Time for another 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' with The Film Experience.
Joss Whedon, writer/director of 'Serenity' (2005), has made his reputation as an inspired scripter of character and dialogue, but the deft compositions and economic visual storytelling that characterise his direction are perhaps his strongest suit. Whedon-helmed episodes of his TV series - in particular, Buffy's 'Hush' and 'Restless', Angel's 'A Hole in the World', Firefly's 'Objects in Space' - are among the most carefully thought-through (in visual terms) works ever made for television, up there with the best of 'Twin Peaks' and Mike Leigh's 'Play[s] for Today'.
My favourite shot in 'Serenity' is a pivotal moment in the plot: Ophelia-esque fugitive River Tam (Summer Glau) has been carrying around some dangerous knowledge in her head, but despite occasional hints percolating to the surface of her shifting, damaged psyche, she has been unable to grasp or communicate this information to her friends and protectors aboard the eponymous spaceship. Finally, in a dream, River finds herself in an open-air classroom that may or may not be a memory from her own childhood. She approaches an interactive terminal - and the viewer is shown what seems to be a POV shot of the screen, before the camera zooms in, passing through the screen and reveals the subject of River's secret knowledge: the lost world Miranda.
Unexpectedly, the view pans round to reveal the terminal screen from the other side, River staring down through the frame. The image recalls, for me at least, the starchild from '2001: A Space Odyssey', which makes sense - just as the starchild represented an apotheosis for the human race, this moment signifies a profound change in River: from here on, she will take ownership of both the knowledge and the abilities that have been forced on her by a faceless authority, driving the narrative through to its conclusion.
Whedon's thematic and narrative economy are very apparent here, as this single image draws together any number of elements from across the film. The schoolroom has been set up as the territory of the Alliance (the centralized government of the system), where students are taught the 'right' version of history, with the Alliance as a 'civilizing' agency. Miranda, a terrible mistake in the Alliance's quest to secure peace across the system, has been erased from history. In this shot, River has to (if this isn't too on the nose) 'see through' the official Alliance version to the unacknowledged victims. Moreover, in the opening sequence of the film, the schoolroom is a psychic cover for the horrific acts the Alliance perpetrates against River. The lattice of indecipherable language - and what better image to stand in for a self-consciously civilised culture than that neat and aesthetically pleasing array of text and symbols? - lies between River and vital knowledge; for River, language is the unstable, untraversable boundary between the inside of her head and the people who care for her, the barrier she slowly overcomes in the course of the film. The pan turns what appears to be a POV shot back on itself, so the viewer is left disoriented. River's own dissociation and fluctuating selfhood are perfectly embodied in this shot, as she becomes, in effect, the object of her own gaze.
The best thing about the shot, however, is that none of this means anything to the viewer the first time through. What matters, instead, is the sheer beauty and uncanniness of the moment. River, looking down into the universe, gave me goosebumps the first time I saw it. Perhaps part of its power lies in the way River, framed through a screen, mirrors the position of the viewer, caught in the act of beholding this fantasy universe.
Dreams, in film and television, too often default to either direct 1:1 symbolism or arbitrary surrealism. The best thing about Whedon's dreamscapes is that they refuse to be distilled to plot or theme. Mood, texture, and the irreducible, alien strangeness of the image are paramount (this extends to dialogue - is there a more inexplicably skin-prickling moment of television than Riley (Marc Blucas) telling Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) 'Don't worry - if I kiss you it'll make the sun go down' - precipitating a lurch into nightmare?). In 'Serenity', as in 'Hush', the imagery communicates vital plot, character and thematic information in symbolic terms, but the full power and resonance of the images exceeds the viewer's grasp. It carries the real shiver of the unconscious.