Wednesday, September 5, 2007

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What interested me most when we were brainstorming about this first topic for culturemonkey was the possibility that the fanboyish tendencies of late '90s fantasy film that Ryan identifies in his post thrive not only in the peripheries of culture, where we still find the most obvious examples, but rather that the epistemophilia he identifies has actually become the dominant mode of filmic appreciation across all genres and audiences. It's easy to recognize this phenomenon in the Star Wars Expanded Universe or the Lord of the Rings special editions (in which, as Ryan reminded me recently, we find "deleted scenes" that are integral to the plot, without which the film doesn't actually make sense)—but precisely the same totalizing obsessiveness is at work in such things as Anchorman: Unrated Edition or the Gilmore Girls boxed set, with commentaries, interviews, making-of documentaries, retrospectives, deleted scenes, alternate endings (sometimes spliced into the DVD track itself, such that the "original ending" is accessible only in special features), and even often the advertising campaigns that accompanied the original release, all in the service of cinema and television that two decades ago would have been irrecoverable (and, thus, forgotten) three months after it left the theaters or airwaves.

The incentive structure that rewards and validates the "fan" is this possibility of infinite rewatching (really, of dedicated study, of exegesis) alongside a series of ever more peripheral "inside looks," which both have the long-term effect of removing the true fan's specialized experience further and further from that of the merely casual on-looker. The renter of a movie or TV series watches it once and returns it to the store; the owner inhabits it fully, or at least tries to. (The separation and cultural isolation that this sort of devotion engenders in the fan, its complete lack of circulable cultural capital, is a feature, not a bug—the pleasure of total immersion and the pleasure of obsessive ritual are unique to cultic sect, and lose their magic when the religion goes mainstream. This is why fans feel betrayed when the cult band, film, or show suddenly catches on; this sacredity is what they lose. And this more than anything else is the genius of George Lucas: by introducing the concept of the Expanded Universe he gives his devotees a new commodity space in which to (monetarily) continue their obsession that is completely insulated from the popularity of the mainstream prequels. In this way the Expanded Universe is a prophelatic against the paradoxical specter of too-much-success; it's designed to appeal only to niche fans and thereby squeeze every last potential dollar out of casual and obsessed fan alike.)

The pleasure that drives this devotion is the pleasure of the easter egg, the discovered background joke, the amusing continuity error, the tiny repeated phrases or quotations that are noticed only upon the thirty-sixth viewing—in short the tiny cinematic gestures the auteur slipped in reserved only for you. This—the discovery of lines of dialogue from Rushmore in The Life Aquatic, the sporadic appearances of Larry David on Seinfeld, noticeable only in retrospect—is the cinemaphilic reinforcement that keeps us coming back. (Think of the machine that spits pellets into a mouse's cage at irregular intervals. Think of a slot machine.) And this pleasure, once contingent and organic, has now been identified by the producers of culture as the ATM it is and is increasingly deliberate, planned, and outright commodified: Lost's numbers, Heroes's helix, The Office's catchphrases-that-aren't-really-catchphrases-but-really-are, and on and on. The increasing foregrounding of X-Files-esque mythology in mainstream media creations—the constant but never-quite-followed-up suggestion of narrative excess, of treasure beneath the surface, of check-our-website-for-more—all this speaks to film's new mode not as afternoon diversion or as total entertainment but as sacred text. We are all nerds now; we are all monks.