Monday, 26 October 2009

Malcolm and Meursault – Existentialism in Space

Some might argue that the reason to watch Firefly is the substantial amount of eye-candy that Joss has kindly put in tightpants on screen for us. Others would assert that it is not so much the tight pants as the tight dialogue which is the real attraction. Or the pretty spaceship, or the great plotting.

I’d like to suggest that it is in fact two other p’s - the politics and the philosophy.

Back in the late 1970’s Terry Nation – the genius behind the best bits of Dr Who - pitched a new idea to the BBC – the Dirty Dozen in space. Bad (or at least morally ambiguous) men (and a few women, mainly in high-heeled boots), predominantly in black leather, on a mission. Blake’s 7 was born. The world’s most beautiful spaceship – the tri-hulled Liberator glided across our screens and our heroes – pretty big damn heroes if you ask me – set forth to free the universe from the tyranny of the totalitarian, mind-controlling Federation.

The eponymous Blake was no socialist revolutionary – more of a radical left democrat – but he was prepared to use whatever means necessary to unite the rebel planets and destroy the powers of evil. Hooray! Oh and he was brutal, potentially self-destructive and willing to sacrifice everything and everyone for his aims.

And like all great heroes – he had a side-kick, alter-ego, anti-hero along for the ride. Avon has an enduring appeal – from geeky tech-nerd in the second episode of the series, to gun-toting sex symbol in thigh high leather boots by the end of the four season run. It’s a Cinderella story of bad guy turned badder.

But what, you ask, has all this sci-fi nostalgia got to do with Captain Mal?

Well may you ask.

Because the first thing I thought as I watched my very first Firefly episode – was “OMG Joss is a B7 fan.” Now I cannot confirm this rumour – but I think the evidence is piling up.

There’s the real pretty boat, the real pretty girls – who range from competent to expert in the ability to kick your ass category, and the real pretty guys in tight pants. Ahhh, the tight pants.

But perhaps less superficially – there’s the bitter but committed bloke against the forces of evil in the ‘verse; the conspiracy theories; the constant running from totalitarian forces and the bleak humour.

Mal’s also no revolutionary socialist – he’s a freedom fighter, a rebel – he ends up taking the Alliance on not because of huge principles but because it becomes totally personal. Not so different from any number of contemporary national liberation struggles. And not so different from Blake.

So that’s the politics and the truly obscure references to 1980s pop culture dealt with – at least for now - but what about the philosophy? You were promised existentialism – where is the existentialism?

Never fear, the myth of Sisyphus is here.

Now I’m not going to argue that Malcolm is Meursault – that would be silly. Were Joss really channelling Camus, Mal would have been at it with Inara before the contract was even signed on the shuttle lease – Meursault was never a man for delayed gratification.

But if we consider the first line of The Outsider for a moment and imagine it in Joss’s world…and we consider the first episode of Firefly – the real first episode – Serenity – in a sense, a metaphorical one – it begins “The Browncoats died today.” Or maybe “His faith died today.” Too sentimental? Perhaps…

But there’s more. Meursault spends his last months in a tiny cell, waiting each morning for the executioner to arrive. His main pleasure, the tiny square of blue he can see through the high window. Can’t you hear him? “You can’t take the sky from me.”

Then there’s his final realisation that he was indeed happy – and what’s happiness if its not finding Serenity?

But this is pulling at straws. We all know where I’m really headed. The purposelessness of life, its lack of meaning, meaning achieved only temporarily and through the act of living and accepting the meaninglessness. Not just that, but the fact that we are indeed all islands, untouched by others except in the most superficial of ways, that we all do die alone.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Fillies, feminists and fierce women!

Apparently the racing type people who run important "nation stopping" events like that big horse race in Melbourne...are setting up some rules of ettiquette - so that women can behave "like ladies" and in a "feminine manner". It seems that stumbling drunkenly around Flemington, wearing one's shoes as bracelets and vomitting into gutters is not exactly the height of good manners - who knew?

Now, while I too would rather not see over-dressed young fillies showing too much thigh and too much stomach contents, I'm a little concerned about this lady-like thing.

In fact big alarm bells are going off in my head right now. Because as soon as people start talking about femininity and being a lady; the lectures about morality and a woman's place are not far behind.

Maybe this is just particularly in my head right now having spent Friday evening watching a modern operatic treatment of Medea. Medea - the original scorned woman - is a fierce, frightening portrayal of the female. And she's no lady!

Dusapin's opera, with its libretto in German, reconstructs Medea as a very modern woman, trying to re-find her own idenitity after her failed marriage. Her repetition that she was Jason's bitch and whore must echoe with many women's experience of marriage.

What might be a little new is her response to Jason's betrayal. When he trades up for the King's younger and presumably more nubile daughter, Medea refuses to take this lying down. Instead she decides that its payback time. Quite literally in fact.

Having killed her own brother to help Jason escape from Colchis in the first place, she decides he owes her at least one life - she decides to take two - those of her own children.

At a time when the chap who tossed one of his kids off the West Gate Bridge is going to court, the idea of child murder as revenge, must have special resonance. But in our modern age, its seldom the mums doing the killing. In fact in any age Medea stands out as a woman of such ferocious self-possession that she is able to make the calculations and restore a certain balance in the Universe - with some good old-fashioned stabby stabby.

By the end of Dusapin's opera, Medea cries out - I am Medea! She has re-gained her identity through the horrific and on-stage graphic murder of her children. Jason, who she no longer chooses to recognise, has had to pay the price for her brother's life, for her life and for his betrayal.

The Medea of Euripides is an extraordinary character - a child murderer made sympathetic by her dual plight as abandoned wife and despised refugee. Dusapin's Medea is a self-liberating feminist in a post- or perhaps pre-feminist world.

Far be it for me to advocate the murder of children as a means to self-liberation for women - after all there is a strong allegorical element here - but planning the demise of the new wife (in both versions Jason's new wife burns alive and collapses in a pool of her own blood and dissolving flesh); the punishment of the wayward man and most importantly the re-gaining of self achieved through these acts, seem an awful lot closer to the experience I want than ensuring I have low enough heels for the races that I don't need to remove them if I get "a little tipsy".