Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes?

Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes? Or, What does a knowledge of the Whedonverse add to Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)?

Despite a half-hearted Twitter campaign attempt by me, which never really got off the ground, to persuade someone to screen Much Ado About Nothing in Hull, I had to travel to Sheffield to get my Whedon fix.  I went to the marvellous Showroom and watched back-to-back screenings of the film.  So that, plus the travelling, was Monday night.  Tuesday night has been spent writing three pieces on the film, one of which is this, the other two being a short review and a longer piece for the excellent alternatetakes.co.uk, which will appear on that site soon.  Those other two pieces are critical writings in which the first person and the references to other Whedon stuff are held in check.  In this more personal forum, I thought it would be fun to see if and how it’s useful to read Much Ado through the other things its key performers have done with Joss Whedon.  What follows is pretty off the cuff and firmly in the celebratory mode, but I’d love it if any like-minded readers wanted to pitch in with supplementary or corrective comments.  (NB. I toyed with titling this post Much Ado About Buffy.)

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Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

Details matter.  If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.

One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance.  But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.

On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake.  Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance.  Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’).  The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances.  There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness.  Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character.  (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way.  ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’…  And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.)  Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.

I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ).  I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible.  Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer.  (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)

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