By Matt Singer
In honor of the new documentary “We Are Wizards,” about people who take Harry Potter way beyond simply reading the books or watching the movies, we take a look this week at obsessive fan culture and the documentaries that chronicle their fandom. Fanaticism in these films takes on many different forms. Some fans only want to take what their idols give them; others want to give back by creating derivative works of their own, like fan fiction or fan songs. Some become unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Some — like a dentist who turned his office into a “Star Trek” tchotchke paradise called “Starfleet Dental” — willfully reject the distinction altogether. Some love to become lost in escapism; others obsess about it until they are trapped by it. On this list, we’ll look at what makes these fans tick and find the exact point when their inevitable weirdness begins to tick us off.
Directed by Roger Nygard
When George Takei (a.k.a. Lt. Sulu) attended his first “Star Trek” convention in the early ’70s, he had only one thought as he looked around and saw people crammed into every available inch of the hotel ballroom, some of whom had traveled thousands of miles: “These people are foolish!” A reasonable reaction, though fandom’s most famous nerds don’t endure much additional skepticism in Roger Nygard’s exceedingly affectionate documentary. Between commentary from Takei and a raft of other “Star Trek” creators, Nygard and host/producer Denise Crosby (a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” alum herself) introduce us to all sorts of nutty Trekkies (or is that “Trekkers?” — nobody seems entirely sure). One of them is 14-year-old Gabriel Köerner who’s designing the special effects for his very own “Star Trek” film. Years later, Köerner actually became a digital effects artist who worked on the finale of “Enterprise,” though he now describes the person he was during that period of his life as “snide, condescending…and so damned whiny.”
We also meet Barbara Adams, who wore her “Star Trek” uniform when she served as an alternate juror on a trial in Arkansas related to the Whitewater investigation in 1996. Explaining her unusual decision, Adams, who runs a fan club called “The Federation Alliance,” explains, “I don’t want my officers ever to feel ashamed to wear their uniform,” and compares wearing her “Trek” costume to court to a football player wearing his jersey during the offseason. Let’s take her at her word and assume that football players do this (even though they don’t). Adams’ comparison illustrates the belief held by many of the Trekkies that they are more than simply viewers of “Star Trek.” In their eyes, they are full-fledged participants, and the universe displayed on the show is more than a piece of speculative science fiction, but rather a tangible and achievable future.
Things get creepy when… one female fan describes herself as a “Spiner Femme,” a woman infatuated with actor Brent Spiner, who played the android Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” She keeps her memorabilia under lock and key in a fireproof safe in her closet and particularly treasures her collection of Data erotica.
KISS Loves You (2004)
Directed by Jim Heneghan
In the mid-’90s, fans of KISS essentially rejected the image the band was presenting at the time for the one they preferred. While the real band limped along with half its original lineup and a fashion sense borrowed from the ’80s hair metal scene, their increasingly nostalgic following recreated the old school KISS they loved, with all the makeup, stagecraft, fireworks and fake blood that entailed. By 1995, unauthorized KISS conventions began sprouting around the country along with a host of lookalike cover bands: there’s Strutter, who boast the definitive Gene Simmons interpreter, Bill Sabetta, and Hotter than Hell, featuring the a lineup comprised mostly of disillusioned Strutter members who complained that Sabetta paid them on salary instead of sharing the band’s profits with them. (Maybe Sabetta had gotten a little too deeply into his role as Gene; KISSers Ace Frehley and Peter Criss have both accused Simmons of acting in a similar fashion.)
Director Heneghan’s story doesn’t come into focus until the climax, when KISS bows to the fan pressure and brings Frehley and Criss back into the fold so the quartet can reapply their signature garb and head out on the road for a reunion tour. The KISS Army is ecstatic, but before you can call Dr. Love, the fans learn a brutal lesson in being careful what you wish for. In Heneghan’s view, it’s not so much that the fans clamored for the return of the old KISS and the band obliged, but that the band saw too many people making money off the old KISS and they got jealous and territorial. In the doc’s final act, Simmons and Paul Stanley shut down fan conventions (in order to dry up competition for their own official cons) and even publicly confiscate memorabilia they claim belongs to them. The KISS reunion tours made the band tens of millions of dollars at the cost of much of the fan culture that demanded them. This image of greedy, heartless rock stars subsisting on a diet of their listeners’ obsessions (and paychecks) that Heneghan paints reached an odd culmination when the band fired Frehley again and replaced him with Tommy Thayer, the guy who was playing Frehley in the KISS cover band Black ‘N Blue.
Things get creepy when… a particularly obsessive fan gives Paul Stanley a plaque at a KISS convention, ostensibly from his son, that reads on the front “I Love KISS. I Love You.” and on the back includes a handwritten letter announcing “I would like to see you in concert…and your home.” You can just imagine the guy at the inevitable trial: “But your honor! Paul Stanley told me personally that he was made for lovin’ me!”
Directed by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak
Cultists are notoriously ravenous collectors; it’s not enough to consume, they’ve got to own, save and preserve everything for future study. That becomes tricky when your obsession is cinema — how do you “collect” an ephemeral experience like going to the movies? The denizens of the New York art house scene featured in “Cinemania” go about it in different ways. Jack sees at least three movies a day — four or five, ideally — and prizes his stacks of notebooks containing lists of every movie he’s seen for decades. Roberta has saved every ticket to every screening she’s ever attended (one former Museum of Modern Art employee recounts a story where Roberta strangled her after she unknowingly soiled her stub by ripping it in half). Harvey has a remarkable library of old movie soundtracks on vinyl — and no turntable to play them on.
The cinemaniacs, who support their jobless existences with disability paychecks and inheritance money, are less connoisseurs than compilers — they have no aspirations to write about movies professionally or create their own films. At times, they don’t even seem particularly concerned with what they see as long as they are constantly watching something. All cinephiles have felt that buzz at the back of their spine when they miss a movie to spend time with loved ones or take a walk in the park. Not the cinemaniacs, who do their best to reject the life around them for the one they watch on the screen. At one point, Jack says “there’s no reason why reality should be privileged.” At another, he hypothesizes that going to the movies is “better than sex,” noting that he wouldn’t even bed Rita Hayworth in real life because it wouldn’t be in black and white like in the movies. Somewhere the ghost of Rita Hayworth is breathing a deep sigh of relief.
Things get creepy when… Jack observes how much he’s always enjoyed watching people, even before he became a compulsive movie watcher. He suggests that someday he’d like to invest in surveillance equipment to further his voyeuristic interests.
Ringers: Lord of the Fans (2005)
Directed by Carlene Cordova
Given that author J.R.R. Tolkien once referred to his legions of fans as “my deplorable cultists,” it’s no surprise that the fan documentary devoted to “The Lord of the Rings” features more interviews with experts, artists, and filmmakers than average readers. To be sure, the film has more than its share of lunatics — one woman proudly declares that she sold her house so she could attend “The Return of the King”‘s gala world premiere in director Peter Jackson’s hometown of Wellington, New Zealand — but the focus is squarely on the series’ historical legacy. Led Zeppelin and the darkest depths of Mordor get discussed, as do “Frodo Lives” buttons, the animated adaptations by Ralph Bakshi and Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, and Jackson’s epic live-action trilogy. “Ringers,” as the documentary calls them, distinguish themselves from other fan groups with their political activism (they campaign on the environment’s behalf) and with their unexplained ability to take weeks at a time off from work so they can camp outside theaters in anticipation of the movies’ release.
Director Carlene Cordova knows her stuff and interviews all the major players in the “LOTR” saga — though I’m still not entirely sure why that includes “Kung Fu”‘s David Carradine — but of all the fan docs, this one most feels like some kind of recruitment video. Several minutes of the film is turned over to a Latin-themed music video celebrating “Rings” toys that looks suspiciously like a commercial; song lyrics include the line “If you are a fan of rings / Then you must collect these things!” Cardova never makes clear who, exactly, the “lord of the fans” is; maybe it’s the guy cashing all the merchandising checks.
Things get creepy when… a female fan confesses to the camera that she wishes she could take a vacation to Middle-Earth “because it is more home than this realm of reality.” The filmmakers should have set her up with another one of their subjects, a bearded dude in a homemade suit of armor named Grimlock, who admits his “Lord of the Rings” fanaticism was fermented in the midst of “a real dry spell from women.”
We Are Wizards (2008)
Directed by Josh Koury
There are only seven Harry Potter novels and five movies. For some fans, that just wasn’t enough. Josh Koury’s documentary looks at how content-starved fans expand fictional universes on their own, paying particularly attention to a creative strain of Pottermania that expresses its love for J.K. Rowling’s work in an entirely new genre of music they term “Wizard Rock.” The movement began as a lark in 2002 when two musically inclined brothers played an impromptu gig in their family’s backyard as Harry and the Potters. The band built up a following playing at local libraries and sharing their music on the Internet; soon others were joining in, including the more punkish Drago and the Malfoys, a hardcore band named Grop, even a band comprised of two small children who sing (or, more accurately, yell at the top of their lungs) about dragons. The Wizard Rock sound is loose and very D.I.Y.; several of the bands share a drummer and, failing his availability, rely on drum machines for backing.
Koury isn’t particularly interested in why the wizard rockers love “Harry Potter” — with hundreds of millions of copies of the series in print, they’re not exactly on the fringe of popular culture — and there are few interviews with academics or scholars (Rowling herself is nowhere to be seen). Instead, like “KISS Loves You,” Koury explores the fractious relationship between copyright owners and fans (some even went so far as to organize a “PotterWar” and boycott after Warner Brothers threatened some fansite owners with lawsuits). He’s also curious about the way fans, especially on the Internet, have begun to idolize other, more knowledgeable readers. As Melissa Anelli, creator of the Potter site The Leaky Cauldron, puts it, “there are fans of the book; now there are fans of the fans.” That secondary group can now count amongst its number Rowling herself, who announced last week she is writing an introduction to Anelli’s upcoming book about all things Harry Potter.
Things get creepy when… a staunch supporter of fan rights points out that Warner Brothers gets particularly litigious in the face of slash fiction (fan-written stories about characters engaging in same sex romances) while Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, publicly flaunted his naked body on two different continents in a revival of Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus.”
[Photos: “Trekkies,” Paramount Classics, 1999; “KISS Loves You,” Music Video Distributors, 2004; “Cinemania,” Wellspring Media, 2002; “Ringers: Lord of the Fans,” Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2005; “We Are Wizards,” Brooklyn Underground Films, 2008]