it like we can’t be stymied by it. We don’t really like it much, though. It carries connotations that, I think, are somehow unique to our culture. If you sit an American and an Englishman down next to each other and say “The Nuclear Reactor won’t fail because of this precaution, and this one, and this one,” then both the Brit and the Yank are going to say, “Oh, I accept that, it makes perfect sense, thanks for explaining it to us,” and that’ll be the end of it. On the other hand, of you sit the same two people down and say “The Nuclear Reactor *CAN’T* fail because of this that and the other,” the Brit will *still* accept what you say on face value, while the American will immediately be anticipating another Three Mile Island, soon. Possibly before he can get out of the room.
This is a frequently unsung aspect of American Exceptionality (As opposed to French Exceptionality, or Serbo-Croatian Exceptionality or whatever.. I’m not trying to leave anyone out here, just point out that each of us have different eccentricities) that often tends to get overlook, or lumped incorrectly in with “Brashness” and “Bravery” and “Braggadocio” and other Alpha-Male qualities that also start with a “B.” It’s also frequently mistaken for our refusal to believe anything is impossible. I think we’re perfectly willing to accept that some things are forever beyond our ken - immortality, for instance, leading an utterly sinless life, teaching pigs to talk, those are all things that people openly admit are beyond our grasp as a speices, but beside those, simple things like Space Flight are a cinch. No, It’s just some weird obstinate character in our social makeup that - at worst - makes “Can’t” sound like a rule you’ve got a moral obligation to break, and - at best - sounds like a dare. (“You can’t eat a pound of LSD and live!” “Just watch me!”)
At our best this irritating quality causes us to trouble the deep waters and dare mighty thing like putting people on the moon. At it’s worst, it’s the kind of thing that causes us to sacrifice our families and fortunes on the notion that the mall needs a boutique that specializes in just scotch tape because we damn well refuse to listen to reason. So it can go either way, obviously.
It’s this “Can’t sounds like a dare” aspect that has always appealed to me about fanfilms, the flagrantly illegal misappropriation of others’ intellectual property for one’s own selfish uses. I’ve been a fan of fan films before I even knew what they were. I remember kids in high school filming their own horrible, horrible, embarrassing Star Trek episodes and showing them in debate class (Presumably because they figured the Debate Team would be more likely to already have their own Star Trek uniforms. Ha! Wrong! Lots of Dr. Who costumes, but no Trek ones! So take that, baseless generalizations of my socially accepted peers!) Sure, they were terrible, but in the back of my mind I thought, “Gee, you know, if someone with a brain were to try a slightly more ambitious version of this, it might not suck.” Though I was never connected with any fan films, I did help shoot a couple below-grade-Z SF flicks for our local Public Access channel, and while Republibot 1.0 and I were running our own respective shows, I was always toying with the idea of slapping together a project of my own. R2 and I have had talks about why there aren’t any B5 fan films, which invariably deteriorate in to “I wanna’ make a B5 fanfilm.” Obviously, none of us are ever actually gonna’ do this for a zillion reasons, not the least of which is a not-entirely-baseless fear of having Harlan Ellison or Joe Straczynski show up and my doorstep and beat me senseless because I’m blatantly stealing from them.
Of course it’s not the urge to steal that makes us bad people, it’s the inability to suppress that urge. I can suppress it, I’m never going to give in to it, but, you know, for all that, I have to admit the sin looks fairly fun and inviting, even if I know I’ll never indulge.
As such, I just loved the hell out of this book. Clive Young is the guy behind the Fan Cinema Today website ( http://fancinematoday.com/ ) and as such, is uniquely in position to understand the emerging fanfilm subculture and it’s history and some of it’s reasons for being, questionable though they may be. It’s a fun, jaunty, well-organized retrospective about some of the more prominent productions, dating all the way back from the nebulous beginnings in the 1920s up until the present day. It’s got a breezy-yet-very knowledgeable style which is entertaining without being showy or stifling, even in the more theoretical passages later on in the book.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks they’d like to risk the ire of their heroes by ripping them off, and then getting sued back in to the stone ages, I would strongly recommend this book as a reality check, something you *must* read before you get in over your head (And if there’s something I’ve learned, it’s that Fan productions *always* sprawl out of control and you *Will* get in over your head), and if you’re someone who’s already doing it, this book might help you understand why you’ve devoted five years of your life to your crazy dream of a Space: 1999 musical. At the very least, you might want to pick up a couple copies to give to your soon-to-be-ex-wife and your rapidly diminishing pool of increasingly embarrassed friends, just so they can understand what the hell is going on with you.
I kid, of course, but that previous paragraph wasn’t really a joke. The book talks lightly about the emotional, temporal, and financial stress that Fan Films can put on individuals, and makes the hobby/obsession out to be a cruel mistress at best. It is no surprise that most such productions collapse partway through, or never get off the ground at all, and those that are completed often leave a trail of broken interpersonal relations and ludicrous debt behind them. And yet, for all that, it’s strangely compelling, you know? There is an undeniable "Can't-sounds-like-a-dare" quality to many of these stories, a scrappy never-say-die,Never-think-things-through spirit that isn't only limited to the fictional town of Springfield.
No matter how bad the acting, or how good or bad the plot, there’s an undeniable outsider art quality to fan films that you simply can’t get anywhere else. It may be rudimentary as an elephant painting swashes on a canvas, or it might be some schizophrenic old dude from South Carolina filling up entire walls with bible verses and whatever it is the voices in his head are telling him, but there’s something to it that is undeniably unique, for good or for ill, and as the author points out, in our homogenized, mass-media-ized society, the idea of stuff that *isn’t* made for everyone is quite enervating.
And there’s funny stories, too!
My personal favorite is the notion that back in the 1920s, there were wandering teams of hucksters traveling around the one-horse towns in the middle of nowhere, telling them they were making “Our Gang” comedies, and using the local kids in the characters. The one surviving example of this is basically a note-for-note reshoot of an actual Our Gang comedy, done quickly and on the fly so they could get hefty admissions from all the doting parents and friends who’d come out to see their precious babies on screen. I’d never heard of this, but it’s a pretty fascinating scam, and the book infers that there was more than one team wandering around doing this.
A decade later, we visit Paul Barstow as he and his family and friends make an early Tarzan fan film, setting something more like the modern pattern for these things. The book follows them around to when they finally produced a remake/sequel just for the hell of it in 1974, and it’s impossible not to be touched by the ambitious kiddiness and innocence of the whole thing. From there we jump forward to the late 50s/early 60s when the line between professional and fan is starting to blur, thanks to people like Don Glut - who made superhero movies as a kid, and eventually went pro - and Forrest Akerman, who encouraged him. Then we fall headlong in to student films in the 1970s, and an endless parade of crazy people with camcorders in the 1980s - a surprising number of whom are bizarrely obsessed with Spiderman - and along the way we meet Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation and the first Trek fanfilms - claymation shorts, and a curiously semi-pro high budget production made in 1988 that has never seen the light of day - then it’s on through the Star Wars Fan Film craze started by Troops and (relatively) easy internet access through the 90s and early 21st century, culminating (more or less) in the semi-official semi-pro “Star Trek: Phase 2” project. (Which Young persists in calling by it’s original name, “The New Voyages,” though he admits it’s no longer called that. It’s a small thing, but I have to give him props for it - “New Voyages” is just a much better title.)
In between there are plenty of points where the plethora of projects could easily become overwhelming, but Young does a very good job of keeping us focused by drawing our attention to one or two or three key projects from each era, explaining them in detail, and using them as milestones of the genre as it developed, and exemplars of how the not-at-all-standardized process works. He doesn’t claim that the examples he’s showing us are all there are to see from any given era, but he’s showing us the things he takes as highlights for one reason or another, and in providing a path through the trackless jungle of copyright-infringing whackyness, he helps us judge it’s geography, and depth. I think that’s the greatest single gift of the book: lots of overviews like this make the mistake of just throwing us in the subject and leaving us to fend for ourselves, which, when you think about it, is sort of like putting a baby behind the wheel of a car and saying “Go out there and find your own destiny.” Obviously it’s not going to end well, but by beating a trail for us, everything becomes vastly more comprehensible, we begin to recognize patterns and trends in the whole thing - Spiderman fans are all dangerously crazy, Star Wars fans all have more money than brains, People want to use Fan Films to get in to the big time, but it almost never works - things like that. It’s a guide, but one that allows you to pick out some understated things for yourself, if you’re up to it. Indeed, several ‘strata’ in the geology of fan films quickly become apparent, the comic book/monster movie years, then the star wars years, then the second batch of star wars years in the late 90s, and then the ‘everybody’s making Star Trek” years. There’s too many stories in here for me really to single out any, and I couldn’t pick a favorite without doing disservice to the others, but suffice to say they’re funny and sad, triumphant and heartbreaking at the same time.
He also points out some interesting oddities of the format - that it’s almost exclusively a comic book/SF/Fantasy thing. People don’t make Fan Films about Mannix or M*A*S*H*. It’s almost exclusively a boy’s club - though women do partake in them, it’s almost exclusively as actresses, not as producers or writers or editors or whatever, and the book goes to some length to try and figure out if that’s psychological or cultural or both. Women do forms of Fanish stuff - Vidding and Fanfic - much more than men do, those are mostly a woman’s game, but fanfilms remain, for the present, a boy’s club for no entirely clear reason.
I also give Young high marks for calling a turd a turd on occasion. Despite his obvious love for the medium, he’s under no misapprehension that every fan film is golden. In fact he openly states that most of them are crap, and implies that even the good ones are largely crap, too. They are, however, the good kind of crap, the crap of precocious children making their voices heard above the din of those around the, the voices of people with something to say, sometimes insightful, sometimes banal, but they are people who will go to any length to say it, for the most curious of reasons. He speculates about the future of the format, and notes that as the web and viral video affect our lives, as mini-episodes of shows and vignette storytelling become more a part of our entertainment intake, it will almost undoubtedly affect the fan film format which - as of now - seems focused in on 45-minute “Episodes” of TV shows, and speculates about how increased tolerance by the actual legal licenceholders will affect the material. This culminates a running theme through the book of legal opposition to these projects gradually turning in to grudging toleration, and then, eventually a sort of semi-official recognition of them as free advertising.
My favorite parts of the book, however, are when he theorizes about *why* people bother to do this in the first place. He observes, astutely, that “Fandom of anything - from Sci-fi to sports to birding - is, in many ways, a form of nostalgia…If most fan films are about sci-fi and fantasy, and many fans first discover those genre as preteens, then it’s fair to suggest that the emotional hart of making a fan film…has something to do with reclaiming one’s childhood.” He later on points out that the vast plethora of Trek Fan Films started showing up on the web well before the Enterprise show crashed and burned, and speculates if the reason behind that might not be the fact that the fans simply weren’t getting what they needed from the actual series itself. As one who wandered away from Trekdom out of abject boredom around the time Voyager started, it’s hard not to agree with his rationale. Later on, when he’s speculating about the future of fan films, he notes that “Dead franchises should be bequeathed to the fans like a rich old fogie’s estate being turned into public park lands. Let the plebians - the diehards - run around, play with it, enjoy it. When a franchise has created 700 hours worth of material -700 stories! - the only people who really need to explore it any further are its most ardent fans; let them make fan films, fan fiction and the like - and let the rest of the world move on.”
Amen, and amen, brother!
Strongly recommended for anyone interested in Fan Films.
(In the interest of full discloser, I should mention that Clive gave me a free copy of the book to peruse. I am Republibot 3.0, however, the most annoying man alive. If it were a piece of crap, I *would* not have given it a good review. I’m irritating like that. Just so you‘ll know.)
Books I'm presently reading:
* Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
* World War Z by Max Brooks
* Your Trip Into Space by Poole
* The Persian Book of Kings by some long-dead Persian dude
* The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck