[15 April 2009]
The DIY esthetic is hard-wired into American self-identity; the mother of all inventions is that spirit of exhaustion with the status quo, something basic to the entrepreneurship that gave us Apple, Amazon, Google, the blogosphere, the current president of the United States, and the United States itself.
For fans of the movies, our storied national reliance has also led to the fan film, the low-budget, low-tech, endearingly cheesy tribute to a more celebrated, better-capitalized product of pop culture. Such do-it-yourself creations have a history that roughly parallels the evolution of modern film. It didn’t start with the backyard-and-bedsheet epics Steven Spielberg directed at his boyhood home in Arizona; the homemade movie has a history as long as the medium it both honors and lampoons.
Homemade Hollywood, updating a host of other books on fan culture and the movies, is a broad and engaging overview of the fan-film experience and the renegades who’ve made the fan film both a refreshing puncture of the movie industry’s inflated self-importance and a way to gauge how particular big-budget productions resonate, or fail to resonate, with the moviegoing public.
Author Clive Young brings the rigors of a scholar and the inside-baseball of a fan to this well-researched and -written survey of how doing it yourself has both helped drive our enduring love of motion pictures and to articulate the populist roots of that obsession.
Fan filmdom has always had a pantheon of accidental all-stars whose jury-rig tributes to hit movies, TV shows, and comic books are the stuff of their own legend. Young has brought them together here, a cast of true-life characters that constitutes the vanguard of a cinematic mirror on the assertive, improvisational aspect of the national character.
A beginning, of sorts, occurred in September 1926, when “a pair of itinerant filmmakers-turned-con artists ambled into Anderson, South Carolina, and set up shop for a week. Their game? Making an amateur Our Gang movie, based on the long-running Hal Roach Studios series that brought the world Buckwheat, Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and the rest.” These filmmakers, capitalizing on the still-emerging national passion for the movies, endeared themselves to the citizens of Anderson, whose businesses provided them with money and theaters to show off the film, which was completed over a weekend.
Young notes how the populist infatuation with the motion picture obscured a multitude of sins:
If the locals thought it was real Hal Roach production at the start, it appears that they soon figured out the ruse—and went along with anyway, just to see themselves on screen.
A maverick cultural archetype was born: the brash, charming romantic with a camera taking advantage of popular fascination with the movies. It led to any number of garage auteurs whose fascination with technology, science fiction, and storytelling cemented the foundation of popular fan filmmaking.
If Steven Spielberg had a legitimate predecessor, he may have been Don Glut, the driven, prolific fan-film director, writer and novelist revered within the community. Glut started making movies as a preteen while living in Chicago in a single-parent household. In a poignant touch worthy of a big-budget movie, Glut’s father was killed in World War II, when the filmmaker-to-be was still a baby.
The 28-year-old left behind an infant son just shy of a year old, as well, as, it turned out, an old Christmas present that would change the young boy’s life forever. When [Glut’s father] Frank and [Glut’s mother] Julia were dating, she’d given him a 16mm film camera for Christmas; the gift provided a lasting chronicle of their years together, but eventually it became a crucial part of Don’s life as well.
Young’s book is crowded with such personal touches and revelations of other celebrated fan-filmmakers: Don Dohler, the amateur sci-fi director and fanzine publisher whose passion for film was kick-started after a robbery sparked a life-changing moment; Bruce Cardozo, whose obsession with the Spider-Man comic character launched a quixotic quest for recognition by the legendary Stan Lee, the character’s creator; or Ernie Fosselius and Michael Wiese, “the Lennon and McCartney of fan films,” whose Hardware Wars, one of the earliest Star Wars parodies, had a success that paralleled its namesake.
Young similarly documents the evolution of film technology, the slow shift from the literally explosive nitrate-based film stock to the expensive 16mm film standard—one that, Young observes, had a hand in creating the line of commerce between amateur and professional:
Locking things in at 16mm ensured that the little guy would have to keep paying big bucks for film—so profit really did separate the amateurs from the pros right from the early days of filmmaking
Manufacturers, realizing the benefits of a wider mass market, soon developed the less expensive 8-millimeter format, which gave way to the larger visual space of the Super 8 format, and eventually to the advent of home video and camcorders, and such advances as iMovie, Apple’s consumer video-editing program. Those tectonic shifts in hardware and software, and others such as in-camera special effects and titling technology, liberated the fan film, which took on gloss and professionalism a far cry from its ancestor on Super 8. And it’s created expectations that have forced today’s fan film to tuck in its shirt: “the DIY look of early fan flicks has been shown the door, and the unwritten rule now is that you have to start at the top of your game.”
With much of its focus on fan reactions to established pop-culture fixtures, Homemade Hollywood has a predictable usual-suspects inventory of the objects of fan-filmmaker affections, fixated on science fiction and the fantastic. We pretty much expect to read about fan adoration of Star Wars, Star Trek, the stars of the DC and Marvel Comics universes, and the Indiana Jones series.
What’s missing is any exploration of homemade cinema’s other, maverick elements spanning a wider cultural range. Conspicuous by its absence, for example, is any look at films outside the context of the fantasy, or, for that matter, any mention of films made by black and minority American fan-filmmakers. Young’s overview is fairly comprehensive, but widening the strike zone on his thesis in this way would have made this book a truly, more fully comprehensive resource. It’s the book’s one shortcoming of focus, and not insignificant.
But nor is it crippling to the readable, passionate scholarship that is on these pages. With the previous exceptions duly noted, Homemade Hollywood works because it properly historicizes the fan-movie experience, and deepens our historical understanding of the hold that cinema has on the popular imagination.
And almost by accident, by outlining the guerrilla moviemakers for whom making a fan film had everything and nothing in common with their big-budget counterparts, this book is an adroitly-written history of how democratic the medium of the movies really is—and how that medium’s prime currency isn’t money, it’s imagination.
Some have called the fan-film phenomenon a “movement,” but that word suggests an immediacy not borne out by historical facts. It’s bigger, wider than a movement; it’s a culture. Homemade Hollywood is a fascinating chronicle of much of how that culture came to be.