My reviewing Clive Young’s “Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind the Camera” comes with the irony that the verdict must exist somewhere in the nebulous intellectual space between objective critique and insider’s chuckle, just as the “fan films” (more on them later) it discusses rest in a space even more nebulous: the space between bold and original product, and trademark infringement at twenty-four frames per second.
Let the record show, in the interest of full disclosure, that yes, I have met and shaken the hand of the author, and yes, I am even listed in the acknowledgements for contributions just slightly above the level of cheerleading. Neither of these facts taint my review of the text, for the far more troubling breach is more subtle, more difficult to contend with, and altogether a more destructive blow to my objectivity. And that is the fact that the book is entirely about me.
No, I’m not the dashing young camera-toting chap on the cover, but your correspondent, you see, is a creator of “fan films”-motion pictures using other authors’ characters, situations and everything else in between, usually without permission, proper funding, resources or a very clear idea of how to go about making a movie. Oh, you won’t find an interview with me, nor a nod to any of my projects. Yet I could hardly approach “Homemade Hollywood” without feeling like a Roman passerby, asked to take a few minutes to flip through Eddie Gibbon’s latest and say a few words. It is one thing to read a history book about one’s generation; it is quite another to read one about the specific people you’ve posted alongside on the Internet. Your correspondent can stick his finger between two pages and say “this is where we came in”; let us pretend to forget this fact for at least a few paragraphs.
More than one book has tackled the habits of fans of various movies, books, television programs, what-have-you, and quite a few have discussed the fandom penchant to create derivative works in fiction, art, costume and (again) what-have-you. Clive Young is simply the first to devote a whole book to fan filmmaking. It’s a book whose time has come; Donald Barthelme noted that art in the twentieth century was guided by the principle of collage, and since the century’s dominant new art form was clearly the motion picture, it’s a wonder Young wasn’t beaten to the punch. The resulting text weighs in at about three hundred pages that simply breeze by; it’s casual and chatty even when there is serious scholarship to contend with, and Young never lets us forget that he is a, well, fan of fan films as well as our guide to their history. We welcome his up-front admission that a cinematic subgenre currently dominated by teenagers with camcorders is not overburdened with masterpieces. He’s watched the same projects we have, and knows the score-and anyway this is a book of history and journalism, not of art. Young assumes, rightly so, that his topic is niche enough that his audience knows what they’re in for, and it’s difficult to imagine someone who’s never heard of a fan film picking up this book. Such a person would presumably not be well-versed in any kind of fan activity at all, and, as such, would likely harbor little appreciation for the simple joys of dressing up like Spider-Man and videotaping oneself cheating gravity and/or death.
Speaking as a fan and creator of “Star Wars” fan films, this book’s greatest strength also represents its greatest failing. “Star Wars” people are in pretty much all respects the 800-pound gorilla of movie buffs; the antics of the fandom menace as a whole has garnered the most scholarly and media coverage, and furthermore, their dominance (certainly by volume) in the field of fan films is unchallenged.
Maybe it’s because “Star Wars” inspired so many people to make movies when they grew up; if Peter Jackson, James Cameron and John Singleton (to name three) were happy to chirp away on a DVD documentary about how “Star Wars” helped steer them toward filmmaking, it’s no wonder the next generation of filmmakers is actually going out and making a “Star Wars” movie before setting out on their own. Or maybe it’s because Lucas deliberately infused the saga with cinema history at every turn: when the 1977 film alone nakedly trumpeted homage to such disparate sources as “Flash Gordon”, “The Hidden Fortress”, “The Dam Busters” and short films from the National Film Board of Canada, it’s no surprise which of the major geek-friendly franchises made cinephiles of its devotees.
It comes as something of a shock, then, when a book with Imperial stormtroopers festooning its cover makes “Star Wars” wait its turn.
A full sixty pages pass before we first visit the galaxy (with “Hardware Wars”, generally considered the granddaddy of “Star Wars” fan films). The seminal “Troops”, which ushered in today’s era of fan films on the Internet, does not rear its ugly head until page 138.
Considering that many a casual viewer of fan films cannot imagine the form existing without an Internet to view the films upon, the equally casual reader may consider these first hundred-odd pages of the meticulously researched text anathema, on the grounds that anything he wasn’t alive for can’t be very interesting. One is reminded of the old film-school saw of the professors despairing of freshman class after freshman class full of students who’ve never seen a film made before “Star Wars”.
Young’s book presents us not with a case of “Star Wars” neglect, but, as a wise old Jedi Knight put it, of taking our first step into a larger world. To read “Homemade Hollywood” is to look at that famous photo of Earth hanging in space, and realize that this world of ours we thought was so big actually connects to even bigger things, new and exciting mysteries and possibilities once obscured by a veil, now as plain and clear as anything you could ask to see. This is a book of history reaching back to before what we know today as fan films existed, before even that name existed-and certainly before we were putting the movies we made with DV cameras on the Internet. It is certainly a book of greater breadth than any galaxy far, far away.
Yet there is still room out there in the publishing world for the definitive history of “Star Wars” fan films. As Whitman might have noted, we are large, we contain multitudes. The charming little comedy “Pink Five” is more or less made to stand in for every major “Star Wars” fan film of the Internet era, telling the story of how went for this one particular deservedly-feted project and implying, not wrongly, that the structure of the tale is more or less similar for any other product of these heady times. (Take your pick of unmentioned projects-“Broken Allegiance”, “Knightquest”, “Ryan vs. Dorkman”, “The Empire Strikes Backyard”.) Think of every “Star Wars” project which could have made for a fascinating chapter all by itself yet didn’t even get a mention, and you will soon be shaking your fist at the book for the unpardonable sin of not being eight hundred pages long.
Always leave ’em wanting more, indeed.
“Homemade Hollywood” fits our saber-swinging and incompetent performances into wider social contexts while staying comfortably within the realm of cinema. It resists the temptation to overwiden its stance, to take us into “Textual Poachers” territory and trace the act into the whole history of art. Our guide trusts us to make those connections for ourselves; this is a book about and for moviemakers, treating the art form of cinema as just fine enough to write a book on, thank you, and it fills a previously unexplored canvas with color and depth. Similarly, Young admirably restrains himself from trying to provide the whole history of Web video, the underground film circuit before it, or fan gatherings and culture in general: this is about filmmakers, not film viewers, and the world does not need another sidebar explaining YouTube, cosplayers and video bloggers.
As an unexpected but totally organic bonus, Young’s structure gives us a history not only of fan films but of amateur filmmaking in general. As a series of case studies of the make-your-own-movie model, the text provides a survey of technology and culture for the amateur auteur, from the days of scratchy Super 8 film to the After Effects era. Remove the Indiana Jones fedoras and Batman cowls and a fan film isn’t all that much different in scope or sophistication from a student film or ultra-independent passion project from producers of similar age and experience level. There is no shortage of books tracing the history of independent film, and there’s probably a couple about home movies, but the in-between case of the director with big dreams and small budgets (small by human standards, not Hollywood) will welcome a look into the past lives of the at-home Spielberg.
When reviewing the history of times you lived through, quibbles inevitably result. I disagree with Young’s claim that “Star Wars” fan filmmaking headed into some sort of decline when the bloom fell off the rose of “The Phantom Menace”; it’s more likely that, like anything new and exciting in our fast-paced culture, it simply lost the media spotlight to make room for the Next Big Thing, and would have suffered the same fate no matter what the world thought of Jar Jar Binks. (“Homemade Hollywood” exaggerates the fan film fad, the fall, or both, depending on your point of view; I note this even as an admitted product of the late-nineties height of fan cinema as media curiosity.) Similarly, I think more could have been made of the fortuitous convergence of “The Phantom Menace” and the rise of do-it-yourself filmmaking technology. Fan films of the Internet era are the result of multiple chemistries and alchemies, and amateur filmmaking trends have as much to do with what’s at the Apple Store as at the multiplex. (Much hoopla is made over iMovie, as if to distract the reader from the ugly truth that pirated versions of Adobe Premiere may have been the filmmaker’s true tool of choice at this time.)
I further contend Young may give the charm of amateur films’ unpolished aesthetics a little too much credit, and I suspect that his snappy chapter-opening observation that fan films owe so much as one red cent to reality TV was chosen more for timely cultural touchstone value than anything. (One imagines a publisher watching his bottom line and wondering if there’s some way to shoehorn that newfangled reality TV into this here book.) Similarly, there’s a strange chapter toward the end about the presence (or lack thereof) of women among the fan filmmaking set, which dips out of history and into sociology; Young doesn’t try to complicate the issue of the female role in amateur cinema-chances are you’ve already guessed the main points, all of which are pretty much confirmed-but the fact that he asks the question at all seems odd, as if someone worried the panel needed some minority representation.
But my above arguments are spoken as the book’s subject rather than its reader. Dichotomy, always; why fight it? So my verdict, speaking from half my soul as a proper and serious filmmaker, then: this book belongs on the serious filmmaker’s shelf beside Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies”, beside the Hollywood memoirs of William Goldman, beside the screenwriting books of Syd Field and Robert McKee, and indeed all those other standards that filmmakers tend to own.
As a “Star Wars” dork, however, I demand more. I am thinking of the Koch snowflake, that fractal form which starts from a simple shape and gets ever more complex, always allowing for more detail, for closer and closer work, for infinite iterations even without breaking initial limits. Even if “Star Wars” is but one of the initial points of a Koch snowflake, the countless little equilateral triangles it alone spawned in fan film form are enough to beg for Young’s expert guidance. Now that we have had our history lesson and our basic survey coursework, we don’t want the story to end: we want the camera to turn on us, we want the times we lived through.
And yet surely the fans and creators of “Star Trek” projects want their say, too, and perhaps they deserve it; and who are we to deny superhero fan filmmakers their own in-depth study, or the “Harry Potter” community, or whatever the next big trend can be. Surely “Twilight” and “High School Musical” cannot be far behind in a society obsessed with remixing and re-imagining the media properties it loves, as effortlessly literate with cinema as the generation before them could only be with text.
As is the fashion with non-fiction books, “Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind the Camera” has its snappy abstract title up front and explains what the hell it’s actually about with a subtitle underneath. But perhaps this subtitle serves as an episode title as well; perhaps one day we can look forward to more of the saga. (Starting, hopefully, with “Homemade Hollywood: A Galaxy Far, Far Away”.)
For we would be privileged to delve deeper into this world, as privileged and honored as we are to be part of it and to create the threads in its tapestry. As both fan culture and amateur filmmaking become more and more relevant with each passing year, it will serve as an essential starting point for any further research on this convergence of strange bedfellows, where the hallmarks of the twenty-first century-idol worship and YouTube silliness on the base side, media- savvy thinking and cinematic literacy if we’re feeling loftier-will continue to collide, recombine and multiply. “Homemade Hollywood” is the book that fan filmmakers have been waiting for even before the term ‘fan film’ existed; as history and as celebration, it shines a light on a subject few else would think to touch, and it does so in a way that not only conveys its love of these movies but inspires and rekindles that love in others.