For a long time I’ve held an ambiguous attitude toward geek culture, and ultra-fandom. On the one hand, it’s painfully disturbing how much time some people lavish over recreating their favorite fantasy franchises, whether they while away the hours writing fan-fiction, painting fan-art, sewing cosplay costumes, compiling guides to their favorite shows and films and comics, or attending cons (or all of the above). On the other—color me naive, but these selfsame individuals often display genuine creativity, acquiring and utilizing practical skills (writing, painting, sewing, editing, socializing) in order to express their fanaticism. They admirably distinguish themselves from other, more passive consumers—and sometimes they make truly wonderful things.
Fan-fiction, and fan-art, and cosplay, and conventions, are understood to be deceptively complex, and worthwhile subjects of scholarship. Now we’ve finally reached a point, I’d like to argue, where fan-made cinema has become genuinely interesting, and deserving of critical attention.
This won’t come as news to fans. They’ve known for some time now that homemade geek films are sometimes better than commercial theatrical releases—or, at least, often no worse (and usually have the edge in that they’re much shorter, and available for free). Consider for example the following animation, “Go! Rockman! 衝吧!! 洛克人 !!!” (2011), which features a battle between Rockman (the Japanese name for Mega Man) and the evil Transformer Starscream:
And here’s another animated toy short: Patrick Boivin‘s “Black Widow Gone Wild” (2011):
Admittedly, we’re hardly in the presence of great art. Both of these videos are pretty disposable, tending toward the obvious and immediately accessible, desiring chiefly to be commercial entertainments. (Such movies sometimes serve as calling cards for their respective makers, attempts to win jobs in the more official entertainment industry—a depressing, albeit understandable aim.) And they have other problems as well. The Mega Man short is, for my tastes, much too long, too repetitive and tedious, while the Black Widow one is too short, little more than a tease. (It feels unfinished, more like a trailer for a longer work, rather than a coherent film in its own right.) Both, too, add to the monotony of present-day culture—quite literally, they contribute to a preexisting, dominant, single tone: “All superhero action, all of the time.” I find it difficult these days to get all that excited about such fantasies.
And yet, there’s some real fun to be had in each of these films, a fun that’s frequently missing from the more obligatory, numbly by-the-number franchise movies. Both pieces revel in the childish pleasure of mixing and matching one’s toys. Who would win in a fight between Mega Man and Starscream? It’s pleasant, perhaps, to think about, despite being a ridiculous question. Along these nostalgic lines, I’ll admit to some joy in hearing the Transformers “transformation sound” mixed in with the familiar Mega Man noises. Each film also exhibits a very playful contrast between the slickly animated figures (purchased toys) and homemade backgrounds. It’s cute how Mega Man and Starscream’s battle unfolds amidst walls made from toy boxes (and the handwritten keypad is an especially nice touch); the CGI sky backgrounds add yet another layer. And the best thing by far about Boivin’s video (besides the fact that Black Widow fights Michael Jackson simply because Boivin owns both toys—and the excellent use he makes of the accompanying song) is the fact that it all takes place on the floor of a public bathroom.
Furthermore, both videos play well with the plasticity of their models. Mega Man transforms hands and blinks, just like in his games. And the Black Widow defeats the T-1000 by unzipping her leather catsuit—which recalls young boys (and some young girls) undressing Barbies. Finally, it hardly needs be said that the animation in both of these films is very, very good. (Boivin’s is particularly superb. I have no idea how he accomplished some of that stuff—which is part of the fun, and a sign of his technical mastery.)
The current spate of fan-crafted movies began, to my knowledge, nearly a decade ago (or, at least, that’s when folks gained the ability to more easily share their creations). Eight years back, a friend showed me the live-action fan-film “Batman: Dead End” (2003):
This one was made by folks already working in the film industry—but despite that, and despite its being listed at the IMDb, it’s still predominantly a fan-piece, made after hours as a labor of love (as well a calling card for its director), and not sanctioned by the characters’ owners. It also features a fan’s loving attention to production detail—a genuine fondness that’s missing from most corporate superhero output. As I’ve claimed elsewhere, this short’s simple Batsuit bests nearly every other, official Batsuit. And it has real geek pedigree: the Joker is played (pretty well, I think) by Walter Koenig’s son Andrew Koenig (who, sadly, took his own life last year). The hunk playing Batman is a bit bland—but isn’t that par for the course with the Dark Knight? At least he convincingly looks the part.
Again, we can see in this short that familiar mix-and-match quality: Batman vs. Joker vs. Aliens vs. Predator. Those latter two alien races have been duking it out since the early 1990s (in the Dark Horse comics series), and in 2004 they graduated to feature-length films—which met with muted fan reaction, and have presumably already been forgotten. But, in 2003, this short had the air of a slightly forbidden treat: DC vs. Dark Horse. Eight years later, I think some mild frisson still haunts the piece; the opening is kind of dull, but upon seeing the film’s world open up at the three-minute mark, we might think, “Ooh, I didn’t know those otherworldly villains would be taking part in this movie!”
Fan art regularly exhibits this mix-and-match, collage-like nature. Why not? It’s one of the form’s primary means of distinguishing itself from more official product. The canonical movies and books and comics and games are, above all, safe, usually written by committees intent on guarding lucrative franchises. (Hence the tendency to reboot even successful series, and constantly retell established origin stories.) Meanwhile, fans want to see Batman fight the Aliens and the Predators! To the death! The characters’ corporate owners, given time, might strike such a deal—but then it would take forever to clear all the rights, and to arrange the all-important royalty-sharing agreements. And when the mountains of paperwork finally got signed, the end result probably wouldn’t be worth the wait. (Does anyone really remember, fondly or otherwise, Marvel and DC’s Amalgam Universe?)
Not here. Here, the Alien really gets to gobble down the Joker—and what a relief, really, that the criminal mastermind won’t, as Batman threatens him, be “going back to Arkham” (from which he’d just once again escape some other day). True, it’s a little random that an Alien kills the Joker—but it still works in terms of the piece, since the moment is meant to be a surprise. And there’s a nice congruency in pairing the Predators with Batman: both characters win by relying on bags of tricks.
We could, if we wanted to, waste all day, waste many days, finding examples of this stuff. (Indeed, there are sites entirely dedicated to doing that.) And most of our discoveries would be junk (albeit fun). But a case can be made that some fan-cinema is serious art. Consider AKJAK’s “Vader Sessions” (2006):
In this one, the collaging is more foregrounded, less seamless. That’s a large part of what makes this more than just another “I want to make my own Star Wars” :
The humor here [...] arises from the contrast between the original footage and the added dialogue. AKJAK’s substitutions call direct attention to fact that James Earl Jones, though most famous for voicing Darth Vader, has played numerous racially charged characters (in films such as The Great White Hope, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Soul Man, Coming to America, and Field of Dreams). AKJAK’s editing, furthermore, demonstrates the way that such blackness was effaced from the lily-white world of Star Wars (George Lucas being the universe’s biggest square). Recall that Lucas was criticized for the lack of ethnic diversity in his space opera, similar to how he was later criticized, in his prequel trilogy, for his reliance on racist stereotypes. “Vader Sessions,” then, can be read as a very funny, but also very serious racial critique of Star Wars, and perhaps contemporary science-fiction in general. (It’s worth noting that AKJAK took his name from the post-Blaxploitation film Action Jackson.)
Consider also Mike Stoklasa’s wildly popular video critiques of the Star Wars prequel trilogy:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review (2009):
Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones Review (2010):
Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith Review (2010) (By this point, Stoklasa, realizing what a hit he had on his hands, posted the third installment at his own site, rather than at YouTube.)
Well, they’re very funny, for one thing, and that’s not easy. (“Now this is where it gets complex, my lovelies.”) And like the other fan-cinema we’ve looked at, all three reviews exhibit an impressive degree of technical skill. Stoklasa is a gifted actor and editor, and he has clearly labored over his movies with a fan’s dedication and patience, weaving together visual puns, intertextual references, running jokes, and informative comparisons with other films. He also deftly alternates between his central criticism of Star Wars and an increasingly complicated frame narrative. Throughout the trilogy, the narrator (Mr. Plinkett) and his vengeful foil Nadine steadily emerge as endearing characters, rooted in stereotypes but distinctly drawn and performed. (Their evolving love/hate relationship handily trumps the limpid affair at the center of Lucas’s movies.)
These movies also serve as wonderful pieces of film criticism. Stoklasa, who clearly knows a few things about film theory, repeatedly points out ways in which Lucas could have improved his own trilogy. (Indeed, the origin for these rant-based reviews seems to be the fact that Stoklasa loves Star Wars more than George Lucas does, and was outraged, like many fans, at the laziness of the prequels.) The reviews takes Lucas to task for his lack of compelling characters (especially when compared with the original Star Wars films), flat direction, reliance on mindless action, opacity, tendency to overload the screen with too many CGI elements, and bewildering plot inconsistencies (this is a fan-film, after all—and fans love to pick nits). As the reviews progress, Stoklasa broadens his critique to other trends in contemporary filmmaking:
- An emphasis on expository dialogue (We don’t see Obi Wan and Anakin’s adventures; rather, we’re told about them. And much of the “action” of the three films consists of people sitting on couches, talking.);
- An over-reliance on greenscreen/CGI, resulting in what Stoklasa calls “[an] assembly-line production devoid of any emotional involvement by anyone, a film that coldly exploits the works of craftsmen and artists in a sterile computer-controlled environment, resulting in a series of colorful crisp images that are played in a sequence”;
- The fact that the movies are mostly an excuse for a merchandising bonanza.
Throughout, he maintains a good sense of humor about himself, and displays a refreshing willingness to call stupid things stupid.
In doing so, these films, like AKJAK’s short, reveal even more of fan-cinema’s promise, beyond just mixing and matching different franchise elements, or killing off famous characters: the Star Wars reviews are vulgar and critical and subversive in a way that officially licensed products would never dare. (Many fan-fiction authors have already internalized this, which is why so much of the stuff is pornographic.)
Even more importantly, Stoklasa and AKJAK understand that fan-films need not borrow the form of the original work. A homemade Mega Man film need not feature Mega Man repetitively battling other robots—and, if it does, there’s no reason why those fights have to look like the fights in current Hollywood films. The Mega Man/Starscream battle, “Black Widow Gone Wild,” and “Batman: Dead End,” I’d argue, are ultimately derivative works. Meanwhile, the Star Wars reviews and “Vader Sessions” borrow liberally from Lucas’s originals—but the resulting films cannot be mistaken for their inspirations.
In fact, all of the aesthetic strategies we’ve seen are means that the fan-artist has of violating the familiar, coherent, predictable world of the canonical original. The more imitative the fan’s work is, I’d like to argue, the more it becomes just another “potential installment”—cute, perhaps, and well-made, possibly, but often little else. True fan-artistry, on the other hand, lies primarily in the degree of the work’s departure. To rephrase this in terms of my initial point: to what extent is the fan making something distinct? Something that couldn’t exist in the pre-existing world of the commercial franchise? To what extent has the fan revealed him- or herself as an active shaper of their materials, something more than a passive consumer?
A Closing Cry for Help: A while back, when the Lord of the Rings movies were first coming out, I read an online complaint from a fan criticizing Peter Jackson for cutting so much of Tolkien’s original dialogue. He boasted that he and his friends had made their own LOTR adaptation, without omitting a single word. Silly me, I didn’t note his name or contact information. If anyone can help me find this complete Lord of the Rings (it must be dozens of hours long! filmed in the woods behind someone’s house! with a VHS camcorder!*), I’d be eternally grateful.
*Assuming it really exists.