Textual Poachers

See also the essay by Paul Campanis

Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins,
Routledge, New York and London, 1992

Fan music videos vividly illustrate the aesthetic regulation of hetroglossia. Using home videotape recorders and inexpensive copy-cords, fan artists appropriate "found footage" from broadcast television and re-edit it to express their particular slant on the program, linking series images to music similarly appropriated from commercial culture. Video artist M.V.D. (Personal Correspondence, 1991) has described these videos as "half-and-half things" which are neither a "Reader's Digest of the shows we love' nor "fancy pictures to entertain the eye while we listen to our favorite music"; fan music video is, rather, a unique form, ideally suited to demands of fan culture, depending for its significance upon the careful welding of words and images to comment on the series narrative. As M.V.D. explains, "Images pull out the words, emphaisze the words, just as the words emphasize the picture. If I've done a good job with a video, I can portray an emotion and I can hold that emotion throughout the song. I can bring a new level of depth to that emotion through my images and I can make you think about the program in a different way."


Sometimes, images are borrowed from their original narrative context and made to tell fundamentally different stories: ... P.K.'s "Big Bad Leroy Brown" reworks the futuristic images of Star Wars in terms of this contemporary ballad of urban crime and roamnce: the Death Star becomes "the south side of Chicago," Vader's TIE Fighter a "custom Continental," his light saber a "razor," and a succession of alien creatures "junkyard dogs." Luke and Darth battle for the affections of Leia, with thier confrontation from The Empire Strikes Back redited to suggest Skywalker's triumph. Neither P.F.L. nor P.K. completely divorce these images from their orignal meanings. Rather, their videos play upon the reader's ability to see these images as simultaneously contributing to a new narrative and bearing memories of their status in a very different context.


The nonverbal dimensions of performance (the exchanged glances, gestures, and expressions actors bring to their roles) become the focus of interest as those decontextualized gestures reveal "hidden" aspects of characters. As videomaker M.V.D. (Personal Interview) explained, "You discover things because you turn the volume off. If I played that same scene and you heard the original words, you would not see it the way you do in my videos."

[M.V.D.: The clearest example of this is in Blake's 7. If you ask a fan to describe Blake, they'll repeat the way Blake describes himself. This is true of the other characters, as well. But if you look at the episode without the volume on, as I do to find scenes, you discover that each character operates in an opposite manner to their self-description. Where Blake is reputed to be the one who cares about suffering humanity, it's Blake who pulls back physically from those suffering. Avon, who tries to project himself as totally self-centered, is the one who physically reaches out to others.]


Subplots introduced and developed across a number of episodes are restructured into compressed narratives. One M.V.D. video, based on Carole King's "Tapestry," examines the romance between Yar and Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although the two characters make love in "The Naked Now" and Data is shown in "The Measure of a Man" as having kept a hologram of Yar in his study, program publicity has sought to deflect fan interest from this relationship (which a studio publicist has characterized as a "one-night stand") and denied that the android feels emotions. These claims are steadfastly rejected by fans who insist that the episodes reveal a different interplay between the characters. Adopting this position, M.V.D. traces the Yar-Data relationship across the program's first and second seasons. The video includes their hesitant coupling ("He moves with some uncertainty as if he didn't know just what he was there for or where he ought to go") and its uncomfortable aftermath at the episode's tag; it also spotlights Yar's death and funeral and Data's later contemplation of her hologram in his study; moments where the relationship is explicitly acknowledged in the program narratives. She also incorporates earlier scenes which suggest romantic possibilities, such as moments when the characters exchanged affectionate glances as they work together or when a bemused Yar watches Data clowning. Fans, already familiar with the aired episodes, gain a new perspective on that relationship as a subplot recognizable only retrospectively. As M.V.D. explains, "What comes hrough in 'Tapestry' is a tremendous sadness for the potential of that relationship that was lost and for the fact that this inhuman androids still loves her, even after death" (Personal Interview, 1990).


Yet videos may also invite us to look at the familiar elements in a dramatically different fashion. M.V.D.'s "Long Long Way To Go" uses Phil Collins' poignant song to underscore Kirk's pained responses to the deaths of his crewmembers. The dead "redshirts" and McCoy's perennial proclamation, "He's dead, Ji" are the focus of countless jokes, yet her images offer no comic distance from the all-too-human suffering and loss ("Someone's son lies dea in a gutter somewhere ... we've still got a long long way to go, I can't take it anymore"). The video sows how keenly Kirk felt each death. Kirk tries to "switch off" his feelings, retreating to his room or to the company of his friends. Yt he is finally unable to "shut out" the agony of so many young men and women. The relentless repetition of deathsfrces viewers to question their own ability to take these moments of human loss so lightly.


Fan artists insist that their works bear little or no direct relationship to MTV"s commercial music videos. As M.V.D. (Personal correspondence, 1990) explains:

MTV is fine arts turned kinetic. It doesn't really have a pattern. The story is almost incidental. A lot of times MTV focuses on the performer first with, perhaps, a story underlying it. Our videos wouldn't be classed under fine arts; they would be classed under literature. The structure that underlies my music videos is the identical structure that underlies a short story. You are analyzing a character through a music video in the same way that you analyze character through a story. It has a purpose. It has a conclusion. There is a change in a character you are drawing your reader through. You want to produce identification and emotional response.


M.V.D. (Personal Interview, 1990) distinguishes between convention videos, which need to be broadly drawn to allow immediate recognition from a wide range of fans, and "living-room videos," made for a more select and analytical audience familiar with the community's interpetive conventions:

They can't take the complex ones in a large group. They get hyper. They aren't concentrating that deeply. They want to all laugh together or they want to share their feelings. So it's got to be obvious enough that the people around them will share those emotions ... The living room video is designed to be so complicated that you'd better know everything about the show or it isn't going to make much sense. These videos are for a very small in-group that already understands what you are trying to say. It's like fan writing. You don't have to build up this entire world. You can rely on certain information.
M.V.D. stands at the back of the room as her videos are shown at conventions, taking detailed notes on fan response. She restructures her programs to the particular interests attracted to a given gathering. She also custom packages her "living room videos" to the tastes of specific fans, avoiding sons that feature slash elements if they are apt to offend, focusing on favored fandoms and featuring videos most apt to reap rewards under closer examination.


What M.V.D. describes as her "living room videos" constitute some of the most sophisticated work within this still emergent art, and as such, they usefully illustrate the aesthetic criteria by which the community evaluates the form. First, fan artists seek a level of technical perfection difficult to achieve on home video equipment. Beginning videomakers often rely on a small number of long takes, depending upon "internal edits (i.e., those created by the original filmmaker) for visual interest. Some of the earliest fan videos consisted of little more than episode sequences attached to song favorites, these so-called "song tapes" depended heavily upon the chance juxtaposition of words and images rather than bringing their materials under tighter artistic control.


More experienced video artists, like M.V.D., create montage sequences depending upon many rapid cuts and a tighter link between words and images. These effects are particularly difficult to achieve on home machines which often roll-back several seconds when placed on pause and will remain on pause for only a few minutes before switching off. Such machines give the artists little time to cue and copy clips and increase the likelihood of "rainbow lines" between edits. Many fan artists employ the most sophisticated equipment they can find to allow them maximum control over the video image and some, like M.V.D. increasingly rely upon laserdiscs for their masters to allow more flexibility and sharper images.


Some fan videos draw their images from a small number of episodes or in some cases, from only a single episode. M.V.D.'s "living room" videos use a much broader range of program materials. "I Needed You," a Star Trek video which is 3 1/2 minutes in length, employs 55 shots (of which less than half are linked by internal edits); the images are selected from many series episodes and four of the feature films. Cuts are timed so that the shots change with each line and at several places, she makes multiple shot changes within a single line.

M.V.D. often chooses an image that evokes the lyric's meaning even when removed from context (e.g., "I cried a tear" shows Spock crying or "You held my hand" shows Kirk and Spock holding hands). Yet most of the word-image connections depend upon the viewer's familiarity with the particulars of the series narrative. The lines, "I sold my soul/ You brought it bacdk for me," for example, shows images from "The Menagerie," an episode in which Spock risked his career to help his previous Captain, Christopher Pike, only to be successfully defended by Kirk at his court-martial trial. "I can't believe it's you/I can't believe it's true" parallels Spock's smiling response to the reappearance of Kirk at the end of "Amok Time" after he has been convinced that he killed the captain under the influence of the Vulcan mating urge. While such images may not be immediately recognizable to an uninitiated viewer, these sequences hold particular significance for Trek fans, marking major turning points in the relationshp between Kirk and Spock. THis is particularly true of later linkages in the video, such as the line, "When I was lost/You took me home" which centers on Spock's death and resurrection within the Star Trek films or "YOu even called me friend" which occurs when a resurrected Spock first acknowledges his recognition of Kirk.

Besides local connections between words and images, M.V.D. develops larger narrational and narrative structures. This particular video traces the history of the "great friendship" between Kirk and Spock, a theme of central concern to the program fans and extensively elaborated within fan fiction and fan fiction. The images follow more or less in sequence with the early verses centering on moments from the television episodes and later verses on the feature films. A pivotal moment occurs on the lines, "I'll never leave/Why should I leave?/I'd be a fool," which span the gap between the two, cutting from a sequence of Kirk and Spock together in "The Empath" to Spock, alone, on Vulcan, trying to achieve the Vulcan discipline of KIolinahr in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, having "foolishly" abandoned Star Fleet. The next lines, "I finally found someone who really cares," reinscribe their relationship, briding between Spock on Vulcan and his reappearance on the Enterprise. Subsequent verses recount the events surrounding Spock's death in Star Trek II, his rescue and resurrection in Star Trek III, and his decision to return to duty at the beginning of Star Trek IV. The songs final refrain, which simnply repeats "You needed me," highlights moments from throughout the series when they had been drawn together from mutual need. The video ends on a scene from "Requiem for Methuselah" when Spock used his mind-meld to ease his friend's pain.

The video's story, simple in its broad outlines but emcompassing much of Star Trek's trajectory, is told from Spock's point of view as M.V.D. is careful to establish through the song's first verse. The opening lines involve a series of alternations between shots of Spock alone ("I was confused") and shots of the two men together ("You cleared my mind") which work with the song's own first-person narration to confirm the identity of the narrating voice. Each line points toward Spock'sotherwise unspoken needs and Kirk's compassionate responses. Subsequently, the song can move fom images of Kirk helping Spock o images of Spock elping Kirk, establishingthe mutual needs cetral both to the song's lyrics and the fan's conception of the relationship. M.V.D.'s carful introduction of Spock's perspective allows spectators a consistent way of orienting themselves to the rapid flow of scens.

Its structure, then, is deceptively simple, a tribute to the artist's accomplishment in pulling together so many borrowed images into a coherent form that achieves the dense "layers of meaning" M.V.D. sees as desirable. The story is told in such a straightforward fashion that it is readily understandable to even a casual viewer, whowill recognize the relationship between these two characters, if only in its broadest outlines. Indeed, M.V.D.'s video could introduce a neofan to the particular themes and interests of the fan community: "The music videos give you just enough of the touches of the world, just enough information about th episodes those scenes come from to attract your interest in watching more of the series" (M.V.D., Personal Interview, 1990). For the more committed viewer, the video does much more, evoking many key moments and analyzing particular aspects of the protagonists' complicated relationship. Such a video will reward repeated viewings, repay close analysis, and trigger fan discussions.

M.V.D. estimates that such a video may take six to eight hours to create, thogh this estimate assumes that the artist has already mastered the images available within the series product and knows where to look for the scenes she needs. Given the time commitment required to make a music video, some fans are astoundingly productive; M.V.D., for example, has created more than 14 hours of music videos which range from Star Trek, Blake's 7, The Professionals, and Starsky and Hutch (where she began working with the form) to a number of more marginal fan interests. Few artists can match her prolificness...


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