Firefly and Western Literature
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The Good, the Bad, and Melinda Clarke

Picking up on a comment that Neil made earlier about the presence of actress Melinda Clarke in both Firefly and CSI: Crime Scene Investigations (which he describes as being, like Firefly, a postwestern), I took a look back at one of the episodes of CSI in which Clarke plays Lady Heather, “The Good, The Bad and The Dominatrix” (Season 7, May 2007). In the opening sequence, the character Lady Heather plays the role of Old West lady of the evening, somewhat similar to the role actress Melinda Clark plays in Firefly, as the owner of the brothel that the crew tries to rescue in “Heart of Gold.”

The CSI episode is set in an Old West theme park, and the teaser plays up the western setting (it’s about a minute or so long):

There are a number of western conventions here, particularly the sounds of the wind whistling, spurs jingling, and then the visual imagery of lights swinging in the wind (and I believe I see a tumbleweed sweeping across the street), and, of course, the classic entry of the cowboy through the saloon doors. Those conventions are interestingly combined with horror film conventions, particularly the flickering of lightning throughout, and the low angle shot of the cowboy bursting through the door would not be out of place in Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein. Likewise, the swaying lights inside create a lighting pattern that recalls the discovery of “mother” in Psycho. I guess the question the sequence asks, is our cowboy a hero or a monster?

I was headed for a Lady Heather/Nandi comparison (or perhaps contrast), but I’m not quite there yet. Lady Heather is both role playing and deadly serious, her role playing a kind of attempted suicide as she refuses (I think) to say the safety word that would tell her client when to stop choking her. I guess the similarity I see may be one between the two characters. At one point, Mal tells Nandi, admiringly, “You’re my kind of stupid,” as she decides to stay the course, if you will, and fight back despite the superior firepower of her enemy. Perhaps both Nandi and Heather are Mal’s “kind of stupid,” strong-willed but setting off down dangerous paths.


2 Responses to “The Good, the Bad, and Melinda Clarke”

  1. In so many ways the postings and comments generated around the points made about Firefly help me to further explore what I mean when I refer to the show as an example of the postwestern. People watching it cannot help but refer to the intertextual fabric of Whedon’s work – the manner through which he opens up the field of the text to possible readings and sources. Thus comments see within it the Westerns and Western references (as well as Sci_Fi andCSI and whatever) – not because the show is an example of ‘exhausted’ popular culture — on the contrary — precisely because Whedon understands he is making TV for generations schooled on TV anf Film, who see the world through a special prism, a resevoir of cultural images (OUR FIELD IMAGINARY). Thgus the depth of the references adds to our pleasure and allows the maker of the show to enhance the experience without necessarily compromising the effect. The studio might have wanted to avoid the Western in Firefly, but Whedon could have it there constantly through utilising what his audiences already knew – their ‘textual unconscious’ of Western iconographies.

    This is part of what postwestern can mean – that which comes AFTER and goes BEYOND the Western (in its Classic form), creating dialogues with what we know in order to generate something new and different, something (perhaps) critical and playful — as I put it in an earlier entry on the Firefly genre (borrowing from Derrida) it can ‘participate without belonging’. It is a haunted form for me because within it are the spectres of other forms, shadows and glimpses that engage and annoy, titillate and challenge, surprise and mystify …

    Firefly is postwestern and rhizomatic – it shifts, grows, breaks from genre and yet sprouts anew as soomething different or the same elsewhere … from sci-fi to western to crime story to romance to humour to parodic mystery ….

    Although I don’t discuss Firefly there, many of these ideas are developed in my book The Rhizomatic West (University of Nebraska Press 2008).

  2. To continue the point:

    Key to this argument on the postwestern as rhizomatic and mutating is the concept of ‘recyclability’ of past texts within new ones, for as Jim Collins states it works as an ‘inheritance’ of imagery and narrative that can be re-used and re-valued in ways that challenge the nature of genre from its earlier three-stage definition: emergence, establishment, and decline. Developing Collins’ argument, it is as if the visual ghosts of cinematic memory; the DVD store, TV, or on-line download allow the experience to alter, bringing back the ‘old’ and the ‘familiar’ from the genre’s past actively into the present. This uncannily alters the development of specific genres and the ‘function of genre films’ because they now exist ‘in reference to, and through the array that constitutes the landscape’ from which they have emerged, flourished and declined. The resulting ‘sophisticated hyperconsciousness’, as Collins calls it, permeates any consideration of genre, such as his excellent use of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future III, set in the West of the 1880s.

    Importantly, ‘post’ in post-Western always signifies, as Stuart Hall writes in a discussion of post-colonialism, ‘not only “after” but “going beyond” … as post-modernism is both “going beyond” and “after” modernism, and post-structuralism both follows chronologically and achieves its theoretical gains “on the back of” structuralism.’ Crucially the post-Western as I am defining it functions in just such a manner whereby any strict linearity or progression is broken by the inter-relationship between forms — ‘a shift or transition conceptualised as the reconfiguration of the field, rather than as the movement of linear transcendence between two mutually exclusive states’ — and hence the classical Western and its ‘post-Western’ forms ‘never operated in a purely binary way’ but interact, overlap and inter-relate in complex dialogical ways dramatised centrally in these films. As Derrida has put it, to re-invoke terms I used earlier, ‘there is no contemporaneity, and the posthumous is already here … [and so] we would have to transform the problematic and take into account the fact that from the very beginning, posthumousness inhabits the work’.

    My point is that Firefly is a posthumous and postwestern text in this sense, bringing back to life what others (the Studio for Whdon) see as ‘dead’ forms (the Western), finding new ways to regenerate, reanimate the genre.

    [Jim Collins’ ‘Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity’ in J. Collins, H. Radner, A. Preacher Collins, Film Theory Goes to the Movies: Cultural Analysis of Contemporary Film (AFI Film Readers) 1993), 244.
    Stuart Hall, ‘When was the postcolonial: Thinking at the limit’, in Iain Chambers, Lidia Curti (eds), The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (London: Routledge, 1996), 253]

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