Sunday, 12 July 2009

Relationships in Joss Whedon's Media

Thanks to a shared directorship, I'll be able to combine two disparate discussions of media into one post!

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog


It's "My Eyes," an oft-misnamed duet between Neil Patrick Harris' Billy/Dr. Horrible and Felicia Day's Penny. What fascinates me about this song, beyond my unfortunate inclination to narratives which include characters like Billy, is it's conflation of the personal and professional/ideological lives.

Billy sings of his frustrations with society and his pessimism about the problems ever resolving. He believes that the only way the world will ever be righted is if he becomes a terrorist and, through anarchy and the disruption of the status quo, comes to rule the world. Earlier he says, "The world's a mess and I just need to rule it." OK, so it's a bit overwrought, but he's an evil super-genuis with his own musical blog. What do you expect? The point is, his half of the song is lyrically about the disintegration of the world and how his frustration with it results in his increasing desire for control and his increasing ruthlessness.

Penny sings of her hope. She also sees the blemishes on the face of society: she sees (from personal experience, as she indicates later in "Penny's Song") how their city is broken and how the powerless are left unaided by the majority, who simply don't care. And yet, despite her own failures and despite the community of the lost among whom she now works, she is hopeful. She thinks she sees the possibility of good returning to the world. She thinks she sees the possibility for "some kind of harmony." This makes her happy, blissful, ecstatic.

While the video does to some extent underscore these differing views, what it primarily shows is a different source for their emotions: Penny's blooming relationship with Captain Hammer and Billy's resultant marginalization. As Billy sings of despair he is in the dark among the poor, yes, and as Penny sings of hope she is in a soup kitchen filled with caring people. But Billy is also looking in on the girl of his dreams as she dates his arch-nemesis, and Penny is with a man who is obviously interested in her romantically. Billy may say that he frustrated and increasinly "evil" because of the horrors of the modern world, but he sings "I cannot believe my eyes" while he's looking at Penny and Hammer dating. Penny may say that she is joyous about the possibility for redemption among the homeless, but she sings "I cannot believe my eyes" while she's looking at a man who is interested in her. The video emphasizes something totally different from the lyrics: their emotions are not solely a response to the social/political situation, but to their different inter-personal situations.

This conflation or conflict between personal and professional problems comes to a head in Billy's song "A New Day," where he thinks he finds a solution which simultaneously solve both his failure at love and his failure to enter the League. If you've seen the show's ending, I don't think I need to tell you how the theme of personal and professional lives resolves at the climax. if you haven't...get on it.

The fact that I get how Billy feels helps me enjoy it, too. There definitely was a time in which personal suffering, jealousy, and the desire for revenge were strong in me. I dealt with them differently than Billy, though, and think I am a better person for it.

Jon, this is for you: I think Morrison would have been interested in this dynamic in Dr. Horrible.

Firefly
One rarely-discussed relationship on the TV series Firefly is that between Jayne Cobb and Shepherd Book. It's not one you would predict and doesn't often build into the plot much, so I haven't seen much chatter on IMDB or blogs or whatnot, and haven't discussed it much with friends. But it's an interesting one nonetheless.

Jayne Cobb is a tough and crude mercenary whose interests tend to stick to sex, violence, body-building, alcohol, money, and making fun of people he doesn't like. Shepherd Book is a quiet and philosophical missionary whose interests include, but are not restricted to, the human condition and soul, other people's problems, the benefits and faith, and gardening. You wouldn't peg them as buddies, but something about the two of them works. I think it's the frankness.

Jayne is the one who asks difficult and awkward questions of anyone, and while he might be asking it because he thinks it's funny to make you awkward, he also genuinely wants to know the answer (reminds me of some people I know). Book, like any good preacher, is willing to take the tough and awkward questions and answer them honestly. So there's the scene where the two of them are working on supper and Jayne's asking potentially embarassing questions about Book's sexuality--which Book answers with at least outward good humour.

Jayne's willingness to state his opinion and his straight-ahead practicality/physicality which cause him to make some philosophical claims which at first seem silly and confusing. Much of the time that's because it is simply idiocy he's spouting, but occasionally there's a nugget of truth to it. Book (again, like any good preacher) has a knack for finding that nugget of truth. Those simple but overlooked truths are sometimes very deeply hidden in what Jayne says, and, when they are there, Book finds them. So there's a scene where they discuss different people's reactions to death. Jayne is no more insensitive than ever, but Book makes do with what he gets and finds something profound anyway.

Then there's Book's past. The good Shepherd has some shady skills and knowledge in the weapons-use and criminal-endeavour department. Jayne's pointed questions often dig into this. It's frequently the outspoken mercenary who makes references to Book's mysteriousness: "One o' these days you're gonna tell us how a shepherd knows so much about crime."

Finally, they share an interest in body-building and doing physical labour. Perhaps they have different reasons for pursuing these activities, but I suspect much of it is the sheer pleasure in working your body (one I don't tap into enough, I'm afraid). This gives them an obvious activity and location to gravitate towards and build their relationship.

It's an interesting dynamic, I think, that indicates the screenwriter's interest in developing real characters. Sometimes it's difficult to see Jayne as anything but a cookie cut-out of a person, but moments like this indicate that there is something more going on inside that some what Neanderthalic skull of his. This somewhat dovetails with Whedon's ambiguous portrayal of religion and religiosity (at times Book is an excellent shepherd; at others, he's harldy a shepherd at all), but that's not something I'll get into right now. Also, it has a take-home message: sometimes you'll find friends in unlikely places and under unlikely faces.

4 comments:

Jon Wong said...

I think I posted once about how we young people should not be so critical about old people (I think I spoke specifically about teachers) when they talk about the world in a cynical fashion because as young people, we are constantly being exposed to great things that invariably color our perceptions and help us believe in the good. I believe something of this sort applies in your case as well.

Christian H said...

I don't mean a better person than him. I mean I am a better "for it," as I said: I am a better person for having had the experience.

Jon Wong said...

What? I don't understand.

Christian H said...

Nevermind. I must have misunderstood.

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