Thursday, May 28, 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

LITTLE SHOP Handbook: Visual Strategies in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Visual Strategies in Little Shop of Horrors

Director Frank Oz blocks the Little Shop of Horrors actors in stylized tableaux in every scene, usually for the duration of each separate shot. While actors are given free reign to emote in unrestrained fashion, their location and movements within the shots in dialogue scenes are always as precisely choreographed as the dance numbers. This rarely occurs as normalized two-shots or singles, except as pushed into extreme image through rack focus revealing further visual information, off-center angle or sundry weird technique.

There are no "normal" (or "boring"/expected) shots in this studio-bound film, nor any naturalistic ones. In the loosest-feeling sequences dominated by actors given over to manic ad-libbing — those in which Arthur Denton (Bill Murray) visits Dr. Scrivello's (Steve Martin) office, and Wink Wilkinson (John Candy) conducts a radio interview — Oz allows the performers to roam a bit more, and his camera to follow some minor wanderings. There are also a few scenes with actors pacing within limited space (Rick Moranis as Seymour is prone to this, as is James Belushi as marketing pitchman Patrick Martin), but all these counter-examples are shot and blocked to diagram power relationships and create popping, graphic images as well. The Denton/Scrivello scene is loose inside a few nervous pans to follow Murray, but these shots work toward punctuation marks formed by actors' postures, the location of bodies within the frame. No character prowls the space purposelessly, or occupies uncomposed space in the frame.

The staging of Little Shop of Horrors is perpetually "stagy." It is not stagy, however, in the sense of being only suited to the stage. Oz may have lifted/transfered some of the blocking from the off-Broadway production (should anyone be in possession of tapes made of the original production, please contact this writer), with "musical staging" by Edie Cowan. This is natural for an adaptation of a stage production, and it is unremarkable for a musical film to adapt the stylized techniques of classical Hollywood forerunners; our purpose is simply to catalog some of Oz's strategies for organizing the film. Though the source is a theatrical production and the original 1960 film —respectively bound to the diorama of the stage and Roger Corman's grungy hemmed-in sets and catch-as-catch-can location shots — the show has been reconfigured, the story retold in aggressively cinematic language. Little Shop of Horrors is stylized, and it is stylized for the movies.

I - Paired Profiles

The placement and posture of bodies within compositions always looms large among directorial concerns; Little Shop of Horrors always arranges its performers for both dramatic purposes and graphic impact. Among the visual body-prop motifs in Little Shop of Horrors are a large number of shots in which two performers face one another in full profile. While not an uncommon viewing angle of conversing persons in real life, it is not a common blocking for stage performers, particularly in musicals, as it tends to swallow the voice and cut off actors from an audience. It is also uncommon for a film to block and shoot so many scenes in this fashion. Shooting eye contact from the side throws up a proscenium between the screen and audience; the angle cuts off an audience from looking into an actor's eyes and sharing the gaze available in an over-the-shoulder shot or face-forward angle. Freeze-framing a dialogue scene in more naturalistic films may capture moments of actors in face-off profile, and certainly similar shots occur in other films, but Little Shop of Horrors uses the image in a pattern of frequent and prolonged shots. Though a "weak" stage position for actors, it is graphically bold in a visual medium.

A majority of these dual profile shots are used while charting the progress of Seymour's burgeoning relationship with Audrey. The second largest number of these shots document the verso: Seymour's destructive relationship with Audrey's dark twin, Audrey II. A handful of others feature other characters paired with Seymour, and one — literally striking — example does not feature Seymour at all. Below are screencaps of ten prominent examples of this shot.


a) Audrey and Seymour consider a friendly shopping excursion to spruce up the nerd's wardrobe. Both brighten at the prospect of socializing outside the workplace, and excitement blooms. They have just bonded over a rush-job floral arrangement for Mrs. Shiva, the bouquet (augmented with glued-on glitter) appears between them, signals the positive outcome of their teamwork. In their small world, with the limited expectations of Skid Row, and narrow set of personal standards, depending on one's empathy levels, they are either good at what they do, or simply sympathetic to one another — i.e., Seymour thinks Audrey has good aesthetic sense. The moment she is encouraged by Seymour's attention, feels herself valued by a kind man, she remembers she has a date with her current abusive paramour and wilts. The flowers become a funeral bouquet once more, and Audrey turns from Seymour, breaking the dual profile composition.


b) Audrey II exhibits its first signs of sentience as Seymour serenades the plant during the "Grow For Me" number. A Seymour-POV shot of the plant making kissy-suction movements with its lips and a low angle nearly from Audrey II's perspective as Seymour squeezes blood drops into its open pod surround this shot of dual profiles. These angles confirm plot information — Seymour's gives visual confirmation that the plant is moving, Audrey II's that it has a "perspective" equal to a human character — and intersect with another motif, that of unexpected POV shots. The profiles, as before, highlight a change in one of Seymour's principle relationships, as the plant and the horticulturist study one another in a new light and from this angle we may survey the tensions in both gazes.


c) "Does this look inanimate to you, punk?" growls Audrey II and, sliding a chair under Seymour, yanks him forward into an echo of their first shared profile shot. In each of the profile moments, Seymour comes face to face with new information about other characters. Here, the power dynamic shifts dramatically, as Seymour begins his move from caretaker to slave. This is a seduction scene, Audrey II displaying physical threat and prowess, appealing to both Seymour's base material lusts ("money... girls") and need to be loved ("one particular girl? How 'bout that Audrey?"). Twined up in this, the domineering plant begins to act as a parental figure, replacing the inadequate Mushnik. Audrey II begins life an orphan like Seymour, onto which the boy-man projects the love he did not receive, until the plant essentially enslaves him in the same way Mushnik forces Seymour to work in the shop to earn his keep (this is strengthened in the stage show via a subplot in which Mushnik legally adopts Seymour only after it becomes a lucrative proposition). In this profile shot leading up to "Feed Me", Audrey II begins a sales pitch in which it threatens and begs, works Seymour's empathy and selfishness, and thus thwarts Seymour's attempts to come out of his shell by twisting his nurturing instincts back upon him.


d) Seymour and Audrey II, through the shop's display window, watch Dr. Scrivello and Audrey. This paired profile as Orin slaps Audrey, punctuates a shot in which they enter her apartment building and exchange rhythmic dialogue while striking silhouetted poses a through a lighted window. It is not properly part of a song and dance, but functions as a loose middle eight to tie together the Audrey II/Seymour duet occurring across the street. Scrivello berates Audrey for minor perceived slights then sweeps her into the above pose and belts her across the face. Besides the abuses occurring in his dental office, this is the worst on-screen act that Dr. Scrivello commits in the film, and is impetus for Seymour's eventual murder of Scrivello via reckless endangerment. Prior two-shot profiles with Audrey and Audrey II have established this as a Seymour-centric motif, and this moment, which spurs to action a man defined by inaction, is about watching; it also intersects with several other LSOH motifs: silhouettes, shots through glass, scenes viewed from across a street, voyeuristic POV shots of characters secretly watching one another, and shots through or in front of frames -- mostly doors and windows.


e) The "Suddenly, Seymour" sequence is bookended with dual profile shots. The song cements the Audrey/Seymour romantic relationship by its final notes, but it does not begin there. Rather than a time-out declaration of love, the number contains key narrative information and character drama. As the lead-in dialogue begins, Audrey and Seymour are emotionally and visually separated. She is distant and distraught, having just learned that Orin has been killed, and Seymour is nerve-wracked and guilt-ridden over having murdered the dentist. Audrey explains that her tears are not of sorrow but relief (and, we infer, caused by no small trauma, as well as a guilty conscience over that same relief), and her confusion and confessions repeatedly cause her to pull away from comfort, look away from Seymour's sympathetic gaze. When the pain reaches its apex, and the players are at their greatest physical distance, they turn to face one another. This early verse of the song begins in the widest dual profile shot of the film. The couple tentatively expresses their feelings and Audrey lays out her backstory of personal damage, they step nearer one another and the camera pushes in on them.


f) "Suddenly, Seymour" ends by echoing the earlier wide shot, the physical distance now bridged with a lovers embrace. Triumphant as the final sustained notes of the song are, exhilarating as the rush of positive emotion seems, it is not the resolution of all troubles in Seymour's story. Rather, the declaration of devoted couplehood deepens the conflicts inherent in Seymour's other problems. The workplace romance and Seymour's increased confidence cause a panic in Mushnik, who would exploit his unadopted son's success. The vow to look after Audrey worsens Seymour's transgressions in his pact with Audrey II. Though it is not tinged with particularly pointed irony -- and the relationship, while problematic, eventually provides Seymour the inspiration to rise above -- the golden artificial sunset-kissed bliss of "Suddenly, Seymour" is an ignorant bliss.

This key sequence in the Audrey/Seymour romance contains a good deal of detail-packing beyond the scope of these notes. It does end with the couple framed before another window, this one in the half-demolished ruins of a Skid Row building. "Suddenly, Seymour" begins as the characters believe they have hit bottom, emotionally wrecked, and mulling about among the building's rubble. As they reveal their feelings, in their mutual uplift Seymour and Audrey dart up a crumbling staircase that seems to lead nowhere -- but they are indeed rising up above the ruins together. In the reverse of the above shot, the Greek chorus of Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon is perched on a ledge as heavenly chorus. The yellow sun -- last seen fully eclipsed in the backstory flashback number "Dah-Doo" (the story, thus, begins in sunlessness; the narrative opens in the vacuum of space) -- from this vantage seems to glow so warmly that it burns away the mesh (chain-link? safety-glass reenforcement?) covering the window behind Audrey and Seymour.

This double profile bursts into a comically frantic kiss the moment the characters have finished their vocal duties, which melts into the mellow ripples of afternoon light: actually a dissolve to the textured glass of Audrey's apartment building's front door. This transition is part of another visual system running through the film, one of dissolves between abstract patterns of texture and color found and revealed in mundane or unpleasant details of prop, costume and set dressing.


g) Mushnik's power games come to a head. He corners Seymour with the information that he witnessed the dismemberment of Scrivello's body, and at gunpoint insists that Seymour turn himself over to the police. In the above shot, Mushnik does an about-face, feigning sympathy to blackmail his slave/son in order to get his hands on Audrey II. Rather than taking the moral high ground, Mushnik simply believes he has the upper hand. He believes he holds the more powerful weapon (physical mass and firearm; Seymour is unarmed), the more valuable information (that Seymour murdered Orin to get to or protect Audrey; that Seymour does not know Mushnik has designs on the plant) and the greater insight into his opponent's character (he preys upon Seymour's cowardice, gentleness, meekness; Seymour holds no sympathetic sway over Mushnik). In geometric growth patterns, Mushnik's capitalist ownership increases with insatiable appetite -- he thus mirrors the destructive hunger, expansive growth and viral encroachment upon Seymour's psyche as embodied in Audrey II. Mushnik will turn to face this dark green mirror and be destroyed in a scant few screen moments, which Seymour anticipates visually and mentally. Both physically and informationally, Seymour is packing the bigger gun. In this irony-charged shot, Mushnik takes the power position, holding the center of the frame and looming over Seymour, backing the smaller man against the door.

The shot is of two men, though, and through Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour allows his mingled hollow success/doom to occur through inaction. Scrivello and Mushnik are not killed by Seymour's hand, but neither does Seymour intervene. They are destroyed by Seymour's externalized rampaging Id, in the form of Audrey II -- a point made manifest in different ways by Corman's film, the stage show and LSOH's own scrapped ending -- but also undone by their own foibles and Seymour's very meekness. LSOH positions Seymour's timidity as the central obstacle he needs to overcome. He is passive to the extreme, wallowing in socioeconomic despair on Skid Row, hoping for "someone [to] tell Lady Luck that I'm stuck here," shy around women, parental figure, customers, and thus a target for a dozen breeds of bully. This inaction is underlined as parodic parallel of Christian martyrdom and cheek-turning ethos in the number "The Meek Shall Inherit" (the aphorism given cynical twist into "the meek are gonna get what's coming to them...") The paradigm for human interaction in LSOH is one of bullying and cowering, showboats and wallflowers. Under Mushnik's threat of bullet, blackmail, losing his shot at public adoration, release from poverty, and his romance with Audrey, Seymour puts up his hands and lets the universe chomp on the bigger sinner first. Everybody gets what's coming to them, by and by.


h) The finished film allows Seymour to transform via late-game assertiveness, Audrey's affection providing his inspiration. In this profile shot, Seymour proposes marriage to Audrey and they excitedly discuss plans for elopement. As in the shot it most resembles -- (a) above -- the tableau is broken by flooding recollection of a violent personal relationship parallel to the Audrey and Seymour couple. In (a) Audrey plans to go shopping with Seymour on a borderline date, but is reminded of her abusive relationship with Orin. In (b) Seymour plans a life with Audrey but slips into ranting that there must be "no plants, I promise: no plants at all!"

Just as the prior shot marked the first evidence of Audrey and Seymour's dawning connection, and those in "Suddenly Seymour" allow them to openly express mutual feelings, this one depicts them entering a new phase. Having just caused two deaths and signed away his soul, Seymour hits bottom in the prior scene, a public meltdown at his television taping. Proposing to Audrey is certainly a progressive step, but even more proactive is Seymour's determination that they move out of town and begin a new life. Seymour's journey with Audrey II serves also as answer to his plea for "Lady Luck"'s assistance. Through dumb luck, the plant zaps through the cosmos and lands in his lap, alters his life but to no good end: Audrey II uses Seymour. In counterpoint, Seymour's transformation thanks to Audrey and learning to take control of his own life. With this profile shot, Seymour realizes he must choose between the Audreys.

An evolution to be sure, but not complete.


i) This dual profile visually quotes the staging of "Suddenly, Seymour" for a comic thwarting. "Suddenly, Seymour (Reprise)" is immediately interrupted by the sales pitch of Patrick Martin (Jim Belushi). Though brief and undercut by the disruption of Seymour's sins catching up with him, the shot and song represent the full flowering of Seymour and Audrey's romance. Having just rescued Audrey from psychic seduction and physical assault by Audrey II, Seymour's secret life is now entirely in the open. "Suddenly, Seymour" begins with Audrey's full disclosure of her dark life; the reprise is Seymour's. She accepts him despite the fears, failures and transgressions he has been concealing. Immediately after, Seymour will make his final, greatest transformation, now empowered enough to do battle with Audrey II. Seymour heads back into the shop to confront his demon and its offspring and correct his crimes. He chooses not to run or cower but solve the problems he has created. Seymour chooses responsibility and positive action. He does it because of the moments captured in these profile shots.


j) A grace note here, after Seymour has dispatched Audrey II. In some ways, the system of profile shots has been building to this moment.

After the above shot, there is only one more in the film proper, before the credit roll. The next is truly a coda, with Audrey and Seymour running away from the camera, out of Skid Row and into a suburban fantasia, and final unsettling punchline as the Greek chorus presents a small reminder of the eternal dangers of what Audrey II represents. But this, the penultimate shot of Little Shop of Horrors, closes the narrative and includes a dual profile.

In unbroken shot: Audrey cries and laughs silently, overjoyed at Seymour's emergence from the rubble of the demolished shop. Tracking left in a circle around Audrey, the shot reveals Seymour, who moves toward his proud, elated fiancée --Seymour comes to Audrey -- and the camera continues a full 360-degree track around them as the lovers embrace. The hug breaks, the tracking ceases. As Audrey and Seymour gaze at one another, the motif is invoked for just a moment, this moment. They turn and run directly into the fourth wall. Audrey runs past the camera, screen left. Seymour runs straight at the lens. The shot ends on blurry frames of Seymour's chest. It ends on his heart.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sweet Caroline: DOLLHOUSE Renewed!


"... Oh, I've been inclined to believe it never would."

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.11 - "Briar Rose"


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

The Engagement: On a charitable Engagement, Echo hangs out at a group home for wayward youth, and assists a traumatized girl with her personal life, using a storybook of "Sleeping Beauty", which frames and informs the episode. Paul Ballard seeks out Steven Kepler, the man who designed Dollhouse, and Ballard forces the agoraphobic architect to help him break into the secret facility. Adelle and Topher drag Mr. Dominic out of the Attic and into Victor's head, to investigate the contents of a spooky flash drive... which reveals that Alpha is posing as Kepler. With Alpha as his guide, the unwitting Ballard finally makes it into the Dollhouse, where he is promptly emotionally shattered, beaten up... and finds that Echo has no interest in being rescued by him.

JS: Saturday morning: check.
COFFEE FROM HELL: check.
Medicinal carrots germinating on windowsill: if only!

CS: Don't put that on the windowsill, unless you want someone to see it.

Here are some people who score bonus points in "Briar Rose".

a) Jane Espenson, here flying solo and sparkling, where "Haunted" contained dull bits possibly the doing of Joss Whedon's brother and sister-in-law.

b) I like Alan Tudyk as much as the next guy but the standout performance is the few minutes of Enver Gojokaj playing Victor imprinted as Mr Dominic. Gojokaj was just on best-supporting fire in these moments, channelling Reed Diamond so well it was like watching Dominic wearing a Victor mask.

c) the entire writer's room and their attitude toward Paul Ballard. Through much of "Briar Rose" I increasingly grew concerned that the world's most screwed-over detective was actually making some sort of progress, the greatest coup of the last act being that Ballard has fucked up worse than ever before.


JS: Victor waking up as Mr. Demonic was one of my top moments of the entire series, a) structurally, since we're so used to the image of the peaceful or Activated wakeups and b) topo-emotionally, because how often do moments like this erupt through the show's slick surface? We've seen the next worst thing -- Ballard watching his own betrayal unfold in the form of Mellie's message -- and now the worst thing, a creature in pain, aware of his pain, powerless in his pain. Mr. Volcanic indeed.

Speaking of waking up (and this episode is full of wakeups), did you know that that this episode is a shoutout to Sleeping Beauty? I hope you didn't miss that.


CS: Ha. Oh, okay, we'll go straight There.
ANGEL: This isn't some fairy tale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.
BUFFY: No. When you kiss me I want to die.
-BtVS, "Reptile Boy"

There are ways in which to invoke folk tale, myth and fairy story which simply draw parallels, underline various points, or imbue proceedings with a fated, classical feel. This, whether you are Joyce writing Ulysses or Chris Carter writing The X-Files episode "Post-Modern Prometheus", may be done gracefully or in hackneyed fashion. It is not inherently a tacky technique. It is value-neutral. Grabbing randomly from my brain files, compare the cornball jagoffery of A.I.'s invocation of Pinocchio and Hard Candy's Little Red Riding Hood motif to, say, Suspiria's loose Snow White model, and the subtle accumulation of references to Arthurian legend in Twin Peaks. "Briar Rose" does not invoke a fairy tale once and let the issue slide, leaving us to suss out analogues with the Sleeping Beauty story, but increasingly draws graphic parallels, illustrating with match-cuts between book illustrations and characters, locations, uses the fairy tale to narrate external events via voice over. The cross-cut commentary makes no overtures to subtlety...

... yet I don't think it is all that's going on. In "True Believer" several Biblical stories are invoked, and as I proposed, actually mulled over and given sympathetic/subversive readings that differ from dominant culture's readings of the same. "Briar Rose" does something similar, and openly discusses the issue of interpretation and purpose. We watch "Briar Rose" talk through the problem with Briar Rose. First, Echo as "Susan, Too" provides an unadorned read-through of Sleeping Beauty, then we listen to the protests of the young girl Susan, a hard luck case and abuse victim who finds the story's wait-to-be-rescued scenario disempowering. Echo then proposes a more sophisticated reading of the story, based less on literal plot events than meditation on genre structure. The episode has a built-in critical analyst in Echo, but another in Espenson and director Dwight Little. Susan and Susan2's discussion is spread out enough that it allows Ballard's mission, homing in on the location of the Dollhouse, to unfold beneath the auspice of the Sleeping Beauty deconstruction; while the story initially provides analogues for the prince and cursed princess in Echo and Ballard, it is the criticism which provides the stronger throughline. The easy parts of this game are obvious as soon as Susan2 reads a line from the story. The complications begin when the first match-cut is between a torn and crumpled illustration of the storybook prince and the emotionally damaged Ballard. The reality and positivity of Ballard's mission falls under indirect fire through Susan's criticism. While we want to be free, its value and meaning is directly linked to our own agency in the matter of freeing ourselves. Susan2's rebuttal is complex. She begins by stating aloud the biographical parallels that Susan is reading in the story, and, unawares, paints her Echo-self as Briar Rose:
SUSAN2: You really hate that she didn't save herself, don't you?... Of course, she was 15. That's pretty big. If she was littler, say six or seven or eight--
SUSAN: You can always run away.
SUSAN2: Really? I couldn't. [...}

Simple enough, as she uses the drama of the story as a therapeutic tool. But here is the transcendent power of criticism, as Echo spins straw into gold:
SUSAN2: Hey, you know this story? Read it again, okay? But this time think of yourself as the prince.
SUSAN: I didn't save anyone.
SUSAN2: Hey, remember what you said. Prince shows up at the end, takes all the credit. That means that Briar Rose was trapped all that time, sleeping and dreaming of getting out. The prince was her dream. She made him. She made him fight to get her out.

Sounds to me like Echo was also imprinted with a couple classes in feminist lit, comparative mythology and narratology. She proposes that Sleeping Beauty calls out in a secret feminine language, that birthing ones savior makes one a savior too, that female resourcefulness and the manifestation of will are acts of important agency. We still are not discouraged from paralleling Ballard and the prince, but he is removed of some self-possession. Ballard is still brave and persistent, but so is Echo, though one swings fists and guns and one lays prone in a box; we're invited to understand that just as Ballard has had his personal life and professional mission manipulated by invisible hands in an invisible building, so is his personal, deeply-felt quest directed by Echo.

Here is a vital sidetrack: this idea of Echo's is not new. I've previously placed Ballard in the company of Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dale Cooper, all FBI men hearing the siren call of a victim, all feeling it lead them in bizarre, mystical directions. While Ballard spends most of his time as a Mulder -- driven paranoiac being spun about in investigative Blind Man's Buff -- "Briar Rose" borrows one of the more esoteric and poetic threads of Twin Peaks. (Everyone may feel free to space out on this, if inclined!) The deceased Laura Palmer seems to begin the series as a MacGuffin for drawing together the cast, but this most voiceless of Sleeping Beauties has called out from beyond the divide and summoned forth Agent Cooper as her avenger; a fated couple who, through temporal fluke cannot be united on this plane. Laura is fully re-empowered in Fire Walk With Me, exploiting the time and space wonkiness behind the curtain of the cosmos to find unite herself with Cooper. The world takes her angels away, so Laura summons one to her side herself.

Ballard, of course, is not the shining and brilliant Dale Cooper. Further into the thorns, the possibility is mounted that Boyd Langton is the prince Echo needs... and in the fireworks spectacular finale, of course, the nasty, delightful revelation that none of these would-be alpha males is the summoned prince at all.


JS: I also found those cross-cuts a little basic and bombastic, and wondered what was up. It was the same feeling I had early in "Gingerbread" another Espenson story from BtVS S3. I knew a classic story was being rewired -- here, Prince Ballard was obviously headed for trouble -- but why did the wiring have to be so explicit? In retrospect, the clunky cross-cuts -- "behold the hero's ascent to yonder tower!" -- are an ironic prelude to the total self-destruction of the clunky Sleeping Beauty narrative itself; it turns out that they wired that shit to explode, and I couldn't be gladder. If anything needs to be blown to pieces, it's this most odious of fairy tales... but it's also insubstantial enough that when the pieces are picked up, storytelling magics can reconfigure them for any occasion.

"Sleeping Beauty" is full of possible, yawn-worthy morals: all good things come to those who wait, it is darkest before the dawn, hold out for the Right Guy, the spindle prick of original sin is absolved by a Redeemer's kiss. (Or, if you're the princess in the original Italian tale, "Sun, Moon, and Talia" -- lock your door). But Susan/Echo shoves that sleeper awake -- "think of yourself as the prince." Be your own rescuer. What if you are literally powerless, can't physically break the lock or climb out the window? The advice still holds: Be your own rescuer... by protecting and nourishing the dream of rescue, for sleep gives birth to dreams, dreams are the last stronghold of desire, and desire helps us endure the next moment, and the next. Other trapped heroines have extra recourse (Rapunzel has her 'do, for instance), but Sleeping Beauties, tied to their beds, have no option but to conjure, to commit imaginative fraud, to forge angels out of the air itself... to make fiction their weapon. And so in Susan2's hands, "Sleeping Beauty" becomes a consolation for the powerless, those for whom the only movement possible is mental travel -- it's fictionmaking as a means to stay fit in captivity, ready for the door to swing open. (Surely someone has tweaked this tale into a narrative told, or dreamed, by the S.B. herself, during her 100 years of uninterrupted writing time).

As for the idea of a summons, I don't quite understand your suggestion that Sleeping Beauty "calls out in a secret feminine language" to her prince -- the idea that a trapped and victimized creature can "summon" an outside party seems dangerous -- how do you distinguish her will from the claims of the rescuer himself? And who is the right rescuer, pray tell? Ballard, too, may need a lecture from Maleficent, a reminder that "Sleeping Beauty" is, above all, a cautionary tale for princes (of any gender) and their susceptibility to illusion, hubris, to projecting their fantasies onto distant princesses (of any gender), to following their obsessions every last inch to their dreadful conclusions. (Aside: Princesssss Aurora kinda looks like a goldilocks Eliza Dushku!) Joel Mynor already pointed most of this out to Ballard in "Man on the Street", but forgot to add that "Sleeping Beauty"-like rescue-stories are not about one captive and one rescuer... they're about one captive and hundreds of rescuers... after all, how many princes died in the thorns before the Man of the Century came along and hacked his way through? Juliet doesn't always receive one Romeo, or Madeline one Porphyro. How many guys have heard the "siren call" and proceeded independently and autonomously toward their goal, and how much misguided heroism/other endeavor has been based on the thought, "because she wants me to"? "Briar Rose" actually undermines the idea of the summons, because in the end, as you pointed out, there is a princely pile-up of every last idiot-child who thinks Echo/Caroline needs him. The Sleeping Beauty narrative implodes beautifully by driving the concept to its logical conclusion -- too many princes show up, the princess is unsure of her loyalties (and sabotages Ballard), her previous SOS (Caroline's phone call) goes forgotten! And everyone's most cherished illusion -- Ballard's quest, Langton's paternal affection, Topher's creator-power (he is, after all, the first face most Dolls see when they wake up, a parody of the hovering prince) -- goes down the shitter. Not every girl (or Dominic!) taking a nap wants to be woken up.

Question for you, which will probably be answered in "Omega" -- does Alpha win it all? If anyone summoned anyone, it seems like Alpha summoned Ballard to the scene, heaven knows why. Seems like it would have been faster to get Caroline out himself. Alpha certainly gets the girl, but it's because he's smart, strategic, and methodical, not because he's a Prince or Hero. At least some"one" in the Dollhouse -- or at least one very specific Imprint -- was waiting for him... to say nothing of "W is for Whiskey" Saunders (thanks to cleverer viewers than I for pointing that one out). (In a sadder twist, little Susan is probably now waiting for Susan2 to come back, which she never will).

But no one was waiting for Ballard... because nobody ever is.


CS: Man, they tricked us into talking about the fairy tale frosting on the cake, which I suspect we both "get" anyway. You're free to take Susan's side re: Sleeping Beauty. As much as I enjoy subversive argument, the Perrault version was written to endorse specifically the values that Susan is complaining about.

But you're still taking a literalist stance to Echo's interpretation of the story, though we are, to a degree, both putting words in Echo's mouth. I don't necessarily buy Susan2's reading either, because like Joseph Campbell's monomyth, it is a porous, widely applicable idea, not specific to the text in hand. By way of elaborating the subtle voices we use while imprisoned: the theory being that Briar Rose calls a man through the power of dreams -- intuition, psychic linkage and mind-control being historically female-linked. This is all Echo's reading, not my own. Though the real-world result may be the same, there is a difference in dreaming someone into being, wishing, praying, and begging to the wall: Echo says "she made him". Dollhouse means these things figuratively, though as for Twin Peaks, I meant it literally: Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper have access to a trans-temporal conduit, via the mystical Lodges in the woods outside Twin Peaks. She can call her own rescuer -- they even psychically intuit one another before her murder -- and when he doesn't arrive in time, she even finds a complicated way for them to be together anyway.

Echo is not piecing together textual clues that Briar Rose literally "made" a prince materialize. She is not articulate enough to say it, but the way we write stories is this: the presence of a rescuer is necessitated by the existence of a damsel in distress. He cannot Be unless she Is first. This meditation on meta-tations is what I was mostly getting at. The argument here is that all characters in narrative fiction have good reason to feel that the freeway of their existence goes in one direction, one lane, no exits. But don't sweat it. Neither Susan1, nor 2 has final say on Sleeping Beauty. Neither Ballard, Boyd or Alpha have arrived as mechanical effect of Echo's having dreamt, called forth, summoned or prayed for. There aren't gods, psychics or supernatural entities in this hard s-f world.

So hmm, does Alpha win? The whole of the Grimm and Perrault fairy story collections remain socio-normative and gender-politik straightjacketed. They also retain something of the weird Old World power of their source stories; however diluted, it cannot be washed away. That weirdness and tingly sanguinity gushed forth when Alpha emerged. I have made very few guesses at Mr. Alpha (or Mr. Whedon's) master plan, but damned if his outbreak of confident strutting, slashing, and expressiveness didn't bring a sudden jolt of joie de vivre noir to the Dollhouse world of repressed, tortured, injured and sleeping souls. We only saw him being "him" for a minute, but he was alive, and he knew what he was doing, and it looked like it felt good.


JS: It's a good pointo about perhaps taking Echo/Susan too literally. I was just digging into that specific, very plausible situation of an adult mentor trying to help this kid find some refuge -- even a role model -- in what is basically a very demoralizing story. If, figuratively, her misfortune and distress are what birth the rescuer -- if his birth is simply a consequence, a domino's fall -- then how do her agency, resourcefulness, or positive manifestation of will matter at all? They are probably only to be found in hindsight, as Echo helps Susan "edit" the book of the past, endowing past-Susan with a more active/generative role in the chain of events. It's still a compassionate deception, and I am droning. Anyway, we lose track of Susan halfway into the episode, so perhaps she's less important in and of herself, more important in terms of serving as another educational encounter on Echo's Grand Tour.

I am reasonably sure that the tingly sanguinity unleashed by Alpha signals the rush of blood to a thousand fangroins.


CS: I hope more than 1000 people are watching! The groins say "Hooray, the Arch Enemy showed up, with only an episode and 1/5 to go!" This is a new and interesting build for M.E. story structure. It has been very happily doling out dozens of unsolved plot mysteries while answering a few at a time, but unlike mythology teases Lost and The X-Files, Dollhouse maintains forward propulsion. It hints and foreshadows but does not spin its wheels. I don't even feel the need to guess at the big hot questions --Dollhouse's "Who killed Laura Palmer?," "What is the island?," "What is the goal of the secret government conspiracy" is "What is the Dollhouse's purpose?" -- because it is plain that the show has a better answer than we can come up with.

Yet, regarding that question, and back to the Susans in a more general sense, I kept waiting for the explanation of who contracted this Engagement, kept wondering where the money was. The answer came all right, but it seems to be a charity mission initiated by Topher. Whether this was just an opportunity for the labmaster to try out strange new twist on Imprinting technique (Echo as Susan "if" she grows up healthy and strong -- this begs the question of how Topher got a brain scan of Susan), it appears that the Dollhouse is willing to do pro bono work for the purpose of... what? Making the world a better place? Testing their limits and skills to provide a wider variety of paid services? As Angel would put it, helping the helpless? Notice that DeWitt constantly maintains the company line, that the Dollhouse provides a beneficial service, even when speaking internally to employees who she has no reason to snow. Misguided perhaps, conflicted, certainly, but is it possible that like the X-Files' evil Machavellian Consortium, they do have benevolent or survivalist intention and believe the importance of the work outweighs and justifies the vileness of the means?

"Briar Rose" climaxes with so much information that the cliffhang feels like a two-parter -- perhaps why we're drawn to analyze a fairy tale instead of the episode. I did get two scenes that I've been dying to see for weeks, and they are not action events but emotional beats, personal revelations. That the finale is a week away may have made us timid about jumping on these things [NOTE TO READERS: Janani and Chris actually refrain from watching new episodes until discussions have been completed, if you can believe that! - Ed.]:

-Ballard wide-eyed with horror to discover Victor in the Dollhouse, and an audible clunk as his stomach hits his pelvic bone. Could not be better timed that a few moments later, Echo herself pulls Pauls feet out from under him.
-Let us assume that Dominic-in-Victor's exclamation at Saunders means what we know it means. Let us assume that Alpha's taunt that she didn't "always want to be a doctor" means the same. Whiskey! That poor scarred Whiskey is shuffled into behind-the-scenes duty recalls the way Disneyland employees with acne or large bodies are kept in maintenance and janitorial duties. Topher's enigmatic contemplation of the doe-eyed doctor in "Ghost" becomes so much more aching and wistful in retrospect. Let us hope that Victor's mirrored face-slashing by Alpha does not mean we will see less of my favorite of Echo's bunkmates.

And: That Dr. Saunders is not required to shower frequently and behind plexiglass is a total rip-off.


JS: Amy Acker is a one-woman heat wave, frying my Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As Snakes on a Jackson said in Do the Right Thing: "Children, this is the cool-out corner."

Among other things, the Susan imprint hinted to me that Dollhouse writers are designing the one-shot plots backward, starting with a provocative concept -- "what if an older self could literally counsel a younger self?" -- and filling in the gaps. (As opposed to, "I loved Black Beauty - can we have horses please?" Wait, you mean shows aren't written that way?) Starting at the end is fine, as Topher's science is always served with a side of fudge brownies. My own curiosity about the larger story structure is leading me to think of the whole thing not as a linear story so much as a story cycle or a grab bag of interrelated fables, almost half of which can be appreciated out of order. To me the the forward propulsion hasn't felt as urgent; Ballard's quest is the only straight line, perhaps the axis around which every other story forms, just as (fudge alert) an electric current generates a magnetic force field around its axis:


The only Echo assignments that seem to have a fixed place in the chronology involve Echo-Ballard intersections, as in "True Believer", "Man on the Street" (because of her warning to Ballard), "Needs" (a response to several weeks' worth of glitching and with Caroline's call to Ballard) and "Spy" because of the Dominic business. Every other piece is movable, a little independently functioning unit (and not unlike a folk tale in terms of its turning a young person out of doors to try her luck in the world). So does this mean... oh my gawd... does this mean that the Engagements and soul/personality dithering were auxiliary concerns, and that all this time the real core story has been Dollhouse: The True Hollywood Story of Paul Ballard? Alpha is Paul's fellow saboteur, but, as you say, he's not so much an individual as an elemental force blowing the doors off the place. In any case, maybe the contrivance of the Dollhouse is just an excuse to talk about human response to Dollhouses (presaged in "Man on the Street"); in Paul's case the doomed curiosity of an outsider, in Alpha's case the treachery of an insider...

"Briar Rose" represents another death blow to the script idea I told you about last week, about a rival organization that smuggles out a Doll for observation. The idea grew much like the victim/rescuer symbiosis you suggested, the Dollhouse by virtue of its very existence sprouting a nemesis -- but how sick and wonderful is it that the enemy turns out to be one of their own? That the seeds of the Dollhouse's destruction lie in its very origins, in the very setup that was supposed to work perfectly? Has all of season 1 really been about the End Times of the Dollhouse, its last act, the calm before the storm, the impossibly intricate fractal proliferation that precedes the last act of Jurassic Park (the novel)? Is the Dollhouse under siege by this guy?

I've read mentioned that JW planned a complete one-season story arc in case of cancellation, and from what little Whedon storytelling I've seen I wouldn't put it past him to blow the place to bits (like he did Sunnydale High!) and start season 2 on a completely different footing... which would put even more topspin on Adelle's delicious line to Ballard -- "You think you can walk into the Dollhouse when it doesn't even exist?" This wouldn't be such a misfit with the True Hollywood Story, because... it doesn't really. And it does. It's everywhere, and it's nowhere.

(No, wait, I've got it: Dollhouse deals in fantasy, but its purpose is to get Chris's blog updating regularly again after a certain comic abducted him for a year! We're all Dollhouse pawns, every last one of us...)


CS: DeWitt's taunt to Ballard is suitably sinister and suggestive (perhaps not as bad-ass as Cigarette Smoking Man's rejoinder to the first time Mulder shoves a gun in his face: "Don't try and threaten me, Mulder. I've watched presidents die."-- truly one for the ages). Secret hideouts are one thing. The base of operations with official policy that This Location Is Not Here is another. The Dollhouse is in the real world subterranean sub rosa company of Mount Weather, Area 51, Bohemian Grove, the DARPA facility that may not be photographed. If architecture is frozen music, then the Dollhouse is a see-through crystallization of a shortwave numbers station. I'm interested, as metaphor-plumber and story hacker, in the way Dollhouse allows meaning to flow through its core elements. In "Briar Rose" the Dollhouse is compared to the 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. It has been womb, nursery, cemetery, cult compound, haven, Eden, home and prison in one episode. The same multiperspective applies to all characters, relationships, missions and struggles, always. Mutant Enemy sets up the board and, as the game progresses, turns the pieces and board itself around in its hands, every vantage equally possible. Dollhouse's symbols are empty pitchers as eager to be filled with water as whiskey or Great Bluedini Kool-Aid: you can put anything in these people.

DeWitt is also reminding Ballard that the the conspiracy of denial is so deep and elaborate, the smokescreen so thick that there is truly nothing behind the screen but more smoke. There are no first-hand sources for urban legends, no central hub in the web of paper and string on Ballard's wall, no license plates for vehicles from the State of Mind. The Sleeping Beauty Castle that lies at another vital hub?

Know what was inside this one in 1955? Nothing. It's a facade.*

What if we get into the sewer and find a giant alligator? What if you locate the subterranean city of mole people in abandoned NYC subway tunnels? What if you get into the Dollhouse? What are you gonna do about it? Ballard's "truth" (like, well, Mulder's) is not going to give him any comfort, any real confirmation: "It is real!" he nods and pats himself on the back-- then spots Victor and... Poof. He can't arrest anyone, couldn't even if he were still an acting FBI agent. If he had any proof, anyway, he's trumped by the NSA. And what is the crime? What is the legal crime that Ballard believes is being committed, and which he can bring to legal justice? We know of a few, all easily whitewashed, and of which Ballard has no proof. Engagements of dubious legality (repossession of stolen property, meddling with law-enforcement, prostitution), violence by Dollhouse security staff (potentially defensible), and the non-consensual violations of The Attic. The Dollhouse is in constant, bizarre violation of the Nuremberg Code, and it appears very much that staff and Doll alike have come aboard under ulterior coercion.

But they all signed contracts. Why are there contracts? What is in this contract? In a hard-line, legal sense, are these contracts binding?

I am hesitant to map out the structure of a Mutant Enemy show that is not complete. What looks like stalling, dead end or tangent on a Whedon show often turns out to be the engine going about its quiet work. If there's one thing this team is good at (I can think of a dozen things, but...) it is complex structure. I found this notebook attempt at diagraming the surface structure of BtVS and Angel as a series of nested and knitted arcs, abandoned when I realized it required supplemental rings, mirrors, helices. Cannot do on paper. May have done better by photocopying the dragon fractals out of the J-Park. Star Trek may be the show that has 3D chess, but Mutant Enemy shows actually play 3D chess.

That might be one to ask me after "Omega". The shape of the season is likely being determined by exactly what kind of gambit Alpha has been running -- whether he stacked the deck, or played his hand exceptionally well.

*(There are things in it now, but for most of history and in grand park metaphor, the Disneyland castle is a shell).


JS: That diagram looks like a berserko version of my AP Physics notes ca. 1999, speaking of which -- my remote is starting to look irresistible.

Shall we Ω?


CS: Oh my multitude of gods, yes, onward to the finale, please. My DVR box is doing a shuffling jig like it has to urinate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Go Boldly, or Go Home: The Vanity Mirror Universe of STAR TREK (2009)

Star Trek (2009 — hereafter Star Trek '09) contains many punchings, shootings and implodings of things. It is sort of funny and sort of dumb, which makes it par for Summer Movie Fun Zone course. The story retraces the meteoric rise of James Kirk immediately before and after — but only for three minutes during — his Starfleet Academy training, and first hours on the job as captain of the USS Enterprise. The external conflict concerns Leonard Nimoy as the Spock of 2387 attempting to stop save Romulus from its own sun going supernova. He fails and is sucked into a black hole — which somehow translates as "time warp wormhole" — with a surviving Romulan mining vessel, and upon reemergence 153 years earlier the vengeance-crazed Nero (Eric Bana, playing straight as possible) declares war on all Spocks young and old. The emotional story is about Kirk realizing his potential rather than succumbing to anger and adrenaline addiction, and Spock suffering the tortures of biracial identity issues. This may sound like rich material, and that is because it has been rich material for 40 years. Trek '09 does not actually engage these human concerns, not in the specific or abstract, but uses them to clumsily throw characters into roughly the correct location for the next action setpiece.

Director J.J. Abrams is a great TV concept man, though his most successful hour, Lost, is a straight-faced adult suspense remake of Gilligan's Island. He is a fine producer, though Lost rapidly lapsed into improperly planned idiocy, he did not touch script or camera for the excellent Cloverfield. He is, however, a terrible writer — responsible for Regarding Henry, Armageddon, Gone Fishin', etc... —and a worse director. Abrams' best directorial quality is a knack for hiring excellent actors then getting the hell out of their way. Unable to communicate in anything but big head close-ups of actors, and special effects shots which he technically did not "shoot" so much as "approve storyboards for", Abrams never needs to compose a striking, poetic, informative, or dramatic frame, because he is going to wiggle the hand-held around all over the mise-en-scène anyway. The script is not his doing, but it is entirely Abrams' fault that Trek '09 looks like a modern, boring garbagey TV show, rather than the beautiful, lurid, exciting and dreamy garbagey TV show it is based upon.

Star Trek '09 attempts an impossible, contradictory project regarding Trek Lore, desiring to reinvigorate these vigorous characters with a rousing space opera adventure and simultaneously mummify them in reverent awe, as pop culture icons whose every step inches them toward their fated seats on the bridge of the Enterprise. Neither writers nor actors know whether to play this as if we are meeting characters afresh, or if everyone is in on some colossal and unhilarious joke about destiny and remakes. The result is a lot of quite literal smirking and mugging by the cast when they do something in character... If that makes sense, which it does not.

Chris Pine captures the bravado, temper and swagger of J.T. Kirk, but not the sheer lustiness and vigor, the sweatiness and passion. He also has bad skin, is not as handsome, and does not bulge in any of the same sexy or unhealthy places as William Shatner. Pine's Kirk is less about joie de vivre than goofing around like everything is a blast all the time. This is, perhaps, not his fault, as the script gives him no opportunities for scenery chewing at a Shatnerian level, and not even much fuel for scenery licking. While the timeline disruption merely saddles Kirk with unnecessary daddy issues — his frustration with the Kobyashi Maru test are motivated by the horror that his father died in exactly the same situation, rather than the perfectly sufficient reasons built into the character as Shatner played him — this is nothing next to the reconfiguration forced on Spock.

Zachary Qunto, pasty and eyebrow-shaved, does what he can despite being miscast and having to interpret a version of Spock which removes virtually everything that makes the character Spock. If two generations of the awkward and scholastically gifted have deified Spock, it is because they admire not just the Vulcan half-breed's brains and efficient self-defense technique, but his resolute coolness, his detachment, that he comes from a math culture. Spock 2.0 is birthed by creators who do not respect or understand Vulcan itself, let alone the appeal at the heart of the character. In point of fact, the plot hinges on watching Vulcan collapse in on itself. Quinto, while certainly odd-looking, does not have the authoritative bass-baritone rumble, etched-granite skin, equine facial bones, hollow cheeks or penetrating glare of his predecessor; he is neither Other enough nor strangely beautiful as Leonard Nimoy. It may even be that Leonard Nimoy's very Jewishness informed Spock to a degree that cannot be replaced. Do-over Spock variously fumes beneath the bowl-cut over his Vulcan-ness, which is here not a metaphor for anything, or resents his human-ness; symbols of both cultures are sacrificed, forcing us to witness the appalling sight of Amanda Grayson falling in a big hole, and rendering Spock confused and with a vague identity crisis. Perhaps as ironic counterpoint, but more likely in grave misestimation, Winona Ryder gives an emotionally thin and otherworldly performance as Spock's human mom, while Ben Cross is more recognizably human as Sarek. The brilliance of Nimoy's original has always been that Spock, raised Vulcan and icy, has always had emotions, but no equipment for expressing them. In Trek '09, he has always been a mess (better not to delve into an out-of-nowheres smoochy relationship with Uhura, which must be surely break Starfleet regulations, and be singularly unsatisfying for the lady in red, and replaces the more interesting sight of Nurse Chapel pining for Spock). The very story of Spock is of a being put in touch with his humanity through prolonged contact and friendships on the Enterprise and with Kirk in specific. For a film purportedly about Kirk and Spock's dynamic, this imbalance is disastrous. Spock unequipped to deal with emotional turmoil + Kirk's lust for life = the formula the birthed the very notion of slash fiction. This has always been the pulse of this relationship, and Trek '09 makes hash of it.

Trek '09 is not about much of anything but itself and maybe the very idea of Trek Mythos. Some not-sense about people from the future impacting the way the Enterprise crew started hanging out and an old (well, future) enemy seeking straightforward revenge via convoluted plan is the kind of imagination-retarded story you might invent while playing with your Mego action figures. It is a huge mistake on the screenwriters' part to think the Wrath of Khan plot is hotswappable with a kiddie-Trek story. The recycling (thievery, if you prefer) renders the resonances of Khan moot, is one of the reasons the story doesn't work or feel like it makes "sense" (not to mention: they got paid for that?). It is symptomatic of the screenwriters only sort-of getting it. Because Khan's is partly a story about the end of Kirk's youthful derring-do, and career-long struggle with the Prime Directive. It is a story of the headstrong, boldly-going youth's bad decisions catching up with him in middle-age.

Trek '09 tries to graft the decade-spanning revenge and aging story onto an origin story. The result is a movie about young adult Spock forced to deal with a villain who wants to make Spock pay for perceived sins he will not commit for more than a century and a half... an error which is not even really Spock's fault.

In a very funny list posted to Mobius Home Video Forum, Lenny Moore outlined extremely basic hard-science problems at the root of the plot, not the least of which is how Spock and Nero's crew survive being sucked into a black hole, or exactly what Romulus is supposed to do with no sun and a matter-vacuum directly adjacent to its atmosphere. As above, problematic too is the crucial emotional-truth logic of how characters are behaving at any given time. Nothing in Trek '09 makes any goddamn sense. This is because it is, again, sort of dumb and weird as well. For some (waffling, sucking-up, ass-covering) reason, this re-whatevering of Trek does not simply jettison all previous continuity, as in, say the Ultimate Marvel comics line. It not only does not refuse to start over and let everyone in the audience deal with their own hang-ups about this, Star Trek '09 devotes its entire running time to explaining why it is not Star Trek starring Messers Shatner and Nimoy and the ship's bridge looks like a very clean public restroom rather than a rec room, and the phasers look like cheap plastic squirt guns instead of bad-ass squirt guns. This is not ten minutes of applied phlebotinum, but the entire story. The baffling result is that the movie has no story of its own and spends two hours justifying its own existence.

The Trek notion of time-travel has always been inconsistent, but nowhere in Star Trek '09 is it obvious or logical that Star Trek '66 still exists. The new film doesn't "branch off" the timeline so far as I can tell, but supersede the Original Series... and therefore Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space 9. Don't worry about Enterprise, because I guess it wouldn't fall in the black hole, and already had continuity issues of its own. There is a vast amount of horrible Star Trek already, so under lab conditions I do not care a whit for dogged faithfulness to a continuity that does not serve the needs of storytelling. But Trek '09's A Story is preoccupied with little else but series continuity. This is the Star Trek equivalent of Crisis on Infinite Earths. As such, it begs for exactly the kind of scrutiny the screenwriters have presumably been tasked by Paramount to alleviate. And, as with all else, it is highly illogical at best.

Indeed, as the faithful yelped after seeing the trailer, James Kirk Prime cannot drive a 20th Century motor vehicle, as seen in "A Piece of the Action". But no matter: Black Hole Universe Kirk picked up the skill. You may or may not buy this, but after the temporal anomaly, any and every detail may be chalked up to The Hole. But!:

Events which occur in Trek continuity before the timeline alteration are violated before the Trek '09 plot patch-in even occurs: Jim Kirk's older brother Sam is a no-show, the Kelvin is able to identify a Romulan ship and nothing is made of how historic the encounter is, despite Kirk's clear question in the episode "Balance of Terror": "After a whole century, what would a Romulan ship look like...?"... or after 60 years, for that matter? Spock, McCoy and Scott's (pre-temporal anomaly) birthdays have been left nebulous, therefore presumably unchanged (and, [hand-wave] they look a good deal younger, though the actors are roughly the correct age, save Karl Urban as McCoy, who is ten years shy of DeForest Kelly at the inception of his five-year mission). Perhaps their personal histories since birth have been altered since the timeline anomaly, yet it causes all three men to enter Starfleet service at grossly late dates in life. This "altered" timeline seems awfully preoccupied with making sure all of the Enterprise crew is either the same age, or goes through Academy together, and all end up on the bridge faster than the first go-round (in Original Series continuity, Sulu started as a physicist and Chekov didn't make navigator until second season). The timeline also seems to have it in for Dr. Piper and Gary Mitchell, who must have been inspired to seek other paths in life, but exceptionally kind to Capt. Christopher Pike. And too, the very nature, meaning and depiction of what it means to be Vulcan is altered in ways that cannot be chalked up to temporal anomaly.

At the end, Spock Prime is trapped in this Hell dimension, where Vulcan has been Alderaan'ed, no one knows who he is, and all his friends are turned into smirking babies. Note: this potentially nightmarish s-f idea is not actually explored in the movie. Because no "ideas" are explored in the movie.

Putting myriad other shortcomings aside (if possible?), this is where Trek '09 fails to be Star Trek. Since the end of Original Series, Trek Universe turned into the dreariest of places, more fun to think about than to visit. Star Trek was colorful and shooty and goofy, sexy and boozy, and peoples' shirts got torn all the time because they were wrassling each other on piles of foam rocks. The first episode is about how McCoy has to metaphorically shoot his ex-girlfriend because she turned into a succubus. But it was also sincere and authentic speculative fiction. It waddled the line between hard and soft s-f. There are weaponized ship battles, and a space-Western spirit of adventure, but most every Original Series story is centered on some brainy classic s-f thought experiment, serious social, political or religious allegory, philosophical conundrum or, in purest form, asked seriously: what if?

Fine enough. Screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman never ask What If?, only ask How did they get on that spaceship? They got the action and adventure relatively right, but that is only part of the Star Trek spirit. Taking someone else's toys and playing with them in semi-clever, very loud and enjoyable way may be what these fellows do best, anyhow. In 2007 they wrote a better script for a movie about the Transformers than a sane person could reasonably expect (similarly sabotoged by a director's refusal to learn how to impart a sense of geography to any scene, be it epic robot battle or simple dialogue exchange). The plotting is lazy as well, hinging every joint on sheer coincidence — often triple-hinging on coincidence — but in a multiplex Space-Shot-ride film, this is not remarkable; excusable but not admirable. To their credit, the writers think of many thrilling and breathless things to do with the transporter room, Sulu's swordfighting skills, and invent brutal ways to smoke Redshirts. It also copiously steals from Star Wars pictures, including duplicating that part with the fish monsters from The Phantom Menace. While it may provide some nihilistic charge to proving that in this do-over Trek anything truly goes, making Spock part of a dying culture is neither as useful or fun as being able to visit Vulcan in future installments.

Oh, and the script hits several Trek tropes and in-jokes that made people in my theater chortle. I am nerdy enough that I think I "got" them, but not nerdy enough to pretend they were funny or that it was any kind of thrill to find out what happened to Jonathan Archer's dog.

Star Trek '09 plays like a Holodeck simulation of Star Trek '66. Fun while you're inside, harmless by design, but it dissolves before your eyes, insubstantial. Simulation over.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Astounding DVD Covers!

When it comes to DVD covers, nearly every release from a major studio recycles the boring theatrical poster or contains a digital hack job even worse than the hack job that was the original poster. These can be shocking as eyesores, and particularly confusing as "real" companies have entire dedicated art and design departments, and large amounts of capital are involved in preparing their releases. And everyone enjoys that shuddery feeling of delight when a large company wastes vast sums on a hideous-looking product.
But the movies inside are normal. Sometimes they are even good!

Once in awhile the Special Ones toddle out of their caves, closets and forgotten crypts. Things that are technically DVDs and technically have covers, but even knowing this, the eyes and mind resist: it cannot exist. And yet they do, even though you do not know what they are, not really. Many of these lovelies are only alive through the mercy of DVD-on-demand D.I.Y. services, which then list the hapless home-movie auteur's projects in a public catalog. Others come to us as if silver-disc spacecraft dispatched from the galaxy of Public Domain Fly-by Night DVD Labels. Some arrive on steamships from exotic lands. These are not run-of-the-mill bad DVD covers (NOTE: DVD covers are not made in mills). They make you feel weird. Stunned. Wondering. Astounded by...

Astounding DVD Covers! #1: Catch of the Day!




Saturday, May 09, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.10 - "Haunted"


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

The Engagement: Adelle's wealthy, horse-loving friend Margaret dies. As per her pal's request, DeWitt Imprints Margaret's mind on Echo, that the deceased may spy on her loved ones for a few days. Margaret soon finds herself tangled up in much intrigue, as her family does not like her as much as she thought, and one of them may have killed her. With four suspects, the fate of expensive horses in the balance, and scant days until her will is executed, Margaret scrambles to solve the mystery. Back at the Dollhouse, Topher imprints Sierra to play video games and laser tag with him. Also Paul Ballard hate-fucks Mellie, feels bad about it and takes a shower.

JS: Are you ready? Get ready.

CS: We're far enough into the 21st century that it is time to stop marveling at popular postmodern culture's propensity for genre blending/hopping/smushing/blurring. It happens, and it happens with smart auteurs and stupid garbage alike. Nonetheless, I'm still taken by Dollhouse's setup, which lets it completely immerse characters in story templates from far-flung genres with little familial relationship to the show's high-tech espionage/ s-f base rules. In "Haunted" we're set up for something like a classical drawing room mystery -- Who Killed the Bitchy Rich Lady? -- but it comes off rather more like a cyberpunk episode of Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice. As high, weepy drama and intrigue among the wealthy and assholic, fueled/framed by screwloose write-as-we-go mystery, this A plot is better than Dallas, but not quite Agatha Christie.

Genre diehards will recognize a few other hoary favorites either played out in full or hinted at: the ghost-story-with-no-ghost (perhaps exemplified by Rebecca; the overwhelming, powerful sense of a departed woman's presence becomes eerier than a supernatural specter), and the return of a ghost that it may investigate the murder of its own body. As for the second one, "Haunted" is not even particularly bizarre; Sunset Blvd. is famously narrated by its own dead hero, but that's nothing on Remember Me, Christopher Pike's trashy 1989 teen horror noir thriller romance novel -- fondly remembered by a generation of ex-adolescent girls and gay boys -- in which a murdered girl, you know, returns to investigate her own murder and fall in love with a teenage ghost boy. If this trainspotting is going anywhere it is this: "Haunted" covers some plot territory adjacent to Espenson's Angel episode "Rm w/ a Vu". You're welcome!

The seriocomic pitfalls of incognito attendance at one's own funeral are, I think, best covered in The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand Dan Clowes' short comics story "My Suicide". If there is lesson to be learned from these and "Haunted" too, it is that while it may stroke/stoke one's ego to see loved ones weeping your loss, it is not helpful or instructive for anyone to disrupt the natural mourning process. At the very least, as Margaret -- maybe? I hope? -- "learns," nobody quite acts like themselves or in a conventionally readable way while they are grieving. Funerals are not a great place to find out what people really think of you. If Margaret is able to face her death with some peace that her husband loved her... well, bully for her, but the rest of us don't get a do-over. We get one chance to do the life part, one chance to get ready for death, and one shot at dying.

If anything beautiful happens in Margaret's story in "Haunted", it is that she still has to die, and maybe realizes that her few days in Echo's body amount to little more than score-boosting bonus level. But maybe she doesn't. She dies again either way. A few characters fret over the moral implications of granting perpetual life -- that central scene in Adelle's Olympian office, Boyd spouts off, indignant and scared about the core philosophical queasiness of putting Margaret's mind in Echo's body. So this is a story about what we do -- and don't do -- with knowledge of our mortality. And it is a story about "reaching out". That is what the big speeches are about, anyway.

JS: Let's have a moment of fond remembrance, shall we?
Most people would probably call me a ghost. I am, after all, dead. But I don't think of myself that way. It wasn't so long ago that I was alive, you see. I was only eighteen. I had my whole life in front of me. Now I suppose you could say I have all of eternity in front of me. I'm not sure exactly what that means yet. I'm told everything's going to be fine. But I have to wonder what I would have done with my life, who I might have been. That's what saddens me most about dying - that I'll never know.

Don't sweat it, Shari Cooper. Things could be worse - you might have ended up like Margaret! But looking over that opening paragraph of Remember Me makes me think about the age gap between Shari and Margaret - one a young girl whose life has barely begun, the other an autumnal woman with a life's work to conclude. Arguing for a moment that any ghost is, in effect, an Imprint - a data recovery, a consciousness reconstituted and able to see and think as it did in life - what is special about the way a ghost experiences the earth-world?

For the first time in all of Dollhouse, the focal point of a story is not Echo/Caroline's sneaky irruption into and interference with the Imprint. This time, both stay the hell out of the way. Every single one of Echo's Imprints thus far has been that of a young woman -- not only chronologically young, but whose whose youth and vitality and sense of invincibility are essential to her mission as law enforcement/bodyguard/warrior/master operator (Eleanor, Jordan, Taffy, SpyEcho, disoriento Caroline) or love interest (Target, Rebecca, Alice), or ingenue infiltrator (Esther). Every one of these Engaged ones, factual past notwithstanding, perceives her "life" as spreading before her, perceives the future as a thing to seize, shape, and master. Every one perceives herself as free, unburdened, un-"past-ed. Even the thinly blocked memories -- Eleanor's abuse, Caroline's career -- are not vortices of regret or guilt, experiences that paralyze their hosts with brooding and the "what-ifs" -- both women are eventually released into action, loosed from the string. Margaret, on the other hand, has arranged her entire mission around her past, and in watching her embark, we see that no previous Imprint has as many corrections to make to her personal story, none has accumulated as much regret as Margaret has simply by existing for more decades, digesting more life, feeling the ebb and flow of relationship over time.

Although every Engagement is a learning experience that stays in Caroline's body, only one or two thus far have proven to be truly epiphanal, body-chemistry-changing breakthroughs in self-knowledge, true revisions of a point of view, true reassessments of relationships. No Imprint has learned more about herself than Margaret. They've learned some things: Eleanor met her attacker and confronted old demons, Taffy meditated on some paintings, Alice revisited Rossum... but by placing Margaret's consciousness in Echo's body, Adelle is not just giving Margaret the chance to finish her own mission (and to try to leave an Imprint in her family in the way any grandiose matriarch might, moving her pawns around in the final stretch, scheming that they may remember her). Adelle gives Echo's shell the chance to experience, through Margaret, something that no young person can know before her time -- the palpable and inescapable burden of lived life. Of staggering and settling under the weight of so many thousands of days. Of having more to look back on than to look forward to. The past feels very different to a twenty-eight-year-old than it does to a fifty-whatever-year-old, and again to an eighty-year-old. If Caroline got to remotely experience one, somewhat infantile kind of closure two episodes ago, she now experiences a different closure via Margaret -- a true epilogue, a true closing of the book. What's done is done -- no more editing allowed. There's actually some comfort in that!

This was also an exceptional mission in that it wasn't a work assignment -- it came from within the Imprint herself, from her own desires to play out and finish her own story. Was Echo even necessary for this one? Why couldn't it have been Sierra or November? Here I thought "Haunted" faltered in putting old vindictive Margaret inside pretty young Echo, because, thanks to Eliza D.'s somewhat limited acting skills, we pretty much just saw... young pretty Echo. (A similar problem we saw when Buffy and Faith switched bodies -- next to Sarah Michelle Gellar playing Buffy/Faith, Dushku was a husk). She had some nice scenes with her husband and son, but as with every stand-alone Dollhouse episode, it's hard to care that much about secondary characters introduced from scratch, unless they're given as juicy a role as Joel Mynor or Jonas Sparrow. I honestly didn't give a fart about Margaret's family -- they were incidental. This episode was about her journey.

As for Adelle, I submit that this episode is also "Needs''s twin-isode in the sense that Adelle, too, still enjoys the authorial control, the storyteller's control, of being able to send people benevolently forth into Imprintation and then bring them back. I know you didn't see her gesture to Margaret as very necessary (or even financially sensible -- you've pointed out that Adelle could have just left her dead), but I doubt DeWitt could resist being anyone's posthumous executor -- or, in the case of Dominic, living executioner.

CS: Ooh, from a personal viewership investment stance, I don't even particularly care about Margaret, or any of the Mystery on Racehorse Ranch! plot mechanics. At least wonderful character actor and Brian De Palma (and Whedon) favorite Gregg Henry is on hand as alcoholic ne'er-do-well brother William, sliming his way through the depletion of Margaret's booze supply like a sponge squeezed into a greasy suit. Other critics, more focused on evaluative opinion, have been lambasting Dushku's performance all season. She is better than commonly given credit -- it's not like she is ruining the show -- but is more suited to the defensive haughtiness and sassy self-possession of the underprivileged Faith on BtVS than the icy smarm of the idle rich in "Haunted". Just watch her in the funeral scene. She doesn't register the difference between these distinct modes of snottiness.

Back to the task at hand. Come to think of it, "Haunted" belongs to another genre, the fantastical conversion narrative, in which a deficient or troubled mortal is given the chance to correct their mistakes by means of supernatural plot device. The sub-sub-genre we've already named: brief reincarnation to solve some mystery, turns out the thing that needs solving is personal relationships that went sour. For some reason, movies like to make this reincarnation into the bodies of small dogs (Oh! Heavenly Dog, Quigley). So Margaret sees the aftermath of her death: some people love her, some are confused, some misunderstood her, and some were not sufficiently loved in return. That's how life goes, and Margaret gets to say a few things it had not previously occurred to her to say, but when she leaves only a small justice has been done. I have difficulty empathizing with the inhabitants of this dull and glittering world, but that stuff's not the key to "Haunted". Though Margaret has the epiphany that she and her beefcake trophy husband really-truly-for-reals loved one another, this is a small revelation next to the crushing knowledge that she shoulda-coulda-woulda better handled all these familial relations in life. The grace note remains that she slips away again anyway, must realize the futility of chasing immortality, and with her small triumphs in Echo's body, does not beg to return and live in this corrected version of her life. What starts as the selfish romp turns into angel-of-mercy mission; in the end Margaret makes a gift to her family. Perhaps a gift even to her gambling addict/murderer/animal abuser son, who now has a shot at rehabilitation at which the overly-monied rarely arrive under their own power.

"All we have to decide," as we're told by the Giles to Frodo's Buffy, "is what to do with the time that is given to us." On Dollhouse one of those decisions is what to do with the Actives given to us; we've looked at how Margaret uses her time and her Active/self, and the parallel stories are of Topher's time and Ballard's. Seems to me that Margaret learns -- too late, but learns -- to reach out to family, lovers, friends, while Topher is trapped, yearning for the connection but walled in by the Dollhouse and whatever deficiencies lie within himself. It is telling and touching that Topher does not program a companion for erotic adventure or romance (he does not even seem to require a Doll of any particular sex), but a friend. He does not even desire a sycophant or someone he can best in all games of leisure and intellect. His constant posturing and bragging about his own scientific prowess indicate a specific kind of insecurity, might lead us to speculate that his ultimate fantasy would involve a good deal of ego massaging. Turns out what he most desires is an ego cool-down, space to breathe, room to relax and play, freedom to be goofy, unproductive and unjudged -- conversely, Margaret begins with extreme interest in how she is judged.

So Ballard, during his shame-shower, after a self-loathing round with the Mellie Coitus-bot 9000, brands himself a "customer" of the Dollhouse. Is he? Seems to me that Ballard is simply keeping himself alive (i.e. - he has to continue sleeping with Mellie, to keep up appearances that he is not aware of November), though the cost of his physical well-being is taking a toll on his soul. If anything, since he appears to play the game by 'House rules, and secretly plays by the Inside Man's rules... he's not a client but a painfully self-aware Doll. I am sure we all hope Mr. Ballard's anguish continues, causing much soul-searching in the shower.

JS: I'll first address the issue you raised of whether Margaret's return is worthwhile. You raised a similar issue back when we talked "Needs" and you argued that the "closures" experienced by the Actives were temporary and perhaps without much value: "The kiss happens, the bonding happens, the grave-location happens, the exodus happens. And then they disappear. The tragedy is that these 3D life lessons -- or near-approximations -- are shadow plays. There is a mono no aware beauty in their fleeting existence..." And yet they have existed -- people have done "what they can with the time that is given to them," and I find this kind of story not so much melancholy as hopeful, if only because it triggers an imagination into considering its own unfinished business. With luck we'll intuit more of our own unfinished tasks before we die, and avoid the Trip Back, which, without the benefit of Topher's chair, is probably significantly more unpleasant than Margaret's. Especially if you don't like boats.

We haven't touched yet on another pissed ghost and his own quest to resolve unfinished business, although his is not so much a whodunit as a Coen-worthy comedy about entrusting important tasks to the very wrongest people. Over the years I find Hamlet Jr. funnier and funnier -- love the mismatch between the father's urgency and the son's inchworm pace. I get big laughs imagining that ghost fuming away like a boss watching a lazy employee on a surveillance camera (as I was once watched, incidentally, for an entire evening by a furious president of the company...) Fault Margaret as much as you will, for the hubris of thinking her will had been Done vis-a-vis horses, husbands, and children and discovering that she really isn't, as Echo once accused Adelle, "as important as she thinks she is" (no wonder Adelle and Margaret are friends...?). Margaret may have "gone to her reckoning with all her sins on her head," but at least she comes back to do her own work rather than fobbing it off on someone else!

Coming around to the question of what we request in Actives, I agree that Topher's choice of Imprint was touching, maybe more honest than the obvious salacious choice. There are times when friends, or ghosts of friends, are more nourishing than lovers. As for Ballard's devouring of his Doll, it seemed a pretty inevitable course given his complete lack of headway in other parts of life -- of course that doesn't excuse the very singular kind of rape committed by Dollhouse clients, but I can imagine that, seeing no clear way to any other goal, frustration would take itself out on the nearest "willing" creature. My guess, though, is that he won't be doing that again. Sometimes just putting a memory in your body, searing your eyes with a picture of how you behaved, is enough to kill the desire ever to repeat an action again. Getting your way completely, experiencing perfect omnipotence, is not actually that exciting over time, if only because it's short on suspense and variety! Hell, you brought up an interesting point in an email: "Wouldn't a vast portion of Dollhouse business be from major corporations who just want super-efficient genius R&D people? Wouldn't Actives be frequently employed to just, say, do a few weeks work in a lab or designing software and weapons? Wouldn't corporate clients just ask for Einstein's brain with a patch to bring him up to date on current theoretical physics? I MEAN COME ON. This version of the show would be extra-boring."

Good point. Limits make life interesting. They give you things to bonk against and hate and work around and exercise your wits on. Sometimes the Dollhouse's cornucopia of Imprints seems ridiculously unlimited -- they just happen to have a horse expert on hand? They just happen to have myriad NSA imprints? You mean the show can really address any scenario, anywhere? (They haven't addressed time travel yet, but maybe they will?) The only obvious limit seems to lie in what Mom, I mean Adelle, is inclined to give -- or to withhold. But the thing is, Adelle is strongly judgmental and has no trouble saying "no." She would probably make fairly astute calls about what would be advantageous or harmful to the DH, probably wouldn't even do business with powerful R&D people? She would give them one look and ice them right out of her office. She is the gatekeeper preventing this from turning into a boring, undifferentiated id-fest or R&D fest. And there's also another limit on what you can request -- a limit on inventory! How much of an Imprint consists of externally acquired knowledge (knowledge that makes Sierra a Superspy, for example) and how much is pure, not-from-concentrate personality-juice itself? What if you can order your Nobel Laureate physicist, but you wind up with Richard Feynman's Imprint and he ends up doing everything his own damn way and picking everyone's locks on his downtime and playing his bongo drums in the closet? Maybe you can't actually order whatever you want, since it all comes in imperfect human packaging enclosing other human packaging. Eleanor glitched, Taffy glitched, Echo-personality intersects routinely with Imprint-personality. (But that falls apart when you look at SpySierra, since she was a completely obedient trained machine. Lesson: request NOT-Echo for the projects you actually wanna get done!)

Technical question: prior to this episode I was under the impression that all the original Imprints were dead? Isn't that the condition of the Imprint extraction -- that you're already dead or that they fry your brain á la Dominic and make you dead... or make you an Active? And now here's Margaret, who had her Imprint extracted while alive. Boyd wasn't so bothered about everlasting life when Echo was Imprinted as an Eleanor or an Esther -- or maybe it took ten weeks for it to occur to him.

Either Boyd's an inchworm...or I am.

CS: Certainly the lineage of ghostly murder mysteries is long and deep-nested; revenge-seeking ghosts are the far thicker branch on the family tree. Though mystery fiction's roots do extend as far back as One Thousand and One Nights, Hamlet may appear to contain no proper "mystery" by the standards of modern detective fiction; yet it contains several dozen mysteries, and one of those mysteries furthers its kinship with "Haunted": Hamlet plays games with what a ghost "is." Surely neither of us wants to enter debate on whether there is a literal supernatural spirit in the narrative; the Ghost both Is and Is Not (here: Hamlet as early David Lynch narrative). He is two men with the same name pushing and pulling at the same dilemma, deepening its resonances and scope until the question of how to avenge one death becomes the lynchpin to the meaning of human existence. The Ghost is both earthbound specter and psychic projection -- in 1980, Jonathan Pryce terrifyingly portrayed both roles simultaneously, spouting King Hamlet's lines from the Prince's body in guttural Tom Waits imitation, a brilliant blurring (and bizarre performance) of literal ghost, man possessed and man gone mad. But as in Stanley Kubrick's Ghost... Or No-Ghost? problem play The Shining (also 1980!), a similar puzzle has an identical un-solution: it does not, strictly, make a "difference" in what occurs in the narrative. Either way, Prince Hamlet manufactures a mystery to stall for time, requiring of himself "proof" of King Claudius' regicide, when the continuing sin of the royal marriage may provide "just cause" for Hamlet to avenge his father. Margaret in "Haunted" does not have to invent a mystery... Or does she? For whom is she seeking justice? It pains us to know it, but the dead care nothing justice. Hamlet and Margaret both seek out murder confessions by means of elaborately staged play-acting games, and each of these is, perhaps, infinitely nested: Hamlet guest-directs The Mousetrap while already feigning/claiming-to-feign insanity, while already under orders from a Ghost of dubious reality, while simultaneously coping with the dawning awareness of existence's thin reality. Margaret's detective costume is just as layered in narrative overcoats (though, obvi, they are not quite so richly embroidered). Nice sentiments about love and horses aside, it still seems to me that Margaret plays a zero sum game, and I think she realizes it by the time she reclines in The Chair... Hamlet does these things as well -- while the fate of nations rests on his actions, his torment is ultimately cosmic -- though with far more bitching and moaning. And yes, it is all very funny, the blackest of comedy (The Shining, Psycho, Sunset Blvd., The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, All About Eve, De Palma and Lynch) being indistinguishable from not just tragedy but horror.

[I'm officially way off-subject. As a grace note here: the Shakespeare-loving Mr. Whedon provided the Buffyverse with its perfect Hamlet in Angel, its Fortinbras in Spike.]

The rules and limits on ordering an Active are going to remain vague until Mutant Enemy publishes a Dollhouse company brochure and deems it canonical. I later realized that my proposal about industrial applications of Actives probably hinges less on the problem of "would it work?" than the practical question of what the Dollhouse could gain from renting out its property for someone else's profit. Even the sole (paid) thieving Engagement in "The Gray Hour", in which the Greek government sought out stolen art objects, was to recover artifacts of cultural and historical significance, of largest value to their rightful owner, and, as it happens, not a private individual but a nation. Morally muddied territory to be sure, but profiteering seems to be disallowed (even if electioneering is not). Straight-up murder-for-hire seems to be a no-no, and military application is (I'm speculating!) out of the question. Surely, if your Active ends up bungling or lazing about on the job, you get your money back.

All three of your topics above tie together after all, in the question of what makes Margaret's Imprint and Engagement different than all the others. While the elements in the Imprint pick 'n' mix come from dead people, Topher theoretically selects only the pieces that will be useful at the time -- Eleanor Penn's childhood trauma just happened to be intrinsically linked to her hostage negotiation skillz, we're told. "Haunted" indicates strongly that Adelle's indulgence of Margaret's vanity is in likely contradiction of Dollhouse S.O.P. Boyd's protest in "Haunted" seems to stem from an entire in-tact personality being uploaded by request, into a new set of hardware. Anyone approximately my age knows exactly where this is going:

Thus far, if Boyd or the DH Official Position on Moral Issues don't recognize the continuity between their daily grave-robbing and the self-willed resurrection in "Haunted", they're not paying any attention or know something we don't. And what is truly causing all these glitches? Echo or Caroline is written as "special", just as Spike is written as "special" on BtVS; they are allowed to violate the established rules because they are central characters. One hopes there is a forthcoming textual reason/excuse for Echo to continue glitching all over the place (aside: did Taffy glitch? She was remotely Wiped, before we could find out if she'd screw up on her own; as it stands, though, Echo is the only Active suffering this problem. Everyone in "Echoes" is pardoned, being effected by wacky drugs). In this episode about the sorts of personal connections one chooses to forge to make the most of one's brief life, Caroline is nowhere to be seen, though she is always right in front of us.

There is one more fantasy subgenre I want to invoke, a nameless one, in which a benevolent otherworldly being visits a troubled household and heals a tumultuous domestic situation (Pasolini's Teorama, Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, Spielberg's E.T., Miike's Visitor Q). Echo is a vessel for this kind of activity in "Haunted" specifically, but she performs the service in principal all the time: in "Ghost", "Stage Fright", "Gray Hour", "True Believer", she assists in solving internal strife while on mission to resolve external conflicts. Caroline is not currently in full control of where she lands in the time given to her. She has to play it as it lays, though she did not take the shot. She dies anew almost every single day (but only, y'know, for a little while). But she uses those mini-lives more effectively than those whose brains she is borrowing, and in "Haunted" does this thing better than Topher or Ballard, provides Margaret a better ride than on her first go-round. Somehow she's taking these lives and working them for all they are worth, and I hope these pieces add up to a whole Caroline. In "Ghost", Topher sassed some of Hamlet's lines at Boyd, but they constituted a reasonable personal Topher slogan. Were he picking one for Caroline, he couldn't do better than:
It will be short: the interim is mine;
And a man's life's no more than to say "one."

JS: Indeedy, and come to think of it, wouldn't Fran Kranz make the best Osric?

CS: Sure, assuming the director wants someone who waves his hands around a lot to punctuate every line of dialogue.