It's the last column of 2009, and one that follows on a maelstrom of commentary. I don't think I received a single comment or e-mail that didn't care intensely about Avatar one way or another. It's been fascinating and frightening to experience.
I feel as though movie fandom has taken a very extreme turn. Drew McWeeny noted back in May that it took a turn for the worse in 1999 after Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. "Fandom has changed profoundly in the last ten years, and it would be hard to argue that it's been for the better. Although I detest that sub-moronic oft-repeated metaphor about George Lucas 'raping my childhood,' I could be willing to agree that 1999 was the end of fandom's innocent optimism and the beginning of something rancid and self-entitled and angry, something that's more about tearing down and insulting than about celebrating or enjoying."
My professional experience is a lot shorter than McWeeny's, but I've felt a distinct change in the last year. Thanks to the Internet, I feel that fandom has expanded to the most unlikely of films, camped out, and become intractable. You're either for them or against them, with no middle ground of "I don't know. It was ok, I guess." There's little room for criticism. Everything from James Bond to Joss Whedon is a sacred cow. A casual Twitter comment about a film risks dozens of your online friendships, so imagine what a critical Geek Beat can do. No one seems to keep it in perspective. No one remembers that at the end of the day, fandom is supposed to be about fun. If you wear yourself out defending or attacking a particular film, I can't imagine you have a lot of time or energy left to enjoy anything.
Now, before you fire off a comment complaining of my negativity or saying the oft repeated "Welcome to the Internet!", let me say that I decided my own perspective was a bit off. After all, there's nothing really new about human behavior even if it is being projected through inhuman mediums. I decided to look into the history of fandom with an eye to being really funny ("Thespis invents drama around 532 B.C.E. Greeks immediately complain there's nothing new in Athens.") but to be honest, early entertainment is so wrapped up in religion and mythology that you can't really joke about it. In fact, I began to wonder if modern day fanaticism does actually spring from the fact that our earliest dramas were mystical. It wasn't something to joke about.
In fact, by 493 BCE we have our first recorded controversy! The playwright Phrynichus offered the first historical drama: The Fall of Miletus. It tells the sad story of the town of Miletus after the Persians conquered it and Herodotus reports that the first time it was produced, the entire theater lost control of their emotions. Sobbing audiences were so furious that he dared to write about so recent a tragedy that he was fined and forbidden to ever stage the play again. (The first cries of "Too soon!")
But the Greeks also recognized the importance of fan frenzy. Catharsis is a word we like to throw around when discussing powerful stories, but how many remember Aristotle's theory behind it? Tragedy (in the classical sense of larger than life people – be they superheroes or kings – experiencing a change in fortune) served the purpose of purging one's soul of fear and pity. Watching tragedy isn't supposed to be mere escapism, it's actually meant to be the avenue when you release all the negative energy you're carrying around with you.
So, when I wonder where all the perspective is when fans rant about Star Trek or Avatar, I may actually be wrong. Perhaps this ranting is how people keep not only their perspective, but their very sanity. It's hard to imagine that when so much of fandom seems to be built around exhausting devotion to Edward Cullen or Pikachu, and seems to encourage insane undertakings in the way of fanfiction, pilgrimages, tattoos, Deviant Art.
There's a further case to be made for that need when you examine when fandom has become obsessive enough to merit the historical record. Charles Dickens was probably one of the very first authors to experience a modern fandom and to profit from it. Many of his stories were written as cliffhangers that worked his adoring public into a frenzy. Because he wrote his novels in serial parts, he also could adapt things to suit the public's taste or mess with their expectations. And you thought Marvel Studios was ahead of the game!
Louisa May Alcott also enjoyed an instant celebrity status thanks to Little Women. She was uncomfortable with the fan demands placed on her (she couldn't kill off characters even when their real life models were gone, and writing about them pained her), but sensible enough to know it would turn a profit. Jo's Boys, her last installment of the Little Women trilogy, even puts her literary counterpart through the rigors of fandom. Fans show up at Jo's house asking for tours and souvenirs, and are quite vocal in their disapproval or praise. One woman even wants to collect grasshoppers from her yard. It's hilarious and weirdly familiar to anyone who's been to a convention. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also had a similarly uncomfortable experience with fandom. As Sherlock Holmes fans know, he killed off his character because he was sick of him and his popularity ... only to have to revive the great detective due to public outcry.
And why? Because the world is bleak. It isn't because fans have nothing else to worry about, but because they have too much eating at them. They need to purge. They need to build up and tear down something that doesn't matter because too much in their lives does. So, it's Avatar. Transformers. James Bond. They are sacred cows precisely because they really aren't all that holy. By allowing drama to create drama, you can engage in that ancient catharsis Aristotle nailed all those thousands of years ago only on a scale unimagined by any ancient Greek – and one that's needed desperately by your average geek.