Monday, June 22, 2015

Fan Culture Wars (brief thoughts on 3 fandoms)

fan art by (l-r) Renny08, Mine Yoshizaki, Scott Campbell

Every month, I will be offering at least one post on Twin Peaks...up until Showtime re-airs the original series. Then I will post extensive coverage of each episode (mixing new reactions with my many older pieces) immediately after they air. Stay tuned.

Apparently, by sheer coincidence today is "Evangelion Day" (the first episode takes place on June 22, 2015). My recap/discussion series on the show resumes in two days. Meanwhile, check out my archive of Neon Genesis Evangelion material.

Tonight I was going to review United Red Army, but had trouble activating the subtitles so it will have to wait. Instead I'll use the opportunity to share some musings on "fandom." These will be brief, speculative rather than deeply informed, and focused on the rather random sampling of Twin Peaks, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Star Wars (specifically, the prequels) rather than the big three - or so I'm told - of Star Wars (emphasis on the original trilogy), Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. I don't know much about fan culture in general - until recently it was not my thing, and even now it isn't something I participate in beyond a few exceptions (maybe just one). So these are very much the observations of an outsider although I have some experience with all three of these fandoms. More importantly, I have a great curiosity about them, how they work, and particularly the existence of different groups within these fan communities, what those groups mean, and how they overlap. Let's take 'em each in turn.


Twin Peaks

I've heard theories that there are two basic types of Peaks fans: "pie & coffee" & "Black Lodge/Blue Rose mysteries." The fanbase has also been divided, somewhat confusingly, into "Twin Peaks fans" & "David Lynch fans." A difference could also be noted between those whose favorite character is Cooper and those whose favorite character is Laura. Essentially, when you get right down to it, at bottom (how many different ways can I say this?) these are various ways of positing a divide between those who prefer the TV series and those who prefer the film.

There's some truth to these contours but they are also quite misleading. The fandom is pleasingly messy - some of the people most forgiving of the second season's flaws, and most taken with the soap opera plotting, absolutely love the movie. Some fans who dislike Fire Walk With Me are nonetheless enthralled with the dark side of the show. When I explored the archives of early nineties internet commentary on Twin Peaks (yes, there was an internet then...sort of) I discovered that almost all the hardcore fans loved the movie (at least within this sample), something I had not thought was the case. Among those who view Peaks' primary importance as giving voice to Laura Palmer, there is still great affection for and enjoyment of Cooper's cheerful bromides, and the cozy small-town atmosphere of the show.

At their best, Twin Peaks fan communities (particularly the tremendous "World of Blue" forum on dugpa.com, without which my Journey Through Twin Peaks video series probably wouldn't have been possible) taught me how to reconcile my appreciation for the varying aspects of Twin Peaks, how to see them as part of a greater whole and not simply contradictions/rejections of one another. Initially the wide disparity between the tone and style of the film and series gave me whiplash (to some extent it still does). This disparity made me feel like I had to choose between these worlds - the idea of Twin Peaks as fun entertainment, enjoyable to parse for clues and theories, focused on a broad ensemble of characters and the idea of Twin Peaks as profoundly moving and upsetting art, something to be experienced and overwhelmed by on a visceral level, anchored entirely on the subjective experience of a single character. But the more I saw fans engaging with the work, the more I realized the power and strength in this tension, that it was less a contradiction than an expansion to consider the series and film as part of one saga.

Still, that gap exists especially for first-time viewers. Last year I attended a screening of the film in a library. Most of the attendees hadn't watched the movie yet but were obviously fans of the show and they showed up in homemade costumes to gorge on donuts and coffee before the movie (one librarian, dressed as Nadine, was drawing the shades before showtime when suddenly the ridiculousness of the situation occurred to her and she turned around to shout, "My drapes!" Cue appreciative laughter). The host had not yet seen the movie, and when the lights went up afterwards, she was clearly shaken and almost apologetic about staging the screening. Throughout the early part of the film, there was a great deal of laughter and even in the later parts every single time something supernatural occurred the audience broke out in relieved guffaws. The early Laura scenes received that too (how could "Gobble, gobble" not?) but around the time Laura gives her angel speech to Donna silence fell over the room. I'm really not sure how most of the viewers took the movie (although one acquaintance, who won the costume contest as Pete Martell with a plastic fish in a percolator, said he really liked it - despite having almost stopped watching the series halfway through, when it got too frightening). They were at least respectful, which isn't always the case.

All of the fascinating tensions and contradictions of being a Twin Peaks fan were present that night, and I'm certain they will be highlighted again when the series returns. Right now, the casual conventional wisdom about Twin Peaks focuses on the quirky eccentricity of the humor, the excitement of the murder mystery, the lovability of Agent Cooper, the vaguely-eerie-but-not-too-offputting darkness of the woods around town. Gifs and tumblr posts tend more toward stylized celebrations of mood and atmosphere than heartfelt identifications with the depth of character and theme (a big contrast with Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I'll discuss in a moment). The fandom still seems pretty small, though it's been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Hopefully when Showtime airs the new series, this interest will explode and with that growth will come greater awareness of and astonishment with the need to navigate Twin Peaks' many different modes (a difficulty which may be taken for granted by a lot of fans who have grown used to its demands and detours over the years). What makes Twin Peaks fandom so rich and interesting, like Twin Peaks itself, is that it isn't easy.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

The same could - and has - been said about Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I will begin covering episode by episode later this week). The show deceptively begins with a story which tweaks but still obeys anime conventions (or so I'm told; I'm still not that familiar with much anime) before eventually diving deeply into psychoanalysis and avant-garde animation in its final arc. The film that followed the series, End of Evangelion, has often been compared to Fire Walk With Me in its effect and relationship to the show. Apparently the finale and the film were quite controversial at the time, and you'll still find a lot of fans who don't like the last two episodes - but the movie itself seems to be more widely accepted.

What intrigues me about Evangelion fandom, which I've stumbled across only recently (following my yearlong trek through Twin Peaks) is how self-conscious, self-analytical, and (sort of) self-critical it is by comparison. I think this is partly because it has a firmer foundation in anime fandom than Twin Peaks has in any other genre or medium (it's very much its own thing), so there is more awareness about how all this stuff works. For example, there are quite a lot of Eva think-pieces which criticize fans who "miss the point" of Evangelion, celebrating it for shallow reasons while missing the deeper resonance and the many ways that creator Hideaki Anno subverts tropes, forcing the viewers to question not only the work but themselves. And it's true, Anno has been quite vocal about his frustrations with the "otaku" culture of Japan: its fetishization of both female characters and military hardware (something Evangelion itself at once critiques, embodies, and subverts) at the expense of engagement with ideas and society.

But it seems like most of the Eva fans I've encountered get this, so as they proclaim their frustration with those who don't, I have to wonder to what extent they are strawmanning. By many accounts, the "come for the mecha action, don't stay for the hallucinations" approach is a real thing in Japan but among American fans, already a small selection pool, is it really that common? Again, I don't know. I just find it interesting that the fans need this sense of division, of those who get it and those who don't, to define the work and themselves.

Another aspect of Evangelion fandom which fascinates me is the phenomenon of "shipping," which seems to define a huge portion of the commentary on, and celebration of, the show. "Ship," for those who don't know, is short for "relationship" and concerns itself with pairing the two characters most meant for each other, presumably romantically. Evangelion confuses matters by putting numerous characters in suggestive and/or lovelorn situations without fully committing to any one pairing (at least on the series; the film might be another matter). These pairings speak to fans' different desires for the characters (and maybe themselves) - linking Shinji to the confrontational, temperamental Asuka works for those who think he needs to get out of his shell while pairing him with the beneficent (albeit ultimately dangerous) Kaworu satisfies fans who want him to get the unconditional love and support he desires.

I've also discovered a lot of Eva fans concerned with cultural identity (the best Eva analyses I've found are on a Tumblr called "Talk Trans Eva to Me"), taking the show's invitation to analysis even further. They observe how the characters' personalities are both shaped by the surrounding world and the demands/expectations it places upon them, and expressive of deep-seated hurts and needs. Considering that Hideaki Anno created Evangelion in part to express his own struggle with depression, this affinity is unsurprising. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised there isn't more Twin Peaks analysis/celebration in this vein, honing in on and sympathizing with a characters' psychological struggles and attempts at self-realization, especially surrounding Laura Palmer (although there are definitely some fan tributes out there that do this). But then again, the sheer quantity of fan engagement with Evangelion far outpaces Twin Peaks for whatever reason - there seem to be exponentially more essays, videos, and pieces of fanart for Eva than for Peaks. Perhaps when Lynch and Mark Frost bring back Peaks - and Laura (though we don't yet know how) - more of this approach will emerge.

Star Wars

Star Wars fandom is also, albeit subtly, interesting in this regard. Lately, Bob Clark (whose conversations with me on Evangelion provided a gateway into its fan culture) has pointed out the greater proclivity of prequel fans to engage in LGBT-related fanart (here's a recent post he shared and commented upon). He doesn't see this as much (or at all) among fans of the older trilogy and suspects it has something to do with a generation gap, among other things. He also sees a general underdog quality to prequel fandom, which he himself expressed by contrasting Anakin Skywalker with conventional fan favorite Han Solo in a meme/post created a few months ago.

I'm not a great admirer of the prequels. I revisited them a few years ago, and found some things to like, but overall they still disappointed me (to be honest, only the 1977 film still seems like a full-fledged masterpiece in my eyes). But increasingly I am intrigued by the existence of Star Wars fans who don't fit the dominant narrative of a resentful, snarky, "Lucas-raped-my-childhood" fanbase. Partly this is spurred by Bob's own passionate advocacy, partly it is a result of my distaste for the inherent anti-auterism of the "Force Awakens will restore the magic of Star Wars" crowd, partly it's just natural curiosity about a phenomenon that is mostly overlooked. But it is true at this point that anyone under the age of, say, 20, grew up with the prequels and that a lot of Star Wars fans are less into purism or nostalgia than the Gen-X contingent that dominates the conversation (or else they have a different purism or nostalgia in mind)

A piece of prequel fanart that I discovered (and featured above) takes place in an alternate universe where Anakin and Padme stay together, and he does not become Darth Vader. It's interesting in that it indulges in a sense of what-if and fan creativity similar to a lot of the original trilogy fans, but with a very different set of references and (possibly) preferences. Frankly, as I said, I don't know that much about the world of prequel fandom. It's been suggested to me that it skews younger, more culturally progressive, certainly more upbeat in tone, and (obviously) more loyal to George Lucas than the more vocal Star Wars fanbase that Disney, J.J. Abrams, and the mainstream media seem most interested in catering to. But can anyone provide more evidence or perspective either for or against this viewpoint? It seems like not only I, but a lot of other people, are mostly in the dark.

Meanwhile, as the new Star Wars film approaches I find myself quite irritated with the mentality that Disney has "rescued" the franchise from its creator. I wrote about this extensively back when Lucasfilm was sold, but just to briefly reiterate and expand... I'm all for criticizing Lucas' creative decisions. But doing so while trying to claim that he has somehow betrayed the "real" Star Wars is having one's cake and eating it too. The "real" Star Wars is his, and the rest of us are along for the ride. Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that fans can engage with work on their own terms, revise it, tweak it, subvert it, celebrate it, through fanfiction, fanart, video essays and various other tributes and/or analyses (I'm a bit more lukewarm about fanedits, especially when they are presented as "replacements" for the director's vision, but we'll save that topic for another time). That is probably my greatest discovery of the past year, ever since I started to tentatively explore Twin Peaks fan communities: the ability of fans to make a work seem even more alive by engaging with it, and with each other.

But the greatest engagement, the most magical aspect of the whole process, is that - in almost every significant case - the works that are being mythologized by enthusiastic fans, expanded into something that spans the mind's horizon, began life not as committee-assembled consumer goods, honed and marketed for mass appreciation (although this is usually how they end up) but as the product of unique, fairly independent individuals - and usually, one individual. To lose sight of that core truth is not only to disempower the creator but to disempower the fan. It suggests their only role is to take part in this collective, so-much-bigger-than-one-person enterprise (which somehow always seems to align with a streamlined corporate marketing machine) rather than to participate in a community and then see what they can do with it themselves. Every fan is a potential creator and that's the creators' greatest gift to the public: not so much the work itself as the inspiration it provides, and the realization that individual imagination offers immense power and possibility.

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