Joss Whedon's Serenity has been my default movie of late-- whenever it's on cable, whenever I need something rousing to keep me pedaling or escapist heroes to root for, that's the film I've been watching over and over until I have the dialogue memorized. As Robert Parker's Spencer said about watching The Magnificent Seven , it's not about the plot anymore, it's about the ritual.
I still love Whedon's dialogue, and the tension dispelling laughs, and that "Fuck, Yeah!" moment when the Reavers come home to roost, a splash worthy of Jack Kirby. Reams of scholarly publications would suggest that there are themes loose in Whedon's work that lead from cult science fiction to some of the dark little secrets of contemporary America. What follows is not so much what I know, as what I think I know.
The crew of Serenity is composed of four combat veterans who fought for the losing side in a gallant but mismatched rebellion against a wealthy empire. Along the way they've adopted up a Graham Greene priest with a past, a tomboy engineer, a slumming courtesan, and finally an upper-class doctor and his half-mad, half-prodigy sister, who for reasons unknown are avoiding the authorities. They all live hand-to-mouth (and planet to planet) on the fringes of acceptable society and aren't too proud about what they'll do next to keep the wolves at bay. There's a deliberate Old West look to the space frontier, a trope borrowed from Frederick Turner and Robert Heinlein, who argued that mules, horses and 19th century technology still have a place in everyday life when you're millions of miles away from advanced infrastructure. Tractors, for example, can't reproduce themselves like horses and donkeys can.
All these survivors were injured in some way by a conflict with the dominant culture, with the possible exception of the mercenary Jayne, who's too comically obtuse to think there's anything unhealthy about living out of a locker. It occurs to me that this is a common trait in fictional characters and people I love: the damaged cast of Whedon's Angel, the Chilean survivors in the novels of Roberto Bolaño, the down-and-out moan of the great blues men's lyrics, even historical figures. For all that the dominant culture admires Richard F. Burton, Truman, or even Churchill, they were dismissed or despised by their contemporaries. When Churchill visited America in the 1930s, he had to be hurried onto a train and paid in cash by a minister in Grand Rapids to avoid the bill collectors. Vincent VanGogh, 'buked and scorned, is now a secular saint.
Japanese culture already has a well-established place for the "beautiful loser", as described in studies like Ivan Morris' The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, and enacted by the animated crew of the good ship Cowboy Bebop. Japan is the place where "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down", homogenous in its culture (Koreans and burakumin need not apply). It is not necessary for a protagonist to "win" or "succeed" in order to be admired. There's nothing the Japanese Romantic loves more than a doomed hero waiting in the snow for one last scuffle with an unassailable foe. If there are drops of blood against the whiteness, if the snowflakes on his cheek mix with a single tear, so much the better. The beautiful loser has appeared in Western culture before-- in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man in the Sea, in popular culture through Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald, the films and novels where "a man must walk these mean streets who is not himself mean". When even the Mormons start talking about "the nobility of failure", you know we're on to something here.
Barack Obama (yeah) and Huckabee (eh) won the Iowa caucus last night against machine candidates Romney and Clinton. (Hilary Clinton may be infinitely preferable to any Republican short of Lincoln, but don't kid yourself, she's the machine candidate-- she and her husband are now and have been Wall Street Democrats, albeit efficent ones. And Romney is, well, a machine. Amazing what they can do with synthetics these days.) For one brief moment we can enjoy a triumph against the corporate interests and their lackies, and get out our rain coats before the shit storm starts. We don't even have a choice in Michigan-- all of the Democratic candidates have dutifully taken their name off the primary ballot with the exception of Hillary "Party Rules? I AM the Party!" Clinton. All we can do is make a futile gesture against Clinton's inevitability by voting "non-committed" and watch the Michigan Democratic Party piss away $10 million dollars.
Someting there is in human nature that decides early on whether to be a Joiner or a... well we don't really have an objective word for this, do we? "Individual" and "Lone Wolf" are loaded semantically as are "rebel", "maladjusted", and eventually, with the triumph of the dominant culture, "loser". There must have been a few Egyptians standing around who would rather notwork on the pyramids. Pyramids are fine evidence of corporate cooperation, cathedrals are beautiful testimony to group effort and aspiration-- but what if you don't want to add your little stone to the megalith?
The dangers lurking in the "beautiful loser's" world view are self-pity, despair, and immobility. at least two of which are releated to Deadly Sins. There is danger of the survivor's syndrome described in non-fiction like Friendly Fire and seen on the street in skepticism at official explanations-- having been so often lied to, the survivor no longer trusts or recognizes the truth even when it's finally revealed. There's the stubborn futility of activists not being able to take yes for an answer, an inability to compromise, like the John Cleese character so stupid that he doesn't know when he's beaten but doesn't know when he's winning, either. Principle becomes self-congratulatory martyrdom and narcissism; Ralph Nader runs for president and sneers at the sell-outs and compromisers.
The problem with the corporate culture favored by unregulated capitalism is that it has little tolerance for people and things that will not or can not submit to the corporate structure. A polar bear cannot wise up and adjust to the economy's demand for increased carbon emissions, and it may be that some people can't, either. The title of a study of the Chicago machine spoke volumes: Don't Make No Waves...Don't Back No Losers. Joiners tell themselves that the corporation, the organization, the church, the group will protect and nourish them all the days of their life, but the dirty little secret is that the moment an individual no longer fits the master plan, they are tossed aside like a used tissue. A chauvinist for the status quo is just a worker who hasn't been laid off yet.
In Whedon's Serenity, the dominant culture that knows what's best for us all is represented by a military-industrial government called "The Alliance". In his earlier series Angel, it was the corporate law firm Wolfram and Hart. Serenity is oddly the more optimistic of the two. Broadcasting the truth about the Alliance's activities does some small amount of good, whereas in Angel, the Powers that Be are very bad losers, humanity is indifferent to the struggle, and when Angel takes an elevator to confront "the Source of all Evil", he finds himself back on the street, like the "egress" in Barnum's museum:
HOLLAND:That's really the question you should be asking yourself, isn't it? See, for us, there is no fight. Which is why winning doesn't enter into it. We - go on - no matter what. Our firm has always been here. In one form or another. The Inquisition. The Khmer Rouge. We were there when the very first cave man clubbed his neighbor. See, we're in the hearts and minds of every single living being. And that - friend - is what's making things so difficult for you. See, the world doesn't work in spite of evil, Angel. It works with us. It works because of us.
(The elevator stops, the doors open to reveal the L.A. city streets)
HOLLAND:Welcome to the home office.
ANGEL: (horrified) This isn't...
HOLLAND: Well, you know it is. You know that better than anyone. Things you've seen. Things you've, well - done. You see, if there wasn't evil in every single one of them out there, why, they wouldn't be people. They'd all be angels.
(Angel drops the glove and wanders out of the elevator, petrified and expressionless)
HOLLAND: Have a nice day.
The difference here is that Angel's fight is supernatural, the province of monks and boddhisatvas, whereas the crew of Serenity are contending with a human construct of political alliances, military might and industrial capacity. Corporations are busy, busy, little enterprises, with a hundred soldier ants and a hundred workers for every contingency, and those resisting the corporate takeover of everything are understaffed and underfunded. That cultural complex can seem mighty mighty, as Nelson Algren said of Chicago; it even possesses a kind of immortality, granted when our courts decided that a corporation has rights similar to an individual's. To money and raw power, add the kind of religious awe that most Americans seem to have for the social construct around them, their insistence that this pyramid we're building is just "the way things are", and you've got a real one-sided fight on your hands.