Thursday, March 12, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.1 - "Ghost"

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 Eleanor Penn, Engaged to negotiate a kidnapping. All hell breaks loose when Echo is confronted with the man who abducted and abused one of the real-life models for her Imprint. Meanwhile, Agent Ballard of the FBI hunts for leads on The Dollhouse, runs in circles. Also meanwhile, rogue Active Alpha takes off his clothes (?), does some murders and watches a video of Caroline: the Girl Who Would Be Echo.

Your Handlers
Chris Stangl: Conversant in/ deeply nuts about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (henceforth "BtVS"), Angel and Firefly. Interests: film and TV studies, comics, critical theory, occult studies, metaphysics, divergent thinking and coffee.

Introducing Janani Sreenivasan: Currently up to BtVS season four. Interests: myth, philosophy, gender, art history, l'écriture féminine, the divine feminine, Isak Dinesen, and jokes.



DOLLHOUSE 1: "Ghost."

...scene 1, Echo's former "life" (more on this later), processes of consent. Imperious Englishwoman got her gig.

...the structure of the organization/organism in general, its efficiencies and inefficiencies, how it keeps people in line, procedures for coverups. and when Actives age, when they outlast their usefulness (here I'm thinking of a whole world of stories where people are bred or kept for their utility, only to be discarded later - the most recent that's got hooks in me is the organ-donor book, Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" - beautiful story with equally urgent questions about growth and future-hopes in the face of extinction).

...all the troubled people in the organization already pricked by doubts.

...macrostory: this week's negotiation story was pretty okay, maybe they'll conserve its characters for further down the road, but the coincidence of Eleanor Penn meeting her former attackers, it was what it was. It accomplished things.

...larger smuggling/trafficking storyline - both the richest possible source of feminist indignation/overtones/interesting meditations on women, bodies, marketplaces of bodies, transactions with bodies (funny how all the Actives are gorgeous, huh? or did i miss something?).

...all the obvious procedural questions - how does Imprinting work, how do you store a personality, is a personality a unitary Thing, what are the qualities of its Thinginess, does it change or "decompose" over time, must the vessel be of a particular gender or age, how well does Wiping work - all this will be answered and complicated soon.

I expected something much different. When I heard the show's concept I felt wounded and upset, not in a "don't exist, show," way, but because I was sure we were in for a story about Female Mutability and people-pleasing and childishness in women and so very many disturbing echoes of real-life sabotage...which, well, we are. Show will be about those things, and institutions, and character "development" in a very literal sense. But I'm also excited about watching a female protagonist built from scratch. If she comes in solidly built already, even on BtVS, there's still so much cultural stuff encrusted on her, so many lazy ways to think about her. This one...she's out of sight. There's no one there yet. There WAS "someone" there, but...was she a Person? Are young women people? Are most PEOPLE even people?

How will the show define Self and Personhood - does Echo qualify as one now, or will she Become one, and what qualities or phenomena or theory of mind will qualify her as one? We're not being set up for "personhood" = "memory" or "the ability to own your entire set of experiences," because none of us are aware of and able to inhabit all of our experiences simultaneously - something's always forgotten, sidelined, retired from consciousness - and many regular "people" live their lives as blandly sequentially and amnesiacally as Echo anyway. So I don't think the Wipes are necessarily The key to understanding what's going on with her. Is it "choice," the ability to say NO, of which she has none at the moment because she doesn't have even the vaguest notion of NO or forgoing one option for another? Is it plain old ego development and the ability to see yourself as a creature moving in the world, visible to others, impacting (ugh, verbed noun) others? Or enmeshment, forming relationship (romantic or non-) strong and memorable enough to wound and to remind you of mortality and limited time?

What will happen to her when she gets out?

I'm sure all these questions are being asked in various ways on web forums across the world.

HENRY JAMES MOMENT: I've only read two of his novels and a handful of his stories, but his women seem to me, sometimes, like strange, distant ancestors of Whedon women. They have such big plans, and so many of them, and they're so ready to take on the world, and then the world takes them IN... absorbs them... engulfs them... in ways they hadn't expected. The little video clip from the end of Ep 1, of "Echo" rattling off all her plans for her life, "I'm a-gonna save the world and plant a tree and like this and like that and-uh" was like meeting Isabel Archer all over again, but may also have been loaded with a little much false nostalgia. I love young hopeful selves, but I'm not as partial to them as I used to be; they make their plans in such solitude, without any idea of execution or how hard (and rewarding) it is to work in community, because they still think there's infinite time, because they still think a life can be contained by a sentence or a title or a concept, because they don't quite yet know the contours of their prison...they're dumb. And maybe - am I really saying this? - it's better to have something to look back on, a life actually lived and documented and on the record, than to be that amorphous and vulnerable and ecstatically dumb again. I guess Echo will learn about her record soon.

* * * * *


I've written pilots. They're hard. They have too much work to do and are judged too harshly. They have to introduce a world, any fantastical rules that may apply, all the major characters and relationships, hint that these will develop, indicate the major Story Questions of the one-story series and ideally tell a representative self-contained episode-story. They are supposed to do all this while coping with the headaches of figuring out the look, the sets, the filmmaking language, the actors' dynamics, and letting performers become cozy with their freshmade characters. This is hard even in sitcoms. In serial drama, nigh impossible. Too many courses in one meal. Something's gonna come out undercooked.

[Note: Dollhouse#1 isn't a "pilot" technically, but a first episode. They already paid for at least six more!]

So Dollhouse is corny and not as sleek and expensive-looking as it thinks it is (I say this a lot, as if art "thinks" things about itself? My junior high English teacher used to pee her pants in frustration about this). It gives me a warm, familial feeling to see the Mutant Enemy logo at the end, but the other three Whedon shows are intimate and cuddly. Dollhouse is not. It is uncomfortable and sterile and cold. I don't doubt that it will eventually thaw out, as is the creator's natural tendency. Both Mr. Whedon and myself are far more interested than people and personal problems than motorcycle races.

There are some small comforts and people I'm more interested in than others. Funny, you know, you haven't met the Buffyverse actors who pop up in the 'House, but they come with some baggage. Thank goodness Eliza Dushku is there as an anchor among so many brittle people saying vague, stylized dialogue. The pretty doctor with mysterious scars (a cheap ploy gesturing toward intrigue) says so little she doesn't register as a character, but she's Amy Acker from Angel, so, almost reflexively, I feel safe and relieved and wanna know more. I'm not one to speculate on WHAT NEXT!? much. I've been burned by sloppy planning (X-Files, you know I love you but duuude why'd I waste so many hours guessing blindly at your unplotted course?), but moreover I simply submit to storytellers' whims. I'm an easy target for whodunit mysteries because I'm never trying to figure out who dun it.

And yes, the question that fuels this story, What is it that makes us who we are? Well, also funny but the finer explorations of identity questions are by those poets who have no pat answer; endless probe, rather than decisive cut. The neat-o Whedon double sleight of hand is in effect: "How are you who you are?" isn't the subtext but the tissue of the tale. The subcutaneous level, at least in "Ghost", is about storytelling: the value of make-believe and audience identification with fictional characters. That is the shit that provided the vigorous brain-massage for me. Let me tie together two ideas here, b/c "Ghost" bounced them off one another, like a bat Echo-signaling in Plato's cave.

I have very strong feelings about telling self-important art or entertainment stories about child molestation. I won't feign outrage or oversensitivity, because I spend most of my time watching movies about teenagers being murdered, but it makes my porcuspines go up automatically. It's cheap. It's dangerous. It tends to trivialize the thing it is trying to dramatize. It is almost always inaccurate and dishonest and preys on a weird fear to get an easy response. And above all, whatever the story's intentions, they tend to end up as outrageous "cathartic" revenge fantasy, and the message (yuccck to anything with a message), rather than educating or healing or simply honest, degenerates into: FUCK you Child Molester! No one likes you! But see: no one liked him anyway. The only thing less productive (if less exploitative) than To Catch a Predator is a fictionalized To Catch a Predator.

It is not empowering or heartening to watch a fantastically, impossibly poised and smart woman with a backup S.W.A.T. team get revenge upon the very molester who molested her by causing his violent death and metaphorically rescue a stand-in for herself from being violated in the first place. Whyyy not? Well, because that may be fun and feel like "yeah, got 'im!", but it's like knocking your math teacher into the dunking booth at the school carnival. Revenge, shh, don't tell anyone, is not actually good for the soul. And few of us are Ms. Eleanor Penn. And none of us have the resources of the Dollhouse.

Then, right when Echo/Penn stepped onto the porch of the hideout where the baddies were counting the loot, something clicked. I'd forgotten. This isn't Echo's fight. She isn't getting her own revenge, catharsis or closure. But... she's getting it for that chunk of Anonymous Victim's brain that Echo has out on loan. So Anonymous Victim's consciousness may even be obsolete (she committed suicide, we're told, her Specific POV is gone... are you gone, if you live on in memory like this?), but her will continues forth, finishes the mission, then evaporates when complete. You can't fight a ghost, but a ghost fights back nonetheless.

So we're watching Echo's body act out the story of another woman. I thought, when I heard the concept of the show, that clearly this premise will make it hard to engage with the characters and the story of their Engagements. But wait! -- and this is the second click-- oh shit, that's every piece of narrative dramatic fiction. By which I mean any story with actors acting. I'm not watching Anonymous Victim. I'm not watching Echo. I'm watching Eliza Dushku.

I had a third, smaller click an hour later. You're not even watching Dushku, but her photographic image. By the time your eyes penetrate the four invisible screens of pretend, you're absorbed into the story anyway. Dushku's pretend is no different from Echo's (except that for the actress it is an art and play and her voluntary wish, while the Active seems to have been convinced she has No Exit, no other options. They're both doing a job, but the Active is under duress). No less "real" anyway. So I think here was a smart place to tell this icky story that tends toward unhealthy wish-fulfillment of an audience's fantasy of violent revenge. You see? You project yourself onto her, too.

They won't explain the fake-o neuroscience behind Wiping and Imprinting. Whedon doesn't have the biotech knowledge or the interest. He skimped on some crucial theology on Angel, got sloppy with metaphysics in Season 7 BtVS, botched the sociopolitics of Firefly. I presume the s-f hardware is just a plot motor for Dollhouse.

Also I think the chilly British executive lady said, while she was seducing Backstory!Echo, that the Actives are contracted for five years. Speculation!Stangl says maybe the 'House gives the contractees their memories back? Is that even possible?

I also speculate that there are twice as many recurring characters as we have met, because the initial casting calls listed a lot of people we didn't meet in "Ghost". I hope Xander and Willow are two of them!

[Ed. Note: Thus far, Willow and Xander have not appeared on Dollhouse.]

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Yay! I'm in heaven. A Janani and Stangl double team two-for-the-price-of-none powerhouse duo of obsessive analytical (and funny) Joss Whedon 101.

Keep it up!

-Jordan, who likes Dollhouse, even as he waits for it to "get good."