Saturday, January 16, 2010

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 25: "The Hollow Men"

“You guys are my family.” I’m convinced that one of the reasons this show never took off was because a lot of Whedonites wouldn’t embrace it in the absence of a Scoobyesque, Fireflyesque ad hoc family at the center of it. That’s what they wanted: but this show was never about that. It was never Us Good Guys Against the World: it was always about What Is Us, and How Do We Know? And if you never got that, here’s Joss to give you another chance. The bad guy is the one who doesn’t want to save the whole world, just his family. Us Good Guys. It sounds so sick when he says it…

First things first. The episode felt rushed, there’s no denying. A lot of the season has, as every so often, and increasingly after the cancellation, they woke up and realized, shit, we’d better move things along here. All along there have been developments – not just in the characters but the tech, the ideas – that I’ve felt could have used whole seasons to incubate properly. But we didn’t have that time. Given the constraints they were working under, I’ve felt that generally Mutant Enemy has done a fine job of unfolding the concepts and deploying the characters for maximum s/f mindfuck effect. This episode was no exception.

So Echo’s blood is what’s so special about her? It’s her spinal fluid they need, not her mind? Yeah, this one could have benefited from a half-season arc to set it up. My initial reaction was a “hunh?” But this was immediately followed by a “well, but.” Well, but it does fit in quite nicely with the show’s themes. The most basic question it’s asking, or debating, or having its various interests debate, is identity. Where does it come from? How deep does it run? Rossum believes that personality is severable from the body; it’s duplicable, manipulable, and transferable. The ongoing evolution of Echo was a challenge to that: her existence gave us hope that identity ran deeper than a wipe. But why? How? Did we really want to believe it was just a matter of willpower? That Echo was able to overcome the tech because Caroline was just so cool? Maybe we do want to believe that, but I think it’s a cop-out on the serious questions. So situating her specialness not in her will but in her body: that works for me. It addresses the identity question – not just identity in the sense of “hi, I’m Caroline,” but identity in the sense of sameness, that body and mind are inseparable. It works that in the end it’s the physicality of Carolinecho that matters. (At least, if Boyd's right. And he may not be: and that ambiguity, as well, is a good thing right here.)

(Not to say that this doesn’t introduce some problems. For example, if it is the body and not the mind, then what about Alpha? Why aren’t they making the vaccine out of him? And why does Mellie suddenly sprout the ability to overcome her sleeper programming – that’s presented as an act of pure will.)

That vaccine business. Pure Joss Whedon, in the way it crumbles the moral ground from beneath our feet, even as we’re jumping up and down on it for joy at the triumph of our heroes. It’s evil for Boyd to take away Carolinecho’s freedom so he can harvest her spinal fluid (and what an awesome horror-movie contraption he straps her into!). But isn’t it just as evil for all of our heroes to thwart his efforts to make a vaccine that will – it’s not wrong just because he says it – save everyone? I suppose not – if they/we really believe that they could destroy all the tech by blowing up a Boyd grenade (a deeply satisfying moment, to be sure). But if they believe that, they’re deluded, as Joss immediately made clear.

There are still loose ends, and I don’t know if we’re going to get a chance to pull them at this point. Whiskey’s background/her ties to Topher. Alpha. November’s background. We’re getting the big questions answered, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain if we don’t get everything tied up. But that’s what I want.

The Eliot shout-out in the title: a not-inappropriate nod to a high-cultural context. Technology introducing new kinds of hollowness to contemporary life (there seems to be no end to the ways in which we can make things worse for ourselves), and of course the show has imagined a way in which people can be made almost literally hollow. Was it not a deeply existential shock, as well as a great emotional payoff, when Topher remote-wiped Boyd? Boyd goes from being the Big Bad, a dangerous guy with dangerous ideas and the will to carry them out, to being – nothing. Mentally hollowed out. Was I the only one to feel a little bit sorry for the guy when they rig him with explosives and tell him to kill himself? What are they punishing there? Boyd’s gone – does it make moral sense to mortify his empty flesh?

Apropos of not much of anything, here’s another bit of high poetry that I ran across recently and thought might apply to the Dollhouse. Here’s what Macbeth says to the doctor when his wife shows signs of madness:

“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?”

Rossum’s answer:

“Why, yes, we can.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971)

As a Kurosawa partisan, I was watching closely in this for any signs of fealty to the greatest Shakespeare adaptation ever. They were there. First there's the billowing mist that obscures the battle under the opening credits in Polanski's film, and that reappears at a key moment later; this seems a clear homage to the memorable fogs in Kurosawa's version. Then there's the way Polanski frames King Duncan's first approach to Macbeth's castle. In Throne of Blood, there's a wonderful shot where the Macbeth character watches riders approach his fortress - a long shot, where we watch the riders approach from the distance, zigzagging through the fields toward us. In Polanski's film, our vantage point is the reverse: the camera stands at the king's shoulder, and stays there watching him ride across the heath toward the castle - zigzagging as he goes.

So Polanski knows who to respect. But is his film good? Well, sure. It can't avoid the trap that many Shakespeare adaptations fall into, of feeling wordy (Kurosawa's film benefits by deciding not to stick closely to the original text - it's less a matter of him making the film in Japanese than of him deciding not to call it Macbeth). But it is very visual, and very effective.

The look of it surprised me a little bit for how undaring it was. It looked exactly the way people in 1971 seem to have been imagining the Middle Ages, which is to say like an only slightly dirtier version of the film Camelot. Still ornate and pretty enough to make later audiences, accustomed to Terry Gilliam's innovations, smirk a bit. I guess I had expected a bit more of a radically modern sensibility. But the unexpected lushness of the settings probably worked to make the bloodiness, and bloody-mindedness, of the action more shocking, and that, I think, was the point of the film. (As Professor Wikipedia points out, Polanski's interpretation was Jan Kott's.)

But more than the blood itself, it was the oppressive lighting effects that I think I'll remember - the red filter in the opening shot, and the red stained-glass window in the Macbeths' bedroom.

Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965)

This film is Psycho turned inside out, in several ways. The gender of the killer is switched from male to female. The setting is switched from rural to urban.

Those might be coincidences. The real difference is that we're inside the crazy killer's mind, rather than outside: we see life from her perspective. More information, more empathy. At the same time, we get much less explanation - much less understanding - than Hitchcock gives us in Psycho.

Take the final images. In Psycho it's the famous shot of the dead mother: horrifying but at the same time revelatory. We know what Norman Bates is all about when the film ends. Here the final shot is a long tracking shot through the house, a shot that itself encapsulates the whole film's rising tension. The camera quests through the debris, just slowly enough for the eye to pick out seemingly significant details - the ticking clock, the childhood toys - but still fast enough for us to feel that the camera is telling us these items don't explain anything. It's the movement that's significant, an incessant denial of closure that counteracts any understanding we think we're getting from the gradual but insistent tightening of the focus. Finally the camera comes to rest on the old family photo - we think we're going to get an answer now (what's the question? why this girl went mad), but the camera keeps zooming in - the tightening focus now becomes the movement denying us answers. Is it something in her family life, her childhood, that drove her mad? That's what we think at first, but the camera keeps zooming in on this photo, closer and closer, until we no longer see the family all at once but the girl alone (and even when we see the whole photo we notice that shadows cut the girl off from the rest) - maybe family isn't the explanation - maybe it's all in her head - and we zoom in on her head, closer and closer, then her eye, and by this time we're dissolving into the grain of the photo. There's no end to the movement, no end to the search for answers - because the film can find no answers. Why does she go mad? We don't know: she just does.

Brilliant film.

Monday, January 11, 2010

China Design Now at the Portland Art Museum

Saw a major traveling exhibit on contemporary Chinese design, China Design Now, at the Portland Art Museum yesterday. My understanding is that this is exhibit started at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in early 2008; I don't know where it's been since, but somebody at the PAM said it was the last stop.

My second reaction first: this seems like it was planned as a big global PR blitz (given that it's China we're talking about I was tempted to call it a propaganda effort, and really, what's the difference?) on the eve of the Olympics. That the Beijing Olympics are over now doesn't make it any less interesting, though.

The exhibit is formally divided into three parts: "Shenzhen: Frontier City," "Shanghai: Dream City," and "Beijing: Future City." But read as PRopaganda, the show essentially breaks down into two parts. The first half (in the PAM the break conveniently happens between the two floors of the exhibit) celebrates the explosion of design ideas that came with the opening up of the country to a market economy. The message: we're cool, we're hip, we're capitalist, we're market-savvy: don't fear us. The second half looks at designers who acknowledge social problems in their work, and architects and city planners who strive for sustainability. The message: we have an open exchange of ideas, and despite everything you saw in the first half of the exhibit, we're not about to let capitalism create new problems: don't fear us.

To all of which I think the only appropriate response is: maybe.

But that was my second reaction. My first reaction, just as honest and maybe healthier, was: cool. The first (ultra-capitalist) half especially is a garden of visual delights, a barrage of poster, video, textile, tactile, and audio pleasures. My favorite might have been the most low-key part of the exhibit: a wall of posters from twenty years of design competitions/exhibitions. Brilliant play with Chinese characters.

This is an essential exhibit, in spite of any qualms it may inspire. Or maybe partly because of those qualms: spend some time in the Nike corner, where Portland's favorite world-destroyer tries to convince you how authentically it's connecting with contemporary Chinese street culture and liberating underground design golpes. Don't fear us.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 23: "Getting Closer"

10 reasons I love Joss Whedon:

1. Boyd was the last person we suspected. Therefore he should have been the first person we suspected. And he was still the last person we suspected.

2. Even after all he’s seen – after all he’s done – Topher still isn’t ready to believe he’s helped bring about the apocalypse.

3. He acknowledges the Matrix connections, through the mouth of one of the characters.

4. Ballard’s an imprint now. Of himself. Which is to say: he’s both himself and an imprint. Well, aren’t we all? Isn’t that this show’s scariest question?

5. In the flashbacks to Caroline and Bennett’s friendships, Bennett keeps making noises about wishing she were different, wishing she were Caroline, and Caroline alters her to make her…herself, but moreso. More real than real. At the very beginning, the first layer of subtext this show presented was the idea that women are subjected to unreasonable demands by society, that they’re programmed to internalize everything from unrealistic body images to fear of feminism. In these flashbacks, these moments from before anybody really knows there’s a Dollhouse, we’re taken back to that idea.

6. Boyd’s complicity in everything raises the possibility that Echo’s great awakening was always just another Rossum machination – that you can never really wake up. It’s only honest to acknowledge the possibility that raging against the machine will only ever, in the end, strengthen the machine. That’s why the machine lets you do it.

7. All this hard s/f intellectualism pingponging around, and still it all seems to come back to the squishiest, stickiest of things: love. Topher’s love for Bennett, how it humanizes him, and sets Saunders off. Mellie’s (not November’s) love for Ballard, and his inability to keep himself from meeting it with doe eyes. Echo’s love for Ballard, and his inability to meet it with anything but raised eyebrows. Bennett’s love for Caroline, and how its frustration sends Bennett over to the Dark Side. And how all this focus on the squishy in no way feels like a cop-out on the hard: from the very beginning we’ve been asked to think that maybe love/lust proceeds from someplace so deep no mind-wipe can really reach it. That’s a romantic notion if we think it’s love we’re talking about, but an almost cynically hard-headed one if we think it’s lust we’re talking about, animal instinct.

8. As so often happens in Mutant Enemy productions, but this one most of all, we reach the end of an installment, slam through a big reveal or two, gasp when the music swells, and sit back satisfied that we know what’s going on, finally. And then, gradually, as we begin to persuade our hearts to climb down out of our mouths, we start to say, hey wait, why would Boyd program Saunders to kill Bennett when she’s trying to reconstruct Caroline if he’s only going to come back and preside over Caroline’s awakening himself? Like, do we really understand anything at all now? And if we don’t, how clever of Joss was it to make us feel like we did?

9. Have we finally seen a crack in the future? In Epitaph One we see Victor programmed with Ambrose’s personality, and acting and dressing a lot like the middle-aged man we’d met as Ambrose, the man we just saw shot and killed. Now it’s possible, and even likely, that the man we know as Ambrose was only ever just a doll-projection of the real Ambrose, who we’ve never seen. But that would make the not-Ambrose the first not-young, not-particularly-fit doll we’ve seen. That, or we finally have an indication that Epitaph One isn’t chiselled in stone.

10. We get a great big sloppy misty-eyed moment when we realize Boyd and Saunders have been together, just like we always hoped they would be. Then it’s taken away when she goes sleeper and he goes Big Bad. We get a great big sloppy mist-eyed moment when we see Bennett and Topher finally falling in love. Then it’s taken away when… Actually this isn’t something I love Joss for. I hate him for it. But I love to hate him for it.