Wednesday, October 5, 2011

PRAGMATIC: Firefly And All Her Parts!

So, I finally finished Star Trek: the Next Generation, and I've moved on to Firefly. It's interesting getting into yet another old memory, half a decade later. Whereas Star Trek was my obsession in my childhood, Firefly was my early college love. And in a lot of ways, it's not surprising I reached them in that order -- not just because of when they were made, but in the maturity of the form.

On the surface, Star Trek was a lot more philosophical than Firefly, but in a lot of ways Firefly was a lot more complex. You can see it not just in the content, but also on the shooting: more intelligent, poetic shots; a more fully realized, deeper art design. Hell, just the costumes show a richness and intelligence that sometimes Star Trek missed. Quick comparison: Star Trek TNG included one-piece jump-suits that looked iconic, but were also a great source of discomfort for the actors -- you can see them all tugging down at the belt-line constantly, trying to protect their sensitive parts.

In the seven seasons of Star Trek I just watched, I don't know if I saw one point where a camera angle told a story in the same way an episode of Firefly does. They captured a poetry of movement in space that Battlestar Galactica later took inspiration from. And there's other complexity at work.

PERFORMANCE

When I was still studying acting according to old methods, we worked a lot with beats -- and we were told, for better or for worse, that the easiest way to communicate was to break up the text into distinct, clear moments -- each line encapsulating one tactic or response (depending on the nuance of your training).

In theater, there's a good reason for this -- when you're trying to fill a big house, people may be at a distance, and you want to be clear. It's the same school of thought that led the original theater theoreticians to favor bold, pre-defined, ritualized gestures.

In film, however, the intimacy afforded by the screen can give the performer the opportunity to be less defined, more complex. To mix the emotional palate a bit and be a bit more messy.

As a for instance, there's one moment that's going to stick with me for a while. There's a complicated set up, but suffice it to say that Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Filion) kissed a girl with poisonous lip-stick, passed out, and Inara (Morena Baccarin) thought he was dead, and was so distraught, she kissed him, and passed out. When she comes to, she pretends that she was hit on the head so that nobody will know that she kissed Captain Reynolds.

Right? Slapstick humor. Not a core theme of the show or anything, just a silly little moment.

Here's what stuck out to me. The last scene in the episode, Captain Reynolds confronts Inara. "You and me both know you weren't hit on the head." Inara looks up at Captain Reynolds, thinking that he knows she kissed him, and says, "You're right." He grins, and says, "I knew you kissed her!" and walks away.

I counted four separate competing emotions on Inara's face on the next moment, all simultaneous: "What an idiot," "Thank God he didn't guess," "I wish he knew," "I'm hurt that he didn't figure it out."

What this affords Mr. Whedon is the ability to return to moments, but frame them differently so that the context around the moments changes the interpretation. For example, in this episode I just got to, a character tapes a goodbye request, which is revisited three times. But each time we return to the request, it's framed in different ways; it's difficult to know which emotions are real or faked each time.

It's a framing device Whedon likes to use. A phrase recurs, and it's rewarding to see how it reflects the situation each time. One statement haunts an episode, full with meaning and weight, and at the end of the episode it turns out that it was completely meaningless, except for the meaning we thought it had. In another episode, a toss-out joke recurs as a terrifying threat.

LIBERTARIANISM

I'm also trying to figure out whether this show is the libertarian science fiction show, or a deep criticism of libertarian. Thank God I can't figure it out, because that's what's keeping me hooked in this time around.

Star Trek was a socialist dream: racism defeated, Earth united, capitalism ended, and mankind following the path of science into the Stars. A unified government that stands for ideals, provides all needs (through the wonders of industry!). Stalin couldn't have thought it up better than himself, except that everyone has free agency, can dissent and perform intelligently in their roles.

Firefly is basically as far from that as it can get. The "Unified Government" is the Alliance, a group of thugs and bullies that took over the galaxy through force and terror. Because they're only interested in protecting the interests of the extremely wealthy, the rest of the universe has become a new wild west. Everyone's armed to the teeth, and there's no end to the illegal work to be had: slavery, prostitution (legal and illegal), thievery, and murder.

Here's the thing: on the one hand, there's a certain panache to defying the law, and everyone creating their own morality. (This current episode I'm watching features: "My husband makes a distinction between legality and morality." "Bending one unjust law is a small thing when it comes to protecting one's family." But from the so-called Bad Guy) It's appealing, especially in a universe where the government is unequivocally Evil. So you'd think that whatever isn't on the side of unequivocally Evil is the right side.

But the gray world is full of the worst of the worst as well. There are some absolutely insane characters (the old sadist Niska, the one-eyed wild madman Stitch, the con artist Yolanda), some loathesomely cowardly characters, and generally everyone runs around without a moral compass. Those with moral compasses are constantly being taken advantage of and beaten up, unless they fall in with people who have the moral compass.

In the end, this is the battle raging inside of Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Is he a good person? Or not? He certainly tries to be. And yet as people keep pointing out to him, he's a criminal who leaves a trail of bodies behind him. He has an incredibly complicated matrix of morals that are sometimes impenetrable. He'll leave them to die but he'll avoid putting a bullet in them, except, for instance, when he shoots one of his old war friends twice because his friend won't listen to him explain his plan and goes berserk.

It's certainly not my intention to say that the government is a moral compass. In Star Trek, for instance, the moral purity of the government is not beyond reproach (the Prime Directive is often a source of let them die morality). But because of the order, the stability, and the ability to make sound decisions, characters are rarely penalized for making the right or honorable decision.

In Firefly, the chaos with which these characters live often makes it clear that morality will get you killed. Doing the "right thing" is a pretty good way to have their heads sawed off. And that makes morality much trickier. And sometimes the characters pull through, and sometimes they don't.

Even the flatter characters show that dynamism: Jayne, for instance, is shown to be dumb as hell and greedy as sin. He'll sell anyone out for a dollar and he doesn't feel like going out of his way for anything. Except when a town full of Mud-workers raise him up as a hero because of something he did on accident, and he discovers a deep affection for them.

If there was one message about government and its relation to the people, it's this: "Even if the government was completely at its worst, that doesn't make none of it any better." Or: "Government fails when it's full of greedy, careless people. But so does the rest of society."

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