A few fun facts about Joss Whedon

While on holiday I read Amy Pascale’s really very good biography, Joss Whedon: Geek King on the Universe, published in 2014. It’s a bit rose-tinted, of course, but well-researched and well-written. An easy and informative read. Here are a few of the things I learned that I did not know before:

  • Whedon gave copies of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to his writers on Buffy.
  • When preparing Serenity (the motion picture), Whedon was advised by his mentor (Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger) to re-watch The Furies (Mann, 1950) and Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954).
  • The name of Whedon’s production company, ‘Mutant Enemy’, comes from the lyrics of the Yes song ‘And You and I’, which appears on their 1972 album Close to the Edge.
  • On the set of the Avengers, Whedon drank copious amounts of a mixture of distilled water, lemon juice, agave and cayenne pepper.*

*Intrigued, I decided to try this myself. However, until writing this blog just now, agave had become guava in my head, and therefore in my drink too. I am pleased to report that this is a successful variation.

A comprehensively adequate interpretive account of a given work of art would take in, synoptically, its phenomenal effects (tone, style, theme, formal organization), locate it in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), register the responses of readers, describe the sociocultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal elements, affective elements, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.

Joseph Carroll. Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice. SUNY Press: 2011.

Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 4 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I’m going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage’s 4’33” as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that ‘always renewed itself’. I don’t know if he’s right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

I can’t remember now if I found out after this or before it about a campaign to get 4’33” to Christmas number one in the UK. In a nod to ‘Killing in the Name’ having achieved the same feat last Christmas, in our era of musical downloading, the campaign is entitled ‘Cage Against the Machine’.

It is interesting to think about what it means for a piece originally experienced by a crowd gathered in the same room as the musicians to become a downloadable audio file, and what it would mean for that audio file to be number one at Christmas.

A huge amount of the music that we listen to is created and recorded in the knowledge and with the intention that it will be heard by individuals, or small groups thereof, on their radios, or stereos, or personal stereos (to use that slightly antiquated term), at home, at work, or on the move. The amount of attention given to and respect afforded the music will vary, but the fact will remain that it is a recording to be switched on and off at times convenient to the listener, and that it is received in spaces which do not have the sole purpose of housing musical performances. In this sense, even though recorded music is a record of a performance, it is more like a book – a personal object to be picked up and put down at will – than a theatrical performance – which one must attend and which has a set performance time and duration, and which cannot be stopped at will by any individual audience member.

It is a less unproblematic transition if the recording is of a piece of music originally written to be performed to a gathered and present audience. 4’33” highlights this troubled transition to an unusual degree. All music written before the age of mechanical reproduction was not written to be reproduced outside of the occasion of the original creation of the sounds we hear, so all the music composed by, let’s say, Vivaldi, undergoes a change when it is made available to us via the medium of the compact disc recording. However, when I listen to Vivaldi, I am not particularly troubled by this fact. What’s more, the recordings I have were performed to be recorded, much like contemporary popular music. That was the purpose of the performance, even if the piece was not originally composed with such a possibility in mind. We are not ‘overhearing’ a performance to a gathered audience (although of course there are recordings which fall into that category).

It is strange to put it in these terms (conceptual art will often lead us to strange formulations of our experience of less experimental material), but when I hear Vivaldi, or Springsteen, then the sound of strings on the one hand or an electric guitar on the other provides the evidence, if you like, that such instruments were present at the recording, and created the sounds that I hear. I was not present at the event, but its traces are preserved to some extent (even if I cannot be sure in some cases whether what I am hearing is a synthesised equivalent, or whether all the elements I am hearing were created simultaneously – sometimes, as when Marvin Gaye double tracks his own voice, to wonderful effect, on What’s Going On – I can be sure they were not).

But with 4’33″… the silence means that the instruments are not proving their presence in the same way. (Again, a strange formulation, though it does point towards the pleasure of anticipation when we know that there is a saxophone in the E Street line-up but haven’t heard it yet on this or that track, or that of surprise when an instrument we did not know would be contributing to this particular piece makes itself heard.) Indeed, one could create four minutes thirty three seconds of silence with no instruments whatsoever. In a performance space, the presence of a latent piano, or full orchestra, is an important part of the experience. What about during the production or reception of four minutes thirty three seconds of silence on a CD, or a digital audio file? (It is worth noting parenthetically that 4’33” consists of three movements, and some cd and digital versions honour these divisions, but the Christmas number one candidate is a single track.) (I hope it is unnecessary for me to explicitly state that I am not attempting to dismiss Cage’s work with one of the most common arguments levelled against ‘modern art’ – ‘I could do that myself’ – even if in this case it is partly true.)

The Christmas campaign is valuable in that it can help to remind us that not every artistic experience can be bought and taken home without destroying the original meaning of that experience. It is a challenge to the ‘platform neutrality’ of the contemporary consumer.

It is also something more. When I pay good money to play on a jukebox songs that I have on cd at home, I am partly paying for the pleasure of making other people listen to what I want them to listen to. ‘Cage Against the Machine’ and last year’s campaign represent this logic writ large. Those who download this piece will not just (and perhaps not chiefly) be buying the track itself and the experience it offers. They are, of course, casting a vote for what they want everyone who is going to listen to the Christmas number one on radio or television to hear (and also for what they don’t want everyone to hear: The X-Factor is the object being protested against by some who support the campaign).

This does not quite take us full circle, but it does reinscribe the situated social occasion of listening so crucial to the original meaning of 4’33”. We may not have the latent instruments in the same room as us, but on Christmas Day, the track will exist not just as an audio file for us to treat as we will, but as a broadcasting event, part of the meaning of which is the fact that we are all listening together.

I love that moment near the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

…where the newly-triumphant, newly-tragic Dr. Horrible (having, through the same act, gained membership to the Evil League of Evil and killed the woman he loved) strides through a bar, receiving as he does kudos from various villainous patrons.

Dr Horrible

The bar is full of movement, but not the movement of conviviality or of joy. Instead, the pumping, almost hydraulic, up-and-down movement of the patrons – which, in the case of the cowboy trio with their stetsons and handlebar moustaches, tips over into the grotesque – has an edge of franticness, and of insistent hedonism that has left behind pleasure. The artificial lights, the looping lo-fi music, and the alcoholic drinks, abundantly visible, and aggressively brandished by the cowboys, complete the impression of seediness.

If I ever had the opportunity to put just one question to Joss Whedon, I would be tempted to ask him whether, when he staged this scene, he had in mind the cinema of Max Ophuls, and more particularly, the story of ‘The Mask’, the first part of the ‘triptych’ presented in Ophuls’s French film Le Plaisir (1952). My highlighting of insistent up-and-down movement above derives from a memory of reading a similar feature being pointed out in the presentation of a dance hall in Ophuls’s film. I have quickly checked Wood’s Personal Views, plus this online piece by Wood and this one by Perkins, but I cannot find the passage I had in mind (perhaps it came from Pye’s article in MOVIE, not available online).

Movement does not permeate Whedon’s output to the same extent that it does Ophuls’s, but there are passages of movement that offer thrilling moments in Whedon’s television texts. A small example (from ‘Consequences’): Angel walking, in a single sustained travelling shot, out of his mansion and away from a captured and chained-up Faith, whom he is trying to steer away from the darkness, to Buffy who, to our surprise, has been waiting outside for him to emerge and report. A show-offy example: the elaborate, exhilarating and often-hilarious long take at the beginning of ‘Anne’, Buffy‘s season 3 opener. And finally, my favourite example (and probably the subject of a future blog post): the ‘overture’ to ‘Once More, With Feeling’, where Buffy’s depressed stasis is magnified via a contrast with the going-on-ness of the world around her, which is conveyed, of course, by the movements of her fellow characters, and the camera’s movements which capture them.

Robin Wood (23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009)

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 31 December 2009 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

If one wished to show a person outside the academy how films can be discussed and attended to intelligently, in a manner that goes beyond the swapping of prejudices in conversation, and the journalistic practice of summarizing a film’s plot and awarding a number of stars between nought and some other number, but that does not alienate a non-academic audience through its style, theoretical apparatus and/or unstated assumptions, then one would do well to recommend any of the numerous books written by Robin Wood, a film critic who participated in the creation of film studies as an academic discipline and critically chronicled its evolution, who died earlier this month.

It was heartening to witness the flurry of internet testimonials that swiftly followed the announcement of Wood’s passing. Many of those writing had known Wood personally, or at least encountered him once or twice. But even among those who had not, there was often an impulse to share ‘what Robin Wood had meant to them’ – when they had first encountered his writing and how it had shaped their approach or style, or even encouraged them to take up film studies as an academic pursuit. This is entirely appropriate, since there are few writers – and still fewer academic writers – who give so much of themselves, in a particular way, on the page. To read (and re-read) Robin Wood is to learn about Robin Wood’s life, to be invited to accompany him on his never-ending quest to critically examine (and re-examine) not only a set of films or a culture, but himself – all these tasks being demonstrated, in the process, to be inseparable from one another.

My initial decision to study film had nothing to do with Robin Wood. The directions that my study has taken, though, have been deeply influenced by his work. The University of Warwick is a good place to become steeped in Wood lore. Its Department of Film and Television Studies maintains a commitment to close textual analysis, one of the key features of Wood’s work. Indeed, Wood taught in the department in the 1970s, alongside several members of staff who still work there today (and with whom I have often taken the opportunity to discuss him). One of the major turning points in Wood’s intellectual life was the relationship that he formed with Warwick’s second postgraduate film student, Andrew Britton. Take a trip up to the third floor of Warwick’s library, and you will find a copy of the first issue of the film journal Framework, founded at Warwick by its postgraduate film students (including Britton), which features an interview with Robin Wood about teaching at Warwick, and includes a picture of a long-haired, bearded Wood holding forth at the bottom of a lecture hall. As far as I can tell it is room H0.51. I would like to think that it is, as this is the room where, around thirty years later, I delivered Hollywood Cinema lectures to second year undergraduates – including on my reading list several pieces by Wood (both his accounts of Vertigo, and his ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur’ piece, which contains brilliant readings of Shadow of a Doubt and It’s a Wonderful Life). My PhD thesis used a quote from Wood’s bookPersonal Views as its title and its structuring idea (and the presence of Wood in the account as a whole goes far beyond the places where he is cited). That quote, which compares the camerawork of Max Ophuls to that of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, is also the name of this blog: ‘Between Sympathy and Detachment’.

Wood writes with an enviable fluidity. His passion and vigour is unmissable, but my feeling is that his acuity – the perceptiveness with which he crystallizes, without fuss or fanfare, the crux of a movie’s operations – only really comes to light when one turns to study and write about the films Wood has already discussed. Take this passage from Wood’s (first) discussion of Vertigo:

There follows about a quarter of an hour without dialogue, showing us the growth of Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine. She herself is introduced by a camera movement different from any that has preceded it, that sets a new mood, maintained throughout the ensuing sequences up to Scottie’s next meeting with Midge.

Wood moves between details (a passage without dialogue, a distinctive camera movement) and effects (showing the growth of obsession, setting a mood) with seeming effortlessness and utter modesty, quietly tying his far-reaching account of and argument about the movie to observable textual features, convincing the reader and taking them along with him, whilst never breaking his stride. Along with V F Perkins and Gilberto Perez, Wood is one of the writers whose style I aspire to.

Perhaps another reason why even those who have not met him feel close to Wood – beyond his weaving of his personal life into his critical accounts, I mean – is his ‘conversational’ style. By this I do not mean ‘chatty’: Wood does not attempt to disarm you with a direct address or a pally nudge. Rather (and more on this later), one is faced with a writer always (ie. never) making up his mind, weighing up tensions, entertaining counter-arguments, balancing contrasting features… living continuously with his favourite works, and returning to them endlessly for further inspiration and insight. Throughout his life, Wood’s most fundamental intellectual influence was F R Leavis, for whom the ideal critical exchange took the form ‘This is so, isn’t it?’/’Yes, but…’ This is what makes me particularly sad to have never met Robin Wood: his style on the page made me want to know him off it. To discuss, face to face, with Robin Wood (and others), with a DVD beside us to consult, La Règle du jeu, Vertigo, Letter from an Unknown Woman… to have a living conversation, where we could spend an hour on a second of film, probing the implications and possibilities of a gesture, a line, a look! That would have been a precious and joyous experience.

I knew, as I prepared to compose this tribute, that I could not embark upon the writing of it without first re-reading the thing that I often find myself returning to for a blast of inspiration and motivation: the 1988 introduction to Hitchcock’s Film RevisitedHitchcock’s Films was originally published in 1965. As is the case with many academic books, it was later added to: an extra chapter, on Torn Curtain, was added in 1969, and a ‘Retrospective’ in 1977. It was in 1989, though, that a much more unusual revision and expansion occurred. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited was published. It included a new introduction, followed by the contents of the original book (complete with 1969 and 1977 additions), followed by eight new chapters. Between the publication of Hitchcock’s Films and Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Wood’s thinking, and life, had undergone a profound shift. He had come out as a homosexual, and become politically conscious, adopting a form of feminist-socialism. Wood’s view of how criticism ought to function had also changed. Wood now saw his original work as assuming that the role of criticism was to explicate great works, whose greatness was attributable solely to their author, and resided in the profundity of their statements concerning an unchanging ‘human nature’. The newly politicized Wood found these assumptions deeply problematic: what we often think of as falling under ‘human nature’ is in fact a construction of the dominant ideology, and is rendered as such precisely to make it appear ‘natural’, that is, unsusceptible to change by, say, political action. But whilst the dominant culture may appear coherent and unified, if one looks closely, and critically, and begins to scratch the surface a little, one will find tensions, contradictions, and even radical possibilities. Great works of art, and their creators, are not shut off from a culture and its tensions; rather, their greatness resides in their dramatization/thematization of these tensions.

Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, then, displays the invigorating spectacle of a critic coming to terms with a past version of himself. In the introduction, Wood explains at length the principles lying behind his decision not to censor his former self, but instead to surround the former text with what amounts to a counter-argument (though not an absolute repudiation), and to annotate that text with new footnotes.

The errors are, I think, worth registering rather than surreptitiously correcting: to draw attention to their existence should help to counter the very common tendency among film students to quote from printed texts uncritically, as if they were assumed to be sacrosanct and infallible.

This kind of public acknowledgment of one’s own error may harbour its own kind of narcissism – as Wood himself acknowledges in a further introduction to the 2002 edition of Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. However, when one has witnessed the tenacity with which others working within academia will stick to their guns (I choose the metaphor of confrontation and destruction advisedly), Wood’s actions appear all the more worthy of praise. The egotism – and often, the machismo – that one finds everywhere one looks in the contemporary university has other unfortunate consequences, as Wood noted. Whatever criticisms one may have of it, one could not describe Hitchcock’s Films Revisited – nor the overwhelming majority of the rest of Wood’s output – as anything less than totally committed: aware of its place in its cultural moment, involving the writer’s whole being, morally and intellectually, and emerging from a love of that which it concerns itself with, not wishing to master and subjugate its object, but part of an ongoing, mutually-enriching relationship, an endless unfolding. Wood was not publishing to fulfil a quota of ‘outputs’ expected of him by a central university administration so that his department could successfully pass through an assessment exercise and declare itself ‘the 7th best film department in [wherever]’. Indeed, competition as a whole was often attacked by Wood as one of the destructive modes of behaviour fostered by a capitalist society. As Stefan Collini has noted, assessment exercises that pit comparable departments in the same country against one another run contrary to the collaborative, cross-institutional nature of academic enquiry at its best.

The modern university was something that would often find its way into Wood’s prose. Take, for example, this passage from the newest preface to Hitchcock’s Films Revisited:

The term [education] has changed its meaning since I studied at Cambridge in the early 1950s. Then, it meant (to me at least) something like ‘defining oneself in relation to our cultural history, our living past, and in relation to the world today; developing oneself intellectually, emotionally, culturally; learning to make choices, to discriminate; discovering onself, developing oneself.’ Today (to judge from the responses of many students I have encountered), it means ‘Will this help me to a career? If not, will I at least get a good grade?’

Whatever its flaws and silences, one gets from Wood’s prose what one rarely finds in prose associated with the academy (to the extent that when one is confronted with it, there is the temptation to scoff at its naivete): accounts that hold themselves accountable not only to ‘the text itself’ (whatever that may be) or a theoretical approach, but to the whole of life and culture – to what is wrong with our mode of social organization, and what a better one might be like, or how it might feel. This is why Wood felt justifiably aggrieved when people tried to separate his readings of films from his radical politics, or told him that his first book on Hitchcock was his best. Wood felt, rightly, that his politics and his critical method were inseparable.

Wood championed a mode of social organization that best recognised and nurtured human creativity, and fostered its fulfilment in all. This is why, as well as opposing the stultification of capitalism, he registered his rejection of left wing ideologies and theories, including film theories, that he perceived to be anti-humanist (and, relatedly, to be hostile to the concept of value). Finding the world around him – the ‘impoverished, polluted soil of patriarchal capitalism’ – so unconducive to such ‘blossoming of the soul’, Wood was struck with wonder when he encountered works that offered glimpses of a better one. Terry Eagleton has argued that in our instrumentalist, neo-liberal culture, where so many people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, art has come to play a surprisingly important ethical role in our lives. Spending a lifetime educating oneself and others about the critical role of great artworks and great artists, and arguing for those works’ value, as Wood did, would then seem to be a worthwhile endeavour indeed.

This is so, isn’t it?

In praise of 1940s Hollywood cinema

‘the films of Hollywood constituted a world, with recurrent faces more familiar to me than the faces of all the places I have lived.’ Stanley Cavell

Recently I’ve watched, among other things, a little cluster of films made in Hollywood in the 1940s (Christmas in JulyChristmas in Connecticut, and It’s a Wonderful Life), and it brought back to the surface (it’s never far below) my love of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Decade divisions are of course ultimately arbitrary, but if I had to choose a single decade of Hollywood filmmaking to watch exclusively for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure it would be the 1940s. The only decade that would give it a run for its money would be the 1950s (probably Hitchcock’s best decade of filmmaking, plus the decade of the Technicolor, widescreen melodramas of Minnelli, Ray and Sirk), though I would be equally sad to lose  the films that Capra and Hawks made in the 1930s.

It was when Ed Gallafent devoted a portion of his ‘Hollywood Cinema’ module to a cluster of 1945/6 releases (It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Best Years of Our LivesThe Clock, and…?) that I really began to feel comfortable with this period of filmmaking. Until then, its types and storytelling rhythms and devices had kept me at something of a distance – an experience I always try to bear in mind when I introduce students to this period of filmmaking. The teaching method of showing a tightly-clustered group of films was a good one because, as the Cavell quote at the top of this post eloquently attests, a crucial part of the experience and the pleasure of classical Hollywood cinema  is the way that the same actors, and also the same types, plots, genres, settings, and even turns of phrase, activate for the aficionado an intricate web of associations, inflections and possibilities, so that after a while, you’re never just watching one film, but simultaneously inhabiting and sending little pulses out across your whole history of viewing. Whenever I try to come up with screening lists for introductory film modules that observe balance and variety with respect to year of production and country of origin, it’s usually 1940s Hollywood that I find myself have to cut back most stringently. (How can you teach It’s a Wonderful Life without also teaching The Reckless Moment and Shadow of a Doubt? If you see Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, maybe you should show him in Ambersons too? If you’ve got Collinge and Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, shouldn’t you show them together in  The Little Foxes too – especially as that allows you to bounce Wyler and Welles off each other. And then, moving to the 1950s, maybe if you’ve shown so much domestic entrapment and a James Mason film, you should include Bigger than Life too. And if you’re showing one film about an unhinged man turning a trip to buy expensive frocks into something rather threatening, surely you have to show Vertigo too? And on and on.)

So, in the spirit of end-of-year list-making, here is a list, in no particular order (but I’ve put asterisks next to my very favourites), of some of my most-loved 1940s Hollywood movies.

Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942)
**Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948)
*The Reckless Moment (Ophuls, 1949)
Caught (Ophuls, 1949)
Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
Laura (Preminger, 1944)
*The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
The Little Foxes (Wyler, 1941)
*Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1942)
Gaslight (Cukor, 1944)
Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock, 1943)
*It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)
His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
Lifeboat (Hitchcock, 1944)
My Darling Clementine (Ford, 1946) [I had to check to see whether I could include Wagon Master too, but IMDb lists it as 1950]
The Woman on the Beach (Renoir, 1947)
The Southerner (Renoir, 1945)
*The Woman in the Window (Lang, 1944)
Scarlet Street (Lang, 1945)
Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Rope (Hitchcock, 1948)
Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940)
Meet John Doe (Capra, 1941)
Christmas in Connecticut (Godfrey, 1945)
Cluny Brown (Lubitsch, 1946)
*The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
*The Clock (Minnelli, 1945)
Meet Me in St Louis (Minnelli, 1944)

I love this one shot near the end of ‘Who Are You’…

Context: ‘Who Are You’ is the the sixteenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the episode where Buffy and Faith switch bodies (well, the switch happens at the end of the previous episode, but this is the episode where we see how it plays out). Faith is a wanted criminal, so Buffy-in-Faith’s-body is first arrested by the police, and then intercepted by muscle working for the Watcher’s Council. In the time it takes her to escape from her incarceration and return to Sunnydale to reclaim her body, Buffy has received a taste of how those who know Faith feel justified in treating her: she has been called trash, and her/Faith’s face has been spat at. Meanwhile, Faith-in-Buffy’s-body has received her own novel taste of what it is to be treated with love (both maternal and romantic), gratitude and respect. The two Slayers come face to face with each other/themselves once more when both independently learn that vampires are holding a congregation hostage in a church, and go there on a rescue mission. Once the vampires have been dispatched, Buffy and Faith fight it out on the church’s altar. Faith-in-Buffy’s-body gains the upper hand, and straddles Buffy-in-Faith’s-body while she directs blow after self-loathing blow and insult after self-loathing insult at her own face. What she does not know is that Willow and Tara have conjured Buffy a doohickey that will reverse the body swap. Buffy interrupts Faith’s onslaught by clasping her hand (in a gesture with the appearance – appropriately, given the location and aspects of the pair’s relationship – of communion). There is a glow, a shudder, and a rushing sound effect to confirm that the reversal has worked.

The shot


Faith (in Faith’s body) looks around, in moments of performance we recognise from times we have seen characters wake from vivid, troubling dreams. The rushing on the soundtrack, combined with Faith’s breathing and her reaching at one moment for her chest, makes taking one’s own identity back into one’s body seem something like inhaling, granting the transformation a tangible, physical quality that the viewer can imagine.

The really nice thing about the shot, though, is the way that action, framing and setting combine to convey, quietly and completely without stress, the sense that Faith experiences the moment of return to her own body as a moment of imprisonment. As Faith’s mind gets used to the position of the limbs of the body it has just returned to, we can tell from the way her upper body moves that she is trying to gain purchase (offscreen) on the ground with her heels, at first without much success. More prominently, she raises her arms, and pushes them outwards, her right hand meeting the wooden rail that separates the altar from the rest of the church. Both forearms reach out and come to a stop near the edges of the frame, further aiding the impression that Faith is pushing claustrophobically outwards in reaction to the new position she finds herself in.

Here, as is often the case with Whedon, I find myself wanting to praise him in a way similar to that in which V F Perkins praises filmmakers in Film as Film: there is a combination here of eloquence and subtlety which could easily pass unnoticed because the expressive properties of a chosen image are not obtrusive, because they appear to arise so fully from the demands of the dramatic situation. Of course it makes sense to show Faith from that angle, at that moment, doing those things, because that is what the story, at that moment, demands. To which the answer is that of all the ways in which Whedon could have chosen to stage the body re-swap (with both characters standing up, in a different location, with a different magical device), he chose these ones, and then found ways to make these choices work effectively as a series of images. That we are not pulled out of the flow of the drama by being presented with an image that proclaims its status and purpose as artistic commentary (a legitimate effect of its own kind, of course) should not lead us to overlook the image’s eloquence.

There are few artists in any medium who have received more attention or been more extravagantly praised than Whedon. But there are some of his achievements, hiding, as it were, in plain sight, that still need to be noticed and articulated more thoroughly.