Monday, February 04, 2008

Patrick on Joss Whedon: Joy, Art, and Realism

[Patrick sent me this as a guest blog. This is territory we cover every once and a while on this blog, but it is also one of my favorite topics, and also one that never really ends. So I thought I would print this, weigh in, and then see how interested everyone is in the comments.]

Recently on the CGS message WetRats had some interesting comments on the current direction of Marvel Comics.

I read the latest Daredevil today at lunch. It was incredibly well-written. But I'm dropping the book. I've come to the realization that nothing good is ever going to happen to Matt Murdoch. And I don't want to keep watching an endless series of horrible things happening to a character I care about. Upon thinking more about it, I realized that's the way I feel about the entire Marvel Universe. There's no heroes in Marvel anymore, only survivors. Nobody triumphs, they only win the latest fight. Nothing gets better for anybody. Nobody is happy. There is no joy in Marvel.

I must say that gave expression to a great deal of my thoughts and feelings toward Buffy post Season Six. The senseless whacking of Tara and Willow's subsequent descent into nerd-flaying marked the end of both the sense of the Scoobs as a family (you know, what the series WAS ABOUT), and the possiblity of any real sense of fun or joy in the series. After S6 all I see are endless series of horrible things happening to people I care deeply about, there are no heroes , no triumphs, nothing ever gets better, nobody is happy and there's no joy, either in the characters or the storytelling (and no I don't believe for a second Whedon ever intended to resurrect Tara).

I realize a lot of fans respond to this and that a lot the time this is how "real life" is.

Yet, I am kinda of the opinion that art or literature(especially escapist fiction like Buffy) is under NO obligation to reflect "real life" to that soul-killing extreme. If anything I believe one of the key purposes of art is illuminate and even REDEEM our bleak, crummy world totally absent of time travel and jet-powered apes.

The most recent issue of Season Eight has kinda confirmed this suspection. Whedon seems to have no interest in healing the divisions between Buffy and Willow and only wants to further the rift. I highly doubt they will even be friends anymore by the time issue 25 comes out.

I'm going to continue with the fandom for as long as I can, but I'm starting to think it would be less and less of a major loss to get off the bus at any point.

I could be entirely wrong about this. Opinions?

[Well, here is mine. "The senseless whacking of Tara and Willow's subsequent descent into nerd-flaying...". In order to talk about this, I have to separate these two things, because they are quite different, in my opinion, and take us to the heart of the issue.

Tara's senseless death was shocking, which was fully intentional: on a show that often focuses on heroes and heroic violence, often in a flip way, here comes something brutal and absurd. I thought Tara's death was one of the more amazing things about the Buffy run -- it showed a capacity for surprise six seasons in (not an easy thing to do); the emotional shock was real and powerful; because conflict is the essence of drama, as McKee puts so forcefully, there must be a cost for heroism, and this is a serious one; it offers an important counterpoint to Buffy's self sacrifice -- there is more to the story than people dying heroically to save others; it is a moving and necessary consequence of Willow's decision to play with black magic, regardless of how well intentioned -- we can't have her draining the blood from a deer to bring back Buffy and then nothing, everything is right with the world. For me this works, this is strong writing.

For many fans it was the wrong choice, but this judgement is muddied by the fact that the Buffy story, from this moment on, becomes badly told. Unlike Angel, who we really get to spend time with as a bad guy before his redemption, Whedon has hardly any time to establish Willow as evil, and redeem her -- the whole thing is rushed, and a mess. Also Wheon loves "Ally" as he calls her, and does not really have the desire to write her as evil, and it shows. By the time the deaths of the series finale come along more than a year later, Whedon's core "Scooby Gang" (Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles) will have become an awful smug and safe little clique, in no danger of real change (which, I counter, was what the show was really about); because someone has to die, it becomes everyone around them, characters that had more complex life to them, like Anya (the demon trying to fit into a world where she can never be fully redeemed) and Spike (the rapist who feels real love). Most fans will tell you that the end of season six and arguably all of season seven are bad, but it is because the story is being badly told, not because of the subject matter. And here come my point:

Shakespeare's King Lear -- a horrific vision of nihilism -- cannot be dismissed as a soul-killing picture of a bleak, crummy world totally absent of time travel and jet-powered apes. It cannot be dismissed in that way because, for all of its dark subject matter, you have to be happy to have found something that well written. In that way the crummy real world is redeemed -- because you just experienced a work of unbridled GENIUS. The content is not the point, the form, the language, is.

I think Patrick is right to be angry and frustrated with Whedon to a point. But I think he is mistaking the cause of that frustration. Just as in the context of Shoot Em Up I argued that you cannot expect your "cool" content to do the work for you, you have to write it well, so here a bleak story is not why we should dismiss the end of Buffy season 6 and most of season 7. We should dismiss it because it is badly written.

As for sticking with a book, that depends on whether you think you are getting enough well told story for your time and money, and whether you want to stick it out. I have invested in the Buffy canon and I am going to stick it out for a while, but I also would not grab someone and force it into their hands as I would The Wire.]


Christian said...

I'm generally of the opinion that while people don't want to read about fictional characters enduring no hardship, there has to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Even if the light is an oncoming train or just in the head of the character. For every third, bad thing that happens to a character, one good thing should happen. Even if that good thing is just to an illusion to suspend the character and have them at least have some kind of goal or dream. Dreamless characters can't advance and can only suffer Diabolus Ex Machina events and grow stagnant.

And speaking of ending on downnotes, I just finished reading the last of Doom Patrol. Loved it, but man, what a depressing ending. Very much like Pan's Labyrinth though, in the sense that you get to chose whether or not the cup is half full or empty.

Prof Fury said...

Hm -- do we get to choose that at the end of Morrison's DP? Doesn't the psychiatrist holding the coin from Jane's "dream"-world suggest that Jane's fantasy/superhero life is as literally real as real life? Admittedly, a hopeful reading of the final sequence is problematized by the fact that the final lines ("there is another world/ there is a better world / well there must be") come from a Smiths song about suicide. But I don't know how else to account for the coin. I'm operating off memory, here, though, and am always happy to be corrected.

That wasn't quite on topic of me.

Chad Nevett said...

"Yet, I am kinda of the opinion that art or literature(especially escapist fiction like Buffy) is under NO obligation to reflect "real life" to that soul-killing extreme."

I agree here, but, at the same time, art/literature is under no obligation NOT to reflect "real life" in that way. I've always had a hard time with anyone proposing what art should or should not do simply because art is such a large thing that it cannot fulfill any obligations. I think Geoff is right when he says that it comes down to execution. I've read brilliant works of literature that are soul-crushing and made me want to kill myself--and I've read brillant works that are the exact opposite.

I also think it's a mistake to label these works as escapism because of genre--or, at least, label them exclusively as such (assuming, of course, that all fiction isn't automatically escapist in nature). Do elements of the fantastic necessarily mean a work is escapist fiction? I don't think so, because it could be operating on the level of metaphor or allegory. Or, those fantastic elements could be superficial trappings that window-dress more realistic concerns and ideas. That doesn't mean these works aren't escapist fiction, but that may not be their only function and may only apply to some readers. And, even if they are escapist fiction, does that necessarily entail a happy ending or can escapism involve soul-crushing experience after soul-crushing experience with no redemption for the reader?

I think these questions are best answered by the individual rather than spoken of in objective terms, because the impact and value of literature and art is, ultimately, subjective. (Although, discussing it in objective terms is always fun.)

Voice Of The Eagle said...

Quick update: I trust this essay/fanboy whine into the hands of another friend who I consider my go-to guy for all things Buffy. He had these things to say:

1) It was a poor comparison to contrast Buffy with Daredevil/Marvel comics because Buffy was "never escapist."

2) He thought my comment about crummy worlds w/out time travel and jet powered apes was nihilistic, and I was relying too much on fiction to create value.

3) His own reactions towards S6 and S7 have changed after reading the book "Why Buffy Matters" by Rhonda Wilcox, which I have since ordered.

Christian said...

"Hm -- do we get to choose that at the end of Morrison's DP? Doesn't the psychiatrist holding the coin from Jane's "dream"-world suggest that Jane's fantasy/superhero life is as literally real as real life? Admittedly, a hopeful reading of the final sequence is problematized by the fact that the final lines ("there is another world/ there is a better world / well there must be") come from a Smiths song about suicide. But I don't know how else to account for the coin. I'm operating off memory, here, though, and am always happy to be corrected.

That wasn't quite on topic of me."

But she could just as well have fashioned the coin herself. Or her world could have existed, but ended, and her being found by her friends could be her coping with it. And let's not forget the last panel isn't off the DCU or Danny The World, but of our, rather bleak, world.

But yeah, someone smarter than me needs to say something about Doom Patrol. If I can get my ass in gear, I might have a little something about the Red Jack issues.

Streebo said...

Wait a minute. Tara is dead!?! Guess I don't have to finish watching Buffy Season 6 now. . .

I'm just kidding, of course. I was never able to follow Buffy on a regular basis. Something about girls that can't make proper fists yet throw effortless kicks always bothers me. What a nitpicker I am.

On the subject of the topic - Geoff summed it up, "drama is conflict." There's no two ways around it. If all of our stories were happy go lucky escapist fiction, they would lose interest very soon.

No disrespect meant to Wetrats, but Marvel characters are not the ones to wish problem free. They were born of problems and conflict and will always remain that way. Daredevil is blind after all.

Prof Fury said...

One of the reasons I was excited about the Buffy comics, and one of the reasons that I'm sticking around for a while despite their generally lackluster start, is the sense that when these terrible, bleak things happen to them, there's a chance it might mean something, might be permanent, its repercussions vibrating throughout the fictional shared universe. I like mainstream superhero comics just fine, but there's always the sense that, no matter how many terrible things happen to Matt Murdock, he's always going to be back in Hell's Kitchen, with Foggy and a girlfriend.

That's fine -- that's the nature of those comics. Their pleasures are different. But Buffy, BPRD, Hellboy -- there's a sense of participating in a continuing narrative, a sense that the stories you are reading matter; it's hard to feel that when reading, say, a Geoff Johns Superman comic that runs on nostalgia. This is not to say that it's impossible to feel that same investment in big two comics, of course -- Iron Fist is the hot example lately, and Morrison's Doom Patrol is a good one. Those examples tend to be found on the margins -- as Siskoid's recent "Bubble Continuity" post articulates.

neilshyminsky said...

I have little to say about Buffy that's half-interesting, except that I disliked the 6th and 7th seasons for reasons that don't have any direct relation to their being nihilistic or what-have-you. Much more simply, I thought that the dark magic=drug abuse angle was absolute nonsense (have it corrupt her soul or something, but to go the junkie route? christ, that's lame), and subsequently found the cast so unmanageably large in the final season that I had difficulty maintaining interest. Though I suppose that I wasn't really keen on Whedon's relentless drive to make things progressively darker and more depressing, and that might be akin to some of the complaints listed above.

Anonymous said...

I've already given up the comic, because it seems to have forgotten much of what happened. I read S6 and S7 as victims of bad writing, yes, but also of supreme arrogance, most especially in the killing of Tara. The fan outcry at that event was much more than just unhappy fans; that death really hurt a great many people who had invested in Tara, people who were mislead andeven lied to by people at Mutant Enemy,and to this day there has been no acknowledgement of that from anyone save Jane Espenson. Certainly, Marti Noxon has used her lesbian cred to defend her decision; Joss has tried to suggest that he would have brought her back but it was Amber Benson's fault he could not. This is, in my estimation, hogwash coming from a man known to plot out events years in advance and who did not even bother to sign Ms. Benson at the time he killed her, claiming that within 7 episodes of the new season he'd have had in Conversations with Dead People. It's all words, and meaningless. Killing Tara was a stupdi writing decision, lazy and easy, and boilerplate for Joss Whedon, who has come to believe that killing his characters is a means to make the audience feel unsafe. Actually, it is a great way to make the audience not care and not invest, and I do not think he can write anything any more where he will not kill off a beloved character. Which will happen in the comic as well. Which is one of the reasons I no longer read it.

Anonymous said...

I might be in the minority, but I feel that Tara's death was necessary. It is a stretch to believe that even with black magic that you could exchange the life of a deer for the life of a Slayer, but sacrificing one person you love for another seems a perfect fit. Also, while Warren's death was surprising, how much of an emotional impact was it going to have on anyone in the long run? Tara's death is still talked about and debated today, which shows it had the desired emotional impact.

Coligo said...

For me Tara's death was an excellent moment in an otherwise awful season, with an even more dire season seven soon to follow. Whedon planned out his universe so completely that he got to the end of season five and had a perfect ending, a point he defacto concedes as he has admitted this was to be the original finale.

Angel suffered a similar fate, season four was an epic finale, but season five smacked of desperation (fan favourite Spike being conveniently tied to Angel, jeeze!). But on to an important point, I think a character surviving relentless bleakness can make for rewarding watching, Wesley in Angel is a perfect example. Denisof and Whedon work so hard to make a character evolve through many incredibly dark and unfortunate circumstances. But then his demise undermines this entirely by it's intense pointlessness. If you want to debate a Whedon character sacrifice for no reason other than audience shock, talk about that.

Sorry, that turned more or less into a wierd soap box.

neilshyminsky said...

This is neither here nor there, but I thought about it was Wesley was brought up: The best moment in any Angel episode has to be when he's planning to kidnap Connor, but in the interest of acting all unassuming he picks up the baby and starts singing him a lullabye. His mistake is so subtle that you don't even realize he's just revealed the entire plan until you see Lorne's eyes go wide from across the room, and then...

Patrick said...

Unless I missed something, Whedon never said he intended to end the show with Buffy dead. I may have missed an interview, but I believe the season seven ending was planned roughly from the start. Certainly if you watch 'The Gift,' it's not really final. There's the death, yes, but every other character is in extreme flux, I can't see that being the series finale.

Coligo said...

I think by the time they were filming it was no longer the actual finale, but season five does wrap up a lot of major character issues. Key issues being the evolution of both Willow and Xander, both maturing from the childhood awkwardness that defined them in high school (and therefore the early seasons) into successful adults, Xander even becomes able to advise Buffy on emotions and her own difficulties in perhaps his finest moment. Also, Giles gets the gang to a place where he no longer needs to be a father figure and is so in a position to leave.

Finally, and most importantly, the entire concept of the slayer is based on the very fact that they always die and a new one is needed. Buffy would always have to die in order for the universe to continue existing according to its own rules (unless you totally disregard them and ruin everything by having some awful arbitrary event change the rules, just as season seven does with the 'potentials' ridiculousness.

As a final note neil shyminsky you are completely right, that was a superb moment.

Anonymous said...

If The Gift was meant as an ending, it was one that was left open to a continuation that would reveal all the ambiguities hidden in plain sight in the finale. Willow's dark turn (which Whedon had been foreshadowing for years) was clearly brewing and not yet paid off. Xander's proposal to Anya is a rush job, which pays off in Hell's Bells. And Buffy's death is certainly sacraficial and heroic, but also conveniently timed since it's in the middle of her increasing difficultly with coping with life in general and her vocation as slayer in particular, all of which are on-going issues.

Season 8 is doing a lovely job of showing us how desperately ambiguous The Chosen was. And it's pretty clear that at the time Whedon meant The Chosen as an ending. So it's probably just the case that for Whedon an ending never really is an ending. There will always be shadows that can serve as the basis for a next chapter. (Which in turn means we can expect things to just get relentlessly darker in his world.) Personally, I like that. Life doesn't wrap up neatly. Though one does wonder how long he can keep the deconstruction unto nihilism going.

Agree, though, that the writing in parts of season 6 and much of season 7 got terribly sloppy. Really unfortunate, cause it was all structured so well.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

"Willow's dark turn (which Whedon had been foreshadowing for years) was clearly brewing and not yet paid off."

That may be true in terms of foreshadowing, but I gotta go with Doc Klock. When push came to shove, Whedon didn't really want to do it, and I didn't want to see it (Unfortunately, I HAD to see it to realize how much I DID NOT want to see it). Willow's character is (was?) a source of light in Buffy's darkness. Shame on Whedon (and the fans) for forgetting that. Consider me Chris Crocker and Willow Britney: I'll defend her to my dying day.

I'm going to stick with Buffy no matter what, but I'll never forgive Whedon for what he did.

Also, I agree with Coligo; "The Gift" was a perfect ending to what was (at least then) a masterpiece of serial narrative.

Patrick said...

To me, Chosen feels final in a way that 'The Gift' didn't. 'The Gift' was more like Angel's finale, a huge sprawling mess that's cut off at its height.

Season six is where all the character arcs really pay off, and by the end, Xander saves Willow and Buffy saves herself. That feels pretty final to me, and I think seven could have been an abbreviated season, the triumphant cap to the seven years. Unfortunately, the potentials storyline is awful and ruins a lot of episodes, but if you look at Buffy's arc over the course of the series, Chosen is a great closer. She's passed through the darkness, come to terms with being a slayer, and now she's given a chance to live life as just one of many, not the chosen one.

I think the whole spell thing in the last episode was clumsy and too on the nose, but it works for Buffy's character. still, I can't help but feel like virtually everything after 'Conversations with Dead People' is misguided.

Ryan O'Hara said...

"Escapist fiction like Buffy"? That's your problem right there.

Anonymous said...

I know you won't, but you really need to start reading "Berserk". It's Dark Horse too. Mwahahahaha!

Anyway, what's the point of killing characters nobody gives a damn about? And how can you not kill anyone when your characters fight supernatural monsters? Well, it's possible, but LAME also.