I will be using the following definition of “camp” during this article: “Deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behaviour or style” – Hollywood Camp. This is a pretty big post. Get a drink or something. Alcoholic, preferably, my prose doesn’t stand up to clear-minded examinations.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, Firefly and Serenity, not to mention Toy Story and Commentary: the Musical, it seems that there is very little Joss Whedon could do that I wouldn’t lap up like the stereotypical fan-boy I am. And yet, for a long time, something seemed awry.
Criticisms people made of his work would stay with me for days, leaving me feeling faintly annoyed, and with a powerful sense of dread, as though I were on the verge of a realisation.
Those of you who are able to read, and have correctly deciphered the complex word-bundle at the very top of this post, will already know where I am going with this, and can probably either skip ahead or go and do something else. Possibly something more productive.
No? Still here?
Wow. Well. You must have as much time on your hands as I do. I feel a strong kinship. We’ll go far together, you and I.
The realisation which I eventually came to was that the criticisms made of his work irritated me because I agreed with them, but loved the works even so. And it wasn’t a love despite the flaws. These flaws with Whedon’s work were what wheedled worship from me.
With that in mind, let’s start with the startiest of my points. The first one. Which goes in front of the othe-oh, I can’t write. Just read the damn list.
1. The Awkward, Nerdy Jokes
What’s Wrong With Whedon?
If there’s one thing I associate with Joss Whedon’s work, it’s these constant, weirdly-delivered quips. The actual jokes are fairly witty, usually. Sometimes they’re slightly too arch, or knowing, but Whedon, whatever his faults, is a good writer, and it shows in the content. It’s the delivery.
Whedon’s characters frequently deliver their lines in a massively over-played manner, which can only be explained in one of two ways; either the well-paid professional actors have no understanding of line delivery, or Joss Whedon is standing off-camera with a massive loudspeaker yelling “Camp it up! Campier! I SAID CAMPIER!” As the jokes are often quite long-winded — usually part of the joke — this results in a curious and unsettling combination of ultra-rapid-fire delivery, as though the actor is desperately trying to get through it and be done with this silly humour stuff, uncomfortably juxtaposed with a bizarre pseudo-deadpan intensity and a funny voice.
In fact, they’re delivered with much the same “I’m doing a joke/Dammit, I don’t know how to do jokes” awkwardness as that creepy loner who used to sit next to you in science class, smell of haddock and try to talk to you endlessly about Final Fantasy 7.
It’s no surprise that, when combined with the unrelenting torrent of these quips that is a Whedon show, this is one of the most frequent complaints I hear about even Joss’ most popular work — Firefly, Buffy, Dollhouse.
Why Do I Love It?
Because it happens to be real. In real life, people don’t deliver sharp witticisms and then merely go back to whatever they’re doing, and it’s pretty damn hard to make an acerbic quip without that wry smile and smug, look-at-how-bloody-funny-I-am, sardonic tone of voice. No-one just delivers a joke like it’s nothing in real life, because a joke is, or feels, pretty damn important. If it falls flat, you’ve just committed social hara-kiri. Your metaphorical entrails are spilling out all over the floor and people are just pretending not to notice, stepping on them to get past. If it connects with the audience, it feels great, as though you’ve just validated a pretty fundamentally important part of your self.
Maybe that’s just me.
The important distinction between people who hate this style of humour and me is that for me, it’s the characters making the jokes. I believe in them, so I don’t criticise them for delivering the jokes the way I, and a good 99% of all the people I’ve known, have done as long as I’ve lived. It feels true.
For most of the people who hate it, it feels like either the scriptwriter stepping into the character, or the actor themselves stepping out of character to deliver the joke. At best, jarring, at worst, arrogant and completely alienating. The camp becomes something beyond just what would come naturally to the character, and changes the nature of the whole show. It appears to be more insincere, less meaningful.
There are other reasons, of course, but it seems as though your personal view of the believability of the delivery, rather than the smug quippiness itself, is the most important factor in whether you love or hate it.
And I am a believer.
Besides which, if you don’t like camp…uhm.
2. Awful Special Effects
What’s Wrong With Whedon?
Admittedly, this one is mostly restricted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with an honourable mention to Angel for sticking pretty firmly to the latex-forehead and rubber-suit formula. Firefly, by contrast, actually won an Emmy for its special effects. Wow, the Buffy effects were not so good, though, especially in the earlier seasons — they’ve really put several people I know off ever giving the series a try.
In that picture, we can see, from left to right:
Top row: Man dressed as partly-shaved gorilla-vampire, “intimidating” “snake” “demon” (substitute the word rubber for any or all of those words), man dressed as man dressed as werewolf, and the least visually appealing explosion since that unfortunate incident with the Scotch Bonnet and the German fetish site.
Middle Row: Definitely Angel, Absolutely Definitely Buffy, a wax model of an old lady being attacked by a malfunctioning prop from the set of Alien, forehead, forehead, forehead, and a huge rubber praying mantis that only seemed to be able to effectively move one part of its body at a time.
Bottom row: Man in make-up, man in latex suit, man in latex suit, man in make-up, bad CGI, man in latex suit, man in make-up, man in make-up, bad CGI, man in make-up under blue-ish lighting, man in heavy make-up, man with bits of plastic stuck to him.
The poor choices of stunt doubles, combined with the low budget poking through on multiple occasions, mean that if you’re not able to suspend your disbelief, watching an episode of Buffy can be a very painful experience.
Why Do I Love It?
Firstly, I find the low-budget special effects to be reminiscent of a mythical “golden age” in televisual sci-fi/fantasy. I never experienced that era myself, and the shows from that era that I do watch (old Doctor Who, Star Trek episodes) leave me feeling underwhelmed. But this? This I do get, it’s from my time, and it appears to be in roughly the same style as those classics; so I get a feeling of unearned nostalgia from it.
That’s the dumb reason for it.
Secondly, sometimes, I want to be told a story. The fact that I know a story is being told, because clearly the vampire is a jobbing actor and the weird snake-demon (which should, incidentally, have been called Spawn of Apep, but instead had to make do with Spawn of Sobek, the crocodile-headed god) is being hauled around by an extra just off-screen, doesn’t make the story less compelling; it makes it more compelling.
Without the story-teller to anchor the abstract concepts of a ‘story’, character, plot and setting for example, stories can become mere spectacle, whether they be spectacles of visuals, language, intellectual ideas or emotion. Without the story-teller, I sometimes don’t feel the same thrill from these spectacular, less narrative works, as I do when someone sits me down and just tells me a tale, whether that be from behind a character in a big rubber mask or from behind the character of “the narrator”.
Being able to see the rough marks where something has been made enables you to see more clearly what the maker was thinking. It puts you in closer contact with the story-tellers.
That’s the thrill of intimate communication, in some ways, of feeling as though you understand another human being’s mad, frantic, noisy, irritating, smelly gesticulations on a deeper level — that probably doesn’t exist. Because when you see those human thumb-prints in the make-up, or notice how they make the arms of the praying mantis move, you understand that people who believed in the story, who wanted to create something that would convey their ideas to you, were working on this product.
That’s a lot to get from industrial quantities of latex, stunt doubles thirty years older than their actor, and dodgy CGI. And it sounds pretentious when I put it into words (because, frankly, it is pretentious), but I really feel it to be true. What’s more, I think I have felt it to be true for quite a while, without being able to put it into words.
Lastly, I think that if you take the fairly low budget into account, the effects are actually not so very bad. There are some very creative costumes, and while the CGI, like the snake from Graduation Day, looks pretty ropey by today’s standards, it’s easy to forget that in 1998-9, television audiences were unused to special effects on anything approaching the same scale — at least in Britain. The ingenuity is pretty constantly impressive, even if the actual effect is not the most slick. Again, it’s the sense of being put directly in touch with a crafts-person, the way they think, the way they solve problems, that provides a certain amount of the enjoyment.
And this might just be because we didn’t know any better, but — it really didn’t seem all that terrible, or intrusive…most of the time. But hey, Buffy‘s not supposed to be about the flashy special effects and so on, it’s a low-budget show with a focus on good solid characterisation.
3. “The Characters Are All The Same”
What’s Wrong With Whedon?
If any other fans are reading this; I know. The first time I heard this criticism, I was beyond shocked. I was flabbergasted. I was dumbfounded. Confounded. Gobsmacked. Thunder-struck. Very surprised. Attacked by a fat ghost.
Yahtzee Croshaw, in the video linked earlier, saying “He can’t write any characters except ditzes, or badasses, or characters who flip arbitrarily between the two,” is pretty strong stuff. Honestly? In a situation like an action-comedy series, you’re pretty much tied to this formula. Characters in action films and shows are defined primarily by their usefulness. We can tell a yuppy in a Die Hard movie is going to be evil because he’s utterly pointless in that situation, and we can tell that Rambo is going to kick ass for MURCA because he’s built to carry at least four heavy weapons at once. So already, there’s going to be a tendency to divide characters between their useful and their useless moments. When you add comedy, which is often about both hyperbole and the utter futility of
existence the main character’s actions, you’re in dichotomy city, baby, population two.
The criticism Yahtzee makes is still valid, and although it might be ‘excusable’ that’s not what this post is about. Besides, belonging to a genre with typically extreme and simplistic characterisation is neither an excuse nor a convincing pitch to someone who’s sceptical. If anything, it’s just going to put people off other stuff in the same vein.
There are definitely quirks and traits that each character has, but they’re all cut from the same cloth. Which appears, frankly, to be inexplicable. Only the other day, my girlfriend asked why these clearly incompatible people (in Firefly) were hanging out together. I had no real answer at the time, but I think that the answer is, counter-intuitively, that they were all the same. The quirks are sort of little extras — shallow personality, like the classic example they give to budding writers of the detective whose ‘personality’ is defined by his love of acid jazz and buddy movies.
Why Do I Love It?
Simply, I find it much more believable than the typical alternative — no less disingenuous to my way of thinking. This alternative is the classic “group of mismatched misfits band together despite themselves against an outside evil.” Bullshit. When genuinely vastly different characters somehow manage to agree on something as vague and contentious as the nature of evil, and not only that but they’re all willing to work together against it, something is afoot.
As I resist the urge to post an oh-so-hilarious picture of a human foot (terrible pun day was this one), we’ll continue thinking about Whedon’s quirky-but-the-same bands of heroes.
In real life, friends really do tend to talk similarly, think similarly, do similar things, and generally just hive-mind it up. If you pay attention to it, it’s actually pretty shocking how new friends and even acquaintances can influence your thought patterns, your vocabulary and your beliefs. Sure, we all have friends who are very different from ourselves, but these people aren’t members of what we call our circle of friends, who would be our world-savers if we were being written by Joss.
If, to take an example completely at random, one were a chirpy, perky, out-going cheerleader type, sure you might have one dark, brooding, gothy friend. But the rest of your friends, your real circle of friends are likely to be just as charmingly artless as you, with the same goofy sense of humour, broadly the same ideals, and definitely the same slang and in-jokes — which can, in fact, seem smug to anyone outside the circle, another criticism often made of Whedon.
Now, it’s possible — even likely — that Joss intends all of his characters to be special, unique little snowflakes. If this is true, his having failed (in my opinion) to achieve this goal does not make the positive aspects of his failure suddenly go away. I get a sense of genuine warmth and mutual respect from most of the (protagonist) characters in most of the series he creates, and that is really hard to do. You really believe that these people would be friends, because they act in much the same way as each other. The few that don’t tend to be sidelined, or, y’know, given their own spin-off show to play around in all they want.
Incidentally, I think if you do disagree with this sweeping statement, Dollhouse is a good way to back your case up. It’s a tour-de-force of experimentation with characterisation.
4. The Characters Are Plain Unlikable
What’s Wrong With Whedon?
Almost everyone who’s watched a Whedon show has their own personal hate-figure. One person I know thinks that Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the good ship Firefly is the biggest douchebag in the solar system. And they have a good point. The man is, after all, a glorified interplanetary space-pimp, who is controlling, verbally abusive and, lest we forget, a smuggler and thief(ish). What an arsehole.
Several people have just straight-out stated that they hate all Whedon’s characters. This is linked in with the “all the characters are the same” complaint made by Yahtzee, but with the addition that “also, they’re smug wankers”. My own hate-figure is probably either Angel, he of the constant excuses to get topless, self-indulgent “woe-is-me” brooding and punchable, smirking face. Or possibly Faith, portrayer of the least convincing bad-ass since Kim Jong Il.
However, the particular person I latched on to could very easily have been, well, practically any of them (barring characters from Toy Story. I’m not a monster).
And I will demonstrate this:
Buffy is a sanctimonious, tantrum-throwing child in an adult’s body, River is clearly faking whatever previously-unrecorded wacky mental illness she claims to have with less enthusiasm and attention to detail than a thirteen-year-old on myspace, Reynolds is, as has been mentioned, a criminal and a bell-end, Kaylee spells her own name wrong and is dizzy as a bag of puppies in a washing-machine, Willow and Oz are self-obsessed, self-conscious and generally pretty self-ish — the former nearly causing the end of the world, of course — Xander is a grinning imbecile with a complete lack of sensitivity and horrible taste in shirts (also tantrums, again), Spike is an attempted rapist for crying out loud (I’m not buying that “had no soul” excuse because in this case it hurts my argument), Tara was a wet blanket who kept taking offence at the slightest bloody thing, Lorne would just be irritating beyond belief in real life, Dr. Horrible is a spoiled kid with access to freeze rays, the nerds are all evil bastards and the evil bastards are all nerds, and I could go on but actually I’m lying. Still, that’s a pretty impressive register of bile for generally the more popular characters in Joss’s work.
And I’ve met people, or am people, who would genuinely believe one or all of these character assessments. I think they all have a greater or lesser degree of justification in the shows themselves — they’re all pretty arguable.
Why Do I Love It?
It’s dramatic. I feel, as I think most people do, that it’s necessary that conflict be maintained in a good story, and if suddenly Buffy decides to fuck all her friends over and run away from her responsibility to, uh, save the world, or Reynolds decides to spit abuse at the woman he loves and sells-the-body-of, or Dr. Horrible wants to pretty much be himself, that’s all in aid of creating conflict. Which is all gravy.
Flawed characters are interesting. They do the stuff that no-one else would’ve thought of doing, stirring shit up and moving everything forwards. They’re not doing things for alienating or unlikely reasons, like for the sake of abstract ideals or varying concepts like good and evil, but because they like doing things.
Now, the counter to this is that flawed characters are only interesting if you can relate to them and their flaws. All I can really say to this is; I disagree.
So: What was the point of this post? If I was being forced to extrapolate from what I wrote here to make a wider point, I might say something like: my own experience shows that looking more closely at criticism of an artwork usually ends up revealing that most reactions to it are deeply subjective.
If I were to extrapolate from that, I would say that this is probably why criticism of art (here using the broadest possible definition of art that I can tolerate, i.e. anything that is defined primarily by its cultural value) of any kind provokes such heated debate, and why criticism of art that we love can cut deeper than criticism of even our politics or religious beliefs. By criticising an artwork, it’s nearly impossible to fail to criticise the people who appreciate that artwork, usually implicitly. It’s astonishing how quickly people rush to move from this implicit criticism to explicit, though, especially to shore up their own self-image and view of music.
It’s easy to turn these complaints on their heads, to claim them for yourself. It’s important to do it, too, because the most cutting of these insults have some truth to them, and by examining what you like about a show you can arrive at a surprising conclusion about yourself. Speaking as a fan of extreme metal, for instance, I never would’ve assumed that I was a sucker for over-played, campy, low-budget shenanigans, but by thinking about this issue I’ve started to reconsider what things I do, in fact, hold dear. There’s certainly a degree of camp involved in some sub-genres of metal, which shall remain nameless, and the low-budget sound of retro doom metal, new and old alike, appeals to me a great deal.
I might say all of that, but since I’m not being forced to extrapolate, you’ll probably never know.
Despite all the emphasis on camp, though, I get the feeling that it all comes down to suspension of disbelief — a misleading phrase, because it suggests that it’s a voluntary action. I believe in Whedon’s universes, so when something happens, I don’t say “Pfft, that wouldn’t happen in real life,” or “That characterisation was a little off.” I think “Wow, that was a strange thing to happen!” I assume that it’s ‘real’ in-Universe, so I’m able to enjoy it. Ultimately, you may as well ask why no vampire ever thought to shoot Buffy dead as ask why the characters all seem to have the same way of delivering their lines.
In the end, that’s all most of my points come down to. And since it’s pretty late on a Tuesday, which I have decided is post day, that’s as good a place as any to leave off.
Interesting Factoid of the
Week Indefinite Time Period Of My Own Choosing: Dosey-do, the country & western dance move, has its origins in the French “Dos-à-dos” (back to back). I’m not sure why veesy-vee isn’t used for standing face to face with your partner, perhaps it just sounded far too ridiculous for the ancient and noble art of pretending to be drunken ball-blistered farm-hands.
Sadistic Abductive: Dat Bass.