The fans might hate the movie

The good news for any filmmaker planning to do a Civil War movie is that you can tap into a pre-existing fan-base of enthusiastic Civil War buffs who are sure to generate plenty of buzz for the project.

The bad news is that this same fan-base might just kill your movie if you don’t get the details right. Like all fandoms, Civil War buffs are proprietary and prickly about outsiders on their turf. Get the tiniest details wrong — the wrong buttons on a general’s uniform, the wrong color for a colonel’s boots — and the backlash will be furious.

James Cameron faced this same situation when making Titanic. The subculture of Titanic fandom is smaller than the subculture of Civil War buffs, but it’s just as fiercely enthusiastic and defensive. Cameron was able to satisfy those fans because he is, himself, the biggest Titanic fan-boy of them all. He sweated all the tiny details and was able to satisfy the most devoted fans without prompting the kind of backlash that can sink a movie.

You can see that backlash all the time with comic-book movies. The fans are excited to see the story they love come to the big screen, yet they get angry when some outsider they don’t know and trust starts messing with their hero. They seem to feel simultaneously validated and violated by Hollywood’s attention. The big-budget, mainstream project promises the broader acceptance they have long desired, but at the same time that broader acceptance erodes their sense of being special and their sense of control over their story.  Their fringe-y, outsider status was what had separated them from everyone else, and to have everyone else suddenly jumping on the bandwagon makes them resentful of all the newcomers.

Jack Black and Todd Louiso captured this perfectly in the movie High Fidelity, portraying the archetypal indie music snobs. They were passionate fans of great but unknown bands and, on one level, they wanted nothing more than for the whole world to hear this music and to love it as much as they did. But if that ever happened, their own enthusiasm for the music would have diminished. If everyone loves that band, then loving that band no longer makes you special. And their characters, Dick and Barry, were never sure which they loved more — the music or feeling special.

College Humor recently posted a great sketch called “Religious People Are Nerds,” in which they explored the parallels between certain forms of religious devotion and the devotion of the “nerds” of fandom.

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Because what is a nerd, really? It’s just someone who’s passionately obsessed with something, like a board game, or a movie, or a series of books. And who, I ask, who are more into their books than religious people?

At the risk of offending both my fellow religious people and my fellow nerds, I think the comparison holds — not just in the comical ways that sketch suggests, but also in the dynamic tension between the desire for more mainstream acceptance and the desire to remain set apart as special.

You can see that tension at work in all those articles I mentioned in the previous post that criticized Ryan Lizza for not fully appreciating, say, all the nuance of Francis Schaeffer’s brief flirtation with theonomy. Christian PR-man Larry Ross’ article “Christian Dominionism Is a Myth,” is typical of these in reading so much like a blog post explaining what they got wrong with the Green Lantern movie. The valid complaints Ross makes are smothered by the larger, over-arching complaint that somebody else is trespassing on our turf.

It’s exactly the same proprietary defensiveness that can be found throughout every kind of fandom. The real complaint isn’t really about the particular offending details, but the more personal offense that someone else is addressing our topic without first consulting us. We are the experts, the devoted fans say, and we deserve recognition and deference for immersing ourselves in this stuff long before it was cool.

This is what frustrates me about the often excellent, often insightful “Get Religion” site, which frequently does a fine job of highlighting the inexpertise of journalists covering religion. But just as often when I read that site, I feel like I’m hearing Jack Black’s Barry mocking a customer for daring to suggest that Echo and the Bunnymen deserved to be compared to the Jesus and Mary Chain.

“If they’d just asked me first, they’d have gotten those details right!” seems to be the gist of so many complaints about religion reporting. The legitimate concern for getting the details right is always a part of that complaint, but it usually seems overshadowed by the larger complaint that they didn’t ask me first.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I’ve been saying that for years, and everybody thinks I’m making a joke at the expense of the religious. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    And….FIST!
    oops.

  • Bibliotrope

    First?  Go me!  :-)

    I have much the same gripe about the “Get Religion?” blog. 

    Then again, if you ask me, the best thing about “High Fidelity” was, of course, the cameo by Bruce Springsteen.  

  • Enoch Root

    If you go to a science fiction convention and say, “You guys are nerds!” everyone will agree with you.

    If you go to Bible study and say, “You guys are nerds!” everyone will pray for you. At best.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah you know I think the difference between somebody who is a fan and some obssesed nutjob is that a real fan can enjoy something for what it IS, while somebody who is obssesed with it can only look at the small parts without seeing the whole picture.

    The bible said that people who believe in God are the salt of the earth, but you can’t enjoy your hamburger when you throw a bucket of salt upon it. 

  • Anonymous

    I am just saying that sometimes there can be too much of a good thing

  • Baf

    It strikes me that I’ve seen this comparison made numerous times before, but always in the opposite direction: nerd obsessions compared to religion in order to make a point about the nerd obsessions, not about religion.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com Carl

    Finally, someone explains why I stopped reading Get Religion even though I usually didn’t disagree with them on the substance. It was the attitude.

  • Richard Hershberger

    One difference between general nerds and religious nerds is the approach to continuity flaws.  There generally are two responses available to the nerd:  he can produce elaborate retcons or he can complain bitterly about the creator being so sloppy or (worse) selling out.  Only the first response is available to the religion nerd.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd Studge

    I think the religious nerd has both responses available: think Kierkegaard criticizing the Apostle Paul (or, y’know, the Reformation). Not to mention all the debates in the early church about canon.

  • Anonymous

    I’m reasonably certain I learned more about charity and love from reading X-men comics than I ever did attending church.

  • Anonymous

    And I know I learned more about Family Values from the Fantastic Four than from every single organization with the word “Family” in its name put together.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    I liked God’s early work, but the stuff he did after the Transfiguration was a little too mainstream for my tastes. Remember “Smiting the Amalekites”? That was some amazing stuff!

  • Kirala

    If you go to my Bible study and say, “You guys are nerds!” about half of us will nod and agree and the rest will just wonder what the heck you’re talking about. Then again, this is the Bible study where the leader (one of our pastors) decided to illustrate the (stereotypes of the) roles of prophet/priest/king by showing helpful movie clips: “Seek you the Bridge of Death?” “Armaments, chapter two, verses nine through twenty-one…” “Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for
    a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate
    from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

    And that is why I love my church. Oh, and the head pastor’s Iron Man skin on his Mac.

  • http://www.crochetgeek.net Jackbishop

    Stephen Bond (who troubles me because he is a clearly intelligent, thoughtful person with whom I disagree about almost everything) has an interesting thesis: unambiguously good works don’t breed fans. Fanaticism comes from insecurity, which comes from ridicule, so an object of fanaticism needs to be one which is good enough to have authentically attractive qualities but also a point of view through which they are contemptibly risible.

    The whole actually-being-ridiculous aspect is maybe orthogonal to the being-obscurely-accessible-only-to-the-chosen-few aspect, but they both feed into that persecution complex so many fandoms (including fundamentalist Christianity despite the stranglehold they have on public discourse these days) have.

  • Leo Tokarski

    Same here. But then, that’s probably because I usually am. (Generally something along the lines of “I’m a nerd, arguments about the minutae of a superpowered fictional character’s desires and motivations are second nature to me.”)

  • Richard Hershberger

    Another thought on similarities between groups.  The video points out that nerds don’t generally resort to violence, with the example being Kirk vs. Picard.  But there is a group of fans which does sometimes resort to violence:  sports fans.   Sports is the source of the original “fans”:  this sense of the word arose in the 1880s referring to baseball spectators in general, and in particular those guys who are a little too much into it, and always ready to tell the actual professionals how to do it better.  (The other word from the same for these guys was “cranks”.  Alas, this usage died out in the early 20th century.) 

    So combining the various observations, what we have with some (thankfully, by no means all) religious people is an unfortunate combination of the least attractive qualities of some nerds and some sports fans. 

    One final observation:  the phenomenon of these religious fans is far older than either sports fans or cultural nerds.  So perhaps the better interpretation is that sports fans and cultural nerds are a secularization of religious culture.  This isn’t particularly original, but I think we perhaps have more systematic support here.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a nerd/geek/whatever and I would be thrilled if all the stuff I like became mainstream.  In fact, a lot of it has and I’m glad for it.  Now that LOTR has become popular, I no longer feel embarrassed to like fantasy.  Now if only there were some way to make D&D accepted mainstream, I wouldn’t have people assuring me that they’ll keep my dirty little secret like I should be ashamed of it or something.

  • http://www.aqualgidus.org/ Michael Chui

    There’s an interesting whiff of the same pattern in Americanism. “We figured out democracy first, that makes us special, and you should consult and copy us when you develop your democracies now that it’s mainstream.”

  • http://www.aqualgidus.org/ Michael Chui

    There’s an interesting whiff of the same pattern in Americanism. “We figured out democracy first, that makes us special, and you should consult and copy us when you develop your democracies now that it’s mainstream.”

  • http://www.crochetgeek.net Jackbishop

    We figured out democracy first, that makes us special

    That’s not Americans, that’s Sammarinese.

    (OK, it’s also Americans, but only because most of us couldn’t locate The Most Serene Republic of San Marino on a well-labeled map.)

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that you can be a fan of something objectionable or something that has objectionable elements. And that other people out what is objectionable is not off limits. It’s only human to get defensive and prickly over something you care deeply about, but if something is wrong or potentially hurtful it does no good to not point that out or try to address out of fear that it’s not your place to say anything. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Lipton/100001171828568 Jeff Lipton

    Depends on the size of the map.  It would be much easier on a map of Italy than on a map of Europe, or the world, or the solar system….

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Suddenly, nostril.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    you can tap into a pre-existing fan-base of enthusiastic Civil War buffs

    Speaking of nerds, how bad is it that I initially thought you meant the Marvel Comics miniseries?

  • hapax

    the phenomenon of these religious fans is far older than either sports fans or cultural nerds.

    Not necessarily;  look up the riots caused by the various “factions” supporting different chariot racers in Classical Rome.

    Human beings hardly need supernatural excuses to resort to violent tribalism.

  • kbeth

    There was a Youtube video going around recently that also kind of made this point — it’s a parody of the opening number of the musical Book of Mormon, which is someone going door-to-door trying to convert people, as a musical theater style song. The Youtube parody is someone dressing up as Harry Potter characters and singing the song as someone trying to get people to read Harry Potter. I’m at work and don’t have time to find the link now, but it’s very cute and very well done.

  • Anonymous

     I can see three problems with his thesis – people can be ridiculed for liking things, not because those things aren’t good, but because they’re not popular (and I doubt he’d be on board with the idea that popular culture knows what’s good); contrary to popular belief, good is not an objective concept (not when we’re talking fiction); and very few people who call themselves “fans” of something are actually fanatical about it. I’m fairly certain that a person looking for the ludicrous or laughable can find it in almost anything.

    I fear his thesis mostly comes across as someone going “I’m cool, not like those guys.”

    (I’ve always figured fandom had to do with scale – to use his examples, the Indiana Jones movies aren’t quite far enough off from the real world and aren’t dealing with big enough consequences to have the scale needed to make a convention out of.  Star Wars, on the other hand, is a whole other universe and has larger consequences.  Though, for all that, there are definitely Indiana Jones fans.  And I’m willing to go out on a limb a guess that there are Animal Farm fans.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that you can be a fan of something
    objectionable or something that has objectionable elements. And that
    other people out what is objectionable is not off limits. It’s only
    human to get defensive and prickly over something you care deeply about,
    but if something is wrong or potentially hurtful it does no good to not
    point that out or try to address out of fear that it’s not your place
    to say anything.

    Agreed. For example, I am a fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and I acknowledge that their work was very racist, even for its time.

  • Jack Dominey

    It’s worth pointing out that the Ross article that Fred cites says almost nothing about Dominionism at all.  It really is almost entirely devoted to the kind of complaint that Fred is talking about.

  • Anonymous

    Just had to say – any sane person knows that Echo and the Bunnymen are way better in that comparison provided :P


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