Friday, October 30, 2009

Secret Test!: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: As always, please see A Serious Man before proceeding.

"As long as I learn I will make mistakes
What do I want? What do I need?
Why do I want it? What's in it for me?
It's the imagery of technology
Is what you get is what you see
Don't worry your mind
When you give it your best
One two one two this is just a test"

- Beastie Boys, "Just a Test"

A barrage of questions, then: Why is this happening? What does it mean? What are the rules? How do I behave properly? What choices are available? Which options should I take? And they culminate, really, in the one central mystery: What the fuck is going on?

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, looking and acting like an ideal live-action Opus the penguin) stands on his suburban roof under slate skies and adjusts the television aerial. Signals from the aether flow into the antenna, and the man hears garbled, incomprehensible messages from the heavens. Something is coming through, and he will continue to adjust the apparatus, strain to listen and see. The mystery of existence continues, and all Larry can get in reply is blurry broadcasts of F Troop.

Negative Theology

Like a Lenny Bruce retelling of a lost Ingmar Bergman script for The Book of Job: The Movie, A Serious Man is both nightclub sick joke style riff on Jewish identity crisis in postwar suburbia and a humane and silver-filigreed parable about the reasons and methods by which we derive spiritual and philosophical nourishment through hermeneutic process; it is about the relative value of lessons relayed by allegory, of the midrash of all things, from Torah to F Troop, Surrealistic Pillow to dreams, physics to kook literature, weather patterns to collections agency calls.

Myriad troubles compounding troubles begin swarming Larry until one day, without warning, his life is falling down around him. His protesting refrain is: "I didn't do anything!/ I haven't done anything!/ What did I do?" When his wife (Sari Lennick) demands a divorce, he asks what he did, and she tells him "You haven't 'done' anything. I haven't 'done' anything." When his impending tenure is threatened by anonymous letters to the board, he can think of no reason they should have been written. When harassed by the Columbia Record Club, which he did not join, he yelps "I didn't ask for Santana Abraxas!... I haven't done anything!" The indignities and calamities come swirling up from nowhere Larry can perceive, and his only conclusion can be that God is doing this to him. Or not.

And indeed, Larry is a good man, in the best way he knows how. He is intelligent and gentle, sensitive and responsible and unassuming. What he is not is demonstrative, confrontational, brash and headstrong, those qualities that pass for heroism in contemporary protagonists. He prides himself as a rational man, a fine thing for a physics professor to be. But his rigid framing of a cause-and-effect universe makes him indignant about lack of apparent cause when his wife and her boyfriend, the sympathy-oozing, pious Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) kick him out of his own home to live at the Jolly Roger Motel. As a teacher, Larry is accustomed to the use of stories to illustrate complex ideas. He explains as much to Korean student Clive (David Kang), who insists he understands the Schrödinger's Cat paradox; Larry counters that the "cat" is just a device for communicating a mathematical idea, and the math is the lesson. "They're like fables. To give you a picture... The math is how it really works." But as Clive tries to simultaneously bribe the professor for a passing grade and/or blackmail him for accepting the bribe (or perhaps does neither, the unmarked face of the envelope a blank screen of possibility), he seems to have grasped "dead cat" after all. Though he is familiar with the uncertainty principle and quantum superposition, Larry cannot see through the torment to apply chaos theory to his own situation (to be fair, it being the late '60s/early '70s, he'd have to be keeping ahead of the curve on his physics publications reading). The rational man is caught in a tangle; he uses the rhetorical technique, but does not do well when left to divine the lesson beneath the many signs, signals and allegories offered him. "I mean, even I don't understand the dead cat," he gasps to Clive.

The story being bent through the lens of Larry's perspective, the motivations of others are largely veiled, their intersections with Larry effectively blindsiding him. There are three exceptions, in sections of the film which swap perspective. The second most frequent point of view offered is Larry's son, Danny (Aaron Wolf), budding stoner and F Troop enthusiast who drowns out Hebrew school lessons with his transistor radio blaring Jefferson Airplane's secret message through his headphones. The Gopnik story proper begins here, inside Danny's ear canal, pulling outward into the light as "Somebody to Love" roars in the darkness, the film's leitmotif of alienation and thirst for simple salvation.

In the only other Minnesota moment entirely outside Larry's perspective, Sy Ableman drives to the golf course (even when no one is around, he drips self-satisfaction). Intercut synchronous car accidents befall both men, as Larry screams in impotent rage at the bicycling Clive and bangs up his auto, and Sy grows impatient waiting for a left-hand turn and is killed. Though (surprisingly) no one offers Larry the cold comfort that "it could've been you!," the value and meaninglessness of the sentiment that things could be worse is illustrated. Danny's life is not without problems — his aggravations include a harpy older sister, he owes his pot dealer twenty bucks, and dude, F Troop is coming in fuzzy — but he's not as bad off as his dad. And Larry does not quite recognize it, but his life is not so shambolic as his own destitute brother Arthur's (lovable gargoyle Richard Kind).

An extreme magnification of Larry, Arthur is crashing on his brother's couch, plagued by a cyst in constant need of draining, can neither hold a job nor appears to want one. That Arthur may be suffering serious psychological dysfunction becomes an increasingly likely possibility as he asks Larry's professional opinion of The Mentaculus, which he identifies as "a probability map," a Theory of Everything of his own devising. When Larry examines the little notebook, the pages roar with the white noise of madness, scribbles and equations cover every surface in mandalas of incomprehensible mathematics. Larry cannot make heads or tails of the Mentaculus. We might guess that it makes no sense, but Arthur's "system" apparently "works" as intended, and he applies it to winning at back room card games. And still, Arthur is hounded by police for gambling and solicitation and sodomy in seedy bars. Arthur understands the math and it solves none of his problems. The possibility exists that understanding the math has prompted Arthur's mental snap. While the Mentaculus appears to perfectly outline probabilities of limited stochastic systems like card games, perhaps Arthur does not think to apply its output to his personal life, or perhaps its wisdom holds no bearing when contemplating the nature of God.

Whether plagued by profoundly connected events or a designless swarm of fluke locusts, Larry cannot say. But even the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories has a structure, and the fundament of mathematical chaos is not disorder, but ungraspably complex determinist systems that can only look like pandemonium to the unaided eye. Larry may be haunted by a void of meaning, or by a surplus.

Maimonides tells us that the only statements we can make about the nature of God are statements of negation: all we may affirm is what God is not.

At the Mixer with Rambam and Rabad I: Of Advisors and Stories

Arthur does come closest to telling Larry what he may need to hear, wailing in the night at a hotel poolside freak out: "Look at everything Hashem has given you! And what do I get?! I get fucking shit!" Larry can't hear it, counters: "Arthur. What do I have? I live at the Jolly Roger."

In attempt to resolve his crisis of meaning, Larry visits three rabbis. Junior Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg, nerve-wracked and befuddled, as if he can't believe he's a holy man) proposes that Larry has lost his perspective, and advises looking at the world with refreshed vision. Rabbi Scott is sympathetic but his empathy is stunted, and his illustration ends and begins with the temple parking lot: "... imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn't familiar with these autos and such. Somebody still with a capacity for wonder. Someone with a fresh... perspective. That's what it is, Larry!... Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world!" Larry already believes that one potential of his situation is God's presence, the other is God's non-presence, and the difference is stacking up as a narrow one. The first rabbi's advice is sound, but he does not adequately connect the dots to Larry's circumstance for the idea to get through. "Just look at that parking lot."

To put his divorce proceedings in order, Larry consults his lawyer, Don Milgram (Adam Arkin). The principles of Judaic faith and practice are philosophically framed in legalistic terms, and Larry's trips to his lawyers are conferences with moral advisors as much as those with the rabbis. Though he visits Milgram to sort out the divorce and clarify a property line issue, Jewish law — Halakhah, the path on which one walks — informs all of Larry's choices. He sees the possibility and feels the weight of every day as a series of choices, large and small, to greet seriously or ignore. Should he grant a do-over "secret test," as Clive requests? Should the family wait for Arthur to finish in the bathroom before eating dinner? Should he pay for Sy's funeral?

A gruff, monosyllabic gentile neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) begins asserting ownership of what Larry believes to be part of the Gopnik yard. Mr. Brandt asserts that the property line ends at the poplar tree. Larry doesn't, apparently, but has no counter-evidence. On neighboring, possibly overlapping territory, a blurred boundry becomes matter of interpretation, one the self-assured gentile is going to win by default. Both satirizing the degree to which these suburban Jews have and have not become integrated, and addressing Larry's concern that he is correctly interpreting the law, the matter of the Gopnik yard is never resolved: the property lawyer (Michael Lerner) up and dies before Larry's eyes without uttering a word of his strategy.

And so to the second rabbi, Nachtner (hilarious character actor superpower George Wyner), who provides two critical lessons, one in comic council with Larry and one while presiding over Sy Ableman's funeral. To Larry, Nachtner relates the half-joke half-object lesson story of The Goy's Teeth, revealed as the rabbi's one-size-fits-all anecdote for any occasion. In brief, a dentist finds the words "Help Me" engraved? grown? into a patient's lower incisors. The riddle haunts the doctor, no answers are forthcoming, and he eventually stops worrying about it and finds peace. Larry stares and gapes, aghast at what he takes to be a shaggy dog story. Though he strains to hear the essence the advice, the rabbi refuses to elaborate.

Nachtner's timing is off and Larry isn't communicating his needs. Gopnik is seeking comfort and the rabbi provides an intellectual explanation to a theological question. The answer is sound — God neither provides nor owes any explanations — but the advice is misplaced. It is not what Larry wants to hear, so he does not.

Through all Larry hears is an irrelevant, anticlimactic joke, the Goy's Teeth is, in essence, a story about unknowable mystery, its presence and purpose in our lives. In the story, Sussman the dentist guesses at a moral — should he help others? Nachtner neither confirms nor denises: couldn't hurt. There is a disconnect between this conclusion and the questions. Helping people is an action to take in this world, a way to conduct oneself which, sure, couldn't hurt. It has not much to do with the nature of God or the question Sussman and Gopnik share with Job:

If this is sign, what does it mean?,
and: Why me?

The Goy's Teeth is linked to Schrödinger's Cat and the invented folktale prologue to Larry's story. In that miniature Yiddish comedy sketch of A Serious Man, a man and wife are visited one dark and snowy eve by a Torah scholar (Fyvush Finkle) who may (or may not) be a dead man inhabited by a dybbuk. Surely not, chuckles the rational husband. Obviously so, says his deadly serious wife, and stabs the guest in the heart. But Schrödinger's dybbuk shuffles off into the night, wounded and insulted. Doomed or saved or maybe neither, the couple never learns. The snow falls on the just and unjust.

At Ableman's funeral, Rabbi Nachtner gives a stirring and warm hesped in honor of the deceased and to guide the bereaved. He explains the Jewish concept of the afterlife, L'olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come. "It is not a geographic place like Canada..." (pause for laughter), it is not about a reward of riches and physical comforts, not entirely analogous to a Christian concept of an individual dividend Heaven. Nachtner outlines at length what the afterlife is not, and offers that L'olam Ha-Ba "is in the soul of this community which nurtured Sy Ableman and to which Sy Ableman now returns."

As for the third rabbi, Marshak refuses to see Larry at all. The old man devotes his time only to religious study and briefly advising the new Bar Mitzvahs. As Larry moves up the chain of wisdom, the advice becomes more succinct and cuts to the heart of the matter, while the comfort grows slim. Marshak does allow conference with Danny Gopnik, who triumphs through his Torah reading while righteously stoned. The ancient man stares across his empty desk, quotes Jefferson Airplane and advises Danny: "Be a good boy."

Perhaps the most concise version of these esteemed commentators is Clive Park's father. As Larry protests that either Clive is bribing him or not, and he cannot be blackmailed for a bribe he isn't accepting, Mr. Park's zen reply: "Please. Accept mystery."

Job Didn't Ask for Santana Abraxas: Five-Minute Exegesis

Joel and Ethan Coen tend to favor noir and screwball comedy, genres which may be played as farce or thriller, and that take as their base the dogpiling of misery and accident onto hapless protagonists. In its way, A Serious Man is a small primer on how to read the moral philosophy of the entire Coen oeuvre. We should not mistake a portrait of an absurdist universe for nihilism. The only self-identified nihilists the Coens have placed onscreen are in The Big Lebowski, and they are dismissed as buffoons, if slightly more dangerous than the rest of a cast of buffoons.

The real point of The Goy's Teeth, Nachtner simply hands to Larry. Eventually, these nagging questions will go away, in the face of small, everyday happiness, or at least the business of living life while cosmic mystery roars in the background. The point of Rabbi Scott's advice is similarly to marvel at what portion of the universe one does understand, and to tend personal relationships and behavior in that context. Marshak to Larry: following this line of questioning ends with a life of devoted, serious Torah study, and furthermore, when you get to the top of the chain, you may find deafening silence.

In a dream — the only Coen films with no dream sequences are Fargo and Burn After Reading — Larry tells his class that the Uncertainty Principle "proves we can never really know what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on." While it sounds good and ominous, the Uncertainty Principle does not quite say that. Sy Ableman appears and says that he does know what's going on. Though in this anxiety dream, Ableman is overstating the case, this unshaken confidence is part of why Nachtner had deemed Sy "a serious man." And they debate. Larry goggles that mathematics is proof, and the principle applies. Sy says that what happens in the afterlife, the cosmic balance of justice, is not the issue, and Larry need concern himself with present life. He says that "mathematics is the art of the possible." Otto von Bismarck said that was politics, of course: "... the attainable, the art of the next-best." Sy is talking about a place where the math cannot go.

A Simple Man opens with an epigram from Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, vital and most influential Tanakh and Talmud commentator: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Rashi was writing on Deuteronomy, instructing that we trust in God's plan and not strain to predict the unseeable future. Larry is not too far off in evaluating this — and The Goy's Teeth, and the Example of the Parking Lot, and Marshak's silence, and Mr. Park's koan — as "it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on." It can only cause us further consternation to be ordered stop there, though, because that is a pitiless interpretation. On the other hand, one is not sure who told Larry Gopnik that Judaism involved easy answers.

So to Job.

The Book of Job shares a structure roughly in common with A Serious Man. As protagonist, a good man by most standards, a man of some prosperity, a man of solid faith, and a man to whom atrocious things happen in unceasing barrage. He kvetches and questions why, but maintains that he did not do anything to merit the treatment. At the end, a whirlwind, out of which appears a voice both frightening and soothing. In Job, God does answer. In A Serious Man, the voice is Grace Slick's.

There is a key difference between the horrors that befall Job and those experienced by Larry Gopnik. Job is bedeviled by Acts of God. Until the grand finale, Larry's problems are the result of the behaviors of other people, or his interaction with other people. The reverse implication of Deuteronomy 18:13 and Rashi's note is that while God should be received wholeheartedly, other people may be suspect. So be a good boy. You will be responsible for this on the midterm.

The climax in which God responds to Job contains one of history's most burning, beautiful and profound answers to the problem of evil and the myriad uncertainties that come part and parcel with being a living human. No hero of these books speaks to God the way Job does without being rebuked. Few of them are given such visions — and be sure, God's defense/questioning of Job is so vivid that Job sees the words from the storm.

God answers the charges against him by pummeling Job with a series of questions. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?..." That is just the beginning, as God provides a stirring account of the marvel of creation. God holds forth on the perfect system of the natural world in such poetic fashion that it sounds like even God is impressed with the intricacy of ecosystem and solar system. God speaks of a vast planet and a vastness in which it whirls, physical and abstract: "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?" God plumbs the symbol-myths of human imagination: would you tangle with Behemoth, go fishing for Leviathan?

A number of points are being made and woven together in awesome rhetorical display. The universe's design is too complex for the human eye to take in at once, and what looks like hellish disorder is part of an incomprehensible system. For some of this, we may devise maths and sciences for prediction and explanation. There are those places where the math cannot reach, the place where position and momentum may be known at once, where the cat is alive and dead, we call those "God". Most vitally, the human beast lives in an amoral, unsympathetic world that is crammed with wonders, and any system of moral judgment, any divination of meaning belongs to the peculiar needs and inventions of the human mind. God's justice is not man's justice. Nature needs no justice or meaning: it is its own law and purpose.

These are majestic ideas and uncomfortable ones. Job retracts his accusations and embraces the freedom of being a creature of dust and ashes. This is not about milk and honey. Accept mystery? Good luck with that, though you don't have much choice. Here is what Larry has that Arthur does not: "You've got a family. You've got a job." As Marge Gunderson said, "There's more to life than a little bit of money, don't you know that? And here you are. And it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it." God answers Job by explaining exactly why he will get no answers: not only are the questions ill-formed, but the answer is immeasurably vast and all around him. Popular shorthand would have it that God "tests" Job, but the game is always stacked — God's playing with a Mentaculus in his back pocket and knows the outcome. Job suffers torment and vision so that we will have this story, this poem, this song about man's yearning. So you have it, I have it, Larry Gopnik has it. This is a far cry from "it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on."

We need these stories, because it is hard to just remember the math parts of the lesson during the test. "...[T]hey're illustrative. They're like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model." One can even walk away from a story about persistent inscrutability, only to be frustrated by how life makes no sense. The vision God gives Job is powerful enough to affect the man's spiritual refinement, but it too is an imperfect model, the totality being an infinity that cannot be squashed into language. Believing he can master the math and evacuate all secrets, Larry does not hear the voice. As Dick Dutton of Columbia Record Club says, "we can't make you listen to the records, sir."

Danny listens to the records, and stepping out of Marshak's office, onto the path of the serious man, he faces down the Whirlwind. The awesome, fearful black chaos of a tornado — or does it just look like chaos to us? — rips through darkening skies, the Airplane jangles and bellows. In the moment of pain and fear, philosophical and theological argument dissolve into abstracts and human yearning takes over. You want to know why it picked you? If you're being tested? Want to know what it means? Want answers? Or... don't you want somebody to love?

In a universe lacking in inherent, built-in meaning, our task is to forge our own meaning. A Serious Man is the world as a terrible, beautiful parking lot. Just look at that parking lot!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 2.3 - "Belle Chose"

Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: A weird professor (Arye Gross of "These Friends of Mine") teaches Echo about Chaucer (he is played by Arye Gross of The Opposite Sex and How to Live with Them). Meanwhile, Terry Karrens, serial kidnapper, budding murderer and nephew of a major Rossum backer (whew!) arrives at the Dollhouse in a coma. That Ballard may better question Terry, the killer's mind is dumped into Victor's brain, and he promptly escapes. With all these creepos wandering around, DeWitt has Topher improvise a remote Wipe, which accidentally swaps Vic and Ech's Imprints. Terry-Echo neck-stabs Prof. Weirdo (Arye Gross of Hexed!). Ballard intercepts club dancing, Kiki-headed Victor, causing civilians to believe Paul is gay.

Janani: So, a little background to get started: “Belle Chose”, in addition to being the shortest English sentence to feature any individual named “Belle," is a French phrase used by Chaucer's randiest character, The Wife of Bath, in the Prologue to her section of the Canterbury Tales. “Belle chose” means “pretty thing,” as in “that pretty thing you got between your legs, lady.” The Wife of Bath, who has been married five times (and is usually scouting for the next husband while waiting for the current one to die) does enjoy sex for its own sake, but is even more interested in what her “belle chose” can obtain for her in the way of bargaining power — she does Roma Klar one better with her absolute, openly self-serving, rather refreshing unsentimentality about sex. The Wife refers to sex often and pragmatically as her husband’s “debt” — the more he fucks her, and the more she ensures that he fucks her, the more he must yield to her in the way of household authority, victory in argument, and the all-important SWAG (she is a clotheshorse!). Hence her diligence in banging the brains out of several “good,” “rich,” “old,” barely erectile elderly husbands (Victor/Kiki’s line to the club boys, “As help my God, I laughe whan I thinke/How pitously a-night I made hem swinke,” refers to those exact men, who probably died of heart attacks induced by the Wife’s enthusiastic debt-collection. Victor/Kiki, of course, just wants them to buy a girl a drink).

What does this have to do with Echo/Kiki and her quest for an A? Her professor’s wish to educate a preprogrammed Active about sexual “power” is ironic on its face, also wretched and poignant: the roleplay is ultimately a simple trade of sex for a grade, but he doesn’t want it to feel that way. He wants the seduction to appear to be Kiki's own idea. He wants the experience of falling into her debt, of owing her the grade. He doesn't just want to get off; he wants to feel benevolent while doing it. He is more complicated than your average R client, as well as a natural and interesting successor to Joel Mynor from “Man on the Street”, who set up a reverse transaction, wanting his wife Rebecca to fall into his sexual and emotional debt at the sight of her beautiful new house. Clients who try to manipulate Actives into semblances of autonomous behavior are a step forward for the show; perhaps Terry Karrens' absurd games (structured around women who owe him no sexual debt at all) are an exaggeration-for-arguments' sake, an airing of our very worst fears about R Clients, in fact a writerly response to those fears: not every R client wants a tranquilized husk. In a couple weeks we’ll meet the monster who is contented to make Sierra his slave, but not everyone wants a slave — or at least to be reminded that he’s paying for one; once again Season 2 has opted against a SPY!COP!NINJA! Engagement in favor of an Engagement that complicates client-Active relationships and our own notions of what it means to purchase a "romantic" experience. There’s a reason that the more expensive forms of prostitution, throughout history, have been as much about mental connection, conversation, and ambience as they’ve been about anyone’s “belle chose.”

Lastly, Kiki may have gotten an F for a paper on "The Economics of Marriage," but what are the funniest sexonomics of this episode in general? Probably Ballard getting a bunch of clothes for Kiki, acting out the role of henpecked partner, and getting absolutely nothing in return…sexually, that is. He does get his salary from Adelle, which might make him another kind of whore. Time will tell.

Chris: We're interested, then, in the Prof's reading of the prologue to the Wife's tale. A quick jaunt through the archives confirmed what I suspicioned: it takes a scholar of narrow agenda and wishful thinking to interpret the prologue as an undiluted story of female power. The relationship between Kiki and Gossen hints at the hoops one must jump through to get there (you cant be brainwashed into empowerment), but he's pitching a twisted Foucauldian version of "power" at best, while Chaucer actually wrote a ribald satire of gender authority, marriage customs and medieval sexual politics. The goofy fantasy at work is also of enlightening someone into wanting to have sex with you, of being such a good teacher that you awaken that inspiration. The professor schools Kiki in a rather shifty interpretation of a jaundiced text, essentially emphasizing the qualities of the story that sound good and appealing to a modern college girl and inspire imitative behavior, thus, ironically, canceling out today's Chaucer lesson. A funny bit that Gossen skips over is that among the Wife's talents is the ability to quote Scripture to her own ends, which is not unlike the game Gossen is up to. As always: doesn't matter, she's programmed to be convinced by any argument he makes; the belle's got no choice.

Conversely: who knows how self-aware a lit teacher can get, but the convoluted lesson plan and fantasy framing the professor's Engagement are just a gilt lily version of what is already inherent in the Active/ R Client relationship. He's getting sex, she's getting paid. He "needs" her to be there, just as much as the Dollhouse needs a cash flow.

The A plot, of wretched Terry Karrens and his problems with the ladies, strongly resembles the shape of Tim Minear's great Angel episode "Billy". That black beauty was also about a serial killer of women, protected by the money and influence of powerful relatives, and whose psychosis proved frighteningly infectious (I mention this as esoteric Mutant Enemy lore more than as a discussion point — I don't wanna spoil that episode for you). The pop culture serial killer is a difficult monster, named after the real world species but possessing little psychology in common. While they are fascinating creatures, for example, I think we learn precious little about serial killers from Hannibal Lecter or Dexter Morgan (whose program used to be haunted by Liza Lapira, our own Ivy!); they have other functions to serve, are too valuable to waste on the banal and repulsive realities of serial killers. Among Terry's functions in "Belle Chose", perhaps the most interesting is the climax as Terry-Echo is placed in control of the psycho's victims, mini-Dollhouse (wait, dollhouses are already miniatures... aw, forget it). She flickers in and out of Caroline-ness, trying to sacrifice herself to set everyone free, effectively playing out a fractal repetition of her larger story yet again.

JS: Gossen also leaves out the long section where the Wife's tedious fifth husband reads aloud, for "teaching" purposes, a catalog of "wicked wives" — dozens of misbehaving and man-scourging women from history and literature. The Wife gets so mad that she tears up the book, and then husband and Wife punch each other out! It's better than Springer! I bring this up not only to hook into your point about Gossen's self-serving interpretation of the Tale (any discussion of the Wife's power games must also address her handicaps), but to recall the other Dollhouse character and Tim Minear creation who interpreted an ancient text to his own ends — Jonas Sparrow of "True Believer". In both stories, the Doll who is supposed to yield to the pedant's authority ends up malfunctioning, going bananas, and destroying his painstakingly developed world.

It's a variation on what seems to happen to Topher every single week — and a metaphor for Caroline's weekly emergence — but it also made me think about the Dollhouse's own apparent lack of a creed or guiding "text." A manual of persuasion, to get people to do their jobs correctly, even to make them respect their jobs. Adelle glides without a hitch from one apparent revelation of policy — "We are working to reunite a desperate family with a wayward loved one" — to another — "Bradley Karrens is a major shareholder in our parent organization." The Dollhouse is a moneymaker, but per Adelle it's also a do-gooding organization, per Topher it's an R&D playground, and aside from the soothing words spoken to Actives, there's no sense of a pervading ideology or "party line" that must be taken in order to work there. No indoctrination. No totalitarian dread. Little tyranny to speak of (unless you're Lawrence Dominic, who I hope comes back to settle with Adelle). Langton reads on the job. When I think back to my expectations at the very beginning of the show, I can't believe how loosely the place is run. Imagine if Terry Karrens ran the joint! That's the whole point of him and his ilk, though...he'd do a terrible job.

So what'd you think of Victor? Not only has another common Tech barrier broken down, bringing us closer to the world of "Epitaph One" (Topher can now do remote Imprint switches as well as Wipes, across genders, treating the collective Active mind as one unified field), but we got a prancing Enver Gjokaj. The show owes this fella a debt of its own. He needs to get a hell of a lot more storylines.

CS: The "Epitaph One" Tech does seem to be in place, all that is missing is a compact version of the Chair and an iPhone app version of Topher's Imprint building software. The blanket signal "the Chinese" laid down by telephone (in, a pal reminds me, not-so-veiled echo of Stephen King's novel Cell) doesn't even require a hardware interface in this case. Frankly, I'm kind of skeptical of that one — I'll buy the the biometrics readouts, but that they can relay a signal impulse should be an obvious danger zone.

Dushku does bubbly coed and jaded wiseass very well, but we are treated in "Belle Chose" to further demonstration of inability to be subsumed by a character. As in the hero/foil body-swap Buffy episode "Who Are You", Dushku and a stronger actor (Gellar there, Gjokaj here) are both asked to play the same character, and Dushku flattens her characterization while the gifted mimic soars. There is none of Terry's posture or inflection emitting from Echo, while Victor is a spot-on recreation of the killer's tics and clench-jawed glower. And maybe, just maybe, this works to Dollhouse's advantage: Caroline cannot be submerged.

The shell game at work in "Belle" is of playing with human dolls, its final shuffle I've already touched on. The show is always about this, but the episode is explicitly about playing dress up with object-people. If "Belle" understands one thing about serial killer psychology, it is this, the void of empathy, inability to see people as anything but things (Dexter's failure and masterstroke being that its Everyman/Killer thinks he is emotionless but understands people's feelings disarmingly well). Echo's Engagement begins with a hilarious round of dolling up the Dolls. The Handlers, tough and serious boys — and the staff most likely to bond with the Dolls — want nothing to do with picking out clothes and doing makeup, though the gay Dollhouse fashionista repeats Topher's declaration that his works is "art". Prof. Gossen only wants to perform if his dolly has thoughts and feelings and the ability to interpret medieval literature, counterpoint to Terry who is equally deluded but can only perform if he can pose and speak for his dolls entirely. Are these men opposites, or flip-sides of the same principal? If we are tipped to believe that Gossen's feminist reading of Chaucer is ironic at best, bullshit at worst, then Terry's games are the argument against, an extreme form of patriarchal domination in which the dominated subject has no latitude for resistance. His victims are exerting power only in that their very bodies make Terry feel helpless... a pretty useless "power" they would hold even if they were dead.

I missed him this week, but last seen, Senator Perrin was concerned that murder may be among the Dollhouse's crimes. In "Belle Chose", DeWitt is particularly concerned that Victor is being used as a vessel for violence. Guess she's only okay with murder if she gets to pick the target.

JS: Bring on the serial-killer knowledges. Does Terry even qualify — yet — as a serial killer, rather than a simple kidnapper? He did murder one woman, but murder doesn't seem to be a fetish or a carefully thought-out part of his ritual; it's more like a kid pulling the head off a doll. Even Ballard didn't think he'd go so far as to kill even one Aunt Sheila. I had trouble with his sudden transition from simple misogynist (as Victor) to rampaging loon (as Echo) — why did he stab the professor? Was he so far gone as to believe his devious dolls had actually turned him into a woman? (That would make Aunt Sheila even more powerful dead than alive.) It's quite weird to watch Terry and Kiki settle so quickly and unquestioningly into their foreign bodies — Ballard hints at possible gender dysphoria with the klutzy line "Is any part of [Terry Marion Karrens] a boy's name?" but Terry is pretty clearly attracted to women, and his instant comfort with becoming one is probably just plot magic — and begs the question of when we'll see more cross-gender Imprintations.

Meanwhile, I did not buy Dushku as a bubblehead; she was not written at a consistent level of stupidity. Women like that are often a lot shrewder than they appear, performing stupidity to their advantage, but Dushku seemed to recite the lines without having decided whether she was playing self-aware or not. Little microseconds of Faith-ful knowingness kept flashing through. She was less cartoony in the office hours scenes, but overall I have to condemn both Gossen and Ballard for their extremely bad taste in female objects (Ballard, rendered jellylike by schoolgirl knee socks, must have already forgotten the much sexier and more grown-up Roma Klar!) I take your point about the indelibility of Caroline, though. Caroline has already had her intro to Evil and her brush with advanced Evil; she's too attuned to its presence to crack convincing jokes about it. Dushku — in career history and persona — is too established as ass-kicker and female action icon to pull off even one second of that clichéd, curdled femininity. Once again, she puts a rusty archetype in quotation marks.

Speaking of which, we haven't yet mentioned the actual tale told by the Wife of Bath — the tale of a knight sent to determine "that which women desire most." He ends up forced into marriage with a hideous old woman who asks whether he would prefer a wife ugly by day and beautiful by night, or vice versa. He answers, correctly, that the choice belongs to the woman alone: "I put me in your wyse governance; cheseth yourself which may be most plesance, and most honour to yow and me also." As you've pointed out, the story was later retold featuring Sir Gawain, one of the knights of the Round Table. "Belle Chose" doesn't explicitly refer to this Wifely contribution, but myriad plot nuggets — from the (forced) beautification of Echo, to the schemes of Gossen and Terry, to the sufferings of Terry's victims — outrage the original story and make the events of "Belle Chose" more bitter inversion than tribute to the Wife's empowering yarn. I'm especially interested in how Ballard (whom you've tagged as a potential Gawain-figure) intrudes on the choices of the women in his care; restoring Madeline's ability to "choose" effectively deprived Mellie of hers (by terminating her); Madeline has no reason to know who he is. And when Caroline's power of choice is restored, she may not choose him either. But as Echo gradually realizes her sexual power over him, she may start to using it... to surprising ends.

Maybe she will force him to go dancing!

CS: Terry may or may not fit an FBI profiler's definition of a serial killer yet. Ballard's judgment aside (it's Ballard, after all), and discounting any unconfirmed killing Terry may have done in the past, we see him kill twice in "Belle Chose" with a requisite cooling off period and in the end is on his way to massacre the remaining girls. Third time's a charm. Some killers we know full well fit the profile and think of as serial killers don't actually qualify. Topher's brain scan, while dubious evidence should Terry have been brought to trial, is presented as a way of confirming the shorthand for the audience without going into gruesome detail: this is a serial killer. Ballard should have pegged him as a mixed organized/disorganized killer type. Appropriately for Dollhouse, the abduction and abuse ritual is about control for Terry, while the murder occurs in a frenzy when the center, inevitably, does not hold.

Various things ring false about Terry, but for me it is mainly the outrageously silly, colorfully weird but still TV-friendly staging of his afternoon croquet fantasy and his baby talk dialogue. If I haven't mentioned it before, Mutant Enemy's writing voices for crazy people are kind of grating and off key, though Terry is spared from one of their favorite cringey tropes, the lunatic who speaks in poetic non sequitur koan. It is not a blanket requirement, but killer's of roughly Terry's profile nearly always rape their victims to enact physical dominance, which I have no interest in seeing on Dollhouse but would have unified Terry's story with the matter of the Wife's tale. (If you are interested in horrible crimes, visit your local library to learn more! Of the one billion books available on the subject, Dr. Eric W. Hickey's Serial Murderers and Their Victims is the most valuable, well researched, becalmed and, er, expensive) The Wife also includes a discussion on the reality that men born of high station have no inherent predilection to moral virtue, so maybe someone should mail Terry's uncle a copy.

The knight in the Wife's tale is a rapist whose quest is a weird form of test to determine his punishment. I never saw that movie What Women Want, but I can only assume it plays out exactly like the Wife's tale. Just for comparison laffs, the version of the Wife's tale as retold in "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle", the quest is a challenge to Arthur, who sends Gawain out for recon on ladies' desires, with no inciting incident of sexual violence. Though his zealous virtue and devotion to the good guys is pretty funny in "Ragnelle" (the knight marries the hag not to save his own neck, but his BFF, Arthur's!), Gawain's intense honor and apparent purity get in the way of his effectiveness across several tales, and (it is dangerous to psychoanalyze medieval literature) mask his hang-ups and illusions about women. That's why I think he's a good match with Ballard. Anyway, in Chaucer the knight is unnamed, and in "Belle Chose", it's actually Topher (on DeWitt's orders) whose screw up gives the women in the narrative their "choice": will Echo be Kiki or Terry or a blank Doll? Thanks for the options, but she will be Caroline.

Like Prof. Gossen, as the Wife is telling her story, to support her argument, she pulls in aphorisms and anecdotes from other literature (Juvenal, Dante, etc.), or has her characters do it. The lengthiest sidetrack is supposed to illustrate that women can't keep secrets, she invokes Ovid and retells the end of a King Midas story. Having had the bad judgement to play Simon Cowell at a music contest between Apollo and Pan, Midas is punished with ass ears by Apollo. As the Wife would have it, Midas tells his embarrassing secret only to his wife, who tells it to the water... and if you want the rest, the Wife of Bath tells us to go to Ovid. So, though none of our models plays out in perfect parallel, I don't know that we're chasing our tails here. If you do check Ovid, you'll find that the Wife is stacking the deck. As Ovid has it, Midas' affliction is known only to his barber slave, not his wife. Wanna know how it ends? The barber digs a hole in which to tell his story, reeds grow in the dirt, and the secret is scattered to the wind. A preview of sorts for both how the Dollhouse falls and the consciousness of Dolls may survive (The X-Files may have kept it in mind, with a motif that the Truth refuses to stay buried).

Between this episode and "Spy in the House of Love", Dollhouse's idea of literary allusion is stacking up as damned bizarre.

JS: And they know we will Google those allusions to the ends of the Internet. Don't forget "Briar Rose" in the list of shout-outs. TV fictions are always mining the news for crime and doctor stories, but it seems rarer for them to engage with other fictions in the way Dollhouse does (unless they have clearly literary roots, e.g. Merlin, which has a huge cache of satellite stories to work with) From the meta tower, it looks awfully as though Dollhouse's ghost-themes of storytelling/plotting/showrunning are in fact solid enough to take on the creative theme of adapting and reinventing source material, making "Belle Chose" and other "literary" episodes stories about telling stories about how we tell stories about stories. You said something similar regarding the narrative nesting in Inglourious Basterds (whose very title is a shout-out to an earlier story!), and maybe Dollhouse can be seen as the expanded serial-drama version of that experiment. All Whedon needs to do is change the series name to "A Doull's Hoose" and we're set.

(And speaking of adaptation, Terry's delivery of those croquet lines was just self-conscious enough that he, too, seemed as though he were channeling a story he'd seen elsewhere... perhaps on TV, perhaps onstage in some comedy of manners. He was clearly taking pleasure in imitating someone, repeating a script he'd heard and deemed appropriate for his family outing. And even if he was improvising, I find that many improvisers do this too — the family scenes they act out are often more like reruns of fifties sitcoms than of contemporary life. Even more interesting an improvisation was Echo's lapse into storytelling as, freed briefly of Terry, privy to his "source material" (memories) yet able to refer to him in the third person, she narrated the stalking of Robin.)

Basta! Enough of this episode! It's almost 9PM and I hear that Topher's match is finally here. I have to go and meet her.

CS: Y'know, the old calypso standard "Ugly Woman"/"If You Want to be Happy" is probably the most succinct and hilarious retelling of the punchline of the Wife's tale proper. The narrator in that number knows that even when you give a pretty girl a chance to be faithful, even if she chooses not to be Kiki, the world is full of Prof. Gossens and Terries, and man, it just ain't worth the grief.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 2.2 - "Instinct"

Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: Echo is imprinted as a young mother. Topher is thrilled at his own work on this project, having physically altered a bunch of glands. The rush of mom-hormones causes Echo to flip out, and she steals the baby, believing she is protecting her child. Then she gives it back when the dad changes his mind about having an Active au pair/wet nurse. Meanwhile, Madeline Costley doesn't want to go back to the Dollhouse for a medical exam. But then she does. She tells Paul she is "not sad" and he may or may not believe it.

Janani: Upfront, I gotta say...that was one fug baby. I'm sorry, baby. You looked like plastic. But I still believed in Echo's devotion to you, as I did in the obligingly stormy weather in her final scene with Nate - everyone knows that angry mothers go Q'ABOOM!

Madeline's baby must have been made of plastic, though, for her to be so completely over its demise. The two parallel Ballard/bereaved mother conversations undermine her claims that she's fine - if, as the episode argues, (synthetic) maternal devotion is so powerful, even unWipeable, no Dollhouse emo-modifications, let alone the "Needs" cemetery expedition from last season, will heal maternal grief completely. Madeline's a zombie, asleep-er than Echo herself, though I'm surprised that the Dollhouse provides outpatient services and something more along the lines of an anesthetization than a total memory-wipe - Madeline witnessing the Echo-freakout was pretty damn compromising. Madeline and Echo will surely experience a parallel reawakening this season, Echo within the Dollhouse, Madeline without...and that Paul and Madeline are not finished by a longish shot. This would confirm and elaborate on a suspicion we've had for awhile now - that you're never completely done with the Dollhouse, and it's never completely done with you. The decision to enter it remains an indelible entry in your mortal itinerary.

(We can discuss in a bit the wisdom of using generic "maternal instinct" as a plot device, as for more unfortunate babies the instinct [instinct for what?] can swing other ways. All they're trying to argue that the homo sapiens body is and always will be more powerful than Topher's gland-handing, and this could have been demonstrated using any number of commonly accepted "drives".)

Chris: Besides just returning Madeline to the fold of this story, "Instinct" begins to go several places we've specifically wanted Dollhouse to go. What Topher does in the upstairs room is fiddle with body chemistry. Though the writers have not put the words in anyone's mouth, it always has been this way, so it is rather silly that the reality has not occurred to Topher until just now -- particularly since he affected Echo with hysterical blindness in "True Believer". Senator Perrin is quicker on the uptake than the boy genius, and immediately upon skimming the Dollhouse dossier, he recognizes that Rossum Corp. could have cured his mother's Alzheimer's disease. If the chair allows full synapse control, Topher should, yes, be able to cure cancer, cure Apserger syndrome, epilepsy and migraines. The troubling/fascinating Buffyverse tendency to discuss body/mind/soul as discrete units is being rapidly demolished by Dollhouse.

The episode features a client who not only questions the effectiveness of employing an Active after a disturbing glitch in the plan, but realizes the entire Engagement was a terrible idea. Poor Daddy Nate also breaks what one assumes is client protocol #1, and tells Echo directly that she is not who she thinks she is, a conversation starter that, given human nature, should be irresistible to every client every week. When paired with an earlier scene of Emily-Echo discovering family photos of Nate's deceased wife, the feasibility of the Dollhouse program is called into question in another way. There are reasons Engagements are short-term affairs, linked to Dollhouse's self-imposed limitations on fantasy science. While other nefarious person manufacturing conspiracies of vaster resource, like Tyrell Corporation or the Machine society of The Matrix, set up watertight backstories and plant physical traces of the imaginary life lived, the Dollhouse just plugs the personality data into the brain and hopes for the best. Again, very trusting of the Dollhouse to count on clients not blowing their cover and short circuiting the Active hardware, but the methods tell us something about the epistemic strategies and assumptions of the Dollhouse, and maybe of Dollhouse. Though the episode is about "instinct," the plot swings on Emily receiving information from outside herself -- observation of Nate's interaction with the baby, the cache of photos, the overheard phone call, etc. Feelings, self-knowledge and body-memory aren't the sum of reality, we also rely on external data to confirm our reality. And sure enough, though Echo necessarily has misinterpreted all that information, the inborn (well, Imprinted) drives win out.

On the slapstick ethics lesson front, the knee-slapper scene in "Instinct" is bloody-nosed Topher marveling that "I outplayed myself! It's like chess!," and Paul countering that it is "not 'like chess,' like 'Echo is in pain and may be in danger.'" Delight with his own skill is par for course with this kid, as is framing a situation gone impressively awry as an achievement (an experiment with results is of vital interest, even if the result is not as predicted). We've seen Topher here before in another way, back when he "corrected" Ballard that the human brain is, indeed, "like a computer." Maybe he did not get proper closure on the Whiskey situation, but certain lessons about mad science's consequences for the human soul have not gotten through to the supposed genius.

"Instinct" is also proof that the foundation of the Dollhouse concept is not inherently unsound. It is an engaging, rich Engagement of the Week story, even if it hinges on the Baby in Peril, a suspense device older than D.W. Griffith and Edison put together.

JS: In general it is a good idea to come to the aid of Imperiled Babies, and thank goodness we still lack the technology to confirm whether a baby will grow up to be [insert notorious jackass]. (Although some benign variant might have helped predict the Alpha-slashings.)

It's a good thing you went on vacation, because it took me time to warm up to this episode. Emily’s sprinted, oxytocin-fueled arc through Los Angeles cut the most spectacular swath, but I've been thinking more about how space-heart-time was lacerated in the process of bringing her back at all. To add to your point about the necessary short-termness of Engagements, almost all the Engagements we've been privy to before Season 2 have required little to no social orchestration. Actives are often out and about in public, but they've mostly interacted directly with clients (Richard Connell, Joel Mynor, Adelle) or with those they're programmed to beat up or intimidate in the line of duty. We've mostly been shown 100% romance or 100% work. To the world at large they are anonymous faces, corps of NSA agents or other aloof professionals (though this does beg the question of whether Dolls' friends and families ever see them on the street and, if so, how the hell they react). If they do have to penetrate a social world, make friends and allies, they can begin from scratch, introducing themselves as strangers (Esther, Margaret, Mellie). Kellies - conveniently placed best friends, social buffers/safeguards - haven't really been necessary.

"Vows", where Roma Klar waited out a courtship and engagement of at least a few months' duration, floated the question of friendship and social networks - were all those "relatives" at the wedding Dolls too? But “Instinct”’s Emily is being reintroduced, if not exactly reintegrated, into a world which has already mourned her and moved on. (At least ghost-Margaret knew to watch her step; to jump to another show for a minute, resurrected Buffy was luckier to live in a world with a more flexible definition of “death.”) The puzzle of Emily's re-incorporation draws attention to something that may thwart the Dollhouse as surely as Perrin or a rival lab or any limitation of physics: the resiliency of human webs, whose nodes and spokes usually grow out of shared history, accretions of interactions, small judgments, minute gestures of trust - hard to build, hard to destroy, hardest to repair after a node is ripped out. You can’t just plop people back into the world – they have to be woven back in. In Nate's case, leave aside the macro problem of concealing a recently dead woman from her neighbors; even leave aside the problem of bonding her with a strange baby, which Topher sort-of solved. By the time you bring Rebecca or Margaret or Emily or Buffy back from the dead, their survivors, no matter how hard they try, are no longer the same people who mourned at graveside.

Non-Imprinted brains are beyond Topher’s sphere of control, and the show’s fresh acknowledgement of this, via Nate, feels like a clear transition to larger ambitions. Season 1 dealt largely with the adventures of atomized individuals in the field, people who could be Engaged briefly, retrieved, and made to disappear without baffling and wounding more than one or two people. Just two episodes into season 2, I think we're on the road to more complicated enmeshments, impostors at higher social tiers with far more people to deceive, Imprints whose actions affect not only paying clients but the tilt and rotation of their social spheres. Surely we’ll soon see artists resurrected to complete unfinished lifework and guarantee grander legacies, or heads of state temporarily impersonated to avert political meltdown. We’re already seeing this on the antagonist-front too - last season we had lone cats Ballard/Alpha as antagonists/infiltrators, and now Perrin, with all the glory that’s his to lose.

And what about the epilogue that wasn't: Mellie’s seamless withdrawal, now Madeline’s ambivalent return? Things look good on the material end, but otherwise her reintegration looks like a soulless flop. Don’t her friends have a few questions for her about where she's been, or where all the money came from? One of the pleasures of this show is watching its almost limitless latitude strain against these mundane concerns. If the writers are near-omnipotent Tophers and Adelles, churning out spies and scientists and singers and Dushkubots at will, realworld logic keeps throwing a lot of interesting obstacles their way.

Speaking of Adelle. That speech to Nate about parenting was interesting. The woman is so full of melodious reassurances! I mean, she of all people should know what happens when a baby grows up without a mother. Sometimes he tries boldly to go where no baby should go:

CS: First things first, there does seem to be a story problem with the company policy of keeping Actives in the area from which they were recruited. It is baffling that Echo would have been sent to Caroline's alma matter in "Echoes" (an idea that flits through the episode but is not addressed as a plot hole) or that Mellie lived a virtual 9-to-5 on the city streets where she used to walk as Madeline. Los Angeles is big and relatively impersonal, but it is nothing like anonymous -- on a day out, I'm bound to bump into five people I know by name, two dozen I recognize by face.

Perhaps the terrible pull of Instinct itself, rather than the client, is closer to being a villain in this story. Papa Nate is both the catalyst for the problem, having commissioned the perpetual baddie, the Dollhouse -- their sin this time out being the gall to toy with the forces of maternal instinct -- and the solution. Refreshingly, "Instinct" doesn't make a case for that instinct as either the noblest quality of the species or a primitive, animalistic drive mucking up human logic. It is just a fact of parenthood, one among several elements that cause us to be effective parents. In a lengthy teardown of Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (dude, with a title like that, you're asking for it!), Pauline Kael touched an idea pertinent here (she was using it to combat film theorists' reductivist tendencies):
"It is like the old nonsense that man is what differentiates him from the other animals -- which is usually said to be his soul or his mind or his ability to transmit information from one generation to the other, etc. But man is also what he shares with the other animals. And if you try to reduce him to some supposed quality that he alone has, you get an absurdly distorted view of man. And the truth is, as we learn more about animals and about man, the less we are sure what differentiates him from other animals, or if it's so very important."

At Adelle's tea party with Nate her duty is to placate him and steer him away from blaming the Dollhouse for their errors (numero uno of which might have been, yet again, taking this job at all). Among the techniques are simultaneous guilt tripping and flattery of the client, and comparison of adoption to kidnapping. Between Emily and Adelle, Nate does recover his capacity to parent his child, and discusses it rationally in the denouement, a climax that is all conversation (albeit with a baby held at knifepoint) and no kickboxing. Perhaps his "instinct" kicks in when the child is in danger, but that is not what it sounds like. Nate expresses disgust and regret at his own selfishness, a temporary failure of nerve via grief-induced blindness, and seems to realize he can love and care for his son just fine. The episode is structured as such that in the first half Emily's maternal drive is the finer thing than Nate's awful logic (i.e. I can't love this baby + the baby needs love = make a fake mom! and this isn't working --> get rid of them both), while in the second half Nate's better judgment rules while Echo's berserk biochemistry places the kid at hazard. Rather than make a Nature or Nurture argument about proper parenting, "Instinct" would indicate that we cannot be so schematic, and, really the answer is "Both."

Though the guest star story is about a dad accepting his role, it is largely about mothers, and not really a "Dad" episode. "Instinct" does not make obvious parallels (maybe Mutant Enemy is sick of them already) to Dollhouse's inbuilt father metaphors: Handler/Active relationshps (the Bear Father), Topher (the creator father, the father who frames your morality and belief systems) or Clive Ambrose (the Founding Father, the tyrant, the destroyer). It may, however, offer Adelle as flip-side to Emily's rampaging instincts. Master smooth talker and keeper of the house rules, we see her mother Madeline, convincing her to get a check-up, and nudge Nate into accepting his parental duties through cajoling, reassurance and (that powerful tool of salespeople and moms alike) making it seem like it's his idea. After meeting resistance, Adelle practically gets Madeline into the office by saying "I'm the mom, that's why."

JS: It may be that every interaction between two people of unequal status, where the more powerful one takes an intense interest in the less powerful/experienced one, can be tagged as "parenting." We touched on this in our discussion of "Echoes", but at root parenting is about influencing another creature's progress, whether as a remote navigator or a hands-on coach or a saboteur (roles available to both genders). (And the mothering models of good cop, cajoler and/or diplomat are just a few of many alternatives to going feral.) I'll go ahead and say it, and welcome criticism/testimony from any EK readers with children: Emily doesn't yet qualify as a parent, just a guardian. Her baby is still an extension of herself. The episode puts "instinct" and "young motherhood" in its own version of quotation marks, hugely exaggerating and perhaps even satirizing the feelings glibly predicted for young mothers and endlessly rehashed in Not-Without-My-Baby narratives (where young men are mostly left to map their own rituals, ethics, and emotional parameters of fatherhood, reweaving and reintegrating themselves into the family web). We're disturbed when fictional or real women can do without their babies, but I've known women as ambivalent about their infant children as Nate is, and Emily is a cartoon in a (tragically) cartoonish story; as such, her story is not about the true challenges of parenting but about the enormity of Topher's design miscalculation. At root, he Imprinted her with an attachment and drive that made her run like hell to save an unfathomably precious object. What she doesn't know is that she's run this course before.

There are many chase and pursuit scenes in Dollhouse, but I can recall two times that Echo ran that fast or far or singlemindedly to save a human "life": a) in "Omega", to save her wedge and b) in "The Target", to save her own skin from Richard Connell. (That forest run, though, is probably the only one where she experienced anything like Emily's level of anguish and fear). "The Target" could have been titled "Instinct" to different effect - the survival instinct of Caroline overcoming the girlfriend Imprint of Jock Girl. Not Nate, not Instinct, but Topher is the villain of this week, but I still have to wonder whose "nature" intervened at the moment when Emily decided to return the child. (Which would also be the moment in which, making the best decision for a child not her own, she truly became a parent.) If implanted "instinct" is too strong for Topher to control, and too indelible to Wipe, what is strong enough to neutralize it? it the equanimity and altruism of Caroline, at last identifying a situation where it's better for her to back off? Caroline is not known for her restraint, and her Rescue Mania is as strong as any drive we've seen on the show. But maybe it's being tempered by an increasing (unconscious) awareness of when to let go.

(Just don’t let go when wheels are involved!!!).

CS: Agh, don't show me things like that. I didn't like seeing Dushku waving a prop knife around a baby's head, either! It must be some kind of... INSTINCT!!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Vacation With Manny

The flow of posts through Exploding Kinetoscope is mercifully thin and irregular during normal months. Adding to the October blockage, I am currently on vacation and far away from Movie City, U.S.A. So I will be spread thin-to-gone for another week.

I still feel compelled to remind readers that October 1 saw the first publication of The Library of America's Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. Certainly this hardcover treasure-slab is the film book event of the year, and it is highly unlikely that even the most diehard Farber scholar or fan has tracked down all of the represented material before. It is suggested that you stop reading blogs until you are done reading Farber on Film. It will teach you how to write about movies like a real man!

Here I am being transfixed by the book in Lawrence, Kansas!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 2.1 - "Vows"

Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: In convoluted and marginally effective plan, Paul Ballard has Echo imprinted as an undercover FBI agent to help him bust an arms dealer that he could never catch through official channels. To pull it off, Echo has to get married! Also she has to get beaten up by both the bad guy and the good guy, but Ballard succeeds in pummeling Echo into glitching... kung-fu glitching, that is! Back at the ranch, Dr. Saunders torments Topher in symbolic ways like showing him film clips of Elsa Lanchester and flooding his office with lab rats, finally breaching his most sensitive personal boundary with inappropriate touching. In the end, identity crisising Whiskey heads out of town, while Paul and Echo decide to team up and locate the brains of all the Dolls.

Chris: Vow: You will not notice Dollhouse budget cuts when there are exploding cars and Elliot Smith songs.

Vow: Topher's lab assistant, Ivy, who we may be worried was off hanging out with Judy Winsow, is alive, well, and gainfully employed at the Dollhouse.

Vow: The oath taken by "Epitaph One" stands solid. Amidst all the vows being taken and broken, the known future hangs like a vulture over a playground. Whatever Senator Perrin is crusading for or against, he's not likely to expose the Dollhouse. Whatever Paul and Echo-mega have brewing, we know it doesn't succeed anytime soon. Wherever Doc Whiskey escapes to, we know she's coming back.

Vow: Alexis Denisof!

Hey Janani, why is this episode really called "Vows"?

Janani: …because Vows come after Engagements?

Hey Chris,

How: did Saunders come up with those weird ideas for expressing her sorrow to Topher, and which one was the most successful? How much did she remind you of Dawn Summers lashing out after learning about the Key? How much did she not? How will she generate meaning now, and will the world outside the Dollhouse provide her the adequate raw materials -- social, intellectual, emotional -- to make it stick? What will drive her back, and will it be related to the fact that what enabled her to leave (free will, ability to oppose) is what brings people to the DH in the first place?

How: Is the show going to survive Amy Ackerless? Until she drove off, I didn't realize how much better she emotes than anybody else on the show! Saunders, please succumb to your phobias and come back!

How: does Whisky’s theory about the fulfillment of rising to a challenge -- working for love, for anything at all really -- sound to an adult baby like Topher? In fact, how do the staff, especially the young ones like Topher and Ivy, reconcile to the fact that, unlike Actives, they’re probably going to be working underground for life? (At the same time -- having worked in there, where would you go from there? Is there life outside the Dollhouse at all, for anyone, Active or not?)

How: are they still allowing glitchety-witchety Echo to still go out on assignments ever? Why was it necessary to create an intermediary detective persona rather than simply Imprint an innocent woman’s mind and then program her to obtain the needed information? How much of a liquid mess was that Marriage Engagement? Even if the title "Vows" frames all wishful attempts to predict and codify our future behavior -- in love and other endeavors -- I thought the show had quit (as BtVS eventually quit) using the Engagements as parallel prosceniums to clumsily flesh out metaphors that would better be treated inside the Dollhouse itself (a la "Spy" or "Needs"). In our "Briar Rose" discuss, you described the 'House as "a fairy tale castle, the castle turned dungeon, a self-contained ecosystem, and finally an invisible place where one can walk and yet not be walking... womb, nursery, cemetary, cult compound, haven, Eden, home and prison in one episode"; by this point has the 'House itself become the equivalent of an all-purpose black box theater where every human drama from birth to rebirth will be played out? And how does this jive with William's comment (on 1.13) that Topher himself -= a proto-Whedon?

How: does Tempura Joe make human tempura without harming the ingredients? And how has Mutant Enemy not outgrown its nervous-middle-school-giggly approach to even minor sexual eccentricities? They ought to be spanked!

(Very lightly, of course.)

CS: Somewhere in there was a straight answer! Among developing plot tangles, there is a theme, that one of the ways we attempt to Imprint ourselves is to take vows, state intentions, make the plans for our own Engagements, out loud and with solemn promise. That is an apt topic for a season premiere, where in arc-shaped narrative the storyteller is normally setting up the board, foreshadowing and establishing expectations to pay off or defy. Every writer surely understands this act, but Mutant Enemy casts it in the form of a Covenant of the Story-Maker: here are the people and their world, we will not betray a certain integrity of the fiction, this is what the story is about, and we will make it as well as we are able. They try to be their best.

I do feel some of the divide between Engagement stories and behind-the-curtain Dollhouse drama has been healed. They will always parallel, double, rhyme with or invert one another in some way, which is the way Mutant Enemy tells its multitracked tales (to be honest, it is the way most ensemble cast, arc-oriented drama operates, ME is just makes more elegant television than Desperate Housewives). I don't know that the characteristic is a weakness at all, and late period Buffy the Vampire Slayer like "Same Time, Same Place", "Sleeper", "The Killer in Me", etc. continue using fantasy conflicts as enlargements of Inner Character Drama (gag! and yes, I picked three junked-up episodes on purpose!).

"Vows" makes a particularly good fitted join between Ballard and Klar, a right angle with Echo at the corner. Most pointedly, Klar is fake-bound in a desecration of marriage while Ballard ends up taking the sacred oath of the Handler. Railroad-switch studies in men for whom ends justify means, their pivot points are scenes in which they bash Echo in the face. We can't possibly feel unconflicted just because Ballard has his version of noble intentions. His arrangement with the Dollhouse is already failing Ballard. There is no way to use the resources without serious ethical compromise, and Ballard, in roughly increasing transgression, enacts vigilante justice, slugs a girl in the head, brainwashes a person, and pimps her to a criminal, leading to violence on her person (and, depending on our charitability, cooperates with slavers). He does not even catch Klar himself. You can't make a golem without getting some clay on your hands. Among the highlights of smooth construction: that ending in which Whiskey exits, in New Age parlance, to Find Herself, while Ballard and Echo bond and agree to find everyone else.

Ballard and Klar meet in the middle. The story on the opposite side is Topher and Whiskey. Along their edge, Topher makes a vow of negation: they will not know each other. He swears off knowing Whiskey, but they move uncomfortably close together, meanwhile Ballard and EchOmega swear to team up to fight the good fight, while he essentially talks himself into the value of forcing her to be someone else.

A bloodstain which it is nice to see Topher forced to recognize on his hands via Whiskey, though the idea hardest for him to choke out is that her Imprint is designed to disagree with him because -- gasp! -- he might be wrong.

A few nicely mingled related topics, then, of plot contrivances and ways those holes may be filled. It should seem equally easy for Topher to strap Whiskey in the chair and hose her down with an upgraded Saunders 2.1. Related, is Adelle's explanation that she is indeed interested in the unique case of Echo, and that observing Active behavior is as much about research (for Ambrose, surely R&D) as it is the current service. While collecting the data is proving harrowing for young Master Brink (and he's probably going to be deep double stuff with DeWitt after the doctor bugs out), he is observing Whiskey in a similar way. There are finely motivated reasons why he isn't simply fixing her Imprint, namely that as Topher talks Whiskey through the act of losing and reconfiguring herself, she's forcing him to do the same. The crucial exchange is when Whiskey says she feels like shit, Brink explains/brags: "You're human," and she shoots back a skunkeyed "Don't flatter yourself." Topher's right in essence, but so is Whiskey, insofar as she means/can mean that her humanity is not Topher's accomplishment to boast about.

I'm glad it is relevant this week, because I intended to bring it up regarding "Epitaph One", and it moves straight into the tease about Senator Daniel Perrin: are there reasonable, positive, beneficial applications of this technology? It does seem that Dollhouse policy expressly forbids what I imagine would be the most popular uses -- a Rain Man Active for defrauding casinos, an immortality vessel (model in development stages!), and any variation on Lacuna Inc. services. The closest to unconflicted use of Topher's lab that I can come up with is that he should be able to eliminate severe mental and behavioral disorder (I still find this pretty problematic). Unless I miss my bullshit-guess about how the equipment works, Rossum should be able to cure Alzheimer's disease (that, I do not find problematic).

Naturally, in this episode about everyone becoming the things they hate, the Chair is for making Sierra gripe that she's uncomfortable with Asians. Meanwhile, Paul Ballard finds the most convenient tool for helping Caroline help herself is to punch her over and over.

I'll tell you how the show can survive with minimized Amy Acker: Alexis Denisof!

JS: I heard Rossum has a clearance on Alexis Denisof Imprinted with Winona Horowitz ca. 1988, if you’re interested.

So let’s talk about how we like to punch Ballard over and over. Anybody who has followed this essay series from the beginning (HI JORDAN) will have noted that Ballard gets a straight-up pants-down whipping from us almost every week! Reasons why: the show sets him as an Everyman whose obliviousness to his own moral inconsistencies becomes a fairly regular teaching point; unlike the Dollhouse, he has no secrets from us (his surprise and ours are synched up); and it’s honestly just really fun. But maybe it’s time to give him a hand up.

A guy or gal turns off the flashlight, tucks it in a waistband, and ventures into the unknown. Does every such explorer of the dark sport a tissue graft from Agent Mulder? Ballard is not as smart or intuitive as that fella, and he has a patent distaste for mystery for its own sake -- as we saw during his skirmishes with Topher in "Omega", he attacks intricate moral dilemma with simple, cloddish tools. "Man on the Street" and "Briar Rose" have exposed his save-the-girl quest as a cliché, but intimate comments and jealousy push-ups aside, this isn't really about the girl anymore, and I wonder if it really ever was. I watch Ballard struggle to translate murky urges and fantasies of effectiveness (heroism? gallantry? world-healing potency?) into a sequence of fruitful acts on a timeline, I laugh at him for jogging after arms dealers (while you nabbed him, Paul, another dozen are preparing to set up shop in his place), and yet... his arc seems irreversible, even forgivable. There's no returning aboveground (you could argue, even, that life's arc is itself an irreversible odyssey underground). Where else is he supposed to go? What's more exciting, provoking, or subconscious-engaging than the place he's in right now? "Man on the Street" also framed the Dollhouse as a mirror of one's own deepest needs, an abyss staring back into you with an occasional morbid wink; you learn a lot about children from how they treat their dolls, whether they serve them tea and cookies, saw them in half, scream for more dolls, embark on a quest to visit the doll manufacturer and demand an end to sweatshop sweatin’. In the case of Paul Ballard, he puts them in a chair, turns out the light, and waits for them to speak. For hours. Days. Months.

I think a part of him likes the silence.

I think a part of him likes the blindness.

He's not a Dominic, not a Mynor, not a Klar, a Brink... no, not even a Langton. He is more interesting than Langton. And anyway, he’s here; he’s trying to get something done with his hours. He’s a motherfucking masochist for placing himself near the woman-body he’s attracted to, in situations where she’s going to be romancing others -– I enjoyed watching Roma sass him about that and give us a different female take than the conventional one -- and it's telling that a romantic Echo Engagement, over and above a sexual one, one in which the Imprint herself is feigning emotions, is the one that ruins his evenings. But it's still not a love story. In an echo of "Where's Kepler" -- where's Caroline? Where is the Caroline you hope to know? Do you really want to find out? Will living in possibilities for so long enable you to restore her unified, ineradicable personality when the time comes? Flash to the parallel situation with Whiskey and Topher, Topher’s words…”You don’t know me. That’s the contract. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Not fully, not ever.”

In the CONTRACT? Does this mean Topher is contractually required to program in some uncertainty? Does it hold only for Whisky, or for everyone, even his birthday-friend Sierra, even Echo herself? What does go on in the dead of night at Topher’s console -- do principles seep into his work at first recreationally or aesthetically (“this would make a better character, a better work of art”) or did he bring those to the table when he began -– in which case I’ll have to reconsider the manchild from his very first scene?

I wonder, too, about Topher's relationship with uncertainty.

CS: It looks like Topher's private quarters are... in the heart of the computer hardware? It looks like he sleeps inside HAL 9000's brain. Jimi Hendrix used to sleep with his guitar. Having lived in one-room apartments with nothing but a mattress, a computer and a drafting table, I can attest to the romance and benefits of this kind of living situation for an artist. For other sorts of work, I imagine this would be claustrophobic and torturous, but for the creative person the sort of sloppy, perverse variant asceticism forces you to get intimate with your equipment.

Surely everyone's favorite chuckle of the episode is Whiskey's lament that "my whole existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest." But the scene is about how this dilemma is and has been forcing Topher to empathize with her. His entire job being to understand human nature as well as possible, Topher may be an asshole, is certainly a twerp, and his default setting (or, depending on one's sympathy, his coping mechanism) is glib amorality. But he's not a sociopath.

Another goat-getting accusation comes from DeWitt, who suggests that Ballard's choice to free November is a form of throwing her away after he's used her up. Likely this is easy for Paul to brush off as a gross cast in ugly light his decision to work against the Dollhouse from inside. But it does emphasize that with his choice, Paul continues to use Echo, and subjects her to no small indignity and abuse in the process. He's long ago become uninterested in simply returning Caroline to her civilian life. He could just walk out the door with her and hold a press conference. The Vow they make in the end is not "Paul swears to help Caroline escape" but to work together to "find them all." So he has a self-flagellating pedestal-placing crush on Echo? Well duh, but one can imagine worse partial motivations. While the staff likes to rib Ballard about what they perceive as futile sexual obsession with Echo, the funnier joke is that Paul-as-Client lives out multiple want/needs at once. His private Engagement is set up so he can pretend to be a heroic G-man, and finally close a case! DeWitt may or may not recognize how sharply Ballard is feeling the pain of his compromised posture, but the richest irony of the agreement is that when DeWitt explains she is allowing Ballard these crime fighting Engagements in the name of scientific observation, they are both doing research on how to best annihilate one another.

Speaking of contracts and vows, those mutating refrains, the scripts between Imprinter and Doll, Handler and Doll, etc., have the empty vessel quality of Beckett dialogue, the simplicity of pop culture catchphrase and a primal viscerality like "Mommy and I are one." Front-loaded with meaning, they also mean something different every time they are repeated -- what about a "Hush"-like experimental episode in which the only spoken dialogue is variants on Imprint scripts?

JS: That would be terrific, although I wonder also if every Dollhouse season will insist on taking some time to settle into its morose, Engagement-of-the-Week routine before bringing on the variants.

I'd also love to see:

-an episode exclusively from a blank-Active POV
-an episode with non-omniscient voice-overs, either as punctuation or as full-on braided monologues
-an episode where every Active is mobilized a la "Echoes" (maybe they were already in "Vows"? is that how they filled out Echo!Roma's wedding party at her fake wedding?)
-an episode where we watch the process of Imprint harvesting and creation (way past due)
-an episode featuring the role-scrambling and -redistribution BtVS did on a regular basis. In "Echoes" we already got a sneak peek of this, but don't tell me you wouldn't die to see an Adelle-Imprinted Topher or a Topher-Imprinted Echo! Or even the thing that every lead on BtVs got to deal with, and that we saw briefly in "Grey Hour" -- a double! Topher vs. Topher! Caroline v. Caroline! Caroline vs. several Carolines! Get me three tofu dogs and a nacho trough, I wanna settle in for this one!
-in the same vein, an episode where Paul Ballard meets Paul Ballard, gets confused, gets in his own way, beats up his own self, and cocks up another brilliant plan... again.

In fact, that seems like a natural next phase of complication and storybuilding: computerizing and liberating the minds of the current staff from their own bodies. Topher has probably backed his precious self up somewhere, at the very least to take over for him on days he's sick. I'd be surprised if Rossum hadn't required it of him, or at the very least insured his skull for millionbillions.

That's a question we've never really gotten into: how does Young Master view this technology in relation to himself and his prospects? We're beginning to sense his self-demarcated limits, the places he won't go, the things he won't do or regrets doing, and we've seen his lack of enthusiasm in the face of Clive Ambrose. Regardless of how that scene did play out, maybe Topher is not and will never be the type to download himself into ten bodies and be happy about it.* That could be rich material to explore - the likelihood that, left to himself, the perfector of this technology is himself too attached to the idea of the One Topher, the One genius, to create a wedge for himself.

In terms of other applications, a lot seems to turn on the issue that it is dangerous to Imprint a non-Wiped mind. All these minds need bodies to walk around in, like that beastie on Angel who leaps from host to host, but they have to drive out the existing consciousness first. That could lead to exploitation of naturally Wiped minds; I could see more unfortunate Alzheimer's and Huntington's patients -- or even people in coma states - becoming commodities for Wiping and recruitment into an Active corps, unless they were considered too old or damaged. Also, regarding the issue of labor and manpower: the Tech can create the perfect person for a job, and it can make as many of them as are required. Were the technology to become widely available and affordable, companies would never need to do job interviews again; they could just create specs for an "ideal" employee and keep recycling it through several bodies' worth of hirings. (I'm behind, though -- this has already happened, in terms of the amount of human work that can now be done through computer magics).

There could be recreational applications: spend a week as a guy! spend a week as a Nobel Laureate! Great Minds could be kept around forever for their input (creating a natural caste system of those-worth-backing-up vs. those-unworthy), but they'd still be confused when they woke up into a strange world. We might see the works of authors who had hundreds of years to complete their oeuvres rather than a few decades. I could go on.

Anyway. I wanted to return briefly to the issue of Dollhouse stage-ness. Haven't we talked before about the possibilities of adapting Dollhouse for live performance? Maybe I thought about it but forgot to bring it up. Truly, the show is so little about the big Engagement/field trips that go KABOOM, and so much about those intra-Dollhouse dynamics; the Dollhouse interior itself is practically a two-tier stage. I can easily see the different zones onstage: the Chair, the Office, the Attic, The Outside, scenes rotating between each setting; nothing about it would be naturalistic, of course, it would have to rely on the motifs, refrains, and choruses you mention, perhaps even incorporating a chorus. What do you think?

Finally, an aside on the performances of that odd, flat in-House dialogue: I used to have a disease where no dialogue sounded sufficiently serious unless voiced by someone several decades older than me with many garlands of theatrical training (preferably the likes of Sir Ian or Sivaji Ganesan [an elder of Indian cinema]). That is some serious age- and class-based chauvinism on my part, but it was still weird for me to watch American-accented people our own age -- Amy Acker is a couple years older than you, Fran Kranz a couple months younger than me -- throwing themselves into that wrenching "don't flatter yourself" exchange. To my ears, Acker totally owned it -- she always has, and has been a grave ballast for the story for quite some time. Kranz, I think, continues to go belly-up like a kid in a student play. This surely requires not only better and subtler acting on his part, but my outgrowing my fuddy-duddy notion of who gets to play a Beckett-esque role - which faces and personae can convincingly interpret those Classics of moral anguish + mystification + existential bafflement.

*Yes, I am sure I will be proven wrong about this. My physics class in college was full of them!

CS: Since we're early in the season, speculating and the writers are taking their vows, the material I would really like to see -- the most glaring gap in the show -- is any kind of personal history and extracurricular lives of the non-Doll cast. No one of taste and distinction likes the word "backstory," but that is what was missing in Season One. Backstory doesn't need to be Origin Story and Full Biography, but some further context for any of these people would be useful. I believe the first season used this eerie lack of character exposition to murky-clean establish of the Dollhouse staff (Ballard's story was eased into more traditionally), allowing the audience to discover them without history or outside lives, facing the characters like a newly Wiped mind rising from the chair.

Whaddya know, the one week they show us a clip from a Frankenstein movie is the only week I don't talk about Frankenstein

As for the actors, well, I guess you're not invited to Shakespeare reading night at the Whedon homestead. I wonder if Charisma Carpenter ever played the real Cordelia...

While Fran Kranz is busy gesticulating, Tahmoh Penikett is, mathematically, twice as hilarious by playing a man with no sense of humor and no reason to smile whatsoever. Acker's (surely temporary) departure is a huge loss, and if the image of Whiskey driving off to wherever the road takes her is affecting, it is at least partially because we will miss the performer.

But don't worry!...

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Murder of Crows - Tonight

Reader persons who are lucky enough to live in Los Angeles (as seen in many film and television productions) may be interested in attending this fine art show, which opens this very Saturday, October 3 at 6 PM. The show features many luminaries of contemporary art and comics.

The show has nothing to do with the art of the moving picture, of course, but among tangential reasons to post it here, the collection is curated by Linda Pine, and one of the participants is world-class Criterion Collection designer Eric Skillman (who has a rad picture of some unfortunate goldfish).

Also, I have pieces representing the esteemed letters F and Y, but I hope that is not too strong a deterrent. There is booze, if that makes up for it.

More informations at Gallery Meltdown and Meltdown Comics.