Timeshifting Terminator and Dollhouse

I was struck by these promising numbers regarding the number of viewers using DVRs to timeshift episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse, FOX’s ratings-challenged Friday-night block of science fiction.

I started off as a big fan of TSCC, a series which, especially as it hit its stride at the start of season two, seemed on its way to assuming the mantle of the nearly-departed Battlestar Galactica. Reflecting the new tone of SF on television, Chronicles is moody, nuanced, and — with its tangled motifs of time travel and maternal distress — introspective to the point of convolution. I have nowhere near the same appreciation for Dollhouse, which seems to me the very definition of misbegotten: a rather obvious, emptily sensational concept yoked to an unimaginatively-cast lineup of unlikeable characters. As this Penny Arcade comic and accompanying commentary observes, Dollhouse is interesting primarily for what it reveals about the changing author function in serial television: we’re now to the point where we measure the quality of certain shows based on hypothetical extrapolations about how good the text would have been had network execs (those good old go-to villains) not interfered with the showrunner’s divine inspiration.

Significantly, though, I’ve only watched the first episode of Dollhouse; the second and third installments await on my DVR, along with the most recent Chronicles. Placing the shows together on Friday night seemed like a certain death sentence — cult TV fans will never forgive the sin NBC committed against the original Star Trek in 1968-1969, leaving its third season to wither on the ice-floe slot of Fridays at 10 p.m., well away from its target audience — except for one thing. Cult TV has cult viewing habits associated with it, and one of the things we fans do is relocate episodes to spaces in our schedule better suited to focused, attentive viewing. In a word, we timeshift. The sagging numbers for Dollhouse and Chronicles both received a giant boost when DVR statistics were factored in, suggesting not just that the shows might have some life in them yet, but that new technologies of viewing may make the difference.

Of course, we’ve been timeshifting TV for years, first through the VCR and now through any number of digitally-based tools for spooling, streaming, and stealing video. The new technology I refer to is monitorial: the ability to track and quantify this collective behavior. That a once private, even renegade practice is now on the broadcasters’ radar is dishearteningly panoptic in one sense; in another sense, impossible to separate from the first, it may represent a new kind of power — a fannish vox populi to which the producers of beleaguered but promising series might listen.


The fund drives that biannually interrupt the flow of intelligent goodness from my local NPR station like to trumpet the power of “driveway moments” — stories so called because when they come on the radio, you stay in your car, unable to tear yourself away until they’re finished. The term has always interested me because it so bluntly merges the experience of listening with the act of driving: treating the radio as synecdoche for the car, or maybe the other way around (I can never keep my metonymies straight).

Anyway, I had my own driveway moment tonight, when All Things Considered broadcast a story on the vidding movement. Of course, fans have been remixing and editing cult TV content into new, idiosyncratically pleasurable/perverse configurations for decades, and the fact that mainstream media are only now picking up on these wonderful grassroots creations and the subcultural communities through which they circulate is sad proof of a dictum I learned from my long-ago undergraduate journalism professor: by the time a cultural phenomenon ends up on the cover of Newsweek, it’s already six months out of date.

Credit to ATC, though, for doing the story, and for avoiding the trap of talking about vidding as though it were, in fact, something new. I did tense up when the reporter Neda Ulaby used male pronouns to refer to one CSI vidder — “the vidder wants to say something about the dangers faced by cops on the show, and he’s saying it by cutting existing scenes together” — thinking it surely incorrect, since the vidding community is dominantly female. Oh, great, I thought: yet another rewriting of history in which a pointedly masculine narrative of innovation and authorship retroactively simplifies a longer and more complex tradition developed by women. (Yes, I do occasionally think in long sentences like that.)

But then the piece brought in Francesca Coppa, and everything was OK again. Coppa, an associate professor of English and the director of film studies at Muhlenberg College, is herself a vidder as well as an accomplished scholar of fandom; I had the pleasure of hearing her work at MIT’s Media in Transition conference in 2007. With her input, the NPR story manages to compress a smart and fairly accurate picture of vidding and fandom into a little under six minutes — an impressive feat.

The funny thing is that the little flash of anxiety and defensiveness I felt when it seemed like NPR would “get it wrong” was like a guilty echo of the way I’ve “gotten it wrong” over the years. My own work on Star Trek fandom focuses on a variety of fan creativity based on strict allegience to canon, in particular the designed objects and invented technologies that constitute the series’ setting and chronology. I call it, variously, hardware fandom or blueprint culture, and I’ve always conceptualized it as a specifically male mode of fandom. It’s the kind of fan I once was — hell, still am — and in my initial exuberance to explore the subject years ago, I remember thinking and writing as though feminine modes of fandom were mere stepping stones toward, really a pale adjunct to, some more substantive, engaged, and commercially complicit fandom practiced by men. I’ve learned better since, largely through interactions with female friends and colleagues in dialogues like the gender-in-fandom debates staged by Henry Jenkins in summer 2007.

For fear of caricaturing my own and others’ positions, I’ll spare you further mea culpas. Suffice to say that my thinking on fandom has evolved (let’s hope it continues to do so!). I am learning to prize voices like Coppa’s for prompting me to revisit and reassess my own too-easy understandings of fan practices as something I can map and intepret based solely on my own experience: valid enough as individual evidence, I suppose, but curdling into something more insidious when generalized — a male subject’s unthinking colonization of territory already capably inhabited.

Getting Granular with Setpieces

Dan North has published an excellent analysis of the Sandman birth sequence in Spider-Man 3, using this three-minute shot as springboard for a characteristically deft dissection of visual-effects aesthetics and the relationship between CG and live-action filmmaking. His concluding point, that CGI builds on rather than supplants indexical sensibilities — logically extending the cinematographic vocabulary rather than coining utterly alien neologisms — is one that is too often lost in discussions that stress digital technology’s alleged alterity to traditional filmic practices. I’d noticed the Sandman sequence too; in fact, it was paratextually telegraphed to me long before I saw the movie itself, in reviews like this from the New York Times:

… And when [The Sandman] rises from a bed of sand after a “particle atomizer” scrambles his molecules, his newly granulated form shifts and spills apart, then lurches into human form with a heaviness that recalls Boris Karloff staggering into the world as Frankenstein’s monster. There’s poetry in this metamorphosis, not just technological bravura, a glimpse into the glory and agony of transformation.

I don’t have anything to add to Dan’s exegesis (though if I were being picky, I might take issue with his suggestion that the Sandman sequence simply could not have been realized without computer-generated effects; while it’s true that this particular rendering, with its chaotic yet structured swarms of sand-grains, would have taxed the abilities of “stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation,” the fact is that there are infinitely many ways of designing and staging dramatic events onscreen, and in the hands of a different creative imagination than Sam Raimi and his previz team, the Sandman’s birth might have been realized in much more allusive, poetic, and suggestive ways, substituting panache for pixels; indeed, for all the sequence’s correctly lauded technical artistry and narrative concision, there is something ploddingly literal at its heart, a blunt sense of investigation that smacks of pornography, surveillance-camera footage, and NASA animations — all forms, incidentally, that share the Spider-Man scene’s unflinching long take).

But my attention was caught by this line of Dan’s:

This demarcation of the set-piece is a common trope in this kind of foregrounded spectacle — it has clear entry and exit points and stands alone as an autonomous performance, even as it offers some narrative information; It possesses a limited colour scheme of browns and greys (er … it’s sand-coloured), and the lack of dialogue or peripheral characters further enforces the self-containment.

I’ve long been interested in the concept of the setpiece, that strange cinematic subunit that hovers somewhere between shot, scene, and sequence, hesitating among the registers of cinematography, editing, and narrative, partaking of all while being confinable to none. Setpieces can be an unbroken single shot from the relatively brief (the Sandman’s birth or the opening to Welles’s Touch of Evil) to the extravagantly extended (the thirteen-minute tracking shot with which Steadicam fetishist Brian DePalma kicks off Snake Eyes). But we’re perhaps most familiar with the setpiece as constituted through the beats of action movies: hailstorms of tightly edited velocity and collision like the car chases in Bullitt or, more humorously, Foul Play; the fight scenes and song-and-dance numbers that act as structuring agents and generic determinants of martial-arts movies and musicals respectively; certain “procedural” stretches of heist, caper, and espionage films, like the silent CIA break-in of Mission Impossible (smartly profiled in a recent Aspect Ratio post). Setpieces often occur at the start of movies or near the end as a climactic sequence, but just as frequently erupt throughout the film’s running time like beads on a string; Raiders of the Lost Ark is a gaudy yet elegant necklace of such baubles, including one of my favorites, the “basket chase” set in Cairo. Usually wordless, setpieces tend to feature their own distinctive editing rhythms, musical tracks, and can-you-top-this series of gags and physical (now digital) stunts.

Setpieces are, in this sense, like mini-movies embedded within bigger movies, and biological metaphor might be the best way to describe their temporal and reproductive scalability. Like atavistic structures within the human body, setpieces seem to preserve long-ago aesthetics of early cinema: their logic of action and escalation recalls Edison kinetoscopes and Keystone Cops chases, while more hushed and contemplative setpieces (like the Sandman birth) have about them something of the arresting stillness and visual splendor of the actualite. Or to get all DNAish on you, setpieces are not unlike the selfish genes of which Richard Dawkins writes: traveling within the hosts of larger filmic bodies, vying for advantage in the cultural marketplace, it is actually the self-interested proliferation of setpieces that drives the replication — and evolution — of certain genres. The aforementioned martial-arts movies and musicals, certainly; but also the spy movie, the war and horror film, racing movies, and the many vivid flavors of gross-out comedy. The latest innovation in setpiece genetics may be the blockbuster transmedia franchise, which effectively “brands” certain sequences and delivers them in reliable (and proprietary) form to audiences: think of the lightsaber duels in any given phenotypic expression of Star Wars, from film to comic to videogame.

On an industrial level, of course, setpieces also signal constellations of labor that we can recognize as distinct from (while inescapably articulated to) the films’ ostensible authors. One historical instance of this is the work of Slavko Vorkapich, renowned for the montages he contributed to other peoples’ movies — so distinctive in his talents that to “Vorkapich” something became a term of art in Hollywood. Walt Disney was a master when it came to channeling and rebranding the work of individual artists under his own overweening “vision”; more recently we have the magpie-like appropriations of George Lucas, who was only in a managerial sense the creator of the Death Star battle that ends the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope. This complexly composited and edited sequence (itself largely responsible for bringing setpieces into being as an element of fannish discourse) was far more genuinely the accomplishment of John Dykstra and his crew at Industrial Light and Magic, not to mention editors Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas. Further down the line — to really ramify the author function out of existence — the battle’s parentage can be traced to the cinematographers and editors who assembled the World War II movies — Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Dam Busters, etc. — from which Lucas culled his reference footage, a 16mm reel that Dykstra and ILM used as a template for the transcription of Mustangs and Messerschmitts into X-Wings and TIE Fighters.

Thirty years after the first Star Wars, sequences in blockbuster films are routinely farmed out to visual effects houses, increasing the likelihood that subunits of the movie will manifest their own individuating marks of style, dependent on the particular aesthetic tendencies and technological proficiencies of the company in question. (Storyboards and animatics, as well as on-the-fly oversight of FX shots in pipeline, help to minimize the levels of difference here, smoothing over mismatches in order to fit the outsourced chunks of content together into a singularly authored text — hinting at new ways in which the hoary concepts of “compositing” and “continuity” might be redeployed as a form of meta-industrial critique.) In the case of Spider-Man 3, no fewer than eight FX houses were involved (BUF, Evil Eye Pictures, Furious FX, Gentle Giant Studios, Giant Killer Robots, Halon Entertainment, Tweak Films, and X1fx) in addition to Sony Pictures Imageworks, which produced the Sandman shot.

When we look at a particular setpiece, then, we also pinpoint a curious node in the network of production: a juncture at which the multiplicity of labor required to generate blockbuster-scale entertainment must negotiate with our sense of a unified, unique product / author / vision. Perhaps this is simply an accidental echo of the collective-yet-singular aura that has always attended the serial existence of superheroes; what is Spider-Man but a single artwork scripted, drawn, acted, and realized onscreen by decades of named and nameless creators? But before all of this, we confront a basic heterogeneity that textures film experience: our understanding, at once obvious and profound, that some parts of movies stand out as better or worse or more in need of exploration than others. Spider-Man 3, as Dan acknowledges, is not a great film; but that does not mean it cannot contain great moments. In sifting for and scrutinizing such gems, I wonder if academics like us aren’t performing a strategic if unconscious role — one shared by the increasingly contiguous subcultures of journalists, critics, and fans — our dissective blogging facilitating a trees-over-forest approach to film analysis, a “setpiece-ification” that reflects the odd granularity of contemporary blockbuster media.


As I throttle down for Thanksgiving week and a much-anticipated break from this busy semester (which I regret has allowed so little time for blogging), viruses are much on my mind: I await with some nervousness the onset of one of those academic-calendar colds that conveniently hold off until I’m done teaching. But other kinds of replicative infection are creeping into my life, today in the form of the Alphabet Meme, passed on to me by Chris Cagle of Category D, who caught it from Thom at Film of the Year. (I never realized how similar blogging and sex are: evidently when you link to someone, you link to everyone he or she has linked to.) Anyway, the goal of the exercise is a 26-item list of “Best Films,” corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. I’ll be forthright in acknowledging that my list has nothing to do with “bestness” and everything to do with love — simply put, the movies that mean the most to me. I’m a little too conscious of and skeptical about canonicity to nominate best-ofs; what is canon, anyway, but a kind of ubervirus, replicating within our taste hierarchies and the IPOs of cultural capital? The primary difference between irrational, irreducible favoritism and the stolid edifice of “the best that has been thought and said” (or in this case, filmed) is, it seems to me, one of authorship: the former is idiosyncratic, individual, owned, while the latter circulates unmoored in a kind of terrible immanence, its promiscuous power deriving precisely from its anonymity.

Or maybe I’m just feeling defensive. The list below, larded with science fiction and pop pleasures, nakedly exposes me as a cinematic philistine, a clear case of arrested development. How I reconcile this with my own day job of reproducing the canon (teaching Citizen Kane and Il Conformista semester after semester), I don’t know. But with turkey and stuffing on the horizon, I choose to leave the soul-searching to another day.

Before sharing my list, I believe I’m supposed to spread the meme to five other victims, er, friends. Let’s see: how about valued contributors Michael Duffy and MDR; Dan North at Spectacular Attractions; Nina Busse of Ephemeral Traces; and Tim Burke of Easily Distracted?


Battle Beyond the Stars
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Die Hard
The Exorcist
Forbidden Planet
Groundhog Day
Harold and Maude
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jacob’s Ladder
King Kong (1933)
Logan’s Run
Miracle Mile
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Parallax View
The Quiet Earth
Run Lola Run
Superman (1978)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Ugetsu Monogatari
The Vanishing
The Wizard of Oz
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Young Frankenstein

TWC 1 Arrives (with Gaming CFP)

The first issue of Transformative Works and Cultures is now available. Table of contents below, along with a call for submissions for Issue 2, on Games.


TWC Editor: Transforming academic and fan cultures


Abigail De Kosnik: Participatory democracy and Hillary Clinton’s marginalized fandom

Louisa Ellen Stein: “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse

Anne Kustritz: Painful pleasures: Sacrifice, consent, and the resignification of BDSM symbolism in “The Story of O” and “The Story of Obi”

Francesca Coppa: Women, “Star Trek,” and the early development of fannish vidding


Catherine Tosenberger: “The epic love story of Sam and Dean”: “Supernatural,” queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction

Madeline Ashby: Ownership, authority, and the body: Does antifanfic sentiment reflect posthuman anxiety?

Michael A. Arnzen: The unlearning: Horror and transformative theory

Sam Ford: Soap operas and the history of fan discussion


Dana L. Bode: And now, a word from the amateurs

Rebecca Lucy Busker: On symposia: LiveJournal and the shape of fannish discourse

Cathy Cupitt: Nothing but Net: When cultures collide

Bob Rehak: Fan labor audio feature introduction


TWC Editor: Interview with Henry Jenkins

Veruska Sabucco: Interview with Wu Ming

TWC Editor: Interview with the Audre Lorde of the Rings


Mary Dalton: “Teen television: Essays on programming and fandom,” edited by Sharon Marie Ross and Louisa Ellen Stein

Eva Marie Taggart: “Fans: The mirror of consumption,” by Cornel Sandvoss

Katarina Maria Hjarpe: “Cyberspaces of their own,” by Rhiannon Bury

Barna William Donovan: “The new influencers,” by Paul Gillin

And here is the CFP for Issue 2:

Special Issue: Games as Transformative Works

Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol. 2 (Spring 2009)
Deadline: November 15, 2008
Guest Editor: Rebecca Carlson

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) invites essays on gaming and gaming culture as transformative work. We are interested in game studies in all its theoretical and practical breadth, but even more so in the way fan culture shapes itself around and through gaming interfaces. Potential topics include but are not limited to game audiences as fan cultures; anthropological approaches to game design and game engagement; on- and off-line game experiences; textual and cultural analysis of games; fan appropriations and manipulations of games; and intersections between games and other fan artifacts.
TWC is a new Open Access, international peer-reviewed online journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works. TWC aims to provide a publishing outlet that welcomes fan-related topics and to promote dialogue between the academic community and the fan community. The first issue of TWC (September 2008) is available at http://journal.transformativeworks.org/. TWC accepts rolling electronic submissions of full essays through its Web site, where full guidelines are provided. The final deadline for inclusion in the special games issue is November 15, 2008.
TWC encourages innovative works that situate popular media, fan communities, and transformative works within contemporary culture via a variety of critical approaches, including but not limited to feminism, queer theory, critical race studies, political economy, ethnography, reception theory, literary criticism, film studies, and media studies. Submissions should fit into one of three categories of varying scope:

Theory: These often interdisciplinary essays with a conceptual focus and a theoretical frame offer expansive interventions in the field of fan studies. Peer review. Length, 5,000-8,000 words plus a 100-250-word abstract.
Praxis: These essays may apply a specific theory to a formation or artifact; explicate fan practice; perform a detailed reading of a specific text; or otherwise relate transformative phenomena to social, literary, technological, and/or historical frameworks. Peer review. Length, 4,000-7,000 words plus a 100-250-word abstract.
Symposium: Symposium is a section of concise, thematically contained essays. These short pieces provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures. Editorial review. Length, 1,500-2,500 words.
Submission information: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/about/submissions


I thought I’d share with you a fragment of my history — a frozen formative moment in a fanboy’s evolution. This summer I’ve spent a lot of time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the town where I grew up and where my parents still live. Given that I now have a house of my own, Mom and Dad have been pleading with me to get my stuff out of their basement. This led to some pleasurable archeology, digging through old sketchbooks (from when I wanted to be a comic-book artist), science-fiction screenplays (from when I wanted to become a Super-8 filmmaker), and broken model kits (I must have glued together the U.S.S. Enterprise a dozen times). And some painful triage, as I decided what had to come back with me to Pennsylvania (the long white coffins holding my plastic-bagged collection of Fantastic Four, Love and Rockets, and Cerebus) and what could be disposed of (just about everything else).

This Polaroid documents a trip my father and I took to a shopping mall called Arborland, where I had the honor of meeting the Spectacular Spider-Man and getting my picture taken with him. I remember little of our encounter, though the webslinger struck me as a nice enough guy, and I certainly appreciated his taking time out of crimefighting (or alternatively his job at the Daily Bugle) to visit his fans. From the visual evidence, I was probably a bit tense — note the contrast between my clenched right fist and the flamboyant fingers of my left hand. It was 1975 or 1976; I would have been nine or ten years old.

What jumps out at me now is the object hanging from a chain around Spider-Man’s neck. This, of course, was the economic agenda of the superhero’s tour: selling special coins to fans. I don’t have my own medallion any more; at least, it hasn’t yet turned up in the excavation of my parents’ basement. But I do have the photo (I assume this too cost something — Have your picture taken with Spider-Man!) and, thanks to the obsessive-compulsive accumulator of memory that is the internet, I have a scan of the print ad pushing this particular collector’s item. I found it on this website but am reproducing the image below (click to enlarge).

I don’t mean, by pointing out this financial base to the superstructure of my preteen jouissance, to be cynical or to undermine the coolness of having met Spidey more than thirty years ago. On the contrary: I love that so many forces came together that day to produce the experience, including not just Marvel’s sharklike pursuit of side profits but my sincere love for this particular superhero (so saddled with his own adolescent angst) and my dad’s willingness to cart me off for an audience with him. And as I get used — reluctantly — to my own adulthood, which can sometimes seem to be setting up like cold cement around my unchanged 10-year-old heart, images like this offer a brief window of escape: a memory to glimpse, cherish, then put away with a sense of gratitude.

Digital Day for Night

A quick followup to my recent post on the new Indiana Jones movie: I’ve seen it, and find myself agreeing with those who call it an enjoyable if silly film. Actually, it was the best couple of hours I’ve spent in a movie theater on a Saturday afternoon in quite a while, and seemed especially well suited to that particular timeframe: an old-fashioned matinee experience, a slightly cheaper ticket to enjoy something less than classic Hollywood art. Pulp at a bargain price.

But my interest in the disproportionately angry fan response to the movie continues. And to judge by articles popping up online, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is providing us, alongside its various pleasures (or lack thereof), a platform for thinking about that (ironically) age-old question, “How are movies changing?” — also known as “Where has the magic gone?” Here, for example, are three articles, one from Reuters, one from The Atlantic.com, and one from an MTV blog, each addressing the film’s heavy use of CGI.

I can see what they’re talking about, and I suppose if I were less casual in my fandom of the first three Indy movies, I’d be similarly livid. (I still can’t abide what’s been done to Star Wars.) At the same time, I suspect our cultural allergy to digital visual effects is a fleeting phenomenon — our collective eyes adjusting themselves to a new form of light. Some of the sequences in Crystal Skull, particularly those in the last half of the film, simply wouldn’t be possible without digital visual FX. CG’s ability to create large populations of swarming entities onscreen (as in the ant attack) or to stitch together complex virtual environments with real performers (as in the Peru jungle chase) were clearly factors in the very conception of the movie, with the many iterations of the troubled screenplay passing spectacular “beats” back and forth like hot potatoes on the assumption that, should all else fail, at least the movie would feature some killer action.

Call it digital day for night, the latest version of the practice by which scenes shot in daylight “pass” for nighttime cinematography. It’s a workaround, a cheat, like all visual effects, in some sense nothing more than an upgraded cousin of the rear-projected backgrounds showing characters at seaside when they’re really sitting on a blanket on a soundstage. It’s the hallmark of an emerging mode of production, one that’s swiftly becoming the new standard. And our resistance to it is precisely the moment of enshrining a passing mode of production, one that used to seem “natural” (for all its own undeniable artificiality). By such means are movies made, but it’s also the way that the past itself is manufactured, memory and nostagia forged through an ongoing dialectic of transparency and opacity that haunts our recreational technologies.

We’ll get used to the new way of doing things. And someday, movies that really do eschew CG in favor of older FX methodologies, as Spielberg and co. initially promised to do, will seem as odd in their way as performances of classical music that insist on using authentic instruments from the time. For the moment, we’re suspended between one mode of production and another, truly at home in neither, able only to look unhappily from one bank to another as the waterfall of progress carries us ever onward.

Indiana Jones and the Unattainable FX Past

This isn’t a review, as I haven’t yet made it to the theater to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (portal to the transmedia world of Dr. Jones here; typically focused and informative Wiki entry here). What I have been doing — breaking my normal rule about keeping spoiler-free — is poring over fan commentaries on the new movie, swimming within the cometary aura of its street-level paratexts, working my way into the core theatrical experience from the outside in. This wasn’t anything intentional, more the crumbling of an internet wall that sprang one informational leak after another, until finally the wave of words washed over me like, well, one of the death traps in an Indiana Jones movie.

Usually I’m loath to take this approach, finding the twists and turns of, say, Battlestar Galactica and Lost far more compelling when they clobber me unexpectedly (and let me add, both shows have been rocking out hard with their last couple of episodes). But it seemed like the right approach here. Over the years, the whole concept of Indiana Jones has become a diffuse map, gas rather than solid, ocean rather than island. Indy 4 is a media object whose very essence — its cultural significance as well as its literal signification, the decoding of its concatenated signage — depends on impacted, recursive, almost inbred layers of cinematic history.

On one level, the codes and conventions of pulp adventure genres, 1930s serials and their ilk, have been structured into the series film by film, much like the rampant borrowings of the Star Wars texts (also masterminded by George Lucas, whose magpie appropriations of predecessor art are cannily and shamelessly redressed, in his techno-auteur house style, as timelessly mythic resonance). But by now, 27 years after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Indy series must contend with a second level of history: its own. The logic of pop-culture migration has given way to the logic of the sequel chain, the franchise network, the transmedia system; we assess each new installment by comparing it not to “outside” films and novels but to other extensions of the Indiana Jones trademark. Indy 4, in other words, cannot be read intertextually; it must be read intratextually, within the established terms of its brand. And here the franchise’s history becomes indistinguishable from our own, since it is only through the activity of audiences — our collective memory, our layered conversations, the ongoing do-si-do of celebration, critique, and comparison — that the Indy texts sustain any sense of meaning above and beyond their cold commodity form.

All of this is to say that there’s no way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could really succeed, facing as it does the impossible task of simultaneously returning to and building upon a shared and cherished moment in film history. While professional critics have received the new film with varying degrees of delight and disappointment, the talkbacks at Aint-It-Cool News (still my go-to site for rude and raucous fan discourse) are far more scornful, even outraged, in their assessment. Their chorused rejection of Indy 4 hits the predictable points: weak plotting, flimsy attempts at comic relief, and in the movie’s blunt infusion of science-fiction iconography, a generic splicing so misjudged / misplayed that the film seems to be at war with its own identity, a body rejecting a transplanted organ.

But running throughout the talkback is another, more symptomatic complaint, centering on the new film’s overuse of CG visual effects. The first three movies — Raiders, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade — covered a span from 1981 to 1989, an era which can now be retroactively characterized as the last hurrah of pre-digital effects work. All three feature lots of practical effects — stuntwork, pyrotechnics, and the on-set “wrangling” of everything from cobras to cockroaches. But more subtly, all make use of postproduction optical effects based on non-digital methods: matte paintings, bluescreen compositing, a touch of cel animation here, a cloud tank there. Both practical and optical effects have since been augmented if not colonized outright by CG, a shift apparently unmissable in Indy 4. And that has longtime fans in an uproar, their antidigital invective targeted variously on Lucas’s influence, the loss of verisimilitude, and the growing family resemblance of one medium (film) to another (videogames):

The Alien shit didnt bother me at all, it was just soulless and empty as someone earlier said.. And the CGI made it not feel like an Indy flick in some parts.. I walked out of the theater thinking the old PC game Fate of Atlantis gave me more Indiana joy than this piece of big budget shit.

My biggest gripe? Too much FUCKING CGI. The action lacked tension in crucial places. And there were too many parts (more than from the past films) where Looney Tunes physics kept coming into play. By the end, when the characters endure 3 certain deaths, you begin to think “Okay, the filmmakers are just fucking around, lean back in your seat and take in the silliness.” No thanks. That’s not what makes Indiana Jones movies fun.

This film was AVP, The Mummy Returns and Pirates of the Fucking Carribean put together, a CGI shitfest. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Lucas said “A special effect is a tool, a means to telling astory, a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” Take your own advice Lucas, you suck!!!

The entire movie is shot on a stage. What happened to the locations of the past? The entire movie is CG. What a disappointment. I really, REALLY wanted to enjoy it.

Interestingly, this tension seems to have been anticipated by the filmmakers, who loudly claimed that the new film would feature traditional stuntwork, with CGI used only for subtleties such as wire removal. But the slope toward new technologies of image production proves to be slippery: according to Wikipedia, CG matte paintings dominate the film, and while Steven Spielberg allegedly wanted the digital paintings to include visible brushstrokes — as a kind of retro shout-out to the FX artists of the past — the result was neither nostalgically justifiable or convincingly indexical.

Of course, I’m basing all this on a flimsy foundation: Wiki entries, the grousing of a vocal subcommunity of fans, and a movie I haven’t even watched yet. I’m sure I will get out to see Indy 4 soon, but this expedition into the jungle of paratexts has definitely diluted my enthusiasm somewhat. I’ll encounter the new movie all too conscious of how “new” and “old” — those basic, seemingly obvious temporal coordinates — exceed our ability to construct and control them, no matter how hard the filmmakers may try, no matter how hard we audiences may hope.

Gearing up for Santa Barbara

I leave in a few days for the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara. I’d be excited just because of the location (the conference concludes with a beach party, for gosh sakes) or the nature of the professional gathering itself, since I had a wonderful time at Console-ing Passions in New Orleans in 2004. But most of all I’m thrilled to be taking part in a workshop discussion that grew out of the gender-and-fandom debates hosted by Henry Jenkins last summer. My colleagues Julie Levin Russo (Brown University), Louisa Stein (San Diego State University), Sam Ford (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Suzanne Scott (University of Southern California) all participated in those male-female pairups, and we formulated the CP workshop as a space not just to present our own research, but engage in a dialogue about where that massive, months-long conversation has left us as fan scholars who confront issues of gender, power, privilege, and creativity

The workshop, which takes place Friday morning, is entitled Gendered Fan Labor in New Media and Old. Each of us will speak briefly about a current research interest or project, based on a text or media artifact that raises questions about creative media fandom in both its historical and contemporary dimensions and which focuses on gendered labor as an axis intersecting multiple concerns: taxonomies of fan practice, shifting economic relations between consumers and producers, questions of legitimacy and legality, the impact of new technologies, and the increasing visibility in popular, industrial, and academic discourses of heretofore marginal(ized) fan communities. Second, we hope to perform a kind of post-mortem on the summer’s debates: highlighting certain recurring themes, tendencies, and absences that structured the discourse, unpacking problematic areas, and reflecting both on what went well or badly in the past, and where we might productively go in the future. Here are the others’ projects, full versions of which are viewable on LiveJournal’s fandebate (thanks to Kristina Busse):

  • Julie Levin Russo, “The L Word: Labors of Love”
  • Sam Ford, “Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps”
  • Suzanne Scott, “From Filking to Wrocking: The Rock Star/Groupie Dialectic in Harry Potter Wizard Rock”
  • Louisa Stein, “Vidding as Cultural Narrative”

My own project, “Boys, Blueprints, and Boundaries: Star Trek‘s Hardware Fandom,” examines a subset of Trek fandom that devotes itself to the literal mapping of Trek‘s canonical universe and recreating in material form its diegesis through activities such as the drafting of episode guides and concordances, the manufacture of costumes, props, and model kits, and the making of technical manuals and blueprints. The first paragraph is quoted below; you can also read the full (short) paper at LiveJournal. Comments on the project welcomed and appreciated!

The recent legal dispute between J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, and Steven Vander Ark, a Michigan librarian who has compiled an internet guide to the Harry Potter “universe,” raises many interesting questions about copyright, authorial power, and what might be called a double standard of contemporary media production in which potentially infringing online publication is tolerated, even welcomed, by copyright holders, while the equivalent publication in print form is energetically resisted. But viewed through the lenses of fandom and gender, the Rowling / Vander Ark case illuminates another and much older conundrum, consisting of a linked pair of problematic binaries. On one hand, there is the contrast between fan-produced materials which creatively transform an original work (like fanfic, slash, vidding, filksongs, and artwork) and those which “merely” document, map, or archive the original work (like concordances, episode guides, blueprints, and technical manuals). On the other hand, there is the apparent gender split between the traditionally female fans who produce work considered to be transformative, and male fans whose productivity tends instead toward the technical and archival. The relationship between male fans and what I will call “blueprint culture” is the subject of this short paper, in which I consider gendered fan labor as it is manifested in fantasy and history; ways of rethinking this labor as creative and transformative; and current trends that reflect the growing impact of blueprint culture in both industrial and academic domains.

Cartographers of (Fictional) Worlds, Unite!

J. K. Rowling’s appearance in a Manhattan courtroom this week to defend the fantasy backdrop of her Harry Potter novels is interesting to me for several reasons. It dovetails with a conversation I’ve been having in the Fan Culture class I’m teaching this semester, about the vast world-models that subtend many franchise fictions (e.g. the “future history” of Star Trek, the Middle-Earth setting of Lord of the Rings, the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, and so on). In his writing on subcreation, J. R. R. Tolkien calls these systematic networks of invented facts, events, characters, and languages “secondary worlds,” but more recently the phenomenon has been given other labels by media theorists: master text, hyperdiegesis. Henry Jenkins has put forth the most influential formulation with his concept of transmedia storytelling, which recasts franchise fictions like The Matrix as a kind of generative space — a langue capable of ceaseless acts of fictional parole — which can be accessed through any number of its “extensions” in disparate media.

One might say, in an excess of meta-thinking, that the notion of the storyworld itself floats suspended among these various theoretical invocations: a distributed ghost of a concept that feels increasingly “real.” As our media multiply, overlap, and converge in a spectacular mass ornament like a Busby Berkeley musical number, we witness a contrasting, even paradoxical, tendency toward stabilization, concreteness, and order in our fictional universes.

A key agency in this stabilization is the cataloging and indexing efforts of fans who keep track of sprawling storylines and giant mobs of dramatis personae, cross-referencing and codifying the rules of seriality’s endless play of meaning. Most recently, these labors have coalesced in communally-maintained databases like Lostpedia, the Battlestar Wiki, and — yes — the Harry Potter Lexicon at the heart of the injunction that Rowling is seeking. The conflict is over a proposed book project based on the online Lexicon, a fan-crafted archive of facts and lore, characters and events, that make up the Harry Potter universe. Although Rowling has been sanguine about the Lexicon till now (even admitting that she draws upon it to keep her own facts straight), the crystallization of this database into a for-profit publication has her claiming territorial privilege. Harry, Hermione, and Ron — as well as Quidditch, Dementors, and Blast-Ended Skrewts — are emphatically Rowling’s world, and we’re not quite as welcome to it as we might have thought.

At issue is whether such indexing activities are protected by the concept of transformative value: an emerging legal consensus that upholds fan-produced texts as valid and original so long as they add something new — an interpretive twist, a fresh insight — to the materials they are reworking. (For more on this movement, check out the Organization for Transformative Works.) Rowling asserts that the Harry Potter Lexicon brings nothing to her fiction that wasn’t there already; it “merely” catalogs in astonishing detail the contents of the world as she has doled them out over the course of seven novels. And on the surface, her claim would seem to be true: after all, the Lexicon is not itself a work of fiction, a new story giving a new slant on Harry and his adventures. It is, in a sense, the opposite of fiction: a documentary concordance of a made-up world that treats invention as fact. Ideologically, it inverts the very logic of make-believe, but in a different way from behind-the-scenes paratexts like author interviews or making-of featurettes on DVDs. We might call what the Lexicon and other fan archives do tertiary creation — the extraction of a firm, navigable framework from a secondary, subcreated world.

But is Rowling’s case really so straightforward? It seems to me that what’s happening is a turf battle that may be rare now, but will become increasingly common as transmedia fictions proliferate. The Lexicon, whether in print or cybertext, does compete with Rowling’s work — if we take that “work” as being primarily about building a compelling, consistent world. The Lexicon marks itself as a functionally distinct entity by disarticulating the conventional narrative pleasures offered by Rowling’s primary text: what’s stripped away is her voice, the pacing and structure of her storytelling. By the same token, however, the Lexicon produces Rowling’s world as something separate from Rowling. And for those readers for whom that world was always more compelling than the specific trajectories with which Rowling took them through it (think of the concept of the rail shooter in videogames), the Lexicon might indeed seem like a direct competitor — especially now that it has migrated into a medium, print, that was formerly Rowling’s own.

The question is: what happens to secondary worlds once they have been created? What new forms of authority and legitimacy constellate around them? It may well be the case that the singular author who “births” a world must necessarily cede ownership to the specialized masses who then come to populate it, whether by writing fanfic, building model kits and action figures, cosplaying, roleplaying, or — in the Lexicon’s case — acting as archivists and cartographers.

Before the Internet, such maps were made on paper, sold and circulated among fans. One of my areas of interest is the “blueprint culture” that arose around Star Trek and other science-fiction franchises in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll be speaking about this topic at the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara at the end of April, but Rowling’s lawsuit provides an interesting vantage point from which to blend contemporary and historical media processes.