VIDEO ESSAY: Sorkinisms, by Kevin T. Porter: A Writer Under a Microscope

VIDEO ESSAY: Sorkinisms, by Kevin T. Porter: A Writer Under a Microscope


I don't know what to think of this video.

I know what its creator, Kevin T. Porter, wants me to think of it. He makes it clear that he considers this exhaustively researched and edited work to be "a tribute to the work of Aaron Sorkin"—a "playful excursion through Sorkin's wonderful world of words."

But that's not exactly how the piece comes across.

"This piece is not intended as a critique," he writes.

Mr. Porter's careful admonishment to his viewers does little to change the simple fact that this video—edited in a way that exposes the repetition in Sorkin's syntax—puts the whole enterprise on trial, arming Sorkin-haters with all the evidence they need to scream "hack!"

And they have a strong point.

On the one hand, the sameness laid bare in this piece can be easily be derided for its lack of imagination, and yet it can be celebrated on the other because—let's face it—Sorkin-speak has that unique tendency to transcend everything else in the frame, including story, plot, lighting, and direction. It's that much fun to hear.

But, the same point can be made about writer/director Joss Whedon, a writer with a voice so unique that he has built his own cult following of half-crazed fanatics—now that The Avengers has raked in a billion or so, the Whedonites will rule the world. Yet every character Mr. Whedon has ever created talks like some version of himself.

If anything, this remarkable video reminds us that writing is not golf.

Anyone who has ever rented a pair of clubs for the first time, stepped on to a fairway, and taken a swing at a ball off the ground knows that golf is damn hard. The very act of playing it bathes you in such abject humiliation that I personally think the New York Department of Corrections should force convicted felons to do it as punishment.

Writing, on the other hand, seems deceptively easy—especially for a first-timer. In fact, I'd say it takes a good while to discover how bad you are at it; one's identity as a writer, similarly, comes together only after one suffers a slower but just as humiliating journey through the complicated world of syntax, dialogue, and grammar.

Perhaps it's fair to say that the Sorkins and Whedons of the world have earned the right to their unique voices, and therefore they deserve a respectful place in popular entertainment.

While it is true none of these guys are ever going to win the Paddy Chayefsky award for realism, somehow, we still fall for them all the same. — Ken Cancelosi

GREY MATTERS: The Way the World Ends

GREY MATTERS: The Way the World Ends


In 2001, Steven Spielberg went apocalypse crazy and he never recovered.  2001 was when he froze the world in in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, followed by War of the Worlds, followed by the legacy-soiling Transformer toy-apocalypse line, more alien end times in Falling Skies, and the failed eco-Holocaust/Jurassic Park mash-up of Terra Nova—and was he done? No, he was not.

He will soon be destroying the world again in a remake of the original SF Armageddon, 1951’s When Worlds Collide, and an adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s robot apocalypse, Robopocalypse.

Still, the question isn’t “Why?” so much as, “What took him so long?”

One can only guess, so I will. One thing that rose from the debris of 9/11 was a need to process ambient terrors, of which there were suddenly so many. A new genre created itself from bits and pieces of other genres, in true Doctor Frankenstein fashion. And there’s always big money in salving inarticulated jitters—just ask Spielberg.

And so, by my rough count, over seventy-five films and TV shows have congealed over the last decade to form an actual new subgenre, or series of interconnected subgenres, complete with shared repeating narrative patterns and modes of obliteration.

How does the world end? By nuclear means (28 Days Later), by plagues (Contagion), vampires (Stake Land), zombies (The Horde), aliens (Returner), natural threats (The Happening), and sundry Biblical agita  (Jerusalem Countdown).

The subgenre has developed certain stylistic defaults: for example, heavy gray murk and raining ash, as in the indie post apocalypse road picture, The Road, and populist films like Terminator: Salvation and Book of Eli. We also have apocalypse-film go-to actors: Willem Dafoe moves effortlessly from Michael and Peter Spierig’s populist vamp actioner Daybreakers to Abel Ferrara’s self explanatory art house effort, 4:44: Last Day on Earth, while Sarah Polley, eternally wan, affectless and snarky, stared in 1998’s seminal indie end timer, Last Night, which added yawns to the Armageddon reactive syntax, and the remake of Romero’s pre-apocalypse classic, Dawn of the Dead.

Most fascinatingly, this new subgenre has split into what I’ll call indie and populist apocalypse films, each with radically differing sensibilities, aesthetics, and values.

First, the indie apocalypses. The indies are largely by, about, and for upscale, highly educated, older white people fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of feeling a weary, ambient disappointment, born of under-appreciated entitlement. Inevitably, this leads to the valuing of the canon over the new, the ‘introspective’ over the vibrant, and, to bring us back to where we started, to what Spielberg is up to: staying lively, even if that means blowing up the world.

In the populist apocalypse films, anyone, of any class or any gender, can be a hero. She can be a genetically modified lab experiment turned anti-corporate leader, (see Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil: Afterlife). She can be a boy survivor of Earth’s decimation with a second chance on another planet (see Titan, A.E.).  Or, possibly, in a few years from now, while the world is falling apart, a starving, ruined slip of a girl taking down a fascist government, one arrow at a time, in the last of the Hunger Games films.

Anyway, while she may not make it to the end credits, the pop-apocalyptic hero’s efforts will not be for naught, and our entertainment budget will not be blown on a solipsistic nihilism fantasy.

And so, for your approval—or not—five films from the indie and populist sides of the Armageddon divide. Although I clearly have my issues with the indie cause, I’ve tried to include the best—or most interesting—of the subgenre.


4:44: Last Day on Earth (2012)

nullSo nobody listened to Al Gore, and now some unspecified, global—but prompt!—atmospheric disaster will destroy the world at exactly 4:44 EST, in Abel Ferrara's new film.

As if continuing the role of the drug dealer he played in Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, Willem Dafoe is Cisco, a recovering addict with a super younger painter girlfriend named Skye. She’s played by Shanyn Leigh, the director’s real-life GF, which adds a layer of hermetic creepiness. Her paintings, big splashes of bold organized color are a true relief from the drab, mauve-ish digital video tones that give the movie a vanity project emptiness broken only by stock footage of riots, the Dalai Lama and other random elements.

In true boomer fashion, the End is really all about Cisco. So after bedding Skye, he mumbles to the heavens, wanders around Essex Street on the Lower East Side to see if—like the wild Ferraro of Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and The Addiction—he will be able to stay literally/figuratively sober long enough to find some friends with whom he can talk about himself. Then he comes home, and the world ends.

Thing about these movies, you don’t have to worry much about spoilers.

They Came Back (2004)

nullThey Came Back takes the flesh-eating out of the zombie film model; what's left is a nightmarish allegory of elderly hospice care that never ends.

In a French village, the dead return. They seem the same. Almost. Sort of. But then they start gathering at night, silently, doing . . . what?

Robin Campillo’s unnerving film bounces real world fears into a fog of classic, Val Lewton-style quiet horror. The camerawork is stealthy, but like many indie apocs you wonder why color is such a villain in the director’s mind.

Still, the atmosphere and implication stabs home some cold questions: How long before the dead use up too many jobs, resources and space rightfully allotted to the young or healthy? How much care is too much care?

They Came Back also entertains a spiritual dimension that’s truly scary. It’s also revealing in the sense that it reminds us how self-limiting left-leaning indie film has chosen to be.

Melancholia (2011)

nullBoth a balm and a reveal of a classic Romantic sensibility at work behind Lars von Trier's mad Dane image, Melancholia limns depression as an elemental power that rips the planets out of line and threatens to sever the connection between two sisters. There's Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a major depressive getting married in the grand style, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), slender and always frightened.

And then there’s a planet—called “Melancholia”, no less—hurtling, When Worlds Collide-style, towards Earth, and Claire has no choice but to do the most terrifying thing: to ask for what she needs from a sister who delights in cruelty.

Most of all, this is rapturously beautiful, the natural universe as a cruel, loving, and insane mother-tormentor figure. Obliterated in the first and last images by Melancholia’s impact, but united by Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and the sisters’ recurrent hand-holding, this is von Trier filming his way out of malady back to our world—and at 56, just starting a whole new peak of his career.

The Road (2009)

nullSo, something destroyed all life on Earth. The skies are grey, trees black and spindly, buildings in advanced decay. The world, in John Hillcoat's vision, looks like a 90s black metal album cover.

Filthy, wretched, starving, fifty-something Poppa (Viggo Mortensen) and his filthy, wretched, starving Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering South, and that’s what you’re going to be seeing for 111 minutes. The only reprise comes in the form of 30-second sunny dreams of Man's wife (Chalize Theron).

Aside from starvation and the elements, the biggest threat is from cannibal attack. As luck would have it, Man and Boy stumble upon an old southern mansion with a basement full of naked, crazed people . . . who are being warehoused as food.

Excuse my flippancy, but The Road’s cloying high seriousness, its saccharine Nick Cave score, and its studied miserablism can't hide the fact that The Road is one genre step away from being a zombie movie, which is why I suppose they eliminated the famed baby-roasted-on-a-campfire-spit scene which appeared in Cormac McCarthy's original book.

The Last Days of the World (2011)

nullThanks to Japan's manga culture, we finally got an indie end time film with young people in it. Based on Naoki Yamamoto’s cult manga, The Last Days of the World tells of Kanou (Jyonmon Pe), a seventeen-ish schoolboy busy hating life when a half-foot high God in a top hat shows up to tell him the world will be ending soon.

And so Kanou kidnaps his crush, Yumi (Chieko Imaizumi), steals a car, tries to sexually attack Yumi with mayonnaise (don’t ask), finds a cult devoted to cos-play (dressing up in manga costumes), as a life-hating cop kills people while in pursuit of the pair. And sometimes a talking dog, or their car, might remind Kanoe that The End is Nigh.

Eiji Uchida’s sometimes funny nihilist travelogue wants to be Donnie Darko, suggesting Miike’s Gozu, but it lacks the latter’s passionate nuttiness. It’s also bereft of any music beyond a stumbling two-chord guitar flourish, or any color beyond a dull palette of liver-lavenders, greys and spoiled mauves. Uchida’s film is already dead: the end of the world is a mere formality.


Pandorum (2009)

nullAt the start of the film, the crew of a huge starship wakes from hyper-sleep with severely compromised memories.

The ship—apparently designed by a firm headed by Philippe Starck, H.R. Giger and H.P. Lovecraft—slowly reveals itself to be infested by shadow-dwelling monstrosities, but this is blamed on a mind-malady called "pandorum."

As more sleepers awake and promptly die horribly, we realize that the starship has been at the bottom of another planet’s ocean for hundreds of years after Earth’s destruction, and that Christian Alvart’s relentlessly nerve-wracking film is, like Carpenter’s The Thing, about trust among the working class. Unlike Carpenter’s film, it ends with a very tentatively hopeful gesture.

Dollhouse, “Epitaph Two: Return” (2009)

nullJoss Whedon’s Dollhouse starred Eliza Dusku as Echo, a ‘doll’ implanted with an endless array of personalities with as many skills who are hired by the rich, corrupt and despicable for various purposes. After a dumbed-down first season that felt like a surreal, sub-par Alias with muted anti-objectification subtext, Fox left Whedon alone. The result: the bleakest show in network history.

Men ‘nested’ inside women's memories like cancers. ‘Dolls’ blew their brains out to stop becoming what men wanted, or were brain-wiped and stored in an ‘Attic’ like, well, broken dolls.

“Epitaph” suggests where Whedon would have gone with a third season. It’s 2020. Corporate misuse of Dollhouse technology has turned the world into a wasteland. Clutches of people know who they are; others have built agrarian lives built on false memories.

Echo and a small group of survivors believe that a pulse weapon can destroy all imprinting and return humanity to their real selves.The Onion’s Noel Murray compared Dollhouse’s artistic growth to “MacGyver [who] gradually morphed into Battlestar Galactica."  Yep.

I Am Legend (2007)

nullFor all Robert Neville knows, he’s the last man in Manhattan after an attempted cancer cure decimated most of the city’s population, save nocturnal “Daykseekers” that feed on those immune to the virus.

Neville—played with grace and gravity by Will Smith in what will be remembered as his greatest role—is an Army doctor who doesn’t give in to despair even as it tears at him.

Director Francis Lawrence takes shots of almost Malick-ian stillness in long shots of a strangely sylvan dead city, rendered in computer-assisted views of Manhattan landmarks overgrown with Nature softly amuck. There’s the tiny alien effect of being able to hear Neville’s German Shepard sniffle where once crowds would dwarf his loudest bark. Smith portrays the alienation, fear, and loneliness of his situation beautifully, while never going for pitiful. And that ending—what’s wrong with nobility again?

Priest (2011)

nullSomewhere in an unspecified post-apocalypse wasteland, The Church is led by a corrupt monsignor (Christopher Plummer) who rules with an iron Christian fist in the middle of a war between vampires and humans.

When a lovely young girl (Lily Collins) is kidnapped by rogue vampires, led by an uber-vamp Black Hat (Karl Urban), who doesn’t know the girl is the niece of a vamp-hunter named Priest (Paul Bettany), all hell breaks loose.

Before you know it, our rockin’ man of the cloth with the upside down crucifix face tattoo (!) is on his ultrasonic nitrocycle to save Lucy and teach Plummer a thing or two, eventually teaming with a priestess badass (Maggie Q).

Directed by Scott Stewart as if he lost his mind after watching The Searchers, Priest is the real successor to the Mad Max films, with about twenty gallons of sizzling sacrilegious transgression thrown in just because they could, and also the alien luster in Don Burgess’ purposefully monocolor images, as a gorgeous bonus feature.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-9)

nullTerminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the most conceptually daring television entry in the canon since the first film in 1984. Predictably, Fox axed it after a paltry thirty-one episodes.

Lena Headey took the titular role as the badass mother of John Connor, aka the man who will save us all from the world-destroying Terminators. Connor, meanwhile, is played by Thomas Dekker.

Guaranteeing the show its eternal place in Queer Media Studies is the other "woman" of the Conner household–a "good" Terminator dedicated to John’s survival. Her name is Cameron, and she's played by Joss Whedon regular Summer Glau in a hilariously discombobulated performance.

Showrunner Josh Friedman deftly ran this odd through plot lines that juggled Fugitive tropes, bits of bizarro-world domestic comedy, SF time paradoxes and action film storytelling—but what’s compelling now is the way its anti-corporate storylines mirror the general exhaustion of the Cheney era’s end.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

GREY MATTERS: Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

nullBlack Widow is the first hero seen in The Avengers, the latest entry in Joss Whedon's career-long feminist project. She does not immediately display the super powers enjoyed by the other Avengers—Captain America’s unnatural super-strength, The Hulk gamma-ray rage giant, Iron Man’s wearable rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot suit, or Thor’s hammer of the demi-gods. The only visibly super things about Black Widow are the latest in cat suit couture and a striking asymmetrical crimson bob. And yet she’s still able to trash a clutch of Russian scumbags with her hands tied behind her back. With a chair tied to her rear. While talking on her cell phone.

She’s also the sole Avenger that S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) trusts to convince Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to join Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Captain America (Chris Evans) in the fight against Thor’s psychotic brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, having stolen the ultimate source of power in the universe, the Tesseract, plans to use an alien army to devastate the Earth. (The plot ends there.)

As egos collide, Black Widow—street name, Natasha Romanova—is the only character who does not throw a monstrous hissyfit.  The only character to gather actionable intelligence against Loki from Loki. The character who not only literally kicks sense back into the brainwashed Hawkeye, but then absolves him of any sins performed while under the loony god’s spell.

You want fearless? When midtown Manhattan is swarming with thousands of robo-aliens, the dreaded Chitauri, Black Widow commandeers one of their slippery aero-sleds and flies it to steal Loki’s glowing phallic scimitar so as to save the world so Iron Man can blow up the aliens.

Oh—and the Tesseract? It’s female. I know this because everyone calls it by female pronouns—respectfully. How does that work? Well, the way all Whedon works: second viewings reveal not only layer after layer of multiple meanings, jokes piled on jokes, but seemingly random elements that are actual thematic glue. Nothing is never there without a reason.

Anyway, Black Widow! A worthy addition to Whedon’s female action bloodline, right? The flame-haired heir to Buffy, Faith, Kendra, River, Echo, Zoe, Fred, and Illyria, right?


Writing in The Guardian, Henry Barnes noticed Black Widow but could not be bothered to isolate just what she did in the film. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith dreamed of a Black Widow who would perform one errand and and then be gone.

The New York Daily News’ Joe Neimaier admitted that Black Widow “kickstarts” things, but by deleting her from the rest of his coverage, implied that was that. Still, that was a lavishment compared with the treatment by A.O. Scott, who in his New York Times review found it beneath himself to even give Black Widow a job description, while The Globe and Mail went with “token sexy female,” clearly hoping only young boys and people who hadn’t seen the film were reading.

Meanwhile, in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern claimed Black Widow “spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused,” while Steven Rea's Philadelphia Inquirer review dispensed with Black Widow’s name, suggesting we “watch Scarlett Johansson clench her brow” while in “Ninja garb.” The Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez wasn’t as generous—his single sentence also accused Johansson of playing dress-up, but, perhaps mercifully, did not specify what in.

Meanwhile, as if transported from another dimension, Kim Voynar’s Movie City News review both acknowledged Black Widow and lavished almost two paragraphs on Johansson’s terrific performance.

Over at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg took for granted what the aforementioned critics could or would not see. “The two characters least-well served by their previous incarnations in Marvel movies,” she wrote, “the Hulk and Black Widow, are the ones best served by Whedon’s greatest gifts and strongest tendencies.”

Rosenberg hit key reasons why Black Widow matters:

She never becomes a victim or a lesser member of the team. Her pain and exhaustion after a CG Marvel battles triggers our empathy, and centers us. And while all this superhero battling may look fun, without superhero augmentation, it must be terrifying. Johansson offers a true career-best turn here, easily negotiating splinter-thin spaces separating old pains and a chilly professionalism that hides we’re not sure what—regret? Denial? Lingering rage over the childhood abuse that turned her into Black Widow? It’s all hinted at as the actor works Whedon’s many shades of dark grey beautifully. In short, and despite all the Wagnerian bam-boom-pow, Whedon and his star never lose sight of the fact that Natasha is profoundly vulnerable, with nothing but smarts, heart and a .45 for protection.

Finally, AlterNet’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd cut to the chase and celebrated The Avengers’ “stark feminist perspective” and what she saw as fact: that “Johansson’s Black Widow is just as front-and-center as the rest of the cast.”

To which I can only say—exactly! And: isn’t this remarkable? Two parallel realities! Men who see nobody at all and women who see the next Faith (without the crazy, I mean). Don’t tell Disney, or they’ll be marketing the film as 4-D.

Jokes aside, how to explain this blanket amnesia?

If I were to be optimistic, I’d say this brand of blindness is about change happening too fast. Change is weird, scary and disorienting. And TV’s a great place for incremental change because it shows slow transformations occurring over time.

At first, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was, literally, a joke. A cheerleader fighting the undead! Hilarious! And she’s so unthreateningly cute! But over time, people came to believe in the take-charge slayer, until someone in Season Four’s “A New Man” [sic] episode could remark to Buffy that “You're, like, make the plan, execute the plan, no one giving you orders,” and instead of intimidation, there was a shrug. Because it was true.

And so over time people weren't alarmed when Alias’ Sydney Bristow nicked bits of the 007 crown. Or when a female Starbuck showed Han Solo-level energy in the new Battlestar Galactica.

But The Avengers moves so fast, with so many zingers, tiffs, explosions, turnarounds and implications that I’d like to think reviewers simply didn’t have time to process just how radically and playfully Whedon (whose mother co-founded Equality Now) cedes yards of traditionally male genre property and space to Black Widow. 

Some part of the male unconscious, down there where The Hulk lives, just didn't go for it.

How is there not at least one guy who can figure out how to fly Chitauricraft? Why is Captain America looking to Black Widow for strategic ideas in midtown Manhattan? And the greatest power of the universe is a She? How does that work?

Answer: It works so easily that The Avengers is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular films in human history. Maybe a mess of male critics can’t see a triumphant Black Widow in the malange of superheroes crowding the film. But in this election year defined by demeaning treatment of women, it’s encouraging to know that a whole lot of America can.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

SIMON SAYS: On THE AVENGERS, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

SIMON SAYS: On The Avengers, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

nullIn the beginning of The Avengers, when Hawkeye says, “Oh, I see better from a distance,” I feared the worst and I thought of Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce (1985) and X-Men (2000). I thought, “Oh god, that poor toad in the X-Men movie got hit by lightning and a bad line of dialogue all over again.” And I groaned mightily, albeit somewhat prematurely, because I thought that Joss Whedon was about to prove yet again that he, like most mortals, is fallible. Bear with me a moment—this will take some unpacking.

The Avengers, which for the record is mostly serviceable even if it is laughably contrived and underdone, was directed and scripted by Joss Whedon. Whedon is the grand geek poobah creator behind such cult projects as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He’s a singular voice in contemporary science fiction and fantasy who is famous for his complex characters and snappy dialogue, and he’s a major geek celebrity. But with Whedon’s storied reputation as a sharp pop artist also comes a series of incidents that have turned Whedon into a de facto martyr. Any time something goes wrong with a Whedon-related project, it’s assumed that it can’t be Whedon’s fault. That stigma of being misunderstood by people in power has only been enhanced by Whedon’s rocky history with 20th Century Fox. Let’s unpack that confusing relationship a little, as well.

First there was the script that Whedon wrote for Alien: Resurrection, a fairly unremarkable script in itself that was then turned into something different from Whedon’s original ideas. Which is basically, you know, what happens to most scripts when they get made into movies. Since Alien: Resurrection (1997), the fourth film in the 20th Century Fox’s Alien film franchise, had plenty of on-set production difficulties (for example: director Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t speak English), Whedon publically blamed the film’s director for the film’s numerous shortcomings. In a 2001 interview with the AV Club, Whedon complains:

I listened to half the dialogue in Alien 4, and I’m like, “That’s idiotic,” because of the way it was said. And nobody knows that. Nobody ever gets that. They say, “That was a stupid script,” which is the worst pain in the world[…]In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn’t make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what’s going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, “Can you just explain to me why he’s doing this? Why is he going for the gun?” And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face[…]”Because eet’s een the screept.” And I actually went and dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist. I have never been angrier. But it’s the classic, ‘What something goes wrong, you assume the writer’s a dork.’ And that’s painful.

Whedon has since publicly admitted that there were some shortcomings inherent in his script. Still, he’s only sharing blame here, though I wouldn’t really expect any screenwriter to fall on their creative sword and assume responsibility for everything that went wrong with Alien: Resurrection (it really is a mess, albeit an interesting one).

Then there was the cancellation of Firefly, a very strong science fiction TV show that Whedon created and directed. Firefly aired originally on Fox, but it was soon canceled after it failed to attract high ratings. After the show’s rabid fans banded together, Whedon got to write and direct Serenity, a feature-length theatrical release. The show has also been released on DVD, thanks to its vocal fans.

Then there was Dollhouse, a conceptually interesting but rarely well-executed science fiction/spy program about a high tech brothel where prostitutes who are secretly intelligence agents have their identities reprogrammed cybernetically to suit their clients’ desires. The show was teetering on the edge of cancellation after the first season. After heavy rewrites, the show was renewed for a second season, receiving relatively sturdier ratings, but the show was not renewed for a third season.

In between these three major events, there is a fairly minor but nonetheless relevant anecdote about Whedon’s work as a script doctor on X-Men, the first and mostly forgettable live-action film of Marvel Comics’ mutant superhero team. Whedon has taken credit for writing the line where Storm (Halle Berry), a mutant with powers to control the weather, taunts a villain named Toad by saying, “Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else." Whedon says that the line was not the problem but rather the line-reading, insisting that Berry read the line “like she was [The Addams Family’s] Desdemona.” I fear that, in this case, it’s the writer’s fault. No matter what sarcastic register Berry might have affected, that toad-frying line is dopey.

Whedon’s creative woes makes me think of Lifeforce and Dan O’Bannon, the acclaimed screenwriter of Dark Star and Alien, who complained of having his work significantly altered by director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Funhouse). Like O’Bannon before him, Whedon is a recognized talent with a respectable track record that infrequently climbs onto a cross for very silly reasons. Once again, a troubled production history and outlandish reports of Hooper’s unprofessional and unfocused behavior seem to have been confirmed by the tonally inconsistent and utterly bizarre film that was theatrically released. O’Bannon still took a check for the movie, but he grumbled intensely about it. He was misrepresented, and of course that had nothing to do how cheesy and flat-out bad an idea it is to have a naked energy vampire (Mathilda May, hubba hubba) virtually seduce everyone she meets on planet Earth.

Make no mistake, O’Bannon and Whedon have both made exemplary work. O’Bannon’s scripted a number of great projects, like Alien and Dark Star, and he’s even directed one of the very best horror-comedies, Return of the Living Dead (1985). Whedon’s TV work has similarly been consistently strong, and the handful of stories he wrote in the Astonishing X-Men comic book series was also pretty engaging.  But sometimes, it’s enough to just not say anything about work that’s not very good. This probably won’t happen with The Avengers. Whedon’s script is marred by garden-variety contrivance, but some of its ideas are rather underdone, especially the ones in the film’s first half-hour. Hawkeye’s line about “see[ing] better from a distance” is especially dismal when you consider that he’s being asked why he hasn’t involved himself in a group project. Renner delivers the line with a straight face. He could not have been misreading it, since Whedon also directed the film. That line is just a tediously literal-minded joke.

There aren’t many painfully awkward moments like this one in the rest of The Avengers, but there are a couple. For instance, Loki (Thomas Hiddleston) is first identified to viewers in the film by a character who unceremoniously blurts out, “Loki! The brother of Thor!” Or how about when Loki brainwashes Hawkeye in the film’s first twenty minutes, (not a spoiler, true believer!) after tapping his magic spear on Hawkeye’s chest and lamely declaiming, “Freedom is life’s great lie.” Just before tapping on Hawkeye’s breast and hypnotizing him into becoming one of his minions, Loki adds, “Once you accept that in your heart . . . you will know peace.” (Sort of a spoiler!) Simply put, these are bad lines. In the future, if Whedon complains about creative interference again without doing actively disowning the work, he’ll be leaving himself wide open to some really bad cardiac-arrest-related puns.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

GREY MATTERS: Cabin in the Woods, Horror in the Dumps

GREY MATTERS: Cabin in the Woods, Horror in the Dumps


***SPOILER ALERT: The following piece is one huge spoiler. So, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, consider yourself forewarned.***

If we’re lucky, The Cabin in the Woods will shut down the debased American horror movie machine for a good long while. God knows the damned thing has been creatively moribund for decades and hasn’t had a new idea since Scream, unless you count turning cinemas into torture porn abattoirs as new.

And actually, that was a main reason Joss Whedon co-wrote Cabin with friend and Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Drew Goddard a few years back: as a protest of Hostel and movies of its ilk.

But Cabin—directed by Goddard—got stalled during MGM’s bankruptcy, and here it is, a dark echo of The Hunger Games, another film about kids trapped in psychotically violent arenas. This one, though, gives equal time to the people behind those funny games.

We know this because, right off, the words “CABIN IN THE WOODS” are hilariously stamped over a freeze frame of said masterminds, a bunch of middle management types in lab coats played by Richard Jenkins (delightfully worn out), Bradley Whitford, and Whedon regular Amy Acker. They joke, place bets, and work as surrogates for anyone grinding another massacre movie out during this period of the genre’s debasement.

Meanwhile, five teens get ready to vacation at the eponymous cabin. There’s Jules (Anna Hutchison), the blond who’s only dumb, it turns out, because her Clairol was secretly doped by agents of the lab (!). And Dana (Kristen Connolly), the “mostly virgin” redhead. And Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the hunk, and Holden (Jesse Williams), who’s the nice guy. And stealing the movie like he stole Whedon’s Dollhouse is Fran Kranz, as Marty the stoner.

As the teens drive “off the grid,” the stations of the Craven/Raimi cross are dully ticked off: road to nowhere. Creepy in-bred dude at gas station. And, finally, the saggy-roof cabin itself, courtesy of Evil Dead.

Once inside, Weird Shit happens. Freaky mirrors. Creepy toys. A text written in Latin is read aloud. Zombies rise. And then the violence begins, and we realize that this “cabin” and “woods” were controlled by the lab from the start of the movie, part of a vast underground installation that makes everyone do stupid horror movie stuff ending in sacrificial deaths meant to appease an Entity older than Time, blah blah blah….

Goddard/Whedon stage the first kill with savage efficiency. Three shots: girl gets aroused. Girl shows breasts. Girl gets bloodily skewered. Hip male critics love to excuse this in other films—well, Cabin says, excuse this. (Would the apologists be so enthused if films routinely showed penises being violently, bloodily liberated from their original owners? I know, I know: “Ian, you’re, like, so literal.”)

Generic zombies terrorize and kill in an efficient parody of the prototypical zombie story, which unfortunately drags the film until Marty and Dana break into the installation and find hundreds of Plexiglas cube-cages housing as many monsters for every possible teen kill scenario.

As a black opps cadre confronts Marty and Dana, the latter locates a Staples-style red button that, when pushed, handily opens the cube-cages, and . . . cowabunga! It’s the greatest monster mash in movie history!

It’s as if these beasts flew, crawled and slithered straight out of the last time American horror seethed with invention, due to a cultural cauldron boil of Thriller, the anxieties of Mutually Assured Destruction and AIDS, heavy metal, MTV, MIDI, perms, and a general global urge to out-crazy the next guy. The 80s.

The 80s could cough up an allegory for identity existentialism in the ever-shifting surrealist monster of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the sexed-up, Lovecraftian latex abstractions from From Beyond, and still have time to create a monster metaphor for AIDS in The Fly. (And because Joss is such an Anglophile, Hellraiser and its Pinhead, the poster boy for S&M perversity in the plague years, are directly riffed on here in the form of another leather/razor creature, named “Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain” in the credits.)

Speaking of politics—and you could—George Romero practically screamed his zombie-metaphor leftism in Day of the Dead while Wes Craven reported Haiti’s long suffering under dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier in The Serpent and the Rainbow.

All of those movies, plus Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and dozens more comprise what turned out to be the final flowering of America’s dark imagination, and that’s what’s celebrated in Cabin’s monster mash.

And when all that’s left is a vast pool of blood, it’s like a sanguine sigh, because we all know there’s no room for such lunatic invention in American cinema, not any more.

But I digress.

Cabin ends with a trans-supernatural “Director” urging the campers to use their "free will" to die the way she tells them to. Marty and Dana choose to smoke one last doobie and let the world go to hell. What Whedon asks is: is a species that enjoys watching the graphic rape of a decapitated girl's head and worse in movies like, say, the French High Tension really worth the bother?

Cabin can’t help but be the most slight of Whedon’s efforts, mostly because even a mood master can’t quite negotiate the switches from slaughter to light comedy needed—he’s just not heartless enough. We’re just getting used to the idea that our pitiful heroes might escape, for instance, when one of them motorbikes into what turns out to be a force field that fries him like a gnat in a bug zapper. Cool effect. Which is kind of hilarious. Except then you’re like, "Wait, wasn’t I starting to like this guy?" And yeah, everyone knows Whedon is hoisting us on the petards of our affections—except we never had enough time to really like the zapped biker, so we’re in emotional limbo.

Still, what works is often funny. Goddard directs his first feature with impressive élan, and damned if that monster melee doesn’t inspire: it’s made by people who know that horror cinema can be great art or even awesome trash, carrying out a holy war against what it’s turned into. Plus—if you miss the evil white unicorn, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

But Whedon just can’t hew to the mission statement of creating teen kill archetypes: unable to resist the urge to create characters, he lands somewhere in between sometimes. He can’t even hate the engineers before starting to understand what it would be like having such a soul-killing job. He’s just too humane.

Cabin could, of course, actually fail in its intentions, as it inspires the industry to issue idiot look-alikes about entrapment scenarios that reference other movies, leading us to find, yet again, that nothing can drive a stake in the postmodern monster, because it lives freely on past dreams of the dead, no matter how much you scream.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.