Posts tagged documentary
Having watched a number of the new shows that debut this fall, here are some thoughts:
My Generation: I was interested in this show in no small part due to the fact that the main characters, nine students from the class of 2000 at an Austin high school, are nearly my age-peers. I graduated in the class of 2001 (we did not play Space Odyssey, I’m sad to say), and am far away from where I thought I would be at that time.
This show takes the mocumentary style and applies it to a drama, where filmmakers followed nine students throughout their senior year, and is now checking in with them ten years later. The characters are introduced with their High School clique labels, such as “The Nerd,” “The Brains,” “The Jock,” etc. and then shown in their current lives, often very far away from where they’d expected to be. Circumstances in the characters’ lives bring many of them back to Austin, re-connecting with those who had never left or already returned.
The pilot clearly set the stakes, established the characters and their current trajectories vs. their self-professed worlds that they had imagined for themselves in 2000. It’s not fantastic, but it’s compelling so far and I’m likely to keep watching for a little while, if for no reason than the degree to which it makes me think about what has been happening in my own life vs. what I expected when I was a senior in HS.
The Event — This is the new The New LOST. The Event uses mosaic-style storytelling, jumping between characters and time frames in a fairly jarring manner, though over the episode, the rhythm became less distracting for me. The focus on Sean Walker (Jason Ritter) in the first episode brings the audience into the middle of The titular Event, balanced with POV sections from President Martinez (played by Blair Underwood — no relation) and others.
For me, much of my level of ongoing interest will depend on the truth of the Mt. Inostranka facility. Who are these people, and how are they connected to The Event? Once we know more about that, it’ll be easier to decide how much I care. There are several options that are yawn-worthy, and some others that could prove quite compelling.
Undercovers — The new sexy spy offering from Alias-creator J.J. Abrams is cute and fun. It’s not fantastic, but it does show a happily-married african-american couple as series leads, which is still noteworthy for network TV. It’s Sexy People Doing Sexy Spy Things, but it’s pretty well-done, and the leads are both gorgeous and likeable. I won’t stay home for this one, but I’ll probably catch up via Hulu every so often.
No Ordinary Family — The Pilot of this one hasn’t actually aired, but I got to watch a preview last month when they had it in limited availability. No Ordinary Family is very nearly a Live Action The Incredibles, with an origin closer to the Fantastic Four, who were an obvious inspiration for the Pixar film.
Michael Chiklis is Jim Powell, police sketch artist and under-appreciated dad. He feels fairly powerless and disconnected from his family, including his Bigwig Scientist Wife, Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz). Their children are Just-Trying-To-Fit-In Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and Undiagnosed Learning Disability Kid Brother JJ (Jimmy Bennett).
Jim convinces the family to take a vacation, which leads to their plane crashing into the Amazon — their trip is ruined, but shortly after their return, the members of the family begin manifesting super-powers. Jim gains incredible strength and toughness, Stephanie gets super-speed, Daphne becomes telepathic and JJ gets a massive intelligence boost.
The show’s formula seems like it will include Jim using his powers and police connections to fight crime while the rest of the family goes about their lives trying to deal with their powers — there are also hints of a larger super-world which will likely play a role as the show goes forward.
Of the new shows this season, I’m probably most excited about No Ordinary Family — it’s fun, doesn’t take itself to seriously, and seems to be respectful of its genre roots.
Hawaii Five-O — The joys of remakes. I didn’t really watch much of the original, as it was mostly before my time. However, the new show keeps what some say is the best part of the original show — the opening theme.
Alex O’Laughlin plays Steve McGarrett, who is brought out of the Middle East and offered a position heading a new state police unit in Hawaii, with no red tape and vast resources, tasked with bringing down TV-worthy criminals across the state.
He crosses paths with Danny “Danno” Williams, a divorced father who moved to Hawaii to be near his daughter (who primarily lives with her mother and step-dad), and also recruits Chin Ho (Daniel Dae Kim), a disgraced cop who worked with McGarrett’s father. Rounding out the cast is Grace Park, playing Chin Ho’s cousin Kona “Kono” Kalakaua, a hotshot rookie policewoman. McGarrett recruits her right out of the academy, as she’d have trouble getting respect in the normal force due to her familial connection to the disgraced Chin Ho.
The exotic locale, nostalgia, and charming cast are likely to be the show’s best assets, at least to begin with. I admit that if the show finds a way to highlight Grace “Boomer” Park’s gorgeousness on a regular basis, that will help by willingness to watch.
District 9 was advertised widely on SF sites such as i09.com. I’ve been excited about this film since the first previews, promising an apartheid metaphor SF film with a distinct setting. Good sociological SF is hard to find, and to be commended when it shows up.
I expected a Sociological SF film in a fictional documentary style and got something else.
There will be spoilers needed to actually talk about the meaty bits of this movie.
The film I was expecting to see lasted about 20 minutes into the actual film, and then it turned into something else. Those 20 minutes, it was a fictional documentary about the history of the aliens’ arrival and the current forced relocation to the concentration camp/refugee camp far from Johannesburg. This first 20-ish minute film was a slow burn, captivating and disgusting, showing prejudice and exploitation.
The film takes a turn that to me was unexpected, with Wikus Van De Merwe infected by the black liquid and beginning to transform into one of the aliens. The second 20 minutes, I was expecting a contagion/virus storyline, with the aliens creating a bio-weapon to strike at humanity.
But District 9 was not that movie, either. It became an action-ish film with Wikus fighting his way out and into MNU, learning to empathize with the aliens after having been casually and cruelly bigoted. It turned out to be a redemption story with tons of exploding people rather than a subtle sociological study of bigotry and xenophobia, with a constant apartheid metaphor. The apartheid metaphor in District 9 was really just centered on that first 20 minutes, and once the infection/transformation got going, the metaphor went away.
The film left a lot of questions unanswered. These are things that you could interpolate or extrapolate on, and I will do so below.
Things like — why did Christopher Johnson (the lead alien) only have one helper/ally within the alien population? Are all the other aliens too addicted to cat food? They show the rampant addiction, akin to depictions of “Firewater” for American Indians, where the aliens trade priceless military technology for 100 cans of cat food after asking for 10,000. The documentary has Wikus (I believe) talking about the aliens being members of the worker caste, lacking independence, but that’s just a human perspective.
Christopher said it took 20 years go gather enough liquid/fuel to power the command ship — did he only have a handful of helpers the whole time? Did the rest of his cell get evicted without incident/off-screen? If Christopher was a member of a leader/overcaste, why didn’t he have more followers/subordinates? We see precious little interaction between Christopher and any other aliens save his son (and his green helper who is killed), which makes these questions impossible to answer in-narrative.
Why did the aliens get stuck here in the first place? The command module fell out shortly after arrival, but if it’s what was buried and what Christopher and son used at the end, where are the rest of the command staff/caste? The aliens were depicted as almost completely without agency barring our protagonist aliens, save for the ‘feral pack’ attack at the end and the aliens’ various desperate grabs for cat food.
It was hard to like Wikus during the film. I was able to empathize, but Wikus was too unlikable in the beginning, too callous and bigoted. Yes, he was just a person with a loving wife and dedication to his job, but still. I think it was the gleeful description of the popping of the alien eggs, the ordering of a flamethrower to incinerate an entire hatchery that did it for me. After that, I could root for him, but really only in context of helping the aliens. The ending with Alien!Wikus making the metal flower was touching, however. And they’re clearly set up to do a District 10 film, with Christopher’s return, the healing of Wikus, etc.
Let’s talk for a moment about the action and effects. The alien mecha was super-cool looking, and I think this film wins for most humans exploded on screen during 2009. We’re supposed to accept that Wikus’s modified DNA allows him to intuitively control the mecha, which allows the cool action sequence.
My main beef with the film comes down to this: Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden says that in a story, you get one ‘Gimmie,’ one thing where you can say ‘In this setting, Something Works Differently’. If you tell your story well, and parcel new information out properly, you can earn the audience’s trust and get more ‘gimmie’s.
I think that for me, District 9 asked for more gimmies than it earned. It left far more things unsaid and unexplained that I would have liked, and not even in a way that is okay to leave unsaid (like Cloverfield‘s lingering questions about the monster).
I’m very glad to have seen the film, I enjoyed it once I got on board with the story it was actually trying to tell, but I think it may have missed the chance to be a better film when it turned into an action film. This may also come from the same impulse that will have me write my Anthropologists! In! Space! novel.
Final verdict — go see it, but know that it’s a SF action film with a slow burn start and a strong sociological undercurrent. It’s more akin to Children of Men than I had originally imagined. Hopefully, if you go into the film armed with a firmer sense of what to expect, or with no expectations whatsoever, you can enjoy it for its merits.
In the first few weeks of Dollhouse’s life, Whedon and others associated with the show said ‘wait for episode 6 — that’s when it gets really good.’
The reason given for the change in Ep. 6 is that FOX high-ups stopped having as much direct input as of the episode, which means that less was done to make the show fit the exec’s ideas of what the show was supposed to be. At least, this is the story that is told.
Whatever the reason, “Man on the Street,” “Echoes,” and “Needs” are stronger, tighter episodes, with more ongoing momentum and more of the humor we expect of a Joss Whedon property.
The themes of the show all ramp up in these episodes, most especially the degree to which the Actives/Dolls are treated as not-human.
Using a documentary frame that might have been useful to implement right away in the Pilot, the unseen documentarian/reporter gets a variety of responses and commentaries on the idea of a Dollhouse, ending with a validation of the redeemable qualities of the Dollhouse concept, which goes hand-in-hand with the engagement-of-the-week with Patton Oswald as the grieving widower who contracts an Active each year to be imprinted with the memories of his dead wife so that he can have the day/weekend with his wife he was denied by fate.
In “Needs,” Lawrence Dominic tells the powers that be in the Dollhouse to think of the Actives as pets rather than people. We also get several data points which suggest that manner in which the Actives come to the Dollhouse are less altruistic than Adelle DeWitt would have us/the Actives believe. If the rapist client is to be believed (not exactly a reliable witness), then Sierra was sent to the Dollhouse not because she wanted to be there, but because the client wanted to make her go away, or at least, her personality and memories. We see that Caroline coming to the Dollhouse was in no small part to learning too much about the Rossum Corporation, also known as the People In Charge, owning/sponsoring not just one, but twenty Dollhouses.
The plot, it thickens. In “Echoes,” Sam, the scientist who conspired to steal the memory-altering drug to sell to Rossum’s competitor is brought in by DeWitt and is given the same ‘offer’ as Caroline/Echo. This leads directly to a reading where the ‘offer’ given to would-be-Actives is far more morally compromised. November may have wanted to escape the grief of her dead daughter Katie, but for Caroline and Sam, going to the Dollhouse was much like Taking the Black in George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — the only option given to someone who would otherwise (likely) be killed.
When I saw the preview for “Needs” and then the one-line description of the episode following it, I was afraid that the plot was going to be completely irrelevant to the overall story, much the same concern that I’d had since the beginning of the show. If the events of the episode and each engagement are wiped away for the Actives, those episodic plots become even less relevant. But for “Needs,” where Echo, November, Sierra, and Victor have their original personalities (but not memories) restored as a therapeutic release valve, we learn not only that the whole plot was a deliberate control technique implemented by Dr. Saunders and Dollhouse executive staff, but also that Caroline was cagey enough to contact Agent Ballard, making the events of the episode moreover relevant to the overall story.
Ratings have not been good, but haven’t been so abyssmal as to immediately call for cancellation from FOX. FOX put at least enough confidence in the show to include shortened commercials, allowing episodes to clock in at around 50 minutes rather than 43-45. Its timeshifted (TiVo, DVR, etc.) numbers are good, however, which makes sense for a Friday night snow.
Time will tell whether the show will make it past one season and develop its threads, from a confrontation with Alpha to a possible composite event for Echo/Caroline. In the course of three episodes, Dollhouse has found a stronger voice and is a stronger show. If the first couple episodes didn’t quite do it for you, it might be worth your while to watch through to episode 6 and beyond.
Once upon a time, there was a show called Firefly. It had fan-favorite Joss Whedon at the helm and a distinct view of the future, a western-flavored future that wasn’t about the people in the shiny organized space ships. Instead, it focused on the people on the edge, misfits and outcasts.
It was plagued from nearly the beginning by interference from executives, and was canceled in less than a season.
But the fans were not done with the world of Firefly, nor were those involved in its creation.
Done the Impossible is a documentary that tells the story of the Firefly/Serenity-verse, through the lens of fans of the ‘verse. The documentary is not for the unitiated, instead, it is itself a work of fandom, a gift from a team of Firefly fans (Browncoats) to the community. With narrations from fans, cast & crew, Done the Impossible talks about the show, the time between Firefly and Serenity, and then the arrival of the film.
In years past, I’d thought that a combined ethnographic/cultural studies analysis of Browncoats would make a good book-lenth project. I still do, as Done the Impossible has not already done that work. I’m not very involved with Firefly fandom myself — I watched the series the first time around and told my friends, then sent my DVD set to make its way throughout my friends groups. But I did not partake in much if any of the intense and highly active grassroots campaigning and guerilla marketing that is discussed in the film. In this case, I would have the positionality of being one of ‘the Browncoats’ without being as much of an insider as with other groups.
Firefly fandom is intriguing in that we can look at it and confidently say that it was the fans’ efforts which led to the creation of Serenity. Creator Joss Whedon repeated a line from the series at the first of the Serenity early screenings:
“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”
The line is the source of the documentary’s title, and has become a rallying cry for Browncoats, a reminder of the power of guerilla marketing and grassroots fan activity.
There have been ‘Save my favorite show’ campaigns before, but while the Browncoats’ efforts didn’t bring back the show on TV, since its cancellation, Firefly has had two comic series, a tabletop role-playing game line, a major motion picture, and continues to have a strong and active fan-base. Browncoats continue to host ‘shindigs’ and other events, sharing their passion of a show that like its namesake, shone brightly, went dim, and then shone again just as briefly.
Don’t look to Done the Impossible for an introduction to Firefly, or even as an ethnographic work explicating fandom in general. It is a specialized work done from within a fan community for that fan community. If you’re already one of the flock, then pull out your Browncoat, pour some Mudder’s Milk, and join in the geek-fest.
Another, post-review note, about positionality: There are many ways to be a fan within a community, different degrees of engagement. To use Firefly as an example — there are people who watched Firefly and liked it. There are people who consider themselves fans, but don’t necessarily identify with the Browncoat movement. Then there are any number of different levels and types of involvement within the Browncoats, from fan-fiction to convention organizing to costuming to fan art to role-playing games to podcasting to guerilla marketing and more. These people are all members of the fan community to different degrees. There are a lot of ways to be a fan, within one fandom and across many fandoms. This becomes readily evident at any general convention, where fans move between groups to share their passion for shows, games, films, comics, and more.
For a fan-scholar, you’re never going to be as into everything as the people you interview/work with. I may be able to speak most of the dialects of geek (video gamer, comics geek, anime otaku, role-player), but in any given situation, I can’t assume I know more about a fandom than anyone I’m talking to. They get to exercise mastery of knowledge as a result of their involvement, and in turn, I exercise my status as a scholar and serve to represent fans to members of another community, that of the scholars (who may or may not be fans). Scholarship in fan studies has always been in an interesting state, given that there are well-established and vibrant fan scholars who may not have the same academic credentials but do similar work.
Questions of power, authority, agency and positionality are never far from any ethnographic study, even moreso in fan studies and media studies. Scholars are accountable to the public and should always be aware of their cultural power — even though we are a part of the panopticon like everyone else.