Event Review: DragonCon 2004
Quite a bit late, as some others of my acquaintance have already commented on this event (even with pictures) and it was weeks ago. Well, I'm just getting around to it.
I've been to many DragonCons over the years beginning in the late 80's, I believe. I missed several in the intervening time, especially in the years when I wasn't living in Atlanta, but I imagine I've probably been to eight or nine of them in some capacity. Of course, most of the time I didn't actually register at the con and attend functions; if you only count those (including the ones where I got a badge from a friend who was working the con) it'd be only half as many. At other times, I would just wander around the area with friends, looking for people we knew or wanted to know, almost always at night when the activities shifted from panels on sci-fi and comics to parties and such.
Oddly enough, my wife is more of a participator than I am. I used to go to it and other cons primarily for the role-play gaming, but since then it's been primarily a social activity. Now I participate, but disinterestedly. Last year, my first in awhile, I went to a few panels, but often found that I couldn't match the enthusiasm of the other participants. I particularly remember how several of the "Classic Sci-Fi" track panels degenerated into intense bitching sessions about how bad contemporary sci-fi is compared to the Old Masterworks. Now, I like to complain about that kind of stuff as much as the next guy, as long as the next guy and I aren't sitting in a panel at DragonCon.
This year (finally got to it) I attended several interesting panels. The highlight was a morning panel featuring many of the minds and voices behind Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup, to which I am devoted. I understand that the anime and comedy programming have separate fan bases, and I belong entirely to the latter, but at least here it seemed that peace was maintained. Since the anime programming is entirely by acquisition and much of the comedy is home-grown, the focus of this panel was more on the comedy and that suited me fine. Although the best Adult Swim stuff is the odd, original stuff like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, I was really happy to see that they're getting Aaron McGruder's Boondocks cartoon. Boondocks has been in something of a rut recently, and cartoon adaptations of comics are often bad, but the exceptions (like Peanuts and Dilbert, which is better than the strip) are standouts.
Other than that, I attended interesting panels about The Young Ones, which covered lots of British comedy series from the last twenty years as well, and an informative laid-back panel about The Prisoner, which I've been catching again on BBC America recently. I also got some good reading suggestions at a panel about horror comics, which I haven't read in about fifteen years.
For professional curiosity, I attended a panel about a course offered at Kent State about Star Trek. It's a workshop rather than a class, co-taught by the panelist and her husband. The panelist (whose name escapes me) got her MA at Bowling Green's Department of Popular Culture, a credential that made me uneasy. One reason for attending the panel was that I don't know what academics studying popular culture really do (I know what academics in film programs do, and it's not an encouraging model) so I thought this might be a chance to see what a degree in Popular Culture prepares one to teach.
The syllabus for the course demonstrated that it was not merely a "blow off" course where the students aren't asked to do work. They prepare papers regularly and are admonished not to pad their work with plot synopses. I don't doubt that the intentions of the course are serious, but I left the panel with many of my concerns substantiated. The material of the course was entirely Star Trek episodes (and a screening of Forbidden Planet.) Now, it makes sense that a class about Star Trek would include some episodes, but despite the statement that the course was intended to reveal the ways in which Star Trek was shaped by and shaped the social conflicts of its time and the period since, I don't see how that can be established without some material directly addressing what those conflicts are. It may be true to assert that science fiction and other products of popular culture reflect and influence social phenomenon and the experiences of people, but if all that the students learn about the social turmoil of the late 60's is drawn from popular culture, then the claim is nothing but tautology. Popular culture studies, it seems to me, attempts to demonstrate its importance by defining important social and cultural phenomena entirely in terms of pop culture products. It may be, however, that pop culture's reflection of the experiences and concerns of people is inaccurate.
Another thing that came across in the presentation is how enthusiastic the instructor was to be able to teach a group of students too young to really remember (or maybe even have seen) the original series how to appreciate it as something other than a corny space opera with rickety sets and inflated dramatics. I'm sure that's a lot of fun, for students as well as faculty. I'd love to teach a class about how David Cronenberg movies demonstrate the problems with social and technological efforts to alter human relations, or how The X-Files reveals the pervasive failures of public and private institutions to cultivate or deserve trust, but if I did, I'd want to include materials demonstrating these phenomena in the real world. Movies and TV can, after all, distort reality as well as illuminate it.
On that point, it would also improve this kind of study, I think, to address such possibilities from a theoretical point of view. A reading from Plato or even somebody more contemporary (Foucault, Baudrillard, etc.) about the distinctions between the artificial and natural worlds (although these authors have different ideas about what those are) would allow students to do more than merely make connections between TV episodes and what they believe they already know about the world more generally. I didn't see any evidence in the course description that the students would receive any skills that could be applied outside the context of Star Trek appreciation.
Anyway, I thought about saying something, or at least asking a question to see if my concerns were addressed in any way, but I got the distinct impression from other members of the audience that my comments along these lines would not be welcome. So, I chickened out. I could say that I declined to comment for the sake of politeness, but I really just wanted to avoid having to argue with anyone, especially about something people can be so defensive about.
I also saw the first two Ju-on movies, although the second is about half a movie with a bunch of stuff from the first thrown in to fill time. The guy who put together the screening helpfully edited out the repeat footage, so the two movies together ran less than two hours. I've seen Ju-on: The Grudge on DVD, and found that the original movies (at least one of which was made for video) are conceptually a bit stronger, The Grudge version has an effective, uneasy pace. Of course, this series could be interpreted as the crash of the J-horror new wave, since Ju-on: The Grudge is little more than repeated variations on many of the strongest images and themes of the most successful horror films from Japan of the last 6-8 years. Now, an English-language remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar is on the way, previewed briefly before the Japanese features started. Gellar looks very much like an actress trying rather desperately to leverage her Buffy popularity into more work without looking desperate or like she's falling into the horror heroine rut. I'd suggest she study of the career of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was content to ride a wave of horror popularity early in her career and let other things happen slowly, without trying to jump immediately into starring roles in other genres. I've always appreciated the willingness of Curtis to acknowledge and appreciate her past as a horror "Last Girl," when so many other actors do everything they can to hide their early horror film appearances.
The last day of a science fiction convention can be depressing, as for many of the participants it's the end of a long-anticipated vacation. Many of DragonCon's attendees travel from outside Atlanta, bringing their families and indulging fully in the pageantry and all-out geekiness of shared obsession with cultural marginalia. Of course, science fiction and comics as subjects aren't marginalized, they seem to dominate popular entertainment at times, but by focusing their love on specific products, fans of Babylon 5 or Hellboy probably feel a little strange at times. Not here.
Overall, I enjoyed this year's con more than I have in the recent past. It's a different experience than it was when I was younger, but it is possible to enjoy a sci-fi convention even if you're not the kind who collects Doctor Who paraphernalia or is inclined to dress up as Boba Fett.