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Archive for the ‘fandom’ Category

Sculpting in TimeSculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrey Tarkovsky (1989) Sculpting in Time. Reflections on the Cinema. Translated from the Russian by Kitty Hunter-Blair, University of Texas Press.
My rating: *****

Publisher’s page. Includes table of contents and extract.

I want to underline my own belief that art must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s vision, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition to it – otherwise life becomes impossible!

I have been reading Tarkovsky’s truly wonderful book in which he reflects on and explains the thinking that went into his films. If some of the language in the citation above, with its mention of the ideal, hope and faith appears old-fashioned to hardened veterans of the new millennium, it would appear nonetheless, as Tarkovsky argues, that life is still impossible without these things. Having recently viewed a TV series, Spirited, which after the long and careful establishing of two strong and independent characters with a positive control over their own existences, suddenly in the last three episodes, opts to turn them into the pathetic victims of a cruel and heartless universe, his remarks seem very apposite.

Faced in this case with what essentially appears to be a radical loss of faith and hope by the writers in their own creation, the consumer, who feels betrayed by this loss, is left wondering which way to turn. Perhaps this is the experience of many fan fiction writers. (Just to be specific, this is not an art form that I personally practise). And indeed not just fan fiction writers, but a whole range of other creative practitioners. They are forced into creating their own story to make up for the failure of other texts in providing the ideal they were hoping for. Thus in some instances, they might actively engage, as Tarkovsky would have it, in opposing the hopelessness of particular artistic visions.

One could take this further and argue that in Lyotard’s postmodern world, everybody is looking for the perfect story and when they don’t find one ready-made, they are forced to create their own. This applies as much to the most esoteric flight of theory as to the trashiest piece of fan fiction. It applies to a range of other practices as well – including the political, and right down to the way people tell themselves the story of their own lives. This desire to create one’s own story is, of course, by no means simply limited to the so-called postmodern age or culture. As many have argued, the desire to tell and to consume story is something deeply embedded in human experience. Story is not simply about diversion, bread and circuses, the mindless ‘entertainment’ much touted by Hollywood and its ilk. Story is about imagining better (or worse) worlds, of reflecting on our everyday and the possibilities of human experience, and experimenting with different ways of thinking those possibilities.

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In Praise Of LoveIn Praise Of Love by Alain Badiou

My rating: ***

Badiou, Alain with Truong, Nicolas (2012) In Praise Of Love. Trans. Peter Bush, London: Serpent’s Tail

I approached this short essay interview about the notion of love (as it is enacted between lovers) with caution. I was not expecting a 75 year old male philosopher to have much to say that would resonate from a female point of view. There was however slightly more on the table than I expected and some of the discussion provided potential food for thought which crossed gender lines.

I was particularly interested by Badiou’s comments criticising the portrayal of love as something that exists in a moment outside of time. This is a view that pervades romantic literature. It is a love that cannot be enacted in the real world or survive through time. It is also reductive, fusing the difference of two into one. A philosopher like Levinas (whose religious focus Badiou rejects but adapts for more secular purposes) would argue, of course, that love presumes difference and can only exist where difference exists, it is never reduction to the Same. Badiou remarks:

‘I think many people still cling to a romantic conception of love that in a way absorbs love in the encounter. Love is simultaneously ignited, consummated and consumed in the meeting in a magical moment outside the world as it really is. something happens that is in the nature of a miracle, an existential intensity, an encounter leading to meltdown.’ (p. 23)

He cites Tristan and Isolde as an example, continuing that we need to challenge this romantic conception which although it might be beautiful in art fails to make the transition to real life. He notes:  ‘Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world’. (p. 24) The duration of love is seldom dealt with in fiction (p. 50) which usually focuses on the ‘ecstasy of [..] beginnings’ (love at first sight, the ‘encounter’) and ends with ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’. He mentions Samuel Beckett as a somewhat unexpected exception. (I might add paranthetically that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is of course a demonstration of the pitfalls of trying to apply the myths of romantic fiction to everyday existence.)

One can look at this problem in relation to a variety of TV series and films. The stock standard romantic comedy of course usually falls within the expected boundaries of the magical encounter and then the happy end. Another ploy is to kill off one or both partners in order to preserve the purity of their love and happiness from the ravages of time. Many American TV series try the strategy of indefinitely postponing what the writers seem to regard as the inevitable suburban and domestic doom of all relationships, by failing to get the couples together in an infinitely prolonged process which fans commonly label as UST or unresolved sexual tension. Henry Jenkins, the noted scholar of fandom, complains about this common fan frustration in a post on his blog titled ‘A Rant About Television’s Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships’. He observes:

I often suspect that Hollywood’s inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the “commitment” episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)

He also adds interestingly that ‘contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships — could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup?’ The convenient (American) production myth has it that if you get two characters together in a series, viewers will lose interest. Perhaps this is because the writers can’t seem to imagine a relationship other than a white picket fence with both partners doomed to the drudgery of ball and chain domesticity. (Perhaps these writers could read up a bit on alternative models for relationships such as the ‘commuter marriage’, popular in academic circles). A couple of series which readily spring to mind in terms of being unable to come to a sensible resolution on this front are Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita (the 1990s series).  There are many others. Jenkins cites Castle as perhaps an exception, but I beg to differ. Like Bones, I find that if the writing in this series is able to sustain fairly basic (and not terribly adventurous) characterisation, it is less successful in demonstrating how those characters are modified by their relationships with each other.

Attempts to show long(ish) committed relationships in romantic comedies like Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) can also be dreary, unconvincing and unbearably saccharine. One can only wonder what demographic this particular film was addressing.  The story takes place from the point of view of a rich executive male (Nicholas Cage) with a Ferrari and a string of one night stands, who slips into a parallel world of ghastly suburban domesticity of seemingly volontary semi-poverty with a one time girlfriend. The film – or writers – seem irretrievably torn between (what they regard as) the moral example which is life in the suburbs versus the guilty but exhilarating freedom of a high-flying Christmas-neglecting single life.

Returning to Badiou’s terminology, there is good material out there which shows love between couples (of any orientation) as duration rather than the momentary eruption of the eternal into the real, but one has to search for those rare examples amidst the mountains of dross which foreground the love/romance event with all its artificial boundaries and dubious links to the transcendent eternal.

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Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Secular society] expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and give us weekends off for consumption and recreation. Like science, it privileges discovery. It associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.

For example, we are enticed to go to the cinema to see a newly released film, which ends up moving us to an exquisite pitch of sensitivity, sorrow and excitement. We leave the theatre vowing to reconsider our entire existence in light of the values shown on screen, and to purge ourselves of our decadence and haste. And yet by the following evening, after a day of meetings and aggravations, our cinematic experience is well on its way to oblivion, just like so much else which once impressed us but which we soon enough came to discard.

Alain de Botton, Religion for atheists. A non believer’s guide to the uses of religion, London: Hamish Hamilton p. 133

Random thoughts in response

De Botton argues that religion is aware of our propensity to forget and provides repetitive structures, activities and calendars to continually remind us of the important things. This is something that secular society does not do, except when it comes to work and economic productivity, leaving us free to source inspiration from wherever we can find it. This means we forget and don’t reinforce self transformative practices. From an entirely different angle, John Medina in a popular science discussion of how the brain and memory works posits as ‘brain rule’ number 5 ‘Repeat to remember’ and ‘brain rule’ number 6 ‘remember to repeat’. In short, repetition is essential to the process of learning. [1]

One could consider media fan practices of viewing long form serial television in the context of these two discussions. Fans will draw lasting lessons and engage in transformative practices of the self by exercising quite particular viewing practices in relation to their chosen subject matter. Although films – particularly films which have sequels – are also subject to fan activity, television series are perhaps more strongly susceptible to a certain kind of work on the self. A television series features a story, characters and a universe that can sometimes span years in real time and is delivered in weekly, sometimes daily instalments. Thus, we have a regular calendar occurrence which keeps the material present in the viewer’s mind. Further to this, a typical fan viewing practice is to view episodes multiple times, and to repetitively rewind and review select short scenes within those episodes. The fan may then go on to further reinforce this input by transforming it into creative and social practices such as discussion with other fans, fan fiction writing or other creative output.

This process allows the fan viewer to assimilate those lessons and insights that they have connected to and garnered from the source text. Thus the fragility of the secular experience of art, drawn attention to by de Botton, is counteracted by certain kinds of fan practices. This indicates, perhaps, that there exists considerable resistance to contemporary incitations to engage in a disposable consumerism that has no term. Further, if one goes down the sometimes dubious brain science route, it might indicate that people continue to be aware of the techniques that need to be practised to foster learning and self transformation. In either case, it is clear that living in an unstable void of an endless featureless stream of temporary rhizomic connections is not an attractive proposition to many people.

[1] John Medina, Brain Rules, 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school, Brunswick: Scribe Publications, 2008, pp. 119, 147

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Cult TV: The Essential Critical GuideCult TV: The Essential Critical Guide by Jon E. Lewis
My rating: ****

Jon E. Lewis, Cult TV: The Essential Critical Guide, Pavilion Books, 1994.

I noticed a few months ago that Google appears to have acquired Goodreads, a social networking and book cataloguing site to which I subscribe. At least that is my explanation for why Goodreads reviews are now listed on the relevant book pages on Google books. Given this higher degree of internet exposure, I decided that my reviews needed tidying up and updating. Most of my Goodreads reviews are already included on this blog, but a few of the more lightweight reviews (not books!) are not. Time to remedy that absence…

Jon E. Lewis’ book on Cult TV is a really useful and nicely put together reference book for TV fans. It is composed of encyclopedia style entries accompanied by black and white photos on a whole host of cult TV series from the birth of television in the 1950s to the time of publication in 1994. It covers a range of genres: science fiction, crime, westerns, children’s programmes, melodrama, adventure and comedy.

I have spent many a happy evening browsing the entries, discovering new series and gathering information on ones already seen. This book was written in the days when fandom really was a specialised subculture before it was quasi mainstreamed by the internet and as such displays the friendly approach that goes along with addressing a relatively small group.

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Kim Newman, Doctor Who. London: BFI publishing, 2005.

My rating: ***

Doctor Who (BFI TV Classics) Doctor Who by Kim Newman

Kim Newman is a well-known and prolific author of genre novels, overviews on cult and horror film and TV and a reviewer for the film magazine Empire.

This book, an entry in the excellent BFI TV classics series, is an enjoyable if sometimes hastily written, short handbook. It manages to provide a nicely opinionated overview of ‘classic’ Doctor Who with a few references to the new post 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

There’s no strong argument unifying the book but there are a number of thought provoking tidbits, a few of which I will dip into below.

It is good to see Newman confirm my own long held prejudice that from ‘1963 to K9, Doctor Who was important and from 1977 to 1989 it wasn’t.’ (p. 7) Like Newman, I stopped watching not long after the introduction of K9, the metal robot dog, which Tom Baker would kick in frustration behind the scenes. I didn’t mind K9 so much as Baker’s increasing tendency to treat proceedings as all a bit of a joke. I was more interested in the serious science fiction offerings of the Troughton and Jon Pertwee eras. After around 1977, as Newman says, the series degenerated into failed comedy, pantomime and self-referential fan-fiction.

Newman also provides a number of other insightful observations. For example, in relation to the fixed (and ghastly) costumes of the later Doctor Who. These costumes he describes as a ‘comic-book invention … unsustainable in live-action where audiences wonder if the hero is wearing the same, never cleaned, never-worn-out clothes for years on end’ (p. 97) The earlier Doctors if they had a certain style (ie Jon Pertwee’s Carnaby St Edwardian style) they still had different sets of clothes to their wardrobe.

I also enjoyed Newman’s remark in relation to Who merchandising that it became difficult to be scared of monsters like the daleks that had been turned into soft toys. (Speaking of soft toys, there is an excellent blog at Live Journal titled Who_knits: Time and Double Pointed Needles in Space which details a variety of Dr. Who knitting projects. And this is by no means the only Dr. Who knitting site on the net.)

Newman also notes with a surprising ambivalence for someone who has been involved in cult genre and fandom for so long, ‘in the 1960s, fictional events were not obsessively covered by the national press. Now no popular television drama can surprise audiences by writing out a character through murder, marriage or act of God (or have them outed as gay or a serial killer) without a leak making the front page of the tabloids’ (p. 40) He is discussing here the lack of fanfare that heralded the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton.

It would have been interesting to see some further elaboration on why these changes have occurred. My own view is that this shift marks a welcome move away from the hide-bound stranglehold of the scientific and Hegelian world view where only the rational and the empirically visible had any value, returning to a much earlier view that there is more to existence than what we can see immediately before our eyes. This earlier view is described by French historian Jacques Le Goff in his book The Medieval Imagination. It is a view which didn’t draw a rigid division between the fictional and the non-fictional.

Another observation I thoroughly approved of was Newman’s comment about the propensity of American series not to understand that ‘viewers who enjoyed the adventures, didn’t want to listen to whining characters who only wanted to get home and lead boring lives’ (p. 20). The Wizard of Oz has long been an exemplary fan disappointment on this front – as was its ending – ‘it was all just a dream’, a generic resolution universally loathed by fan viewers whenever it appears in a series or film.

Unfortunately, Doctor Who was not entirely exempt from this irritating hankering after home theme. One of the later companions, Tegan, was particularly tedious in this respect. This is something that Russell T. Davies (a hater of The Wizard of Oz ending) has deliberately gone out of his way to counter in the new series of Doctor Who – even if I do find these new outings problematic on a large number of other fronts. The Outland Institute blog very aptly describes the new series as ‘Neighbours in Space’.

Also of interest in this book, is Newman’s broad knowledge of other cult and genre television which he is able to reference in his discussions which goes a long way to contextualising Doctor Who in the context of other contemporaneous cult TV and film.

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Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
My rating: ****

Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins

This is the seminal foundational text in terms of academic studies of fandom. Even if it was published in 1992 before the explosion of internet fandom and a more mainstream (even if still grudging) recognition of fan practices, it is still chock full of useful and current ideas.

This well written and highly readable book has done a great service in single handedly promoting the possibility of academic fan studies an invitation which has been taken up by numbers of others since.

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Theorizing fandom

Cheryl Harris, Alison Alexander (eds). Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1998.
My rating:***

Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity (The Hampton Press Communication Series) Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity by Cheryl Harris

This is a rather useful edited collection about various media fandoms and fan practices. There is the usual stuff on slash included. Of course the book’s appearance in 1998 means that it was published before the real take off of online fandom.

I particularly enjoyed (non slash focused) chapter 10 by Cinda Gillalan on the TV series War of the Worlds fandom and its rejection of the hero codified by the makers of the series as being attractive to female viewers in favour of a character in the series with more marginal attributes.

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