Studies in Iconology (Modern Library Nonfiction #80)

(This is the twentieth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Face of Battle.)

Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (pictured above) is one of my favorite paintings of the 16th century, in large part because its unquestionable beauty is matched by its bountiful and alluring enigma. We see two versions of love at opposing ends of a fountain — one nearly naked without apology, but still partially clad in a windswept dark salmon pink robe and holding an urn of smoke as she languorously (and rebelliously?) leans on the edge of a fountain; meanwhile the other Love sits in a flowing white gown on the other end, decidedly more dignified, with concealed legs that are somehow stronger and more illustrious than her counterpart, and disguising a bowl that, much like the Kiss Me Deadly box or the Pulp Fiction suitcase, could contain anything.

We know that the Two Loves are meant to coexist because Titian is sly enough to imbue his masterpiece with a sartorial yin-yang. Profane Love matches Sacred with a coiled white cloth twisting around her waist and slipping down her left leg, while Sacred has been tinctured by Profane’s pink with the flowing sleeve on her right arm and the small slipper on her left foot. Meanwhile, Cupid serves as an oblivious and possibly mercenary middleman, his arm and his eyes deeply immersed in the water and seemingly unconcerned with the Two Loves. We see that the backdrops behind both Loves are promisingly bucolic, with happy rabbits suggesting prolific promiscuity and studly horsemen riding their steeds with forelegs in the air, undoubtedly presaging the stertorous activity to commence sometime around the third date.

Sacred’s backdrop involves a castle situated on higher ground, whereas Profane’s is a wider valley with a village, a tableau that gives one more freedom to roam. The equine motif carries further on Sacred’s side with a horse prancing from Sacred to Profane in the marble etching just in front of the fountain, while Profane’s side features equally ripe rapacity, a near Fifty Shades of Grey moment where a muscled Adonis lusts over a plump bottom, hopefully with consensual limits and safewords agreed upon in advance. Titian’s telling takeaway is that you have to accept both the sublime and the salacious when you’re in love: the noble respect and vibrant valor that you unfurl upon your better half with such gestures as smoothing a strand of hair from the face along with the ribald hunger for someone who is simultaneously desirable and who could very well inspire you to stock up on entirely unanticipated items that produce rather pleasurable vibrations.

There are few works of art that are so dedicated to such a dichotomous depiction of something we all long for. And Titian’s painting endures five centuries later because this Italian master was so committed to minute details that, rather incredibly, remain quite universal about the human condition.

But what the hell does it all mean? We can peer into the canvas for hours, becoming intoxicated by Titian’s fascinating ambiguities. But might there be more helpful semiotics to better grasp what’s going on? Until I read Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology, I truly had no clue that Titian had been influenced by Bembo’s Asolani or that the Two Loves were a riff on Cesare Ripa’s notion of Eternal Bliss and Transient Bliss, which was one of many efforts by the Neoplatonic movement to wrestle with a human state that occupied two modes of shared existence. Panofsky also helpfully points out that Cupid’s stirring of the fountain water was a representation of love as “a principle of cosmic ‘mixture,’ act[ing] as an intermediary between heaven and earth” and that the fountain can also be looked upon as a revived sarcophagus, meaning that we are also looking at life and love springing from a coffin. And this history added an additional context for me to expand my own quasi-smartypants, recklessly dilletantish, and exuberantly instinctive appreciation of Titian. In investigating iconology, I recalled my 2016 journey into The Golden Bough (ML NF #90), in which Frazer helpfully pointed to the symbolic commonality of myths and rituals throughout multiple cultures and across human history, and, as I examined how various symbolic figures morphed over time, I became quite obsessed with Father Time’s many likenesses (quite usefully unpacked by Waggish‘s David Auerbach).

Any art history student inevitably brushes up against the wise and influential yet somewhat convoluted views of Erwin Panofsky. Depending upon the degree to which the prof resembles Joseph Mengele in his teaching style, there is usually a pedagogical hazing in which the student is presented with “iconology” and “iconography.” The student winces at both words, nearly similar in look and sound, and wonders if the distinction might be better understood after several bong hits and unwise dives into late night snacks, followed by desperate texts to fellow young scholars that usually culminate in more debauchery which strays from understanding the text. Well, I’m going to do my best to explicate the difference right now.

The best way to nail down what iconography entails is to think of a painting purely in terms of its visuals and what each of these elements means. Some obvious examples of iconography in action is the considerable classroom time devoted to interpreting the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby or the endless possibilities contained within the Mona Lisa‘s smile. It is, in short, being that vociferous museum enthusiast pointing at bowls and halos buried in oil and doing his best to impress with his alternately entertaining and infuriating interpretations. All this is, of course, fair game. But Panofsky is calling for us to think bigger and do better.

Enter iconology, which is more specifically concerned with the context of this symbolism and the precise technical circumstances and historical influences that created it. Let me illustrate the differences between iconography and iconology using Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek.

Here are the details everyone knows about Kirk. He is married to his ship. He is a swashbuckling adventurer who gets into numerous fights and is frequently seen in a torn shirt. He is also a nomadic philanderer, known to swipe right and hookup with nearly every alien he encounters. (In the episode “Wink of an Eye,” there is a moment that somehow avoided the censors in which Kirk was seen putting on his boots while Deela brushes her hair.) This is the iconography of Kirk that everyone recognizes.

But when we begin to examine the origins of these underlying iconographic qualities, we begin to see that there is a great deal more than a role popularized by William Shatner through booming vocal delivery, spastic gestures, and an unusual Canadian hubris. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he perceived Captain Kirk as “Horatio Hornblower in Space.” We know that C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower novels, was inspired by Admiral Lord Nelson and a number of heroic British authors who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. According to Bryan Perrett’s The Real Hornblower, Forester read three volumes of The Naval Chronicle over and over. But Forester eventually hit upon a trope that he identified as the Man Alone — a solitary individual who relies exclusively on his own resources to solve problems and who carries out his swashbuckling, but who is wedded to this predicament.

Perhaps because the free love movement of the 1960s made the expression of sexuality more open, Captain Kirk was both a Man Alone and a prolific philanderer. But Kirk was fundamentally married to his ship, the Enterprise. In an essay collected in Star Trek as Myth, John Shelton Lawrence ties this all into a classic American monomyth, suggesting that Kirk also represented

…sexual renunciation, a norm that reflects some distinctly religious aversions to intimacy. The protagonist in some mythical sagas must renounce previous sexual ties for the sake of their trials. They must avoid entanglements and temptations that inevitably arise from satyrs, sirens, or Loreleis in the course of their travels…The protagonist may encounter sexual temptation symbolizing ‘that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell,’ as Campbell points out. Yet the ‘ultimate adventure’ is the ‘mystical marriage…of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess” of knowledge.

All of a sudden, Captain Kirk has become a lot more interesting! And moments such as Kirk eating the apple in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan suddenly make more sense beyond the belabored Project Genesis metaphor. We now see how Roddenberry’s idea of a nomad philanderer and Forester’s notion of the Man Alone actually takes us to a common theme of marriage with the Queen Goddess of the World. One could very well dive into the Kirk/Hornblower archetype at length. But thanks to iconology, we now have enough information here to launch a thoughtful discussion — ideally with each of the participants offering vivacious impersonations of William Shatner — with the assembled brainiacs discussing why the “ultimate adventure” continues to crop up in various cultures and how Star Trek itself was a prominent popularizer of this idea.

Now that we know what iconology is, we can use it — much as Panofsky does in Studies in Iconology — to understand why Piero di Cosimo was wilder and more imaginative than many of his peers. (And for more on this neglected painter, who was so original that he even inspired a poem from Auden, I recommend Peter Schjeldahl’s 2015 New Yorker essay.) Panofsky points out how Piero’s The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos (pictured above) differs in the way that it portrays the Hylas myth, whereby Hylas went down to the river Ascunius to fetch some water and was ensnared by the naiads who fell in love with his beauty. (I’ve juxtaposed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs with Piero so that you can see the differences. For my money, Piero edges out Waterhouse’s blunter version of the tale. But I also chose the Waterhouse painting to protest the Manchester Art Gallery’s passive-aggressive censorship from last year. You can click on the above image to see a larger version of both paintings.) For one thing, Piero’s painting features no vase or vessel. There is also no water or river. The naiads are not seductive charmers at all, but more in the Mean Girls camp. And Hylas himself is quite helpless. (The naiad patting Hylas on the head is almost condescending, which adds a macabre wit to this landlocked riff.) Piero is almost the #metoo version of Hylas to Waterhouse’s more straightforward patriarchal approach. And it’s largely because not only did Piero have a beautifully warped imagination, but he was relying, like many Renaissance painters, upon post-classical commentaries rather than the direct source of the myths themselves. And we are able to see how a slight shift in an artist’s inspiration can produce a sui generis work of art.

Panofsky is on less firm footing when he attempts to apply iconology to sculptures and architecture. His attempts to ramrod Michelangelo into the Neoplatonic school were unpersuasive to me. In analyzing the rough outlines of a monkey just behind two of Michelangelo’s Slaves (the “dying” and the “rebellious” ones) in the Louvre, Panofsky rather simplistically ropes the two slaves into a subhuman class and then attempts to suggest that Ficino’s concept of the Lower Soul — which is a quite sophisticated concept — represents the interpretive smoking gun. This demonstrates the double-edged sword of iconology. It may provide you a highly specific framework for which to reconsider a great work of art, but it can be just as clumsily mistaken for the absolute truth as any lumbering ideology.

Then again, unless you’re an insufferable narcissist who needs to be constantly reminded how “right” you are, it’s never any fun to discuss art and ideas with people who you completely agree with. Panofsky’s impact on art analysis reminds us that iconology is one method of identifying the nitty-gritty and arguing about it profusely and jocularly for hours, if not decades or centuries.

Next Up: Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt!

Review: Star Trek (2009)

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In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture featured the likes of David Gerrold and Bjo Trimble in small roles, transmitting a subconscious wire that, whatever the film’s faults, this was really an expensive telegram for the fans. Thirty years later, with similar commercial circumstances in place, Vulcan Council Member #1 is played by the notorious hack screenwriter Akiva Goldsman — the no-talent Oscar-winning scribe behind Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, the man who had the effrontery to butcher both Lost in Space and Asimov, and who was recently reported to be sodomizing Dave King’s excellent novel, The Ha-Ha. If this representative casting doesn’t spell out the Sino-British style handover of the Star Trek franchise from the fans to the hucksters, then perhaps you may not understand that Hollywood has remained quite interested in systematically raping your childhood if it will fill its coffers.

Since comparative points are often the best place to start, let’s just say that J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek isn’t as bad as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek: Nemesis. I realize that’s a bit like telling you that having a dentist rip out your molars without anesthetic is better than getting repeatedly stabbed in the eyeballs. For the undiscriminating fanboy who will lap this movie up without complaint, the film is about as good as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Insurrection. Which is to say that it isn’t up there with the sublime quartet of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: First Contact. It isn’t one of those movies you’re going to geek out about, although Eric Rosenfield and I spent more than an hour in a diner expressing our frustrations about the film’s total misunderstanding of basic science (And neither of us are scientists.) There was a point where the film almost had me, but J.J. Abrams betrayed that trust by having three guys in spacesuits enter into a planet’s atmosphere without burning up. This mesospehre-defying trio eventually land on a drill platform tethered to a space elevator that is floating several thousand feet above the planet’s surface. And even after the considerable wind factor has whisked away the token red shirt, the remaining crew members still manage to duke it out with Romulans while standing on the platform. Which is as improbable as Philippe Petit juggling fifty chainsaws while standing on the wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. The man certainly had skills, but the world has physics.

These fighters don’t contend with wind, even as the planet is in seismic upheaval. Indeed, they perform acrobatics while fighting on the platform. (For those who don’t mind spoilers, Eric has outlined some of the egregious specifics in his review.) When John Rambo leaping off a cliff without so much as a scratch on his body carries more plausibility than a Star Trek movie, you know that the latter has serious narrative issues. (And speaking of cliffs, the scientific discussions involving Kirk’s fingers in the trailer are worth revisiting. This post demolishes the physics and even has Neil deGrasse Tyson showing up in the comments.)

All this is a shame because the new cast, who I’ll get to later, is quite good. But the “every other rule” that used to be applied to the Star Trek movies is no longer valid. And that’s because J.J. Abrams and his team really don’t get Star Trek. I suspect that they don’t even like Star Trek. And let’s face it. Today’s most critically and commercially successful franchises are made by geeks like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, not cold and calculating businessmen like J.J. Abrams. If Star Wars: The Phantom Menace served as Lucas’s visceral betrayal to his fans, perhaps epitomized best with the unpardonable Jar Jar Binks, then J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek (a more aloof and uninformed vision than Rick Berman’s) is more of an intellectual betrayal. It has a few good ideas to shake up some of the creaky complacency that has set in, but it still staunches the bloodflow. The film is not outright bad. It’s good that the crew of the Enterprise is carrying on in some form. But what now is ultimately the point? The Star Trek of 1968 was utopian and futuristic. It projected a hokey but earnest progressive vision. And even in television reruns, you could somehow believe that this was a future that could happen. But the Star Trek of the last two decades has been constantly playing catch-up with present-day technologies. Despite the presence of geek outreach representative Simon Pegg in the role of Scotty, this Star Trek is all about the cold hard cash. (And to give you some small sense of the commercial sacrifice, Pegg has shaved off his goatee for this. Apparently, there’s no room for true geeks in this new commercial vision. Nor is there any room for the handicapped. In a move that will surely ire legions of handicapped Star Trek fans, at the end of the film, Captain Christopher Pike is stripped of his command and booted up to admiral because he now sits in a wheelchair. Pike isn’t burned or scarred or given two lights to flash his affirmatives and nays before a magistrate, but he remains quite lucid despite having chowed down a Centurion worm. Which leaves one to wonder why the Americans with Disabilities Act isn’t applicable to the rosy humanitarian goals of the future.)

The problem may lie in the conceptualization. It’s a little discussed chapter in the Star Trek franchise history, but shortly after Harve Bennett produced the dreadful Star Trek V, he had an even worse idea called The Academy Years, focusing on Kirk and Spock when they were young Starfleet cadets (believe it or not, John Cusack was in mind for the younger Kirk) and featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy bookending the film in small roles. Top brass were initially wary of a film released around Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary that didn’t feature the regular cast. Bennett wrote more wraparound scenes for the veteran thespians. But the project was eventually scrapped, and Bennett was gone from Paramount not long after.

What’s striking about this reboot is how close it resembles purported descriptions of Bennett’s The Academy Years. Like Bennett’s story, the young Jim Kirk is a reckless rebel smashing up vehicles in Iowa. (In Abrams’s film, he drives a motorcycle instead of Bennett’s speeder bike.) Like Bennett’s story, young Spock is told not to go to Starfleet, with Spock informing his fellow Vulcans that logic suggests that he go anyway. The people of Earth are, in this phase of the Federation’s existence, still bigoted. (What’s interesting about this reboot is that the “green-blooded” racism originates not from McCoy, but from Kirk. It is McCoy who perpetuates this verbal ignominy. The suggestion here that Kirk’s red state beliefs are somehow responsible for sullying Starfleet’s blue state virtues is a daring and subversive one, but one that the writers have neither the skills nor the intelligence to fully weave into their narrative) We may never know whether writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also “rebooted” the Transformers mythos in disastrous collusion with Michael Bay) were aware of Bennett’s script, or if Paramount felt compelled to draw upon some of the ideas for some source material. But while these two writers may know how to write a dumb yet engaging high-octane thriller, they don’t know elementary science and they sure as hell don’t know Star Trek.

In order to reboot the series, you have to comprehend a number of very important principles behind Star Trek. First, Star Trek has borrowed liberally from science. So much so that physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek and entire websites exist attempting to provide scientific explanations for the concepts. People have devoted their careers to science because they have been inspired by Star Trek. The transporter beam and the slingshot time travel effect seen in “Assignment: Earth” and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home may not have any real-world counterparts. But the details are vague enough for us to believe in the premise. So when J.J. Abrams and his writers have a starship hovering next to a black hole, or someone observing a black hole on a nearby planet, and none of this adjacent space gets sucked into a considerable gravitational pull, this goes beyond lazy writing and into the realm of unbridled idiocy. It’s a big fuck you to the fans. (The science geeks aren’t the only ones left huddling in the cold. IT geeks will also bristle over one scene in which Chekhov must run several decks to a transporter room to beam aboard two people. Despite the Enterprise containing limitless displays of consistently shifting text and graphics, Abrams and his team apparently haven’t heard of VPN.)

And while I appreciated the Starfleet skirts returning and the general defiance of political correctness, one of Star Trek‘s appealing qualities has always been its multiculturalism. You’d think that, in an Obama presidency, we’d be given a Uhura who is more than a leggy linguist. But Uhura’s screen time involves fending off advances from Kirk and throwing herself at Spock. She’s a character composite of Nurse Chapel and the Nichelle Nichols incarnation. This is not a character who is permitted to think or offer solutions. Sure, she intercepts and translates a vital radio transmission. But it is Kirk who seizes this information and uses this to advance up the ranks of command without crediting Uhura. Again, if Kirk embodies the ugly capitalist who keeps utopia’s engine running, there’s some promise in the suggestion. But the writers simply don’t have the chops to think along these lines and make this interesting. Indeed, with Uhura so exploited, it’s evident that the writers barely grasp feminism’s second wave. (It’s worth noting that Kirk does sleep with an Orion, but she resembles nothing more than an attractive actress who has been painted green. There is nothing “exotic” about her, and the film offers no contemporary answer to the Vaseline-smeared lens or the strange soft lighting that greeted many of the women in the original series. So even if the film adopts the position that sexual conquest is alive and well, it lacks the courage to be forceful about it. And it becomes as cowardly as the G rating attached to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

J.J. Abrams’s film flits through three years in Starfleet Academy with all the contrivances of a by-the-numbers TV movie (complete with a few token “farmboys” that seem more applicable to Luke Skywalker than Jim Kirk), it’s worth pointing out that Kirk and Spock never required an origin story. They were never characters who, outside of homoerotic fan fiction, we were supposed to speculate about. With their cinematic incarnations, we had three seasons of the original series to inform our view. But what we have with Abrams’s Star Trek is a solid cast very familiar with the cultural canon, but a group of filmmakers who fundamentally misunderstand the truth behind the legend. Bennett’s The Academy Years was vetoed for the right reasons. We want to see the Star Trek crew in action, using their seasoned experience and skills to battle it out with Klingons. We want to see them contend with scenery-chewing villains like Khan Noonien Singh or General Chang. We want to see Shatner shout “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNN!” Who is our nemesis in Star Trek? Eric Bana, who could not even pull off Bruce Banner (and caused the studio to act as if Ang Lee’s Incredible Hulk adaptation had never happened). Presumably, he was cast as the Romulan because he starred in a movie called Romulus, My Father. And why have a cheesy actor in the role of a Romulan commander? The Romulans were often commanded by women — most notably the commander in “The Enterprise Incident,” who tempted Spock with both lust and knowledge. But in a typically sexist move by Abrams, we don’t see a single woman on board the Romulan ship. It’s as if Abrams and company confused the Klingons with the Romulans. Indeed, in a prosthetic move that desperately attempts to one-up the ridged Klingon forehead introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Romulans have been given bald pates and silly tattooed faces. They look like something out of a bad cyberpunk movie from the 1990s.

And to give us characters fresh out of the academy, permitting them to run the Enterprise through contrived circumstances just days out of the gate, is somewhat entertaining but unacceptable. We get an explanation for the “Bones” nickname, but wasn’t this a mystery better left unknown? We get cliched dialogue like “I knew I should have killed you had the chance,” but this lacks Star Trek II‘s melodramatic poetry (“I’ve done far worse than kill you, Admiral. I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet. Buried alive.”). (Come to think of it, should there be a reimagined Star Trek II, perhaps Nicholas Meyer might be coaxed to write it.) Even the stardates here have been replaced by crude anno domini.

All Abrams has here to sustain his tentpole picture are desperate references to previous films. An ice planet evoking the Klingon prison planet in Star Trek VI. A slimeless Centurion worm that rips off Star Trek II‘s slimy Ceti eel. The three Vulcan computers used to rehabilitate Spock’s intelligence at the beginning of Star Trek IV. The lone Spock investigative mission in Star Trek: The Motion Picture recycled late in the film. This is a film that offers a phaser with a sliding click, but that simultaneously gives us the fundamentally stupid idea of red matter. This is a film that has the courage to make Spock unapologetically emotional, but that has the fine Karl Urban simply doing an accurate DeForest Kelly impression (complete with a prefatory “My God, man!”). Chris Pine has the ego and the masculine swagger to sell Kirk. And I can even imagine him putting his own spin on the immortal line, “I am Kirok!” But even Pine is given a Shatneresque “Bones” boom when he takes the bridge near the end of the film. John Cho is Harold as Sulu, and it’s just possible that the excitable Anton Yelchin may be his Kumar. But even Zachary Quinto, who was better as Spock than I anticipated, is doomed, like the rest of the cast, to mimic the cast that came before.

Had Abrams taken the chances that Ron Moore did with his Battlestar Galactica reimagining, this might have been a franchise worth getting excited over. But Abrams’s failure to shake up the Star Trek universe while remaining fundamentally true to the franchise’s underlying appeal is a sign that some mausoleums are best left sealed and that reinvention is another way of saying that you’re out of fresh ideas.

Review: Fanboys (2009)

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There have been nearly eighteen months of production problems for Fanboys, the comedy film made by geeks for geeks involving a 1998 pilgrimage to Skywalker Ranch to steal a rough cut of The Phantom Menace. A rough cut of Fanboys made the rounds in 2007, earning plaudits from George Lucas and Kevin Smith, with the former granting permission to use Star Wars sound effects and the latter asking for and receiving a cameo. More money was allocated to director Kyle Newman to shoot additional scenes that were prohibited by the original version’s five million dollar budget. Months passed, as Newman attempted to extricate the actors from their respective obligations. Additional scenes were shot. Then there were reports that the film was being saturated with more crude jokes with the cancer plot removed. (Having seen the film, I can report that the cancer plot has metastasized.) Fanboys was scheduled to come out last year, but it remained in the vault. There were delays and a few inquiries from online circles, and an Internet campaign eventually emerged demanding that Newman’s original vision be restored. But this week, Fanboys is finally being unfurled into theaters, perhaps with a few “Greedo shoots first” compromises. And I’m pretty certain that additional speculation will spiral into more online melees.

But I have only the version I screened to go by. If there are better versions of the film to be made, this will likely have to be settled by Phantom Edit man Mike J. Nichols. As cheap thrills go, Fanboys isn’t bad. The film won me over. It plays like an Animal House for geeks, and, if Jeffrey Lyons snoring through half the movie is any indication to go by, it will likely not appeal to entitled snobs who remain incurious about this subculture. But I think it has a pretty good shot of finding an audience in the heartland.

Ernest Cline’s screenplay has reportedly been bouncing around since 1998, but his collaborators (Dan Pulick credited on the story and Adam F. Golberg credited on the screenplay) have transformed the film into a celebration of geek culture just before the dawn of a new millennium. After a scrolling yellow prologue with a “Sent from my iPhone” postscript, we’re then taken to Ohio 199 days before the Phantom Menace release date. Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” blasts at a house party, where stormtrooper and Super Mario costumes are copious, with a “Picasso’s blue period” thrown in for good measure. This is still the time of dialup, and a bespectacled geek named Windows (Jay Baruchel) has secured an online girlfriend. Windows is so consumed by his perfervid IMing that he cannot even notice a geek girl flashing her breasts in his direction. Hutch (Dan Fogler) lives in a garage, paying rent to his parents. He insists that he lives in a “carriage house.” Then there’s Eric (Sam Huntington), the “responsible” character you typically find in these teen comedies who works at his father’s car lot and is primed to take over the business. This trio learn that their pal Linus (Christopher Marquette) is dying of cancer. A trip to California is agreed upon.

As you may have already guessed, this setup follows any number of cinematic formulas. But much like the original Star Wars trilogy, Fanboys is more about the journey, rather than the destination (or even the beginning). It does find a few funny moments that prevent this film from entirely succumbing to stereotyping. An R2D2 Pez dispenser is confused with a prominent member. Hutch, who drives a van adorned with Star Wars detailing, sets a few ground rules: “All Rush, all the time” is the only music to be played during the cross-country journey. There’s a side quest to Riverside, Iowa — the birthplace of James T. Kirk — in large part because Hutch says, “I’ll drive all night for the chance to pimp dog some Trekkies.” And this pugilistic vow is carried out over the preposterous question of whether Han Solo’s a bitch. A Star Wars fan has unthinkingly burned in a Jar Jar Binks tattoo without knowledge of the character.

A sequence involving peyote and stripping, suggesting that geeks are as marginalized as gays, doesn’t quite live up to its potential, nor does a running gag about Hutch having one testicle. But the film does poke some insinuative fun at all the forthcoming junk that those associated with Star Wars will soon be involved in. When the group discusses whether or not Harrison Ford is the greatest actor of all time, the van passes by a Six Days Seven Nights billboard. I also enjoyed the idea of Harry Knowles portrayed as an ass-kicker in the know, where trust is established by the number of esoteric film facts at your immediate disposal.

Many of the film’s cameos — which include William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, and Billy Dee Williams (as Judge Reinhold) — are funny. Some, like Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, are just pointless. The film quotes lines from the original Star Wars trilogy liberally, but not obnoxiously.

The film also delves a bit into geek double standards pertaining to gender. During a moment in Vegas, the aforementioned geeky girl Zoe (played by Kirsten Bell) flirts wildly with Windows, but he and Hutch see only the airbrushed professionals. And while Windows and Hutch do receive a collective comeuppance for their oversight, I wondered whether there may have been something more here lost in all the reshoots and the rewrites.

Fanboys isn’t as good as 1998’s Free Enterprise, largely because Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett went to the trouble of portraying geeks as real people. It doesn’t quite have the guts to plunge completely into the complexities of geekdom. And my main gripe with Fanboys is that the “real” moments here were terribly treacly. Perhaps there was some reasonable justification for attempts to rework the cancer plot. But I did laugh, and the film that emerged from the fracas does entertain.

The Bat Segundo Show: Brent Spiner

Brent Spiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #233. Spiner is most recently a producer and performer on the album, Dreamland.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ducking his head and dodging paranoid crooners.

Guest: Brent Spiner

Subjects Discussed: Natural reverb, conversational limitations, co-owning a recording studio with Dave Way, being a control freak, the shaky profitability of the music industry, self-distributing a CD through Bellarama, David Byrne’s DIY article, the lack of response from magazines and newspapers vs. the response from blogs and online sites, being restricted by self-production, the distribution for Ol’ Yellow Eyes is Back, getting mechanical rights for the songs, merging “I Love You” with “Nice and Easy,” the difficulties of getting Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love,” DJ Giagni, tap dancing and footfalls, sound effects, maracas that appear on the left speaker, arguments for and against the older man-younger woman musical trope, certain elements that are holding back Dreamland from being transposed to a live performance, the belting quality of Spiner’s voice, wrestling, Spiner’s extraordinary claims as an opera singer, Mark Hamill as a figure to help smooth over the rancor between two popular science fiction franchises, growing up in Houston, the demolition of the Shamrock Hilton in June 1987, Cecil Pickett and the brothers Quaid, Randy Quaid and Actors’ Equity, Spiner’s complex feelings for Rutger Hauer, Hauer and Whoopi Goldberg, taking umbrage with YouTube commenters, working with Maude Maggart, signing on for a six-year contract for a show that rhymes with “car wreck,” committing to a project without knowing when it will end, Threshold, negotiating the limitations of television, the relationship between art vs. commerce, why Spiner moved to Los Angeles, Superhero Movie, living like a college student vs. an adult lifestyle, and the trappings and consistent struggles of being an actor.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I should observe that you grew up in Houston.

Spiner: Yes.

Correspondent: Of course, for a long time, the Shamrock Hilton was there.

Spiner: Right.

Correspondent: And what is rather unusual is that it was demolished in June 1987, which almost exactly coincides with your big break on the show that shall not be named. I was wondering if you ever contemplated this connection, and whether the hotel [in Dreamland] may have jumped out because of this. Why did you choose the hotel? And what of the Shamrock Hilton?

Spiner: You know what, Ed, I’m not sure what the question is really. And I’m not even sure you know what the question is.

Correspondent: No, no, I’m just throwing associations at you.

Spiner: Yeah, you know what?

Correspondent: I figured that you can handle this.

Spiner: Let me say, and I will say the word, I did Star Trek purposefully because of the demise of the Shamrock Hotel.

Correspondent: Yeah. I knew it.

Spiner: There was no other reason that I took that job. When they told me…

Correspondent: …that Houston was dead to you.

Spiner: Yeah, Houston was dead to me once the Shamrock Hilton was gone. But let me just say this. How do you know about the Shamrock Hilton?

Correspondent: I just am curious.

Spiner: Are you from Houston?

Correspondent: No, I’m not. I’ve never actually been in Texas, aside from, I believe, a layover. But I just knew about it. I knew that big people came through there.

Spiner: Yup. Oh! Please.

Correspondent: And so I figured you hung out there.

Spiner: I did.

Correspondent: When these big people made their way through there.

Spiner: I once saw Mel Torme at the Shamrock.

Correspondent: Really?

Spiner: At the Shamrock pool. Walking fast. And even more importantly, I once saw Jock Mahoney doing chin-ups outside by the Shamrock pool.

Correspondent: Did you talk with these folks when you were there?

Spiner: You know, I didn’t. I wish I’d talked to Jock Mahoney, which is another story altogether.

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