Archive for October, 2009

Discussion of “Belle Chose” — Episode 3 of Dollhouse (2.03)

October 10, 2009

forget_med

Hi folks. I’m bringing to the top here, a Dollhouse discussion that’s been going on in the comments to the previous post. Please join in. Click here for background music!

Absolutely. I agree, Janeaire.

The “belle chose” reference, by the way and off the top of my head,  is to the Miller’s Tale, and “Alycoun” is — forgive my French — a conniving little bitch (sorry) who plays around with a lusty lover while playing a rather cruel trick (but a very funny one) on her elderly old husband. On the other hand, she’s also the victim of a May-December marriage. At least, that’s the way I recall the tale and it it important that it is told by one of the two “low-class” working characters who are on the pilgrimage. Chaucer’s self-aware, pre-Whedon reflections on genre conventions and social class!

It is possible, given the allusion here to The Miller’s Tale — oh, I forgot, there is “a clerk of Oxenford,” in other words a university teacher, in that tale — that little Kiki is playing around with her sexual power to tease this much older man. Or is he her chosen, sophisticated partner? In any case, she certainly “gets” the Chaucerian tale, which is very raunchy and X-rated, by the way, which they are using as code between them.

UPDATE: there are two Allisouns in Canterbury Tales.  The one our professor is thinking of  (I watched the episode again) is the Wife of Bath, who is a much-married lady who likes to make her husbands work for their living (in the bedroom). She wears spurs and is a “whip.” The lines Echo reads in his office are describing her. Now the tale she tells is fascinating, a fairy tale about “what women want most.”  She herself argues that it is mastery over their husbands. The tale suggests instead that it is self-sovereignty; when the Knight gives the Ugly Old Hag he has married the choice of who she will be, it breaks the spell and she becomes beautiful and faithful.

Some commenters out there (on whedonesque) are saying that at least the professor didn’t exercise the power of his position to coerce one of his real students. He turned it into a *harmless* sexual fantasy instead. I have a lot of trouble with that. Is it “better” to hire a programed human body-and-soul and use her instead?  (As Matt did in the dream girl episode, “Ghost,” the pilot episode last season.) On the other hand, how do we even know that the client asked for a full sexual encounter? Maybe the tag “romance” on this engagement wasn’t simply code for “sex.” Echo rises from the chair saying she “wants to dance.” Could the professor have wanted and paid for a “dance”? A “lap dance” so to speak, from out of his own era of medieval history….  (We might also ask where they got the Kiki imprint from, but that might be going beyond the show’s conceits, which we must happily accept and stay within.)

Also, I disagree with viewers who are talking about how Paul Ballard was aroused by seeing Echo naked. Of course, no doubt he was, but I don’t think that was the point. He was deeply uncomfortable with the whole inappropriateness and invasiveness of the fact that this gorgeous, sexually mature woman standing before him had a childlike mind that could not know that she was not a little girl — or that her nakedness might be sacred and precious and not to be taken lightly or casually. (Going back to how I think Paul Ballard treasured his loving intimacy with Mellie, before he realized she was a doll, and that he enslaved himself to the Dollhouse, which he hated to do, in order to set her free. Because he loves her. I don’t think that was a casual relationship for him at all. And he’s disgusted at himself for his rejection of her because she was something she couldn’t help being at the point when he met her) Anyway, that shower scene is a kind of allusive play on Adam and Eve, who in their state of innocence “did not know they were naked.” Ballard is totally opposed in every fiber of his being to what he is doing as Echo’s handler, and being inside the dollhouse. And his assurances to Echo that he will protect her and “bring down the dollhouse” are helpless gestures. She doesn’t even know yet what “bringing down the dollhouse” means. Yet.

Echo is feeling her way (emotionally, or empathetically as you say, Janeaire) to the emotional truth of her situation. Sometimes reading even the comments of Joss fans, I feel some people are being too crude-fibered in their responses to the action in this series; their dismissiveness and their summarily reductive comments kind of wound me…. What’s more important, they aren’t doing justice to the traditional humanist themes of this show, which cherish human dignity and autonomy.

The best thing about this episode was the way that viewers at last could, if they chose, connect with Echo. Some are refusing to do so even here, and finding her “earnest” morality in her final scene with the victimized women to be simply a ho-hum plot gimmick (Echo’s getting a soul, we’ve seen this before, so what?). This is a kind of defensive distancing, like the “eww” reaction to the breast-feeding episode. If we aren’t looking at ourselves in the mirror at every juncture in the episode (any episode) we aren’t getting it. Or so I believe. Actually, I don’t understand how people fail to identify with and care about the dolls in their “wiped” states. They are not blank slates. They are not personality-less. They are children. They are trying to follow, like children playing self-consciously “tea party,” what they suppose must be the script of the adult world around them, and their naivete about what their world is really like is the most shattering commentary of all.

That necessity to look at the “mata” level applies to the lines of dialogue given to the women in the cage, which some are saying was too flat and broad and stereotypical. Here again, every time you think something is not working, take a look for the commentary the action makes upon itself. These are ordinary people under duress. And one of them turns out to be a genuine leader and a hero, and another turns out to be totally and viciously without scruples or conscience. Just a typical slice of humanity…. That’s pretty edgy, really.

Finally, I’m pretty sure, Janeaire, that Terry has flat-lined in the final scene. And there’s a whole other possibility to Echo’s “Goodness gracious” comment at the end. (It isn’t just that there’s still a serial killer inside of her — creepy!! I agree with you that there’s much more to it than that) Echo’s comment could be made to Terry, and it could be irony. Echo sees that poetic justice has occurred (or been carried out), and that the monster won’t hurt any more women and their little boys. “Goodness gracious,” she says to him. She’s glad. I mean, that part of us, the reptilian part of us that acts without empathy, in some sense has to be put to death or “contained” inside of each of us. Your reactions, Janeaire, are on the side of Mercy, while I guess I am enunciating the claims of Justice on the other side of the equation. Mercy and Justice must “kiss each other” (and that is called Grace)…. But Echo’s single witty utterance can mean all these things. It’s a proffer that’s multi-valued.

So, what do the rest of you think. Join us!

Joss Whedon: from the start, Dollhouse was different…

October 3, 2009

dollhouseposter2Gorgeously haunting Dollhouse  music:  www.whyiwatch.com (Do not miss it)

You can also click on this link and  share this appeal with friends.
http://www.activatedollhouse.com/

Dollhouse, folks, is a brilliant show about identity formation and about a certain technological society racing heedlessly towards apocalypse. Besides, it’s a total hoot!  (It’s also Joss Whedon’s most feminist series and yet it’s regularly called “misogynistic” and “anti-feminist” by those who don’t think about the show’s conceits — and their own gut reactions — on a “meta” level. Okay, that’s the news flash. Click on the link!  So now I go back to being all serious and professorial….

Joss Whedon has been responsible for some incomparable viewing experiences on television, including those many poignant seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” empowering a generation of young women, and the scattered episodes of the scintillating “Firefly,” creating a great science fiction feature film (“Serenity”) and a “Browncoats” movement that will not die — devoted to fighting the horrendous conditions suffered by  women around the globe, and to promoting reading and creative writing programs here in the U.S.

These shows were never watched by wide audiences at the times when their episodes aired (3 to 5 million households was typical). But these series were nonetheless works of art and had great cumulative impact, especially in the lives of those who loved them. Their DVD and reruns have been giving them far larger audiences and effects ever since.

From the start, Dollhouse was different. I focused on that difference (as I saw it) over at thelandofunlikeness.com, in a review that for me was also a labor of love and a tribute to Whedon’s artistic vision. It was also a plea to Fox and the world at large to save Dollhouse — and shortly thereafter, to everyone’s astonishment, Dollhouse was given a second season, the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.

Whedon’s latest project, starring Eliza Dushku (“Faith” on Buffy and Angel), had a rocky production history last season, and its viewership consistently fell off from its hopeful premiere audience of more than 5 million. Whedon fans (and others who had heard the hype) tuned in to see what the show was all about. Disappointment abounded and some shock and anger was voiced. The show was “misogynistic” and dealt with a bunch of “likable rapists.” The “eww” factor was a dramatic problem, but those of us who stuck with the show agreed that the series really found its feet around episode 6 and then grew steadily more impressive through its final aired episode, #12.  By then many critics were genuinely intrigued and on board. The unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” became available in July on the Season 1 DVD and generated some real buzz, if mostly among TV critics and Whedonites.

However, I loved the artistic vision of this show from the very first episode. As a Shakespeare professor, Joss’s artistic decision here struck me as similar to Shakespeare’s move from his highly successful early comedies to the much darker “problem” plays, especially Measure For Measure, whose plot concerns a brother, imprisoned and facing death for a sexual misdemeaner (sex with his betrothed), entreating his sister to save him by agreeing to spend a night with the Magistrate, a much older man who is obsessed with her virginity. (“You only have to do it once,” and then you can pretend it never happened….)

I value Whedon’s series because it has given me many moments of moral tension deeper than any I’ve experienced before in scripted television. Sometimes I am so compelled or shaken by a scene that I cry out or weep, and that’s usually when the next scene comes along and delivers an even greater punch. Measure For Measure also masqueraded as a popular entertainment. It also combined stark tragedy and disturbing moral ambiguity with its genre appeals to romance and suspense, all of them offered with a titillating edge of the sordid or risque. When Dollhouse misfires, it usually does so by failing to integrate its generic rip-roaring action scenes (and the deliberately exploited glamour and sexual allure of its cast members) with its serious intent. There’s sometimes an awkward incongruity that hasn’t managed to rise to the level of frisson.

Dollhouse did achieve this seriousness last season, though, and it is still doing it this season, despite the unevenness of some episodes and its occasional scenic misses along with its stupendous and unforgettable dead-on hits. What I continue to notice, though, is that even the show’s most loyal fans tend to view the “eww” factor implicit in the show’s premise as a failing, whenever it crops up, when this is at the very heart of what the show is all about. Whedon is pushing his audiences harder than he’s ever pushed them before; all the episodes make viewers uncomfortable. It’s deliberate and it’s art. And that’s precisely why the audience continues to drop off, even as the show continues to explore issues of human identity-formation and the body’s relationship to the soul in endlessly creative and unprecedented ways.

This show is supposed to make you go “eww.” And then to think about it! (Viewers, let’s try to exercise some of that “negative capability” the poet Keats recommended — who urged us to linger with the questions and with the tragedy for awhile, as Dark Star is currently in the theatres to remind us….) What does it say about our society, after all, that a supermodel (Dushku) who is breastfeeding a baby will send viewers running?  Or ask yourself, is it perfectly okay for a high-flier to have a weekend fling with a gorgeous young girl who thinks he’s genuinely interested in her (he’s not, and this scenario happens all the time in “real life”) — but then, if the same girl turns out to be an (unknowing) birthday present paid for and provided by a wealthy friend, it’s rape?  It’s okay for our society to tailor young girls to be the dream date, but not for the Dollhouse to do it for money?  Joss is disrupting our accepted assumptions, and he always has been with this show. (I discuss the “American dream girl situation” just mentioned, from episode 1, here.)

Dollhouse is all about making us feel uncomfortable.  When Joss says it deals with “sexual exploitation and human trafficking and how compromised we all are” — why do we wonder why the ratings keep falling?  This isn’t the show’s failings. This is our unwillingness to welcome television drama as being something challenging and essential to our moral and human development, the way the Athenians once viewed their great civic tragic dramas. And Joss & Crew do entertain us at the same time, after all. Last night, in an episode called “Instinct” — as in maternal instinct that is — there was a great spoof on the conventions of the killer madwoman, who shows up in the midst of a sudden lightning storm and is armed with a ridiculously large and gleaming kitchen knife. “Echo” looks down at the knife she is holding, along with a baby, and eventually experiences a gentle moment of recognition.”This… isn’t me,” she says quietly, and she drops the knife on the floor. But is anybody listening? This is a person — a humanistic subject seeking the freedom of self-actualization — who is trying to transcend any of the stereotypical and reductive roles laid out for her to follow.

Mentoring a nephew of mine recently, I recommended that he take an on-line Briggs-Meyers personality test, as a tool for determining the kinds of jobs that might best fit his natural tendencies and genuine passions. All of this test’s personality categories possess obvious and important social roles within the fabric of society, and my nephew might find himself among the “Guardians,” for example, who constitute up to 40% of any population taking the test. These are the folks who crave and enjoy an orderly routine. They are extremely dependable and consistently dutiful, at work and at home. Without them, what would any society do?

Out of curiosity, I took the test for the first time myself.  And I ended up in a tiny 1-2% segment of the typical human population. These are creative people who do a lot of thinking, but they also want their efforts to result in protecting the helpless and vulnerable in the larger community. It occurred to me to wonder…. Maybe we are the small (but likewise irreplacable) group that this show is feeding and nourishing. At least there’s no difficulty understanding why, unlike most viewers, I found from the start that I care deeply aboutEcho-Dushku when she is in her innocent “doll” state (when her mind is “wiped”) and identify with her also when something inside her keeps compelling her to go to the aid of others. (The Echo/Caroline deep inside of Echo realized that the baby she was protecting was in no danger whatsoever from the person standing in front of her and offering his life for its safety.) To me, Echo is unforgettable in her most innocent and childlike states. As Adele says, “an active is the purest soul among us.”

In previous shows, of course, Joss appealed to the rebels and artists also,  but he could count on pulling in additional viewers with the trademark Whedon snarkiness and wit, and by assembling a “family” out of a wide and varied cast of lovable characters, each character appealing to one segment of the fan-base. Dollhouse does contains some remarkable characters — my favorite is Topher, the insufferable genius computer-geek, or Adele, whose icy career-woman executive is remarkably multi-layered and unfathomable with her overwhelming range of competencies. But these characters are definitely the bad guys, or are they?

So this Whedon enterprise is deliberately attempting to do something much more dangerous and more breath-takingly difficult than anything he’s tried before. That’s why I compare Dollhouse to Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, in which Shakespeare deals with the same repugnant issues of sexual exploitation and hypocrisy, along with other themes that are more (elevatingly) humanistic.

The ratings numbers for the first two episodes of the new fall season are terribly disappointing. But they are also perfectly explicable, I think, in that this show is asking a great deal of its viewers and is taking them into uncomfortable and liminal territories every week. In the process, it is building an incredibly thought-provoking mythology and a major narrative that extends into a fascinating and apocalyptic future. The already ambiguous and surprising characters are acquiring unusual layers of depth, and they are often far more ambiguous than we ever see in Battlestar Gallatica, for instance. Joss rightly applauds BG for its daring and its dramatic strengths. But BG never prods us to go out on the limbs where Dollhouse takes us every week. Despite flaws and defects, this is powerful art, and I think it is working powerfully for those who are willing to go where usually only the tragic drama is willing and able to take us. (So maybe it needs to be assigned in classrooms, like Shakespeare and Dante. That’s often the first time modern young people get hooked into anything that isn’t simply easily-digestible entertainment….)

Joss has made this show extremely cheap for Fox to produce, in order to keep Dollhouse a going concern. The writers, actors, and stage crew are devoted to it, to the riskiness and wildness of this ride that they (and we) are on. This show deserves to keep its unenviable Friday night niche at Fox….  It’s working for some of us, and like Shakespeare’s problem plays, and his tragedies, these pieces of art are not likely to be going to fade away in the future.

If we get a future, that is.  Dollhouse is seriously asking this question too.

Sometimes art seems to be the only light in the darkness, yet it still depends on its wealthy patrons. The nagging fear, as Joss admitted recently, is that on television he will only be permitted to invent if he is willing to do nothing more significant than “running the daycare on the Death Star.”