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|Written by Frederick Hidell|
|Monday, 16 March 2009 19:00|
After the release of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, writer/director Kevin Smith publicly declared that he was not only done with "dick and fart jokes," but the whole View Askew universe of characters he’d launched in his directorial debut, the cult indie hit Clerks. Smith intended to evolve into a more mature and nuanced filmmaker with his next project,
When the cult fan base he’d thumbed his nose at failed to purchase tickets, and mainstream audiences largely rejected the film, Jersey Girl proved a box office bomb. Faced with the largest disappointment of his career, Smith placed the blame on the shoulders of his stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, put his tail between his legs, returned to the well, and made Clerks II (featuring familiar View Askew characters, and filled with dick and fart jokes, not to mention a donkey show).
After coming up against significant adversity and a seeming inability to expand his artistic repertoire, Kevin Smith returned to what he knew best. Now it appears Joss Whedon has done the same.
Whedon created some of the best television of the last decade on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel. He has also scripted several
Reuniting the show’s entire original cast, the film was supposed to serve as Whedon's big leap from beloved cult creator to mainstream A-list director; star Nathan Fillion was going to be the next Harrison Ford; and thanks to a clever word of mouth campaign involving dozens of sneak-peek screenings in the months leading up to its release, Serenity was sure to hit the #1 slot on its opening weekend.
But then something went wrong…
The film failed to reach #1, with a measly $10 million opening weekend draw; Nathan Fillion remained the B star he's always been; and, despite mostly positive reviews, the film failed to draw audiences from anywhere beyond a cult fan base that, incidentally, turned out to be much smaller than anyone expected. The film performed equally poor overseas, and its release in several foreign countries was cancelled altogether. The man who'd proven himself a big fish in the pond of television turned out to be a rather small fish indeed in the ocean of big budget Hollywood filmmaking.
While some blame Serenity's failure on a rushed shooting schedule and a modest budget, the cold hard truth is that the movie simply isn't all that good; certainly not in comparison to the best episodes of Buffy and Angel. In fact, Serenity fails even in comparison to the best episodes of Firefly. While Whedon was able to draw tears from viewers during the funeral of a one-off character at the end of the Firefly episode "The Message," the funeral of several main characters at the end of Serenity reads as forced and strangely cold craftsmanship, especially coming from a man who has always been a master at evoking emotional resonance.
And so, like Smith, faced with adversity and an inability to connect with mainstream cinema audiences, Whedon has returned to the well with Dollhouse, a new television series staring ex-vampire slayer Eliza Dushku. The show's pilot aired on Friday, February 13, and received across-the-board mediocre reviews from virtually every major television critic.
Will it get better from here? Working back in the medium in which he has had the most success, will Whedon be able to recapture the power of his earlier work, or did he peak as an artist with Buffy's series finale in 2003 and enter a period of creative decline that has continued ever since?
A friend recently said to me, “The problem with Buffy was that Whedon started thinking of it as serious drama.” I would argue, rather, the problem was that audiences, critics, and scholars started recognizing it as serious drama.
In a 1975 interview, Bob Dylan described how he transitioned from cultural dynamo in 1966, to sub-par niche artist in the early 1970s, and then back to cultural dynamo. He explains that it took him “a long time to get to do consciously what I used to do unconsciously.” Essentially, Dylan is communicating the fact that once someone tells an artist that they are a genius, it becomes a lot more difficult for the artist to live up to that label.
And Whedon has been repeatedly labelled a genius not only by rabid fans, but by respected critics and decorated scholars, time and time again. I would suggest, then, that Serenity was Whedon’s attempt to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously, and, like Dylan’s early ‘70s work, the result was mediocre art.
Dylan kept at it, however, and eventually released art that rivalled the best of his ‘60s output. Whether Whedon can do the same, and whether or not Dollhouse and its Friday night Fox death-timeslot is even the vehicle through which to do so, remains to be seen.