Joss Whedon and Self-Referential Storytelling
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
In his recent interview in Entertainment Weekly (which can be read in part here) Joss Whedon mentions his dislike of movies that are not self-contained stories in and of themselves. As Mike Ryan describes in his reaction to the interview –
One of the most interesting moments of James Hibbard’s excellent EW interview with Joss Whedon comes just after a discussion about what’s wrong with the ending to The Empire Strikes Back, when Whedon shifts his point slightly to focus on a self-referential moment during Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (To read the full interview, you will have to buy a copy of Entertainment Weekly.)
“A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? … That’s what you don’t want. And I feel that’s what all of culture is becoming — it’s becoming that moment.”
Whedon’s comment fascinated me. On one hand, I can see that Whedon might still be dealing with some unresolved bitterness about not being allowed to actually finish some of his best stories. But the idea that our culture is becoming that moment—a self-referential pastiche of stories—intrigues me. But unlike Whedon, I don’t see this as a bad thing. In fact, I believe it is the only way cultures know how to survive.
Real life is not an action/adventure film. The stories of our lives are not those of independent heroes emerging to fight arbitrary villains and then living happily ever after. We tell our stories by placing ourselves in an ongoing context of other’s stories. To stave off the chaos, we gather the fragments of the known to shore up our own stability. This is just how culture works.
In describing this aspect of culture, Richard Kearney brilliantly summarizes Paul Ricoeur –
“Each society, explains Ricoeur, invokes a tradition of mythic idealization through which it may be aligned with a stable predictable, and repeatable order of meanings. This frequently assumes the form of an ideological reiteration of the founding act of the community. It seeks to redeem society from the crises of the present by justifying actions in terms of some sanctified past, some sacred beginning. We could cite here the role played by the Aeneas myth in Roman society or the cosmology myths in Greek society, or indeed, the Celtic myths of Cuchulain and the Fianna in Irish society. Where an ancient past is lacking, a more recent past will suffice – the Declaration of Independence for the United States, the October Revolution for the former Soviet Union, and so on.”
Where in the past cultures have turned to foundational myths as their self-referential source of stability, the postmodern world finds its fragments in the ubiquity of pop culture. The movies we love, the songs we listen to, the books we read, the games we play, the sports teams we route for – these become, as William Dyrness comments, “the building blocks of our personal and group identity.” To surround ourselves with such things is to reassure ourselves of our identity and hence our stability. We tell our story by referencing these other stories. We hang movie posters in our bedrooms and wear Wonder Woman or Superman underroos when we are young, wear our favorite brand or team logo proudly when we are older (be that Polo and Gucci or DC Comics and Star Wars), and make our favorite TV shows the ones that reference our other favorite aspects of culture (Gilmore Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Chuck, Community, Parks and Recreation…). We share our playlists on Facebook and find community in constructing a fantasy football team. Our stories are constant series of self-referential moments. Our culture has already become this moment whether Joss Whedon fears it or not. These are the fragments we are shoring against our ruins.
Unlike Whedon, I like the ending of Empire Strikes Back because it isn’t self-contained – forcing Return of the Jedi to build off what came first. The story continues and I have to know what came before in order to move forward. Even as the credits roll, the audience knows that the story of the rebel alliance did not end in the ceremonial hall on Yavin or even in the Ewok village on Endor, Empire just made that truth more apparent. The Avengers eventually left the shawarma place to deal with the aftermath. Cinderella’s fairy tale wedding is just the beginning of her story not the definition of happily ever after. No story is ever self-contained, so we must continually gather fragments to build the new—to construct frameworks for our stories that we then flesh out. That we are living in a self-referential uncontained moment in our culture is not something to lament, but simply a lens to help us understand our own stories and the way we tell them. For if we don’t understand the context we are building upon it becomes far more difficult to continue with a coherent or creative plot into the next chapter.