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  • Fandom: For the Love of the Franchise

    April 21, 2015
    A thought by James Berardinelli

     

    This is the first part of a three-part series about fandom and movies. Part One is a personal reminiscence. Part Two looks at the marketing side and how Hollywood views fandom. Part Three examines what I call "The Tyranny of Canon."

     

     

    I understand what it means to be a fan - passionate, devoted, and even a little obsessive about something. I guess it's in my DNA. At age 47, I no longer consider myself to be a true fan of anything - the ebb and flow of life doesn't allow the time necessary to devote to any one thing - but I am sympathetic and even a little envious of those who can make the claim. In one form or another, fandom has brought me many of the moments I treasure. It also resulted in my marriage, since my first contact with my wife came in the form of a fan's e-mail.

    The release of the latest trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (the one that ends with the anticipated shot of Han and Chewie) has stirred memories of the days when my passion ran white-hot for all things Star Wars. George Lucas' space opera wasn't my first love. That distinction went to the generic category of "monster movies." Back in the mid-'70s, while other kids were outside playing ball and doing whatever kids did while not in school, I sequestered myself in front of the TV and absorbed Creature Double Feature. That 3-hour block of old black-and-white films provided my first introduction to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Godzilla, and King Kong. At age seven, my most fervent desire was to see the silent German film Nosferatu. I had seen pictures in a book I owned and was desperate to watch the film. Count Orlock was the creepiest vampire imaginable. But, although Nosferatu escaped me until the early 1990s, I did get a chance to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on PBS. My first indoor theatrical film was the 1976 King Kong remake.

    As a (movie) lover, I was passionate but not faithful. My infatuation with King Kong lasted about a year. During that time, it was Kong 24-7. I bought the trading cards and posters, owned a ten-inch high rubber ape, read the screenplay and a novelization of the 1933 film, and so on. I did just about everything I could in the pre-pre-Internet era to feed my frenzy. Then along came George Lucas. 'Twasn't beauty killed the beast for me…it was one shot of a stardestroyer.

    When it comes to the original Star Wars, many people can recall the day and date when they were first exposed. I'm not so lucky. The best I can do is to say it was sometime in June 1977. Was school still in session? I can't remember. I saw it on a Saturday and it was warm outside. I went to a drive-in with my next door neighbor and his family. Six of us in a station wagon - windows and back door open. I stayed awake through the whole thing even though the two girls were asleep before the Catina Band started playing.

     

     

    I knew about Star Wars before I saw it. Even in the quiet suburban development where I lived, word got out that there was something special about it. I first saw clips when Siskel & Ebert reviewed it on Sneak Previews and magazines like Starlog provided plenty of still pictures. I think the thing that got me the most excited was when my then-best friend Tom showed off Issue #4 of the Marvel Comics movie adaptation. But a nine-year old can't travel farther than his bicycle will take him and there was no movie theater within a reasonable distance. So I'm not one of those kids who can claim to have caught Star Wars on its opening day, but I saw it three times before Labor Day: twice in drive-ins and once in a crappy indoor theater where the floors were stickier than melted sugar and the faux butter stench from popcorn was enough to camouflage Tauntaun breath.

    My love of the first movie, later renamed A New Hope but forever known to me simply as Star Wars, is tied inextricably with my childhood. I remember 1977 as one of many endless summers in a simpler era - before video games, the Internet, home computers, and VCRs. I listened to the Star Wars soundtrack on a double LP and relived the movie through a children's book called The Story of Star Wars (lots of pictures). I slept on Star Wars sheets, dried after a shower using a Star Wars towel, read George Lucas' ghost-written Star Wars novel, and eventually bought and played with the Star Wars action figures (which were late to the party but, when they arrived, became the star attraction). That was the life of a young Star Wars fan.  Adults in general were more restrained in their appreciation. They liked the movie but it in no way became a pillar of their lives. There's something very different between enjoying something and entering the cult of fandom.

    I wish I could say how many times I saw Star Wars theatrically (excluding the 1997 re-release). Three times in 1977 to be sure. Maybe another couple of times in 1978. Once at a birthday party in 1979. (The film was re-released every summer until The Empire Strikes Back arrived.  Somewhere along the way, it became Episode IV.) Six or seven times altogether. By the time The Empire Strikes Back entered theaters, I no longer considered myself a Star Wars fan. I had transferred the bulk of my loyalty to Star Trek. I never saw an incompatibility (as some do) between loving both Wars and Trek. As I got older, however, I found the latter more to my taste. That didn't stop me from appreciating Empire and being disappointed by Return of the Jedi, but the magic woven by the first Star Wars movie had dispersed.

    Starting in 1978, I began to consider myself a Trekkie. In those days, before the media turned it into a term of derision, that was how fans described themselves. My first exposure to Star Trek came in the mid-1970s, when I saw a rerun on TV but I didn't start paying attention until 1978. I didn't begin watching Star Trek because of Star Wars; I had been interested in science fiction and astronomy since 1973 or 1974. My exposure to Star Trek occurred because a local UHF channel decided to put it on at 5 pm weekdays - a perfect time since that was around the time I finished my homework and was looking for a way to unwind.

     

    When I first started watching Star Trek, I was unaware there would be a motion picture. I saw a trailer during the summer of 1979 and I remember a sense of awe… a greater awe than what I experienced watching the movie. At the time, I found Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be a bore. I didn't want wall-to-wall space battles, but the movie didn't offer even one. Talk talk talk talk. Kirk and Spock seemed stiff. The Enterprise was sterile. It was a test of my young fan's sensibilities. I wanted to like it but deep down I really didn't. I have since revisited The Motion Picture many times and revised my opinion of it.  It's flawed, to be sure, but is a loving valentine to Star Trek and big budget space exploration, especially once Robert Wise recut and improved it for home video.

    My period of Star Trek fandom lasted 13 years, spanning pre-pubescence to adulthood. It was pushed aside by baseball and the rise of my newfound movie reviewing hobby. I liked The Next Generation crew but, once Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were put out to pasture, Star Trek lost its luster. (The decision-makers who thought Shatner and Nimoy were too old didn't consider that the die-hard Star Trek fans who worshipped the show during its original run were only about a decade younger than the aging stars.)

    I am not now a Star Trek fan in the truest sense of the word. My fandom has lapsed; my credentials expired. I am a backslider and an apostate. Nor am I a Star Wars fan. But those roots go deep and can never be pulled out entirely. Nostalgia is a powerful undercurrent in all long-lived corners of fandom. New franchises can't compete - at least not yet. Doctor Who is 51. Star Trek is 49. Star Wars is 38. When Leonard Nimoy appeared in J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek after not having donned the ears in 18 years, it brought a tear to my eye. The same was true when Tom Baker's voice rang out toward the end of "The Day of the Doctor." I will feel the same stir of emotions when Luke, Han, Leia, and all the other old favorites take their bows in Star Wars VII.

    What many on the outside looking in don't understand is that genre fandom is no different from any other kind of community. It's a group of people brought together by a shared love of something. Die-hard fans read, write, debate, and chat. The dismissive phrase "Get a Life" ignores the basic fact that genre fandom is as legitimate a lifestyle choice as religion or sports fanaticism. Are Yankees fans told to "get a life"? Are solemn Catholics told to "get a life"? No, because they have lives. As do Trekkies/Trekkers, Whovians, and Star Wars devotees. (Is there a nick-name for them?) I may no longer be a member of any fan community but I gaze with fondness back to those days when I was. When I go to a screening of a Hunger Games movie and see the excitement on the faces of those lucky enough to be invited to an advance showing, it stirs something deep within me. Different franchise, same feeling. Fandom - or at least what it represents - is universal. I feel sorry for those who have never sampled its addictive taste. I wouldn't trade my years of following Star Wars, Star Trek, and a few other properties for anything.

    Fantastic! Live long and prosper! May the force be with you!


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