Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer – Kyle R. McDaniel

Abstract: This study analyzes the aesthetic content and user-generated feedback of fan-appropriated film trailers exhibited in on the Internet. The aim of this research is to gauge participatory culture’s involvement in the transformation of promoting archival motion pictures on the Internet. This research study looks to fan trailers as unique media entities that exist as visually empowered narratives created through specific acts of fandom. Specifically, this study investigates the audiovisual and discursive elements of competing trailers for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). The findings suggest that fan trailers are capable of generating myth and nostalgia for aging motion picture properties through user-generated acts. The broader goal of this project is to understand the relationship between participatory film cultures and studio-controlled motion picture content available on video streaming and sharing media channels.


Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Introduction: Trailers at a Turning Point

A YouTube video by an unknown director can suddenly blow up on the marketplace, and there will be three studios bidding for it. (Without having yet met the director!)…Maybe execs are busy watching YouTube instead of hearing pitches. Our work is virtual.   

-Lynda Obst, Sleepless in Hollywood (2013, 27).

In April 2014, an online user released a high-definition film trailer on YouTube for David Fincher’s forthcoming thriller, Gone Girl (YouTube 2014a). Several hours after the trailer’s debut, an impressive 186,000 fans had accessed the content with 276 of that number contributing written feedback to the message board on the webpage. While film fans were sharing interest and excitement for the trailer on YouTube, News Corp., the media entity that financed Gone Girl through 20th Century Fox, perceived a threat of digital piracy. The following day, the conglomerate removed the trailer and the fan commentary. In the absence of this content, News Corp. left a statement reading, “FOX has blocked [the trailer] on copyright grounds” (YouTube 2014b). This incident is representative of the contemporary state of affairs between media conglomerates with a controlling interest in motion pictures and film fans in online spaces. The presence of film trailers on the Internet presents a specific set of issues for both parties as well, especially in relation to film marketing and promotion, in addition to content ownership and control over copyright.

This study engages with how film fans interact with once-profitable motion picture properties through fan trailers on the Internet. Here, the fan trailer is defined as the act of re-editing and re-exhibiting abridged film content through online channels. Fan trailers are realized through specific and largely collective acts of user-participation, and have the potential to revitalize interest in aging film properties. This article explores the audiovisual and content-related aspects of fan trailers in comparison to a distributor-owned trailer for Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick 1978). Furthermore, the feedback or commentary on message boards is also investigated as part of this research project to locate how such discourse speaks to the collective memory of Hollywood archives. In order to understand the issues surrounding the emergence and popularity of the broad spectrum of Internet trailers, this study looks to literature on the relationship between the evolution and of fan involvement with digital cinema and new media, as well as scholarship on the history of film trailers and film promotion and advertising. The findings from this article suggest that fan trailers play a crucial role in continuing the lifespan of aging Hollywood properties or archival films. The proliferation of fan trailers through video streaming and sharing websites as well as the message board commentary suggests that fan participation is instrumental to building relationships between film and viewer. In turn, participatory cultures that interact with older film titles in online channels incorporate aspects of their public and private selves as part of this creative process. The following research questions are designed to further explore this relationship between film fans inhabiting online spaces and the evolving state of fan trailers in digital cinema: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Film Promotion in the Digital Age: New Strategies, New Rules

For much of the 2000s, Hollywood was reluctant to promote film content through online channels for fear of losing theatrical and home video revenue (Sickels 2011a). The film industry seemed confused by the ever-growing presence of the Internet and related online technologies for film exhibition. But to effectively reach a global audience, the studios and their parent media conglomerates were eventually forced to adapt to the changing media landscape. As Sickels (2011) stated: “Deals with Netflix and the like are only going to delay the inevitable…Audiences don’t want to wait, and they certainly won’t when their only reason for having to do so is an artificial time structure concocted by the studios…”(145). By the second decade of the century, the industry’s fears had become a reality, with on-demand film and television viewing radically altering the industry.

Scholars have pointed to the different complexities of film marketing in the digital age and the associated challenges for the U.S. film industry (e.g., Cunningham and Silver 2013). In Perren’s (2010) words, “A wide range of economic, cultural, political, and formal factors are at play; different entities have distinctive stakes in online distribution” (77).  In other words, films with a greater potential to appeal to a global audience receive preferential treatment from media conglomerates, as well as promoters, marketers, and distributors. With video-on-demand (VOD) revenue climbing steadily since 2010, the studios are looking to different methods for advertising motion pictures beyond the more traditional formats, which includes one-sheets of film posters and theatrical and television spots (Roxborough 2013). Film trailers on the Internet are a viable option in this evolving landscape. The Internet Movie Database and YouTube are the most frequently visited websites supporting online film trailers, with both entities supporting numerous trailers for new releases and older Hollywood titles. In effect, the spectrum of film trailers on the Internet presents a number of potential issues for the film industry. Trailers, historically controlled by studios for advertising and publicity purposes, are increasingly pirated by outside entities. One scholar argues that film industry insiders are the ones largely responsible for leaking studio-controlled content online, with the availability of illegal anti-encryption and watermarking software to bypass copyright restrictions playing a role as well (Bettig 2008, 200-201). Since the release of the DVD De-Content Scramble System (DeCSS) in 2002, film content has been descrambled and decoded for public access and use, despite the studios efforts to control motion picture content (Litman 2002).

Film fans, however, have argued that such laws overwhelmingly favor those with a financial stake in motion picture properties, thereby inhibiting individual and collective acts of creative expression (Boyle 2008). As such, studio-backed restrictions have resulted in more frequently cited instances of pirated motion pictures as well as an upsurge in websites devoted to streaming and downloading studio-owned film content (Sterbenz 2014). Scholars and journalists reporting on the film industry have addressed some of these issues in relation to film trailers. For instance, Rothman (2014) discussed how theatrical trailer standardization discourages user interactivity. Tolson (2010) reported that fan participation with film content suggests an increase in technological “play” that disrupts the traditional model of media production to consumption. Others have looked at how trailer “mobility” is encouraged in a cross-platform media environment, and the effects of contemporary trailer length and message on the viewer (see Franich 2013; Johnston 2008). While many of the issues surrounding film promotion in online spaces remain unanswered, trailers continue to serve as a primary marketing tool for motion picture studios and their parent conglomerates. Fan involvement with film trailers is a burgeoning area of contemporary film marketing and new media, but scholarship on this subject is lacking. Therefor, how participatory cultures connect to older film titles in online spaces through the fan trailer remains an unexplored avenue of study for cinema and media scholars.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Trailers in Transition: A Brief History and Contemporary Definitions

The most time-honored marketing strategy for film promotion is the movie trailer, commonly referred to as the “preview.” Kernan (2009) traced the genealogy of film trailers to 1919, citing the National Screen Service (NSS) as the first unified company responsible for creating these advertising spots. The author asserts that the evolution of the film industry during the 20th century affected changes in the types of motion pictures produced, thereby altering the aesthetics and meta-messages of trailers in the ensuing decades. A transition in film marketing occurred during the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s, with a rise in independent filmmaking, an upsurge of art-house theaters, and eventually, the summer blockbuster. During these decades, films trailers debuted on network television in thirty-second spots, visually supported by moments lifted from the film, and complete with the now-familiar and once-prominent voice-of-God narration. By the contemporary era, trailers had become “unique form[s] of narrative film exhibition, wherein promotional discourse and narrative pleasure are conjoined (whether happily or not)” (Kernan 2009b, 1). In essence, this period saw the rise of distinct promotional film advertisements alongside the audience’s familiarity and ability to detect such media forms.

Scholars regard the modern film trailer as both complex and historically shifting media type. A leading scholar on the history and transition of motion picture trailers suggests that these forms are specifically targeted, easily recognizable visual media that are created to capture, direct, and guide viewer attention (Wyatt 1994). Today, both media entities and online film fans aid in determining trailer standards and audiovisual elements. Trailers are guided by audiovisual messages through structured narratives to connect with the largest number of viewers through multi-platform distribution. Some have argued that film trailers in the digital era are defined by their dynamic if fleeting presence, asserting that contemporary trailers are forced to compete with other media forms to encourage audience-driven participation or feedback (see Rombes 2009a). Smartphones and digital tablets indicate an increase in trailer mobility and interactivity on behalf of audiences, who are receiving different media in shorter, eye-catching bursts (Grainge 2011).  Scholars have also argued that the efforts of fans on the Internet extend film capital beyond traditional home video or cable and network replay through film mashups or distributing abridged content (e.g., Sickels 2011c; Hoyt 2010a). Tyron (2009) traced the inception of the digital movie trailer to a fan preview for The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980) that gained Internet traction the same year as the inception of YouTube. According to the author, the fan trailer was an outgrowth of DVD culture “that allowed viewers to recognize that texts were ready to be ripped apart and reassembled in playful new ways” (151). Lazzarato (2006) described these types of fan creations as influential because they are “activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion” (132). In sum, film fans use popular film properties to engage with and further promote such content to a wider range of consumers.

Re-appropriating and exhibiting film content is oftentimes understood as a group effort. Rose (2012a) argues that the cyclical discourse that occurs in online social networks encourages is what engages users to interact with film properties. Citing Avatar (James Cameron 2009) and The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson 2001-2003) trilogy as examples, the author maintains that a strong and relatable narrative or story is of the key to fan involvement. According to Rose, online visual narratives must be able to entertain as well as challenge participant-viewers, thereby encouraging individuals to take part in the creative act (233). Through user-participation and online media channels, the modern film trailer appears in transition. In an environment increasingly dominated by new media platforms and social networking, video-sharing websites are stimulating the development of relationships among social actors.

Defining Participatory Cultures and Digital Cinema

Participation raises the question of whose story is it? And, the answer I think is, it’s all of ours. In order to really identify with the story, in some way we have to make it our own.

-Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion (2012b).

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Online users are now affecting many aspects of the motion picture industry and most recently, have turned to collaborative involvement with film trailers. Through an increasing number of video streaming and sharing websites, fans are producing and exhibiting short and hybrid motion picture forms from existing film content. Jenkins (1992) defined networked individuals who engage with and repurpose existing media materials as members of participatory cultures. These persons “speak from a position of collective identity, forge an alliance with a community of others in defense of tastes which…cannot be read as totally aberrant or idiosyncratic” (23). The author attributed the roots of this phenomenon to fan communities that built up around popular television programs, such as Star Trek, and who communicated and bonded through sharing information at conventions and fan clubs. More recently, Jenkins (2006a) has adapted his definition to include new media and social networking. Although optimistic about the endeavors of participatory cultures, Jenkins has noted the drawbacks of these communities as well, including the shifting power dynamics of group members and the involvement of corporate entities. In addition, the author has described the illegal activities of some members of participatory cultures, specifically those parties who undermine media conglomerates through acts of digital piracy and copyright infringement. Jenkins (2006b) has also commented on the burgeoning relationship between participatory cultures and digital cinema:

[I see] media fans as active participants…seeing their cultural products as an important aspect of the digital cinema movement. If many advocates of digital cinema have sought to democratize the means of cultural production and distribution to a broader segment of the general public then the rapid proliferation of fan-produced Star Wars films may represent a significant early success story for that movement (551-552).

In other words, the upsurge in digital cinema is dependent on fans in much the same way that fans are dependent upon interacting with cinematic creations. Digital cinema, as such, is oftentimes described as an outgrowth of online fan participation. Rombes (2009b) claims that collective acts of nostalgia, personal expression, and the adaptation of new technologies play a role in shaping digital cinema. Beginning with the rise of digital video and cinematography in the mid-1990s, the author discusses an additional factor in the relationship between digital cinema and the actions of participatory cultures: “There is a tendency in digital media – and cinema especially – to reassert imperfection, flaws, an aura of human mistakes to counterbalance the logic of perfection that pervades the digital” (Rombes 2009c, 2). In consideration with Rose’s (2012) insistence on powerful storytelling, Rombes argues that digital cinematic forms are generated and desirable because of factors such as pixilation and noise, which appear to mirror human imperfections. While fan intervention in existing film content raises questions for the future of digital cinema and a general understanding of what constitutes motion picture archives, participatory cultures have contributed to film marketing and promotion since the late 1990s. According to Erickson (2009a), who studied Internet film campaigns for The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez 1999) and others, studios appropriate fan-based advertising strategies if fan efforts prove financially successful.  This article is concerned with how participatory cultures repurpose and interact with the content of older motion picture titles. The entrance of fan trailers through online video streaming platforms suggests new territory for digital cinema, as well as the possible extension of the lifespan for archived film properties.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Case Study Film: Days of Heaven

Since it was first released, “Days of Heaven” has gathered legends to itself…[it] is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made. Malick’s purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss. His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.

-Roger Ebert (1997a).

In the contemporary media marketplace, conglomerates and studios overseeing film distribution and exhibition pay close attention to the role of technologies in film promotion and branding. This is also true when considering how older film titles are released, with potential revenue gained from cable and network television broadcasts, DVD rentals and sales and most recently, VOD. Those with a financial stake in film archives oftentimes publicize and rerelease only a select number of dated film titles per year, with those properties having the most commercial potential regarded as particularly valuable on the marketplace. While some noteworthy and popular motion picture titles are available for little-to-no pay through video-sharing online services, media conglomerates use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, for instance, to promote their most commercially viable films. It is here that the role of participatory culture and the evolution of the fan trailer in the archival value of film properties must be taken into consideration. Days of Heaven is significant because of its longstanding popularity amongst fans, its continual re-emergence in the public arena, and its location in cinematic history. Malick’s film arrived at a turning point in the New Hollywood of the 1970s. The competition between fledgling studio productions and a burgeoning independent film movement marked much of the decade’s releases (see Thompson and Bordwell 2010; Biskind 1998, et. al.). “But by the late 1970s,” Thomson (2012) writes, “there began to be fewer grown-up pictures meant to disturb and provoke” (459).

Before and after its release, Days of Heaven was considered an oddity for Paramount Pictures, a none-too-profitable feature that rested on the short reputation of its filmmaker.[1] Malick spent his early years in Hollywood penning several projects for other directors until his first feature-length film, Badlands (Terrence Malick 1973), gained traction from both audiences and critics, garnering a reputation as the second Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967). Patterson (2007) said Malick’s film offered the director the chance to “work outside more conventional parameters” (28). The filmmaker’s follow-up, however, was grander in scope and presented to audiences as a thematic American period piece. Set in the Great Plains of the 1910s, the narrative focused on a romantic amongst two migrant workers and a land baron. Morrison and Schur (2003) described Days as “wed[ding] Whitman’s poetic ideal of the democratic vista to the interior landscapes of Henry James, with a plot that evokes The Wings of the Dove and ends with a quasi-biblical plague of locusts” (23) [Fig. 1]. Indeed, the locusts were memorable, as was a lengthy scene in which wildfire spreads rapidly across the grasslands, scorching a vast swath of farmland. But much of the film’s storyline involved the happenings of Malick’s starring quartet – Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, and Sam Shepard – with the characters’ muted emotions drawn out in close-ups paired with character voiceover.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Much of the film’s legend was only realizable years after its release. For one, Malick departed from filmmaking for two decades after Days, leaving a questionable legacy for a motion picture whose long-term stability rested on the director’s reputation and the film’s much-discussed cinematography. Over time, those perfectly composed images of man and nature, or what Kehr (2011) glowingly referred to as, “aesthetic shock effects [that] create vast, harmonious wholes,” were responsible for keeping the film in the minds of journalists and cinephiles (23-24). The film’s cinematography eventually became something of Hollywood lore [Fig. 2]. Ebert (1997b) detailed the infighting between credited director of photography, Nestor Almendros, and his predecessor, the notoriously cantankerous Haskell Wexler, in his “Great Movie” review of the film. Over the years, rumblings over credit for the look and feel of the film have led to a reconsideration of the man responsible for capturing such well-regarded images. In the years since its release, Malick returned to filmmaking and has garnered generally favorable reviews and some commercial success.[2] No fewer than ten book-length volumes are dedicated to the filmmaker’s resurgence, including The Terrence Malick Handbook (Smith 2012), and a number of academic and trade journal entries have surfaced on the canonical worthiness of Days (e.g., Crofts 2001; Woessner 2011; Koehler 2013, et. al.). Not surprisingly, praise and frustration for the film reigns on the Internet as well. The number and popularity of video clips available on video streaming and sharing websites suggests additional enforcement of the scholarly and journalistic discourse devoted to the film as well. While Days remains a much-debated and discussed film more than 35 years after its theatrical release, the role of trailers for the film on the Internet deserves attention in the era of cross-platform film promotion.

Selection of Trailer Case Studies: The Presence of Days of Heaven Online

The “Paramount Movies” channel on YouTube, overseen by Viacom, offers an original trailers for Days of Heaven [Fig. 3]. The Criterion Collection, responsible for marketing and distributing the Blu-ray and HD-DVD versions of the film, also displays an official trailer on its homepage for Days.[3] Mysteriously, Paramount’s trailer has received few visitors on YouTube while Criterion’s showcases an impressive 153 user-generated comments. The seeming randomness of attracting viewers to trailer content in online spaces is represented in this brief comparison, which appears to crossover to fan trailers as well (YouTube 2014c; The Criterion Collection 2014). The volume and popularity of fan trailers and video clips of Days showcased on YouTube overshadows this corporately controlled material in several ways as well. For one, the power of the video sharing website’s status as a social networking outlet is immediately evident. The “WorleyClarence” YouTube channel, for instance, has reposted an official version of Paramount’s trailer with an astonishing 360,000 views and 97 message board posts.[4] “JokerTreePictures,” described as an umbrella channel for three student filmmakers, has created a seven-minute video essay for Days that has gathered significant attention [Fig. 4]. Another YouTube user offers a promotional video compiled from scenes from Days matched with the music of Rod Stewart’s pop single, “Broken Arrow.” The sum of this content, which includes fan-exhibited interviews with the cast and crew as well as scenes lifted from the film, is evidence of the film’s presence on the Internet (YouTube 2014d).

For this study, three trailers were chosen as individual case studies based on the following criteria: 1) the recognizable differences in their audiovisual content, 2) the number of online views (i.e., “hits”), and 3) the number of message board posts or available online feedback. Two fan-appropriated trailers exhibited on YouTube were selected based on these requirements, as was the aforementioned trailer available through The Criterion Collection. The necessity of the trailer selection process was to compare and contrast elements of fan trailers with an official trailer approved by a media outlet in an effort to answer the research questions for this study. Many trailers that did not meet the research criteria were not selected because of factors such as conflicting content with the selected trailers, a lack of available user-generated discourse on message boards, and/or the number of recorded views or hits online. After completing the selection process, trailers were coded A (“WorleyClarence” YouTube Channel), B (“cnharrison” YouTube Channel), and C (The Criterion Collection), respectively. The researcher conducted individual and comparative audiovisual analyses on trailers A, B, and C and made notes on narrative structure and trailer content. This was followed by a qualitative content analysis of the online commentary or feedback on the message boards for each trailer’s webpage. In effect, the trailer selection process and resulting analyses were guided by the research questions for this study: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Days of (Online) Fan Trailer Heaven

Trailer A opens with an image of Paramount Pictures’ trademark logo. The studio’s signature emblem fades into an image of brooding clouds looming over a wind-worn prairie. Thunder bellows on the soundtrack, and a shot of a bird of prey morphs into a backlit figure of a man standing in the grasslands at sunset. “In 1916, America was changing,” the narrator says in the trailer’s opening seconds. An image of a railcar passing over a bridge fades into a scene of factory workers digging through heaps of coal, followed by another wide frame of an empty sunbaked wheat field. The viewer is then swept into close-ups of the rough-hewn faces of the film’s stars – Gere, Shepard, and Adams – amidst passing railcars and horse-drawn carriages en route to the barren frontier [Fig. 5]. One minute and fifteen seconds into Trailer A, the serene mood and tone of the narrative changes abruptly. The narrator’s voice states that the film is “the story of a man who had nothing…the woman who loved him…and the man who would give her everything for a share of that love” (YouTube 2014e). With these words, the imagery moves away from the thematic scope of the land and its inhabitants and into the romantic dilemma at the heart of the film. A scene in which Gere’s field hand runs from law enforcement on horseback is juxtaposed with a quieter moment of his character embracing Adams in a quiet meadow. The next shot is an extreme close-up of Shepard’s watchful gaze, as if overseeing these scenes from afar.

As the narrative for Trailer A moves towards its conclusion, Adams and Shepard are photographed in silhouette inside the latter’s large estate, while the bedraggled face of Gere’s character peers up at the duo through a windowpane from below. This moment is framed from Gere’s perspective, with the actor and the encompassing field bathed in the deep blues of a Midwestern dusk, suggesting the loneliness his character will face with the coming of night. The film’s title appears over this closing shot, foreshadowing a troubled outcome for the trio. Trailer A presents much of the entire film’s narrative in under two minutes; what begins as a broad glimpse of turn-of-the-century westward expansion in the U.S. evolves into a minor tale of lost love [Fig. 5]. Thematically, the trailer’s primary audiovisual message suggests a heightening of nostalgia for both the American West and the Hollywood of the late 1970s, with the mythic qualities of innocence and utopia highlighted in the cinematography and production design [Fig. 6]. The professionalism of the editing in Trailer A, including the pairing of shots and sequence evolution provides a seamless story arc. Thus, the inclusion of Paramount’s introductory logo, the ‘70s-era voice-of-God narration, and the production elements suggests that this user-exhibited fan trailer was re-appropriated without revising the original trailer’s content. Therefore, Trailer A is most likely an original trailer for the film repurposed by one or more online fans. Trailer B also provides a visually compelling narrative to signal nostalgia and romanticism for the American West. But here, the viewer is immediately transplanted into to the lives of the film’s primary characters without the broader introduction of the land and its inhabitants as witnessed in Trailer A [Fig. 7].

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

The opening shot in Trailer B, a striking low-angle image of Gere, Adams, and the younger Manz running to catch a moving train, introduces the film’s predominant family dynamic.[5] Next is a shot of moving railcars topped with migrant travelers that segue into multiple close-ups of these characters’ hardened faces. Already, the viewer is guided toward the themes of travel and migration. The following image shows the Gere, Adams, and Manz trio atop one of the railcars, amidst the masses, fleeing the East for better opportunities. The rest of Trailer B’s running time focuses on the romantic triangle that ensues. Several important elements in Trailer B suggest a greater degree of user- repurposing. Manz’s tinny backwoods drawl, taken from the film’s narration, guides the trailer’s audio track for much of the running time, and is backed by a second musical track of delicately plucked guitar strings. In addition, the caption for Trailer B, located just below the video player on YouTube, states, “Bill, Abby, and sis arrive on the panhandle,” a sentiment only marginally correlated with the majority of the trailer’s visual narrative (YouTube 2014f). Another item that speaks to user re-appropriation is the individual shot duration, which moves at a more leisurely pace here, and seems to have been edited mostly to match Manz’s voiceover.

Further suggestive of fan involvement with Trailer B’s content is the abrupt segue from Manz’s voice and the guitar string audio tracks to the ambient sounds of trotting horses and rolling wagon wheels. Visually, the nonprofessional editing is emphasized at this point as well, with a sequence in which Gere’s character is propositioned for work by a land baron, a moment that is abruptly interrupted by a long shot of migrants moving en mass across the prairie. Throughout the two and a half-minute running time for Trailer B, the mood and tone shift in favor of different scenes from the film that drive the trailer towards a questionable conclusion. Marketing and film promotion is immediately evident on the webpage for Trailer C [Fig. 8]. The Criterion Collection offers viewers the option of purchasing several DVD versions of the film, reading a written essay on the film’s historical significance, a list of DVD special features, and links to related films from the company in addition to the trailer.

The trailer itself, however, is constructed from film content not included in Trailers A and B. In this much-abridged version, the guitar audio track preceding Manz’s narration is audibly fragmented and disassociated from any cohesive visible narrative. As such, the film’s primary visual content is made up of close-ups of the nondescript faces of migrants overlooking a land of grazing crows and antelope on the abandoned prairie. Here, Manz’s brief narration serves to introduce the film’s quiet mood and leisurely pacing. The aforementioned scene of Gere interacting with the land baron is cut prematurely in Trailer C, presumably for purposes of keeping the trailer’s length under the running time of one minute. In this version, the scene that introduces the bullhorn-gripping farm owner is interrupted by an establishing crane shot that places the viewer in the midst of migrants scampering towards the opportunity of work. Each of these moments take up several seconds worth of running time, and Criterion’s trailer closes abruptly with a surprising fade-to-black.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Whereas the finales of both fan-appropriated trailers on YouTube are classically structured to mirror the resolutions found in many trailers of the 1970s, the transition to a black frame in Trailer C suggests a different kind of closure. The trailer concludes by returning to a still frame of six farmhands standing in awe of an insect downpour, a somewhat iconic image from the famous “locust scene” in the film. This visual placeholder is representative of Criterion’s idyllic version of the film’s significance. As such, this striking still image speaks directly to curating the memory of Days, arguably more so than the totality of the narrative for Trailer C. Although the design of the distributor’s webpage is simultaneously content-heavy and visually arresting, this emblematic still frame stands apart, begging the visitor to click, watch or re-watch and possibly, purchase the film from the distributor.

Feedback on Heaven: The Online Discourse of Cinematic Aesthetics & Nostalgia

The contents of three hundred user-generated message board posts for Trailers A, B, and C were analyzed for this study. Most of this feedback was found to be praiseworthy of Days, with many of the user-posts lauding the film’s cinematography. The discourse on Criterion’s webpage for the film was overwhelmingly positive and found to reflect the distributor’s marketing intentions. “A beautiful spectral and view of the early 1900s mid-western America,” Mike Santoro wrote on the message board. “I love Malick’s brilliant direction in this [film]” (The Criterion Collection 2014b). Others commentators on this webpage used specific discourse that intertwined aspects of their real-world lives with the film’s history and nostalgia. “My first Malick movie, discovered when I was watching every movie on rogerebert.com’s ‘101 Movies To See Before You Die,’” Taylor P. stated. Bennett Duckworth wrote, “…thanks Dad for introducing this movie to me.” And mimicking Manz’s drawl in the character’s narration, Arthur Mhoyan said, “There were people sufferin’ in pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin’ out of their mouths” (The Criterion Collection 2014c).

While single-word and somewhat elusive statements, such as “Breathtaking” and “Beautiful,” were found on the Criterion message board as well, much of the feedback was more detailed and descriptive. The lack of negative comments on the message board is further indicative of Criterion’s approach to online publicity and distribution for the film. In turn, the majority of user-feedback for Trailers A and B on YouTube was specifically targeted at the film’s cinematography. Equal parts excitement and praise for the film’s imagery was evident on both message boards, suggesting that the film’s visual approach is endorsed through fan-recall on these video-streaming webpages. For example, the “GregF” channel wrote, “…all 5 [of] Malick’s movies are beautiful but there are no words to describe Days Of Heaven…pure magic.” The “44eelz” channel posted, “i haven’t seen this movie yet but the cinematography looks amazing.” The “ErikHutt” channel added that “[Days] was shot in Alberta,” and the “MrKeepitunderyourhat” channel said, “To be honest, I’d say that the most famous aspect of the entire film is its magic hour cinematography” (YouTube 2014g).

The similarities in the content and tone of the statements analyzed across all three webpages suggest that fans are fond of the film’s historical significance and imagery. The cause-effect nature of this discourse also acts as an effort to keep the film in memory while promoting it to others. The content of this rhetoric also signifies the film’s ability to evoke an era in Hollywood history in which aesthetic power swayed and captivated audience members. In sum, much of this online discourse speaks to how film fans in online spaces curate the myth and nostalgia of aging mainstream film properties. Much of these statements reflect a sincere familiarity with Malick’s production design and the aesthetic properties of the cinematography. The statements under analysis, therefore, speak to the role of message boards in film advertising as well as the intricacies of fan-generated promotional feedback.

Promoting Hollywood Through the Fan Trailers: The Archive in Transit

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.

This article investigated how participatory cultures use fan trailers to engage with aging Hollywood titles in online spaces. The findings suggest that online film fans utilize fan trailers to interact with others while drawing attention to archival film properties. In effect, the findings from this study demonstrate several ways in which trailer repurposing and exhibition on the Internet aids in developing fan support around older motion pictures. An upsurge in fan trailers on the Internet is a burgeoning avenue of marketing for Hollywood studios and film distributors. Through new media platforms, fan trailers have the potential to reach global audiences and encourage social networking and commentary. In this study, the number of fan trailer views and user-generated message board posts was found to play a role in supporting interest in online film content. The audiovisual elements of both fan trailers for this study were generated from existing film content and repurposed to varying degrees. Specifically, the fan-edited trailer content was found to draw attention to the emotive properties of the film text. Collectively, the trailer narratives for this study presented an overwhelmingly favorable image of the case study film, as well as its historical significance and nostalgic qualities. The textual or written discourse analyzed in message boards on the webpages under investigation was found to shape the collective memory of the case study film as well. The content from this portion of the analysis also helped in preserving a positive view of the film itself, with much of the user-generated feedback positioned to promote the film’s cinematography and production design.

The composite findings indicate that fan trailers play a detrimental role in reviving older studio properties. The unintended consequences of these actions suggest a new avenue for media conglomerates and/or film distributors in marketing older motion pictures in the digital era. With Hollywood making fewer “midrange films [with] distinctly American subject matter,” such as Days of Heaven, smaller production companies and independent channels are overtaking this once-profitable market (Goldstein 2012). The role(s) taken on by members of participatory cultures, as well as the long-term effects of their interventions in online spaces, remains to be seen. For aging Hollywood film, fan trailers appear to offer one example of a promotional tool for film distribution and archiving. In June 2015, more than 88 million viewers had accessed 107 mock fan trailers through Honest Trailers, the YouTube-hosted channel by Screen Junkies (YouTube 2015). As Erickson (2009b) suggested, “with rapidly evolving technological features and equipment, tomorrow may yield an entirely new approach to using the Internet in a film promotion campaign” (51). As technological advancements in cinema and digital media continue to unfold, new online platforms and Web channels are creating an increasing number of spaces for participatory cultures and motion pictures. While many of these changes are on the horizon, scholars have predicted a continuous stream of content-related interruptions from tech-savvy film fans, as well as an evolution in the blending of virtual selves with cinematic information in cyberspace (e.g., Hansen 2006; Hardt and Negri 2004). Although the art of re-appropriating film content on the Internet has ballooned into a truly mass phenomenon, the future and direction of the fan trailer will depend on the negotiated balance between online cinephiles and digital control of motion picture properties.

REFERENCES 

Bettig, Ronald V. 2008. “Hollywood and intellectual property.” In The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, edited by Paul McDonald and Janet Wasko, 195-205. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

Biskind, Peter. 1998. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Boyle, James. 2008. The Pubic Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cunningham, Stuart and Jon Silver. 2013. Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Crofts, Charlotte. 2001. “From the ‘hegemony of the eye’ to the ‘hierarchy of Perception’: The reconfiguration of sound and image in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.” The Journal of Media Practice 2, no. 1: 19-29.

Ebert, Roger. 1997. “Great Movie: Days of Heaven.” RogerEbert.com., December 7. Accessed January 20, 2015.

Erickson, Mary P. 2009a. “Co-opting ‘independence’: Hollywood’s marketing label.” In The Business of Entertainment: Movies, Vol. 1, edited by Robert Sickels, 129-152. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Erickson, Mary P. 2009b. “KingKong.com verses LOLTheMovie.com: Toward a framework of corporate and independent online film promotion.” In The Business of Entertainment: Movies, Vol. 1, edited by Robert Sickels, 37-54. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Franich, Dennis. 2013. “Do audiences actually WANT shorter movie trailers?” Entertainment Weekly, June 7. Accessed November 13, 2014.

Goldstein, Patrick. 2012. “Hollywood’s global strategy: Made in America, but not for Americans.” 24 Frames: Movies: Past, Present and Future (Los Angeles Times blog), January 10. Accessed December 17, 2014.

Grainge, Paul. 2011. Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hansen, Mark B. N. 2006. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York: Routledge.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2005. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Books.

Hoyt, Eric. 2010. “The future of selling the past: Studio libraries in the 21st century.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 52. Accessed January 18, 2015.

Internet Movie Database. 2015. “Days of Heaven.” Accessed March 12.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006a. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

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Johnston, K.M. 2008. “’The coolest way to watch movie trailers in the world’: Trailers in the digital age.” Convergence 14, no. 2: 145-160.

Kehr, Dave. 2011. “Days of Heaven.” In When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, 23-27. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kernan, Lisa. 2009. Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Koehler, Robert. 2013. “What the hell happened with Terrence Malick?” Cineaste 38, no. 4: 4-9.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2006. “Immaterial labor.” In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, 132-146. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Litman, Jessica. 2002. “War stories.” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 20, no. 2: 337-365.

Morrison, James and Thomas Schur. 2003. The Films of Terrence Malick. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Obst, Lynda. 2013. Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Patterson, Hannah. 2007. “Two characters in search of a direction: Motivation and the construction of identity in Badlands.” In The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America, edited by Hannah Patterson, 27-39. London: Wallflower Press.

Perren, Alisa. 2010. “Business as unusual: Conglomerate-sized challenges for film and television in the digital arena.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 38, no. 2: 72

Rombes, Nicholas. 2009. Cinema in the Digital Age. New York: Wallflower Press.

Rose, Frank. 2012. The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rothman, Lily. 2014. “Movie trailers will get shorter, but won’t become interactive anytime soon.” TIME, January 27. Accessed October 3, 2014.

Roxborough, Scott. 2013. “Global on-demand revenues to top $6 billion by 2018.” The Hollywood Reporter, August 14. Accessed September 8, 2014.

Sickels, Robert. 2011. American Film in the Digital Age. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers.

Smith, Emily. 2012. The Terrence Malick Handbook – Everything You Need to Know about Terrence Malick. Unknown Location: Tebbo.

Sterbenz, Christina. 2014. “How sketchy streaming sites really work – and why some are illegal.” Business Insider, April 24. Accessed January 10, 2015.

The Criterion Collection. 2015. “Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick.” Accessed on October 22, 2014.

Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. 2010. Film History: An Introduction (3rd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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Tolson, Andrew. 2010. “A new authenticity? Communicative practices on YouTube.” Critical Discourse Studies 7, no. 4: 277-289.

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Wyatt, Justin. 1994. High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

 

Filmography

Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. USA: 20th Century Fox.

Bonnie and Clyde. 1967. Directed by Arthur Penn. USA: Warner Brothers.

Days of Heaven. 1978. Directed by Terrence Malick. USA: Paramount Pictures. 

Gone Girl. 2014. Directed by David Fincher. USA: 20th Century Fox.

The Blair Witch Project
. 1999. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. USA: Haxan Films.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. 2001. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 2002. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2009. “Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick (1978).” Last modified on November 9, 2009.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.


Notes
[1]
Days of Heaven’s 1978 box-office gross was $3.5 million nationwide. Compare this figure to other mainstream studio releases of 1978 that received Oscar attention and critical acclaim, such as Heaven Can Wait ($81.6 million) (Beatty 1978), The Deer Hunter (roughly $49 million) (Cimino 1978), and Midnight Express ($35 million) (Parker 1978) (BoxOfficeMojo 2014).

[2] At the time of this writing, three Malick-directed films are in various stages of development, with his next feature, Knight of Cups, scheduled for wide release in 2015.

[3] The one-hour, thirty-three minute feature film is also available for rent or purchase on YouTube.

[4] Paramount Pictures’ YouTube channel displays fewer than 4,000 posts.

[5] This image is also used near the end of Trailer A, primarily to symbolize the passage of time for migrants moving from urban to rural areas.

Bio:

Kyle R. McDaniel is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. His research interests include the intersections between American cinema and digital culture in the 21st century. His forthcoming dissertation focuses on the usage and repetition of visual effects in contemporary documentary film.

 

“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin – Joseph Brennan

Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’ who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self. This reading offers insight into the reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.

Introduction

The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas figure. (For those unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp 1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin (2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the program’s five-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur specifically. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series, and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.

Merlin (2008–2012)

Spanning five years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the namesake’s acceptance and fulfilment of his destiny to assist Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It differs from most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur in the final episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot. For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the final episode invites comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a “wishful identification” (see Hoffner and Buchanan 2005) with such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a universe hostile to ‘their kind.’

The finale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the first episode of the final season.[1] Arthur is slain by his former knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan 2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers—that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.

Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash Manips

Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles (see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its significance. In particular, scholars have examined its representations and the value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015, 97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan 2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The article also includes an examination of a tradition of using queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a ‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his definition of cult television as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat 2012, who examines Merlin fanfic trailers to explore how fans of the series remix the canon relationship of its male protagonists.)

Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash fans produce texts in the form of fiction, video, and art to depict their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans, magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us, the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely ‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the significance of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been defined.)

Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as high resolution screen shots or promotional images from Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion) digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a process I describe as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (see Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists. The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly ‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the “project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a typology that identifies seven character types in folktales, each with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain, Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil, much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend, Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as confirmed by Mordred’s final words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13 [abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and confirming that we are all the heroes of our own story.

Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in queer readings—but further because he bridges the central characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are described in the series as “two sides of the same coin” (Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin (manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active, sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength, feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving freely between them, which is in part why the titular character—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself. Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately denies himself.

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to outline the respective benefits of each to homosexual identity development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual, sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of “thoughtfulness, reflection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon 1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the offensive and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).

These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to being literal personifications of these archetypes, display a combination of the corresponding traits in their representation: Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to exist in the grey area between the well-defined and policed binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover affords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician) connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series, excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior, not a daffodil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur “stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine, which is how sorcery is defined (and portrayed by Morgana), and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and King, Uther.

In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his efforts to maintain separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the Druid boy’s appearances over the final season of Merlin and his transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the fluidity and openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred bonds between Arthur and his men.

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in I.5, when Guinevere confides in Merlin that she hopes one day Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is different. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—particularly when compared with other adaptations in which the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season three):

the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father, Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)

After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015, 81).

Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of each other. Mordred defies Morgana at the start of season five, in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way, making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the character self-sacrifices for the greater good until Arthur asks of him a sacrifice that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound, welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.

Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate. The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their first meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes the point that Arthur’s affection for Launcelot “outweighs his affection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990, 171) The significance of such a suggestion of eroticism—whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and Campbell are preoccupied with definitions of proper masculine behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ figure throughout the final season of the series, and a character that has something important to say about the villain’s journey.

V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butterfield, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V) is first introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the first to call Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther, an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the young Druid will bring about Arthur’s demise and therefore that Merlin “must let the boy die.” However it is only at the end of this episode (I.8) that viewers learn this character is in fact the Mordred of legend. As Sherman points out, in Merlin the plot device of “introducing a figure or object from Arthurian legend while withholding his, her, or its name” (as with Mordred, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94). Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the final season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos, see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’ end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is significance to be found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season five, while an adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s ‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash fans with other adult males.

Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur: “Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?” Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped, Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which Arthur and Mordred first meet as adults is rich in visual symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the filthy brutes of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes, blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery. All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and reflective armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes. Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s dreams throughout the final season, such imagery is phallic and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal fixation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to move his bowels without an enema administered by a male attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes, “the Wolf Man observed at first hand what being used from behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men, argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more specifically the psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s first adult meeting is explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy, light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands exploring each other’s naked flesh, foreshadows the (erotic) intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52), a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery. Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin, “Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165) In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these characters is fitting, especially given that in many retellings of the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened sexuality signified by the appearances of the adult Mordred and season five’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual, and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.

In the first episode of season five, despite travelling with their captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains, “He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive. “Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,” Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his background adding to the suspense of the character and his intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped. She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

While Morgana is successful in capturing Arthur, she is stopped from killing him by Mordred, who decides in a moment of intensity to change sides. It would seem that Arthur’s willingness to risk his life—“Had to free my men.”—inspires Mordred to literally stab his own kind in the back with a dagger. In the following scene, a confused Merlin asks the Diamair—the key to all knowledge—“If Mordred is not Arthur’s bane than who is?”, to which the Diamair replies, “Himself.” This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred. Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin offers to remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. Morgana had forgotten that.

Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle. Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this scene being his jealousy.

Mordred and Merlin are “not so different,” as Mordred identifies earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power. Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the ‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer back to the Wolf Man myth) and signifieds of dispassionate, focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed, distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless, gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play. Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’ doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my intended subversion of Merlin, the power afforded to Sir Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.

Other artists have also explored the new power differential between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new affordances with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates the image:

Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights of the round table” aka sex buddy club.

Morgana can only offer Mordred some cheap magic tricks and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can offer him unlimited gay sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)

Expressed in the above are the benefits that come with Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has (homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here, her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this manip is just how much Arthur has to offer.

Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now fills; or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to fill. The artist implies that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king than that offered by his manservant. This implication is in much the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French knight Geoffroi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate interactions between knights in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown). Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred specifically, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes just such a ritual:

Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good (chewableprose 2014)

In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely different (a theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the significance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate. That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change, perhaps you should give [Mordred] the benefit of the doubt.” (V.2) Merlin never does.

Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s Search for Each Other

Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt descriptor for a character difficult to watch. From a slash perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise. The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015, 37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos, the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the final season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-figure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).

The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric artifice. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides, Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers, the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.

Figure 11. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword confirms how little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last saw him. Where did he learn to fight in a manner that would impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor, Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s own father-figure—efforts to convince Merlin that Mordred will not necessarily betray Arthur:

The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.

In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of ‘Arthur’s bane.’

V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill Arthur”

Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an early scene that labours his inability to afford Mordred the opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there could have been a very different outcome for all concerned if he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:

MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done the same. He was one of us, after all.

MERLIN          It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live in freedom again.

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.

It is their first scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to find his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths” comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah confirms this later in the episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom he can confide, someone with magic like himself who can help him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself. That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode, Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the ‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When conflict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced Mordred to change sides:

ARTHUR          What happened to you, Morgana? As a child, you were so kind, so compassionate.

MORGANA      I grew up.

Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to ‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding, becomes significant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by campfire, a recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of flame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is, seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by influencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

MERLIN          I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was to kill Mordred.

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

MERLIN          But all I did was make sure he lived. That was the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment for rejecting magic.

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

MERLIN          But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well. He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred to stray onto a different path. Merlin is right in so far as this cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed: Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does, which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side, uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake. As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1: “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right. To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy everything we strive for.”

This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another fan criticism of the plotting of the final episode (see Caspers 2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in the past. This time was different, this time Arthur’s fate was decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—of what might have been.

Figure 6 Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”

Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son. The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential leaks in the ranks. The episode is the final in the ‘evil!Guinevere trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to the rescue when a cliff fall leaves Merlin unconscious and Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that evening around a campfire: that site of homoerotic significance. There, sitting around erect flames, Arthur makes reference to the triangle Mordred effects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic: “Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between them:

MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious, Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates Morgana and Mordred’s first meeting since his defection:

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

MORGANA      My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How could it be? We’re of a kind.

MORDRED Never.

MORGANA      You wear the uniform well but we both know what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a sorcerer.

MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be accepted.

MORGANA      Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold: symbolising the fire Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7); ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the beginning of the end.

Figure 13. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”

Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on Mordred’s behalf:

MERLIN          You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.

ARTHUR          There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No matter what he preaches, he is no different from his father.” Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot. However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of Mordred’s intentions. It is one final failure on Merlin’s behalf to choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires him.

Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending. Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara. And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all of the court Arthur offers Kara a chance: “If you repent your crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour. Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a 2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip configures the two in the missionary position and is set in Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line with the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature, while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions and line of sight to each other.

Despite Arthur’s best efforts to
alleviate tensions with Mordred via an offer of clemency, Kara
remains resolute: “You deserve everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred never learns of Arthur’s offer to pardon Kara. In a state of acute grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose “betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015, 165)

Figure 14. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Conclusion

Reflecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:

[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances. It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favour; never reflecting on the chance of ruin, till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain, would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized. (208)

Wollstonecraft’s reflection is resonant with the execution of Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure. Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-unified Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his villainous path. This reading offers insight into the popular reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program full of homoerotic potential.

T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982, 50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him, and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or alone.

 

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Notes

[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid (Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the final season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,” it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”

[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)

[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).

[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’

[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of Queen Annis and her guests.

[6] Producing offspring based on a digital composite of two male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.

[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).

 

Bio:
Joseph Brennan
is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans layer images of male characters from popular media with gay, and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.

Volume 26

Contents

  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith

 

 

Volume 24, 2014

Themed Issue: Intermediations

Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

Contents:

1. Editorial Introduction — Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

2. Animating Ephemeral Surfaces: Transparency, Translucency and Disney’s World of Color  — Kirsten Moana Thompson

3. Vertical Framing: Authenticity and New Aesthetic Practice in Online Videos — Miriam Ross

4. Attached To My Devices: Across Individual, Collective and Panspectric Worlds — John Farnsworth

5. The Ecstatic Gestalt in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams — Kevin Fisher

6. Intermediality and Interventions: Applying Intermediality Frameworks to Reality Television and Microblogs — Rosemary Overell

7. ‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

8. We are the Borg (in a good way): Mapping The Development Of New Kinds Of Being And Knowing Through Inter- and Trans-Mediality — Anne Cranny Francis

Blockbusters for the YouTube Generation: A new product of convergence culture – Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller

Abstract: While scholars have paid much attention to YouTube in a Web 2.0 environment, the YouTube blockbuster is yet to be discussed as part of this convergence culture. It differs from transmedia storytelling in that no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts. Once users have elevated videos with rich narrative qualities to the heights of fame within YouTube and other virtual social networks, they are taken from the YouTube archive by global commercial media and given new exchange values in traditional media forms such as books, films, television shows and ancillary products, using fragmented classical narrative techniques to do so. This paper traces the history of the blockbuster as a way of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change after World War II, to its refinements in the 1970s to cater for younger audiences and changes in the media landscape, to its most recent incarnation in YouTube. We argue that the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being transformed and refigured by the new form it has begun to take within convergence culture.

Introduction

Susan Boyle is a dowdy, middle-aged Scottish singer with bushy eyebrows and frizzy dark hair. She was the “fairytale for the YouTube generation” (Wooley, 2010) in 2009 and now has one of the world’s fastest selling debut albums of all time. The story began when Boyle surprised audiences with her faultless rendition of Les Miserables’ “I dreamed a dream” on the hit reality television show Britain’s Got Talent. The Washington Post later reported that the judges and audience were “waiting for her to squawk like a duck” (McManus, 2009). Within hours of her performance, a snippet of footage was uploaded to YouTube by a computer user and shared among millions of people throughout the world. Another piece of footage, uploaded by the producers of the television show, has received almost 100 million hits. Boyle is now one of the world’s most recognizable faces, with guest television appearances, stories in newspapers and magazines, books and record deals. Ironically, the 48-year-old songstress had never heard of YouTube before her performance. She told one interviewer: “I hadn’t even seen a computer…Google what’s that? Is that some kind of gargle?” (Wooley, 2010).

This paper argues the Susan Boyle phenomenon is an example of an emerging media form – the YouTube blockbuster. Just like its cinematic forerunner, this is an example of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change. The two forms retain much in common and we will highlight the work of Marco Cucco (2009) to outline these similarities. Importantly, however, we aim to show how the two models differ within a convergence culture.  The traditional blockbuster model developed by Hollywood in the 1960s and `70s depends upon corporate media investing significant economic capital to produce and market a product with an expectation it will appeal to mass audiences and generate huge profits. Its production has always been controlled by single media conglomerates which make the final decisions on plot and character development as well as licensing agreements for ancillary products. Elana Shafrin (2004) argues that in recent times cinematic blockbusters have been “infused with new modes of authorship, production, marketing and consumption” (Shafrin, 2004, p.261). She uses case studies of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars franchises to discuss how a growing number of “active” or “participatory” fans (Jenkins, 1992) exhibit a sense of ownership that includes an investment in the creative development of these productions. Shafrin shows how internet clubs and websites have provided venues for fans to establish connections to Jackson and Spielberg and their evolving franchises through social gossip, artistic production and political activism.

The YouTube blockbuster is different because its character and plot development is not determined by a single media conglomerate, nor are the licensing agreements for its associated merchandise. It begins with huge interest within participatory media culture before the corporate media make any significant investment and it is dependent on both “bottom up” participatory culture as well as “top down” corporate media (Jenkins, 2006, p.242) to drive its production. Media scholars including Tiziana Terranova (2000), Andrew Ross (2009), Robert Gehl (2009) Banks & Humphreys (2008) and Banks & Deuze (2009) offer different perspectives in the debates surrounding co-creative labor and free labor, who controls content and information flows, who benefits and who profits. There is not space to work through these arguments here. YouTube does, however, provide an example of these complex, yet interdependent co-creative relationships as it thrives on its ability to function as both a business and cultural resource. YouTube has its own brand channel, provides transparent advertising platforms and offers advertising placements in frames on the site, but with its catchcry “Broadcast Yourself”™, it also provides a global stage for creative expression and is celebrated for its participatory culture. It allows everyone with an internet browser to produce, share, find and watch videos stored in its vast digital archive. It is the free, participatory culture of YouTube that is so attractive to “top down” corporate media. It offers a symbiosis with new media, as well as opportunities to build on YouTube success with a range of narratives and products. The YouTube blockbuster is unique within convergence culture as it has progressed from transmedia storytelling, the term used by Henry Jenkins (2006) to describe the ways in which the movie blockbuster production process changes when multimedia platforms are used to tell and sell a story. This paper also argues that a common feature of both old and new blockbusters is the use of narrative, even though it may be constructed in different ways. While classical Hollywood theorists claim narrative has been lost in the industrialisation of film culture, we will argue it is what helps bind new and old media in the production of the YouTube blockbuster.

Blockbuster production: A brief history

The term “blockbuster” is a synonym for something big and is commonly used to describe any cultural product that is a hugely popular commercial success, from art exhibitions to novels. However, it is most closely associated with film where the term was originally coined to describe a big budget production with mass popular appeal.

Cucco (2009) traces the blockbuster’s evolution in Hollywood to the 1940s and ‘50s when the industry was in a state of a crisis brought about by the large-scale, post-war demographic shift towards the new suburbs where there were very few cinemas. The baby boom reduced cinematographic consumption, and the birth of new media competition, especially television (Cucco, 2009, p 217), left movie houses struggling to attract audiences.

In the Studio Era of the 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood enjoyed some successes with films including Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, but it was in the 1970s that it appeared to have found a concrete solution to its crisis with the release of films such as The GodFather (1972), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1976). These were big budget films that recorded phenomenal takings at the box office – Jaws alone grossed $470.6 million in its initial release worldwide and cost $7 million to produce (Box Office Mojo, 2010). No three films had ever made so much money more quickly (Bordwell, 2006). They heralded the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster and provided a successful business model for media conglomerates to create big and expensive productions that could appeal to mass audiences and generate massive profits. According to film historian Thomas Schatz (2002), the emergence of the blockbuster signified what the New Hollywood was all about, that is “the studio’s eventual coming-to-terms with an increasingly fragmented entertainment industry – with its demographics and target audiences, its diversified multimedia conglomerates, its global markets and new delivery systems” (2002, p. 185). The rise of the blockbuster was met with strong criticism that such films signified the death of classical narrative and that Hollywood was relying on spectacle and special effects alone to tell and sell a story. Filmmaker Jean Douchet claimed post-classical cinema had given up on narrative and the image was “designed to violently impress by constantly inflating their spectacular qualities” (Buckland, 1999, p 178).  Schatz says film became:  “…so fast-paced and resolutely plot driven that character depth and development are scarcely on the narrative agenda and this emphasis on plot over character marks a significant departure from classical Hollywood” (Schatz, 2002, p. 194). Justin Wyatt (1994, p. 18) argues the cinematic blockbuster can be summarised on one sentence or image, usually called a logline, to make it easier to market. He gives examples from the 1980s including Flashdance (1983) and American Gigolo (1980), which were designed around the public’s taste and market research, and required a simplification of narrative in favor of the image as major appeal.

Most recently, Cucco (2009) has outlined three distinctive features of the cinematic blockbuster which we argue apply to the YouTube blockbuster as well. They include a high economic investment using both technology and human resources; a promise of a “spectacular” or something that is “must see”; and an ability to supplement the earnings from its audiovisual receipts with receipts from merchandising (Cucco, 2009, pp. 219-222). We will consider how each of these features applies to the YouTube blockbuster in this paper, beginning with the third feature – merchandising potential. This is best understood by considering how the blockbuster and ancillary products first came to co-exist.  Instead of competing with television, the blockbuster of the 1970s embraced it as a tool for massive advertising. The release of Jaws, for example, was preceded by a large-scale television promotional campaign to entice audiences. Gomery (1998) says the huge success of Jaws proved saturation advertising was the strategy that would redefine Hollywood (Gomery, 1998, p. 51). The print campaign featured a poster depicting a huge shark rising from the water towards an unsuspecting swimmer, while the radio and television ads exploited the well-known Jaws theme music (Schatz, 2002, p. 191). Bordwell (2006) argues that by the early 1980s, merchandising was added to extend the lifespan of the story beyond the cinema, so tie-ins with fast-food chains, automobile companies and lines of toys and apparel could keep selling the movie.

Scripts that lent themselves to mass marketing had a better chance of being acquired and screenwriters were encouraged to incorporate special effects. Unlike studio era productions, the megapicture could lead a robust afterlife on a soundtrack album, on cable channels and on video cassette. (Bordwell 2006, p.3)

The blockbuster strategy flourished within a new media environment where conglomerates controlled how and when a story could be produced and promoted across a range of mediums from television to the internet. Jenkins (2006) calls this “transmedia storytelling”. He uses the example of the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, which gives audiences pieces of the story and narrative through films, books and video games. Jenkins argues that within this idea:

Each medium does what it does best so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics and its world might be explored and experienced through game play…such a multilayered approach to storytelling will enable a more complex, more sophisticated, more rewarding mode of narrative to emerge within the constraints of commercial entertainment (Jenkins, 2006, p. 105).

Although the story is told across mediums, Jenkins argues that transmedia storytelling still depends on a central media company selling the rights to unaffiliated third parties to manufacture products while licensing limits what can be done with the characters or concepts to protect the original property. The production of most ancillary media is achieved by a combination of labor but ultimately the licensor has “the power”, for example the production of “tie-in novels” (Clarke 2009) depends on freelance and supervisory labor but the licensor has ultimate control over timeframes, characters and narratives. This marks the most fundamental difference in the evolution of the YouTube blockbuster because no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts.

 Beyond transmedia storytelling

Cucco (2009) outlines the use of high economic investment using both technology and human resources as a feature of the blockbuster. To understand how this relates to the YouTube blockbuster, we must acknowledge the identities and forms of agency that underpin the success of products of convergence culture such as YouTube. While there is not space here to look closely at this debate, scholars have tended to focus their discussions on the political economy of media production or classical development versus dependency theories (Jenkins, 2006; Banks & Deuze, 2009; Gehl, 2009). There was always a clear division between the role of the producer and consumer in the traditional market-driven cinema model, but that division has blurred since the “people formerly known as the audience” began creating content, uploading photos and videos and sharing information online. Croteau (2006) suggests “mega media products, along with other forms of traditional media, will increasingly be competing for attention with a constantly changing population of literally millions of media producers” (Croteau, 2006, p. 343). The YouTube blockbuster highlights this interdependency. As van Dijck (2009) observes; “YouTube’s role as an internet trader in the options market for fame is unthinkable without a merger between old and new media” (van Dijck, 2009, p. 53).

The production of the YouTube blockbuster depends on a variety of human resources, motives and objectives. They include those responsible for hosting YouTube, the people who upload content online and those who view and pass on links to popular footage via email, blogs, websites, telephone and word of mouth. Global commercial media are also involved, and their role includes extending the life of YouTube footage beyond the online archive by creating new plot developments and ancillary products of their own.

In her research to assess the future of Web 2.0  social networking sites, Kylie Jarrett (2008, p. 132) highlights that it is the appeal of, and control provided by community structures rather than corporate intervention which is fundamental to the success of sites such as YouTube.  Burgess and Green (2009) describe a continnum of cultural participation in YouTube where:

…content is circulated and used without much regard to its source, it is valued and engaged with in specific ways according to its genre and its uses within the website as well as its relevance to the everyday lives of other users, rather than according to whether or not it was uploaded by a Hollywood studio, a web TV company or an amateur video blogger (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 57).

YouTube is owned by Google, yet Google does not charge licensing fees to those who wish to upload content or enforce subscription fees on anyone who wishes to view material on the site. This allows for large-scale site traffic, providing people have internet access and can invest in the necessary equipment for video editing and uploading. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the YouTube blockbuster. The relatively free, participatory nature of YouTube is what attracts the interest of global media companies seeking to create their own exchange values from popular content. Often the original creator of material is not acknowledged in the archive and if copyright restrictions are unclear, anyone can take advantage of this ambiguity and control the way the content is developed outside of the archive.

This shows that the YouTube blockbuster has moved beyond Jenkins’ (2006) transmedia storytelling, which depends on a central media company driving production. It does, however, reinforce Cucco’s idea that the success of the blockbuster depends on its ability to generate merchandizing and ancillary products. Without this ability, there would be no large-scale investment in popular YouTube footage from global media.  This investment can range from deploying resources such as journalists to report on the phenomena for commercial media, to book deals, movie rights or merchandizing.

The ‘Singing Spinster’ spectacle

Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was first recorded and uploaded by computer users. There was no initial large-scale investment apart from the costs associated with the production of the reality talent show, but this hardly compares with the massive budgets afforded to create Hollywood blockbusters. The YouTube users who uploaded footage had made some minor investment with basic computer equipment and internet access to upload content onto what is considered a cultural resource. But there were no special effects or spectacle deployed on YouTube, in fact the footage of Boyle is grainy and poor quality and lasts for less than four minutes. Once footage was uploaded, news within the YouTube community spread like a virus. Boyle became a spectacle through viral videos, word of mouth and email. The first international news reports came after the YouTube footage had received millions of hits. Newspapers across the world were reporting less than 24 hours after her television appearance of her global success on YouTube with international headlines such as “Scottish spinster a world media sensation” (no author (a), 2009, p. 16) and “Unlikely singer is YouTube sensation” (Lyall, 2009, p. 1).

Large-scale economic investment in the Boyle phenomena was made after the footage was a massive hit in YouTube and corporate media saw value in its production outside of the archive. In the case of traditional media, it provided a chance to “gobble up its most promising prospects” for its own financial gain (Croteau, 2006). Until now corporate media has always had to take a gamble that their large-scale investment in blockbusters will pay off with audiences. They have had to rely on previously successful formulas and market research (Wyatt, 1994). In the case of YouTube phenomena, television stations and talk shows such as Oprah, newspapers across the globe from the Washington Post to The Australian, magazines and book publishers all sought a slice of Boyle only after the footage had been endorsed in YouTube on a grand scale. There were media reports in May 2009 that Catherine Zeta-Jones had asked about the film rights to the singer’s life story and that Oscar-winning film director James Cameron wanted to direct the film (no author (b), 2009, p. 54) Fremantle Media, the producer of Britain’s Got Talent which discovered Boyle, found even it was scrambling to maximise potential from the phenomena and it was only after millions of hits had been received that it negotiated to set up a YouTube channel and sell advertising around official Boyle clips.  The Sunday Times of London reported in April 2009 that more than £1 million in potential advertising income had been lost because no deal was in place before Boyle’s ‘I dreamed a dream’ was viewed more than 75 million times.

No single media conglomerate could control the way the Boyle footage was used outside of YouTube. Whereas J.K. Rowling can control the licensing agreements that govern how her creation Harry Potter is portrayed in merchandizing products, sequels and plot development, both internet users and global media can take the story surrounding a piece of YouTube footage in almost any direction they choose.

YouTube says in its corporate website that every minute a mind boggling 13 hours of video is uploaded and attracts millions of users and viewers. To understand why Boyle has become a YouTube blockbuster we must identify the qualities that make her ‘I dreamed a dream’ stand out from the millions of other video clips in the YouTube archive. The Boyle footage has attracted 300 million hits worldwide and its rich inter-textual narrative appears to differentiate it from other highly popular videos such as “Where the Hell is Matt”, which is not well known to traditional media audiences but has attracted more than 25 million hits and appeared on YouTube’s list of most popular clips. We argue that strong narrative qualities can elevate certain YouTube footage to blockbuster status. International audiences can identify with the story and the corporate media can use the narrative to extend the footage’s appeal beyond the YouTube archive.

Cucco emphasises that a common feature of the blockbuster is the need for a spectacle or something that is “must see”. The spectacle of the YouTube blockbuster is not the footage itself, but the hype created around the footage. We argue this is achieved through narrative techniques, which critics say has crumbled under the industrial weight of the blockbuster.

There are several noteworthy scholars who argue that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters still have narrative structure intact, regardless of quality. Kristin Thompson (1993) examined dozens of post 1960s films such as Jaws, Alien (1979) and GroundHog Day and found dense plot developments, rather than incoherent and fragmented ones. Schauer (2007) further argues that transmedia storytelling has the potential to improve upon the standard film narrative rather than fragment it to the point where it becomes obsolete. He argues that his study of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was an important example of transmedia storytelling as ancillary products were part of director George Lucas’s marketing strategy from the beginning, but that the film still displayed strong connections to narrative.

The use of classical narratives within the global media has also been noted by scholars, particularly within the field of media and journalism. Traditional narrative themes are often used in news stories where journalists portray the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress. Bell (1991) calls journalists the professional storytellers of our age: “The fairy story starts: ‘Once upon a time’. The news story begins: ‘Fifteen people were injured today when a bus plunged’.” Stories define actors moving through sequences of events filled with victims, villains and heroes (Woodward, 1997). Propp (1975) is well known in media studies for identifying recurrent patterns, set characters and plot actions in all fairytales. The main characters include villain, donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero.  More recently, Booker (2004) has outlined seven basic plots that are structural transformations of ancient tales: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy and tragedy. Carroll (2001) identifies and explores key stories or archetypes at the source of Western culture from the virtuous whore; the troubled hero; salvation by a god; soul-mate love; the mother; the value of work; fate; the origin of evil; and self-sacrifice.

In their research on news reporters’ use of YouTube, Hess and Waller (2009) argue that journalists create disjointed and hybrid narratives to extend the appeal of YouTube footage for their audiences. The way the news media use classical narrative and archetypes to create new exchange values from YouTube deserves attention, especially if we consider narratives in the media as simply a way of selling something (Fulton, 2005).

This paper aims to highlight that a strong connection to classical narrative is emerging as a key feature of the YouTube blockbuster. The story of Susan Boyle bears strong resemblance to those themes identified by Booker such as rags to riches and the classic folk tales Cinderella and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. The global media identified these themes and many stories retain some of the narrative structure of these tales with headlines such as “A life lesson on looks turns into the fairy-tale ending” from the Chicago Tribune and The Sunday Times in Singapore headline “Beauty in ‘Ugly Ducking’ Susan Boyle”. This extract from the British Daily Mirror also highlights the way the news media developed a storybook theme:

…The only man (Brian) to have kissed singing sensation Susan Boyle claimed yesterday it would be a privilege for any lucky guy. The Britain’s Got Talent wonder –nicknamed the Hairy Angel – now has millions of fans worldwide but revealed she has never found a man to love or kiss. “I never knew her to have a birthday party because she was busy caring for her mother,” Brian said. Brian also told how Susan, born with learning difficulties, was targeted by louts. He said: “They would call her names, throw snowballs at her door and dare each other to knock and run away”. (Daily Mirror, 2009).

British journalist Nicci Gerrard wrote a comment piece shortly after Susan Boyle was reportedly admitted to a celebrity rehab clinic after suffering an emotional breakdown in June 2009 (Cooper, 2009). In her article, “The Susan Boyle fairytale was just a fairytale” she writes:

Even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas) … it’s actually nowhere near enough to have talent; you have to have a story. You have to be on a journey. You have to have suffered (makes you heroic) and you have to be redeemed (gives you that essential happy ending). You have to be able to cry and make others cry.

Conclusion

Only rare YouTube moments are imbued with qualities that not only attract millions of viewers, but have the potential as bankable products for media conglomerates that can ultimately propel them to blockbuster status.  This paper has focused on Susan Boyle, but there are other examples of this new form of blockbuster, such as “Christian the Lion”, which possesses the same kind of rich, universal narrative qualities as the Boyle story. This YouTube blockbuster captures a tale of remarkable love between beast and man in just a couple of minutes of low-quality, grainy 1970s footage in which the lion embraces its former owner. It has spawned best-selling books for children and adults, documentaries and massive international news media coverage and commentary.

The global reach of popular YouTube footage is unprecedented and YouTube phenomena such as the Susan Boyle footage can attract as much, if not more attention from fans and audiences than some of Hollywood’s most famous actors. Martin Conboy (2002) says the popular press survives on its ability to maintain a dialogue with contemporary cultural trends. So it comes as no surprise that YouTube, a new form of popular culture, attracts interest from global commercial media.

The YouTube blockbuster shares some of the features of its cinematic forerunner – most importantly, it has the “must see” quality that Cucco describes. It also attracts massive global audiences, offering opportunities to reap big profits from merchandizing and spin-off media products. But the nature of the hype that traditionally surrounded the blockbuster has been transformed and democratised by new media communities and technology. It is no longer a case of marketeers rolling out slick promotional campaigns designed around public taste and market research to build expectations for months before a blockbuster is released. The circulation of viral emails and links from social network sites alert increasingly large networks of people to the existence of “must see” YouTube footage and they are able to access it instantly. In the process, both the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being redefined. It was once under complete corporate control, big budgets and big profits were its hallmarks and slick production, spectacle and special effects were the drawcard. The YouTube blockbuster is first and foremost under YouTube user control, it’s relatively cheap to produce, the nature of the “spectacle” has changed and production values are relatively unimportant. Narrative is in the ascendancy.

The global commercial media is still coming to terms with the latest transformations of the media landscape in which corporate control is slipping. As in the post-war period and again in the 1970s, creative industries must find new ways to profit. The Susan Boyle blockbuster is an important example of the media redefining itself by finding ways to meet the challenges posed by the new cultural forms, delivery systems and diversification Web 2.0 presents. YouTube users make large investments of human capital and small investments in technology at the front end of the YouTube blockbuster, but media spectacle and big profits are still possible for the global commercial media when it takes the guaranteed popularity of a YouTube clip and can spin it into traditional media products such as news, documentaries, books, films and audio recordings.

But the YouTube blockbuster is a fragile entity and models of storytelling in convergence culture are evolving as rapidly as the technology itself. YouTube is both a business and a cultural resource co-created by its users and the larger in scale and demographic reach, “the more that is at stake and the more significant the tensions between labour, play, democracy and profiteering become” (Burgess & Green, 2009, pp. 35-36) Already there have been disputes over claims of copyright infringement with Viacom, and most recently Warner Bros’ battle over music video clips. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the blockbuster. If corporate interests intervene, for example, through the introduction of subscription fees, then the community framework which supports the blockbuster will surely weaken.

The blockbuster phenomenon highlights the synergies between new and old media in a convergence culture. No one can predict what the next blockbuster will be, nor can they orchestrate it, but what is certain is that unlikely stars will continue to be rocketed into this new media stratosphere such as the “Hairy Angel” Susan Boyle.

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Bios:

Kristy Hess is a Lecturer in Journalism in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her current research projects focus on social justice and the regional media; social capital and the media (PhD); parent/student learning partnerships to improve literacy; and developing national curriculum resources as part of the Reporting Diversity project. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. Email: kristy.hess@deakin.edu.au

Lisa Waller is a part-time journalism lecturer and a full-time Phd student in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. As a recent graduate of Deakin’s Graduate Certificate of Higher Education and now a member of the GCHE advisory board, she is interested in the education of tertiary educators. She is also interested in curriculum and pedagogy in higher education, especially curriculum renewal and the scholarship of teaching in higher education. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal.