Monthly Archives: June 2012

Joss Whedon – A Force to be Reckoned With

Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon

I recently (finally) went to see the movie “The Avengers,” a tale of several folks, some more super than others, who team up to fight a threat to Earth. This movie was written and directed by Joss Whedon. As it happens, I am also currently immersing myself in all 7 seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (I’m about 1/8 through the third season right now), a series that Whedon created, wrote for and executive-produced. Which is just to say, I am impressed and inspired (if not overwhelmed) by the creative powers of this guy. Talk about a superhero – Whedon, who is primarily a writer, has fought up through the ranks and given viewers several different visions of flawed and compelling characters over a span of 20 years. And these visions always focus on the fantastic in one form or another, whether it’s vampires and demons, spaceships and strange planets, living “dolls,” or superheroes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

If you’re a fan of Whedon, then you already know that his first big triumph was the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which ran from 1996-2003. This triumph came after the forgettable movie of the same name, which Whedon wrote (and which starred heavy hitters such as Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer, as well as Paul Reubens). His script was heavily rewritten for more laughs, however, and Whedon eventually left the set out of frustration with how his vision was being botched.

But then, a few years later, Whedon was approached to create a television series about Buffy. This time he was in control, and the result was a dark ride through high school and beyond, with various monsters representing the anxieties of adolescence. This series’ powerful writing and persuasive acting ensured that Whedon had a success on his hands.

Firefly

Firefly

Soon, Whedon was also writing and executive producing a spin-off series, “Angel,” which featured several characters from “Buffy” over its five-year run. And in 2002, Whedon developed a third series that he also wrote and executive produced, “Firefly,” a Western in outer space. The result – Whedon was behind the wheel of three shows between 2002-2003 (both “Firefly” and “Buffy” ended in 2003). That’s quite an achievement right there, to be the creative force behind three different shows on three different networks.

But even after “Firefly” failed to live beyond one season (although managing to garner quite the rabid fanbase), and “Angel” only lasted one season after the end of “Buffy” (even though it seemed to have gotten its creative mojo back after foundering for a while), Whedon kept on thinking up new creative projects.

Dollhouse

Dollhouse

In 2005, Whedon wrote and directed “Serenity,” a story showcasing the characters from “Firefly.” And in 2009, Whedon teamed up with Eliza Dushku for the television series “Dollhouse.” Although unfortunately short-lived, “Dollhouse” played with the interesting premise that a corporation is running underground dollhouses around the world, wiping their Dolls’ memories and temporarily instilling them with different personalities and skills, then renting them out or utilizing them in other nefarious ways.

“Cabin in the Woods,” a movie Whedon co-wrote, finally came out last year after being on the shelf as a result of the MGM bankruptcy. I unfortunately did not get to see this in the theater while it was out, but I do know that this movie, which plays with horror tropes, garnered quite a bit of buzz.

And so we’ve circled around again to “The Avengers,” a movie that came about after several other Marvel superhero movies, including “Ironman,” “Ironman 2,” “Captain America,” “Hulk,” “Incredible Hulk,” and “Thor.” Most of these (with the exception of the Hulk films) did very well at the box office, and whoever took on the task of writing, and of directing, the Avengers movie would have a monumental task before them. They would need to integrate 6 heroes and their back-stories, a credible villain, and assorted other characters from the Marvel comics canon into the mix, giving all of the heroes equality in terms of plot importance and screen time.

The Avengers

The Avengers

I think Whedon did a fantastic job with “The Avengers” on all these counts. The plot allowed all of the heroes to give a sense of their back stories to the viewer, it offered Loki as a very credible and complex villain, and other characters, such as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, stood out as well.

Whedon clearly has achieved a great deal as a writer who can generate all kinds of stories, whether involving fantasy, science fiction, or horror. I admire him for many reasons (trust me, there will be a Buffy post after I’ve gone through all of the seasons), including his ability to create incredibly involving characters, his structuring of plot, and his versatility. So here’s to you, Mr. Whedon – and here’s hoping you continue to create amazing stories for many more years to come.

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Fairy Tales: The Uses of Enchantment

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

I’ve been grazing through a recent and rather large collection of “new fairy tales,” stories inspired by classics like “The Snow Queen” and “Bluebeard,” called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (catchy, no?). The stories in here range from a take on The Swan Brothers (the tale where six royal brothers are changed into swans by their evil stepmother), in which the swans’ sister is a modern-day performance artist, and “The Mermaid in the Tree,” where a yearly Mermaid Parade celebrates the creatures that wash up on the shore, and a child bride talks to the ghost of a mermaid.

 Reading these stories, I recalled other favorite collections of fairy tales and their retellings, the stories of monsters and heroines that have lasted for so many years. One of my favorite memories of visiting my grandparents’ house when I was a child was getting to read my grandmother’s giant book of fairy tales, Shirley Temple’s Storybook. The story “Bluebeard,” the tale of a murderous and conniving husband who tempts his new wife with the key to a room she is forbidden to enter, both horrified and fascinated me. “The Snow Queen,” with its intrepid heroine who braves icy wilderness to try to rescue her best friend from the sliver of enchanted mirror that has entered his heart, touched me with its poetic story of love and loss.

The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley

The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley

When I grew a little older, I discovered  a writer, Robin McKinley, who reinvented fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast.” I read her story collection “The Door in the Hedge” first, which contains a standout version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” McKinley has actually written two different versions of “Beauty,” but I prefer her first one, with its many details of the enchanted castle. “Beauty” is my favorite fairy tale because the heroine is smart and brave, and because she develops a real relationship with her beast, so that in the end, when she says she loves him and wants to marry him, breaking the spell that has imprisoned him for so long, she truly means it. 

So, in reading that gigantic book of fairy tale retellings, I found myself wondering why it is that I still, after so many years, find fairy tales so interesting. What is it about these stories that makes them endure?

I believe that the recurrent themes of enchantment and transformation in fairy tales are one reason that these stories have lasted so long in our collective imagination. For example, in “The Princess and the Frog,” the frog is a prince, and only the princess’ kiss will set him free. In “The Snow Queen,” Kay changes from a loving boy to a cold minion of his ice queen, all because of that bit of poison mirror in his heart. “Sleeping Beauty” has its enchanted spindle, “Snow White” has its magicked bad apple, and in “Cinderella,” a pumpkin becomes a coach and mice become the footmen. 

Through the enchantment comes change: transformation. And in that transformation, many things may mutate. At the end of “The Snow Queen,” Kay changes back to a loving best friend to Gertie – but will he ever forget his journey to the Snow Queen’s icy palace? For that matter, will Gertie?  

The transformations in fairy tales are so profound, they resonate beyond the prescribed happy endings of weddings and children. After all, in the original ending to “Snow White,” the evil stepmother is made to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead. Who decided she should wear those shoes? The tale doesn’t tell us. But perhaps in her enchanted sleep brought on by that poisoned apple, Snow White changed a bit from that gentle soul who ran into the woods and started keeping house with seven dwarves.

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