Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dollhouse and My Discontents

3 March 2009 and 19 January 2011

I have said this before but I will say it again. Dollhouse has, I think, been sometimes been misunderstood by many "critics", particularly critics of the ADD variety and those viewers governed by culturally constructed ways of seeing in which jump cutting, closure, and action, action, action and little intelligence are regarded (fetishistically) as the only proper forms of film making.

It hasn't only been those who are impatient with Dollhouse who have been critics of the series, however. Some have condemned Dollhouse, particularly in comparison with Buffy, for its lack of feminism if not its anti-feminism. Buffy, of course, had a healthy dose of feminism in it. Whedon once famously described Buffy as a reaction to the typical horror trope in which a young girl is killed in the first reel of a horror film. In Buffy the tiny teen with the ridiculous name turns on the creepy things drawn to Sunnydale because of the Hellmouth and kicks their ass.

As for Dollhouse Whedon apparently realised that the show might prove controversial and apparently floated the idea for the show to members of Equality Now, the organisation working for women's rights across the globe. So is Dollhouse controversial and does it make many viewers (including Buffynatics) uncomfortable? Yes I think it is and does. But I think it is intended to do just that. There is, in my opinion, a significant Hitchcockian element, the Hitchcock of Rear Window and Vertigo, in Dollhouse. The voyeurism of Rear Window and the misogyny of Vertigo are used in Dollhouse to force (thoughtful) viewers to reflect on the voyeurism and romantic misogyny at the heart of the series and our "real lives". We, the voyeruistic viewers, are meant to feel uncomfortable not only with our voyeurism itself, Hitchcock's voyeurism in Rear Window was meant, in part, to force viewers to reflect on the cinematic experience of viewing itself, but with our voyeuristic look at men remaking women (and a bit of the vice versa) in their images in Dollhouse. This is the point of the show and this critical gaze is where, as in Vertigo, feminism enters into the show.

Of course, voyeurism and misogyny aren't the only themes at the heart of Dollhouse. They merge with such typical Whedon themes and concerns as existentialism, social ethics, family (in the broadest sense), outstanding sets, and fine acting to make Dollhouse, in my opinion, Whedon's most interesting work to date.

Dollhouse is not only Whedon's most interesting work to date. It is also, I think, his most "radical" work to date. In the 1960s and 1970s we used to talk about "bourgeois cinema" in Film Studies classes, that cinema grounded in bourgeois narrative forms and character types which mirror and replicate "bourgeois mentalities, lifestyles, and selves making them seem universal. In some ways Dollhouse undermines typical Hollywood or "bourgeois" character forms. The characters in Dollhouse are characters who are created by the corporation that runs the dollhouse, the Rossum Corporation (an echo of Karel Čapek's Rossum's Universal Robots) and rented out to elite clients. The dolls, male and female, are fragmented hybrid (human and cyborg) beings (a comment on the manufactured and fragmented lives of contemporary humans?). At the same time Dollhouse brings the "bourgeois" character back in through the back door. Much of the narrative of the show is built around the tensions between the "real" personalities of these characters (the Enlightenment notion that we humans have individual consciousnesses and relatively consistent selves) and the ones foisted upon them by Rossum and their elite clients. Nevertheless, this character hybrid--fragmented and manufactured as well as"bourgeois"--makes identifying with particular characters in Dollhouse somewhat difficult if one is expecting your normal mainstream Hollywood television series with characters who may develop but are still the characters you grew to know, to love, and to hate.

It was perhaps impatience, the inability of many viewers to connect with characters, and the Hitchcockian voyeurism and misogynistic romanticism which doomed Dollhouse from the begiing. There are several things which appear unfortunate about Dollhouse particularly in retrospect (Monday Morning quarterbacking "criticism"?). First, as the unaired pilot shows, Whedon intended to kick start the mythology of the series in the very first episode. It appears that Fox "suggested" that Whedon pull back on this. Second, it is unfortunate that viewers were not more patient with the show. Episodes were, as is occasionally Whedon's tendency, stand alones. But they were not simply stand alones. Virtually each episode of the show from the beginning also unfolded series arcs. In "Stage Fright", for instance, Rayna and the "role" she is trapped in, as with the Inca Mummy Girl in Buffy, is intended as a metaphor for Echo herself. It is intended as a moment in which one of the major themes of the series unfolds--who is Echo?

Would Dollhouse have been more "appealing" to viewers if, as with My Own Worst Enemy (a latter day Jeckel and Hyde fable which bears only limited resemblance to Dollhouse) and FlashForward (a mediocre show full of the simpleminded philosophising characteristic of the Rodenberry, oops Bragaverse and which, in comparison, shows how much more intellectually dense Dollhouse is), if Fox had broadcast the original pilot with its series arc elements (its mythology) as is? We will never know but I doubt it. in a world in which ADD seems to be such a significant "disease" among viewers the patience to allow a story to unfold seems to be lost human art. No wonder book reading is in decline. In a world in which money is the centre of most peoples aesthetic universe patience is at a premium. Shows that don't meet revenue forecasts are shown the door too quickly these days.

I suppose we should thank our lucky stars that Fox showed more patience with Dollhouse than many viewers did and gave people like me, someone who prefers the European art cinema to the juvenile junk that comes roaring out of Hollywood seemingly on a daily basis, the opportunity to see twelve more episodes of Dollhouse. So thank you Fox and screw you too.

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