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Serenity. Very Long. Rant. Spoilers (marked).
I saw Serenity on Friday, and it was awesome! It's a little embarrassing to care so much for television characters, but during the first scene on the ship I really did feel like I was visiting with old friends that I had really missed. We saw it opening night, and the theatre was packed. It was packed with fans. Fans in costume, mind you, fans who had knitted their own Jane-hats. Fans who clapped and cheered all throughout the film. It was very cool!

The characters are fascinating (even though River is the only one to show any growth--and that growth was a little artificial, if you ask me--I'm convinced that Whedon is setting up the Trilogy to be all about Mal coming to terms with himself over the course of six hours or film) and the dialogue was excellent. The special effect are... blah blah blah fanboy fanboy.

To say something that you can't read on every fansite in the gorram 'verse (oh, sidenote, he laid the dialect on a bit thick, didn't he? I swear it wasn't as annoying in the TV show...) I want to laud Whedon for his genre subversion. Best line in the movie:
    Mr. I-Want-To-Be-Jubal-Early: I'm unarmed.
    Mal: Good. (Shoots him)
Brilliant! I'm so tired of the good guy playing by good guy rules and getting screwed over by everyone. He's the bad guy, everyone knows he's the bad guy, so just shoot him already! I've also always loved how Whedon plays with River's character--sometimes she's psychic and crazy, sometimes not, and it's hard to tell which is which. When she first meets Mal on the show, he's mean to her, and walks off and River says, "Bad" under her breath. At that point we don't really know much about Mal, and so it seems like the psychic girl is picking up on dark, hidden secrets. Then she adds, "In the Latin", and we realize that she's just smart and strange. "Am I... speaking to Miranda now?" the look she gives him is awesome.

Ok, you probably could read that on other fansites... I could have sworn that I had something intelligent to say about genre subversion in Serenity, but I have no idea what it is.

By the way, in multi-lingual societies, is it more common for the majority culture to swear in the minority language, or the other way around? The Saxon language (the minority / disempowered culture) gave us all of our great swear words, but did the Norman's use them? Is it more likely for an hispanic American to say "Shit! Fuck you!" or for a european American to say "ˇMierda! ˇJodete!"? I only ask because River and Simon don't seem asian, but their last name is Tam, and most of the swearing is Chinese.

Anyway, I really liked the movie. There was one thing that I really didn't like, however. It's a big spoiler, however, so I'll put a buffer or something here.










The Bad Death of Hoban Washburne
Wash's death really worsened the rest of the movie for me, for two reasons. One reason may be a legitimate, but it's a little too personal for me to tell. The other reason is an all-too-common artistic mistake. For the record, Shepard Book a) was a minor character in this movie, and b) died a good death. That didn't bother me so much, and I loved the fact that we'll never, ever know his Secret History. I think that's cool. Wash's death? Not cool.

Reason 1: I'm afraid of spiders.
    I'm more than a little afraid of spiders. I resisted the temptation to look up even once during the Agaroth scene in Harry Potter III, and I just told myself that the sound effects were of bacon. Anyway, I could well imagine a movie in which a character fell into a pit of snakes (bear with me, this will become relevant soon) and, depending on the movie, I might find it hilarious, or frightening, or deeply moving. If a character fell into a pit of spiders, however, then that's it--even if the artistic value of the movie was the same, replacing snakes with spiders would ruin it for me. This is a personal quirk, and not a valid criticism of the artist

    As it happens, I have very similar feelings about the Sudden Death of Lovers (SDL). It would probably be disingenuous to assume that my parents' divorce in 1984 is irrelevant to this discussion. At any rate, the SDL will really kill a movie for me. It messed up Hero, it messed up House of Flying Daggers, and Haruki Murakami scarred me for life with it. So when Wash dies, unexpectedly, it really hit a nerve, and made me too sad to enjoy the rest of the movie as much as I would have liked. I have all of this critical reasoning about why SDL is a bad idea, artistically, but I can't really tell whether it's specious. I mean, I'm sure I could concoct similar reasons about why true artists should never use spiders.

    Specious or not, here it is: Life is a balance of two forces: Beauty, and Truth. A good life maximizes both forces for itself and for those around it. Committed relationships are uniquely poised to allow for the expression of Beauty and Truth--one trusts one's partner(s) to such a great degree that one can be exquisitely truthful, perhaps more truthful even than one is to oneself. Simultaneously, the Beauty of love can also be intense, and ranges from limmerance to sex, with everything in between.

    So, yeah, that's Love, the ultimate expression of Truth and Beauty. It's also a major factor in every plan, dream and goal that the Lovers' have. Not to say that Zoe (to bring this rant back on topic) is bound to do whatever Wash wants, or vice versa, merely that when she dreams about leaving the ship one day, she dreams about leaving it with Wash. When she dreams of overthrowing the Alliance, she dreams of doing it with Wash by her side. &c.

    To use a state of being such as this in order to evoke an emotional response seems petty and blasphemous. Even worse, I believe that in choosing to use the SDL in art, artists are teaching people that true love is not possible, that it's all doomed to failure, where Wash getting shot by a Reaver harpoon can be read as a metaphor for "your husband will leave you for another women, eventually. Or else get hit by a car". That's depressing. I could go on and on. I often do (sorry, Katya). The repressive governments in 1984 and Brave New World both believed that one of their greatest fears was Love--that Love could inspire the populace to risk everything and revolt. In 1984 they forbid intimate interactions, while the Brave New World encouraged them to the point of triviality, all the while discouraging anyone from getting to close to any one person in particular. It is possible to suggest that in the real world today, the Man encourages SDL in art in the same way the he encourages artists to cast black men as muggers and rapists. Conspiracy or no, however, I claim that it's bad art. Specifically, I claim that is is negative art--art that, instead of affirming and embracing, instead of saying "Yes" to life, chooses to weaken humanity and to sink into despair.*

Reason 2: It's cheap and manipulative.
    I understand that the narrative demands a certain amount of sacrifice--if they faced such crazy odds and came out of it with only a few scratches, it would feel too easily earned. If Reavers are so easy to kill, what's all the fuss about? Killing off a main character (and Wash, being the most well adjusted and therefore the least interesting, is the obvious choice--the most minor of the main characters) is a tried-and-true method of increasing the tension and upping the stakes. I understand why it happened, from a technical point of view.

    From an artistic point of view, however, I don't think it's very honest. First of all, Wash didn't die in combat, he died in the ship. The Reaver's couldn't see him, weren't aiming for him, and really had no idea that they had even killed him--they shot their harpoon gun at the ship, happened to pierce the hull at just the right place, and *boom* no more Wash. In other words, his death says nothing about the skill or ferocity of the Reavers--in the same situation, I could have killed Wash myself. Anyone with a harpoon gun, firing blindly at the ship could have killed him. I claim that his death was, essentially, an Act of God. He might just as easily have slipped while entering the blast door, and cracked his head open.

    What is gained by the death of Wash? It is not heroic, it is not self-sacrificial or inspiring. It does not further the plot. It provides no real motivation (I think that Zoe would have fought just as hard with Wash by her side) for anyone. What does it add? Unearned pathos. It makes you feel all sad, but it doesn't mean anything.

    Is it possible to have a main character die, but still have good art? Of course it is. I'd be tempted not to use Wash, Inara, Mal or Zoe for the reasons expressed in point one, but that's a personal preference. There are two ways to pull this off:

    1. Don't make the character's death meaningless. Art should inspire, and martyrdom is very inspirational. At the very least Wash could have died while opening a door, or distracting a Reaver, or something. In fact, I'd go even further. There was a very Cat Who Walks Through Walls moment where Zoe got sliced, Simon got shot, and Kaylee got stuck with poison darts. For a second, I really though that maybe Whedon was going to kill everyone. That is valid. Although I'm not sure that an easily faked video of dubious provenance about ghastly experiments that happened fifteen years ago and are really pretty easy to spin (the Alliance is less culpable on Miranda than our government was in Abu Gharib, and look how little those photos have hurt it) would really create the stir that the movie seemed to imply, I think that if the stakes were truly high enough then supreme sacrifice would have been ennobling. Mr. I-Want-To-Be-Jubal-Early asks Mal if he's willing to die for the video, and he says that he is, with total conviction. His crew, likewise, are entirely willing to die for him. Whedon could really show us how strongly they believed simply by killing them all--now that's an ending! I'm sure it would have its problems, too... pretty depressing, if nothing else. Also, the sequel would be... very interesting.

    2. If you have to deal with meaningless death, then you should really deal with it. I think it's reasonable to insist that a bad death should get most of a movie devoted to coming to terms with it--that's why I like Banana Yoshimoto so very much. Most of her stories take place just after tragedy, and are about how people put their lives back together. Another fine example of this is Mirrormask, which I also saw and loved this weekend. It deals with the Sudden Death of Lovers, Bad Death, and, ironically, Spiders. The mother is rushed off to the hospital with no warning, right at the very start of the film, and it is understood that she might die there. The rest of the movie follows--the mother's jeopardy provides the plot, the motivation, and also the pathos. Neil Gaiman can write like nobody's business.

    I was upset about Wash. It made it hard to enjoy the shot of River with axen in silhouette at the end, which pissed me off, because I really wanted to enjoy that. Instead of thinking, "Shit, how cool! OMG Rivver!!!11ONEone1" I just thought, "So, at any moment she could have saved everyone... kinda lame... oh, wait, she couldn't have saved the only person who died, because he got killed in a boarding accident before we even saw any Reavers."




*Here's what Nietzsche says. Do you think that Joss Whedon pulls this off?
    The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and, quite especially, by our modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from proving anything about the pessimism of the Hellenes, in Schopenhauer's sense, that it may, on the contrary, be considered its decisive repudiation and counter-instance. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types--that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge--Aristotle understood it that way--but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity--that joy which included even joy in destroying.
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