William Shatner, Red Letter Media, and What Everyone Gets Wrong About Fandom

Never meet your heroes.

I’ve mentioned Red Letter Media before. They’re a YouTube channel that discusses film in a serious way, but with lots of jokes – spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. They’re different from most cinema nerds on YouTube in that they’ve actually undergone the process of making movies themselves – schlocky B-movies, that they themselves do not take seriously. But they’ve done it. They have some understanding of what it involves, so they talk about the nuts and bolts, which for a layman is an education.

Their infamous 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace taught a whole generation why the prequels weren’t working. Yes, they’ve savaged the Disney films as well. They especially made fun of Rogue One, which is the one everyone seems to love. They’re fair-minded and upfront about their perspectives.

They also do a MST3K-ish panel discussion of bad movies, called Best of the Worst, and they’ve had other creatives on as guest stars. Schlock ninja filmmaker Len Kabasinski has been on a couple of times, as has comic artist Freddie Williams, screenwriter Max Landis (before he got cancelled), comedian Patton Oswalt, and Macaulay Culkin, who’s practically a regular at this point.

I mention all of this because they’re a growing brand that is gaining widespread awareness. They hit 1 million YouTube subscribers recently. People have heard of them. Now, two of the three RLM stakeholders (Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans) are big Star Trek fans (I’m not going to call them Trekkies, for reasons that will become clear later). They talk about Star Trek a lot. They’re critical of the Next Generation movies, but love the show. They have nuanced criticisms of the recent film reboots. They do not like the more recent Star Trek Series, such as Discovery and Picard. But they stood up for one of the least-liked Trek movies, the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a movie I’ve been wont to dismiss as “two hours of blue stuff”.

These two trends explain why RLM fans may have gotten it into their heads that William Shatner might become a guest on their show. They never invited him, but it became a meme anyway. This is an important point I’m going to come back to later.

Now I’m going to let Mike and Jay explain what happened next:

If you don’t want to spare the 20 minutes, Shatner got tired of being bugged on Twitter by RLM fans to be on the show. He was polite at first, if a bit shakey on the definition of “podcast” (which is fine, as “podcast” has a shakey definition). Then he started being less polite, then he started casually dismissing the RLM crew, watching tiny snippets of their videos and picking nits. This being Twitter, the volume increased, until the RLM guys had to stop what they were actually doing to announce that this was all a tempest in a teapot and it should all go away. Mike ends with the words “Leave him alone, because I just can’t take Captain Kirk pulling up pictures of me on The Nerd Crew (a satirical show they do) set, and calling me a moron. I just can’t take it.”

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. That video came on Thursday, (July 23rd). Yesterday (July 27th), Shatner unloaded both barrels at the RLM guys with a Medium.com article called “The Toxic Empires of Egoligarchies“. If you’re having a hard time getting past the title, I’ll summarize it for you: Shatner didn’t watch the video, even though he used pieces of it, and brings in GamerGate and a host of screencaps to prove that… RLM sent its fans on Twitter to harass him.

In William Shatner’s mind, this is the only possible explanation. Three guys from Milwaukee have a zombie horde of fans that they can turn on and off like tap water. That’s how fandom works.

The absurdity of claiming, in the face of no evidence, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the RLM guys signaled their fans to harass Shatner staggers the imagination. The entire pretentious diatribe (truly an accomplishment for Medium, a platform that specializes in transmogrifying peoples’ shower thoughts into “essays”) has enough circular reasoning in it to flatten a trailer park.

William Shatner knows better than this. William Shatner has had to deal with his own fans being out of control. So has George Lucas. So has everybody who has a fandom. Fandoms (oh, I how I loathe that word) are not armies, sent out into the world like digital stosstruppen to do their master’s bidding. If they were, then Red Letter Media, which is based on fans being critical of product, couldn’t possibly exist. Fans are human beings, and act along the gradient of human behavior. Some of them will be monsters, and some saints.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was small. I’ve never gone to a fan convention. I’ve never bought a lightsaber or any other Star Wars paraphanelia. The only T-Shirts I have were given to me as Father’s Day gifts. I sold my old box of Star Wars toys at a yard sale for $5. More to the point, I think people who do fill their house with junk and go to such conventions are spiritually depleted dorks. Am I still a fan?

Art is a worthy topic of discussion. That’s why I have articles about Star Wars on this blog. But art is meant to be enjoyed, considered, and critiqued, not worshipped. Liking something is not a substitute for an identity. The RLM guys get that, which is why I watch their YouTube channel.

But I would never bother an octogenarian actor on Twitter to be on their show. I don’t understand why anyone would. I think doing that is just brainless schoolyard trolling, of the kind that makes Twitter nothing more than a blood-pressure surge device. Anyone who bugged William Shatner about a YouTube channel he’s never heard of is a waste of a rational soul. There’s no reason for it; you didn’t achieve your goal, and you manufactured the phoniest kind of drama in a world that is filled with real-life, actual drama. You are shrieking gibbons flinging poop and bits of half-chewed berries at the gravestone of our culture.

Now ask me: am I still a fan?

Go ahead, ask me.

Managing the Flow

Currently, I’m trying to launch a brand. I dislike that phrase but there it is. I’ve set up the following things:

  • A Patreon
  • A Podcast
  • A YouTube Channel
  • A Twitter
  • A Gumroad (soon)

Additionally, I’m producing content for the next issue of UJ (out next month), and I’m trying to grease the creative wheels on a novel I’ve started. This is a lot for one man to do, when he has a household to manage.

On top of this, I’m doing it with minimal support. We have our fans, and even Patrons, but we don’t have a publishing house or an agency or even a website. We are a fart in a hurricane attempting, at this point, to be a louder fart.

This cannot but cause frustration. That feeling of shouting into a void. So the other thing I must manage is the black dog, which comes sniffing around the barn at odd hours and making a pest of himself. The struggle to be heard in the internet age is a real struggle.

There’s a book I’m reading related to this, called Deep Work, which I’ve started but put down so I could finish The Shining (more on that in another blog). It’s only tangentially about the internet and more about the way one needs to manage one’s time and inputs in order to do truly ground-breaking work. It has given me insight. While I’ve enjoyed reading the stuff that’s been created for the UJ Singles Collection (coming soon!), I can’t help but feel the wish to get to the next level. As my post about critics argued, art must come from artists, so the art can only reflect the artist. If the artist is distracted, what happens?

When Critics Don’t Help, and When They Do

When I say “critic” I don’t mean “someone who gives you feedback on a piece of art”, I mean “someone who applies a formal critical assessment to your work”. You know, the nerds.

This video, worth watching in full (it’s less than 9 minutes), discusses well two things:

  1. That authors/artists don’t necessarily follow a logic of intent, per se.
  2. That critics are guilty of imposing narratives on works, under the guise of “uncovering”.

In the process of creation, very often the thing being created takes on a life of its own. The logic of decisions made at the begining have a way of binding the creator’s hand. When a character starts with a set of facts an author has given him, that set often requires actions in the context of the story that the author may not have considered. So unconsidered ideas have a way of bringing themselves to the top. Hence, while Tarantino did not start with the idea “Mr. White and Mr. Orange have a father/son kind of relationship”, because of the way he drew those characers and the positions he put them in, that came to the surface. Intent is not a linear reality.

Having said that, I can’t abide the notion that “The author is dead”, and critics and audiences can simply decide what a thing means and is. Anyone can describe their experience of a work, and have it be subjectively valid, even unassailable. But the post-modern inversion that the audience creates the work is inane. The video discusses the King Kong/race theory, the idea that King Kong is a metaphor for slavery in America. The makers of the film didn’t intend that. Critics have pointed out the metaphor after the fact of its creation.

Now, I’d like to draw a careful distinction here. Applying the slavery framework to King Kong is an interesting way of looking at it. It provides a fresh perspective on both. It syncs up. But so does Dark Side of the Moon sync up with The Wizard of Oz (Although not perfectly. The album’s only about half the running time of the movie). It’s interesting. It gives you a fresh perspective on both. But it’s absurd to argue that either work was created with the other in mind, or that either are necessary to the other. It is not necessary to view King Kong as a metaphor for slavery. You can do it, sure. It’s worth discussing. But it’s simplistic to take the next step and say “That’s what King Kong is. That’s all it is.”

To my mind, critics are the ones who need to be careful in insisting upon their juxtapositions. Criticism absent acknowledement of authorship is theft.

Shallow & Pedantic Podcast.

We’re three episodes in on this endavour now. Below is the most recent episode, recorded in March. We planned to do it monthly, but circumstances have gotten in our way.

Recently via Skype we planned out our next set of episodes, so we should be able to turn them out at a regular clip once Normality 2.0 is fully downloaded. YouTube channel link here, that you may mash that subscribe button. It’s also available on iTunes.

Of course, the best way to keep up with all our Shallow & Pedantic doings is to subscribe to our Patreon.

The Beautiful and the Sublime

Here’s a YouTuber’s take:

The argument is that beautiful and sublime are central to art. They could almost be called the yin and yang of aesthetics, but they’re not entirely opposite to each other. Delight and Awe are not mutually exclusive.

One could make an argument, however, that Low Art seeks delight (beautiful), while High Art, awe (sublime), but that could be a case of stretching the heuristic.

Merry Podcasting

I find it interesting how “podcast” has evolved from “micro-radio show on your iPhone” to “people talking into a microphone on YouTube”.

Now this is a satrical podcast, but what it’s satirizing is very real. There are in fact, entire YouTube channels that exist for 30-year-olds to talk like children about popcorn movies under the guise of “nerd culture”. I know I shouldn’t talk, because I’m about to launch a podcast similar in scope, but I’m not a shill for Disney. I’m interested in the art form.

The podcast will be called Shallow & Pedantic, and while it’s aimed at discussing literature, film, and other things aesthetic, our approach is critical, analytical, not Go Out and See The New Thing.

This doesn’t mean Thumbs Down/Thumbs Up is going anywhere. I’ll continue to record episode for it, because I genuinely like it. I haven’t been as committed to creating new episodes as I want, because writing episodes is never as small an undertaking as I want it to be. But with the new school year comes a new focus, and a new commitment to making new content. So on we go.

This Crash Course is the Last Christmas of Alexander the Great YouTube Videos…

… it’s not actually about Alexander the Great, but some nonsense tertially related to Alexander the Great.

Normally I like Crash Course, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and usually provides some kind of interesting take on historical events. But this one is trying so hard to be Woke that it ends up saying absolutely nothing at all about its ostensible subject, and the things it does say are, well, wrong.

  1. The only reason Alexander didn’t build institutions is because he died before he could build them. At the time of his death he was back in Babylon and preparing himself to build the Hellenistic Empire that would have fit the Hellenistic Culture that arose in his wake. His death without an adult male heir is also the reason that Empire collapsed, despite the efforts of at least some of the Diodachoi to hold it together. For further reading, check out Ghost On the Throne
  2. Alexander wasn’t a very destructive conqueror. Most of the deaths of his wars were military ones, i.e., his soldiers and the ones he was fighting. He wasn’t a sacker of cities, and indeed was careful to respect the lives and property of the people he subjugated. He was so as a matter of policy, pertaining to point 1: He wanted the Greek and the Persian, the Greek and the Egyptian, the Greek and the Syrian, etc., to come together in a single realm. He acted accordingly.
  3. Alexander pursued Darius because Darius was the crowned King of Persia, and Alexander’s reign would never be secure until he was dead. And after Darius died, Bessus claimed the throne. Comparing this to Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession is deeply silly. Do you not understand how monarchies work?
  4. Other conquerors didn’t just decide to emulate Alexander randomly. Why, for example, did Julius make Alexander his hero, and not, say Hannibal? Or Scipio Africanus? Or Phyrrus of Epirus? They were all great generals, too. Why  Alexander particularly?

    The answer lies in what Alexander was fighting for. His aura was never merely about war and conquest, but war and conquest in the name of a unified world. War to end wars, if you will. That appealed to Caesar, and Napoleon, and others, precisely because it was what they wanted to accomplish, too. Both Caesar and Napoleon grew up in times of political disorder and wanted to bequeath an ordered world to posterity. So did Alexander. Their admiration is neither accident nor dumb-jock hero-worship, as your endless references to dimwit reality stars seems to imply.

  5. And as regards that, we get it, you’re Too Smart for The Jersey Shore. But you’re not smart enough to ignore it, so it infects this video about a legendary historical figure for some reason, and in an ironic twist, to your beginning moaning, ensures that people will know about Jersey Shore as long as this video exists on YouTube. Nice job.

A final point, germain to my title: If you want to teach us about Alexander the Great, teach us about Alexander the Great. If you want to teach us about people who haven’t been talked about nearly as much as Alexander, but who deserve to be, then teach us about that. But don’t talk about one in a video about the other, because you end up teaching about neither.

And yes, I know that blogging about a video published in 2012 might as well be commenting about 50’s Fashion Tips, but there’s plenty of internet people doing exactly that, so welcome to the Post-Modern Age. Everything is Too Old to talk about, and nothing is.