Tag Archives: fandom

See Wayne and Swoon

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In 1932, John Wayne was washed up. “Since [The Big Trail] Wayne has done nothing of consequence, and his future looks none too promising,” declared Picture Play Magazine columnist Madeline Glass that April, in a piece on disposable “One-day Stars.” It had been six years since the beginning of his film career. Stagecoach was still seven years away. “Hollywood prophesied that John Wayne’s future would be brighter than Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s diamonds. So then what happened?… You’ll see [him] in an occasional ‘quickie,’ ” scoffed Photoplay’s Katherine Albert in August. He was still working consistently; that summer alone he appeared in Columbia’s Two-Fisted Law, Paramount’s Lady and Gent, and Warners’ Ride Him, Cowboy. But for the duration of the Depression, his career trajectory would remain a horizontal line.

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In November, Gladys Zimmerman’s letter ran in Picture Play. She was writing from Lisbon, North Dakota, a town about an hour southwest of Fargo which even now holds scarcely over 2,000 people. Its Main Street runs south from the Sheyenne River, a path first charted by homesteader Joseph Colton in 1880. If you follow it for five blocks, you’ll end up at the Scenic Theater, which first opened in 1911 and today bills itself as the “oldest continuously run theater in America.” Perhaps Gladys’s passion first flowered there, in the glow of a 10¢ matinee.

Perhaps she saw an outlet for that passion in Picture Play. Within the magazine’s pages, her missive and its fervor would hardly have been outliers, since every issue abounded with similar declamations: fans trashing Norma Shearer, lusting after George Brent, gossiping about Garbo. What makes Gladys stand out, however, is the object of her desire—a future legend then experiencing his professional nadir—as well as the earnest giddiness of her prose. She opens with demands directed at her fellow moviegoers: “Wake up!” and “What are you going to do about it?” That’s the voice of a woman who’s standing on her soapbox and will yield to no one.

Throughout her letter, Gladys asserts the power of the female gaze. She’s undressing Wayne (who was then 25) with her words: “a real man’s physique… those broad shoulders, that magnificent body… half the female portion of the audience swoons in ecstasy.” It’s a mere degree removed from erotic poetry, and it outlines a fundamental truth about cinema: since the art form’s inception, actors have been put onscreen in part because they turn the audience on. Gladys, though, isn’t content just to watch her idol in cheap westerns. She may not go as far as her friend, who plans a trip west presumably for the sole purpose of bedding John Wayne, but she does end her letter with an entreaty: “please write me about him.”

Like much of the letter, that last line may initially provoke gentle laughter. It’s symptomatic of a young woman’s crush. But (like many crushes) it’s poignant, too; suggestive of loneliness. She wants to get closer to this tall, handsome man she’s seen in shoot-outs and stampedes. He’s smiled at her from the screen, stirred her feelings, entered her dreams. Maybe he’s made her more aware of the shortcomings that tarnish Lisbon’s eligible young men—for what real-life beau could ever measure up to a movie star?

A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937)

About five years later, A Star Is Born was released. It’s a show biz melodrama about a farm girl named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who lives out Gladys’s friend’s fantasy by actually moving to Hollywood and marrying a star. The film opens with Esther coming home from the movie theater, kid brother in tow, gushing about actor Norman Maine. Her father, fiddling with his outdated stereoscope, is indifferent, but her aunt embarks on a full-blown tirade: “Gadding around picture shows, house all cluttered up with movie magazines… and the other day, I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent!” This girl is spending too much time in her dreams. “You’d better be getting yourself a good husband,” advises the aunt, “and stop mooning about Hollywood.”

Esther’s family lives in Fillmore, North Dakota, which is a real place roughly four hours northwest of Lisbon. (Recent reports make it out to be a “ghost town,” devastated by the loss of a nearby railroad line.) If Gladys ever saw A Star Is Born, she may have identified with its heroine and her yen to migrate west. The movie is very deliberately structured as a small town girl’s wish fulfillment fantasy, allowing lucky Esther to metamorphose from a moviegoer into Vicki Lester, movie star: from the looker into the one who’s looked at. She may suffer, but it’s cathartic suffering that ends with her as the brightest star in filmdom’s firmament. Vicki and Esther and Janet Gaynor herself become avatars into whose stories young women can project themselves.

Hollywood becomes a paradise (“Metropolis of Make-Believe,” as A Star Is Born puts it) about which they can fantasize. It has all the romance and adventure that their Depression-blighted hometowns in the Midwest lack. Two years later, that same longing would find its apotheosis in the plaintive voice of another young woman who’d go on to star in her own A Star Is Born: Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy may not be pining for a John Wayne or a Norman Maine, but her Emerald City isn’t too far from Gladys and Esther’s Hollywood. It’s somewhere other than a dusty farm. Somewhere she can do what what she wants and fashion herself as the person she wants to be. It’s like something she’s seen in a movie—it’s her dream.

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Cartoon from Photoplay in November 1932. Artist uncredited.

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Link Dump: #6

Halloween’s getting closer every day! Aren’t you excited?? Can’t you feel the tangible excitement in the air?! I know I can. But alas, we’ve still got a month and a half, so in the meantime, here’s some reading material with the PGG stamp of approval. Also, tune in next week as we bring you The Fifth Element, The White Ribbon, Julianne Moore, and more.

  • The one and only Paracinema Magazine is releasing their 10th issue, and it’s available to pre-order for the low, low price of $7. Added incentive: you can read my short piece on the exploitation film Sex Madness. What are you waiting for? Go, pre-order, and support high-quality film writing! Also, congratulations to the Paracinema crew on 10 great issues.
  • Elli Agg, a Greek fan of Amanda Palmer, posted this amazing song called “Dear AFP” on YouTube. She’s so cute, talented, and inspiring; you owe it to yourself to listen.
  • Via the Found Footage Festival, here’s a hilariously nightmarish PSA made by an insurance company. I have a strange affinity for bizarre PSAs, as I’ve demonstrated in the past, and this is a pretty great one, with its laughably over-the-top accidents.
  • Having followed it since December ’09, this week I won The Film Experience’s movie identification game “First and Last” twice in a row! My satisfaction in winning is only matched by the pettiness of my achievement.
  • This ad for “Great Old Spice” body wash is both professional-looking and full of lolz. Of course, I’m a sucker for all things Cthulhu, but seriously: they worked in so many Lovecraft references.
  • John Carpenter made another movie! The Ward, his first since 2001’s widely panned Ghosts of Mars, debuted at TIFF earlier this week, and MUBI has the scoop on its critical reception. Consensus so far is that it’s not Halloween great, but it’s solidly good.
  • Want more classic Carpenter? Radiator Heaven is hosting John Carpenter Week from October 3-9 in honor of the maestro’s revived career. I’ll probably be writing something for it too. (Like so much else, it will involve Lovecraft.)
  • Whether you love her or hate her, you can’t argue with the power and passion of Lady Gaga’s “Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” crusade. Go her! Talk about having a positive impact on the nation.

And now that you’ve read our online recommendations, here are our weirdest, ickiest, WTFest search terms from the previous week, most of which contain the word “pussy”:

  • We’ve got some pussy abuse, like “why do women like doing dog food in puss” and “fire extinguisher in pussy.” Please, no. Dog food and fire extinguishers have their purposes, and they do not involve pussies.
  • Oddly enough, we had two searches for Yakov Smirnov jokes, those being “in soviet russia leg breaks you” and “in russia bread eats you.” Maybe they were looking for this?
  • FYI: “please rape me style clothing” is not a productive search. There is no such style of clothing.
  • I suspect that the person looking for “excited cock and wild pussy have cartoon” may have been after this very old, very NSFW cartoon
  • And finally, nothing could beat the raw strangeness of “agatha christie books + bottle in vagina.” Don’t explain it to me. I just don’t want to know.

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My gripe with Avatar fandom

Fandom, at times, can be a little frightening. I like to think about the psychological effects of mass media and the Internet; I spent part of last night reading about “online disinhibition effect” – a consequence of virtual anonymity that we’ve all observed, whether we’ve seen flamewars or trolls or insulting posts in online forums. Today I’ve been reading into the sometimes terrifying world of the newly-born Avatar fandom.

Now, fandom isn’t always negative; as I wrote about Trekkies, sometimes fans can band together to create bold, new works out of the preexisting substance of the franchise. Ashley and I both wrote mediocre fanfiction when we were younger (her about Harry Potter, myself about Digimon), and it helped us start writing. However, I have some issues with the massive Avatar following that’s sprung up online.

Now, I grant that this is an enormously popular, successful, profitable movie. Not an especially good one, as I noted in my review, but somewhat imaginative and extremely well-loved. But I feel like the explosive interest in Avatar, which includes multiple wikis, forums, blogs, etc., reveals additional problems with the movie: namely, it’s contrived in order to create a huge base of fans, so that maybe Avatars 2 and 3 can join the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, too.

I mean, the movie’s purpose is to launch a franchise, to sell peripheral merchandise, to spread Avatar brand awareness through lunch boxes and stickers and whatever else you can cram into middle school lockers. It’s a fucking blockbuster – that was its mission, which is now very well accomplished. Yet intriguingly, and disturbingly, some people see it as a worthy cultural object to base their life around.

Through two lovely blogs, Geekologie and Ramblings of a Film Snob, I’ve recently learned about the worst of the worst amongst Avatar fans: those who get depressed because “the dream of Pandora [is] intangible,” as a CNN article informs me. Against my better judgment, I visited a forum called Naviblue.com, and glanced over some of the more egregious topics:

Coping with Avatar/Pandora Withdrawals
Why are people claiming that Avatar has a racist message
If your Avatar were to die…
What do you think avatar hidden message is
Real Life Na’vi Tribe (NOT on the Internet!)

Now, I know this is just par for the course in the age of the Internet. If there is some phenomenon – especially within the realm of fiction-world-based sci-fi – somebody’s going to obsess over it. There have always been nerds. What were alchemists but a kind of proto-nerd? But I think that the CNN story linked to above isn’t just pointless hysteria along the lines of “Video games and Marilyn Manson make our kids violent” stories of the past; I think it’s symptomatic of something greater, which possibly connects to online disinhibition effect.

I’ve expressed before an interest in child psychology – how children are sometimes incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, and how they process media differently. I wonder if these reactions to Avatar have to do with this kind of childlike perception. Hell, when I was 11-12, I desperately wanted the Harry Potter world to be real. I actually mused about how I’d be able to cast spells in heaven. You know why? I was a stupid 12-year-old, that’s why.

However, Live Journal user tireanavi, who writes “We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn],” doesn’t look 12. Glancing hesitantly through their entries, it betrays a slightly frightening level of devotion to Avatar, as well as a connection to “Otherkin” culture, which I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I have to wonder, are they being serious when they ask, “do you have any memories of your life on Pandora? How clear are they, how detailed?” It reminds me in a way of Jack Chick’s “Dark Dungeons,” and the total disconnect from reality that Chick perceives in D&D users.

Now, I’m not just a “hater.” I have a genuine interest in exploring what’s psychologically behind these actions and claims. At a certain point, fandom does start entering into cult territory; I’m reminded of the stories of violence against Twilight haters (granted, that’s from a virulently anti-Twilight website). You’re an unhappy or desperate person, you find something to latch onto, and you defend it against any who object to it. The quality of the cultural object doesn’t matter: it’s yours, and you need it. Scary? Yes, I’d say so. I think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, searching for any purpose, or of this very dark Onion article about desperate fandom.

I’m not really able to draw any conclusive answers here about the hows and whys, but I do think that the mentality being fostered in Avatar fans who dream of living on Pandora or being a Na’vi – even to the extreme of, to quote a forum user named Mike, “contemplat[ing] suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora” – is on the verge of cultlike. And I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, Avatar is basically prefabricated fan material. It’s designed to acquire fans; its universe isn’t all that organic or lived-in, but it does have a sufficient number of tiny details for fans to obsess over.

I think a great example is the Na’vi language. I’m not saying a lot of work didn’t go into it. But I think back to before Avatar was released, when a news story about artificial languages discussed Na’vi, saying it’d be the new Klingon, which is notorious for being spoken fluently by diehard Trekkies. And sure enough, Avatar fans are talking and writing in Na’vi; I suspect that this is done so that 1) they can equate themselves with film’s blue, in-tune-with-nature noble savages and 2) they can have a way of speaking that normal, uninitiated folks don’t use. Having a special vernacular is common amongst most fandoms (“muggle”?); Cameron, whose already swollen ego must be close to imploding, just accelerated the process.

So my central complaint is that with Avatar, the following just feels so built-in. While talking to Ashley recently, I compared it to the political practice of “astroturfing” – i.e., artificial grassroots. It’s barely been in theaters a month and already people think they’re reincarnated Na’vi, really? Maybe Cameron tapped into a big 21st century zeitgeist. Maybe it has something to do with growing up with Internet access. Or maybe Avatar isn’t so much a movie as it is a giant, well-oiled fan-acquiring machine.

In any case, now I think I really want to stop talking about goddamn Avatar, but I just wanted to express why it really bugged me. Because this “I saw Avatar and now I’m depressed” story isn’t at all a completely isolated, wacky, extreme case. Our generation is all about losing ourselves in unreality. A few years ago it was Second Life. Or World of Warcraft. And by and large, I don’t believe these types of attractions are good. I believe that works of art can and should improve our real lives, not act as substitutes. That’s what aggravated me about Avatar. And now I want to get back to works of art and my real life.

I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora

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Star Trek fanzines and sexual freedom

A few months ago, I briefly mentioned “The Ring of Soshern,” an early example of Kirk/Spock slashfiction. Since then, searching for “Ring of Soshern”-related information has led a number of intrepid netizens to this blog. Thus, I’ve decided to devote some time to talking about this story as well as Star Trek fandom in general. You see, growing up, one of my best friends was a self-described “Trekkie” (he identified me, with my lesser devotion to the franchise, as a “Trekker”). I think his enthusiasm has waned some since 5th grade, but my point is that I was exposed to a wealth of Trek-related phenomena in my formative years. Hell, I used to play a game that involved listing off TNG episode titles for fun. (Did I mention I was a weird kid?)

The point of this autobiographical detour is to say that I have some small experience in the world of fandom, which is sometimes funny, sometimes depressing, and other times enjoyable. And Star Trek fandom is one of the oldest, best-established realms of nerdiness. The original series (aka ST:TOS), in its original run, lasted only from 1966-69, but had a profound impact – eventually leading to a Trek resurgence in the form of a film series, 5 (and counting) additional TV shows, and a wealth of peripheral media, including countless novels.

Then there’s everything made by fans, and that’s where we find “The Ring of Soshern.” Unfortunately, I can’t find the story online. I’m not sure why it hasn’t made the jump to the Internet; you’d think that as a nonprofessional, pseudonymous, but highly sought-after work, it’d be easily accessible. And yet. I’ve discerned that it was first distributed via photocopies around 1976, so about 7 years after TOS ended. In her essay “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture” (published in, among other places, Cultural Studies), Prof. Constance Penley of UC Santa Barbara describes “Soshern” as a “highly revered and imitated story.” In 1987, it was anthologized in Alien Brothers, a high-quality fanzine that collected K/S stories.

From there, however, I have no idea where “Soshern” is gone or how to find it. Tracking down a copy of Alien Brothers would probably be the next step. As Penley’s essay suggests, K/S slashfic, and slashfic in general, evokes some worthwhile questions about free speech, homoeroticism, and the subjectivity of female fans. E.g., issues of obscenity – since slashfic is usually just glorified porn – or, for Penley, whether Kirk and Spock, as portrayed, are intended to actually be homosexuals, or whether other psychosexual processes are at work here in the mind of the author.

Something else I find fascinating (as Mr. Spock would put it) is the aesthetic divergences that fanfics and fan artwork can take from the original material. For example, just glance over the covers depicted in this index of Trek fanzines dating from around 1970-2005. I’m a huge fan of zines in general, looking at the evolution of independently printed publications prior to the existence of the Internet, and so for me, these are just gold. Nowhere in the canon of Star Trek would you find a visual sensibility like those on the cover of Spockanalia 5, Precessional, Two-Dimensional Thinking, Nova Trek (by the editor of Alien Brothers), or Spock 61. It’s just beautiful.

I feel like these little discoveries should at least somewhat counteract the popular perception of diehard Star Trek fans as nerdy losers who resemble Comic Book Guy; instead, they’ve sometimes been revolutionaries in terms of creative independent press and sexual openness in amateur literature. Decades ago, they took material produced for commercial television and adapted it into something personal, prized, and different, a format through which they could explore freedom and desire. In short, they went where no one had gone before.

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