Oh, the places you might not want to go!

Tomorrow, I get to watch my brother graduate, and I’m quite excited for him, and, well, for the commencement speaker: Joss Whedon.  Since my brother is not a public figure, and Whedon is, I’ll limit the content of this post to only one of these awesome people.

There were two quite interesting pieces on the arts in The New York Times this weekend.  A feature on Whedon mentioned his delightful habit of having Shakespeare parties while shooting Buffy and Angel, and the impact this had on his plans for the show.

[T]he readings helped Mr. Whedon learn about the untapped potential of his actors. After seeing Ms. Acker as Lady Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet,” he decided to kill off her “Angel” character and turn her into a merciless demon. He recalled: “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen her be frightening. I think the world should see that, too.’ ”

Once you cast someone, you tend to keep seeing them through the lens of their role as currently conceived.  Watching his actors experiment in another context gave Whedon the chance to reevaluate what he had to work with.  I’ve liked having Shakespeare readings chez moi for similar reason — in a new context, my friends sometimes surprise me.  A viewing of Passion means I get to hear opinions I otherwise wouldn’t have known how to elicit on the relationship of yearning, eros, and agape.  A reading of Arcadia means a friend who was reading the text for the first time gave Valentine a much warmer character than I would have expected could work.

But there can be a cost to experimentation.  In the magazine section, there was a feature piece on BYU’s animation program, and the prevalence of Mormons in media.  The part of the article I found most striking was the sense of responsibility the students expressed.

Now, Strong said, he avoids even some PG-13 movies. “You never know what’s going to come up on that screen, and once you see something, you can’t get it out of your head. Ever.” He thought a moment, then asked: “What’s the name of that film?” I don’t know what I expected him to say, but I was surprised when he said, “ ‘Wedding Crashers.’ ”

In high school, a friend persuaded him to sneak into the movie, and the nudity, as well as Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s general attitude toward women, shook him. After that, when he saw a girl, his first thoughts would be about whether she was attractive; he felt himself moving through the world essentially casting or rejecting its inhabitants as possible extras in “Wedding Crashers.” You could argue that this was only the harmless awakening of a teenage male mind. But Strong didn’t see it this way. In fact, he feels so uneasy about this stretch of his life that later, when he began dating his future wife, he made a point of discussing it with her. (“I had changed,” he explained, “but I wanted anything like that to be open between us.”)

Art can prompt yearnings or questions we’d rather not be aware of; there was a reason that Plato thought it might be necessary to throw the poets out of his Republic.  It’s not a matter of being ostriches with out head in the sand, but of not privileging a hypothesis.  It’s not helpful for Iago to ask about Desdemona’s fidelity, since Othello is incapable of letting go of the question.  Our consumption of art shapes our assumptions, and it’s useful to pause and think about what you want to feed into your model of the world, or what you want to reinforce a yearning for.

This is why I was ultimately so uncomfortable when I saw The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon’s admittedly brilliant horror story.  Unlike Buffy, where the heroine is strengthened, weakened, but mostly just defined by her connections to others, Cabin seemed casually nihilistic.  In the final scene, the survivors seem to despair without being upset by their nihilism.  There’s nothing left that they’d like to preserve or fight for.  They give up on themselves, each other, and the rest of humanity.

And I’d been enjoying the wit of it all so much up to that point.  I felt a bit betrayed to have so much obvious cleverness and delight in creation go into the service of a story that seemed to discard all humanity, on net, as so much dust.  It felt like Whedon had used his abilities in the service of something that was antipathetic to all his care and concerns.

I think this is what the LDS filmmakers are worried about, and I think they’re right to be concerned.  The NYT writer is clearly worried that the BYU films may become unbalanced somehow.  Too focused on morals, too cleaned up, or just too goshdarn cheery.  A movie that feels untrue is certainly not likely to be persuasive, but a film like Of Gods and Men can make it plain that there’s nothing fantastical or saccharine about goodness.

But Wheedon’s story about Shakespeare nights makes it clear that it’s useful to have a little noise and variance, even if you’re pretty confident you’re on to a good thing.  So I wouldn’t be upset or surprised if the LDS animators end up making some films at odds with their values or that have effects on their audience that they didn’t expect.  The main thing is that they won’t be transgressive for the sake of transgression and edge.  It can be useful to sidle up on truth by exploring the grotesque.  After all, I’m still not sure if my discomfort with the nihilism of Cabin was Whedon’s goal.  It was a horror movie, after all.

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  • “After all, I’m still not sure if my discomfort with the nihilism of Cabin was Whedon’s goal.”

    It seems unlikely. Whedon is avowedly absurdist. He wants you to recognize the meaninglessness of life (if he’s using the word “absurdist” correctly). I’ve found knowledge of his absurdism quite helpful when watching his work. It shows up a lot once you know to watch for it.

  • Joe

    I remember watching Broke Back Mountain and thinking wow this is one heck of a well made drama!! However I’m not sure the director realized how pathologically obsessed Heath Ledger’s character seemed. He couldn’t even connect emotionally with his own children

  • grok87

    “But Wheedon’s story about Shakespeare nights makes it clear that it’s useful to have a little noise and variance, even if you’re pretty confident you’re on to a good thing…  The main thing is that they won’t be transgressive for the sake of transgression and edge.”

    Well said Leah! I’m reading Taleb’s Anti-fragile and he is very big on introducing noise and randomness into one’s life-. he thinks it makes us stronger, more robust, anti-fragile as it were.
    But as Christians I think the context always has to be avoiding “transgression”, to use your word. Experimentation is fine but not at the cost of lost innonence. As today’s gospel puts it:

    “People were bringing children to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.’
    Then he embraced the children and blessed them, placing his hands on them.”

    Reading your thoughts of whedon’s horror movie makes me glad that I have not seen it. It brings to my mind an image of a child watching a movie and covering his eyes during say a slighly scary part. There is certain information and images I don’t want to see. And that reminds me of a similar passage from Isaiah 33, a similar vision/ connection between innocence and the kingdom of heaven:
    “stopping his ears lest he hear of bloodshed, closing his eyes lest he look on evil”

    • LeahLibresco

      Ha! I just started Antifragile this morning! And I’ll add that, unused to horror movies, I would have spent a fair amount of Cabin with my hands on my eyes, except they were occupied grabbing my housemate’s arm.

      • grok87

        Cool. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Anti-fragile. I heard Taleb give a talk on it and he explained that the book is sort of a set 7 quasi-independent sections (he calls them books). Book VI “Via Negativa” is kind of interesting I think:
        “…via negativa, the negative way, after theological traditions, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Via negativa does not try to express what God is–leave that to the primitive brand of contemporary thinkers and philosophasters with scientific tendencies. It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination. The idea is mostly associated with the mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysos the Areopagite.”

  • Randy Gritter

    I think a distinction needs to be made between art and porn. Wedding Crashers is just smut. That is not stretching your mind like true art would. Stretching your mind in bad ways is hard to envision. Does it produce bad art? Does it produce art that produces a bad reaction in you? Both are helpful. You can see the ugliness of false spirituality. But sometimes you see some truth in the mix as well. Good artists tend towards beauty and that can lead them to God even when they are trying to go the other way.

  • Joseph Shaw

    The characters apologise to each other at the end of Cabin. They were about to kill each other (one with a gun the other with a werewolf) based on the speech by the Director. But they chose to honour their friendship and not kill each other even though it meant the extinction of humanity by capricious and evil gods. I don’t know if the nihilism is quite so strongly condoned at the end of the movie.
    The ‘inevitability’ of their deaths in the cabin didn’t occur, they beat it. So perhaps the ‘inevitability’ of all of humanity’s death at the hands of the capricious and evil gods is not a given either?

  • turmarion

    Very interesting and thoughtful post, and I agree with the main points. It’s so hard in our culture to criticize art for gratuitous sex or violence, or for having a perspective that is disturbing, and deciding not to watch it. One tends to get accused of being a prude or some such. I have no problem at all with nudity, sex, violence, etc. if they are an integral, non-gratuitous part of the film; but all too often they are quite gratuitous (especially the violence). Also, as with Leah’s description of The Cabin in the Woods (which I’ve not seen), I have often found movies more profoundly disturbing for their world views than for any specific content.

    It’s in that context that I quit watching Quentin Tarantino after Jackie Brown (which was actually an OK movie in some ways). There’s no doubt at all that Tarantino is extremely talented. However, I wondered for years whether he was using hyper-violence and over-the-top characters to ironically comment on such things in movies in sort of a hip, post-modernist way, or just reveling in it all because the thought it was cool. I eventually decided that whatever his original intentions, he more or less drifted–and then outright plunged–into the later. In short, pure exploitation. I never watched Kill Bill, Inglourius Basterds (or however he spelled it), Django Unchained, etc., and have no intention of doing so.

    BTW, anyone here read Whedon’s continuation of Buffy and Angel in the comics? And if so, does anyone besides me think that after the first few months, he went absolutely off his freaking rocker with them? Just wondering….

    • Randy Gritter

      I eventually decided that whatever his original intentions, he more or
      less drifted–and then outright plunged–into the later.

      I think this is common. Artists try and comment on the allure of sex and violence but end up succumbing and becoming what they are commenting on. This is especially true when good artists work in a big money environment. They think they are immune from the evil they are exploring because they are good artists. They are not. So every Hollywood attempt to comment on porn becomes porn. Every Hollywood attempt to comment on mindless violence becomes mindless violence. I find most intellectuals can’t see this. They get sucked in the same way. A thin veneer of introspection makes it porn for smart people.

    • LeahLibresco

      Oh, and dear heavens yes, w/r/t the comics. If it was network constraints that kept him from having Angel and Buffy sex a universe into existence, then bless the stuffed shirts.

      • Dauvit Balfour

        Aaaaaaand now I’m glad I never bothered with the comics.

        • Ben English

          They were pretty damn terrible. See also, Xander’s first stable girlfriend since the failure of his engagement to Anya getting casually ganked to establish how badass the Japanese Vampires were.

  • turmarion

    I meant to mention this in the last comment–oh, well…. Anyway, in regard to Whedon being nihilistic or absurdist, he seems to have become subtly embittered and/or pessimistic towards the human condition over the years. If you look at the last season of Angel the tone and attitude is strikingly different from the beginning. In the very first episode (and pardon the inside-baseball analysis beginning here, if you’re not a Whedon fan!), Doyle tells Angel that if he doesn’t make connections with people, he’ll eventually decide that it’s OK to eat a person or two, since he’s ahead by the numbers. In short, there has to be meaning and connection in what you do, not just chalking up good deeds.

    Early on, Whedon seems to have viewed making one’s own meaning in the face of an absurd cosmos as noble–there’s a line to the effect that if there really is no meaning, then a kind deed is the greatest thing in the world. However, in the very first episode of the last season of Angel, after a speech in which Angel says he has something greater than conviction–mercy–he immediately causes the bad guy to shoot himself. The morality of Angel and the team becomes progressively shakier, until in the next-to-last episode, Angel deliberately kills an innocent in order to gain admission to the Circle of the Black Thorn. This is to get an inside position in order to destroy it, but we’re now in strict “ends justify any means” territory. Finally, in the last episode, Angel arranges the murders of every single member of the Circle (in some cases, by very devious means), and has Lorne shoot Lindsey (the possible redemption of whom has been an ongoing theme throughout the entire series up to then!) dead in cold blood.

    I was uneasy with the whole concluding season (as well as thinking that the writing and direction weren’t up to par), and the closing episode really bothered me a lot. It seemed to wallow in darkness, cynicism, and despair, and directly contradicted the ethos throughout most of the series in which connections, refusing to use the methods of the bad guys, however tempting that might be, and an attitude in which hope and mercy are the antidotes to cosmic meaninglessness were all held up as fundamental. The last season essentially trashed all of that. Now I’m a Whedon fan from way back, but I was actually glad the show didn’t get renewed after that.

    I’ve come to think that the number “On the Rise” from Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog–at least the part of it sung by Dr. Horrible/Billy–is actually representative of what Whedon’s view has become (except the “evil in me” part, I hope!):

    Any dolt with half a brain
    Can see that humankind has gone insane.
    To the point where I don’t know if I’ll upset the status quo
    If I throw poison in the water main.

    Listen close to everybody’s heart
    And hear that breaking sound.
    Hopes and dreams are shattering apart
    And crashing to the ground.

    I cannot believe my eyes
    How the world’s filled with filth and lies!
    But it’s plain to see evil inside of me
    Is on the rise.

    • LeahLibresco

      I think what Angel asks of Lorne is meant to be read as awful. When the moral conscience/truthteller of the show turns his back on the main characters, that can’t be shrugged off as casual or endorsed. It’s not clear what Whedon or the audience is supposed to prefer that Angel do, but it’s clear this isn’t heroism to be emulated. I think we’re in sin-eater territory.

  • Delphi Psmith

    In the final scene, the survivors seem to despair without being upset by
    their nihilism. There’s nothing left that they’d like to preserve or
    fight for. They give up on themselves, each other, and the rest of

    I totally disagree with you. I think it’s a rejection of nihilism in that they refuse to be compelled into killing each other, instead choosing to refrain from murder even if it means the world ends. Nihilism would say, “Well, clearly nothing matters so we might as well murder each other.” Humanity says, “Every life matters. I will not take a life, even to save the world.” They’re fighting for their own integrity, their own humanity — one might even say, for their own souls — and I can’t think of anything more worth fighting for.

  • Delphi Psmith

    And wait, you didn’t even talk about Joss’ commencement speech! I thought it was amazing.

  • Dauvit Balfour

    This is now my favorite post. I shared your initial reaction to the movie. I loved it, and then suddenly it was over and I felt so empty. After reading Delphi’s comment, though, I’m not so sure my initial read was right. I think that sometimes Whedon is actually accidentally Catholic, or at least that he “sidles up to the truth” in his own way.

    I’ve wondered, sometimes, whether my own affinity for more modern SF and Geek culture has hardened me or changed me in ways that I should regret. I still don’t know the answer to that. Recently I saw Into the Woods for the first time. A friend had told me in advance that he loved the first act and hated the second. I loved the second, probably specifically for the same reasons he hated it. So, am I too jaded, that I find enjoyment in the deconstruction and subversion of happiness and faithfulness?

    When we sidle up to the truth through the grotesque, as the discussion on Tarantino has pointed out, we run the risk of being seduced by it. “When you dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change…” But it’s often so bloody brilliant, and there is something beautiful about seeing the truth shine through even the most twisted universe.

    The most disturbing thing about Cabin in the Woods may be that, looking back, I realize I was rooting for Dana to shoot . Was that intentional?

  • Jake

    Speaking of Joss and the Buffyverse, I’m on my second watch through of the Buffy series, and I just came to Season 6, episode 7 (“Once more, with feeling”), in which the entire cast of Buffy breaks out in show-tunes for the entire episode. If Unequally Yoked had a physical form, it would be this.

    • LeahLibresco

      Lo, this is the greatest compliment I have received.