Posts tagged subculture
After a long hiatus, the Star Trek franchise returns with the J.J. Abrams-directed re-launch film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Following a Ultimates-kind of model (Marvel’s re-imagining re-launch of classic Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men), the new film takes the chance to re-introduce the classic characters of the original series in a way that allows for new growth and storytelling less bound by decades of continuity.
Star Trek is commonly known for its sociological SF slant, but this film is a pure character study. We follow James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) through their pre-histories and their paths through youth into adulthood and the foundation of their friendship. Pine succeeds in capturing the swagger and cunning of Kirk without hamming it up too much, and Quinto’s Spock excels at displaying the conflict between his Vulcan and Human sides. Each member of the cast had the chance to shine in their area, but were also depicted as vulnerable and imperfect.
The design aesthetic for the new Star Trek is the love child of Apple and the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s shiny on top and gritty on the bottom, combining the dirty functionality with the pristine shine. The future is not white-washed or sterile, but it does have the shine of optimism. The graphics were breathtaking, re-capturing the ‘Sense of Wonder’ mode of SF visuals which has been so central to the genre’s cultural impact.
Eric Bana’s Nero is a singularly driven villain who, along with Spock, ties together the plot twists that give us the new continuity. Nero may not go down as one of the franchise’s best villains, but he was compelling in his own right.
The pacing was tight, with slow moments spaced out here and there to give moments for character notes, but the majority of the film was an unrelenting roller coaster ride.
Star Trek is an exciting, accessible, fast-paced character-heavy film that requires no substantial knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, but is clearly a part and doing homage to the long-established Star Trek universe. Critical acclaim and likely box-office success mean that a sequel following the same continuity is very likely, and may also provide support for a new Star Trek television series. Heroes producer and Pushing Daisies creator Brian Fuller has already expressed strong interest in helming such a property, and with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the role of ‘Best SF show on TV’ is open for competition once more.
Final verdict: Go see it. See it if you’re a Trekker, a casual fan, a SF aficionado, or if you just want a fun two hour ride of a film.
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
The 2008 film Role Models stars Seann William Scott, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, and more.
Scott and Rudd are Danny and Wheeler, promoters for the Minotaur energy drink who end up doing stupid comedy things and get sentenced to do 150 hours of community service.
Danny and Wheelerare paired with youths in the Sturdy Wings program (in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mode). The overall message of the film is ‘find something you love and be happy with it and with who you are.’
The part of the film most interesting to me is the depiction of geeks and geekdom. In the plot with Danny and Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin’ from Superbad). Mintz-Plasse is Augie Farks, a bespectacled teenaged role-player who does boffer LARPS (Aka hitting your friends with padded weapons).
Augie’s mother and step-father/mother’s boyfriend look down at Augie’s hobby and want Danny to help them bring Augie into the ‘real world’ — but they do so without having ever gone to watch Augie at LAIRE (Live Action Interactive Roleplaying Explorers). Danny too is initially put off by Augie’s hobby, but after watching and then partaking, he sees the ways that LAIRE provides a social outlet for Augie, allows him to channel his passion into something that encourages exercise (even light exercise) develops skills (Augie sews/embroiders a badge for Rudd to wear), and is the place where he sees his crush, Esplen/Sarah. Danny urges Augie to talk to Esplen/Sarah rather than just longing after her from afar.
Overal, the representation of geekdom and boffer LARPs is even-handed to positive. The people involved are clearly having a great deal of fun with their hobby, with a large, active, and welcoming community. Some take things very seriously, to the detriment of others’ experience, but that happens everywhere. Danny’s embracing of LAIRE helps bring both pairs together at the end. Augie’s mother and step-kinda-not-actually-father see the group playing at the end, see how much it means to Augie, and come to appreciate it (and him, for who he is).
There’s a great exchange between Danny and one of the LAIRE players that captures the fun aspects of LAIRE and the hobbies it represents:
Warrior: I’m DEAD I’m DEAD!
Danny: Sorry, Sorry.
Warrior: Fun though right?
Danny: It’s a blast!
Warrior: Contagious! I know!
Warrior: Come back next year, we need people.
Warrior: Give me you email!
The warrior then remembers he’s been killed and over-acts his death.
In the battle Augie saves his crush Esplen from being killed, kills the King, and is finally killed by Esplen at the very end while he was celebrating his victory over the King. At the bonfire party after the war, Augie goes over to Esplen to congratulate her. Esplen/Sarah asks him to be her King (since she’s now the Queen), and then he kisses her. It’s all very cute awkward adolescent geek romance.
Augie’s part of the story is precious at times and fairly simple, but I’m happy to have more representations of geekdoms where the geeks are clearly humanized and their hobbies seen not as something to out-grow, but something to be enjoyed. Not that LARPs are all automagically wonderful and not that I think people should only be involved in LARPS/gaming/fantasy, but I’m pleased to identify Role Models as part of a more positive/realistic representation of geek cultures in mainstream media.
Once upon a time, there was a show called Firefly. It had fan-favorite Joss Whedon at the helm and a distinct view of the future, a western-flavored future that wasn’t about the people in the shiny organized space ships. Instead, it focused on the people on the edge, misfits and outcasts.
It was plagued from nearly the beginning by interference from executives, and was canceled in less than a season.
But the fans were not done with the world of Firefly, nor were those involved in its creation.
Done the Impossible is a documentary that tells the story of the Firefly/Serenity-verse, through the lens of fans of the ‘verse. The documentary is not for the unitiated, instead, it is itself a work of fandom, a gift from a team of Firefly fans (Browncoats) to the community. With narrations from fans, cast & crew, Done the Impossible talks about the show, the time between Firefly and Serenity, and then the arrival of the film.
In years past, I’d thought that a combined ethnographic/cultural studies analysis of Browncoats would make a good book-lenth project. I still do, as Done the Impossible has not already done that work. I’m not very involved with Firefly fandom myself — I watched the series the first time around and told my friends, then sent my DVD set to make its way throughout my friends groups. But I did not partake in much if any of the intense and highly active grassroots campaigning and guerilla marketing that is discussed in the film. In this case, I would have the positionality of being one of ‘the Browncoats’ without being as much of an insider as with other groups.
Firefly fandom is intriguing in that we can look at it and confidently say that it was the fans’ efforts which led to the creation of Serenity. Creator Joss Whedon repeated a line from the series at the first of the Serenity early screenings:
“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”
The line is the source of the documentary’s title, and has become a rallying cry for Browncoats, a reminder of the power of guerilla marketing and grassroots fan activity.
There have been ‘Save my favorite show’ campaigns before, but while the Browncoats’ efforts didn’t bring back the show on TV, since its cancellation, Firefly has had two comic series, a tabletop role-playing game line, a major motion picture, and continues to have a strong and active fan-base. Browncoats continue to host ‘shindigs’ and other events, sharing their passion of a show that like its namesake, shone brightly, went dim, and then shone again just as briefly.
Don’t look to Done the Impossible for an introduction to Firefly, or even as an ethnographic work explicating fandom in general. It is a specialized work done from within a fan community for that fan community. If you’re already one of the flock, then pull out your Browncoat, pour some Mudder’s Milk, and join in the geek-fest.
Another, post-review note, about positionality: There are many ways to be a fan within a community, different degrees of engagement. To use Firefly as an example — there are people who watched Firefly and liked it. There are people who consider themselves fans, but don’t necessarily identify with the Browncoat movement. Then there are any number of different levels and types of involvement within the Browncoats, from fan-fiction to convention organizing to costuming to fan art to role-playing games to podcasting to guerilla marketing and more. These people are all members of the fan community to different degrees. There are a lot of ways to be a fan, within one fandom and across many fandoms. This becomes readily evident at any general convention, where fans move between groups to share their passion for shows, games, films, comics, and more.
For a fan-scholar, you’re never going to be as into everything as the people you interview/work with. I may be able to speak most of the dialects of geek (video gamer, comics geek, anime otaku, role-player), but in any given situation, I can’t assume I know more about a fandom than anyone I’m talking to. They get to exercise mastery of knowledge as a result of their involvement, and in turn, I exercise my status as a scholar and serve to represent fans to members of another community, that of the scholars (who may or may not be fans). Scholarship in fan studies has always been in an interesting state, given that there are well-established and vibrant fan scholars who may not have the same academic credentials but do similar work.
Questions of power, authority, agency and positionality are never far from any ethnographic study, even moreso in fan studies and media studies. Scholars are accountable to the public and should always be aware of their cultural power — even though we are a part of the panopticon like everyone else.
On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.
I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut. I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run). The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run). I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through. But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love. One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).
In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.
Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.
In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.
Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:
Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers. A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic. And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him. Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show. Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.
Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.
Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting. Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.
Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.
Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.
Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel. Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.
Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.
Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives. What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.
Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance. In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.
The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.
It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be. Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.
So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life. And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.
I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong. I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.