FINT Book Review: Joss Whedon & Race

et’s face it. White liberals are having a “woke” moment that is shamefully long overdue. Growing up in the 1980s and early 90s as a white middle class kid from a moderately open-minded family (albeit residing in the conservative American south east), I was taught that the most respectful way to treat people of color was to be “color blind”. That is, to behave as if the color of their skin did not matter. It’s who they are inside that counts. And while that is a lovely notion for a fictional, utopian, post-racial society, it is unrealistic for our world. Moreover, it’s disrespectful and hurtful because it negates the realities of people of color. In Virginia, I could see that racism was alive and well. But I moved to Seattle, Washington at my earliest opportunity and was quickly absorbed into a little bubble of like-minded people. How easy it was for me to forget what it was like beyond the membrane of my blue cocoon.

Mary Ellen Iatropoulos and Lowery A. Woodall III’s collection of critical essays, Joss Whedon and Race cover Whedon’s relationship with race, ethnicity, and nationality on his television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Angel (1999-2004), Firefly (2002-2003), and Dollhouse (2009-2010), as well as the Firefly movie, Serenity (2005). Though Whedon is known for his progressive narratives, he’s not immune to perpetuating cultural stereotypes even as he seeks to subvert or transcend them. This is particularly true of his early work…

whedon-01

Read the rest on Film International!

 

Advertisements

What’s Your Vector, Victor?

Though it was, perhaps, inevitable, there are many reasons I am going to miss Dollhouse. Right now, Fox is in the middle of its episode clearance sale, throwing up back-to-back episodes every Friday until their warehouse is empty. And while it’s nice to see such a serialized show in larger chunks, it also feels a little cheap, because it’s very clear that they are just trying to get to the end of their deal as fast as possible and fill the time slot with some trite garbage. I know Dollhouse isn’t a perfect show but it could have gotten pretty close. It has the strongest ensemble cast on TV right now. Sure, Dusku lowers the curve a little bit. But there are so many candidates for valedictorian that it still looks like a class full of geniuses.

We’d already seen what many of these actors were capable of. Amy Acker played two roles on Angel: The beloved Fred (though it took me a while to warm up to her) and the powerful god in an indifferent world, Ilyria. She played the latter with complexity and deadpan humor. Harry Lenix played the conniving Aaron with a hint of sympathy in Julie Taymor’s Titus. As Miss Cross in Rushmore, Olivia Williams played a widow and scholastic Helen of Troy and it was clear what all the fuss was about. Even Fran Kranz, whose character started out a little on the annoying side, has turned Topher Brink into an incredibly multi-faceted persona with almost an excuse for his moral dubiousness.

And then there’s Victor. When we first met this doll, played by Enver Gjokaj, he was acting as a Russian informant, and leading FBI Agent Ballard astray in his Dollhouse investigation. His accent was terrific, or, at least, nothing like Harrison Ford’s in K-19: The Widowmaker. But what else could he do? It turns out, a better question is what CAN’T he do? Along the way, he has shown the most astounding range in doll characters. From dashing to dorky, and with all the necessary accents, Victor is easily the most versatile doll they have in their arsenal. Even his blank slate “doll state” is full of personality, as he exhibits a love and loyalty to fellow doll, Sierra, that no machine can erase. The narrative also hints at some sort of post-traumatic combat stress from his former life, though we still haven’t seen (and perhaps never will) his backstory. In one episode, he is imprinted with the mind of a comatose serial killer and plays it with all the necessary Anthony Perkinsness. Later, in the episode, his personality switches with Echo’s light-hearted party girl, and his transformation is flawless and hilarious.

Most recently, he was imprinted with Topher’s personality to hold down the fort in Topher’s absence. Gjokaj’s performance is air-tight. He nailed the cadence and mannerisms that Fran Kranz has built for his character. Even without the sweater vest ensemble, it was immediately clear who Victor was on that particular day. That level of acting goes a long way toward being able to use “show-don’t-tell” writing.

So who is this Enver Gjokaj fellow? Why have we never seen him before? And when can we see him again? He played “remote pilot” in Eagle Eye and a few bit parts on other TV shows, but that’s about it for priors. He has all the potential to be the next Gary Oldman. I sincerely hope that other casting directors see this too so that he’s not relegated to a career in doomed Joss Whedon projects.

What Up With That?

It wasn’t long ago that SNL seemed promising. Of course, with a rotating cast, these things are absolutely cyclical. But when it was Maya Rudolf, Amy Poehler, Tina Fay and Will Forte, there were a lot of quality sketches. Any one of those people can pretty much do or say anything and make it funny. They also weren’t so much with the recurring sketches. And the characters that were recurring (Donatella Versace, the arrogant, one-legged chick, fucking MacGruber!) somehow seemed fresh every time. Now the funny ladies are gone, replaced by much less funny ladies and Kristen Wiig, who can be very funny, but not all the time. So far this season, SNL has been a real dud. They seem to be mostly falling back on recurring characters, mostly played by Kristen Wiig and those sketches are indistinguishable from one another, save the appearance of that week’s host. Seth Meyer is absolutely lost without Amy Poehler. Will Forte has pretty much been relegated to play the straight man (Gilly…GILLY…). Furthermore, Andy Samberg’s once fresh Digital Shorts are generally one-noted.

And then there’s the “What Up With That?” sketch. It’s Keenan Thompson playing a soul-styled host of a talk show called, you guessed it, “What Up With That”. The joke is that his theme song is so long and involved that he never gets around to talking to his high-profile guests, people like James Franco and Al Gore, who are brought in just to sit there and look annoyed and bewildered. It goes on way too long and it’s not terribly funny. BUT the song is extremely catchy.

I was just in the elevator with 4 young ladies on their way to lunch. For some reason, they were all discussing corndogs and they all agreed that corndogs are “gross”. “I like hot dogs. I like cornbread. But I just don’t like corndogs,” said one. “Yeah! I can’t rememeber the last time I even ate one. I was probably drunk,” said another. I didn’t know these people so I couldn’t chime in. But I think corndogs are terrific. In my head, the phrase “Corndog haters in the elevator” popped up. “What up with that?” And with that, I’d written a new verse of the annoyingly infectious “What Up With That” song. And now it’s in my head. Till the end of time.

See for yourself.

It always seems like the most obnoxious sketches are the ones that people remember. And the truly original, funny ones, get banished to obscurity. No one will ever remember the “Garden Party” sketch as well as they’re remember Penelope the one-upper or fucking Gilly. What up with that?

Just As I Thought

When faced with a surprise vegetarian challenge, the Top Chef contestants were mostly useless.

Spoilers contained herein Continue reading

Vegetarianism: What’s Old is New Again

I was both excited and annoyed by the promo for next week’s Top Chef. They revealed that the Chefs would have to cook for actress, Natalie Portman. But that wasn’t the shocking surprise. When asked about her “likes and dislikes” some astounding news blew everyone away! They didn’t reveal the twist in the promo, but I’m pretty sure I know what it is. Natalie Portman is a vegetarian.

Now, I LOVE Top Chef and have been able to find inspiration in every episode, despite their meat-favoring themes. In 5 seasons, they had yet to feature a vegetarian challenge. Everyone who has tried to cook vegetarian food has been sent home immediately, or at least severely reprimanded. The one time a contestant was forced to use tofu as his main ingredient, he braised it with beef to flavor it and he was commended for his ingenuity. I’m sorry, but if you can’t make tofu taste good without covering it in meat juice, you probably don’t deserve the title of Top Chef. And what about other dietary restrictions? Kosher? Food allergies and lactose intolerance? VEGANISM? If you’ve chosen a lifestyle that eliminates certain foods (or nature has chosen for you) do you deserve to be kicked out of the foodie club?

I’m very excited that the chefs will finally have to make an all vegetarian spread for Portman but I’m very irritated that her diet is such a big deal. For a while, vegetarianism was not only common, it was trendy. And now, with the foodie trend making exotic meats popular, vegetarians at dinner parties and gastropubs are back to nibbling on celery and dinner rolls. I feel like I’m back in Virginia in 1992 getting horrified looks when I refuse a plate of ribs. Recently, I said no thank you to a sausage sample. After the man barraged me with a persistant spiel about how healthy the sausage was, I explianed to him that I am a vegetarian. His response: “HOW DO YOU LIVE?!”

I am preemptively annoyed by all the bitching that will no doubt happen during this episode. I’m sure Mike Isabella (whose face got totally pervy when Portman walked in…can we PLEASE get rid of him already?!) will have plenty to say on the subject. I can only hope that a challenge like this will (re)open people’s minds to the fact that your food can be delicious, culinarily sophisticated and completely meat free.

Nine Months of Full Moons

I just finished the first season of “Being Human”, a terrific BBC supernatural drama about a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf who live together in a flat. It sounds a little silly, and I’m not sure how those pitch meetings went, but the show really works. It’s funny and heartbreaking all at once with a delightful bit of gore thrown in. I knew I was sold when an episode opened with a voice over about the process of changing into a werewolf, and the excruciating physical toll it takes on afflicted.

“He should be dead within 30 seconds. The werewolf heart is about two-thirds the size of a human’s. But in order to shrink, first it has to stop. In other words, he has a heart attack. All of the internal organs are smaller, so while he’s having his heart attack, he’s having liver and kidney failure too. If he stops screaming it’s not because the pain has dulled, his throat, gullet and vocal chords are tearing and reforming. He literally can’t make a sound. By now the pituitary gland should be working overtime, flooding his body with endorphins to ease some of the pain, but that too has shut down. Anyone else would have died of shock long ago. But it won’t kill him and that’s the thing I find most remarkable. It drags him through the fire and keeps him alive and even conscious to endure every second…An impossible lethal curse spread by tooth and claw, victim begets victim begets victim. It’s so cruel, it’s…perfect.”

It probably seems like pregnant ladies think that every situation applies to them and maybe that’s true. But I do think, at least for me, that the werewolf metaphor quite perfectly parallels pregnancy and childbirth. I haven’t gone through childbirth yet, but I’ve talked to people and seen some videos. It really seems like something that should kill you. It doesn’t. It tears you apart temporarily and then you are fine. During pregnancy, the growing fetus pushes all of your other organs out of the way to make room for itself. Last week in birth class, our teacher showed us illustrations at various intervals of gestation. By the final month, you can hardly see the intestines, as they are smashed up against the stomach. It’s a wonder you poop at all in the third trimester. But that’s not where the similarities end.

*WE CAN SMELL OUR OWN. OK, so maybe it’s obvious to everybody when someone is knocked up. But get a couple of pregnant ladies together and let the bitch-fest begin. They are so relieved to be able to talk about what’s happening to them with someone who really understands.

*YOU REALLY CAN’T UNDERSTAND UNLESS YOU ARE ONE. Sure, there are things that everybody knows about being pregnant. We have weird cravings, we’re moody and only a silver bullet can kill us. But there are also things that happen to us that people don’t talk about. Gross things. Bloody, awful, ugly things. We don’t talk about it because if we did, no one would ever let themselves be turned.

*THERE’S AN ANIMAL INSIDE ME. And that animal is hormones. It’s like the worst PMS I’ve ever experienced but it’s not going to go away in a couple of days. One second, I’m fine, and the next I’m crying because Tim Gunn said something supportive to a contestant on Project Runway or I’ve got a DVD due back and I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. Or maybe my husband said the wrong thing or did something I perceived as inconsiderate and I freak out because this is the man I chose to father my child and how will he be good a father if he can’t even find me green tea ice cream at the grocery store. The worst part is that I KNOW I’m being awful and unreasonable but I can’t do a damned thing about it. The monster is in control, not me.

*I HAVE NO CONTROL OVER MY OWN BODY. At least werewolves only have to deal with this shit once a month. For the bun-bakers, it’s every day for what seems like FOREVER. I can stick to my work out regimen or even ramp it up (I’ve been doing the latter. It’s the only way I can let off steam.) but I’ll still feel like I’ve never been more out of shape. That’s because all the blood in my body is being re-routed to my uterus. The result is that even though I’m used to physical activity, just carrying a bag of groceries into the house can put me out of breath. My joints are loosening to prepare for childbirth, so there’s a lot of cracking and popping going on. I’ve lost interest in some of my favorite foods. Others make me physically ill. I’ve become fixated on cereal. It’s the only thing I get excited about anymore. I have weird, disturbing dreams. I’ve started cleaning obsessively. I forget things that never would have slipped my mind before. I don’t even know myself anymore.

*I HAVE AN INSATIABLE HUNGER. I need to eat. A lot. Constantly. And if I don’t get to eat, for whatever reason, the beasty gets angry. God help anyone who gets in the way of me and my mid-afternoon snack.

I don’t know who has it easier. Us or the werewolves. But these days, I definitely feel a kinship to those furry bastards.

Zach Attack!

Saved by the Bell might have been the most ridiculous sitcom ever, but I’ve seen every episode. Some of them several times (thank you, cable reruns!). In fact, it may have been the first thing I ever loved ironically. I still can’t bring myself to watch Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s lawyer show, and I’ve long found Jimmy Fallon annoying, but this bit wherein M.P.G. brings back the Morris is just plain awesome. The video won’t embed, for some reason, so check out the link here.