Friday, March 6, 2009


(I wrote this first part shortly after watching Serenity at the cinema.)

Finally got around to seeing Serenity. As seems the general consensus, enjoyed it lots. But reading an essay on culture wars at the box office which noted that:
a Christian Film and Television Commission study of the box-office receipts of the top 250 movies over the last three years found that films expressing a strong traditional moral message, whatever their ratings, earned four to seven times as much as movies pushing a left-wing cultural agenda
gave another angle on the cleverness of the film.

In Serenity, the enemy is the Alliance Parliament and their Operative who wants a world without sin. If you are on the cultural left, they are NaziBushHitlerReligiousFundamentalists. If you are on the cultural right, they are SocialEngineeringBigStateAuthoritarianCentralControllers. Which is to say, there are enough points for each point of view to pick up on without any that particularly exclude either. So the Boo!-factor works for both sides of the cultural divide.

The heroes are the crew of Serenity led by Captain Mal. If you are on the cultural left, they are EthnicallyGenderVariedMarginalfolk, if on the cultural right, they are StrugglingCanDoEntrepeneurialDealMakersWithGuns. Same deal: something for either side to pick up on, nothing to make them feel culturally excluded. So the Hurrah!-factor works for both sides too.

Which makes Joss Whedon a lot cleverer than Sir Ridley Scott:
Libertas’s Murty says that a publicist for Ridley Scott’s expensive 2005 flop about the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven, asked her and her filmmaker husband, Jason Apuzzo, for advice on marketing the film to conservatives and Christians. Invited to a press screening along with representatives of various Christian groups, the two watched in disbelief as the movie opened with a Catholic priest beheading a woman and stealing her rosary—and went on in that vein, while also presenting the Muslims as noble and wise. “Every single person directly associated with the Church in the movie is a murderer or a liar. They really thought this would appeal to Christians,” Murty recounts. “Some of these people live in this completely sealed world in West Hollywood and didn’t register how offensive the movie would be.”
Religion in Serenity is present as a matter of personal faith, but is neither endorsed nor sneered at.
Kingdom of Heaven (note, I am commenting on the version released in Oz cinemas) had bigger problems than its Boo!Hiss! approach to orthodox Christianity (the Hospitaller Brother is portrayed sympathetically, but his good nature is linked to not being orthodox), but it was symptomatic. Kingdom simply wasn’t very clever, mainly because it was all about a set of tired orthodoxies that most folk don’t agree with (the film’s pretensions to elevating heroic dissent was the funniest thing about it). The one striking observation in the film – the Prophet tells people to submit, Christ asks them to choose – passes without any development. But sparkling film-making requires a level of self-awareness Kingdom patently lacked.

Serenity has the normal playing with genres one expects from Joss Whedon. The film and the series are a Western-in-Space, with all the themes of frontier life and dangers and all the mixed-tech elements of SciFi, right down to the CommunicationGeek. There is even in the before-the-events-history an analogue for the Civil War, with Captain Mal being an officer on the losing side (clearly the Confederacy without embarrassing slaves). I am not surprised that Orson Scott Card liked the film so much, since the vision of the Solar System is akin to the vision of America in the Alvin Maker series. Akin not only in frontier diversity, but also in a vision of morality as being personal, coming from character, not from designated social roles.

Serenity does, however, clearly take sides in the culture wars – encapsulated in the pivotal moment when Mal says of the Alliance’s aim to remake people I don’t hold with that. That is precisely the divide between the radical Enlightenment (the belief that human nature is malleable and the sinless society can be created by remaking humans into sinless beings) and the sceptical Enlightenment (human nature is how it is and we should use reason to make the best we can with that). The central crime the film is about is a crime precisely of such remaking: the ambition that has woven a brutal path through the history of the last two centuries from the slaughter of the Vendee to Pol Pot’s Year Zero and all the megacides in between.

But that is also clever film-making, since it makes the Alliance Parliament’s ambitions an assault on the core of being human. That such an aim justifies utter unscrupulousness (because the goal is so wonderful and noble that any means are justified), utter arrogance (because the anointed just know how things should be while any resistance just proves how benighted and inadequate such folk are) and complete control (since otherwise how is one going to be able to remake folk who, as inferior versions who fail to realise their own inferiority, obviously shouldn't get a say) while creating utter disaster has lots of history behind it and creates a coherent moral structure for the plot, with all those themes working out and driving the story.

This is, in terms of box-office numbers, the way to come down on that issue. Telling folk they are an inadequate lot who need to be replaced by a (forcibly) adjusted model of the human is likely to meet a certain buyer resistance. Portraying such ambitions as arrogant, tyrannical and disastrous is much more congenial: and entirely historically sound. The film about the future is much better anchored in human history than the film about the past.

And since self-awareness about such matters is not a noted feature of the cultural left, they can keep identifying with the Embattled Heroic Resisters of Oppression and not notice what the film is saying.

Of course, if the film was boringly didactic, none of this would matter much. But the characters are engagingly flawed, the dialogue sparkles along, and the action sequences are terrific (apart from some everything stops for intense emotion moments). The intelligent moral core of the film supports, rather than gets in the way of, character, dialogue and plot. It fits together very nicely. Great film.

(I later wrote this in response to a comment demurring about my political take on the movie.)

The issue is not governments can behave poorly. That is a universal that has no ideological aspect to it.

It is a deeper claim that people can be changed so that, for example, collective ownership can be made to work really effectively. It's a divide that runs through the political left rather than between broad left and broad right (particularly given that not everyone on the political left is of the cultural left).

The difference is very clear in comparing the speeches of the American Revolutionaries with those of the French Revolutionaries. Even the most gung-ho American, such as Patrick Henry, still have at the core the idea that power is always dangerous and has to be contained because people are as people are.

Reading folk such as Robespierre or St Just, there is this notion that a Reign of Virtue can be created, where the inner nobility of folk shines through (just as soon as we've got rid of the tainted, evil folk).

(Eventually, I borrowed, then bought, the DVD, and had lots of fun with the special features.)

Joss Whedon's comment in one of the commentary bits on the DVD that the film explores
where the Utopian vision stops because whenever you create some kind of Utopia you find something ugly working underneath it being basically what this movie is about
I found distinctly cheering, since it rather supports my take on the film.

Whedon may be a conventional US liberal in his personal politics, but he is an emotionally honest writer. The actions have consequences, that the dark in the human soul is real, are two guiding principles of his art. (Hence his anti-utopianism). So an extremely talented, emotionally honest, actions-have-consequences, people-have-a-dark-side, anti-utopian liberal clearly steeped in Western culture is going to produce stuff that seems a bit, well, conservative and/or libertarian, or at least resonate to folk of such views. In Serenity he has created one of the great Science Fiction films.

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