Sunday, February 15, 2009

Let it Snow!

Some of you may have noticed that while Australia suffers in the grip of drought, flood and fire, the Northern Hemisphere has enjoyed some very cold weather recently. I use the term 'enjoyed' with some hesitation, because I realise that for some it has been difficult to deal with this really cold weather.

Many people over here groan about the snow because it causes inconvenience, and it can be hard to walk through snow and to slide about on the ice. But on the whole, I think snow is a much friendlier 'weather event' than drought, flood or fire. Snow is genuinely beautiful. Snow is also relational: it invites snowballs. And snowballs really need to be thrown in order to reach their fulfilled state.

And we enjoyed it. We took an afternoon off and went out to see what we could see.

What we saw was lots of white covering everything. Snow dusting trees, covering fields, rooftops, chimney pots and flaking down in a gentle flurry of white when it snowed.

We went crunching through the snow and slipping over the ice. We found a pond half frozen with some intrepid ducks valiantly relieving passing pedestrians of their bread.

And seagulls.

Being naive Australians we thought seagulls were only found at the sea. Something about the name of the animal giving us that false impression. So, it was quite a surprise to us to find them gallivanting around in the snow.

Here they are with the ducks on the frozen lake.

Here they are against the snow. You might not be able to see them because they are, well, white like the snow and there are so many of them. I think we counted 43 in this photo, but one can never be sure because they move around a bit.

They're like the Royal Mail: always out there, doing their bit, rain, hail or shine or, snow. I'm not sure that seagulls really count as useful members of the community, but they are certainly, unavoidably present.

Jonathan was quite taken with the snow, and particularly enjoyed watching mum and dad have snow fights. Again, notice the presence of, let's say, 67 seagulls scattered around in the snow. They get in the way of making a serious snowball sometimes.

We all returned from our excellent adventure in good cheer despite the disturbing presence of certain sea fowl.

And now, warmer weather has appeared and melted all but the most intrepid snowpiles. The seagulls, however, remain. JMB

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Home is Where the Heart is/So Your Real Home’s in Your Chest

As promised, here are the kinds of things that I really like about Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog.

To begin with is Whedon’s capacity to cast people well for their role. All the main characters are played by actors who give the kind of performance that leaves me unable to imagine anyone else in the role. And it’s not just the main characters. Minor characters like Moist and the three groupies feel ‘as real’ as the main characters and not simply dramatic white noise. It speaks of someone who understands people well and who has a clear vision of who the characters are in his shows. This makes for great viewing.

Unlike many tv shows, you cannot take a line from one character and just give it to another. Even plot exposition monologues are done in a way that is unique to each character. Further, it enables Whedon to have his characters change and develop organically over the years in a way that, while sometimes surprising, is credible. Again something so often missing in shows, but that is just basic to human life.

Finally, it enables him to gamble in ways that really pay off--using certain actors in two or more of his shows for example, fighting to have Allison Hannigan as Willow, killing off Amy Acker’s much loved character Fred in order to introduce another character played by the same actor showcasing a completely different facet of her dramatic range (try pulling that off in the standard "Doctor's in picket fences at a wealthy high school" kind of genre). Even in a forty minute one-shot, the same qualities were evident and made Dr Horrible work.

So, the concluding song of Act One was able to do pretty well everything I want in a musical number: introduce characters, advance the plot, and set things up so that revelations to occur later appear in embryonic form in the earlier song - as well as certain lines taking on a whole different meaning in light of what happens later.

Second, is that it captures the cheese of supers without descending into camp. Supers are inherently cheesy. Brightly coloured costumes worn skin tight with skimpy speedos/bikinis. Secret identities being protected by flimsy masks or no mask at all. Names like “the Silver Surfer” (it might surprise you to learn that he is silver in colour, and travels through space on a surfboard. Have a guess in what decade he was created) and “the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.” (I mean, come on, it’d be like the so-called Axis of Evil nations calling themselves that.) Heroes who fight real, melodramatic evil, but who are concerned at all times to do so fairly and to never use any firearms and who think that they should never kill even in self-defence. Think of a fondue the size of the world, and you’ve got the super genre.

It is hard to do cheese consistently with a straight face unless you have some confidence in the genre. And so all too often, treatments of the super genre go for the cheap laughs and go for camp a la the Batman tv series and then increasingly with the later instalments of the Batman movies of about ten to twenty years ago.

Dr Horrible avoids camp completely but fearlessly nods its head at the cheese. Freeze rays, death rays, Dr Horrible, Captain Hammer, the Evil League of Evil (I still chuckle at that it's not just a League of Evil, it is a League of Evil that leagues in an evil way you can almost hear the bwa ha ha ha!), and the dreaded super villain Bad Horse (“the thoroughbred of sin”) are all a homage to classic super cheese. And it’s all done with a straight face from start to finish. It deserves a ‘bravo’!

Next is the emotional range. Musicals like Chicago and Chess have one basic emotion and its simply variations on a theme as you go through. That one emotional muscle get a real work out. Whedon gives the viewer an emotional range. So in the midst of the heartbreak and melodrama we get the Bad Horse songs. Here is the first one from early in Act One (slightly out of sync). It’s a letter from Bad Horse responding to Dr Horrible’s application to join the Evil League of Evil (and if that sentence doesn’t crack some kind of smile this musical is not for you). Keep an eye on Neil Patrick Harris' facial expression as the letter is 'read' - absolutely classic:

This raises another great aspect of the musical--Whedon’s capacity to pen memorable lines. The title from this blog was chosen because for months those two lines from Captain Hammer’s (parody) of feel good self-esteem songs (“If you can wish it, you can do it” kind of rubbish) captured for us how silly some platitudes can be. And that whole song is a wonderful mine of such cringe-worthy lines, even as other songs have their own crackers of one liners as well.

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
Everyone’s got villains they must face
They’re not as cool as mine
But folks you know it’s fine to know your place

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
In their own not-that-heroic way

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
you and you and mostly me and you

Now we move into the three things that I think are easy to miss but that move Whedon (and Dr Horrible in particular) way above the pack when it comes to popular culture. First, is that Whedon manages to pull off having the viewer cheer on a super-villain and yet not cheer on evil. It is not an easy thing to do - have the viewer 100% behind the bad guy while inviting them to pass judgement upon them. And yet, it seems absolutely fundamental to Whedon’s moral vision that he will always present evil as evil and the wrong choice for human beings, even when the evil is being done by the ‘hero’ of the story.

I’m a novice at this kind of thing but it seems that there are two techniques that Whedon uses to pull this off. First, he plays up the elements of Dr Horrible’s actions where he isn’t evil - a somewhat heroic set of actions in the first song that we linked, his love for Penny, his basically sensitive and thoughtful nature. This is in keeping with what seems to be Whedon’s (oh so rare in fiction!) grasp that good and evil are not fixed categories for human beings - good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things, and people in either category can shift over to the other side through their choices, and so our decisions matter. Because of this he can still present Dr Horrible as on a downward slide, but still having things that the viewer can resonate with.

His other technique is particularly clever. He turns the superhero vs. super villain conflict over good and evil into a geek vs. jock conflict over the love of a sensitive and supportive girl. It plays on one of the great paradoxes of supers. Most comic readers are geeks. (I mean, how much more geeky can you get than to read comic books?) And yet, the heroes in the comics are jocks - handsome, physically capable, socially confident (ad nauseum), while many of the villains are geeks - withdrawn, socially awkward, highly intelligent, physically not able to match the hero. So in the musical Dr Horrible is a geek's geek and it becomes increasingly clear that Captain Hammer is nothing but a jock. And so Dr Horrible starts with the one conflict (SH vs. SV), switches over to the other to map the moral slide of the villain protaganist, and then swtiches back at the dénouement to make his moral point about the evil of choosing evil no matter the temptation. It is horribly clever (that felt good).

It also means that Whedon has geeks eating out of his hand while he is warning against the way that a geek can start to go down a very dark path. That shows moral courage at a time when most shows will make the target of moral outrage whoever is not part of the core target audience (conservatives on West Wing, people who wouldn’t be respectable in middle-class suburbia in the CSI franchise, that kind of thing).

The second 'big' reason why I think it stands above the rest is that it quietly expresses key elements of Whedon’s world-view. In the portrait of Captain Hammer is Whedon's absolute rejection of Superman, because Whedon recognises that, in the real world, an invulnerable man cannot be a good man. Pain is a necessary component of morality in this world that we live in. This is why Whedon will give his heroes various powers, but seems to really draw back from any kind of invulnerability or making them fully bullet proof. There has to be a genuine cost from doing what is right, and there has to be genuine personal risk for it to be a good action.

Right here Whedon has grasped something fundamental about the nature of the world that is an element as to why God sent his Son to become a human being, and didn't simply send an angel to wow us all with his angelicness. The irony - he's grasped this issue better than many Christians, but hates God, and so (I think) tries to use this moral insight as an argument against his caricature of God (whom he has called the "Sky-Bully").

The final reason flows from this. By and large Whedon's moral vision 'fits' the world I live in. As he deals with issues of forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation (never under those terms of course), of how relationships can be seriously damaged by a person's actions so badly that it can't all be fixed in one nice 40 minute episode, and of how overcoming estrangement between people doesn't simply just turn the clock back on the relationship but changes it into something new(all of which is particularly evident in the later seasons of Buffyand Angel) it all reads as "Life Jim, and as we know it." Even when he comes out with things that just clang (his attempts in Angel and Serenity to say why we should choose good when we live in a universe with no inherent meaning - a big issue for someone who subscribes to absurdism as Whedon does) they at least make some sense despite how daft they are. Whedon's stuff suggests he is pretty cluey about life stuff. And I want that in a show - particularly when (like with Whedon) I disagree with him almost as often as I agree.

And because it 'fits', Whedon at his best does what Terry Pratchett does at his best. He manages to tell the story so you go 'ah ha that's how life works,' rather than pounding you over the head with the moral of the story and forcing his view on you.

I have regularly been asked what I think of West Wing. I love the characters, and I love the fast-paced, dense dialogue. But it completely fails on this point. Yes, it is all about a moral vision. But, like the Star Trek franchise, it lives in a world where Pollyanna sits down for tea with Mary Poppins while some cloyingly cute child dances with a talking animal. The only things that don't stretch my credulity to the breaking point are the teleporters, warp engines, and replicators, and the Nobel prize winning President who spends most of his time talking about what food is on the menu or playing Trivial Pursuit with his staff. The view of life and morality that is on display is pure fantasy - it is how the writers think the world should work, not how the world really is. And it only 'works' in the shows because the writers cheat and never allow the characters to genuinely experience the consequences of their actions, all the time twisting your arm up behind your back to force their moral lesson upon you.

Whedon can be guilty of this too, but so far it tends to be contained to the two things he feels most strongly about (a fairly savage irony there): his absolute rejection of faith and God, and a feminist view (almost a conspiracy theory)of chauvinism - out of womb envy a bunch of cavemen plotted together to make everyone think women were evil and that explains why we still have chauvinism today in every culture(even though he admits it's a 'rather silly simplification,' he still claims that on a mass, unconscious level it is 'entirely true.' I suppose if you are as bright as he is and want to believe something you yourself think is silly then it really does pay to be an absurdist.) Apart from these two areas, his stuff is not only sane but often very perceptive and told in a way that catches you up.

Usually somewhere around now (often much earlier) non-fans of the shows accuse me of reading into it a whole lot of stuff that's not there. Their point seems to be along the lines of: it's about school girls and vampires, or a musical about super villain, it can't be anything other than silly. The criticism shows just how much is wrong with so much contemporary entertainment.

Something doesn't have to be high culture, or take itself very seriously, or just thrash around in worst aspects of human existence (I'm looking at you Shield and Sopranos) to seek to illuminate the nature of life and how it is to be lived. One can offer light and silly viewing that has the purpose of saying something serious along the way. Even the Middle Ages could see that with the role of the court jester. The point, is that this is so staggeringly rare that people have all but forgotten it is possible. And that's what I love about Whedon's stuff. I can genuinely switch off, have a little bit of an escape, and still be worked over about the important questions of how to live. There's only a handful of other shows I know of that even attempt it.

So there you go. Just a bit of the reasons why I love Dr Horrible's Sing-A-Long-Blog. Thanks for bearing with me. We'll return you to your regular programming next week. MDB