Monday, October 6, 2008

Textual Poaching, Intertextuality and the Action Figures They Produce

So I'm enjoying my full immersion into the Joss Whedon Universe (or more properly, Whedonverse) as I do research for a paper on Firefly (in collboration with This Guy) and work my way through Whedon's original Buffy and its spin-off/parrallel show Angel. Spending time in all three 'verses at once really brings Whedon's core themes to the surface, and he just keeps blowing my mind.

Most recently I watched the Angel episode "Are You Now or Have you Ever Been..." (nodding to the Mcarthyism themes throughout the episode) which is a largely a flashback to the 1950's wherein Angel, (the vampire with a soul) is keeping a low profile in LA. When a scene opened on the LA Observatory, I immediately said "Okay- how are they going to reference "Rebel Without A Cause"? You really can't shoot anything involoving the Griffith Observatory without evoking the climactic scenes from the James Dean classic.

Well, the camera pulls back to reveal David Boreanaz as Angel wearing the iconic red windbreaker, white T-shirt and dark jeans of James Dean's Rebel character Jim. Going further, we hear the female character introduce herself as Judy- also the name of Natalie Wood's character in Rebel. Judy (who looks strikingly like Natalie Wood as well) goes on to talk about the planetarium show about the end of the world, which is also the show the students in Rebel watch at the beginning of the film. So no question about it- Whedon is unabashedly underlining Rebel Without a Cause.

But the intertextual detective in me started wondering why? If one text references another, then the intertext must have some significance of shared or contrasted meaning. But other than both stories having to do with people rejected by or rejecting society, the intertext just didn't make sense to me, not to the extent of its prominence. That's when I had to reflect on the idea of textual poaching, which Ian introduced to me in his paper on Fandom and the works of Joss Whedon. With textual poaching, it's not so much about drawing parallels between the two texts, but in sparking recognition for the viewer. Therefore, using the imagery, costumes and names from Rebel Without A Cause is really just paying honor to the iconic film and James Dean, and inviting the viewer to do the same.

It's an opportunity for the viewer to recongize something and feel included in the storytelling, moreso than adding to the story being told. It's kind of post-modern intertextuality I guess. For me, seeing the observatory and anticipating James Dean references then having them ready and waiting for me, was the best part of watching the episode. Yeah, it was a smart and moving story, but the moment where I recognized "James Dean" and "Judy" made me feel like I was on the same page with Joss Whedon- like I was in on the inside joke, or at least the inside homage to great filmmaking. It didn't have to mean anything more than that.

What I'm not-so-on-the-same-page with is the action figures Fandom can lead to- this is the Angel figure made specifically from this episode. He's got the James Dean jacket on and comes with an ax, a noose and a liter of blood. You can make your toy Angel textually poach your GI Joes I guess.


Keepitmoving said...

I guess the pop songs snaggged for Moulin Rouge might not be quite the same thing, but I've always felt that the reason they work- more than a newly written song might- is because they bring along all the baggage of the original. (You know, whatever shiz was going down when the song was popular) The reference recognition makes you feel like you're "in" on something and therefore closer to the story. Weather it makes a logical, real time acknowledgment of it's predecessor, seems irrelevant.

It's like a low budget time traveling device that delivers you into the proper bubble in which to receive the new message.

On another note... I've been trying to get into Firefly, but am not quite there. I love the weird planets, the future & space thing but find the writing and acting distracting. Ok, so you're going to speak in some new future (made up) language one second and an like an uneducated cowboy the next? I haven't heard the word ain't that many times since my friends and I use to talk like old "Mainers' growing up. It just doesn't seem real enough to me but I really want it to, because I think it could be fun!

Kj said...

a) Moulin Rogue is a great example. I'm not sure whether its really textual poaching, intertextuality or just communal memory/music interpolation, but whatever it is, it worked for me the way you described so well.

b) sorry firefly isn't doing it for you. I say the film "Serenity" first, so that might have bridged the gap more- not sure. As far as the language- that's one of my favorite things. after all, its 500 years in the future- 500 years ago we were saying thee, thou and forsooth. i can imagine planetary pioneers in the future will still make good use of the word ain't, which continues to gain strength in tons of neighborhood and regional dialects (in many cases, more hip hop than redneck)

but i hope it turns a corner for you eventually- we'll have to discuss this over the phone sometime :)