Friday, March 13, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.3 - "Stage Fright"

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

The Engagement: When pop diva Rayna is subject of assassination attempts by an obsessed fan, Echo is Imprinted as Jordan, a talented backup singer. While unconsciously acting as Rayna's bodyguard, Echo uncovers a strange symbiosis between the singer and stalker. Can our favorite Active save a suicidal music star, rescue Sierra ("undercover" as a naive Australian fan), and possibly recover a small chunk of Self even after her identity wipe? You bet! Meanwhile, Agent Ballard's scumbag informant turns out to be an Active, which he doesn't know because he is dogged but none too clever. Then he gets shot.

Part the Third:
"Stage Fright"

Ja, so I made fun of this last week after seeing the preview, but it ended up sending several ripples through me.

The moment the portal opened for me was during the songy moment. Western cinema and TV still use storysong so sparingly, so sheepishly, and under such specific conditions ("it's a MUSICAL, people!") that it signifies worlds to me when it does happen. I believe the lyrics were about Freedom at that partic moment (I can't remember exactly), which speaks obviously for Rayna/fame and Echo/Dollhouse and less obviously, and more poignantly, for characters stuck and clawing the walls in the narrow corridors of Plot itself. The singing (beautiful, by the way) suspended the moment, story stopped, persona/parameter/"character"/character/plot/viewer merged, and it didn't matter if the pipes belonged to Jordan/Echo/pixel-Eliza/real-Eliza. Individuality disappeared, identity disappeared, everyone dissolved into and was absorbed by something grander than herself. Who said that the only time you can truly believe characters is when they're singing? I don't remember. I don't actually know if I believe that generally. I'm just more credulous when it comes to songy moments.

Hey, cat. Get your feet off my notes.

So what also reverbed for me during songy moment were larger issues of relationship and trust - this is the first time we see Echo making nonhierarchical connection with other women (Dr. Scarface doesn't count, Adelle doesn't count, both wield power over her). Although Jordan/Rayna experience a tinge of what could be called traditional "girly" bonding, their dynamic seems, overall, far more androgynous (and yes, they sneaked the lez joke in there). In the dressing-room + dance studio confrontations there's primarily and primally the ring of two vigorous, martial, territorial (masculine?) urges clanging off each other, asking the Big Questions (via clumsily written dialogue), interrogating death's meanings, culminating with chair to head, which...well...Echo has her habits. Maybe she should break some of them. Two warriors, operating on different frontlines. It's not wombtime or nestytime anymore -- girls gotta face the world, grapple it, be bruised by it. Does Rayna's wish for annihilation -- "they love to see me die" -- mirror Echo's actual annihilation at the end of each episode? I liked the tension in this relationship, but in the end, I'M NOT SURE Echo was acting exclusively according to her parameter. I will bet you maybe 150 pretend-dollars that she was acting, unconsciously, to protect not Rayna but Sierra in Audra's guise. I can't read that excruciating scene of Audra singing for the camera in any other way than as an appeal for help, as unconscious appeal to Echo that bypasses/penetrates both Sierra's and Echo's programming, that invokes the oldest nonhierarchical bond, the bond that makes feminism strong and gives it pulse: Help a sister out.

Regarding the headshake at the end of the episode: I've been thinking a lot lately about secrecy in relationship, invisible intimacies, little private languages evolved with other people. It can feel like holding hands with them underwater. They're delicate little agreements that can be easily upset. Echo/Sierra were just getting acquainted - it seemed. They communicated via video-song - maybe. Now they can communicate in headshakes - the polar opposite of the extroverted songbonding moment with Rayna. Something about headshake felt too soon, storytellingwise. Was it? Did WhedonCo blow it? I can't decide.

Echo/Caroline/whoever-she-is does seem to grow more stable from week to week. Imprint her all you want, but Eliza D.'s screen presence, for me, has an impregnable consistency and integrity - she seems always to embody a whole person, not a composite of lines and blocking. The question of what % is the "imprint" and what % is Echo "herself" brings up, for me, the question of influence itself - other people get inside us all the time, and most of the time we are just repeating their words, their tics, their mannerisms... certain behaviors do outlive their original host bodies, find new hosts, endure. Although this is the third time in a row Echo has acted unexpectedly on a mission - spazzing as Eleanor Penn, wobbling in the woods, taking a fake hostage as Jordan.

It just occurred to me (weeks later than it should have!) that Echo's technically a sex worker. Has the show has moved past old conventions of prostitution-horror (women defiled) and hit on the real horror - the simple, voracious rhythms of supply and demand? I'm looking forward to finding out what "Special" means.

* * * * *


"Stage Fright": Sing for Your Supper

Hooray for a Dollhouse landmark! For "Stage Fright" is the first episode that made me cry. Just a little bit. BtVS, circa seasons 3-6 I'm bawling or shouting in disbelief at every episode, so this was bound to happen.

First things first, that Rayna lady would never, ever play the Music Box at the Fonda Theater. At the biggest, they book big-deal indie bands, maybe Modest Mouse. Pop dance divas: no ways. Plus Boyd is right, it should not take 40 minutes to get coffee, since there's a coffee shop directly across the street.

So, girl locking herself in the cage insists: "I just wanna be free." Point. Counterpoint. Synthesis. Sure.

So, girl, who has had her brain scrubbed and remapped, is overwhelmed by the glamour of being waited on/ tended to/ fawned over says to Object Of Adulation: Is it always like this? You can tell them what to do and they do it?

Now, as St. Aretha asked: Who's Zoomin' Who?

Mr. Whedon claims he doesn't actually know anything about existentialism, he just read Nausea and it clicked with him. On some DVD commentaries he fails at attempting to even explain or define basic concepts of the philosophy, even while his stories are demonstrating the principles in moving talking pictures. Firefly is about how we conduct ourselves when faced with the void of meaning that is the universe, concerned with factility. BtVS and Angel about making your way, building yourself, dealing with it all; BtVS concerned with freedom, Angel with angst. And Dollhouse so far is obsessed with the existentialist notion that the Look of others bricks up the foundations of bad faith: how others see you makes you what you are, limits your perceptions of freedom and possibility.

In a good Mutant Enemy tale the theme plays out in variants for all the characters. So Rayna plays Rayna based on how "Rayna" is supposed to be, and bad faith reaches a terminus. She chases her tail into deathwish. CrazyFanGuy plays sycophant, just like the cocktail waitress and Sierra/Audra, but to the extreme. His moment-to-moment definition of self entirely based on what Rayna supposes he should be. Witness his pinballing motivation on the catwalk in the climax, bouncing around in desperation as Rayna keeps changing her mind. They do what she tells them to do. Meanwhile, Boyd frets and glowers based on supposition that he is to be Echo's Jordan-- her bodyguard -- but keeps being thwarted. Agent Ballard is locked in Angel-like cycle as Guy Who Cannot Close, now fully trapped in Catch-22, assigned to the case that his superiors believe does not even exist. He plays the illusory game of cat-&-mouse with Russian Mob Guy because that's what they're supposed to do, that's how you play this finite game, until someone gets bulletted. That's the supposed rules, but they're both set up for a fall with the beautiful revelation that Ballard and the human traffickers are currently pawns moving one space at a time on the Dollhouse's invisible board.

Topher, facing off with security head Mr. Dominic, wins the argument by reminding the muscle of their respective self-roles: one of us is the Genius, one is the Security Guard. Topher is a genius all right: at defining roles and inflicting his Look on others. Straight to the brain.

Now, Caroline too, plays Echo plays Jordan based on how Topher supposes she should be. But she doesn't. She manipulates the programming loophole, saves the day on technicality that Rayna is her own worst enemy. In videogaming, we'd say she exploits the glitch. This isn't the same as breaking the rules, or in the philosophical branch of games theory, neither is it redefinition of the rules. She takes what she's given and works with it. That, as the man says, is impressive, but Echo still doesn't think outside the grid, she just moves sidelong. A good start, but she'll need another skill before she's through. The first step to playing the infinite game: when you hit a wall in the rulebook, you reconfigure the wall. [Sidetrack: the loophole here is the same as the logistical oversight in Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. Robots have to protect humans no matter what the circumstance. Human vanity makes a mistake: the human race being the greatest threat to the human race, to physically save all people is to have to enslave them so they cannot hurt each other.]

Sidetrack II is the tree-falling-in-woods one. During a funny, corny glamor shot of BackupSinger!Echo, I realize there's more than a little Matrix in Dollhouse. The chunk of The Matrix that asks how you know who you are, sure. But also the quandary posed by The Matrix's Steak Scene, which goes: I'm eating a steak, I know it doesn't exist, and I'm still getting the brain impulses that say it is delicious. Now, make me into "someone important. Like an actor." (! Genius.) The great dramatic irony/ series hook moment that closes the first episode goes: I want all the adventures, fun and intrigue that human imagination can muster, even when one would seem to preclude another, CowgirlAstronautLoverSpyPhysicistDushku, I want it all. Whedon to Audience: Yay! You get to have it all, Dollhouse is a bag of Mutant Enemy Every Flavor Adventure Beans! And sure, tragic irony, she eats the Beans but neither remembers nor gets the personal enrichment of the experience. Might as well have been watching a TV show, but for the occasional bruising.

Cypher has a good point (or two) in The Matrix, it's just not a nice one to hear. 1) Given that some circumstance is going to limit your potential choices, might we not as well pick and choose our mode of enslavement and make some contractual demands?, 2) given that our only confirmation of our reality and circumstance is our own consciousness, what's the fuckin difference if the steak is "real" or not? Objectivists please ignore this question (and really, Objectivists fuck off and die). Jordan looked so happy singing backup! It was the most fulfilling day of Audra's life! For that day, those consciousnesses had an experience, even if it evaporated. They all evaporate, eventually.

Of course, for Echo and Sierra, exchanging a different look, we can assume it didn't evaporate yet. They know each other, they know something about the players around them. And thanks so much Mutant Enemy for not talking about this out loud, but giving us a song and that look, because that's the first A-grade Dollhouse moment, head and heart. Why did that look make me cry? Because I read it as "I think know you. I think I care about you. Bury it in your pocket right now. But keep your hand around it."

Yes, I think you're spot-on about the webcam serenade -- the results have a surface resemblance to Topher's imprint, but it's Sierra calling to Echo more than Jordan worried about Rayna. And too about the diva's admittedly arch and bizarre speech about the Reaper's embrace. Clunkily written scene with nice idea in it, that the girl with everyone's dream life is pleading the merits of oblivion to the set of ears most qualified to argue that hey bitch, personality eradication is not all it's cracked up to be.

I've had long chats with other viewer friends about the creepy men of Dollhouse, and how repellent and depressing much of the show has been. Mired in stories of extreme-case men with fucked-up sex problems who need to be soundly murdered, somehow Dollhouse doesn't feel as productive, encouraging, or honest as Buffy Vs. Monster, though BtVS is more steeped in fantasy metaphor. My answer is that here is a plain case for the truth and beauty of fantastic fiction.

Obviously planted tell-us-more! question of the week: WHAT'S THE ATTIC?

2: Please show me a Friendship or Altruistic Engagement and soon.

3. I did not address your questions about who said that thing about singing actors or if Dollhouse has tapped the horrific vein of body commodification. No, I did not.

* * * * *

I haven't seen any of the Matrices, but Rainy-Day-cartes has been on my mind lately (we're running a piece about Descartes' Evil Deceiver problem in our current issue [... of Cabinet magazine! - Ed.]. RD bricks himself into a little, fearful, doubtful corner, right, where the only redemption = "God is good, He Who Makes The World wouldn't do that to me?" For those without a God-fallback, the reckoning with the daily Deception, and the will to manufacture meaning in spite of it, end up playing out on a grueling case-by-case basis.

Yes, the men on the show are mostly worthless. It's hard to watch. Does it bother you on a story-level or a deeper gender-level? It seems unfortunately to be part of the mechanics of the show - it's action/adventure, Echo needs to be endangered in each episode, and the most time-honored antagonists of women (It does make me wonder, offhand, about Oz's sageness on BtVS - he glows! he soothes! he's always right! he's the embodiment of Dharma itself! - and whether that, in itself -- though incredibly uplifting and wonderful to watch -- is a satisfactory depiction of a teenage boy. I guess I'll have to stick around.
* * * * *

Don't worry about The Matrix in specific-- that's why I explained the scene sorta-- but you should see it at some point. The premise is, indeed, the same as Descartes' hypothetical demon. The solution is, in The Matrix, resoundingly different (the directo-writer Wachowski Brothers drawing from/interrogating more world religion and philosophical traditions than you, I, or any lowly movie critic can keep up with). Descartes makes a lot of mistakes, first of which being the choice to make the simulacrum-verse the malevolent work of a demon and then forget that hey, that was the b.s. setup for a thought experiment, not a moral tale.

More to the problempoint, he is brave enough to decide that should we eliminate all doubtable beliefs we are left with a handful of nothing... Problem being "1: I think, therefore: 2: at least I know that I am." (it wrecks his "proofs" but feel free to strikeout the other part "and everybody knows that God Is."), but waiiiit, back up, 1: what? You can prove nothing like "I think". It would, however, be an impressive futurist leap for Descartes to imagine a neurologist poking a brain in a jar or Topher zapping you with an Imprint. So I chalk up his failure to Christian chicken-out or simple limitations of human imagination.

Descartes doesn't have any fun with the idea, just asks "how do I know this thing I made up isn't true?" The Matrix asks: "What would it mean about life it were true? Would it matter? Wouldn't that mean you could do anything, like a lucid dream?" And more. Dollhouse asks of its similar sitch "What would that mean for the 'I' in 'I think'?"

Brainflash in the shower this morning. Kick me if it doesn't come true.

Agent Ballard's Lasagna Girl neighbor. She's an Active.

She's gotta be.

Ballard's whole life is going to prove populated by Dollhouse agents. This makes him the photo-negative variation of an Active. Walking around on missions with his native-brained birthrighted imprint, but surrounded by actors pushing him, pulling him, lying and truthsaying but leading Ballard through the maze sure as if he'd been Topherized. There's more than one way to Imprint a cat.

And if this turns out not-true? They missed the boat, and should have hired me to write their story. THE END!

* * * * *

RD probably took his armchair freakout as far as a seventeenth-century Catholic could be expected to go.

That's an interesting hunch about Lasagna Girl (the Internet tells me her name is "Mellie"?) although it also puts a twist on her hallway interaction with Russian Mob Guy Lubov.


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