Positively Fan Street

For anyone not picking up on the gag, the title of this blog is a play on Bob Dylan’s classic song, Positively 4th Street. The song is relevant to a lot of situations, but I chose to make it relevant to this one.

This isn’t going to be a long diatribe about the state of a fandom. This isn’t going to be some lengthy dissertation about the need for positivity. It’s far from my first time addressing this in a public forum (such as a podcast or this blog). It’s just one of those topics that bubbles up on occasion, and so I feel the need to revisit it.

It’s a plea for people to stop characterizing a certain “bad sort of fan” as responsible for “wrecking fandom.” Not because they don’t exist, but because it’s a feature, not a bug.

I don’t think it will ever be solved. Unlike some others, I don’t think that it’s a cause for concern. It’s just a thing that’s true.

Some Perspective

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If they want to loudly and publicly decry the current incarnation of their favorite franchise as garbage, that’s fine. If that conclusion is their starting point, there’s no way to talk them back from that ledge.

Trust me, as someone who has loved the Star Wars prequels from the moment of their release, you can’t. I’ve been personally insulted for the opinion. Every time someone learns I’m a “Star Wars fan,” I’m rolling the dice on it becoming some variant of “the prequels suck” discussion.

I don’t even need to ask for the opinion. It’s just volunteered.

And it’s fine. It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I engage in a discussion about why I disagree. That discussion carries with it the pitfalls of being called a “fanboy,” having the clarity of my perspective challenged, my honesty about the opinion dismissed and, on occasion, having my intelligence questioned. (That last one happens far less frequently than it did at one time.)

The hysterically funny thing is that it works both ways! When the discussion turns to the Sequel Trilogy (Episodes VII, VIII & IX), I run the risk of having those same critiques thrown at me for not liking it “enough.” In some special circumstances, I have my opinion on the prequels used as some sort of debate point in an attempt to discredit my opinion on the sequels.

It’s fine, and I don’t care. No one else should either.

Because it won’t change. Fan discussions always run the risk of devolving into petty contests of will.

If you doubt me, it’s possible you’re too young to recall when David Lee Roth left Van Halen. Maybe you’re young enough that you just didn’t have a reason to care. It’s possible you simply didn’t have enough of an emotional investment in the band to care either way.

There are a lot of valid reasons for things, I’m not judging.

But the only way I will ever watch Die Hard 2: Die Harder again is if someone deepfakes the infamous “Craigula” into it.

Decades Later…

As of this writing, it’s been about thirty-five years since David Lee Roth left Van Halen. Thirty-five years is a long time.

And yet, some grown-ass adults still can’t get past it. They still harp on how the band was “ruined” by Sammy Hagar. They refer to the band by the supposedly-derogatory nickname “Van Hagar.” They dismiss the idea that there are plenty of people who loved Van Halen with both singers, or there are those who prefer Sammy.

The reason I point to this example is to help anyone who’s worried about “the state of fandom” put it in perspective. The only difference between the venom you might see in discussions about Star Wars or Star Trek is that those are your focus and…there was no easily-accessible Internet connectivity back then. There was no social media.

There were just friends and acquaintances who would occasionally be stupid about these sorts of things. I did it, too. We all did.

The funny thing is that, before social media, if a stranger on the street came up and said the same sort of caustic thing that starts Internet fights, you’d have laughed about it.

Sure, if you were particularly dysfunctional, you’d have started a fight. That was more the exception than the rule anyway. Most people walking down the street don’t care about your opinions on movies, books, music, or television.

Imagine this with plastic lightsabers and far less athelticism.
Photo by ginu plathottam on Pexels.com

In Conclusion

The point is, caustic fandom is never going to be “resolved.” You can ignore it, you can engage it, you can lock your accounts, or you can do some combination of all of it. But it won’t change.

Because if people can hold a self-imposed grudge about a band changing singers for nearly four decades, I can promise you they’re not going to stop being jerks about…anything.

Patton Oswalt doing a routine about how he’d kill George Lucas with a shovel before he had a chance to make the prequels was a bit. At least, I hope it was. This this type of bit had an effect, though.

Patton Oswalt’s onstage persona is exactly the type of comedy that pushed outrageous “fan” reactions into the realm of violent hyperbole. It functions in the same way that Howard Stern’s show shaped people’s attitudes about a lot of things.

It’s a bit, and it’s meant to be outrageous. But people key off of it and it influences their own outrageous declarations. All the world’s a stage, as one guy once wrote.

If anything, I pity the people who rage about franchises the same way I pity the Van Halen grudge holders. If they take their entertainment that seriously, it’s more a plea for help than anything else.

“So, what are your plans for #MayTheFourth?”

The question is innocent. The coworker asks, “So, what are your plans for #MayTheFourth?”

I don’t have any special plans. I did start wondering, though.

Am I a “bad #StarWars fan” for not making plans for #MayTheFourth?

Do people make plans for #MayTheFourth? Do people care that much?

Do I consider it a harmless, fun joke that’s been co-opted by marketing departments to cynically plumb the emotional wells which run deep within fans? I sure do. I see a lot of things marketed in that way, though. Everything is about leverage, and blind spots.

I think that any sense of the irksome stems from the fact that I can see it as a manipulative attempt to leverage consumers by attacking their weakest points. That’s a daily thing, I guess, but when it hits a point that you consider “reserved” from the normal flow of things – like your personal connection to something – it exposes the manipulation in a very raw fashion.

Doesn’t every single holiday go down that road, though? Isn’t that the basis for the greeting  card industry as a whole, or why we’re going out to dinner every February 14?

I don’t hate #MayTheFourth, as much as I’ve played up being a curmudgeon when it comes up in conversation. I’ve leaned really hard into being a curmudgeon about it, too. I’m typically playing the role of The Grinch Who Hates #MayTheFourth.

But it’s just playing a role.

The truth is, though, that I don’t care either way. It’s just another harmless joke that’s become “a thing.” It can seem sometimes like an intrusion on a special space that exists deep within not just my psyche, but other fans’.

I used to lean really hard into that joke, though. Then I guess over time I realized that it wasn’t worth the effort. It was rooted in a cyncism that takes more energy than I have anymore.

I’ve also realized that we’ve lost our collective senses of humor. People get upset about everything instead of just relaxing. In light of that paradigm, the cynic seeks a lighter outlook.

If I’m going to rail against #MayTheFourth, I may as well rail against the “Alien Day” of April 26, when fans of that franchise come together and pretend there are only two movies in the series. I may as well rail against “First Contact Day,” which is whenever Star Trek fans come together to sacrifice the first tweet of the day to commemorate the great Sybok.

Honestly, why would it ever bother anyone that #MayTheFourth exists? You may as well get upset about #HotDogDay, #GrilledCheeseSandwichDay, or #TheFeastOfCraigula.

They are what they are. They’re forgettable things designed for economic benefit.

I’m really just waiting for #NationalPeanutButterAndMayonnaiseSandwich day, aka #NPBMayo Day. Somehow that’s not a thing yet, but a boy can dream.

A boy can dream.

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars fears Craigula who isn't in Star Wars which is a Star Wars movie with Luke Skywalker and not Craigula.
Aunt Beru never made his favorite sandwich.

Farewell, Ray Manzarek

Look, I’m not a newsdesk. As badly as I wanted to write about Ray Manzarek’s death the day it was announced, I just didn’t have the time to put something together that I would’ve felt was anything but a rush job to make an arbitrary sort of self-deadline. So I’ve spent the day thinking about it, shelved my review of Star Trek: Into Darkness for another day, and decided to say what I can say about Ray.

An important thing needs to be noted about my feelings on Ray Manzarek. I went from teenage idolator of The Doors to adult scarily-obsessed fan (like Oliver Stone), and finally, to sober adult capable of contextualizing my fandom where it belonged.

Ray, for any flaws he may have had, was the ONLY other voice I believe capable of even getting Morrison to work in a structured setting.

Sadly, when Ray wrote his book, I don’t think he was at that point. He probably changed, or at least mellowed. The documentaries that came out in later years and the books that were less worshipful and more honest certainly allowed Ray to recast himself as less of a cult leader to more of a man with a broken heart who lost his best friend far too soon.

In fact, I dare anyone to listen to Tightrope Ride and not hear the horrible pain that Morrison put Ray—and arguably everyone else in his path—through. It’s a song that Ray wrote and sang on The Doors’ first album released after Morrison’s death, and it still speaks to any of us who might know the anger caused when someone wastes the ultimate gift and shuffles off this mortal coil in totally avoidable ways. Hell, I listen to it and get mad at my past self for wasting years screwing around without purpose or focus.

Go on, listen.

Back now? Great.

At the end of it all, despite my very conflicted feelings about Ray and whether he let go of the Jim Mythos or not, there is a very important fact I cannot overlook.

He was a very, very key player in putting and keeping together the one band that ever spoke to me when my own head was completely gone and I couldn’t hear anyone else. The Doors aren’t everyone’s favorite, but they’re mine, and if it wasn’t for Ray I, and a lot of other people who needed/need someone to speak to that sadness wouldn’t have had them.

In the end, I thank him for at least trying to get the surviving band members back together, and for going on tour and giving two guys an evening to feel young again and get at least a glimpse of the impossibly lost.

Go with God, Ray. I love you for what you gave me and what you gave the world. I thank you for what you helped get me through, even though you never knew me.

Fandom, Fanaticism and the Question of Art

In a recent Q&A session with Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, he said, “Art is not a democracy.”

I find that to be a particularly interesting statement from a film director, considering the tremendous amount of collaborative work from set designers, production managers and assistant directors (as well as visual effects teams in a lot of cases). But it’s a great point when viewed through the lens of fandom, and it ties into a something that came up during the long–running comments between myself and Tony over the last month about Star Wars v. Star Trek.

The nature of nerd fandom is a uniquely strange thing, one that I have yet to see repeated in other fan bases. There is a level of obsession that exists that is admittedly extremely unhealthy. Trust me, I took a long, long road from the Star Wars fan I was to the Star Wars fan I am.

To sidetrack onto that journey and give a little background, I was at one time the typical über-fan whom people usually mock. Star Wars was my golden calf. May the angels of heaven protect you if you touched my stuff or came in with a criticism you couldn’t defend. I would spend hours trying to convert people, to convince them that it was not only perfectly normal to obsess about a fake universe of laser swords and Dark Lords, but they were somehow deficient because they didn’t.

Honestly, why my brother didn’t do me the favor of a serious ass-kicking, I’ll never know. It’s probably a testament to what a loving brother he truly is.

Anyway, like most geeks (a sub-genus of nerd) I felt that I had something of a “claim” to the Star Wars storyline. Like a jealous lover, anything that threatened disharmony within the galaxy far, far away was a matter of extreme angst.

However, this is not unique to Star Wars nerds/geeks/et al. Spend some time with a Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Trek or (if any exist still) Babylon 5 fan, and you’ll see. With some, it’s as plain as the chain mail under their shirt; others have learned to control themselves like a Zen Bruce Banner, but find the right combination of triggers and they Hulk Out on you just the same.

They’ve taken the notion of fandom and turned it into fanaticism. With this fanaticism comes a heavy price for artists.

Harlan Ellison wrote an essay called Xenogenesis about the phenomenon and delivered it in a speech in July 1984. Many science fiction writers shared stories with him that resonate today, and seem to be repeating with other sci-fi/fantasy creators through the new millenium.

Reading it (in a collected work in the early 1990s) started the change in my own perspective. It was a glacial change, but it took less than a decade to complete the journey, which was less than half the time I’d taken becoming an OCD fan, so that counts as a win.

In the essay, Ellison postulated what I came to realize, which was that sci-fi and fantasy fans take it to a whole level that causes a sort of metamorphosis in them. They feel that they have just as much ownership over the artist’s work as the artist him/herself.

If you know anything about Mr. Ellison, you know what he had to say about that. He did, however, sound the warning bell for the rest of us.

The tricky thing of course is how much fandom is too much fandom? Is a convention too much fandom? Putting a phaser app on my Droid phone? Recreating the entire set of the Enterprise from the original Star Trek TV show and creating a completely unwatchable fan series?

I would submit that none of those things is too much fandom, unless….

It fosters the notion that the fans somehow “own” the material as much as the artist, or that they have some sort of legitimate input to bring to the table for the creative process.

Something like Star Trek is a uniquely difficult one in this realm, though, because by its very nature it’s “art by committee,” which isn’t really art but entertainment. There isn’t some singular visionary force behind the series as a whole. However, allow me to use the disclaimer that TV entertainment can be art when you’re talking about something where a singular theme/plot/vision is in place from the beginning (I’d call this “The LOST Principle”).

In general, however, while there may be instances of singular visionary forces (i.e., the aforementioned Mr. Meyer) that produce singular cases of art within the context of the whole, Star Trek has always been the child of 1000 fathers and mothers. It remained “television” in its very nature, even after it crossed to film.

But again, if the fans had their way, Spock never would have died (there were protests when that d*ck Roddenberry leaked that plot point), robbing us of one of the most poignant and moving science fiction stories of the last 30 years. If the fans had their way, Darth Vader never would have found redemption, but rather would have turned Luke to the Dark Side and lived nastily ever after because that hard edge they earned when Suzie McAllister* turned them down for homecoming showed them how life is always rough and never ends happily.

*I made up this name. If there is a real Ms. McAllister out there, apologies.

Back to the main point, though, fans have to give up this idea that because they’re fans they have some sort of right of input. At that point it stops being art and becomes merely entertainment. Beyond that, it becomes entertainment that caters only to a specific audience.

That’s fine, though. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment either. Not everything needs to be a classic. But know how to discriminate between the two.

And if something doesn’t strike your fancy, then fine. You’re not obligated to stick with anything. Just ask Bruce Springsteen or a host of other musicians who try new things how well that’s been received by their “hard core” audiences. It doesn’t invalidate the work, nor does it invalidate the fans. If you’re only a fan of Bruce Springsteen up until Tunnel of Love (like me), that’s cool. If you liked the first Matrix but disliked the sequel(s), then that’s cool. If you prefer David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar…well, all right then.

I guess my reaction is, if you dislike it then move along. There’s no need to stay invested in something if you dislike it. It’s like people who watch TV shows into their later seasons and bemoan how much better it was earlier. You know what I did when The Simpsons started to stink on ice? I walked away. Thanks for the memories, the stuff I liked was great and I’m sure there are people that think the later stuff is golden. That’s fine too. But I’m not going to keep watching the show and tell everyone every week how much I liked the older seasons more.

Why would I keep watching if I disliked it?

And that’s the crux of the problem with sci-fi/fantasy fans. They carry that vested interest with them, so even as they start to dislike something so much that they spew venom at it, they just stay in the relationship for no other reason than habit. And even worse, if someone else seems happy with what they now dislike then they attack that happiness too, with all the force they can muster. It’s not a matter of civil disagreement, it’s a matter of religious zeal.

Naturally, I fall into the trap from time to time of one of those pointless arguments. If you keep hanging with snarling nerds, it’s like being an alcoholic hanging out with friends who still drink. The chances of a relapse are very, very high.

But I’m pretty happy with the fact that I’ve changed my outlook from dork apostle to quiet believer. If someone wants to have the discussion, then cool. But it’s difficult to be too deeply involved in the nerd world anymore, especially when it comes to disagreements about artwork (which is what good films should strive to be). We need to remember that we’re just spectators, not participants, and not owners of the work by any stretch.

Goodness I went off on a tangent, didn’t I?