A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Documentary Achievements

Strong documentaries wrestle with reality Greco-Roman style, looking for the right grip, the proper leverage to pin their opponents to the mat. (If you don’t like my combative analogy feel free to swap it for one of your own. It doesn’t really matter which conceit we use: a dance, a birth, a long con, whatever you like, as long as hope and the tension of potentially diverging ends is in the mix). In this sense, the documentaries Trekkies (1997) and We Care (1990), although very different, accomplish something worthwhile.

Trekkies follows the lives of several “trekkers” (they hate the term “trekkies”), and chronicles their various relationships to the Star Trek universe as well as the ordinary one of bills and humdrum obligations. The film is hosted by Denise Crosby (Lieutenant Tasha Yar) whose insider status helps navigate the two separate but overlapping worlds of fan and performer without fish-lensing either. I watched portions of the film again recently, and was once again struck by how strange these trekkers aren’t, at least no stranger than any other member of a minority semiosphere–SCA, WOW, Wiccans, Ludites, Scientologists. The funny dress, the technical vocabulary, the emotional investment in a illusory world, this is precisely what symbolizing monkeys do. We make worlds and then play in them. Think sports: crazy uniforms, technical vocabularies, the grid iron or golf course, with their make believe time and all that kvetching over balls. Think religion: again with the uniforms and the terminology, but this time substitute reliquaries, shrouds or sacred cups for the hoops and balls, swap bardo, limbo or hell for penalties and half-time shows. Or you can toss it all for Star Fleet jumpsuits and Vulcan mind melds. Whichever you choose it beats waiting for Godot. These trekkers take their play seriously–as most of us do.

We Care is an altogether different kind of documentary. Clearly sensitive to the ways in which documentaries can perpetuate unbalanced power relationships, the producers of the film operate in the best melioristic tradition. By drawing experts, survivors and rubes from the same underrepresented communities, the film is paradoxically able to focus on the epidemic by drawing out the people. The traditional power relationships that exist between “afflicted” communities (swarthy and untutored) and the valiant “crusaders” (white and pedigreed) dispatched to liberate them is short-circuited in the effort. This is no small feat given the mudslide of bullshit that accompanied the natural disaster called AIDS in the 1980s. The fear of touching, of being touched, of polluting the body, of the off kilter love between queers, queens and dikes, made this Cotton Mather nation of cowboys and pilgrims weak in the knees. And although AIDS has largely passed from the media’s eye and is no longer supercharging hyper-masculinists–who could all be usefully cast in a Shakespearean mash-up entitled The Hes Doth Protest Too Much–the same old anxieties about the body’s purity live on. Popular movies like Contagion and Planet of the Apes remind us that our culture’s deep distrust of the body still haunts us. Contagion‘s final scene essentially makes the argument that touching strangers is suicide, and Planet of the Apes–which isn’t an Icarian cautionary tale as many reviewers suggested–is a straight down the middle white male psychodrama in which ungrateful savages steal our potency. Losing control of our technology is the 21st century version of the Southern slave holder’s constant fear: the slaves will break free and steal all our precious things. These updated versions, for there are many, are a weird kind of prosthetic impotency.

In the myth of Icarus it’s ambition that gets the best of him, not technology. The wings don’t turn on Icarus. Icarus is not impotent, just incompetent. But in the contemporary versions the wings aren’t borrowed; they’re pissed, and we’re powerless to stop them as they drive us into the sea. Lest I wonder too far afield, however, let me point out that even though none of this off topic rambling is part of We Care, it is certainly part of the same hydra headed foe WAVE was working against. These atavistic fears are at work in many of our glossy attempts at community reconstruction–the fear mongering, the jingoism, the dehumanization of the other. We Care quite successfully avoids these tendencies by talking with the communities affected by the epidemic rather than about them. Ironically, the dominant narrative’s continuing fear of impotence is handily shamed by the frankness of these traditionally oppressed groups.

2 Responses to Documentary Achievements

  1. Pete Schelden says:

    I was just reading the message board of a geeky game called Dominion that is closing its doors to public play tonight. There were old friends getting together and a lot of fans of the game who never met or bothered to meet until they shared this bittersweet goodbye, and the board lit up with intensely inside jokes revolving around the game. I couldn’t help but think of them when I read about your Trekkies, and comparing them to religious groups, historical reenactors and sports fans (and I’d add corporate cliques like Herbalife under Mark Hughes). And I thought, you can just build culture out of any outlet of expression, any cultural content. I think the next niche enthusiasm group may be the foodless:

    “Some people seem very invested in the idea of the sanctity of nature, natural food and some idyllic view of farming, so find this idea very offensive. I don’t think that’s an evidence-based viewpoint. There’s no evidence organic food is healthier than conventional food, and you just can’t feed the world without efficient farming techniques.”


    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Pete, sorry it took me so long to reply. I read the interview with Rob Rhinehart, and I agree; it has just the right mixture of promise and power for the (potential) movement to have some legs. Food, as you’ve pointed out here, is a great entry point for thinking about a culture’s practices. I mean, is anything more emblematic of American culture than its food industry? From the faceless efficiency of “factory farms,” to the hyper-idealism of the “individual” organic farmer, or the “egalitarian” co-operative, we basically have the great western ideologies duking it out over breakfast. Rhinehart’s rationalism, although it appeals to me in form, if not content, falls into the same camp as Barry Sears “Zone Diet.” The Zone treats food like a drug that regulates the body-machine. Sears actually calls food a “drug;” badly misrepresenting Hippocrates’ dictum that food should be medicine, and medicine food. And I think you’re spot on about the Herbalife stuff too.

      Thanks for the link and the comment!

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