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December 30 2005

City Paper declares 'Serenity' one of 'the year's sharpest political movies.' Sam Adams praises the BDM for not serving up its message "on a silver nitrate platter" like so much of the year's overtly "important" Oscar bait.

Adams writes:

"Joss Whedon called it 'political but not partisan,' but Buffy-watchers know how to read between the lines. A future in which a well-meaning conglomerate government has been seized by fundamentalist zealots who want to sedate their own populace into comatose complacency? Gee, what could that be about?

"Mal Reynolds, Nathan Fillion's disillusioned ex-revolutionary, was the soul of every whipped-dog leftist crushed by the country's tumble into trembling credulity and made-for-TV factionalism, his journey back from the darkness a reminder that secularists need faith, too.

"Mal's face-off with Chewitel Ejiofor's Rovian operative housed the year's most chilling exchange: When a disgusted Mal spits, 'I don't murder children,' the operative coolly responds, 'I do—when I have to.' In that instant, the moral fabric of the universe warps like Harry Potter's guts on a Floo-powder jaunt, and the audience comes face to face with a fanatical ideologue who will betray every one of his principles for a shot at victory. Next to him, Joe McCarthy looks like Marvin the Martian."

Wow, what a great piece. Beautifully written, and not just good because of the Serenity praise. He's also spot on about the overrated Capote and Good Night and Good Luck, and he perfectly sums up what made Grizzly Man and The Squid And The Whale so good. Also, finally some love for Palindromes, the most underrated film of the year. Great find HudsonVC.
There's no need for a spoiler tag anymore so I've removed it.
If I may, before the deluge, I'm a conservative Catholic who finds the overriding message of Serenity to be profound and gorgeously correct. So let's not go crazy, shall we?

And, I love, just love this film and have been pushing it to everyone I know, and even them some.

Joss's message is, to me, about human hubris, and the always unexpected and unanticaped results.

And that the Operative talks in terms of pride and perfection is so...perfect.
Is there a bit of a left leaning bent to that paragraph, or is it just me? Not that I mind of course.
For the sake of debate, let's toss Mr. Whedon's own comments on the fire:

"People are always like, 'They're fighting an evil empire!' And I'm like, 'Well, it's not really an evil empire.' The trick was always to create something that was complex enough that you could bring some debate to it -- that it wasn't black-and-white... It was messier than that, and the messiest thing is that the government is basically benign. It's the most advanced culturally….

"Mal is somebody that I knew, as I created him, I would not get along with. I don't think we have the same politics. But that's sort of the point. I mean, if the movie's about anything, it's about the right to be wrong. It's about the messiness of people. And if you try to eradicate that, you eradicate them....

"I would say about the movie that it is very political, but it's not partisan. And I think the curse, right now, of the politics of our nation is that a line has been drawn down the middle of our country -- and that's not actually how the human mind works... The political statement that 'Serenity' makes is very blatant -- but it can be embraced by someone who's extremely conservative or someone who's extremely liberal. That's not the point. The point is: It's a personal statement.

"What 'Serenity' and 'Firefly' were both about is how politics affect people personally. And the personal politics are the only politics that really interest me. I'm not going to make this big, didactic polemic -- I'm just going to say, 'When there are shifts in a planet, those tiny little guys are the ones who are affected. So let's hang out with them -- not the Federation heads or the Jedi Council.'

"And with the show, the idea was to have as many points of view as possible. The reason I made the Alliance a generally benign, enlightened society was so that I could engage these people in a debate about it.

"Now, in the film, obviously, there's more chasing and guns than debating.... You know, people don't love a great debate flick.... But if you let the points of view exist, then it does the work for you. In the show, that was always the idea: Nine different people see the same thing and have nine different reactions to it, based on who they are and where they've been. And that's what made for the drama. And, uh, most of the comedy."
This is one of the beauties of Joss' writing, that both liberals and conservatives can identify with the message of individual freedom and the wrong headedness of governments who try to legislate morality. It is 'political but not partisan', and I think everyone who treaures their personal rights (which, wouldn't that be everyone?) and objects to an all powerful State, particularly when it becomes a huge Military Industrial complex, trying to circumvent those rights, can agree with the underlying message. There is a universality to 'Serenity' which speaks to every human heart and is all the more valuable because it doesn't belong to one political party.
Well said, Embers.

Of these movies, the only other one I've actually seen is Kung Fu Hustle, but at least that gives me a check: This gentlemen doesn't see movies the same way I see them at all. It seems as if he avoids the blatantly political movies, and then reads his own preferred political messages into less overtly political movies. I don't see the point, but to each their own.
If anything Mal is closer to libertarian than to liberal or conservative, I would think.
I agree, Chris Bridges. My guess is that Mal is a bit more Tim flavored and less Joss flavored.
Hey folks. Long-time reader, first-time poster. Big fan. As a person who is quite conservative on a number of issues, I have always found myself drawn to Firefly and Serenity because Joss, unlike those writers who simply depict Freedom vs. Fascism, is willing to explore the middle ground of Personal Responsibility. It is something the Alliance infringes upon as well as lacks in their creation of the reavers; it is also something Zoe takes up with Mal after leaving the man on Lilac to be killed by reavers. It seems to be the balance between the right thing and the desirable thing, which is why watching a character walk that line is so dramatic and interesting. Anyway, that's my 2 cents.
Yay for my hometown paper!
Ah, yes, the political debate of Serenity. I'm firmly in the embers school of thinking with regard to how Serenity can be viewed. Just taking a look at past topics that turned up here on the black give more than enough evidence that Serenity (and Firefly like it) can be viewed and interpreted from many different systems of political belief and that's the beauty of it, to be sure. It includes people, it's for everyone, and that's a great thing.

Now as far as the linked article goes, I can go along with most of what the writer is saying. In spirit, at least. I'm a pretty left-leaning person myself, so I find no fault in the words of the writer, although I'd say some of the things he hints at are too literal, too grounded in todays politics. I'd like to think that Serenity transcends actuality and actually has something universal and timeless to say about human nature and the way that politics affect people.

One point he makes does hit home though: his journey back from the darkness a reminder that secularists need faith, too. That's very much what Serenity is about for me. I'm an atheïst, a materialistic person (in the philosophical sense, not the current 'money and possesions rule everything'-sense) and a scientist. Things some people equate with a lack of belief in anything. But that is patently untrue, and when Book tells Mal to just believe, for the sake of believing in something I couldn't help but feel that that was so very, very true. This theme might have been quite obvious in the movie (which might be why I don't see many people mentioning it - because they assume everyone went away with at least that), but to me, it's still very powerfull.

Anyway, this is getting pretty long so I'd better stop typing. I was just glad to see someone outside of the fandom mention this.
Since I'm a writer interested in many of the same topics, and with probably fairly similar left-leaning politics to the writer I was, naturally, both bored and annoyed by the piece! (I know it doesn't realy make sense, but I quit right at the "Kung Fu Hustle" discussion anwya.)

On the one hand, it's absolutely true that often genre films often are freer to make political statements because the fantastical context provide a bit of cover from nervous studio heads and (many) media critics and politically doctrinaire/unimaginative killjoys of all political stripes. "Serenity" is a very good example but, as noted above, seeing it as a literal "Animal Farm" style allegory is a mistake. A more direct example might be my personal all time favorite SF movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" which is a very strong critique of the rightwingers of its day, but in such a sweet and disarming context, I've never a peep of complaint. (Wonder if there was any at the time. Probably not. All people saw was a robot and a space man, no politics there!)

On the other hand, there's also a place for overtly political films and the author's sniping at "Good Night" and "Syriana" (haven't seen "Capote" yet, so I won't comment on it) strikes me as the usual city weekly contrarian trying to score points by being brilliantly counter to what everyone else said.

I love Pauline Kael, but boy, did she pave the way for a lot of annoying alternative weekly film critics. ;)

[ edited by bobster on 2005-12-31 05:14 ]
A couple of Joss quotes about Buffy are also appropriate for Serenity.

"Bring your own subtext."

And, although I can't remember the specifics (I do need to find this again), there's the bit that if he'd created "Buffy the Lesbian Separatist", he would have gotten 10 minutes on public radio, and that would have been the end of it.

I do appreciate the lack of polemics in most of Joss's work.
Not NPR, but "Buffy, the Lesbian Seperatist" has Pacifica written all over it! Get me and Miss Kitty's Mom's to the pitch-meeting!

[ edited by bobster on 2005-12-31 05:18 ]
I haven't seen "Capote" either, but from what I know about Truman Capote, it would be very difficult to make a movie about him that wasn't heavy-handed. He was charming, witty, flamboyant, brilliant, and loved to be the center of attention. He was also a bad boy, and loved to stir up trouble even when it meant alienating his closest friends and his strongest supporters. Nobody was ever neutral about Truman Capote when he was alive, and it would certainly tarnish the memory of the man if we were neutral about him now.

Whatever we might say about him as a person, his books were brilliant. I think maybe it's time to reread "The Grass Harp" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Yes, "In Cold Blood", too.
My politics are (as far as I can tell) very close to Joss's own but though the best art can be political, it isn't Politics. I can't stand the politics of John Wayne or Chuck Heston (in his later years) but I still like some of their movies. (Only Mel Gibson is beyond the pale for me.)

Mal strikes me as a Libertarian (which I am not) but I have no trouble identifying with him as a human being on the wrong side of History trying to keep himself afloat. One way or another, I suspect that describes most of us.
Sorry I posted twice-still getting the hang of this newfangled computer stuff.

[ edited by josscats on 2005-12-31 06:59 ]
there's also a place for overtly political films

I would have to agree with that. I've seen Good Night and Good Luck, and, yes, it was a little heavy handed, but I thought overall it was a good film. My appreciation may have something to do with the fact that I actually have memories of the McCarthy period, even though I was quite young, and I can remember Murrow on TV. The film certainly has a point of view -- but maybe it was too easy. I mean, who is going to make a film praising McCarthy? Perhaps that is the real problem. But, just as it is nice to go see Serenity with a bunch of like-minded fans, it is sometimes nice to go to an overtly political film and feel as though other people in the audience are similarly inclined politically.

And, bobster, The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my all-time favorite films, as well. I can still remember the first time I saw it on TV -- it may have been the first time it was shown on TV -- not sure. Even I, as a small child of about 7, understood the more overt political references -- the silliness of people who jumped to conclusions about who other people were (the Frances Bavier character not only looked like one of my relatives but acted like her, as well), the anti-militaristic stance, and the use of prominently-placed African American extras and Abe Lincoln's memorial to comment in a subtle way on racism. And when "Mr. Carpenter" was taken away by the "government people" -- well, I think anyone at the time would understand the fear of how someone could be unjustly imprisoned for offending someone in the government. Although I've read some articles on the film since, and I remember being scared to death by the "robot," I don't think anybody at the time old enough to enjoy such films could watch it and not understand its allusions.

As far as Serenity's politics go, I did not see the film as particularly partisan, and I, too, thought the writer of this piece was reading a bit much into it. I think we can all relate to abuses of power, and we are raised in a culture that likes to cheer for the underdogs. Take just those two aspects together, and add good storytelling and humor, and you have much of what makes Serenity a rousing good film, enjoyable by people across party lines.
" I think we can all relate to abuses of power, and we are raised in a culture that likes to cheer for the underdogs. Take just those two aspects together, and add good storytelling and humor, and you have much of what makes Serenity a rousing good film, enjoyable by people across party lines."

Yep, palehorse, you nailed it! It all boils down to "fighting the man" and "rising above"...oh and "never give up" know your basics. Of course Serenity was way more than these basic cliches, butI honestly I think any political afiliation can personally relate with their own beliefs. Its a win-win situation for everyone.

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