Trekkies

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Trekkies

directed by Roger Nygard

photo courtesy of Wiki

What is the nature of obsession? Almost any of the Star Trek fans who appear onscreen in Roger Nygard’s documentary Trekkies could answer that question. That is, they could answer it if they agreed that what there are engaged in is an obsession, as opposed to a hobby or interest. And most of them don’t agree. To them, the total immersion in a commercially created fantasy is no sicker or more dangerous than an all-consuming interest in, say, fishing or football. Nor do Trekkies see themselves as desperate nerds who have no sense of self and have escaped into fantasy because the real world is too depressing; on the contrary, they view Star Trek fandom–the merchandise collecting, the conventions, the fan clubs and homemade uniforms–as expressions of who they are, and the immersion in fantasy as a confirmation of their outsider status. They trek, therefore they are.

The movie does a good job of getting at the roots of Star Trek’s continuing appeal. The large numbers of normal-looking people at the conventions (overweight, or very skinny, or just plain-looking, as opposed to model-gorgeous) and the high proportion of gays, lesbians and people of color confirms that this sci-fi universe is appealing partly because it seems so optimistic and inclusive. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original show, retells a story told her by Whoopi Goldberg, about how Goldberg got excited as a kid seeing a sci-fi program with a black person on it; though Uhura rarely did much besides push buttons on the bridge, the sight was so inspiring to a black girl growing up in the late 60s that it convinced her that anything was possible.

 

There are a couple of areas that could have been more fully explored, though. I would have liked to have seen a critique, however brief, of Star Trek’s political implications. The show was created during the post-Kennedy years and it shared both JFK’s progressive racial politics (there was even an alien on the bridge) and his hawkish eagerness to intervene in other nations’ business. (Star Trek writer David Gerrold even compared Captain Kirk to JFK in his excellent book about the show, The Trouble With Tribbles.) And though subsequent incarnations of the program have been even more racially and ethnically sensitive (and less sexist–the women no longer have to wear miniskirts), it still has an intriguingly retro vibe. It’s nostalgically interventionist and still pretty macho. Even after 30-odd years, the Federation very rarely intervenes with other cultures in ways that seriously backfire; whatever it chooses to do, that decision is ultimately made to seem logical and right.

 

And for a supposedly pacifistic show, there sure have been a lot of episodes about space warfare, kidnappings and hostage situations. Some of the fans’ assertions about the show’s peace-loving, democratic impulse needed to be called into question. (Maybe the very funny montage of stand-up comics’ Star Trek material that plays over the end credits could have been moved to the middle of the movie–especially one comic’s smashing impression of Captain Kirk barging into an alien household and declaring, “Your Bible …is a LIE!”) And I think somebody somewhere should have pointed out an obvious contradiction: Fans claim Trek conventions let them express their individuality and confirm their difference, but a lot of the people there are dressed the same way and are talking about the same subject.

 

I also wanted to learn more about so-called “slash” literature. A couple of Trek-loving buddies told me of this phenomenon–gay and lesbian porn involving major characters, such as Kirk/Spock or Picard/Riker–and it made perfect sense to me. Star Trek rightly has a huge gay and lesbian following, because it is among the most inclusive of all science fiction series, but the program was never quite as progressive as its defenders claim; it was usually a couple of steps ahead of the culture at large, not light years. (To this day, there has never been a major recurring gay or lesbian character.) The “slash” literature imaginatively drags the program into the world of real bravery and real challenge; it deserved more than a five-minute once-over. Maybe it deserved its own movie. (Though not one Paramount would be interested in releasing.)

 

But these are minor quibbles. Trekkies is an engaging look at a perennially vital fan movement that seems to become larger and more diverse by the year. It’s pitched at fans of the show, who will adore it, but casual viewers will find plenty to chuckle over (and think about).

 

American Hollow

directed by Rory Kennedy

The Bowlings, the poor Kentucky hill family at the center of Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow, both confirm and explode the media’s sniggering preconceptions about poor whites. Those looking for stereotypical images of trailer-park culture in the South will come away satisfied: This big family is populated largely by welfare recipients, many of whom are coping with substance abuse problems, debilitating ailments and run-ins with the law. But the movie is also careful to give a sense of economic context. They know what’s going on in the state and in Washington, and they understand how it might affect them. (“If they cut all these people off welfare like they say they’re going to,” says one Bowling son, “you’re gonna have to sit there and guard your garden.”) The Bowlings are loyal to the land where so many of their generation were raised; that the land is high in the Appalachian mountains, hours from the nearest town and hours farther from good jobs, is a complication they may never transcend.


They aren’t disconnected from the world, though. Grandma Iree, 69, is up on current medical jargon and sometimes uses slangy pseudo-therapeutic words like “stressed out.” One of her sons is on Prozac, and grandchild Clint listens to rap music. Kennedy should have explored these quirks more conscientiously. You sometimes get the impression she’s overplaying the region’s supposed timeless insularity. The gorgeous score–by guitarist-composer Bill Frisell, drawn heavily from his masterwork Nashville–lends the images a tough but nostalgic romanticism, a movie-movie quality, and makes this sometimes lumpy nonfiction excursion feel more coherent than it is. It’s a problematic but defensible creative choice. But the other bluegrass cuts on the soundtrack are not; too many of them sound old and cliched, and their inclusion smacks of false primitivism. I also could have done without the frequent soundless slo-mo montages that punctuate the film. They’re too much like something you’d see on NBC’s Dateline: The less a film reminds us of the creatively bankrupt film-school noodling practiced by editors of tv news footage, the better.


Aside from these errors, the film is honest about both its subjects and its own methods. There are four or five scenes in American Hollow that are hard to look at because they capture moments of naked, unforced, messy emotionalism that we rarely see in the stage-managed Jerry Springer era.


Poor teenage Clint provides the bulk of these moments. He’s desperately in love with a girl who doesn’t really want him, and he dreams about leaving the hollow but has no prospects. His family–especially his father–tries to talk him out of making impulsive decisions that will backfire later. His refusal to listen is both familiar and heartbreaking–especially when he defends his right to marry young.


“I wish that you and the family would have a little faith in me for once,” Clint says, on the eve of his marriage. “Hell, I’m not the only one out of the family that’s done that.”


“Them Bowlings has got a bad habit of making mistakes marrying,” his father says.


“It’ll be my mistake,” his son replies.

..