Sunday, March 15, 2009
In Richard Bach's Final Cut, a book about the fall of United Artists following the disastrous release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, the author relays a tangential anecdote about screening an early cut for the same studio's Raging Bull. The head of UA was one of the handful in attendance, as was the film's director, Martin Scorsese; and when the picture ended, the mogul went up to the filmmaker, shook his hand and said with deep sincerity, "Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist."
I've thought of this -- the fine line between genius and folly -- the two or three times I've tried to endure Joss Whedon's new series Dollhouse. That I've been unable to sit through an episode in its entirety is because the show tilts unequivocally toward the latter. It's a mess. Part of the blame has rightly been attributed to the casting of Eliza Dushku, a fan-favorite as Faith from Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Truth be told I often found Dushku's heavy-handed shitkicking tedious even as a supporting player or special guest star. (She's similar to Michelle Rodriguez -- formerly on Lost -- in this regard.) Here, in the lead part of Echo -- an enigmatic "Active" who works and lives at a shadowy high-tech organization that hires her out (and other girls) to wealthy clients for a variety of tasks, only to erase her memory when the mission is over -- she is jarringly miscast, a one-trick pony trying to be a chameleon.
Yet more than equal blame goes to Whedon, and not just for casting problems. Thematically, Dollhouse continues the exploration of his obsessions, namely the struggle of female identity in a male-dominated culture. Yet while Buffy Summers began as merely an unformed teenager, Echo is a blank slate perpetually wiped. That's a difficult foundation on which to build, and not even "the dishiest lineup of brunettes" currently on TV (Amy Acker, Olivia Williams, et al.) can disguise the painful fact that Whedon's usual strengths -- plot-development, nuanced characterizations, visual motifs -- are getting smothered before they catch fire. Another quote comes to mind, to paraphrase Pauline Kael: It's the kind of screw-up only a talented filmmaker could make.
Not to fret, however; Whedon will bounce back in fine form, if last year's groundbreaking webseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is any indication. Watching it on i-Tunes, I thought Dr. Horrible was an enjoyable trifle. On the "big screen" (i.e., DVD, which I encourage you to see), it evolves into a mini-masterpiece, as well as a showcase for its stellar trio of performers (Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day). Whedon's instincts as an pop-entertainer really come together here, as does his unappreciated knack for emotional shorthand. At first I thought his expected climactic detour into pathos was a mistake, but now I see it as indicative of a recurring obsession that ranks with those of the great visionary film directors, one likely to play out in infinite variations for the remainder of his career. Mr. Whedon, you are an artist.