Recommended Reading: Joss Whedon: The Biography, by Amy Pascale

Dear Readers, it has probably not escaped your notice that I am a glasses-wearing, reference-section-having, sci-fi-and-semi-colon-loving, Battlestar-Galactica-quoting, James-Kirk-and-Jane-Austen-action-figure-owning Nerd-Geek.

(A Nerd-Geek, according to me, is one who is inclined to passionate devotion to both things bookish [nerdy] and things in the science/sci-fi/fantasy realm [geeky]. I realize that the terminology of nerdom and geekdom is not without substantial controversy, but I hope that you will overlook that controversy, just this once.)

photo (117)Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography* is a book tailor-made for the Nerd-Geeks, because it concerns the Nerd-Geek King, Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon inspires unbelievably rabid fandom across the Nerd/Geek spectrum; and even if you’re not one of his vocal fans, chances are you’ve seen and liked his work. Did you like The Avengers? Toy Story? Speed? See, you like Joss Whedon.

Though he’s now helming the bazillion-dollar Marvel superhero movie franchises, in his salad days Joss (which is what Ms. Pascale calls him) created TV shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and our dearly beloved, dearly departed Firefly.

I should admit, here, that I came late to the Joss Whedon fan club. There’s no way my parents would have allowed me to watch a show with “Vampire Slayer” in the title when I was a teenager (or really, most shows without “Jeopardy!” in the title), but even if that were an option, I found the blonde Buffy I saw in ads totally off-putting (if only I’d known about Willow!).

Fast forward ten years. I was so deeply entrenched in reading for my grad school oral exams that I would have watched reality TV with a smile on my face. My not-quite-yet-husband, so deeply supportive of my weird interests, was watching Netflix, and asked me to take a break, put down whatever seventeenth-century obstetrics manual I was reading (no, really.), and watch Buffy with him. I laughed. But then I looked up the series on Wikipedia, fell into a wiki-hole about Joss Whedon and feminism**, and went to sit on the couch.

We watched all of Buffy in about a month. It was awesome.

Then we watched Firefly — which I put off for a long time because I knew it had been canceled after just one season and I was sure I’d get too attached to the characters — and I became a Joss Whedon fan for life.

Amy Pascale has been a Joss Whedon fan much longer than I have; she was part of the Buffy online fan club and is clearly an enthusiastic supporter of Joss Whedon’s work. In fact, Ms. Pascale’s biography is for the most part a history of Joss’s career, accompanied by supporting material about his relationships with family and friends (who double as co-workers) and education. This is, I think, as it should be; Ms. Pascale’s subject is not a nineteenth-century president, but a living and breathing human being who, presumably, doesn’t want to talk over-much about his personal life, and is surrounded by friends and family who respect his wishes.

As a professional biography, the book is excellent, and will appeal mostly to readers already familiar with Joss’s work (some great anecdotes in here, folks). Ms. Pascale meticulously delves into Joss’s career, focusing in particular on the many setbacks he experienced and learned from as he went from a sitcom staff writer to a script doctor to the creator of his own shows. In the process, Ms. Pascale gives us the outlines of Joss’s created shows (with, unsurprisingly, a particular emphasis on Buffy); if you haven’t watched them yet and want to be surprised about plots and characters, hold off on reading the book. There are a few bits of juicy gossip (I didn’t know how much tension rolled through the Buffy set in the later seasons), some wonderful anecdotes (Alan Tudyk and a recall button — seriously great) and some surprising information for newcomers to the Whedonverse (apparently season six of Buffy was not well received by fans).

Throughout the book, we see Joss as a fundamentally creative and kind person, though not one without foibles and quirks. His work ethic is astounding, his creative process weep-worthy for those of us who struggle to string together words into coherent sentences (first drafts of scripts are in his head; what comes out on paper is the final product). Ms. Pascale does a particularly nice job highlighting his loyalty to collaborators, who often become friends (Nathan Fillion wrote the Foreword to the book). If you saw Joss Whedon’s modernized Much Ado About Nothing (2013), and I hope you did, you will have noted many familiar faces — cast members from Buffy, Angel, and The Avengers, Firefly — and names among the company.

Much Ado About Nothing was filmed with cobbled-together money and equipment in the home that Joss shares with his wife, Kai Cole, and children. That’s how he spent his vacation between shooting and editing The Avengers.

Shakespeare and superheroes. All hail the King of the Nerd-Geeks. (So say we all.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** Joss Whedon is a vocal feminist. Yes, I know that the shows are sometimes problematic, and that The Avengers pretty well flunks the Bechdel Test, but then there’s this, from a speech Joss gave in 2006. Most of it is included in Joss Whedon: The Biography, and you can find a video here. In it, Joss interviews himself about a question that comes up endlessly.

So, Joss, I, a reporter, would like to know, why do you always write these strong women characters?

I think it’s because of my mother. She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman and that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am but, occasionally taller too. But, only sometimes, taller. And, I think it — it all goes back to my mother.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because of my father. My father and my stepfather had a lot to do with it, because they prized whit and resolve in the women they were with above all things. And they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own. When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea. That came from my father and stepfather — the men who created this man, who created those men, if you can follow that.

So, why do you create these strong, how you say, the women — I’m in Europe now, so, it’s very, it’s international — these — I don’t know where though — these strong women characters?

Well, because these stories give people strength, and I’ve heard it from a number of people, and I’ve felt it myself, and its not just women, its men, and I think there is something particular about a female protagonist that allows a man to identify with her that opens up something, that he might — an aspect of himself — that he might be unable to express — hopes and desires — he might be uncomfortable expressing through a male identification figure. So it really crosses across both and I think it helps people, you know, in — in that way.

So, why do you create these strong women characters?

Cause they’re hot.

But, these strong women characters…

Why are you even asking me this?! This is like interview number 50 in a row. How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, seriously, why are you — why did you write that down? Why do you — Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters? I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored and there are other people doing it. But, seriously, this question is ridiculous and you just gotta stop.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.

So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question.

Movie Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Imagine you’ve just finished shooting The Avengers, and you have a bit of vacation before editing what will go on to be a billion-dollar summer blockbuster. What would you do with your time off?

If you’re Joss Whedon, you get a bunch of your friends together and shoot a completely different movie. At your house. For fun.

And thus we have the delight that is Mr. Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. For someone like me, it feels like the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates of lit and TV nerdom.

TV nerdom because Mr. Whedon’s shows — especially Buffy and Firefly — are some of the best written, most inventive shows that have ever aired (and in Firefly’s case, been canceled much too soon), which inspires rabid fandom (myself included). Lit nerdom, because Shakespeare is my favorite writer (not for nothing did I spend five years in grad school reading his plays), and Much Ado is my favorite comedy, which I taught twice to undergrads (maybe three times). I have a huge framed poster of the text of the play (all of it on one page!) in our front hall, one or our favorite wedding presents.

Much Ado full text

Full text of Much Ado

Shot in black and white, Much Ado never takes itself too seriously, instead recalling the screwball comedies of the thirties, which of course owe their sparring pairs, though centuries removed, to Shakespeare’s sublimely antagonistic Benedick and Beatrice. The handheld camera motions make the viewer feel part of the intimate setting, peeking over railings and through windows at the antics of the house’s inhabitants and guests. Though the tone is largely lighthearted, Mr. Whedon never shies away from the undertones of sex and violence that permeate the play. “Nothing” in early modern English was slang for the vagina (“thing” = slang for phallus; “no-thing” is its opposite), so the play’s title is a sexual pun. Sure, all the kerfuffle over Hero’s virginity turns out to be founded on nothing, but the point remains: there was, indeed, much ado about her nothing.

See? Told you I was a nerd.

All the performances are pitch perfect, and spotting regulars from Mr. Whedon’s shows was particularly fun for fans.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Kenneth Branagh’s succulent 1993 version of the play, in which the Tuscan landscape and lineup of stars compete for attention with the play’s mordant and often sexual wit; here we have a much more laid-back, modern approach to the language, which flows rapidly.

While Emma Thompson cannot be surpassed as Beatrice, Amy Acker is still an excellent match for Alexis Denisof’s surly (and excellent) Benedick. Nathan Fillion is the best Dogberry I’ve ever seen, with a generous assist from Tom Lenk as Vergese. And I liked newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero, which is a tricky role to pull off without seeming like a simpering child. Ms. Morgese, elegant and restrained, finessed it beautifully. Another pleasant surprise was Sean Maher’s Don John, played here as an upper-class malcontent. Look for my favorite large change Mr. Whedon made — the relationship between Don John and Conrad.

Quibbles: I hate, hate, hate flashback sex scenes to establish characters’ mututal history (worst offender: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet); I think they show a director’s lack of trust in Shakespeare’s language (and the audience’s ability to understand it). And I didn’t love Mr. Whedon’s additions to the play (there’s a little scene with Benedick and Margaret near the end of the movie that I’m thinking of in particular). Correct me if he simply moved a swath of text out of order.

Something I’m on the fence about: the implied Borachio/Hero backstory.

These quibbles aside, I loved the movie, and I heartily recommend it if you need a break from the blockbusters. Not that they aren’t fun too.

P.S. I have a wishlist of Benedick/Beatrice pairings I’d like to see. At the top: Bradley Whitford and Mary Louise Parker. Who’s on your list?