Author: Foz Meadows
It’s ten past nine on Friday night, and the line outside the Melbourne Town Hall extends right around the corner into Flinders Lane. Lines, I should say – there are two of them, one on either side of the building. My line is for the stalls, while my husband, whose ticket is for the gallery, ends up on Flinders Street proper. You can tell instantly which members of the passing crowd are keynote ticketholders: even without the blue and pink hair, the red and black clothing and geeky t-shirts, there’s a look in their eyes on spying the queue that instantly gives them away. Thankfully, the wait isn’t long. With an uncommon combination of speed and decorum, we’re ushered inside and up the stairs to the auditorium. Soft jazz is playing; the stage is shadowed, but the image of two iconographic Japanese prints – a cresting wave and a man in a boat – are clearly visible as the backdrop. An homage to geek culture, or mere coincidence? The latter feels likely as, by pure chance, I end up seated alongside a girl from work. We chat and wait. This might be my first festival, but even so, there’s a definite sense that tonight’s audience is not composed of mainstream attendees. By and large, it seems, we’re the opposite.
Then Joss Whedon walks out, and the crowd goes wild.
The MC is Sue Turnbull, a woman who – or so Google adroitly informs me – is an associate professor in Media Studies at La Trobe University. Her first question, prompted by anecdote, is as follows: “How does it feel to be God?”
Inwardly, I wince, there being no possible answer to such an inquiry that isn’t 90% flippant or 100% wank. True to form, Whedon opts for the former approach. “Well,” he drawls, “I made the mountains, and they’re good, but I don’t believe in me. It’s awkward.”
Yes, it is, and the audience laughs. But what else can they do?
Being a professor of Media Studies, it seems, is not enough to guarantee an understanding of popular culture. Turnbull has clearly done her homework, but the fact that it is homework, rather than innate knowledge, is obvious from the outset. In one sense, Whedon is everything that I expect him to be – funny, wry, a solid off-the-cuff speaker, self-depricating, confident even in his professions of un-confidence – but for all that, he shows us very little of himself. Each of Turnbull’s questions has been asked a thousand times before, as she herself admits in the asking of them, using previous interviews as a launching point for almost identical queries. The result is a strangely one-sided dialogue, wherein Whedon uses offhand humour to distance himself from the awed unoriginality of his interviewer. Speaking of his early career in scriptwriting, he says, “I didn’t want to make Sundance movies where the characters all sit in a room and talk about each other,” while describing himself as being “a little distancing and strange…I do think that I might have a slight disconnect in my brain.”
Throughout the interview, Whedon sits relaxed, elbows resting casually against the tops of his legs, only gesticulating to emphasise particular points. He speaks like a man for whom everyday conversation is just a different sort of script; the kind of thing you can work at in your spare time, so that it comes out as effortlessly in real life as it does on screen. His plays to the crowd are reflexive, rather than to attention-seeking: not unstudied, because they clearly represent a conversational gambit with which he is intimately acquainted, but employed as barriers to a more personal species of honesty. Party tricks. And good ones, too. But it’s not until the audience starts asking their own questions that we see him open up – about the evils of corporations, the inspiration behind his more damaged, poetical characters, and the importance of egotism in success.
By all accounts, Whedon’s career abounds with superficial contradictions. Of his four cult TV shows, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse were all cancelled, while the first and most famous, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “ended every year”. He is, I cannot help thinking, a man caught between extremes: either his work is praised so vociferously as to prevent intelligent analysis (Turnbull’s opening gambit) or met with punishment so disproportinate to its failings (his trio of cancellations) that his default mix of humour and braggadocio reads like the only behavioural compromise guaranteed to keep him on his feet. Which isn’t to say that that his creations lack for smart commentary – rather, that what’s said to his face, as opposed to in writing, tends to veer more sharply towards the extremes. Despite the trademark witty banter of his scripts, Joss Whedon’s public life seems to lack – and yearn – for exactly that. His fans speak eloquently of his brilliance, while his enemies are as devious a passel of ill-intentioned strawmen as Hollywood could wish for. In comic book terms, what he needs is a worthy adversary – either that, or a fast-mouthed sidekick. Someone who can match him word for word, oppose him where need be, and yet remain worthy of respect. Interestingly in this sense, he laments the rise of such post-modern comic books adaptations as The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass which, in his opinion, are prematurely deconstructing the genre. “Can’t we construct it first?”
All in all, though, the night is a positive experience. They say you should never meet your heroes, but insofar as watching from the safety of the audience can constitute a meeting, I’ m prepared to call this one a success. When asked what he wants to be doing in ten years’ time, Whedon grins. “I’d like to have finished a book,” he says. “In ten years, I’ll be sleepy.”