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Entries in William Shatner's Get a Life! [2012] (1)

Saturday
Nov102012

William Shatner's Get a Life! (2012)

The Naked(ly Opportunistic) Now

Despite having played heroic space adventurer James T. Kirk on Star Trek, there's little nobility in William Shatner's new documentary, Get a Life! As a director, the actor makes a great carnival barker: luring with the promise of a wry look at fan obsession; persuading with the kind of gross heart-string tugging that dares non-fans to scoff; all the while promoting a cynical business built on separating the socially awkward from their hard-earned money.

Yes, at just under sixty minutes, there's no mistaking this movie as anything but an infommercial for fan-convention juggernaut Creation Entertainment. Set largely during their 2011 Trek show in Las Vegas--which marked the TV series' forty-fifth anniversary--Get a Life! would have you believe that A) it took Shatner nearly fifty years to question what it is about Star Trek that resonates so deeply with people,* and B) the best way to get answers is to assemble and interview a reality-TV-cast-waiting-to-happen.

In the world of Get a Life! (as well as the equally exploitive but better-promoted Comic-Con Episode IV), there's no such thing as an average-Joe convention attendee--no one that just likes Star Trek and wants to buy some cool merch or maybe meet a celebrity. They're all geeks in the sideshow sense of the word, with hoarder-houses overrun by collectibles and a Deeply Moving Personal Story to Tell.

We meet the guy who proposed to his fiancée during a convention auction; the Hubble telescope engineer who was inspired to pursue a career in science after watching the first episode of Star Trek; the fire department chief who models her leadership after the Captains; the cuddly stalker of actress Terry Farrell who, upon meeting her idol (SPOILER!) breaks down with a sob story about her fiancé and future mother-in-law dying in a car accident; then there's "Captain" Dave Sparks, the wheelchair-bound uber-fan with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Farrell's and Sparks' stories are the most troubling and the most instructive parts of the film. Farrell is a good actress. I liked her in Back to School, Hellraiser III, and what little I saw of Deep Space Nine. It's unclear to me how much of her skill was at work during the documentary: when a fan switches gears from, "I love and admire you so much" to, "It's been really hard raising a kid on my own, and I never got to finish that DS9 marathon, 'cause my boyfriend took a fender through the skull",** the actress takes it all in stride. But something behind her eyes suggests she doesn't appreciate being railroaded.

Is it possible that Shatner and company didn't share this crucial bit of information with Farrell when setting up the meeting? Granted, that would be the only way to maintain the director's ultimate quest for nerd cinema vérité. But it's a lousy trick to pull on a colleague:

"Hey, Terry! We're doing this little documentary thing and I've got a super-excited young woman who's just dying to meet you. She moderates your unofficial Facebook fan page and everything."

"Wow, Bill, that's so nice!"

"Indeed. Now, we'll make sure to have plenty of Kleenex and security on hand..."

"Hmm?"

"Oh, nothing. Don't worry, it'll be great!"

If Farrell did know the story beforehand, she did a hell of a job laying on the spontaneous sympathy--thus completely bullshitting the audience. I know it's too much to ask for an ounce of truth in the infotainment era, but can't filmmakers make some kind of effort to fool the two percent of viewers who pay attention?

This brings me to Captain Dave. Wide-eyed, silent, and wheelchair-bound throughout the film, his mother and caretaker do a moving job of talking about his difficult life, his deep love of Star Trek, and how, after appearing in another Shatner documentary, The Captains, he became a minor celebrity at the conventions he attended.

It's very sweet, but also hugely unfair. This is the kind of story that belongs in Trekkies, a film whose purpose was to shed light on the weird diversity of Trek fandom. Get a Life! is a sales pitch, plain and simple. "Look," it says, "Trekkies(/ers) are a giant, loving family who'll accept you no matter the depths of your sad obsession! Check out your local Creation event and see for yourself!"

If I didn't know better, I'd assume Shatner arranged for Captain Dave to die during production (which, sadly, he did) for the sake of providing his narrative a gripping hook.

That's how slimy this movie made me feel! And none of this would have occurred to me if I hadn't spent the last seven years attending fan conventions of one kind or another. It's very easy to get the lovey-gooeys from Get a Life! if you know absolutely nothing aobut how cons work--and I assume a decent portion of the audience who'll find this film are blissfully ignorant.

For starters, the celebrity breakfasts, autograph sessions, and photo ops depicted here all cost money. A lot of money. Shatner and Patrick Stewart have been known to charge north of $80 for a scribble on items provided by fans (and that doesn't include a photograph of or with them). So this bogus notion that someone might travel across the country to hang out with Captain Kirk for a nominal admission cost is offensive. I wonder how many genuine, personal experiences like the Farrell episode would have happened if the celebrities were offered zero dollars to appear? So much for appreciation.

I'm also uncomfortable with the film's notion that all of this life-consuming Trek passion is okay. Shatner engages in a fascinating discussion with a Joseph Campbell scholar (which should have been the whole picture) about the roots of fandom. But never is the question raised, "Is devoting all of one's free time and imagination to constructing elaborate Halloween costumes and pretending to be other people actually healthy?" None of the handful of films like this that I've seen offer an argument that the thousands of hours people spend sewing costumes and begging for the attention and approval of strangers is scary and not to be admired. I guess as long as the Creation machine gets fed, Shatner and company are okay with the freaks doing whatever they want.

The flip-side of that coin is the notion that Trek fans lead very full lives outside of their hobbies. But I've yet to see a documentary on this topic that suggests any kind of balance. It's unclear, in other words, who is more at fault for flipping that judgment switch in my brain: the filmmakers or the people being filmed.

Side Note: Why is it that Trek fans take such great pains to emulate their fictitious heroes in every detail except for physical fitness? Jesus, the amount of excess spandex and billowing cloth on display in Get a Life! could clothe Africa until there really is such a thing as the United Federation of Planets.

Sure, I'm being harsh on Shatner's subjects. They seem nice and are, I'm sure hard-working. But are they to be respected for their fealty to obsession? I'm not so sure. And I'm not convinced that Shatner is, either. His movie opens with the famous Saturday Night Live sketch that inspired the title--in which he excoriates a gathering of fans for not doing more with their lives. But he discards his thesis within minutes, transforming the narrative into an ostensibly loving portrait of fandom--while also hovering above it in bemused puzzlement. 

The great irony of the film's title is that, were Trekkies world-wide to suddenly follow its advice, Shatner and Creation Entertainment would quickly find themselves out of work and out of demand--which, if the quality and insincerity of Get a Life! is any indication, would not be such a bad thing.

*Keep in mind, this is after he wrote a book on the subject.

**I'm paraphrasing.