All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance

(Next day update.  The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time.  Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little.  My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening.  I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot.  Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below.  ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right.  However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)

What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme).  In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years).  On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.

What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack.  It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.

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Jean Renoir

Dear Ingrid, we had many amusing arguments together and I was the first one to defend, stupidly, the importance of “great subjects”.  I wasted a large part of my life by becoming uselessly busy with “the significance” of my pictures.  In Hollywood we also use the word “message”.  Today, I regret not having busied myself with the endless, ant-like work of small, cheap pictures of a definite style, like “westerns” or “murder” stories.
In a structure that is always the same, you are free to improve what alone is worthwhile, the detail in human expression.

Renoir in a letter to Ingrid Bergman, 29 August 1949, reprinted in Jean Renoir: Letters. ed. David Thompson and Lorraine LoBianco. Faber and Faber, 1994.

Thomas Vinterberg

No major US director has yet attempted a Dogme movie, though David Fincher, director of Seven and Fight Club, tells me that he has been having light-hearted discussions with Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne (Election) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) about the potential for a ‘purification process’. ‘You’re not supposed to use anything that you used in your last movie – none of the equipment, none of the elements. Steven said, “Look, David, you can’t have any rain, you can’t have any CGI…”‘ Vinterberg is visibly thrilled when I tell him this news: ‘It would be very interesting to see Fincher undressed, because he is always so well dressed.’

Ryan Gilbey. ‘Dogme is dead.  Long live Dogme.’ The Guardian, Friday 19 April 2002.