I had one of those palm-to-forehead moments yesterday. It’s because we’re coming up on the saddest day of the Catholic calendar tomorrow. Well, the saddest day of this Catholic’s calendar. Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of my wife’s suicide.
When I posted my eulogy for Alison on Whedonesque three years ago, I was hoping her story would inspire Joss Whedon. Not that he needs inspiration, I just wanted him to get a glimpse of her heroism, because I know he enjoys seeing the hero in a woman. And if he happened to immortalize her memory in art . . . complaining I would not be. (I am not posting a link because it is most depressing. Seriously. It’s a three-hanky thread. That’s a flippant way to put it, but I would not want to come across that thread for the first time today if I had class or work tomorrow.)
This was the theme of the eulogy: “I do not have time today to mention all the beautiful things about Alison. I will limit myself to one. Alison loved to ease other people’s pain.”
I do not know how many times I’ve written that the central character trait of Echo is that she wants to ease other people’s suffering. Until yesterday it did not occur to me that Joss had created a character whose essence is that one beautiful thing.
It shined through in “Belonging.” The Echo moment is when she looks over at Sierra and realizes that she is suffering, and then she does something about it.
Beautiful. Thank you, Joss! I don’t know whether you ever read that thread or not, so I can’t take credit, but thank you for seeing something beautiful in a woman and showing the rest of the world.
So I’ve been working non-stop since . . . sometime on this HUGE writing project that, if handled properly, may be read by as 1/20th many people as come here every day to check and make sure that Summer Glau is actually as beautiful as they remember, cuz it’s hard to wrap your mind around that.
But tonight Fate, in the form of a faulty cable modem, decided to give me a break. Naturally, I went to the closest coffee shop where I could log back onto the web.
But I can’t actually work here, since work involves many bulky pre-industrial technological artifacts known as books.
So . . . someone pissed me off this week some blatant click-bait about why it is sub-awesome to be a Joss Whedon fan. Think it had five BS points, just skimmed it. So I went on Whedonesque and fired off five reasons it is, in fact, super-awesome to be a Whedon fan. Five minutes later, I thought of a sixth, but when I got back on the black, the thread had already been deleted, and with it my lovely typings.
So I thought I’d try and reconstruct them here. No, maybe I’ll just come up with another five.
1. Death. Narrative comes from ritual, and the first rituals we humans created were about death. We’re the only animals that recognize death, that know we’re all going to die. A whole school of psychology, terror management theory, has grown around Ernest Becker’s insight that we put a lot of energy into the denial of death–into closing our eyes to the central fact of life.
A lot of rituals are pretty godawful. Scapegoating rituals dump all the world’s evils in one person or group into one designated Death Bringer and symbolically kill death. Even when the killing is real, it’s a symbol–an empty, fearful gesture that allows people to tell themselves, hysterically, and only temporarily, that they’re good. After all, did they kill evil? Little Red Riding Hood is a good story, and one we should keep telling ourselves, as long as we don’t take it literally.
But there are rituals that help us deal with death, and thereby deal with life. The Catholic ones I love link winter with spring, suffering and salvation, death and rebirth. The best rituals take you past the literal reading of Little Red Riding Hood to its spiritual side. We’re all Little Reds who stray from the path because we want to play with the flowers–just like little fuzzy animals who can’t control the impulses that draw them to things that smell pretty and look attractive. Edible. Which brings us to the other character we all are, the Big Bad Wolf. Whenever we do anything wrong–from the tiniest failure of patience to indulging the mass production and destruction of scapegoats–the Big Bad in us devours the Innocent Little One. And we’re all the hero, the rescuer, confronting the Big Bad violently, cutting open his belly, Caesarean-style, so the Little Red one can be reborn. We’re born innocent, yes, but after that, we have to earn it, to work for it, to fight for it. And, at our best, to die for it. Heroes confront death. They remain as terrified of it as the first humans who ever understood how their stories had to end, but they confront it–face it–and transcend it. That’s Buffy’s arc from “Prophecy Girl” to “The Gift.” It’s Harry Potter’s arc over the course of seven books. We’re all death’s bitches, and only by facing that do we ever become death’s conquerors.
We see this in a thousand ways, even while averting our eyes from it. We honor the profession of medicine. Not “instinctively” (I hate it when people misuse that word) but spiritually. Doctors, nurses, biochemists–they have to study our animal nature, see everything that can go wrong with the body, in order to help overcome all the frailties that animal nature is heir to, including the one frailty that always wins in the end. They have to think about what no one wants to think about, see what we’d rather not see. And by taking on this burden, they transcend it. Caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry–all the things that separate the wheat from the chaff–require facing the fact of animality: the fact that our bodies fail, and are terribly vulnerable to the elements and predators, and we need constant maintenance and fuel just to stay alive. When you hear someone compulsively blame the homeless for their plight, you’re listening to the voice of fear. If you can tell yourself that bad things happen to people because they’ve been bad, maybe you can convince yourself–for a little while–that doing good things will protect you. Actually helping the homeless, however, requires recognizing their common humanity and yours. That is terrifying, and every day of Penny’s short life reminds her of how a lifetime of great good can lead to . . . things being a little better. For a little while.
So, were we talking about someone? Oh, yes. That writer. Too many TV writers intoxicate us with the literalized Little Red Riding Hood. Act I: Innocence is victimized. Act II: The hero identifies Evil Incarnate and does battle, as reasons to Kill It Kill It pile up. Act III: The Death Bringer is slain by the hero, and the community is restored to pure wholesome goodness. The good guys live, cuz they’re good! It’s amazing how many people think they’re watching realism when they’re told the latest rehash of this fairy tale, minus all the elements that clue a child in that it’s not real.
Whedon confronts that. Buffy is so much more than a vampire slayer, a killer of evil incarnate. How many times has he shown us reasons to shudder at someone’s drive to kill a Death Bringer. (The werewolf hunter. The Knights of Kill Dawn.) Or long for a demon’s redemption. (I won’t insult your intelligence by filling in this blank.) Or just laugh at the idea that you can solve your problems by putting a stake in someone’s heart? Bad guys don’t always have to die in his writing. The assumption that killing a bad guy is what makes a hero often backfires in life and, less often, in popular art. But when Whedon writes, some bad guys get redeemed.
And some good guys die. Again, more like in life than in popular art.
It’s easier to deal with death in the real world when you deal with it in ritual. It isn’t fun, but like a military burial at Arlington, it is sublime, transcendent, mysterious and good. Even when Whedon was trying to express the meaningless of death in “The Body,” he beautifully captured the meaning of that meaninglessness–and so transcended it. Tara’s death was terrible enough to show us how it could lead to a fate worse than death–the loss of self, the betrayal of a lost lover through the betrayal of love. Penny’s death revealed the real hero of that story; her presence wasn’t fully felt until her absence. The deaths in Whedon’s writing are a gift.
OK. That’s one reason.
[Note added Dec. 13, 2009: This thing was written before the airing of the actual Dollhouse episode of this name, with which it turns out to have nothing to do. Just didn’t want anyone to think it’s a review.]
V. excited that an upcoming episode of Dollhouse is called “Meet Jane Doe.”
I think its name comes from Meet John Doe, a Frank Capra movie. Capra-spoilers and possible concept spoilers (hey, you never know) for the upcoming episodes of Dollhouse follow.
First off: Don’t read this. Rent and watch Meet John Doe. It’s the first movie I bought on VHS.
(Days pass. You watch Meet John Doe, are intrigued, and return here.)
I love Frank Capra, think he was a real artist. I love best the ones everyone loves best: “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I think the latter is a great American tragedy turned into a comedy by a Deus Ex Machina that truly deserves the name–and, unlike the classic Deus Ex Machina that is a narrative flaw, the one in “It’s a Wonderful Life” actually heightens the tragedy and the comedy, because its presence in the narrative is the measure of how great George Bailey’s problems, and his solution, are.
See what happens when I don’t spend time honing sentences? They embiggen. Also, I type “it’s” when I mean”its.”
In the midst of all this commercial and artistic success, Capra made Meet John Doe, which is insufficiently watched and loved today for some of the same reasons Dollhouse is insufficiently watched and loved. To sum up, it’s dark and difficult and doesn’t make you feel totesome about yourself, like classic Little Red Riding Hood.
Viewed one way, Meet John Doe looks like it was made by someone who hates Frank Capra and set out to subvert everything he stands for. Instead of the good-hearted, small town American Mr. Deedsmith going to the corrupt big city to restore it to virtue, the central character of Meet John Doe is a fraud. Actually, central characters. Barbara Stanwyck plays one of those cynical 1930s lady reporters (were they dame reporters? Broad reporters? Strong woman journalists?) who, when she’s fired due to Great Depression, takes her revenge by writing a parting column about a (fake) suicide note she got in the mail (made up herself) from a “John Doe” who says he’s going to take his life on . . . dang, I can’t remember if it was Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, but it was one of them Eves. In protest of man’s inhumanity to man and the general badness.
Naturally, said column is HUGE, biggest ever, the whole town is up in arms, the newspaper editor calls in the fired Stanwyck who tells him . . . he’s going to have to run a front-page apology for publishing a fraudulent column unless he gives her back her job. They hire a John Doe to front the columns she writes in his made-up, archetypal name. Naturally, they hire a drifter who looks just like Gary Cooper. (Baseball player with a bum arm who takes the job in return for getting his arm fixed by Bonesetter Brown [with a name like Bonesetter, you know his preferred anesthetic is a baseball bat] and a oneway ticket out of town come Something Eve.)
Anyhoo, this John Doe column takes off, especially when Babs start cribbing inspirational sections from the diary of her late father, who I gather cribbed them from The Reader’s Digest, inspiring folks to be good and kind to one another and start up John Doe Clubs all across the land. Everyone’s inspired like they’d sat through a Frank Capra marathon film fest. Can you overdose on inspiration? Idealism sets in, making Gary and Barbara feel darn good about themselves. It might be love. In love with each other or themselves or their fabricated images of themselves, it’s not so clear, but it’s hard not to hope for some redemption for these two. Cuz: Gary Cooper + Barbara Stanwyck.
Enter evil in a suit, Lionel Barrymore as C.B. Bigstuff, owner of the newspaper that’s publishing the John Doe columns, and an image of American proto-fascism with his own private uniformed police force that parades in formation on motorcycle for him as he plots his rise to political power. This is 1941, when fascism of the non-proto sort reigned in Europe and its colonies, so the idea of a wealthy industrialist posing as the voice of the people was, shall we say, richly metaphorical. C.B. wants “John Doe” to endorse him for president and, this being a movie, the endorsement would mean that It Will Happen Here.
So, yeah, Meet John Doe is about cynical people creating a phony avatar of homespun American values to advance their careers–characters who are nightmare versions of the man who created Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith.
Except Gary and Barbara don’t really want to be part of the rise of American fascism. They start making choices that sacrifice their own personal interests for the greater good. Those roles they adopted cynically–that role they jointly created–they start to earn it.
The rally in the rain gets praised for wrong reasons. It’s not a technical marvel–it’s a bunch of people standing in the rain. It’s a dramatic marvel. The moment when Gary Cooper becomes John Doe, becomes the defender of American democratic virtue by turning against his puppet master, is the moment when his puppet master publicly denounces him (here’s the great drama of it) (wait for it) (OK, now) in terms that are more or less accurate. C.B. calls him a fraud, and he is. Reveals that John Doe is the creation of a cynical reporter. And he is. The mob, robbed of its illusion, turns against Gary Cooper. And the mob has a point. Gary Cooper has stymied C.B., but at the loss of his public identity. It’s marvelously complex moment. John has started earning his integrity, but is paying the price of his past lack of integrity. The mob is freed of one illusion–by a man who had hoped to use that illusion for his own purposes–only to embrace another illusion, switching from foolish adoration of The Good in Us Incarnate to just as foolish hatred of Bad Incarnate. John stands revealed, but defaced. He’s never been better or looked worse. And yes, buckets and buckets of rain and so many black umbrellas and who cares–it all comes down to a close up of Gary Cooper and the empathy you feel for him, in all his guilt and nascent nobility.
Capra famously did not know how to end the movie. Should Gary Cooper follow through on “John Doe’s” suicide threat? Should “the people” save him? He’s supposed to have made the wrong choice, but it works for me. The problem with Meet John Doe is like the problem with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, another work focused on political immorality. There’s too much tragedy in it for a comic ending to work. But there’s also too much comedy in it for a tragic ending to work. Sure, ending Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper’s death would have been a braver commercial choice, but artistically, it would have been just as unsatisfying as his last-minute rescue. IMSolitaryO. (The conventional wisdom is that Capra should have gone dark. But the film is not a noir. It has heavy, beautifully done, noir elements, but also some hard-earned, or at least hard-suffered, redemption. It’s not black and white, and it’s not gray–it’s high-contrast, intricate chiaroscuro, a dramatic arrangement of contrasting elements.)
Notional Dollhouse spoilers:
Remember how quickly Echo told the serial killer’s victims to kill him/her in Tim Minear‘s awesome “Belle Chose”? Maybe they’re laying the groundwork for Echo to make a Jane Doe choice at the climax of this season. If the Dollhouse uses her to create the perfect political candidate, how can she save America from herself? By taking her own life? By going public with the existence of the Dollhouse? As Angelus Angelo put it in Measure for Measure, “Who will believe thee?”
The most awesome thing about Summer Glau is something spiritual.
Attend the tale of the tragic death of The Dancing Girl. That’s who Summer was before we ever heard of her. She discovered early on her love of dance, and it was her life. It squeezed out elementary, middle and high school, where most of us try on a variety of roles dealing with a wide range of people, sampling aspects of the lives we want to lead and the careers we may want to explore. Summer was home-schooled from the third grade on ’til she graduated from the 12th grade. (I was going to write “until she graduated from high school,” but she didn’t go to a high school one could graduate from.)
The time we spent surrounded by kids whose common point was that they were the same age and lived in the same general area — that was time Summer spent learning to dance, surrounded by other people learning to dance and by the dancers who taught them. Becoming the person she always knew she was. Dancing was the subject she knew, the people she knew, the life she knew. During what we call the formative years, she formed The Dancing Girl. It was not a hobby, not a subject, not a phase. It = her life.
Then: ankle injury. That was it. An injury killed The Dancing Girl. The girl survived, but not the dancing, not as something more than a hobby. Not as the life she was living, not the life she hoped tried worked hours and days and weeks and months and years to live. Who is The Dancing Girl when she can no longer dance?
A: A creature of extraordinary grace.
After a loss like this — of career, of future, of the life one had deserved to live (if, by dint of hard work and constant effort, one can deserve to live a certain life) — more than a few people turn to the bottle. Or even the needle.
But Summer, after it was all taken away from her, found out that she was not just The Dancing Girl. Yeah, just like the Buffy season two finale, after Angelus taunts her by asking what’s left after she’s lost everything and she replies, “Me.” But what was Summer’s “Me”?
A person with the most important ability in life. The ability to be reborn. She had to lay to rest The Dancing Girl — that is, to say goodbye to most of her outward parts of her life. Career. Colleagues/Fellow Students/Teachers. Their paths diverged. She had to make a new one. All that was left was what was on the inside.
OK, sure, there was a whole lot of outer beauty, too, but as assets go, that one’s notoriously double-edged. Strength and intelligence are assets that are more likely to lead to good things than bad. Physical beauty, well . . . how many physically beautiful women do you know who are actually happy? When they are, it’s cuz of what’s inside.
And Summer, somehow, knows it’s there. When she speaks, she does not sound overly confident. But she must have a strong sense that she has something good to give the world. After all, when the dancing thing didn’t work out, she thought she might be able to succeed as an actress in Los Angeles, where congregate a surplus of astonishingly good-looking women who have known all their lives that that’s what they want to do. It’s hard for all of them, and Summer lacked their experience or even the standard allotment of extraversion.
But she has something that most do not, something inside that somehow shines through her face. Vulnerable, yet strong. You can see in her the Little Red Innocent, although it’s fairly hard to imagine little Summer straying from the path. We’ve seen her play the Big Bad, the killing machine, out of control and without conscience. (Twice, actually.) We’ve seen her as the Hunter, the hero, saving the day. And she’s not just credible in all these roles, she’s incredible. She’s just beautiful.
A rebirth artist.
The anecdote she told on the Serenity press tours was a story of death and resurrection. When she started out her fight training, she was a vegetarian and learning stylized combat was so hard she cried. But she didn’t give up and she ultimately transformed herself into a sci fi movie’s most special effect. And by the end of her training she was eating steak. A fairy tale in five acts: Couldn’t, can’t, can’t, can’t, and wow. Real magic in this.
Shall I compare thee to a Summer Glau?
I shall, I shall! So this is your lucky day. Cuz she’s awesome.
What does this have to do with Tim Minear‘s magnum of whoah-pus, “Omega,” the season finale of Dollhouse (before the season coda, “Epitaph One“)?
The central theme of Dollhouse and fairy tales and life and faith herself, sweet and strong. I blogulate of nothing less than spiritual rebirth.
It’s right there in Little Red Riding Hood. After she’s eaten alive by a beast disguised as a grand mother, the hunter arrives and performs an emergency Caesarean with a pair of scissors. She emerges from the beastie belly a different person than the one who strayed from the path. (The Bros Grimm even published a Red Riding Hood sequel that’s oft-termed feminist, in which Red and Grandma encounter another Big Bad who tries to pull the same stunt, but this time they know better and . . . lure him to his doom!) The child has grown woman-like. Same person, but a different person. The old her died; how do you like her new me?
Yeah, Bruno B. writes about this in The Uses of Enchantment, but he has another book I’m not quite reading — more like intermittently sampling — called Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male, that I think may be the source of the Joss-ian Whedon-y concept of Womb Envy, since the pages I’ve glanced at bring up a lot of cultural evidence that men are just fascinated by women’s ability to bring new life into being. No, I’m not gonna cite the pages, I’ve been citing pages all day, and I love it, but I’m cite-spent and ready for the little death called sleep to round out this day before I am reborn tomorrow morning to begin anew.
Rebirth metaphors come from, you know, birth. On the day you were born, you moved out of the darkness into the light, from “confinement” to (relative) freedom, from being one with a fellow human to being an individual human being. One stage of your life came to an end, and a new one began. You went through a narrow passage, and it was your first rite of passage. You left behind your old life and emerged into your new life. It was a moment of crisis, perilous, death-haunted, because there is always a risk to mother and child, and because birth always foreshadows death.
Like Summer Glau as River Tam in the final reel or two of Serenity. Not in the big showdown with the Reavers, but right before, when in the moment of crisis, she is transformed from protected to protector. What brings about the transformation? Her love for her brother? Her brother’s love for her? Yes and yes. It’s now or never, and she says yes. I love the lighting effect in that long, tubular, birth canalish sci fi structure — I think the technical term is “hallway” — the way the power goes off, plunging them into (artfully lit) shadow, so the emergency lights can go on behind River (as the emergency lights within her) as she runs with grace and purpose to face her fate, hastening from the darkness to the light, transforming from child to adult, protected girl to protective woman, passive weapon to active warrior.
And that’s not even the most awesome thing about her.
The awesome thing about this post is that it’s short. 😀
Read Part Two.