Monday, March 16, 2009

Warner Bros. Owns (Some of) You

So last night, thanks to the kind folks at the SXSW film festival and, I watched Josh Koury's documentary We Are Wizards. It's a fun little documentary; not very well structured, but it paints an interesting picture. Most people might watch this and see how a book can change a person's life. And while that's certainly one of the themes running throughout the film, I feel like I came away with something a tad more sinister.

If you want to get technical, yeah, that's pretty much what the movie's about. But look at the individual case studies they present. Graphic artist and uber-funnyman Brad Neely loved the movies so much that he created his own fake book-on-tape version: Wizard People, Dear Reader. A couple of guys in a toolshed created a tribute band, dubbing themselves Harry and the Potters. A pair of kids, inspired by the band, create their own Harry Potter music. Melissa Anelli, proprietor of The Leaky Cauldron, a Potter fansite, takes it upon herself to chronicle the experience of living in the middle of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Other tales are told, but the idea eventually emerges that JK Rowling's series is the primary catalyst in these people's lives, and without it they'd be seemingly lost.

Again, you could argue that the film sort of becomes a thesis on the positive effects of fan culture. Maybe this is just the cynic in me, but I kinda see it as a cautionary tale about how consumer culture has irrevocably implanted itself into people's lives. Not even a cautionary tale. That would imply that it hasn't happened yet. But it has. Without Harry Potter, the unifying catalyst in these people's lives would be gone. This documentary wouldn't even exist. Late in the film, Neely makes the observation that without Wizard People, he'd never have landed a job working for [adult swim]. And of all the people that the film highlights, he comes across as the one person who truly gets how ingrained pop culture is in his life, and everyone else's.

There's no doubting it, the corporations have already won. Chances are, if you're a Harry Potter fan, Warner Bros. already has your money. When the Potter theme park opens, you'll probably go. The same is true for any company. McDonald's, Microsoft, Disney, Viacom, etc. Our ultimate choice, as consumers, is the corporation with which to align ourselves. You can support Warner Bros. by going to see the next Harry Potter movie; you can support Viacom by watching MTV or going to see Transformers 2; you can support Nintendo by buying a Wii instead of an Xbox 360. And so on. And so on. And so on.

I know that sounds pretty grim, but isn't that what's ultimately at the heart of fan culture these days? Without the artist, there'd be no intellectual property. Without the corporation, there'd be no promoting the intellectual property to potential viewers. Without the viewers, there'd be no fan culture. Sure, the fans do have some say in what gets support and what doesn't, but when it comes to the point where the fans are so starved for more that they start bending the property inward and regurgitating it themselves, where does that leave us?

Look, I support fandoms. I've been a Star Wars fan for years upon years. I own my fair share of X-Men action figures. As I type this, I'm wearing a Blue Sun t-shirt. I get it. You become a fan and you wanna show your support. That's awesome. But what I don't get is the gi-normous fan fiction community, the cosplayers, the people who make it their life's work to take their fandom of choice and attempt to make it as palpably real as possible. I just don't understand it. I respect it, but I don't get it.

Why not use that very same motivation to try and create something new? Why not create something that others might one day build a fan community around? That's the thing that gets me about We Are Wizards. The film shows us all these people who've been influenced by Harry Potter to go out and create, and yet the only person who seems able to acquit himself of the books (or in his case the films) is Brad Neely. Melissa Anelli, webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, comes close as well. However, even though she's branched out and written her own book, that book is still a reflection of the Hary Potter fan community.

I don't know. It feels as though the film addresses this problem, however subtle that address might be, but never ventures to suggest any solutions. Well, it does, but it's in the form of a right-wing Christian naysayer, and it comes off as too obviously antagonistic. Sure, this is just a documentary about one particular fandom, but I never read any of this into films like Trekkies or Ringers or Heart of an Empire or Done the Impossible. I'm not trying to suggest that the problem is exclusive to Harry Potter, because it absolutely isn't. I'm just wondering why nobody's bothered tackling the issue before now.

Ok, I'm going to just shut up now before my fandom license gets revoked.

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