Joss Whedon Makes a Living

Writing in The New York Times, Dave Itzkoff profiles the geeky, grumpy writer-director Joss Whedon, who’s at the helm of the upcoming sure-to-be blockbuster The Avengers:

As he recently recited a list of familiar if keenly felt criticisms about his industry, Mr. Whedon, a creator of fantasy television series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” said: “Nobody’s interested in making a living. They only want to make a fortune. Where are the prestige pics? Where are the ’70s, where are people taking chances?”

Here in his blossoming rant, Mr. Whedon, 47, a rangy man with short brown hair and a copper-colored beard flecked with white, had to smile at himself. He was delivering the tirade “while I’m making a giant, tentpole, franchise, action, summer movie.”

With mock defensiveness, he added, “That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just gives me layers.”

I imagine most, perhaps all of the behind-the-scenes information Itzkoff gives us has been reported elsewhere, but I don’t keep up with geek news as much as I would like, so I can’t say for sure.  I was sorry to read that Whedon felt his show Dollhouse was “eviscerated.”  I really loved it, and I’m not just saying that because the show’s stunning star Eliza Dushku vouchsafed to wish me a happy b-day on Twitter.

Whedon’s thematic character-driven storytelling style lends itself very well to television.  Fans of his shows will know how he takes his bloody time developing his characters and revealing their tics, traits, and motivations.  I get the sense that he’s thinking several seasons ahead when inserting seemingly minor details in the present moment.  It’s a shame that a couple of his shows, Firefly and Dollhouse, were so short lived.  Oddly, though, I’m somewhat thankful, as the prematurely cancelled shows have a special quality to them.  Much is left unsaid or ambiguously foreshadowed, which gives the “uncompleted” works a uniquely lasting air of the unknown and the unknowable.

I gather from his work that Whedon understands and appreciates how art expresses truth–not by nicely corresponding to “reality” or the writer’s pet theories about it, but by disclosing a new and unique truth that is inseparable and even indistinguishable from the work of art itself.  What Buffy says about vocation or what Angel says about redemption cannot be reformatted into a set of non-fictional statements.  To his credit, Whedon doesn’t attempt such  abstraction himself, nor does he write in a way that allows the audience to reduce his work to a message or moral.  For all his surprise twists in the plotting of his stories, he refrains from easy revelations about his ideas.

Take Dollhouse, a series that inquires into the place of personal identity.  Whedon doesn’t provide an answer.  He tells his story, suggests possibilities based on what happens, and leaves the philosophical problem-solving to us, if we’re so inclined.  At the conclusion of Dollhouse, for example–spoiler alert!–Paul Ballard is unceremoniously shot and killed, but because his mind was wiped earlier in the season, Echo is able to give his recorded “consciousness” new life inside of her.  So is Ballard dead or not?  Who is the real Ballard–the dead body on the street or the copied “person” downloaded into Echo?  Whedon can’t answer this, and bless him, he doesn’t try to do so; and because he’s true to his artistic method, the ending to the show is happy, sad, and unsettlingly ambiguous.  Not unlike real life.

So cheers to Joss Whedon for taking chances and for making a living. Film and television are better because of him.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. I enjoyed “Dollhouse” well enough, but as stunning as she is I just don’t think poor Eliza Dushku has the acting chops to carry a series. Certainly not one that requires its lead to morph believably from one character to the next from one week to another. Thankfully, the remainder of the cast was uniformly excellent, which went a long way. I also found it a bit short on Whedon’s trademark wit.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I thought she carried the show well enough, but you’re right, she’s not on the same level as Olivia Williams, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, or Enver Gjokaj, and some of her dolls were better performed than others. Still, she’s a solid actress in my book. And I’m not just saying that.

    • Tod Kelly says:

      1. I might disagree with you somewhat on whether or not Eliza herself is enough to make me watch a show.

      2. This may well have everything to do with our different positions on the gay-stright continuum.

      3. I am not proud to admit this.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    “Oddly, though, I’m somewhat thankful, as the prematurely cancelled shows have a special quality to them. ”

    Indeed, imagine if instead of complaining that Firefly hadn’t had a second season, we were all complaining that it shouldn’t have had a fifth because it totally ruined the dramatic tension when Mal joined the Alliance.