September 15, 2008

Mondo Aficionado

It's a Fan's Fan's Fan's World

Quirky individuals with curious worldviews have routinely found favor within the field of documentary film. Whether it's the peculiar townsfolk of Vernon, Florida, the tenacious indie auteur of American Movie, or the eccentric bear enthusiast in Grizzly Man, audiences love seeing an intriguing wildflower that doesn't wilt in front of the lens. This new breed of human interest story has become especially popular over the past couple of decades, thriving on oddball characters who are inspired, passionate, and obsessive.

All of those qualities would aptly describe the dedicated denizens of genre film fandom. There are a myriad of science fiction and fantasy sub-cultures, and a good majority of them have been profiled on film over the last ten years. These documentaries range from slick, Hollywood quality productions to no-budget, labor-of-love endeavors, but each one looks at the experience of being a true fan.

TrekkiesThe faith of a fanbase can be a very powerful thing. Even though Star Trek's initial broadcast run in the late 1960s was short-lived, stubborn fans of the syndicated series showed such support over the ensuing decade that the show's cast were brought back together for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It proved successful, a string of sequel films and TV spin-offs followed, and the rest is science fiction history.

The documentary Trekkies (1997), of course, refers to the fanatical followers of the franchise, which currently boasts six different televised series and ten feature films (along with a highly anticipated reboot movie due next spring). The film features comments from many familiar faces in the Star Trek universe, as well as a colorful cross section of dedicated fans. The focus is limited mainly to fandom within the United States, but a follow-up documentary, Trekkies 2 (2003), looks at Star Trek's impact around the globe.

It is only fitting that this particular sci-fi sub-culture was among the first to be documented on film, since Trekkies have informed the geeky fan stereotype more than any other segment of pop culture devotees. This persona was lampooned in the fictional comedy Galaxy Quest (1999). The film portrays the aging stars of a cult sci-fi TV show (a spot-on Star Trek homage) who have been reduced to making convention appearances and fielding trivia questions from nitpicking fanboys.

William Shatner on SNL (1986)William Shatner used a similar premise to have a laugh at the Trekkie world for a famous sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1986. Tired of elaborating on insignificant episode details, he snaps and tells a room full of Vulcan-eared convention-goers, "Get a life, will you people? ...Move out of your parents' basements! ...Grow the hell up! ...It's just a TV show!" Shatner also poked fun at his own celebrity status in Free Enterprise (1999), a comedy about a pair of Kirk-worshipping nerds who get a chance to meet the man himself.


Fanz - Doctor WhoOne faction of sci-fi die hards whose legacy and legion arguably rivals that of the Trekkies, particularly in the U.K., is the Whovians. Doctor Who holds the title of the longest running science-fiction TV show in the world. The series appeared on BBC television from 1963 to 1989 (26 seasons) and recently returned to the air in 2005, along with two subsequent spin-off shows, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The good doctor's fervent followers are the subject of the upcoming British documentary Fanz (2008). The film puts the spotlight on an enormous fanbase that spans multiple generations. The filmmakers encounter the conventioneer, the collector, the cataloguer, the completist, and the costumer--often while talking to one person.

While Star Trek and Doctor Who are undoubtedly loved by great numbers of people, no other franchise in science fiction has approached the level of mass popularity and cultural influence that Star Wars has achieved. The 1977 epic and its two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), were record-setting blockbusters. A massive merchandising effort infiltrated countless childhoods with toys, bedsheets, games, and fast food tie-ins.

StarwoidsStar Wars fandom truly became a force to be reckoned with (pun optional) when, twenty years later, George Lucas announced plans for a new trilogy of prequels. The originally three films were digitally remastered and re-released in theaters to prime audiences for the new chapters, thus resurrecting the childhood fervor of an entire generation of twenty-and-thirty-somethings. Line camping was a common sight in front of any theater expected to premiere a Star Wars film.

This new era of Star Wars mania did not go unrecorded. No less than ten different documentaries have been produced on the subject. Two of the earliest efforts were Tatooine or Bust (1997) and Star Wars or Bust (1999), covering the line camping events that preceded Episode IV's re-release and Episode I's premiere, respectively.

The theatrical run of the prequels is bookended by a pair of documentaries from Jeff Cioletti. Millennium's End: The Fandom Menace (2000) chronicles the anticipation leading up to the new chapters, while Galaxy's End: Revenge of the Myth (2006) gauges fan response after the release of the final film in the new trilogy, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Starwoids (2001) focuses on hardcore fans enduring a six week wait in front of two different theaters in Los Angeles, A Galaxy Far Far Away (2001) is a portrait of Lucas loving conventioneers and line campers, and The PhanDom Menace (2002) documents the Force's influence down under. Both George and Me (2006) and Heart of an Empire (2007) examine the inspirational aspects of being a Star Wars acolyte.

Star Wars - The Force Among UsThe Force Among Us (2007) looks at Star Wars fandom as a whole. We hear from people who dress up in custom made costumes, people who obsessively collect the merchandise, people who make pilgrimages to filming locations, and people like the gentleman pictured above who built his own light sabre.

The films' followers also provide some laughs in the upcoming comedy Fanboys (2008), set in the year leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. A group of friends take a road trip to Skywalker Ranch in an attempt to steal an advance print, since one of them has cancer and may not live to see the film's proper premiere.


Firefly - Done the ImpossibleMuch like the Trekkies in the '70s, fans of Joss Whedon's very short-lived sci-fi TV series Firefly successfully campaigned for the cast's return. Done the Impossible (2006) is essentially a thank you letter to these supporters, who call themselves Browncoats. Through interviews with the cast and crew, as well as conventioneers, the documentary recollects the strange journey from cancellation to cult following to big screen resurrection in Serenity (2005).

Fans of another Whedon show form the basis for IRL (In Real Life) (2007). The film celebrates the diverse community that developed around "the Bronze," the official posting board on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer website.


#1 Fan - A DarkomentaryIn the few years since it's debut, Donnie Darko (2001) has developed a strong cult following, with many viewers reading deep into the details of both the film and its equally engaging website. So while compiling supplemental material to be included on a special "Director's Cut" DVD, a few of the crew members put together a short piece that playfully addressed the reality challenged contingent of the movie's audience.

#1 Fan: A Darkomentary is a poker-faced profile of Darryl Donaldson, a rabid fanboy who proudly displays close to forty identical copies of the Donnie Darko DVD on his shrine shelf. He also treats the film's fictional handbook, "The Philosophy of Time Travel," as gospel and sings along with his own words to the movie's instrumental score. It's all ridiculously over the top, but the mockumentary's outrageousness isn't far from the tone of a lot of serious fan footage scattered around YouTube.


Ringers - Lord of the FansThe writings of J.R.R. Tolkien have had a massive impact on fantasy fiction novels, and most recently, fantasy films. Ringers: Lord of the Fans (2005) follows this influence through the decades by showcasing a vast array of individuals who've been touched by the stories.


Harry Potter Parking LotAnother book series that has enjoyed a wildly successful adaptation to film is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga. Bookstores experienced unprecedented fandom on the release day of each new novel in the canon. For Harry Potter Parking Lot (2000), Jeff Krulik set his sights on devoted young readers waiting in line for a book signing by Rowling. The filmmaker is known for showcasing fans of various stripes in his short films, such as Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986) and Monster Truck Parking Lot (1988). All three titles are included on the Heavy Metal Parking Lot DVD.

An interesting sub-sub-culture has developed within the world of Pottermania, and has already been documented twice. We Are Wizards (2008) and The Wizard Rockumentary: A Movie About Rocking and Rowling (2008) provide a look at the bands and fans of the Wizard Rock genre. Groups such as Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, and The Hermione Crookshanks Experience perform Potter-inspired songs in all-ages venues like libraries and coffee shops.


A Regular Frankie Fan - Shadow CastWhen watching their favorite films, fans might mouth the words to memorized dialogue, sing-along to musical numbers, and maybe even move in sequence with on-screen dancers. Few films, however, have attracted the level of audience participation that the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) receives. One of the most successful midnight movies ever, it is also the longest running theatrical release in history.

The movie has been made available on VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD, yet cinemas showing the title continue to bring people in. The reason for this is the engagingly elaborate, almost ritualistic relationship that fans have with the theatrical screenings. Viewers often dress as their favorite cast member, bring props to use throughout the picture, and shout out responses to on-screen actions and dialogue at key points in the film. A troupe of die hard regulars will sometimes "shadow cast" the movie, acting it out directly below the screen or even in front of it as it plays.

A Regular Frankie Fan: Rocky Horror Lives On (2000) documents this peculiar phenomenon, and explores an enviable cult following that can enjoy their favorite film on the big screen every weekend at midnight, somewhere in the country.


IndyfansThe recently released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) brought a previously low key pocket of fandom into the spotlight. Excitement over a new chapter in the franchise had movie-goers sporting fedoras and bullwhips while line camping for movie tickets. Indyfans and the Quest for Fortune and Glory (2008) covers the anticipation leading up to the release of the fourth installment, speaking with fans as well as film industry folks about the appeal of the adventuresome archaeologist.


Confessions of a SuperheroYou can usually expect a few fully costumed ├╝ber-fans to turn up at the occasional movie premiere or fan convention, but such extravagant displays are a daily sight along Hollywood Boulevard. Dozens of individuals choose to don uncomfortable, often punishingly hot costumes and stand around on the Walk of Fame.

Confessions of a Superhero (2007) profiles four people who adopt modern mythic personas (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Hulk) and try to make ends meet by posing in tourist photographs for tips. It's a compelling portrait of questionable career choices, misguided fandom, and loneliness in pursuit of the American dream.


Otaku Unite!Japanese animation has seen an explosion of American interest within the last decade, developing a generation of reverent followers. The documentary Otaku Unite! (2004) attempts to cover the history of this fandom in the U.S., from early imports like the Astro Boy (1963) and Speed Racer (1967) programs to recent fare such as the Sailor Moon and Pokemon franchises. The field now boasts a healthy national fanbase on par with that of comic books or science fiction, and an anime convention is held somewhere in the U.S. every month.


Bruce Campbell - FanalysisActor Bruce Campbell has endured enough book signings and fan conventions to have seen his fair share of extreme fandom. Fascinated by the variety, intensity, and often the creativity of it all, he decided to turn the camera around and examine the other side of the entertainer/audience relationship. In Fanalysis (2002), Campbell speaks with assorted conventioneers, reads excerpts from some of his more colorful fan mail, and ponders what separates the casual fan from the costumed zealot. This documentary short can be found on the The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead special edition DVD.