Tag Archives: Firefly

“The Nevers”, Joss Whedon, and Who Controls Meaning

The biggest element of “The Nevers” you should know is that the show was developed and showrun by Joss Whedon. Given the multitude of disturbing allegations regarding racism, misogyny, and abuse that have surfaced about him, it will hopefully be his last. The creator of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” stepped away from “The Nevers” late last year, citing exhaustion. Given the timing as these allegations started mounting, it’s likely his departure wasn’t by choice. He was replaced by writer-producer Philippa Goslett as showrunner for subsequent seasons, but it was after a large amount of work on the first season had already been completed.

HBO series “The Nevers” follows heroine Amalia True and inventor Penance Adair. They run an orphanage for those who have been “touched” – granted a range of superhuman abilities. True can see glimpses of the future, for instance, Adair can see ways that electricity might be manipulated in her inventions. One of the girls at their orphanage is a giant; another they rescue can speak multiple languages but can’t control when. It’s all a bit 1890s London X-Men, but focused on women’s equality.

It’s unfortunate then that Whedon is the one who developed the show. Joshua Rivera tackled this well over at Polygon, describing “The Nevers” as a retread of Joss Whedon obsessions. Laura Donnelly’s True is the best martial artist around but struggles with inner vulnerability and suicidal tendencies. Rivera mentions Buffy, Faith, River Tam, and Echo from “Buffy”, “Angel”, “Firefly”, and “Dollhouse” as comparisons. I’d also add what Whedon did to Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. But this is just the gateway to the full retinue of Whedon tropes “The Nevers” suffers.

I’ve already mentioned Ann Skelly’s Penance Adair – the awkard, genius, geeky confidant with a talent for research and coming up with deus ex machinas for tough scrapes. Think here of Willow from “Buffy”, Fred from “Angel”, Simon Tam from “Firefly”, or Claire Saunders from “Dollhouse”.

Don’t forget the stoic, fatherly, socially misplaced male figures who care for them and insist they should slow down and be less aggressive. That’s Rupert Giles, Wesley, Simon Tam doing double-duty, Shepherd Book, the “Dollhouse” parental-figure-of-the-week set-up. Welcome Zackary Momoh as Dr. Horatio Cousens.

The male romantic interest is a loose cannon whose history of sociopathic tendencies, shortness of empathy, and lack of reliability must be understood and dismissed in order for him to be tamed. That’s Angel, Riley, Spike, much as I love him Captain Mal. To a large extent, that’s Jayne as well – just without the romantic-interest side of things. “The Nevers” gives us James Norton as sex addict Lord Hugo Swan.

And yes, I understand that for vampires in the Buffy-verse, this archetype is usually a case of not having their soul while committing mass atrocities, but isn’t that what we hear time and again from men who’ve been exposed for bigotry, sexual assault, and abuse – “That’s not who I am”. Hell, isn’t “Dollhouse” about people who act as others – often violently – who then set it aside as a personality that isn’t their own? This might be the core Whedonism of them all, but learning that it’s core to Whedon himself can’t help but change our view of that trope.

Not to be forgotten, there’s also the awkward-but-lovable, largely innocuous male friend (Xander, Lorne, Wash, Simon Tam pulling triple-duty). Tom Riley is Augie in “The Nevers”. He’s Swan’s painfully shy best friend, whose abrupt insensitivity to the two women leads is presented as a feature of being too sensitive. What?

Oh, and if you can also squeeze a fetishized, make-believe interpretation of severe mental illness for a woman who’s clearly been victimized but who can’t communicate it to the outside world, you’ve got Whedon bingo. Think Drusilla, River Tam, Echo. This might be Whedon’s most insidious trope – the woman who has suffered trauma, and who most around her dismiss because she can’t communicate it. If anything else here can be understood as a potential projection of Whedon’s, this is the most frightening. For that matter, think of every leading woman on “Angel”, from Cordelia’s sudden death to the horrific possession and replacement of Fred by Illyria. Here, it’s Amy Manson’s Maladie.

If you want to think of the other half of what “Dollhouse” is about, this is it: people who are abused, over and over again, made to dismiss or forget what’s happened to them, powerless to communicate it, and trying to figure out how to do so in a coded way. In the wake of realizations about Joss Whedon, many of the tropes we call Whedonisms suddenly play out much differently. Few play out so terrifyingly.

The cast of “The Nevers” is charming, and that’s without mentioning Olivia Williams as True and Adair’s benefactor Lavinia. It goes without bringing up Pip Torrens’s blink-and-he’s-Hugh-Laurie turn as villain Lord Massen, Nick Frost’s double-crossing Beggar King, or Ben Chaplin’s growling Detective Mundi.

Yet the casts from all these shows have been charming. That shouldn’t make it easier to come to terms with “The Nevers”.

I still find a great deal to love in all these shows. I know where I took value from them, or where they did in fact challenge a pre-conception I had growing up in the 90s and becoming an adult in the 00s. Some of those shows did make progress. They did confront old problems, even if they brought up new ones. They did mean something, and that meaning wasn’t necessarily a lie. At the same time, I have a new awareness that contributes to my understanding of them, an awareness it would be irresponsible to view these shows without.

None of this is to say we should hate these characters. I love many of them. To me, it’s important to remember that Whedon didn’t realize them alone. Buffy is a creation of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kristy Swanson before her, of countless writers and directors who contributed to the character, and yes – of Joss Whedon. He is one of the most primary voices in every character of these shows, but he is not the only primary voice creating them.

Do we reject these shows and characters outright? As fans, do we have the ability to transfer mass understanding of their ownership and creative control to, say, Sarah Michelle Gellar? Do we understand her as the person who tells us who Buffy is now? Is it more productive to reject the characters and meanings of those shows, or to seize them and decide their meaning ourselves? Is what’s productive the same as what’s right?

I don’t know the answers to this. We are grappling with these questions across the board. It’s not the first time this has happened either – Harry Potter fans grapple with the role the franchise had in their own youth, even as they pry their understanding of it away from author J.K. Rowling and her anti-trans bigotry. Maybe it’s possible to still value what Harry Potter contributed while rejecting Rowling herself.

On the other hand, what Bill Cosby did amounted to a complete cultural rejection of “The Cosby Show”. Some people will say “turn it up” when a Michael Jackson song comes on; others will say “turn it off”. And yes, there is a racial double-standard at play here – how many white musicians are never held accountable for this? Pick your decade – Elvis, Jimmy Page, Stephen Tyler, and Anthony Kiedis all committed statutory rape. Where is our rage against them?

It’s made more difficult when the creations we’re talking about are less the product of a single person. Can you still watch the original “X-Men” movies because Patrick Stewart has worked so hard on domestic violence causes and is himself a survivor of child abuse, and because Ian McKellen has for so long been an icon for LGBTQ representation? Or should we avoid them because director Bryan Singer has been accused multiple times of statutory rape?

How do we weight those different elements? I don’t think I can tell someone who watches because Stewart or McKellen mean so much to them that they shouldn’t. I certainly can’t tell someone who won’t watch because of Singer’s behavior that they should. What I do know is that the conversation around them is deeply necessary. Above all, if we choose to watch, we can’t do so in ignorance. We can’t cut out the problematic element from it and act like it’s not there when it’s still fundamental to what we’re watching.

You can judge any show on its own qualities. Yet when so many of those qualities are informed by the well-established tendencies and projections of an abusive creator, you cannot pretend those qualities are isolated from him instead of informed by him.

Despite a litany of problems in “The Nevers” that arise from both this and from technical quarters (the show often looks like a 90s TV mini-series, and not in a good way), I’m debating whether I’ll still watch in the hope that it will get better. I wouldn’t consider this if Whedon was still on the show. If he was coming back, no chance. Given that he’s been replaced, I may give “The Nevers” a shot in the hope – perhaps misplaced – that what’s most Whedonesque about it will wash off as it goes. Then again, maybe the point is that it can’t.

Whatever it may be, whether this, Harry Potter, X-Men, countless other projects…I think it sends us all through a messy loop of thoughts. Perhaps I’m just making an excuse for watching something I’d like to see improve. Perhaps it’s an attempt to take a kind of control back from what feels like a betrayal. Or maybe that’s just an easy way to justify the cognitive dissonance of watching a show Whedon developed. Am I even hoping for the show to become good, or is there some part of me that would be even more satisfied seeing Whedon’s last work become a full-blown disaster? Do I want the show to succeed without Whedon, or fail because of him? Doesn’t thinking that way assign it as his, and disempower the cast and crew that also made it? Is it useful for me as a critic to analyze Whedon’s tendencies through what is hopefully his last show? Can that inform us in a way that helps, or is it just angrily chasing down a rabbit hole? Is there part of me that’s hiding behind the excuse of being a critic because I want to watch it? I do hope I’ll get to see the show reject these elements over time, and grow away from Whedon’s influence. How satisfying would that be? But it’s just as likely the show doubles down on what are now industry tropes even under a new showrunner.

If I watch this, is it one last place where Whedon gets to control meaning in a harmful way, or is it one more place where we get to take control of that meaning so that he can’t have it? I really wish I knew which it was.

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Bits & Pieces — Fight Choreography as Myth, “Troy” and “Serenity”

We look at fight choreography and often think it’s just different ways for people to hit and punch each other, but stunt coordinators and fight choreographers put just as much thought and artistry into a fight as a costume designer does into a film’s wardrobe, or a cinematographer does into the film’s shots. Fights themselves can hit you down low, where you feel it in your bones, or can become a dance of mythic proportions that sparks the part of us that marvels at art.

Let’s take two well-choreographed films, Troy and Serenity. Why these two? Brad Pitt and Summer Glau, that’s why. The All-American character actor and the ballet dancer-turned-genre actress both played characters that fought with a sort of preternatural, psychic skill.

Pitt first – an adaptation of Homer’s The IliadTroy is a mess of a film. It’s an unintentional masterpiece of trashiness, despite never being all that trashy, in which a Trojan prince kidnaps a Greek princess and sets the two empires to war. It has gorgeous technical elements – I have no idea as to their historical accuracy (I’m guessing there’s not much), but its costume design and make-up remain some of the best ever seen in a sword-and-sandal epic. Troy also boasts Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) as Odysseus, which teased in the minds of millions of fans the barest shred of a hope of a much better movie – The Odyssey starring Sean Bean. Alas, it was not to be.

What Troy did best, however, was fight choreography. It featured Brad Pitt as Greek warrior Achilles, the most famed of all warriors, and Eric Bana as the honorable Trojan prince, Hector. Watch an early battle sequence featuring Achilles:

Stunning, right? Well, everything aside from Pitt’s acting, though I blame director Wolfgang Petersen more for that. At times in Troy, Pitt owns the screen; at other times it seems like he’s still rehearsing. What always delivers is that choreography, though. There are two elements at play here. The first is the Stunt Coordinator – in this case, Simon Crane. You can see his ability to choreograph large battle scenes. It’s his calling card, after all – the man choreographed the massive battles of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. He’s also responsible for the fantastic and complex gun fu of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the incredibly clever sword fights in Stardust. If the Academy gave out Oscars for stunts (which they should), Crane would be the Meryl Streep of stunt coordinators. (Jackie Chan would be Katharine Hepburn; just go with the metaphor).

Crane’s style does have a few interesting nuances. He tends to use extras instead of visual effects, and Troy only employs vast numbers of CGI troops in its biggest battle sequence. This makes Crane’s battles feel more organic, but using college kids playing hooky as your extras has its drawbacks. If you look past Mel Gibson in Braveheart as he gleefully hacks his way through enough Englishmen to fill an Olympic swimming pool, you’ll see numerous instances of extras half-heartedly swinging axes meters away from each other, or spearmen charging each other with their spears held out of the way. You can’t spend your entire budget insuring the extras, after all. It’s a necessary trade-off, and I still prefer organic battles to CGI-heavy ones.

Troy Achilles

One of Crane’s trademarks is in developing choreography suited to individual actors. Every central character in Troy – Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Menalaus – fights in a different style. All except Patroclus, whose emulation of older cousin Achilles causes Hector to mistake the two and slaughter Patroclus in battle. Cue Achilles riding to the gates of Troy to challenge Hector to a 1-on-1 duel.

These individual choreographies are developed separately from the large-scale battles. This is the second element key to these complex sequences: Crane employs a Sword Master, the excellent Richard Ryan, to develop specific choreography for each actor. Ryan makes a point of Achilles’ preternatural fighting ability. In the Greeks’ beach landing above, there’s a point at which Achilles places his shield upon his back just as an arrow buries itself where his kidney would have been. His choreography for Achilles is filled with moments like these – there’s a sense of either the gods watching out for Achilles or the warrior possessing a sixth sense for unpredictable threats.

When Achilles fights Hector, it’s really more of a ballet on Achilles’ part. He’s already positioned himself for Hector’s next attack before Hector makes it. There’s even a moment when Achilles rests his shield on the back of his neck, an utterly preposterous fighting position. It creates an iconic profile, however, as if Achilles is posing for his statue. Moments later, Achilles deflects a sword blow meant for his neck by spinning around – he’s planned that many moves ahead how Hector will combat him. Achilles is, essentially, fighting psychically. Watch:

Now for Summer Glau – her choreography as River Tam in Serenity is an incredibly close comparison. The style of fighting is completely different, but the effect that’s achieved is similar. In writer-director Joss Whedon’s movie adaptation of the gritty sci-fi show Firefly, River Tam is a character who is powerfully psychic. Summer Glau, the actress who plays her, started out as a ballet dancer. Watch a later scene and compare it with the choreography given Pitt at the end of that beach scene.

The Fight Choreographer for Serenity was Ryan Watson. The style he gives River Tam – while different from Achilles’ – is still based on moves that clear where her opponents’ weapons will be, and is centered around positioning herself in anticipation of how those opponents will move. It’s worth noting that Glau – like Pitt and Bana – performs her own stunts and choreography. Her training as a dancer also allows Whedon to use her in a way Petersen can’t use Pitt in Troy: the entire fight scene is done in one shot. It’s a shorter scene, but you’ll notice Whedon’s tendency for extended takes in the longer Maidenhead fight we’ll watch momentarily.

Now, if you’ve ever been in a real fight and you’ve had training, you’ll know that the fight – at least at first – takes place in your head. You seek the strongest position possible and, more importantly, you seek to put your opponent in as disadvantageous a position as possible. If you do a good enough job of that, the fight’s decided before anyone throws a punch. The physical just follows the mental via muscle memory. There is a real element of predicting and guiding your opponent into specific physical and mental positions, setting up your own moves and his reactions.

Both the choreography for Glau and Pitt are unreal extensions beyond this. In Glau’s case, it specifically highlights River’s ability to predict where a blow will land or how a new foe will arrive moments before it happens. In Pitt’s case, it lends Achilles the aura of a god, of a warrior truly blessed by the Fates. In both circumstances, an artificial choreography is created – one that has nothing to do with the willpower and physical reaction of a real fight, but has everything to do with the power of dance to communicate elegance and myth.

All of these choreographies, before they get to the actors, are refined using stunt specialists. Watson’s choreography for Glau was developed with Bridget Riley. She wasn’t originally credited in the production – many stuntpeople often aren’t, despite being key to developing much of the choreography that makes it into the final product. We are lucky enough to have video of Riley’s original blocking for the Maidenhead fight. Please note that Riley is a professional stuntwoman and martial artist, and could beat the living snot out of Brad Pitt and anyone else mentioned in this article in a heartbeat. Except maybe Katharine Hepburn.

The original scene takes advantage of Riley’s extensive martial arts skills, as well as a decent amount of wirework. Each shot is isolated to an individual encounter and stunt.

With Glau, the scene changes. She’s not able to perform some of the moves Riley helped develop, but Glau’s ability as a dancer does allow for the scene to be shot in longer takes than were originally planned. Like Achilles, she avoids attacks in her blind spot through preternatural anticipation. This isn’t an oversight in the choreography – like Simone Crane and Richard Ryan did for Troy, Ryan Watson developed individual choreography for each actor in Serenity. Nathan Fillion’s fight scenes opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor are altogether different. As Captain Mal, Fillion is a scrappy slugger, essentially just doing his best to get one more chance to punch the other guy in the face. He often uses misdirection to do so. As the nameless Operative, Ejiofor keeps everything directly in front of himself – he fights efficiently, letting his opponents’ wrap themselves up. He reacts with precise, cleanly defined motions. Glau is the only one who fights in that preternatural style; it’s a conscious artistic decision. Watch what I mean in the final version of the Maidenhead fight.

So what’s my point, at the end of all of this? It’s that fight scenes aren’t just whether you use Kung Fu or Muay Thai or Krav Maga. Fight scenes can also communicate messages through their art. In Troy, the fight between Achilles and Hector ceases to be real – it becomes representative, a metaphor for the characters of these two men. Achilles is like an animal, circling around his opponent and taking a quick test bite at the beginning, and he is like a god, reacting to Hector’s attacks even as they happen.

Hector, on the other hand, is a man who doesn’t value combat, but does value effort. There’s a moment earlier in the film when Hector betrays the honor of a duel by defending his brother Paris (Orlando Bloom). He doesn’t do so because Paris is his brother; he does so because Paris – despite not being a warrior – still showed up for the duel and put forth his best effort. When Hector later faces Ajax, a warrior twice his size, Hector is victorious not by skill, but because of his effort. He’s clearly outmatched but he doesn’t give up.

In the lead-up to his fight with Achilles, both Hector and the audience know he will not make it out alive. Achilles is an animal. Achilles is a god. Hector is a good man doing his best. The fight choreography isn’t about Hector and Achilles. That choreography is about our constant struggle just to come up even against forces greater than ourselves. It’s about facing nature and fate and knowing that we can never come out on top, but that’s not going to stop us from trying anyway. It’s not because we think we’re better, but rather because the effort itself is honorable, and gives the struggle meaning. Hector is a man going to his death knowing exactly how he’ll face it – as the best version of himself. He is effort, which means nothing to Achilles or to nature or to destiny or to a god, but which carries meaning only to Hector himself.

Fight choreography can communicate as much as a dance, as much as any other form of art can in five minutes. It can give us that same artistic reaction – that same chill up our spines when it suddenly dawns on us what’s being said and the passion behind it – that a beautiful vista in Lord of the Rings can, that a costume from Moulin Rouge can, that an immaculately designed Kubrick set can, that a line from a poem, or a phrase from a song, or an emotion caught in a photograph can.

Fight choreography isn’t just people beating each other up. Stuntwork isn’t just people diving in front of explosions. Fight choreography and stuntwork can be art, and the people behind it think of it as art, communicate in the same way that other artists do. Start to look at these scenes that way, and you’ll start discovering things about film that you never even thought were possible.

Stunt Coordinator – Simon Crane
Sword Master – Richard Ryan
“Achilles” – Brad Pitt
“Hector” – Eric Bana

Fight Choreographer – Ryan Watson
Stunt Development – Bridget Riley
“River Tam” – Summer Glau