KINO-JOURNAL OF THE AMAZED SPECTATOR 89237HJ ©edgar pêraEDGAR PÊRA – What difference do you see between a cinephile and a fan?
HENRY JENKINS – Mostly it’s a difference of sub-cultural status. A cinephile sort of wants to believe they’re above the culture, that they’ve a sense of discrimination, distinction. A fan is wallows in the culture, a fan is part of the culture that surrounds them. I think in the end of the day, they’re doing exactly the same thing. But the cinephile is someone who loves movies, loves to talk about movies, loves to engage with them. A fan is someone who loves whatever form of popular culture they’re most invested in. The line blurs very quickly.
Imagine someone who’s on a horror film fan on one hand and a Dario Argento cinephile on the other. How can you possibly distinguish between those two modes of engagement? The cinephile may pretend to be sitting back and watching from a distance but the very word “phile” is about love, is about passion, is about obsession, is about watching the movies over and over again and not wanting to miss them, is celebrating the beauty of the image. And when a fan remakes a costume for an Anime, they’re paying attention to every detail and every dimension of the film in order to create something that they can occupy and engage with – that also grows out of their love.
So, for me, ultimately they are differences, cultural differences and modes of engagement but at the end of the day, a cinephile is a fan with a pedigree.
EP – But do you see the cinephile more as a spectator and the fan more like an actor?
HENRY JENKINS –I think fans definitely are people who take culture in their own hands and remake it, re-perform it, re-enact it, they want to get inside the text. The cinephile may or not want to do that. Think of a classic cinephile, maybe Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol hanging out in the Cinematheque Française watching Hitchcock films and film noir in the post-war era, who then become critics in Cahiers Du Cinema, and then become filmmakers and start the French New Wave and then become the idols of the next generation of filmmakers who want to respond to their work… So those guys may not call themselves fans but at the end of the day they’ve done the same cycle of moving from watching to creating, to being watched by many other fans.
EP – But don’t you think sometimes fans are more like…well not replicants but…what’s the difference between a film by Godard and one of those Star Wars movie fan which sometimes are really well done? The special effects…but do they try to emulate or do you think it is something beyond that? But at the same time it’s quite radical and different from a Godard film?
HENRY JENKINS – I don’t want to take away Godard’s genius right? He is a great filmmaker and he has a radical philosophy of Cinema that underlies what he makes. But he’s also someone who quotes and re-performs, and re-stages moments from any number of classic films. It’s hard to picture Breathless if Bogart hadn’t existed. There are moments in all of Godard’s films that are directly engaged with the films that he loved, there is Samuel Fuller in Godard’s work for example. The fan filmmaker does much the same, their aesthetic may be different, their aesthetic is one of emotional intensity, closeness, getting inside the head of the character. It´s not an aesthetic like Godard’s but at the end of the day they are also trying to use that character as a vehicle to say something different about the world. For many of the fan filmmakers, in particular there is a kind of playful, ironic distance that gets introduced. Most of the Star Wars fan films are parodies, many of them use Star Wars to talk about something else. It’s more of a continuum to me than an absolute difference. But the fan filmmaker is not simple trying to reproduce the original. The original already exists. In the case of Star Wars they may be preserving the original since Lucas is the one who’s continuously vandalizing it. But they are trying to use the original as a starting point to say something they want to say about the world. And that can be as original as any other kind of art can be. You know, there’re some fans who are brilliant and some fans who are idiots. But there are some filmmakers who are brilliant and some filmmakers are idiots. Some would say: 90% of anything is crap. You know, and 90% of fan films are crap, 90% of art movies are crap! But the 10% is what I really want to pay attention to.
EP – So, do you see sometimes fans as watchdogs of some kind of intelectual property? Like you were talking about Star Wars…
HENRY JENKINS – Well, I think Star Wars is an interesting case where fans may be more invested in the mythology of Star Wars than Lucas is. Lucas keeps coming back inside and changes Star Wars, add things to it. Fans would tolerate that as long as they have access to the original that they fell in love with. The problem is that Lucas as been the one who refuses to let fans to see the original work. So, he vandalizes Star Wars and does digital alterations, he takes away what the fans fell in love with.
EP – I read that you don’t like the concept of comparing fandom with religion but there is something of the “original text” that makes… not religion, but within something that is very religious which is the interpretation of the original text.
HENRY JENKINS – My opposition to comparing fandom and religion goes back to the root of the word “fan” – it’s a Latin root word that originally means worshiper of the Fain – and the Fain was the temple Vessel. The Vessel virgins were the original fans and so from the beginning the term, fan was tied to notions of orgiastic worship and, gradually over time, false worship, false belief, and then other forms of fanaticism. The problem is that so many people accuse fans of having false beliefs about the line between fantasy and reality and I see the heart of religion is belief. So the question is at what level is the belief in fandom?
I was raised to fundamentalist so, for me, you certainly celebrate the text but in a very literal way, but fans are more allegorical right? They might be Episcopalians rather than Baptists in the ways in which they conceive a text that is a metaphor, an allegory that you make sense of, you know… of spiritual and cultural issues trough.
So, fans don’t worship George Lucas, despite the fact that some of them are registering on tax and census forms as Jedi. They’re not really Jedi, they don’t really believe in the Force, but the text may be meaningful to them, it may have truths that they draw upon in making sense of their identity. And they may want to protect that text against people who would harm it, or would ultimately take it away. And what is particularly pathological about Star Wars fandom right now is Lucas has taking away the text fans fell in love with and replaced it with something he altered. So the fans are resisting his altering of it.
EP – So, who is the author?
HENRY JENKINS – Well that’s a really complicated question. Lucas created something, but created something from other materials. Star Wars is inconceivable without The Hidden Fortress, without Battleship Yamamato, Robin Hood, Dam Busters…we can go through a long list of things that Star Wars borrows from. Lucas mixed it and mashed it up, created something new that spoke to a generation, then he left it there for 20 years. Over those 20 years the fans added their own elements to it, extended the timeline, developed the secondary characters. They created a mythology hundred times bigger than Lucas created in the original Star Wars, a thousand times bigger! Then Lucas came back: – Now we’re gonna make some more movies and we’re gonna tell everyone they’re wrong because we know this mythology better than they do, we’re gonna put it all in a box again. And fans resisted having them come back and contradict the collective collaboration they were involved with. And then Lucas says “I’m now bored. I’m gonna go back to the text you fell in love with. I’m gonna take it away and I’m gonna fix it, I’m gonna fix it in all these ways you don’t necessarily like but you can’t do anything about it because if you try to re-circulate the original text you are in violation of my copyrights”. And fans have really strongly objected to that move on taking away their Star Wars. I think fans will embrace other things Lucas wanted to do, they’re just not willing to have them replaced with what they value in the new things that he wanted to do.
EP – It’s a bit like if Marx stopped being a marxist and then told everyone we couldn’t believe in his original idea. (smiles)
HENRY JENKINS – Yeah! Or if every filmmaker simple removed from the theater their last film and said no one can see it anymore, you have to watch my new one. Would we accept that the last films of Ford, or Hitchcock, or Welles were the masterpieces? Or would we say: “I’m interested in seeing what you’re making now but at the end of the day Family Plot ain’t Vertigo right? If you took away Vertigo and say you can have a Family Plot instead, as a Hitchcock fan, I would be pretty upset by that substitution. And that’s sort of what Lucas said, even worst because he sort of taken the original work and changed it in a way that it’s almost unrecognizable to people. And then he brings the new back as if they were the same. And that it’s like if Leonardo Da Vinci drew a mustache on Mona Lisa instead of Duchamp. How would we respond to that? We no longer can see the Mona Lisa just because Da Vinci prefers the one with the mustache. But Duchamp can do it and we say: oh it’s a comment on DaVinci. It’s a different version, connects us back to the original.
EP – Well, when it’s something “low” in the scale of art, people cannot make comments…
HENRY JENKINS – Exactly, where is the nature of popular culture if it doesn’t belong to the public? It belongs to the public and so we make comments on it all the time, we take lines from the movies and we quote them to each others, and we use them in the comments of everyday life. We draw pictures, we tell stories, we have fantasies, we have erotic fantasies … you know, all these things are ways we engage with popular culture.
And what happens at the age of the internet is that all the things went public so the erotic fantasies we have now can be published online, and become fan fiction and that sort of speculations we have over the cafeteria can become comments on a forum. And the drawing we do on our notebook paper in the classroom can become art that we post online. We now have the capacity to create and share media with each others and we choose to do it in response to the materials of our culture. That’s what people have always done with the contents of their culture. But we now have the capacity to circulate them to a much broader public.
EP – So maybe that’s why you say that in a sense fandom doesn’t exist anymore because everybody has the opportunity to do those kinds of things that supposedly only fans would do.
HENRY JENKINS – Yeah, some fan practices may bleed so deeply into everyday culture that fandom ceases to have a distinct subcultural identity. That hasn’t quiet happen yet but there are certainly tendencies where the culture at large is embracing the culture of fan production. And fan taste is shaping the choices of the media industry to such a large degree that either fandom is everywhere or fandom is nowhere at this moment.
EP – So, going back to… Do you see that… can we say that the fan believes in metaphors and the normal spectator believes more in reality? The fan prefers to be, in a way, amazed by the media itself or the aesthetic ideas that are in the movie. They are amazed, while the “Spectator-Believer” – let’s say, neo-realistic spectators (not only cinephiles) – believes in the “content” of the film… Do you think there’s this kind of distinction between the believers and the fans?
HENRY JENKINS – Well the question is whether thre are true believers or susceptible viewers of the kind imagined by certain kinds of film theory. But let’s suppose there are, the fans would be in the opposite side of the spectrum. And I like your term “amazed” They are enchanted by something that captures their imagination. But they’re also very much in their zone, they’re reading magazines that tell them how some special effect is achieved, they know the people who built the mythology, they see behind the camera as well as what is on the camera. And they are fully aware of the constructed nature of it all to the degree that the next step for many is to be able to say: – Yeah, I wanna be a part of that process.
The storytelling doesn’t end the minute I walk out of the theatre, the storytelling begins. Now I can tell my own story and I can use my home camera to create special effects that are as good as Lucas’s special effects. And I can duplicate the light saber battles and the space battles of Star Wars in my own home, using my computer and my video camera. And I can throw it out on YouTube, the world can respond to it and I can be part of the process that once astonished me and now I can use it to astonish the world. And I think that’s pretty much the fan mentality. It’s different I think from the art critic who simply wants to observe and critique, and it’s different from people who would prefer that every film is in some senses a documentary and hope they can see the reality through the film. But I think they also are involved in a critical and creative process that is more contained, inside their head rather than out in the society. But, at the end of the day, something new and imaginative comes out from cineaste culture, much as the generation that grew up with Cahiers du Cinema became the New Wave filmmakers. That process is very much the process of fans becoming authors.
EP – Yes, but in a way you can also see some…well, I think the more I read about it the more I feel like I am a fan in the way you describe. Because I prefer when reality is transformed, you can say fans prefer fantasy rather than reality in a way. And the cinephile prefers the reality, which is embedded in some kind of aesthetics – the reality itself. Why do you think there is this attraction for fantasy, science fiction, and horror?
HENRY JENKINS – Well there’s a bumper sticker in fandom that says that non-fans are people who can’t handle fantasy, and I love that as a phrase because in fact handling fantasy is a skill. It’s a way of interpreting the image and the story and the characters to get value out of something you know is not true in a literal sense, but may be true in a deeper sense. Fantasy may tells us some truths about the world that we live in. And so, handling it means being able to separate out the meaning of something from its literal signifier, to be able to imagine other possibilities to our everyday reality. It’s to imagine an alternative society and what it would feel like to be in the world depicted in Game of Thrones or in the world, you know, depicted in Star Wars or what not. Something like Game of Thrones has a lot to tell us about power and about ruling elites and about wars, without being true in any literal sense: we can’t visit the countries depicted in Game of Thrones but it doesn’t mean that Game of Thrones can’t tell us as much or more about nature of war, power and ruling as War and Peace does; Game of Thrones just does so through a different language.
And fans are very adept at working with language, they’re really good at speculating beyond what’s on the screen and speculating beyond the limits of their own reality, of imagining a better world and imagining what would be like to live in it, and that is a powerful way of making sense of the Universe. The utopian imagination is a powerful tool. “Utopia” literally means “no place” which means from the start that few people imagined that this world was, as Candide might have believe, the best of all possible worlds. The utopian imagination starts with envisioning an alternative to the world we live in and using that to critique and make sense of the limits of the reality we’re stuck with. When we use fantasy as a means of transformation, it’s not just because we want to wallow in the world of the Na’vi in Avatar, but because we believe there are truths there that we can use to critique and transform the real world.
So I’m very interested right now in fan activist groups that are using Avatar, or Harry Potter, or Hunger Games to provoke social change. So when we start with the idea that there are these neo-realist fans who want to see reality through the screen the first moral order is to assume they are the ones who actually care about changing the world but then maybe they are simply consumers of other people’s poverty and suffering, and fans use fantasy to spark an alternative and use that to change to world. The future of activism may be the future of fandom.
EP – Great, so you see fans more like a vanguard, like they are two steps ahead.
HENRY JENKINS –Fans have been a kind of vanguard in relation to new media, from the very beginning. If you look at the history of fandom, they are always two/three steps ahead, in terms of their relation to the technology, in terms of social structure and what it means to live in a community that is not geographically grounded but a community of interests. And they are often ahead of the dominant sectors of the population in imagining of what the future can be like.
EP – I just remembered when you talked about Lovecraft, everybody says that every Lovecraft movie adaptation is a failure. There’s always this expectation, in case of Lovecraft, of transcendence of this normal world and maybe that’s what everybody is expecting.
HENRY JENKINS – I mean Lovecraft talks about indescribable horror and so by its very nature depicting indescribable horror brings it back into human comprehension. It’s bound to disappoint. Lovecraft got around this problem by doing a lot of hand waving and saying I can’t tell you what this thing is and that’s the power of his particular type of narration but cinema will necessarily visualize that horror and bring into a space where it is describable, its reproducible and as a result it feels tamed by that process. So, yeah, I think Lovecraft fans are continually disappointed by Lovecraft’s movies because it’s a paradox from the very beginning to depict the indescribable.
EP – Well anyway, sometimes he describes very accurately monsters and aliens but sometimes the most important thing is that he doesn’t visually describe fear or other indescribable emotions.
HENRY JENKINS – Yeah the emotions are indescribable. But then, by definition can we have an indescribable emotion? The minute we have it we can begin to comprehend it and he’s talking about fears beyond comprehension but that’s not something a filmmaker can reproduce very easily.
EP – So what are you studying now? Early cinema?
HENRY JENKINS – I’m probably more in a cinephile phase with early cinema, I go to lots of silent films around L.A and now I’m doing more travels to see silent films elsewhere, and I’ve always been interested in it. But something about living in L.A means that you have access to beautiful prints and full orchestras and so forth. You can have a more intense experience of these films and I’ve been falling in love with cinema all over again so I may write something about early cinema at some point because that’s the nature of who I am. Everything I do for love ends up being work again, but I haven’t yet figured out what that is. But I’m working on a book right now about graphic novels. A lot of the graphic novelists I’m interested in borrow imagery from early media in one way or another. Kim Deitch does the whole history of animation through Waldo the Cat is fascinating and I’m supposed to maybe meet Bryan Talbot later on this trip, I’m going up to Sunderland to see things there.
EP – I did a comics interview with Bryan Talbot for a newspaper.
HENRY JENKINS – That’s fantastic! So that’s a work I want to write, the work of Seth I’m interested in.
EP – I was going to ask you, want do you think about comics?
HENRY JENKINS – I love comics, I was a comics fan as a kid and I rediscovered them as an adult and it’s probably the medium I love the most. I read everything from the most mundane DC and Marvel to the most experimental stuff. I devour every comic I get my hands on and I teach a course on comics and graphic novels at USC. I just got through teaching that this semester.
EP – That’s great, and I really wanted to ask you that because comics, at least comics books in America, they have this tendency to transcend reality. Obviously in the culture of super-heroes that’s the way metaphors work and so being a fan it always relates with that.
HENRY JENKINS – Absolutely, superhero comics provide a powerful set of metaphors to make sense of the world. My research team at USC has been looking at the role the superhero figure plays in the immigrant rights movement. For example, we’ve discovered an effort to reclaim Superman as an iconic representation of an “illegal alien”: his parents sent him away in search of a better life in a new world, he crossed the border (via spaceship) in the middle of the night and lands in a farm in Kansas, he gets adopted by an Anglo couple who teach him to hide who he is and where he came from, but he goes out to fight to truth, justice and the American way. These young “DREAMers” are themselves making very effective use of platforms such as YouTube, creating “coming out” videos that allow them to tell their own origin stories, but also put them at tremendous risk. One of the metaphors they used to describe this coming out process is Spider-Man announcing his secret identity in the Marvel Civil Wars plotline so that Spider-Man taking his mask off for them is a really powerful way of making sense of the risk they take when they speak out about their experiences of being undocumented. Many Americans would never talk to someone who is undocumented because they are not out, they don’t declared themselves undocumented, or they live separated from the rest of society and so they want to have as many stories as they can in circulation via YouTube to talk about who they are, what their experiences are and what their hopes are, why they think the DREAM Act, which would give more citizenship and education rights, was so important.
And YouTube has become the channel where they are doing it but the language they are using often borrows heavily from super-heroes. One Latino comedian joked about passing out Clark Kent glasses to immigrants, saying “White America never seems to recognize Superman when he has his glasses on, so maybe we should all wear our glasses and disguise ourselves from the authorities”. That’s a very playful, very fun and imaginative way of calling attention to what it means to have to hide your identity as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.
EP – Did you have any kind of history…
HENRY JENKINS – Well I just got through writing a piece that’s in some ways an autobiography of how I became who I am. It’s about monster fandom in the early 1960’s and Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, which appears in a special issue of Journal of Fandom Studies. I describe there the experience of growing up watching these Universal horror films as on late afternoons television in the United States. We would race home from school and watch them, we all had our favorite monsters in the neighborhood. I was a Dracula fan and I did make-up which I learned from the magazine and we fantasize about having a Super8 movie camera so that I could make movies. We built models, played in the backyard and we knew all the stories, imitated the monster’s characteristic stances, and imitated all the voices. We built haunted houses and we used sound effect records to scare each other. That was very much my beginning and so from the very beginning film for me was something that I loved almost without regard to period. I was interested in the 1930’s monsters, more interested than anything else. I loved old movies. But film was also something we owned, we possessed, we performed, we fantasized about.
So Dracula was… even before I ever saw Bella Lugosi’s Dracula movie I fell in love with Lugosi in film stills and learned how to imitate him. Before I even knew the story I made my own stories about Dracula because it could be hard to access prints back then – before VCRs or DVD players. I graduated to comics fandom and science fiction fandom. I also was someone who went to retro-screenings and stayed up late to watch old movies on TV. I ended up doing my dissertation on the Marx Brothers and WC Fields, and early sound comedy and it’s relationship to Vaudeville. Over time I’ve ended up writing more about fans than writing as a fan. I’ve become interested in studying what happens on this side of the camera rather than what happens on the other side of the camera.