What’s Worth Saving?

This is not what you think it’s about. This is about movies, and is born out of a conversation with a chap I’ve known for decades.

He’s a really good guy, and occasionally we hit spots where we find ourselves accidentally exploring an issue that winds up going off on a bizarrely serious tangent.

In this case, we were talking about movies. As we both love to joke, the cult movie Phantasm has a remaster available for purchase thanks to JJ Abrams’ fandom of it. The movie is, to say the least, not wildly popular for a reason. There are some who even might say it kind of sucks.

I’m not the one on trial here!

What we got around to debating and wondering, yet again, was why Phantasm has a remaster but some of the truly classic long-lost gems don’t even have a decent modern release.

Take, for instance, the film 29th Street. This 1991 charmer stars Danny Aiello and Anthony Lapaglia in a dramatization of the real-life story of Frank Pesce, the first winner of the New York State Lottery. It’s set at Christmastime, and a used DVD copy of it goes for $72.24 on Amazon. It’s got a terrific supporting cast, it’s set at Christmas, and has a genuinely lovely story arc.

Why is there an affordable remaster of Phantasm, but not of that?

29th Street Movie 1991 Anthony LaPaglia Danny Aiello | kesseljunkie
It’s 100% better than Phantasm. I promise you that.

Before someone thinks they’ve got the answer to end all answers, I’m aware that if JJ Abrams, a powerful producer in Hollywood, is the fan of a movie then it’s going to get remastered.

I’m aware of the argument that there’s a financial side to things. They’re not going to bother with the restoration of a film that isn’t going to get money back for them.

I’m also aware that it highlights the arbitrary nature of film preservation.

Arbitrary

Any given film is special to someone. Trust me on this one.

Unlike previous generations we seem to care deeply about preserving past entertainment. Classic television shows have resurged on streaming platforms. It’s sparked debates about whether the show’s continued availability, if it’s available to modern audiences, forgives that times have changed since its airing.

Before I go off on a different tangent and this becomes a different argument, what I’m really fascinated by is why it bothers “us” so much when things we loved in the past aren’t redeemed in modern formats. Part of growing up is accepting that you’ll lose some things that were special to you.

Things that burned into our minds are literally a piece of us.
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

Emotional Attachment

Sometimes all that remains of your fondest moments are fading memories. For some, that’s just hard to accept.

Maybe that’s part of what’s at the core with certain films being pulled from different services. It’s actively invalidating a fond memory, and a time in your life that is sacred. It’s not so much the movie or the show itself that you’re trying to defend, but the sacrosanct remembrance of our collective youth.

For me, it’s just hard to accept that just because I didn’t remake Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the most unbearably ham-handed way possible, or preside over the whimpering expiration of the Skywalker Saga, I don’t get to purchase a remaster of a film that I truly loved.

Maybe there’s some jealousy or hurt in there. To keep it personal, something I don’t like is treated with a reverence I feel undeserved, whether it’s Phantasm or the execrable Showgirls, while things that I do are actively cast by the wayside. Something about it seems unfair.

But then, life has always been unfair. Maybe some things just have to be accepted as destined for the dustbin.

Dust to Dust to Digital

Films – almost any entertainment, really – weren’t created with the idea that they would endure in perpetuity. They were created with the idea of entertaining and fulfilling an audience of its time. Some things falling by the wayside is inevitable.

Now, I’m not at all arguing for the erasure of films because times change. I’m staunchly for preserving them as they’re a part of a collective cultural record in the same way that the ruins at Pompeii are. We know a lot about how Roman society evolved in every aspect from politics to slavery thanks to what was preserved, often just as a function of accidental geology.

For that reason, yes, I think we should save all the films we can. I’m just making peace with the idea that the record won’t necessarily be as complete as it should.

Maybe as we transition to digital and streaming, it’ll get better. There are fewer physical considerations, even though technology continues to change rapidly even on that front.

Ha ha, your movie is really just 1100110
Photo by luis gomes on Pexels.com

Burn It All Down

It’s not just Star Wars fandom. It’s not just Star Trek fandom. It’s not just Game of Thrones fandom.

It’s everywhere.

A Sense of Wonder, But in a Bad Way

I’m marveling at all the “multi-disciplinary fans” who seem to exist to complain. They complain about what they watch. They complain about casting news. They complain about people who don’t agree with their complaints.

It’s tiring. It’s boring. It always has to do with expectation, impatience, and rushes to reaction.

To borrow from William Shatner, “It’s just a TV show!”

William Shatner on Saturday Night Live when William Shatner went to a Star Trek convention on Saturday Night Live in a skit with a Star Trek convention featuring William Shatner
This remains one of the greatest moments in television history, and stands as a monument to how some fans have no sense of humor about themselves.

What I’m talking about is beyond the simple act of discussing and debating with your friends. This is natural and has occurred since entertainment began.

I’m sure there were pitched debates about the artistic merit of Hamlet in between the moments when people were living in horrid conditions and praying they weren’t going to contract the plague. I’m sure that we’ve just lost volumes of anger and ideological outrage about the ending of Oedipus Rex.

It must have been so frustrating for Athenians to go to the forum to kvetch about Aeschylus, to any and all who would hear. I’m sure that later, as the Romans were dominant, pitched debates about Plautus resonated while citizens waited to see Christians fed to lions.

Or Maybe Not

Or maybe they weren’t doing that. Maybe they understood that entertainment had its place in their lives, and that was that. They could like it, love it, or hate it, but then they moved on from there. There was no need to dwell on it, as people seem to do now.

Not to put too fine a point on it, if you’ve taken the time to create (or sign) an online petition to get a piece of entertainment changed, you’ve got some truly misplaced priorities in your life. I know that everyone is supposed to play nice, but I’ve hit a breaking point (again?) about our collective cultural attitudes about entertainment.

I was forced to endure scorn for liking The Phantom Menace twenty years ago, people can endure some scorn for throwing a hissy fit because they don’t like how a show ended. They should endure some scorn for it.

Of course no one cares if you complain about it. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Have as many opinions as you want. No one is taking them away from you.

But crossing the line to “boorish nincompoop” is where everyone goes, instantly. It’s insanity!

Can everyone please calm down?

Or Burn It All Down

Alternatively, we should just burn it all down. Turn off social media, or use the burgeoning threat of government regulation to restrict the topics for a time after each new release of entertainment.

Imagine a world where Twitter shut down any conversation about a new movie or television episode for 48 hours. Change.org (which should just be shut down anyway) would have a six-day “cooling off” period for any petition about remaking a show or movie, at which point it would send a link to you again asking if you wanted to make such a jackass of yourself.

Sure, Change.org wouldn’t be able to get as many fools to voluntarily hand over their email addresses to be sold and placed on lists. Twitter wouldn’t be as vital in terms of determining the barometer of fan reactions for lazy professional bloggers.

…Wait. That’s a good thing. This is all a good thing. It’s time for these brave new steps for a brave new world!

Cheers.

 

Grading on a Curve

I’m going to speak honestly with you for a moment about the Marvel©™® movie franchise. I won’t take too much of your time. I value you, and who you are, but I think we need to have this talk.

I’m a fan, generally speaking, of the Marvel©™® movies. I know it’s stale at this point to heap praise on the franchise. It’s also stale to point out which ones you rank in what positions. It’s tiresome, really, and goes down the rabbit hole I pondered recently about what motivates us to rate, as opposed to discuss.

Back to the point at hand, Marvel©™® gets graded on curve. People at large, at least the ones who are devoted enough to record and write their opinions to share, are viewing Marvel movies largely through the prism of other Marvel©™® movies.

This Is the Issue

To be clear, Marvel©™® has earned its positive brand reputation. They’ve produced a large amount of entertainment over a long period of time, with an eye for quality control. Like a restaurant, I know from their brand that I can rely on them to produce something that I won’t hate.

A lot of the non-professional reactions I see, and even some of the professional ones, and the ones that straddle the line just because they’re amateurs who’ve managed to make a living through clickbait, seem to be tempered through the lens of “brand endorsement” instead of critical review.

I think this is because Marvel©™® movies themselves are treated as important cultural moments, regardless of whether the movie is good or bad. It’s no longer a discussion about entertainment, it’s entertainment as avatar for things people want to discuss.

This is why people have started weaponizing their opinions to the granular level where our franchises are no longer just entertainments. This is why you can’t have an honest discussion about Marvel©™® movies anymore.

If the movie is middling, people pivot to talking about its place in the larger Marvel©™® firmament, or its societal import, or any of a number of other things. If the movie is good, then everything is fine and we can talk about its goodness…and what that means to the issues of the day.

It’s driving me nuts.

Splinter of the Fan’s Eye

I love Star Wars. If you seek evidence of my authenticity there, I offer unto you my online name (kesseljunkie) and the name of this blog, as well the fact that I’m on a weekly Star Wars-focused podcast called Aggressive Negotiations.

But regardless of anything else, I recognize that it’s only a series of movies. If I love it, or if I don’t, it only has to do with the movie itself.

For all the years I’ve been accused of having a “blind spot” with Star Wars, I marvel at…Marvel©™® fans. To address my own supposed Star Wars “fanboy” status, it should  be disproved with my reactions to The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, my previous disavowal of the Expanded Universe “canon,” and plenty of other examples, I’ve proudly been able to remain a fan while speaking to what doesn’t work.

(Yes, yes: What doesn’t work “for me.” Obviously I’m talking about what doesn’t work “for me” when I say that, but it seems you have to throw that qualifier out there at every chance.)

splinter from teenage mutant ninja turtles tmnt
Not this splinter.

I just don’t get why Marvel©™® movies get to wear this shield of protection about them, simply because they’re so important to their fans. It’s as if Marvel©™® has replaced religion for them.

Try to get the same sort of absolution for a movie in the DC movie universe. Try to get the same leeway, or understanding, for any other franchise…or its fans.

I Get It

I understand the reflexive defensiveness. I understand the desire to protect that which you value emotionally.

A lot of people have grown up with Marvel©™® movies being a constant stream of entertainment for them from adolescence through young adulthood. Disney®©™ has successfully turned Marvel©™® into an unassailable brand. It’s brilliant what they’ve managed to do, in many regards.

Additionally, since it’s structurally become TV you pay for by the episode, I understand viewing your favorite show and then rating the episodes only as they exist within that fictional arc. It makes sense.

Eventually people will get bored with the Marvel©™® franchise. It’s inevitable. McDonald’s once was dominant, only to be toppled by others. Sears & Roebuck once wandered the Earth, exacting terrible vengeance on bad consumers.

But it’s still bothersome to me that we’re grading on a curve. It’s irksome to be talking about the Marvel©™® movies without the proper context.

For me.

Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher.
Does this count as a “pilot episode”? Because The Punisher’s had a LOT of them, then. And where’s my 4K edition of this already???

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?