Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I'm skipping Halloween this year

(Warning: I wrote this post after enduring a long and painful week at work that left me in no mood to deal with depressing things or depressing people. It was a gloomy weekend that forced me to think hard about what I really cared about. A couple days later I felt better, as you'll see in the next blog post after this one.)

The Little Theatre, Rochester's beloved arthouse, continued its Halloween tradition this year of hosting a 24-hour movie marathon of horror movies, preceded by a zombie walk. Whereas last year's marathon seemed devoted to well-worn chestnuts such as Night of the Living Dead, this year's lineup was a much newer crop including Shaun of the Dead, both Grindhouse movies, and The Human Centipede.

I was kind of looking forward to this, but when the date arrived, I found that I just wasn't in the Halloween spirit. The thought of walking down the street on a freezing October night making a spectacle of myself, covered in zombie makeup that I'd have to wash off when I got home, didn't sound all that fun. I didn't even feel like going out to see the films either, or doing anything else Halloween-related this weekend.

Paul Cornell, the acclaimed Doctor Who writer, once observed that when you're young, you love stories about darkness and sickness and tragedy because these things haven't happened to you yet; as you get older, and have actually had to cope with pain and loss and disappointment, you're not as amused by such themes in your entertainment.

I know what he means – as an adolescent I found it thrilling to discover films like Eraserhead, A Clockwork Orange, and Pink Flamingos, and so my younger self would probably have been game to see the Rochester premiere of The Human Centipede, a recent cult film in which three people are surgically forced together, ass-to-mouth, so that anything the first person excretes must pass through the two hapless victims behind him. But my adult self just isn't interested. In October 2010, it seems silly to pay $5 to submit to that kind of degradation when there are enough forces in the real world that will degrade me for free.

But there's a bigger reason why I'm kind of giving the whole Halloween thing a pass this year, and that has to do with how the world in general has changed.

The usual armchair-Freud explanation for our love of Halloween is that it's an escape from our ordinary, humdrum existence. Once a year we get to indulge ourselves, wear outrageous costumes, eat candy, and generally let ourselves go. Horror movies – which go with Halloween like peanut butter with chocolate – allow us to indulge our worst fears and our most forbidden desires.

Except that nowadays, the stuff we usually associate with Halloween is with us all year round. Pop culture is pretty much all about vampires, zombies, and serial killers, no matter what month it is on the calendar. Go to Vertex, or whatever the equivalent Goth club is nearest you, and you can see people in cloaks, capes and armor 52 weekends a year. There are several dozen sci-fi, horror, comics and gaming conventions all year (several within a day's drive of Rochester) that encourage cosplay. If you live in that world all the time, Halloween is just another unbirthday.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and trendiness breeds snobbery. I saw the Twilight movie with my vampire-loving ex, and like so many others I laughed out loud at the scene where Edward glitters in the sunlight. The reason I laughed, though, was because it was such blatant fan service to a female audience – he's the perfect man because he sparkles like a diamond, and as sexual fantasies go that's probably the equivalent of Rose McGowan being half-machine-gun in Planet Terror. But I gave Stephenie Meyer credit for coming up with a creative twist on the vampire premise – in her universe, vampires avoid sunlight not because it kills them, but because it exposes them as nonhuman.

To many horror fans, though, this is such an unacceptable violation of vampire lore that “vampires don't sparkle” is fast becoming as widespread a meme as “Han shot first”. This attitude strikes me as absurd – there is such a wide range of vampire fiction, with individual authors and filmmakers feeling free to pick and choose different aspects of vampire lore and modify it to suit their own dramatic needs, such as deciding whether vampires are affected by sunlight at all (the ones in BBC's Being Human aren't), whether garlic and crosses have any actual effect in their universe, where vampires came from in the first place, how new ones are created, and whether they have a supernatural or scientific explanation.

I don't actually care about Twilight one way or the other, so it's weird to find myself in the position of defending it, but I don't get why horror fans are clamping down so hard on this one infidel when the other 99% of fictional vampires who don't sparkle are still out there for their consumption.

I'm also sick of the silly arguments about whether fast-moving zombies are acceptable, or whether the infected folks in 28 Days Later or Pontypool should be classified as zombies. Once again, the fan mentality seems to be “Damn these original thinkers! Don't they understand that our genre is about cliches and conformity?”

Never mind that the original vampires of folklore were basically reanimated corpses, and that our romanticized concept of a vampire is mostly a 19th-century literary creation. Or that the zombie is a voodoo concept that was given a secular reinvention by low-budget filmmakers.

As much as horror aficionados try to define themselves as picked-on, marginalized monsters, to me they're seeming more and more like the torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob who set out to destroy anything that's different. Their obsession with enforcing often-corny “rules” (just like the mainstream they claim to despise), rather than judging individual works on their merits, has, for me, leached a lot of the fun out of horror.

Is horror even supposed to be fun anymore? I often hear people rail against the mere existence of PG-13 horror films, as if the very idea of a horror movie that most high school kids could see in the theater without a parent is a bowdlerized abomination. One could point out that Poltergeist, a classic according to anyone I've ever met, was rated PG in 1982, or that older films from Nosferatu to Psycho still entertain fans today, or that many grown adults will admit that they were terrified of the Viacom logo, the 1970s Doctor Who theme, or the trees in The Wizard of Oz. One might also suggest (if one was especially brave) that their real objection to teen-friendly horror films stems from an unwillingness to a) admit to being old, and b) allow the next generation to have a childhood too.

But such arguments would miss the point somehow, because apparently horror films don't necessarily have to be frightening anymore; they only have to be “extreme” or “hardcore” in their graphic imagery, so that instead of being entertained you can just look down your nose at other people whose stomachs aren't as strong as yours.

It's possible to make a movie that's scary and gory, and it's equally possible to make a movie that's scary without gore. But I guess I still cling to the idea that the “scary” part is what actually matters, and that gore is just a stylistic choice, to be used as much (or as little) as an individual director deems fitting. To many modern horror fans, though, it seems to be the opposite – gore is what really counts (well, that and obeying the genre rules), and whether the movie is actually dramatic at all is not to be discussed.

We're living in the Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder”, in which twisted freaks define what's normal and acceptable, and anything potentially beautiful or distinctive is considered deviant. I guess that's what it really comes down to for me – it no longer seems enjoyable to play with the dark side once a year. Not when we're forced to live on the dark side all the time, ruled by people whose only taboo is against fun.

Maybe next year I'll feel differently. But right now, Halloween asks me to celebrate all the things that I spend the other 364 days of the year losing interest in.

(Yikes! Fortunately I worked through these issues; click here to find out how.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buffalo Premiere

Yesterday – October 23 – was the Buffalo premiere of Saberfrog, held at Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center, a fitting choice since it had been the shooting location for the finale of the movie, filmed on Day 2 of production.

I'd spent the previous two weekends plastering Buffalo with flyers, and also promoted the film at the Buffalo Comicon convention and at the monthly Buffalo Movie-Video Makers meeting. In doing so I encountered a lot of enthusiasm for the movie, based on the premise and the flyer, and based on this I was looking forward to a big turnout.

Saturday evening turned out to be grim and rainy, however, and this probably kept a lot of people away. The showing was still a modest success – enough people showed up that I made back the cost of renting the space, plus a (tiny) profit.

The film's two lead actors, Liz Mariani (now back in the States) and Wendy Foster, were present at the showing. Several friends of John Karyus were also there, including a mutual friend from RIT. Overall, the audience – though less raucous than the Rochester audience – seemed to really dig Saberfrog. Of all the scenes in the movie, Terrance's one-man play and Bert's online video mashup got the biggest laughs.

The Squeaky Wheel projectionist, Mark, complimented me on the film afterwards, and said that there were other competing events going on in Buffalo that weekend that might have kept the turnout from being higher. He also said it was refreshing to see a low-budget film that put some care into the sound. This was something of a relief to hear, as the quality of location audio had been wildly uneven and I'd worked long and hard to fix as many audio problems as I could during production. While my jaded ear can still hear the remaining flaws, casual moviegoers seem not to notice them.

I'm planning to continue four-walling theaters and alternative venues for the movie, but the farther away I get from the film's home “base”, the harder it's going to be to promote screenings, let alone attend them in person. Promotion of the Rochester and Buffalo screenings was very grassroots – putting up flyers, spreading the word among friends and friends-of-friends – with emphasis on the film's local origins. Drawing a crowd in other cities is going to require much more aggressive marketing, including traditional media – news articles and print/radio/TV interviews.

A much simpler approach would be to just get the film into festivals, although the cost of getting rejected at multiple festivals is comparable to the cost of renting a space yourself – and if you rent a space yourself, you can charge admission and make at least some of that money back. Still, the film has proven itself as a crowd-pleaser, so maybe I'll have some halfway decent luck on the festival circuit.

I'm already working on future screenings, though, and I'll let you know what happens next …

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

16mm awesomeness in three cities

When I was a kid, we used to watch short films in class, generally prefaced by a title card that said “from the Reynolds Collection of the Rochester Public Library” or words to that effect. Many of these were educational films of the sort so often parodied in commercials and comedy shows. But some were just … odd. They may have been comedies, or art films, or animations, or various combinations thereof, but the purpose of showing these films in class seems elusive in hindsight.

The most famous of these was Hardware Wars, which had a decent afterlife on cable and video, but many of the others are now obscure. Some I can still kind of remember if I think about it enough, while others have largely faded from my memory.

These kinds of films showed up not only in class, but in more public settings as well. The Rochester Museum and Science Center's Eisenhardt Auditorium had weekend shows of kid's movies (I remember seeing animated films based on the Paddington Bear books and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat). A robotic-dinosaur exhibit that came to the RMSC in the mid-80s was accompanied, in one room, by a set of dinosaur-related films, including Will Vinton's famous Siskel-and-Ebert parody Dinosaur and a more realistic stop-motion film from the National Film Board of Canada. (I – or, more likely, my mom – actually videotaped these films from the audience with our giant camcorder, back in the days when no one thought to object to such behavior; maybe I can still find that tape if I dig through enough boxes.) When my family traveled to Toronto to see the Ontario Science Center, my favorite “exhibit” was a small booth that showed the stream-of-consciousness clay-animated film Clay, Or The Origin of Species.

I can remember when a local library branch put on a little animation festival in a room upstairs. The films themselves included Jiri Trnka's stop-motion film The Hand, in which a stop-motion puppet is relentlessly pursued by a marauding human hand; an art-film parody called The Critic, in which the voice of Mel Brooks heckles an abstract film in humorous proto-MST3K fashion; and a Disney adaptation of Peter and the Wolf. There were two other films whose titles are unknown to me – a time-lapse movie of a building under construction, which I guess counts as an animated film; and a film about an urban family attending a funeral, seen from the point of view of the youngest family, and depicted in a constantly flowing art style that was probably created using finger paint. [Update: I've since seen the latter film again: it's The Street by Caroline Leaf.] Those are the five I can still remember, over a quarter-century later; whatever other films might have been in the program are now long-forgotten by me.

The 70s and (early to mid-)80s must have been the boom time for such things; back then, you would still see obscure short films padding out the running time between movies on cable, and of course Sesame Street and The Electric Company had their share of whimsical, borderline-experimental animation. Yet I seldom seemed to meet people from other areas who had similar memories of seeing oddball animated films in class or elsewhere. This left me wondering if the Rochester area – or perhaps my grade school in particular – was somehow unique in exposing its students to oddball short films that seemed to come from nowhere. Even as the home video boom made movies more accessible, and the Internet made it easier to dig up information on even the most esoteric topics, these obscure 70s/80s films seemed to drift into the dreamlike haze of fading childhood memories.

But these films had a huge impact on me as a kid. They always looked handmade; anyone who owned a home movie camera with single-frame capabilities could theoretically make one. The fact that these films were made by no one you'd ever heard of, and shown in environments other than regular movie theaters, must have also intrigued my young brain somehow. I credit these unsung films with inspiring me to make my own films.

Some time in the late 90s/early 2000s, the Rochester library donated its 16mm film collection to the Visual Studies Workshop, a school/art gallery (associated with SUNY Brockport) which also played host to the occasional underground film event. Yet except for a single multimedia show early on (in which old industrial films were played as background), the VSW never seemed to do anything with that vast and mysterious collection for years afterward.

My interest in “ephemeral” films (as I guess they're called now) was rekindled a couple years ago when Skip Elsheimer, manager of the AV Geeks film collection, came to town to put on a show at the George Eastman House. Lo and behold, here were exactly the sorts of weird and wonderful films I saw as a kid, even if the particular titles were new to me – such as Shake Hands With Danger, a workplace-safety industrial film whose title song has become an Internet phenomenon; and Malakapalakadoo, Skip Too, a truly bizarre clay animation intended to encourage children to use their imaginations. When I later went to the AV Geeks website and browsed their list of films, I found titles that I did recall from back in the day, such as The Wave (a film about students forming a paramilitary clique) and an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. I slept better at night knowing that films like these were still out there, still remembered, and still loved.

Why am I writing about all this now? Well, such is the revival that these films are enjoying that I have been able see such films as they were meant to be seen – on 16mm in an alternative venue – in three different cities over a seven-day period, without even realizing it until later.


The adventure began on Sunday, October 10, when I went to Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo to see a show of experimental animation that was being presented as part of the Buffalo Film Festival. Squeaky's website explained that this was actually a traveling animation show, separate from the Buffalo festival, and co-managed by Larry Cuba, who did the computer-animated Death Star plans for the original Star Wars. Cuba would be at the event in person, and showing three of his own experimental films from the 1970s/80s.

That the event had such low attendance is a measure of how far the arty world and the geek world have drifted apart from each other. This was a free event, and the equation of “free event” plus “guy who did special effects for Star Wars” probably could have draw every fan within a 200-mile radius if only that audience had heard of the event and/or had any taste for abstract animation. It's too bad because, in my brain, the two worlds still seem linked somehow. George Lucas' background was in experimental filmmaking before he went down the Power-Of-Myth road, and to me there's not really a big difference between an abstract 1970s computer animation and, say, Pong or Asteroids; it's all pioneering stuff from the early days of digital imagery.

I'd lost my appetite for purely abstract films after being force-fed too much of it in college, but I still dig the 70s ones, partly because they have a certain innocence to them (with none of the anger or pretentiousness that seemed to take over in later years) and partly because they tend to have groovy soundtracks. Cuba's three films, and some other old-school animations that he also screened, were an enjoyable blast from the past.


A mere five days later – on Friday – I decided to hoof it to Toronto for an evening to catch a film screening or two. I'd received Facebook notices about a couple different screenings going on that evening. One was a film festival event, and I thought it might be a good opportunity to network and spread the word about Saberfrog. The other was the regular Friday-night screening at Trash Palace, an industrial building (apparently used as a small press during the week) that screens 16mm films on Friday night. It was the latter that I ended up attending.

I'd been to Trash Palace once before, for the same reason – there were a couple different screenings I wanted to go to in Toronto, but Trash Palace was the only one I could make it in time for. Last time they were presenting what was supposedly a show of rare early student films from people like Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Lasseter – a bit misleading, as these turned out to be live-action student films made by someone else, but gave minor credit (art direction or “Thanks to”) to Lasseter et al. Nonetheless, I got a taste of the Trash Palace experience and enjoyed it immensely, especially since other people brought their own 16mm student work to screen, which meant films I knew I would not have heard of and would never see again.

This time, the main event was a 1970s crime flick called Puppet on a String. The best way I can think of to describe this film is to say that it was like a blaxploitation film with an all-white cast. The film took place in Amsterdam, the main character was an American born in Holland (played by an actor with a Dutch-sounding name), and the cast seemed to generally be Brits (particularly the hero's obligatory you're-not-playing-by-the-rules superior), yet the film was full of Shaft-style badass music and fight scenes, including a rather impressive motorboat chase through the streets of Amsterdam.

The film was preceded by some pretty cool 1970s kung-fu trailers, with titles like The Chinese Professionals, Triple Iron, Black Dragon, and Black Samurai (those last two may have been the same film under two different titles).


I returned home to Rochester, and attended a 16mm screening the very next day at Visual Studies Workshop. Yes, VSW has finally begun unleashing its sweet collection of celluloid obscurity onto the public.

This was the second of what promises to be a monthly show at VSW; the first had had a specifically education/classroom theme, whereas this one was entitled “There Is No Reality” and was devoted to some of the more surreal and out-there films in the collection. Yeah.

The films included two Norman McLaren animations about moving lines (not quite as dull as it sounds, and actually quite hypnotic); the music video for the Dr. Demento-approved novelty song “Fish Heads”; and Help! My Snowman's Burning Down, a Richard Lester-esque film about a guy sitting in a bathtub on a New York pier and having various Magritte-like adventures.

Two of the films in the program were slightly familiar to me: K9000: A Space Oddity, a goofy animation about a dog who's captured by scientists (or whoever they are) and sent into space in a rocket ship to encounter a bunch of weird crap; and Why Me?, a National Film Board of Canada cartoon about the stages of acceptance faced by the terminally ill. Stills from both of these had been featured in the late-70s edition of Kit Laybourne's The Animation Book, which was a bible to me as a teenager; in fact, that book used storyboards and other development materials from Why Me? as examples. This was actually the second time I'd seen Why Me?, though I can't remember if I saw it in college or on cable TV.

The finale of the program, a 1970 film called Hello Mustache, was far more obscure; in fact, the guy curating the show said that he had been able to find out almost nothing about the film, “except that we have a copy.” This was a black-and-white, dialogue-heavy film about a hippie male (complete with poncho and brimmed hat) and a square female. Well, supposedly square, since she's wearing an outfit I didn't know was ever considered ordinary – a loud necktie with dress shirt, a vertically striped miniskirt, and white go-go boots. (I quite liked that look, though, and hope that it comes back; it didn't hurt that the actress wearing it was extremely cute.)

Both characters were Jewish New Yorkers, and it seemed like the film was trying to be a surreal/whimsical look at relationships in an Annie Hall-esque manner, but somehow ended up less like Woody Allen and more like David Lynch. This was partly due to the shadowy black—and-white photography, and partly due to the sheer strangeness of the dialogue. The opening scene of the film was just a black screen (with a small, moving white blob that may or may not have been just a scratch on the print) accompanied by a lengthy offscreen phone conversation between the two leads; I thought at first that the entire film would be like this. The ending of the film is equally memorable – the lead actress standing in the doorway of her apartment, at the end of a dimly hit hallway, forlornly calling the hippie – “Alan … Aaaaalaaaaan...” – like a mythical siren.

The sexual themes in both Hello Mustache and Help! My Snowman's Burning Down made me realize that there must be even more strange films in the Rochester library's collection than the ones I saw in class as a kid. Somehow I'd always assumed the films in that collection were all educational or otherwise kid-friendly, simply because those were the ones I would have seen. But clearly there are even deeper waters to be explored.

The enigma of Hello Mustache was as fascinating as the movie: Who made it, and why? Was this a theater piece that someone decided to commit to celluloid? Was this a student film, or funded by a grant? Did these people ever make any other movies? Where are they now, and are they even still alive? How did the Rochester library come to possess a copy – was it donated, or did they purchase it, and in either case how did the library come to know about the film in the first place? Was any of this at all unusual for the time, or was 16mm filmmaking (complete with optical sound) as common back then as, say, YouTube postings today? So many tantalizing mysteries.

The other great thing about seeing 60s/70s curiosities like Hello Mustache and K9000: A Space Oddity is that it reminded me why I was attracted to filmmaking in the first place. Nowadays, it seems, both Hollywood and the audience (now narrowly defined as the ComiCon audience only) seem to have mutually concluded that any new movie must now be based on something you already know before you even set foot in the theater – it must be a remake of a movie you've already seen, or a novel you've already read ... or a comic book, or a video game, or an old TV show … and must contain absolutely no artistic, creative or personal stamp.

But twenty, thirty, forty years ago, it was the opposite. Film was the medium where anything was possible.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

1 Week Ago: World Premiere at the Cinema

September 25, 2010

Well, this blog is just about caught up to the real world. One week ago, Saberfrog had its world premiere at the Cinema Theater in Rochester, NY.

I booked the screening a couple months beforehand, then scrambled to get the movie finalized in time, so I didn't devote nearly as much energy to promotion as I should have. I'd left flyers at the George Eastman House and the Little Theater (the latter only the week before), and also put up flyers at various arty venues and coffeehouses on East Ave, University Ave and Park Ave. I'd also made a special flyer to put up at the RIT film department, promoting the film's RIT connections; John Karyus and I had both been students there, and John Sindoni and I had both acted in Project Nine, a zombie anthology feature film made by RIT students.

The film was preceded by a short promo for vue, an iPad stand developed by my friends at Tango Design. I didn't have any merch to sell at the screening, so I invited them to promote their product and hopefully ship a few units.

I made a few glib opening remarks, and then the film began. The digital projection looked great, and the sound – which I thought wouldn't hold up – was also good, barring a few minor flaws that I hadn't quite been able to fix.

The screening drew a pretty good crowd. The film's animator, Frank Kielar, helped me run the box office, and we sold over forty tickets. Most of the main cast and several supporting actors were present, including J.D. Edmond (Josh), Reuben Tapp (Terrance), Wendy Foster (Aymee), John Sindoni (Garrison), Mary Criddle (Leopold), Diane Conway (Sondra), Jesse Conklin (Josh's boss), makeup artists Tom Gleason and Lance Kazmark, and extras Shawn Gleason, Derrick Petrush and Howard Golove. Sadly unable to attend were John Karyus (Bert), who was in LA, and Liz Mariani (Laurel), who was in Vancouver.

To my relief, the audience laughed pretty much all the way through. Not surprisingly, scene chewer John Karyus got a lot of the biggest laughs, though Reuben was a definite runner-up. The temp agency scene shot on Day 22 played like the studio taping of a sitcom – the audience laughed on cue at all the right places. The notorious record store scene from Day 9 also went down very well.

The post-screening Q&A was a little slow to warm up, but soon people were full of questions about where the movie was shot and how long it took to make. When asked what I was planning to do next, I got a laugh by saying that I was thinking about actually writing the fictitious novels that the main character is obsessed with. It wasn't a joke, though; I am actually working on it.

A trio of audience members, at least one of whom came from Monroe Community College (and luckily was one of the few to find a flyer at the Little), seemed to particularly enjoy the movie. One of them asked me about the true location of the college scenes. “Are you asking where those scenes were shot?” I asked coyly. No, he was wondering if the film's portrayal of academia was based on anyplace or anyone. I just smiled and said, “Let's just leave it there.”

The same audience member asked me if the movie was available for sale. I'd burned as many DVDs as possible the night before so I could give them to cast and crew, but I'd made more DVDs than there were cast and crew in attendance, so I ended up selling several copies of the movie.

The screening was a big success, especially considering the relatively small amount of publicity I'd done. I'd put out some flyers, and the cast and crew had invited their friends to attend, but due to lack of time I hadn't done any real press. The movie was a hit despite this, and there were many people who were unable to attend but asked me if there was going to be another screening. As a result, I am strongly considering another Rochester screening in the near future, since there seems to be a bigger audience that I could reach out to now that the movie is actually freaking finished.

After the screening, I went out to dinner with fellow filmmaker Adrian Esposito and his mom Kristina, along with Frank, J.D. and his wife Laurie. I hadn't seen J.D. and Laurie in over a year, so it was great to see them and catch up. As if on cue, Karyus called me, and I let him and J.D. catch up.

Seeing the finished film with an enthusiastic audience was an out-of-body experience. I'd spent four years writing and rewriting the script, getting actors and locations, juggling a complicated shooting schedule, and editing and re-editing until almost every blemish was gone and every dead spot was tightened up. It was an autobiographical story in a lot of ways, too, that just bubbled out of me during a turbulent period in my own life, so it was somehow liberating to see the whole thing play out as just a wild, fun comedy.

The next scheduled screening is in Buffalo on October 23, 7 pm, at Squeaky Wheel. Admission is $7, or $5 if you're a Squeaky Wheel member. Be there if you still haven't seen the movie, or if you just can't get enough.

Friday, October 1, 2010

No one is forcing you to see Star Wars in 3D

(December 10 note: From an early age I've been obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. This inspired me to become a writer and filmmaker myself, and also to enter the field of computing.

Somehow, I thought the imagination and complexity of SF was similarly inspiring to others. Over the last four or five years, however, I've felt increasingly alienated from nerd culture and “fandom” – or at least fanboys.

I've always admired and identified with filmmakers and creative people. Fanboys don't. They regard film as a second-class art form that exists only to create adaptations of other art forms (comic books, TV shows, old novels) or to perpetuate aging franchises. They are passive consumers of mainstream pop culture, yet somehow believe that hating the stuff they're passively consuming is enough to make them smart. They seem less interested in seeking out the good stuff than in focusing on stuff they can complain about and sneer at.

I finally realized that, if you aspire to be in any way creative, clever or imaginative, these guys are not your audience, nor are they your peers.

The latest round of bitching about
Star Wars gave me a reason to vent about all this once and for all. While some of my words below are harsh and perhaps overly emotional, these are things that I had to get off my chest.

In the 90s it seemed everyone was aspiring to be an artist. Today, being a sneering fan/consumer is what's cool, and I'm determined to resist this. Doing so makes me a heroic defender of highbrow aspirations, or an out-of-touch snob, or both.)

“If it hadn't been for the self-discipline … my [school] work would never have gotten done. I felt there were a lot of kids that never figured that out, and they just sort of whiled away their lives and woke up one day to find out they were thirty-five years old and hadn't amounted to much.”

--George Lucas on how he made it through college, in Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock

I'd like to take a break from talking about my own movie, Saberfrog, to talk about another movie – or rather, a set of movies – that seems unlikely to fade away any time soon.

Just when it seemed like my generation had managed to go a whole week without complaining about George Lucas, predictable nerd outrage has greeted the news – long talked about, now confirmed – that the six Star Wars movies would be released in 3D in the next few years, in numerical order, starting with The Phantom Menace.

While I'm as big a Star Wars fan as anyone else my age, I have to confess that I'm a little tired of Star Wars as a topic, no matter what the context. And I'm especially tired of listening to my generation foam at the mouth about the new films.

So thoroughly did Star Wars make the future safe for itself (to paraphrase Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) that no one – at least, no one currently under forty – can quite remember why the original film was such a big deal when it first came out. Geek culture has taken over so completely that no one remembers why Star Wars was such a breakthrough in the depressed 70s, nor how disreputable sci-fi was before then. Fans take for granted the idea that every cantina creature and background robot has its own identity and backstory, forgetting that sci-fi movies and TV almost never had that level of detail before George Lucas – inspired by his love of Japanese films that felt no need to spell out their rules for a Western audience – decided to apply the same strategy to an invented universe.

When I was a little kid, it wasn't yet possible to waste your entire life watching the Star Wars trilogy over and over on home video. Instead, there were TV specials and magazine articles that detailed the making of the movies, showing how puppets, miniatures and stop-motion animation were deployed to make an imaginary world come to life.

Most of all, there was Dale Pollock's 1983 book Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, which detailed the man in plaid's rise from teenage misfit to film-school prodigy to world-famous filmmaker. It covered Star Wars' painful journey from concept to completion – Lucas' two-year struggle to write a decent script, the sandstorm that destroyed his sets early in the shoot, his struggles with the English crew, the studio's horror at the incoherent rough cut, and ILM spending half their budget with just a handful of effects shots to show for it. The book not only inspired me to be a filmmaker, but demonstrated the amount of persistence, determination and stamina required to make your aspirations come true.

Though written when Lucas was at his popular and creative peak (Return of the Jedi was still in production when the book was written), it also gave voice to many criticisms of Lucas that were common even then – that he wasn't very good at writing dialogue or directing actors. But his determination to succeed even in areas where he wasn't naturally gifted is still an inspiration to me.

Lucas apparently never had the quitter attitude that so many of my generation have embraced. Even in film school, when his classmates complained about lack of resources, Lucas' attitude was: “If I got sixteen feet of film [about half a minute of 16mm], I made a sixteen-foot-long movie. Nothing could stop me.”

My theory on writing is that people who regard themselves as powerless, who can't imagine anything they do having an impact, are the ones who write a page or a paragraph and then get stuck, because they can't envision their protagonist actually doing anything. By contrast, Lucas has written or co-written the screenplays for over a dozen completed feature films, including all of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films – a resume of admittedly varying quality, but not so bad for someone who “can't write”. Whatever his weaknesses with dialogue, he is capable of constructing plots, which is perhaps the hardest and most challenging aspect of writing, an aspect that many people never master.

The Star Wars movies have always explicitly been about taking a stand and making moral decisions, perhaps because Lucas – according to most Star Wars-related interviews I've seen or read, even those that predate the original film's release – was trying to communicate positive values to a generation otherwise growing up without them. That's quite a noble goal, even though – judging by how the Star Wars generation has turned out – it seems he failed pretty spectacularly.

“[T]he behavior of the children, that is, the fans, does not resemble the noble ideals set forth in the writings and pronouncements of the parents, the writers … For them, courage and rational behavior are alien concepts only to be read about in slambang space operas. Such concepts do not impinge upon their miserable lives in the real world.”

--Harlan Ellison, “Xenobiogenesis” (1990)

The Star Wars style of special-effects fantasy – along with much else that symbolized the 80s – faced a stern backlash in the grunge era. By the time I was in college, everything was about Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino and the culture wars; it's stunning to remember that Lee's Malcolm X opened to the same kind of hype and anticipation as The Phantom Menace would just seven years later. I became familiar with – if not quite agreeing with – the orthodox account of film history, which stated that Star Wars had had a terrible effect on movies by dumbing everything down with action and special effects.

By the end of the 90s, though, people were lightening up a bit. Even though I'd kind of moved on from Star Wars, and had become a fan of many other things – Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg and Harlan Ellison – it was kind of cool to have the Star Wars saga finally resume, something I never thought would actually happen.

I saw The Phantom Menace opening night, and had mixed feelings but didn't hate it. It took too long to get going, and the final battles weren't as stirring as they should have been, but I enjoyed most of it at the time. It's aged badly, neither delivering the thrills of the original trilogy nor setting up the darker direction of parts II and III, but I certainly didn't think I'd seen a film that would one day be considered synonymous with evil.

My own life took some rough turns in the years spanning Episodes II and III – I'd given up on my filmmaking ambitions for various reasons – so I found a lot of resonance in the story of Anakin Skywalker, a guy who seemed to have so much potential but ended up blowing it. I completed a programming degree on the eve of Episode III's opening, and vividly remember finishing my last degree requirement in the morning before work, then going to the movies that evening to see Anakin complete his transformation into a machine-creature.

My friend John Karyus theorized that once all six movies were on DVD, people would marathon them all in story order and start to find unexpected connections between the films, so one weekend I sat down and put John's theory to the test. I wrote pages of notes about my thoughts and feelings, and based on those notes I'm tempted to make a series of blog entries about the experience.

Yet a large part of me just wants to let it drop. I've grown so tired of this entire subject. I know what Star Wars means to me, and am fed up with having to listen to other people's hostility on the matter.

Digression: I collect old Doctor Who episodes on DVD. A year or two ago, I went to Borders looking for the most recent release, and when I couldn't find it I asked a clerk for help. When he found the episode for me, another (female) clerk observed us and asked, disapprovingly, “You're not buying Colin Baker, are you?” referring to the sixth actor to play the Doctor. It actually wasn't a Colin episode, but something about the cover made her think that it was, and she started explaining to me how she didn't like his version of the Doctor, apparently hoping I'd agree.

Some months later, I (thoughtlessly) went back to the same Borders for another old Doctor Who, and this time it was a Colin episode I was purchasing. When I got to the checkout desk, there were two clerks … and one of them was her. Oh please no, I thought. Please let the other one call on me instead. No such luck. Fangirl called me to the desk, I gave her the DVD, and she briefly lit up – “Doctor Who!!!” – before immediately sneering, “Oh. It's Colin.” Again she started in with her Colin-hatred, all the while smiling and trying to get me to agree with her, when all I wanted to do was just buy my DVD and get the hell out of there.

People like that make me realize how Nazi Germany came about. She was sweet and smiling and charming, she clearly was pleased to meet another old-school Doctor Who fan and wanted to bond with me. And yet, what she wanted to bond over was how much she hated something about it, and how much she disliked someone who had actually worked on it.

This is what I've seen again and again from the nerd mindset. It's not about genuinely loving and enjoying something. It's about finding something to hate, because – as every bully knows – bashing something you hate is a satisfying shortcut to self-esteem, especially when you have nothing else going for you.

There's something pathetic about people who are entirely dependent on mainstream, commercial pop culture for their identity when they don't even like it. The reason Lucas continues to infuriate the nerds so much is that he's a drug they can't wean themselves off of. No matter how much they grow to dislike his work, they cannot bring themselves to think about or talk about anything else instead.

I guess I just don't relate to that kind of passivity. To me, Star Wars was always something that somebody made, not some holy religious text. It's the product of a flawed but industrious human being, who'd made his most celebrated films by age 39, and who is now being bashed by people who have reached a similar age with much less to show for it.

I feel strongly about all this because I'm a writer and filmmaker myself, and have spent my life developing my craft and trying to get better at it. So my sympathies are with the people who do the work, not the people who complain. That's the real distinction – not between people who are cool or uncool, but between people who do the work and people who don't.

If there's anything that I am bitter about regarding the prequels in general, and Phantom Menace in particular, it's not so much the films themselves (which are certainly flawed, but also quite ambitious in their scope and themes). It's the effect they had on my age group as a whole. To a generation that otherwise seemed to value nothing but their own sarcasm, Star Wars was the one thing you were somehow allowed to like. It was the one thing you could sincerely enjoy without snobby nerds or contrary hipster dillweeds giving you a hard time. Today it's the opposite; Star Wars is the one thing you must absolutely never bring up in polite company unless you're prepared to risk being subjected to an angry ten-minute diatribe. If Phantom Menace had been a better-paced, better-acted movie, I don't think there would have been such a backlash; Episodes II and III could have been exactly the same as they are and would have been viewed more favorably. But still ... it's an 11-year-old movie! It's the same age now that Return of the Jedi was when Clerks came out. When are we going to move on?

Why is Star Wars so important? I know what it meant to me as a filmmaker, but what did it mean to all these angry fans and ex-fans, who continue to spew venom any time it's even mentioned? I'm sure that if you were to ask them, their responses would always contain the two words that make my skin crawl when I hear them uttered in a petulant tone from the mouth of a thirty- or forty-something adult:

“ childhood.”

That's it. That's what Star Wars means to so many trolls born in the 70s and late 60s. Star Wars means clinging to the past, and avoiding responsibility or risk-taking. Pretty much the opposite of the characters in the movie, then.

When Phantom Menace first came out on video, Entertainment Weekly's Marc Bernardin wrote a review that has always stuck in my head:

“To do its job as a prequel, The Phantom Menace has to provide only three pieces of information: (1) introduce Anakin Skywalker ... and Amidala ...; (2) establish Obi-Wan Kenobi ... as Anakin's teacher; and (3) let us meet Palpatine ... before he becomes the evil emperor. We don't need to know anything about Gungans, senatorial chancellor elections, podraces, droid armies, or midi-chlorian levels.”

There are many criticisms of Phantom Menace I would agree with, but that isn't one of them. Bernardin isn't really criticizing Gungans or pod races per se. What he's actually saying here is: This movie shouldn't have had anything new in it. It shouldn't have had anything we didn't see coming. It should have consisted only of continuity references to films we've seen. It should have been predictable.

In this regard, Bernardin speaks for all the nerds who only go to movies that are remakes, or adaptations of familiar material from other media, even if it's just to complain about how wrongly they were done. New ideas, new styles, anything that might surprise you … these things are to be avoided at all costs.

I used to get mad when film snobs accused Star Wars of turning people into mindless, passive consumers. I used to think they were wrong. I'm not so sure anymore.

Will I be seeing the Star Wars movies in 3D? Maybe, maybe not. I might see Phantom Menace out of mild curiosity, to see if Lucas fixed anything (hopefully he at least replaces that cross-eyed Yoda puppet with CG) but otherwise … why? I've seen these movies already. Many times. And I own them all. In multiple versions, and multiple formats. I can watch them any time I want. Hell, I can watch the old ones in my head just by closing my eyes.

If you're planning to see the 3D versions when they come out, I hope you have a blast. If you're not, that's okay too; if you don't want to go see them, then don't. Just stop making such a goddamned fuss about a theatrical release that no one is forcing you to attend.

“I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned,” said Alec Guinness the last time Star Wars was re-released. I hear ya, Alec. I hear ya.