Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 13: Epitaph One

“Epitaph One” is a fascinating piece of work because of the moment in which it was made. Dollhouse hadn’t yet been renewed when this episode was written and filmed; even the DVD commentary track was recorded before the network had made its decision. And as we all remember, nobody expected the show to be renewed.

So for Mutant Enemy, this episode was a chance to wrap it all up, in case a wrap-up was needed. They got to make a Serenity the fans wouldn’t have to wait three years for.

And that’s what “Epitaph One” plays like, really: a resolution, just in case. It jumps ten years into the future to show us where the Dollhouse technology is going to lead. War, and not just war: total social disintegration, people preying on each other for bodies, people turning into mindless killers. It’s zombies, body snatchers, vampires. All of which, of course, is a logical progression from the technology posited in the first twelve episodes (in retrospect, I begin to think that “Gray Hour” and “Haunted” may have been the most important episodes of the first season). We saw this coming: now we see what it looks like when it’s come.

But of course that’s not all we want to know. Merely telling us that the Dollhouse destroyed the world doesn’t give us closure (selfish us!). We want to know what happens to our characters. Caroline, Victor, Sierra, Paul, Topher, and the rest of the gang. “Epitaph One” tells us that, too. Not in great detail – we don’t know everything that happens to everyone. But we know enough to get emotional payoffs for most of them.

We see Caroline breaking free of the Dollhouse and her programming. We see Victor and Sierra doing the same, and having a relationship. We see Ballard finally getting to help Caroline; we also get hints that they’ve had some sort of relationship, that it went wrong, and that they’ve come to a sort of rapprochement. We see Boyd taking off on his own; we also see that he and Saunders have something together. Most of all we see Topher and DeWitt get their comeuppance.

This is all very satisfying. Topher huddled in a pod, surrounded by toys and equations, mind shattered by guilt over what he’s helped bring about: this is one of the great images of the series so far. The Dangerous Geek Gets His.

And so we can say of “Epitaph One” what we say about Serenity: it’s not as good as a second season would have been, it feels rushed, too many tantalizing ideas given too short shrift, but it does give us some closure, and it is better than nothing.

But, wow. Dollhouse was renewed. We get a second season. At least a second one.

Now what? Has Joss put himself in a hole, narratively? We know what happens to all these people. Again, not every detail, but enough to go on. Enough, one would think, to rob the second season of a lot of its suspense. To take a character I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, we know that Topher is going to remain arrogant and clueless about what his work really does until it’s too late. We know that eventually he’s going to discover enough of a conscience to make him miserable, but that’ll be too late, too. We know he’ll get punished; we’ve seen him get punished. What’s really left to do with this character?

You could say the same thing about Caroline. We know she breaks free of her programming. We know she finally masters herself. We know she frees all the lab animals and leads them toward safety. What more do we need to know about her?

Let me be clear about what I mean to say. I’m thrilled Dollhouse was renewed. And I’m thrilled to have “Epitaph One.” What I think is that the decision to jump into the future and tell us how it all ends, in “Epitaph One,” creates a big narrative challenge for Joss for the second season. He’ll have to find some way to continue to create suspense around these characters when we think we know how things turn out for them. I don’t think merely filling in the blanks between 2009 and 2019 will be enough. I can’t imagine what will be enough.

That’s why I don’t work for Mutant Enemy: I don’t have their imagination. I’m confident that Joss will make it work for him. I just wanted to point out that it’s a challenge. With “Epitaph One” he wrote himself into a corner. I can’t wait to see how he writes his way out of it.

Most of all I’m astounded by the audacity it took to write himself into that corner – when the first season was already nearly done in by the narrative risks it took. Dollhouse started out by dispensing with the typical TV drama requirement that a show center around a strong central character: Echo was no character at all, an empty center. Now, it seems they’re ready to start toying with another convention of storytelling, that we move forward through plot twists toward a resolution. We’ve already got the resolution, it seems. What’s left?

We’ll see.

And ain’t it cool to be able to say that?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 0: Echo (original pilot)

Disclaimers/subject position confessions, updated: in between the airing of Episode 12 and my viewing this pilot (and Episode 13) on DVD, I watched Firefly, Serenity, and Dr. Horrible. I’ve now seen all the Joss, and am a little better qualified, maybe, to analyze Dollhouse in the context of his other work.

The obvious continuity between Buffy/Angel and Firefly/Serenity was that both works were centered around big, unruly, loving conglomerations of misfits: Surrogate Families. Both works explored the dynamics of these families, and held these families up as shelters from the storm of the wide, wild world. You could have said, on the basis of those two works, that this was Joss’s Big Theme. It wasn’t much in evidence in Dr. Horrible (although you might observe that Dr. H’s longing to join the ELE was a reflection of the yearning to belong to a surrogate family), but maybe that was an outlier.

But when you include Dr. Horrible, and look at it, Buffy/Angel, and Firefly/Serenity together, then you (may) start to see something else emerge as a candidate for Joss’s Big Theme: the Dangerous Geek. He’s obviously got a soft spot for the geek, no doubt stemming in part from his own sense of himself as one (in the special features for Dollhouse, Joss as much as says “Topher – c’est moi”). Not to mention that a large swath of his audience probably self-identifies as Geekish. I do. But Joss’s love for the geek (and by “geek” I mean someone whose expertise at something is only matched by his pop culture knowledge, both of which are only trumped by his social awkwardness) is consistently tempered by a sense that the geek can be dangerous. In Buffy/Angel we got Andrew/Jonathan/Warren. In Dr. Horrible we got Dr. Horrible. In Firefly/Serenity, we didn’t really get much meditation on geekhood, although there was potential in the character of Mr. Universe that one can imagine Joss exploiting if there had been a second season.

How does this relate to Dollhouse? I think a lot of fans were expecting another surrogate-family show, when what Joss had in mind was another dangerous-geek show.

Dr. Horrible should have been the tip-off. As I say, we already got dangerous geeks in Buffy, but Dr. Horrible was different in one important way. Of the three geeks in Buffy, one was plainly dangerous and not at all charming (Warren), while one was pathetic/charming and not very dangerous (Jonathan), and one was so weak that you didn’t know which way he was going to go – and in the end he was redeemed. In Serenity, Mr. Universe was mostly cool and just a little bit creepy (the lovebot idea should have been very creepy, but the movie didn’t get time to develop it), and not at all dangerous except to the bad guys.

But Dr. Horrible – he’s truly horrible. At first we don’t think he is. This is the genius of the show (which I think is pretty genius; but not as genius as the commentary track on the DVD). He’s so cute in his pathetic little fantasies, and particularly in his attraction to The Girl, that you’re rooting for him all the way up until the moment he kills her. At this point he becomes truly horrible, joins the ELE, and commits lots more crimes. The end. A really sobering moment (besides being a great classic Superhero Origin Story). Cutesy scare-quote “evil” is still evil, dammit. Is what I take away from it.

Enter Topher (c’est moi).

But how does he enter? In the show as aired, Topher’s arc is a lot like Dr. Horrible’s: he’s charming in his geekiness, so cute that it takes a while to notice his creepy side, and even longer to notice that his creepy side indicates actual moral bankruptcy. When we do start to realize this, toward the end of the season, it’s a powerful thing, because we’ve at least sort of liked this guy all the way along.

The original pilot doesn’t play it like that. Topher comes in and right off the bat he’s giving this big speech about how it doesn’t matter if we program the dolls, because we’re all programmed ourselves – culminating in his big declaration of nihilism: “I don’t care – morality is programming, too.” Topher is defined for us right away as someone who has no moral qualms about what he’s doing, in fact seems to have no morals at all. It makes him a good deal less sympathetic: by the end of his first big scene, he’s as dislikable as Topher-as-aired was at the end of the season. His arc is done (as in, "stick a fork in it").

Now, I obviously have no idea what Joss would have done with the character had Fox allowed him to proceed with this pilot and launch the series from there. That’s alternate-universe stuff. What I do know is that in Dollhouse as it was made, Topher’s character arc, from cute to reprehensible – and I want to reiterate that it’s not really Topher’s arc, because he doesn’t change: it’s the arc of how we perceive Topher – has big ramifications for the story. Just as we come to realize how nasty Topher is (on one level), we come to realize just how dangerous the Dollhouse is (on many levels). In other words, this arc makes for a big payoff: dramatically, emotionally, intellectually.

The original pilot doesn’t seem to allow for that. We know right away that Topher’s not a good guy (so maybe Joss was planning to redeem him?), and we even get intimations of the Dollhouse’s dangerous side right up front, too. We’re starting so far into the concept that it’s hard to imagine how it would have developed.

So the Dangerous Geek theme is somewhat neutralized, in the original pilot: rather, it’s there in spades, but robbed of some of its power, because the geek is robbed of most of his charm. What do we get instead?

More nods toward the Surrogate Family theme. The original pilot makes a lot more of intra-Dollhouse relationships than the early as-aired episodes do. There’s Topher’s many scenes with Boyd, in which their man-friendship is repeatedly invoked and denied; there’s Topher’s odd antipathy to Dr. Saunders, and his fear of the higher-ups; and there’s the Echo/Sierra/Victor trio already getting together and setting off alarm bells. And, perhaps most significantly, we have Topher’s observation that anyone who lives in the Dollhouse, handlers included, is really a Doll; combined with DeWitt’s closing remark that “we’re all in this together,” I think it indicates that this pilot was working hard to convince us that these characters are a community whose relationships we’re going to be exploring.

That’s not there in the season as it aired. Instead, we got what seems like a willful exploding of the Surrogate Family idea, starting with Echo/Caroline herself. The early episodes hammer home how empty the dolls are, including Echo, and how dead they even are to each other. We got Boyd introduced as someone new to the Dollhouse, whose relationship to Topher is professional, not man-friendly. Topher’s relationship to Saunders, too, is recast as professional. Over the course of the season, clearly relationships form and become a focus of the show, but it’s not that way at first. At first, it’s all elaboration of the concept, the Dangerous Geek and All His Works.

All of this is by way of saying that I thought the original pilot is interesting, a great DVD special feature, but not superior to what Joss eventually came up with for the series as it aired. By now every Dollhouse fan has long known that Joss came up with this pilot for Fox, they shot it down, and he responded by turning the first five episodes of the season into standalone engagement-of-the-week episodes that everybody was encouraged to think of as five pilots. A lot of fans seem to have been disappointed in these first five episodes, and Joss himself in various interviews has essentially refused to defend them, but I will: I think they’re better than the original pilot.

I think “Echo” is too much telling, not enough showing. It explains how doll engagements work, through dialog and montage; but the aired episodes show how they work, through action. Much more effective. “Echo” lays a lot of the subtext out for you in some pretty talky scenes (not that I have anything against protracted dialogue); the aired episodes are still pretty on-the-nose, but sufficiently less so to allow the viewer to hit upon a lot of the subtext her/himself. Again, more effective. And, above all, I think the aired episodes do a much better job of building moral ambiguity into the Dollhouse.

Which is not to say the original pilot doesn’t have its moments. I like how openly it deals with the prostitution angle of the Dollhouse. Not only in DeWitt’s discussion with a potential client, but in the wonderful irony of seeing Echo scolding Danica (the girl from Crib Death, Iowa) for letting Eddy pimp her out, when in fact the Dollhouse is pimping Echo out.

There’s also the wonderful pivot from Victor saying he’d like to be a carefree doll, “Doris freaking Day,” to Sierra in a rather Doris Day-like outfit, her head bleeding, looking anything but carefree.

And most of all there’s Echo telling Danica, “I am you, dumbass.” This is awesome primarily for meta reasons, since the actress who played Iowa Girl, Ashley Johnson, reappears in the aired Episode 12 as Wendy, who becomes imprinted with Caroline’s personality. In other words, in the pilot, Eliza says to Ashley, “I am you.” In Episode 12, we have Ashley confronting Eliza, and essentially saying, “I am you.” But in both cases, it’s actually Caroline saying it. But it’s also, in both cases, a programmed girl confronting a non-programmed girl, a powerful girl confronting a weak girl, a self-aware girl confronting a deluded girl, an original confronting an echo: and which is which? It’s a neat little knot of confused identity. I don’t know if Whedon brought Johnson back for Episode 12 with this in mind, but it’s a brilliant piece of metanarrative. That right there: that’s Dollhouse.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shakuhachi orientalism

This post on no-sword is well worth reading, if you're interested in Japanese music, cross-cultural dynamics, or just plain good thinking and writing. It's the kind of thing this here blog aspires to, and rarely approaches.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Rabauru senki (1994)

One from the vault:

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Mizuki Shigeru no Rabauru senki 水木しげるのラバウル戦記 (Mizuki Shigeru's account of the war in Rabaul). 1994. Chikuma Bunko ちくま文庫, 1997.

Kind of a memoir, the truth behind the fictionalized version of his war experiences that he published as Sôin gyokusai seyo! Illustrated, and the illustrations have their own history. The Senki itself is in three parts. The first two parts were drawn right after he got back from the war, and in shape they look like they might have been intended for the kami shibai format. They go chronologically from his arrival on Rabaul, but they don’t go up to the end of the war. As he explains it, he had to stop drawing them and concentrate on making a living. He continues the chronology with some illustrations he’d drawn for a children’s book much later, long after he had established himself. This section takes the story through his wounding up to the end of the war, and the end of the Senki proper. This is followed by a section of sketches he made on the island of Toma, where he was transferred to await demobilization.

The main attraction here is the art. The memoir itself, which sort of sways between trying to explicate each picture as it comes up (they don’t exactly speak for themselves - they’re illustrations, not comics panels) and simply narrating his war experiences, is not as interesting as I’d expected it to be. Partly it's because he’s just not that captivating a prose writer - there’s a certain artless charm to his prose, but it wears thin quickly, and there’s no sense of pacing - and partly it's because the illustrations themselves are of moments, almost idylls most of the time, which makes the verbal memoir kind of static, too.

The art, however, is great. The first two parts of the Senki are in a style very different from what he’d settle on for his comics. Kind of rough - almost impressionistic (I lack the vocabulary to discuss art, I find). Quite evocative. Mostly pencil, some in color. The third part is his mature comics style, but with a level of detail and texture his comics usually dispense with - these are meant to be appreciated slowly, rather than zipped through to get on with the story. The Toma sketches are really, really good - carefully executed sketches made with the limited resources (scrounged paper, hoarded crayon nubs, etc) he had at the time.

Both the narrative and the sketches spend a lot more time than the comic did on his relationship with the natives. He spent a lot of time getting to know the various villagers he was encamped near, and came to really long for their kind of life. This seems to have gone beyond the familiar romanticizing of the simple life of the savage, although that certainly enters into it: he seems to have seriously considered demobbing in Rabaul and just staying there. The villagers offered to set him up with fields, and he says he came this close to accepting.

Anyway, the book is worth it for the art. The writing is good as background info on the art.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Sky Crawlers (2008)

When you're good at what you do, you can break the rules.

Watched The Sky Crawlers スカイ・クロラ last night, Oshii Mamoru 押井守's latest film. Excellent. I mean, I've been waiting for a long time for him to come up with a worthy follow-up to Ghost in the Shell, and this is it.

Everything about the film is unprepossessing.

The animation, the look of it, is pedestrian - at first. Hyper-realistic CG aircraft dogfighting in perfectly 3-D skies, alternating with very simplistic, almost sketchy human figures. You think, okay, another mecha-fetish anime. But then you start to notice how carefully modulated the color scheme is - there's an orange soda in one scene that just about knocked me over, the way it stands out against the olives, browns, and grays of the interiors. And then those skies stop being so cerulean, start to glower, and then to rain. By the end the animation has taken on an incredible expressive power.

Same goes for the plot: it begins with the promise of lots of action, set in a futuristic past or antiquated future, like a WWII version of steampunk. But then it reminds you it's an Oshii film: the pacing slows down to a (pun intended) crawl, and the action sequences are replaced by moods.

And at the climax, the action stops entirely. We get something that should be cinematic suicide: two long, motionless speeches. In the most memorable, we get a straight-on shot of a guy lying in his bunk, back to the camera, and a girl sitting on the floor by his bunk, facing the camera. And they just talk. Mostly she talks. For solid minutes. You're not supposed to be able to do that in film.

But it works brilliantly. Instead of ratcheting up the tension until it reaches a breaking point, like most action films, Oshii slows it down until, in this scene, the whole film comes gliding to a halt, perfectly balanced in contemplative stillness.

And what do they talk about? I won't spoil it by recounting the specifics; but we can talk about subtext. If you thought the philosophical undertow of Ghost in the Shell was something, consider this. In The Sky Crawlers, Oshii lays out nothing less than the preconditions for Buddhism. The problems posed by reincarnation: the endless chain of suffering that is samsara. Reincarnation isn't about fantasizing you were the Queen of Spain in a previous life, it's about having to relive the same mortal indignities over and over. Dying, over and over. And, if you're lucky or smart enough to realize what's going on, wanting to get out of it somehow. But what's "out"? And how do you get there? These are the questions Oshii poses in this nearly motionless dialogue.

And then the protagonist flies off into the wild blue yonder.

Edit: Here's a very thoughtful review of the movie that ascribes a whole different subtext to it. Here's the thing: I think we're both right.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Nezumi otoko no bôken

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Nezumi otoko no bôken ねずみ男の冒険. Chikuma Bunko ちくま文庫, 1995.

This consists of a bunch of short stories Mizuki wrote, mostly for Garo ガロ, mostly in the mid-'60s; one comes from 1975. I don't think they were written as a series; in fact, I think the only connection is that they all feature the character of Nezumi Otoko (Ratman). He's best known as a regular foil/sidekick/nemesis of Ge-ge-ge no Kitarô, so this collection's main charm is the chance to see Ratman on his own.

Ratman is an interesting character. Occasionally the stories define him as definitely as the Wikipedia article I just linked to does: a human-monster halfbreed. But I wouldn't trust that definition any farther than I could throw it. Usually he's much vaguer. He seems to have some powers, great longevity, and superhuman stench if nothing else; he's also neither dependably good nor evil. He's dependably undependable, but we'll get to that. I think he's best placed in the lineage of the sennin 仙人, the immortal wizard sage of East Asian mythology: marginally or originally human who's made himself unhuman by virtue of long study, not to mention derangement of the senses and body. Usually these figures are associated with superhuman virtue, and so they're sometimes called "Daoist saints" in English, but they're also features of Japanese (at least) supernatural stories, usually have an air of danger about them, and can sometimes be trickster figures.

Ratman (who sometimes makes his home in the scraps of woods behind shrines, significantly enough; sometimes he even poses as a god) is certainly a trickster. His role in the Kitarô series is usually to stir things up: he's nominally Kitarô's friend, but he'll sell Kitarô out for anything. His main goal is always to make a buck - he's poor as a churchmouse (pun intended, but not by Mizuki, I'm sure) - he's always scheming to con someone out of something, always dreaming of getting rich. He'll help Kitarô when it's convenient to him, but the minute something shiny comes along, he's off.

Plus, did I mention his personal odiousness? He hasn't bathed (we're told) for three hundred years, and wears a robe of some sort that hasn't been washed in just about as long. His farts and his breath can knock you out, and when he's rendered robeless (which sometimes happens) his skin is covered with - well, I don't think I want to know.

So why is he my favorite Mizuki character?

Part of the answer is the side of him that's on display in these stories, where he's on his own, left to work his scams on unsuspecting salarymen, samurai, schoolkids, and ninja acolytes. He's indefatigable, for one thing. Which is not to say tireless: he's a lazy SOB just like me, but he has great energy in pursuing his dreams of getting ahead. He never succeeds, but he never stops trying. So there's that.

There's also the eloquence and verve with which he sells his schemes: he's got the gift of gab, and he uses it indiscriminately. He backs it up with an indomitable arrogance that never fails to bring a smile.

All of this is on a character level; but there's also the fact that Ratman's sleaziness gives Mizuki an opportunity to tell stories that play to his deep cynicism about society. In fact Ratman is a secondary character in most of these stories, merely facilitating the sufferings of the protagonists. One story focuses on a monstrous plant that blooms on Yume no shima and threatens to take over Tokyo; Ratman appears in the guise of a city bureaucrat who explains that the purpose of municipal government is not to protect its citizens, but to hire as many people as possible to do meaningless jobs. Elsewhere Ratman appears as a sort of agent provocateur, a kimono merchant (calling himself Cardin, from France) who visits a village and destabilizes it from within, pitting one faction against another, making a profit at every turn. Elsewhere he runs a business that "takes away your worries" - a businessman sends his lazy son to Ratman, who implants a monster-egg in the son, which allows the monster Industriousness to take over the son. The only problem is, the businessman runs a drug company, and the newly-brilliant son starts inventing cures for illnesses - which threatens to put the company out of business, since they depend on illness for their financial wellbeing.

In short, a Ratman story is going to feature broad, wicked social satire combined with gross-out humor and Mizuki's queasy-cute art. What's not to love?

That art. I say "queasy-cute," but the cuteness is usually only in the fact that you can tell the figures are supposed to be humorous. Broadly speaking we're in the realm of the cartoon. But he almost always goes for prickly over cuddly, lumpy instead of symmetrical, ugly instead of beautiful. Take the three yakuza in this last illustration (fighting with a monster Ratman has sicced on them). They look like Mizuki sketched them in about a minute and a half, and yet each is drawn with unerring lines. You get a great sense of physicality and personality from each of them, a sense of yakuza meanness; and yet they're not particularly scary, just kind of pathetic. Pathetic: that's humanity, for the most part, in Mizuki Shigeru.

But those monsters....