Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Acceptable Face of American Rebellion

The following is a guest post by Eve Pearce

For many, a motorcycle is not just a possession it is a passion. With an air of speed, strength, danger and solitude their make-up is innately, albeit stereotypically, masculine. As such, its mythological status in American society can be traced back through an intensely patriarchal social history that has both helped and hindered the country often considered the last super-power. Part of this rich and complicated social history is the continued promise and pursuit of the American dream: an idea woven through fact and fiction, great literature, art and film has exploited Americans’ unwavering belief in this most indefinable of concepts. The peak of the twentieth century brought a rejection of these seemingly imposed values and allowed the American dream to be superseded by a want for excitement and a desire for recklessness: the perfect opportunity for the motorcycle to embed itself as an American icon. Indeed, the motorcycle is the mechanical embodiment of man’s lust for life and his chasing of the elusive American dream all in one.

Though the word biker can often conjure up the image of a leather-clad loner, the reality is much different. However, modern motorcycle owners vary greatly in their backgrounds and their beliefs. No longer is biking the sole environment of rebellious ‘bad boys’ or the wrongly perceived domain of men suffering from mid-life crises. Those who own or collect classic American motorcycles do so with a dedication and passion perhaps understood only by others within their circle. In place of the gang culture that sprung up around bikers in the 1950s, there are now sedate social gatherings where bike owners share knowledge about securing classic motorbike insurance and tips about maintenance. The cost of caring for and preserving these bikes is more than made up for in the pleasure that they bring to their owners. Although this flies in the face of the biker as a lone rider, there is no doubt that the draw of the open road and the sense of freedom involved is an underlying attraction of owning a classic motorcycle.

Creating an American legend

This need for solitude and open spaces can be found in that greatest of American myths: the cowboy. Although the archetypal figure of strength and masculinity and one that remains a figure associated with American man, the reality of the cowboys was quite different. So how did a band of men whose sole purpose was the non-glamorous, non-violent, non-dangerous herding of cattle across the Great Plains become the gun-toting heroes that we all know today? With myths defined by culture and society and often symbolic of said society’s hopes, dreams and desired appearance to the outside world looking in it says much that the American cowboy is an image that has remained. Even with the mechanical addition of a motorcycle, the legacy and potency of the cowboy as lone rider is a testament to their symbolic significance. However, it took the onset of popular entertainment to transform the humble shepherd into a much-feared and lauded American hero.

When the bare bones of cowboys’ lives were harnessed in mass produced pulp fiction and low budget B-movies they became the epitome of everything America deemed great. The cowboy emerged as a figure of immense strength propaganda wise and was loved by women and admired by men in equal measure. In his early dominance of B-movie productions, the cowboy character was in fact intended as a moral compass for America’s youth: he was dependable, untouchable and inherently decentand still an evolutionary step away from the cowboy he became. For bridging the gap between the all-American squeaky clean infallibility of his first screen appearances and the bad boy biker that emerged in the 1950s was the reinvention of the cowboy as out and out gunslinger. Who cares that in reality cowboys used guns rarely and only to ward off wolves? In the movies a shootout became an inevitable by-product of being a ‘real man’. Obviously.

Brave new world

In the late 40s and early 50s, even this new-improved American hero was beginning to falter. It was a time when Hollywood was changing and its leading men were too. The pretty boy acceptable faces of Gregory Peck and Cary Grant had once worked happily in tandem with the rough masculinity of cowboys extraordinaire Gary Cooper and John Wayne, but were about to be shaken by some new additions. The collapse of the cowboys’ ideals were inextricably linked with a country still wounded by war: and a country both questioning and questionable in its claim to be the pinnacle of fairness and democracy. Something new was needed to symbolize this unstable shifting in society and Marlon Brando, James Dean and Steve McQueen were there to fill the void.

Not only did these three portray new kinds of American heroes, their ‘live fast, die young’ outlook off-screen helped perpetuate and continue the myth of the lone riderwith a powerful motorcycle replacing a trusty horse. Dean in particular is forever linked with the agony and ecstasy of the need for speed. Though his untimely death was by car, not bike, it only served to popularize the appeal of motorcycles. For the newly christened ‘teenagers’ they represented something exciting, something young, something rebellious and ultimately, something desirable. Furthermore, Dean and Brando’s rise to stardom brought with it a new theory of performance: the method. The grittiness and realism of this acting was in keeping with an America growing tired of artifice and pretense and demanding ‘truth.’ Although McQueen viewed acting as rather more of a hobby – something that often got in the way of his actual passion: motorcycles – his career did span one of the most challenging and changing times in America’s history.

The King of Cool

From the emergence of teenage America through to the absolute breakdown of trust in authority, McQueen consistently displayed something of a devil-may-care attitude. In his work, in his spare time and even in his relationships he appeared to seek trouble and as his fame grew so did the American counter-culture. His refusal to fall in line became synonymous with McQueen the motorcyclist and thus the machine itself strengthened its grip on rebellion, strength and a ‘cowboy’ attitude. Perhaps the most iconic McQueen motorcycle moment comes in The Great Escape; for a film considered a classic, there are many issues - not least is its tendency to play somewhat fast and loose with a little something called historical accuracy. This is encapsulated by McQueen’s supremely laid-back but subtly brilliant performance as Captain Hilts. As his comrades escape in more routine, indeed non-anachronistic ways, Hilts inexplicably but joyously makes a bid for freedom on a Triumph TR6. Its ridiculousness is fabulous and in many ways it represented McQueen’s own difficulty to come to terms with his stardom. A man who owned over 100 Harleys, McQueen would use his bikes to escape the Hollywood hustle and bustle for the freedom and air of the open road. Indeed, they were his great escape throughout his career.

With the unshakeable glory days of America long gone, the motorcycle has far more disparate meanings in today’s America as does its spiritual predecessor the cowboy. Indeed, even the word ‘cowboy’ has suffered from negative appropriations outside the US. Its association with poor workmen, careless individuals and cavalier attitudes has in some ways belittled the myth of the American hero. In Europe especially, the perceived insensitivity of George W. Bush to a range of politically precarious issues saw him labelled a cowboy … and not in a good way. But at its heart, the cowboy, the biker, the lone rider is the embodiment of something good. It is the rhetoric of the dreamer with a discourse of ambition and independence that lives on in today’s classic motorcycle enthusiasts.  These are distinctly American values and it is here that the icon of the lone rider perhaps plays its greatest trick: providing people with an impression of rebellion and social rejection whilst they actually fulfill some of the country’s most valued morals and characteristics. Genius.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Anaheim WonderCon 2013

Friends, readers, straggling passersby!  Anaheim WonderCon ended twelve days ago, and twelve days is an awfully long time to hold off on writing about it.  If I were a journalist or something, I'd have some 'splaining to do.  But forget all that: we all just want to see words and pictures, right?
Yours truly, looking less intimidating than Aquaman.
I've been a stranger from the convention scene in recent years.  My last San Diego Comic Con was back in 2010, and my most recent con was a small affair in Seattle two years ago called Sakura-Con.  Conventions, being generally held far away from where I live and designed to part me from my funds, are a demanding hobby, but they are usually worth it for the memories and the swag.  This year I've had plenty of both, thanks to my girlfriend Tara, whose idea this trip was.

And yes, it was trip.  Last year I told myself I was done driving all the way from Oregon to Southern California and back.  I was clearly wrong about that, as Tara and I found ourselves barreling down the 5 in the Mighty Muskrat once more.  I taught her to drive stick for the trip, and honestly it probably saved my sanity.  Which I needed, because cons are nuts.

So, a bit of background.  WonderCon is much like Comic Con; in fact, they are put on by the same company.  The difference is primarily of scale.  While San Diego Comic Con hosts roughly the entire population of Hollywood alongside an uncountable host of nerds with the wherewithal to buy impossibly scarce passes, WonderCon exists within finite dimensions and can be thoroughly explored even by a relative newcomer to the convention scene.

We reached Anaheim on March 29th, and as a Southern Californian, Anaheim means primarily two things to me.  One, the Angels play there (regardless of what they might want you to think).  Two, Disneyland is there (and going there would cost nearly as much as the whole trip).
Seriously, we walked past it every day, and never went.  Ten year old me would never understand.
But inside the Anaheim Convention Center were pleasures of another kind altogether.  At last I was reunited with my people, the nerds, and it felt good.  This was Tara's first convention, and I wanted her to share in its atmospheric joys: the sounds, the costumes, the swag, and the myriad opportunities for events hitherto thought impossible.

It certainly helped matters that within hours of arriving, we had met Amber Benson (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tara's favorite show) and had secured an autograph and a photo opportunity.  I don't want to say the con peaked for us on the first day, but it was definitely a highlight.
On the left, Tara quietly freaks out.  On the right, I try not to act like a dork.
As I mentioned before, WonderCon is a smaller to-do than Comic Con.  It's evident from the exhibit hall alone.  The last time I was at SDCC, the exhibit hall was packed to capacity with booths and the accompanying throng.  In Anaheim there was room to spare; enough even to use part of the floor as a queuing area for panels in the arena.  As much as I used to love going to Comic Con, WonderCon's (comparatively) more relaxed style suited me (and Tara) far better.  The sheer size and spectacle wasn't there, but the heart of nerd-dom beat fully on display in Anaheim that weekend.
Tara gives the order, and my joy goes to warp nine.
It's not quite right to say that WonderCon is less commercial than its sell-out sibling to the south, even though it is undoubtedly true.  It's a moneymaking operation and entertainment, rather than "art," is the key component.  But it's just so much easier to breathe in an environment like WonderCon, and with fewer noisy stimuli it's easier to focus in on the really worthwhile moments that come your way.

Like when a fully mobile R2-D2 rolls out of your childhood and validates your life.
WonderCon is small, but it isn't tiny.  On three separate occasions we missed getting into panels we wanted to see on account of lines, not to mention seat-holders who didn't leave when the events they were watching had ended.  We stood, and sat, and did our best to simply exist in a lot of lines.  When we missed out, we cursed our luck, but we got smarter as the weekend passed and tried to keep ourselves happy.
Reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while waiting for a panel to start.
 One particular source of joy was the artist's alley, where the real stars of the show were selling their wares and generally validating every experience we had.  It kind of sucked that we missed out on the over-stuffed Adventure Time panel (on account of every con-goer's nemesis, the Fire Marshall), but I did purchase an awesome print from an artist by the name of Nicole Sloan, and what could make me happier?  Nothing, really; it's a beautiful picture, and it's that thrilling sense of meeting genuine creative people and having conversations with them that helped make this one of the most special conventions I'd ever been to.

In fact, mainly due to Tara's influence, I approached more "famous people" this time around than I've ever dared to do in the past.  We had two honest-to-goodness conversations in two days with writer Frank Beddor, author of The Looking Glass Wars.  And we met Jane Espenson, writer and producer of just about every awesome TV show.  She signed Tara's Buffy poster, and drew a heart with a stake through it.  She might be the best person ever.

Oh and also, we got to sit in the same (enormous) room as Joss Whedon and the cast of Much Ado About Nothing.  There was much rejoicing, and the fact that Nathan Fillion cancelled at the last minute hardly seemed to matter.  Well, it made us very sad, but we were really too nerd-thrilled to mind.
A small fraction of what was clearly the best panel at the show.
Celebrities get the headlines, but of course they aren't the best thing to look at in a nerd convention, no matter what their egos may tell them.  Cons are the land of cos-play, and cos-play is a wealthy source of awesome times and brilliant, slightly-unhinged people.  Our award for best-executed costume would have to go to the fellow who gave up visibility and freedom of motion to walk around sideways all day behind an articulated Paper Mario costume.  Mostly because he took the best pictures with us.

Shine on, you paper diamond.
All our dreams fulfilled, we departed Anaheim on the 31st, staying with my mom in San Diego for a few days before returning home, swag bags in tow.  Our mission, such as it was, was a resounding success.  Tara had enjoyed her first con, and I was already looking forward to the next.

Putting on a successful convention is tricky business.  San Diego Comic Con is memorable and astonishingly well-executed for all that's going on (at least it was three years ago), but its sheer size means that you can end up feeling lost and over-stimulated.  On the other end, a smaller show like Sakura-Con can have a lot of heart, but waste its potential due to frustratingly low production values and amateur management.  WonderCon's balance was beautiful, and I know part of me is just happy to have gotten to share it with the girl I love, but even so I have to say I had a fantastic time.  I don't know if we'll be back next year, but it would definitely be worthwhile.