Monthly Archives: April 2010

Together Again: Onscreen Actor Reunions and Viewer Pleasure

Watching last night’s  Justified (“Blind Spot”), I exclaimed aloud when I realized that Ray McKinnon was playing the week’s shady character.  Anybody reading this blog knows that I’m perhaps more attuned to character actors than I should be, but that’s not what caused me to clap my hands like a child who just got her first glimpse at birthday cake.  Ray McKinnon played Rev. H.W. Smith on Deadwood with Justified‘s star, Timothy Olyphant.  The two, sadly, never shared the screen on Justified, but I still felt the trill of happiness when I thought that the two actors were inhabiting the same universe again.  But why?  Why do I find pleasure in a casting happenstance?

Timothy Olyphant on Justified. Intrigued?

Certainly part of it is the pleasure of recognition–and in this example, a particular recognition that leads to intertextual cultural capital transference– and of insider knowledge.  Knowing that these two actors previously shared credits in a little-seen but much-lauded other television text lends cultural capital not only to me, the viewer, for recognizing the connection, but also the text itself through intertextual linkages.  Deadwood fans who recognize McKinnon on Justified are instantly reminded of the other brilliant-but-canceled program, and some of the nostalgia and pleasure related to Deadwood overlays onto Justified.  Moreover, the appearance has no “wink” at the audience or acknowledgment of the intertextuality so the pleasure in the moment of recognition also gains from the pleasure of solving a puzzle, but a puzzle that much of the audience–one assumes–can’t even see let alone solve.

I think the latter explanation for the sense of pleasure lies at the heart of what I felt.  It resembles the kind of pleasure surrounding cult fandom as a way to exceptionalize the self in regard to vast swaths of apparent sameness.  Part of the pleasure of being a fan of a cult text is the sense of distinction (generally without being elitist) from the masses through knowing and appreciating a text that few know.  This is perhaps easiest seen in an example of two cult texts meeting through actors: Kristen Bell guest starring on Party Down, which stars various former Veronica Mars actors.

Veronica Mars, still able to own Dick Casablancas

Though the characters are far removed from those they played on Veronica Mars, the relationship between Uda and Kyle on Party Down partially resembles the relationship between Veronica and Dick on Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell’s character is smarter, more powerful, and utterly competent at her job than Kyle and can therefore dictate with authority Ryan Hansen’s shallow, dumb, arrogant character.  It’s as if Veronica and Dick somehow entered an alternate universe where they’re caterers.  On such stuff is AU fanfic made on.

Michael Vartan and Bradley Cooper, Alias stars (friends?) on Kitchen Confidential

But there’s at least one more level of pleasure these actor reunions elicit: the extra-textual idea that the actors themselves derive pleasure from being able to work together again.  With certain series, especially those constantly on the brink of cancellation and/or with cult status, the actor narratives that persist are those that position the cast as a family.  Group interviews, appearances at fan conventions, and the occasional candid shot of the stars outside the context of the show create the narrative that these actors actually really like each other and enjoy working together.  This serves a few purposes: 1) It undermines the construction of actors (through connection with a common construct of “stars”) as selfish narcissists; 2)It adds an affective layer to the emotions and connections portrayed within the text between the actors (drawing on the “realism” of the emotions); and 3) for canceled cult shows, it comforts fans and can keep hope of one more iterations of the text alive (see: Arrested Development movie rumors).

Victor Garber is Jennifer Garner's Spydaddy even after the end of Alias

Some combination of all of the above elicited the admittedly girlish giggle of delight and aforementioned hand-clapping in me when I see actors reunited in a different television universe.  Am I alone in this feeling?  Perhaps in my explanations of them, but a cursory look at fan reaction to last night’s Justified proves that others similarly take pleasure in seeing actors reunited onscreen.  These slanted reunions represent an interesting intersection of text, intertext, and extra-text that certainly bears more investigation (and at least from me, more giggling outbursts in my living room).

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The TV Character Actor in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Garret Dillahunt and the Deconstruction of Aura

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I am not very well versed in star studies.  For someone who knows about that, check out Annie Peterson’s blog.  What I will be arguing is not so much about star studies, anyway, because in the acting hierarchy “character actor” is not the same as “star.”  Instead, I want to analyze one television character actor, Garret Dillahunt, and the trend of his recent appearances in deconstructing through inversion the idea of “aura.”

The unflappable Garret Dillahunt on White Collar

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the aura of a work of art becomes degraded through reproduction.  Moreover, he extends his argument to film actors, writing, “The aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays. [. . .] The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity” (Benjamin).  Though Benjamin argues regarding film, certainly the reproduction central to television distribution fits his argument as well.

Character actors share the “star” characteristic of being bringing a “personality” to their roles, for often character actors make their living by being typecast.  This plays not only on the intertextuality of their roles but also on the illusion of “aura” the actor can give a character.  The idea behind casting a character actor is for the audience to be able to instantly know what type of person he or she is supposed to be.  Go to That Guy! and you can sketch a general character for each actor.

Hey, it's that guy! (on Life)

With Garret Dillahunt, you can still read him as a “bad guy” through his cold stare and austere look, but there is something else.  Over the last few years, Dillahunt has played more ciphers than characters, or to be more accurate, he’s the character actor of choice when your character IS a cipher.  His characters are always more a flexible reflection of the plot or other characters (or his character’s own play-acting) than a set individual.  He’s played robot terminators, slippery mafia dons, killers, con men, and spies, but his characters are always a bit of a closed circuit.  This is done purposefully.  The “aura” that he brings to his character roles is precisely a lack of “aura.”  He could be anyone because he plays lack of specific character so well.

The following clip illustrates this inversion of “aura” nicely.  From Dillahunt’s appearance on Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, he plays “John Henry” with the body of a Terminator from the future and the first Terminator programming as his mind.

There’s a blankness to Dillahunt in almost all of his roles, a deliberate separation from both a connection with the viewer and a connection with the characters with whom he shares the screen.  It’s not that he’s a static actor, unable to connect.  His film roles tend to take him more in that direction (see especially his comedic performance as wide-eyed Wendell in No Country for Old Men), but on television, his blankness has become his “aura.”  His lack of “aura” intentionally draws attention to Benjamin’s articulation of the modern withering of “aura” in filmic media and actors.  However, Garret Dillahunt serves as a counterexample, a deconstruction of the idea of “aura” based around original/copy or character/cipher, for his recent roles reverse and displace these binaries–and their implied hierarchies–by making the cipher the character and the copy the original.  The idea of difference in undermined through inversion.  Dillahunt can play machine because he embraces the mechanical reproduction of character.  His blankness is valued in his villain characters because it captures the terrifying ramifications of the destruction of personal “aura” in the age of mechanical (and now more-widespread digital) reproduction.

Sometimes even the chyron doesn't know what to make of him.

Image credits:

1. Unflappable

2. Hey, it’s that guy!

3. Chyron

“I’m not alright, but neither are you”: Fetishized Objects and Melodrama on Supernatural

Thursday night, I found myself in the unusual position of trying to explain to someone why seeing a Supernatural character (Dean) throw away a necklace emotionally wrecked me. I had trouble articulating all the symbolic meanings in that one act, particularly the complex emotional construction that had imbued the amulet over the last five seasons. Being an aca-fan, I figured I’d turn my consternation into analysis: Why is this one object so powerful and how did it get that way?  What is going on within the text to so fetishize (not the Freudian psycho-sexual use of the term) this amulet?  It’s gone beyond symbolism to have a power–relational though it is–within itself.  Are there other objects that operate similarly on the show?

Season one Dean (with amulet): so happy, so long ago

First, the scene itself.  In the foreground is Castiel, the angel who is helping Sam (background) and Dean (midground) fight the apocalypse.  Earlier in the season, Dean had loaned Castiel his amulet because it was supposed to aid in Cas’ quest to find God (who through the angel Joshua just told the boys God’s not going to intervene).

The last thirty seconds of that clip (and the episode) are entirely wordless.  The moment is so emotional that it moves beyond words.  It emphasizes the melodramatic mode that has increasingly become a part of the series.  As Thomas Elsaesser writes in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” in melodrama there is often “the feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said” (Film Genre Reader III 377).  Melodrama–be it as a genre or mode–tends to sublimate that which cannot be said (usually complex emotions or emotional complexes) into mise-en-scene: music, lighting, framing, decor, etc.  In this scene, the music, the cuts from Dean’s back and hand to Sam’s face in close up highlight the significance of the act, but only regular viewers would be able to read the various powers and emotions the amulet holds as fetish for their brotherly bond.

The amulet itself is an aspect of costume design for Dean since the pilot but whose origin wasn’t explained until the third season, in Christmas flashbacks:

This scene explains why Dean has never taken off the amulet in the 50+ episodes to this point: it’s a fetish for Sam’s love and trust for him that by his wearing it becomes an active pact of brotherly trust.  The Winchester brothers live transient lifestyles with very few permanent objects in their lives, so the amulet’s ever-presence gives it more authority in this show and its context than it could have in another context.

Sam keeps their covenant alive by wearing the amulet while Dean is dead (the four months between seasons 3 and 4), implying that the bond symbolized by the amulet is reciprocal.  It’s not just Sam’s trust in Dean that give it power for Dean; Sam wears it as a reminder, remnant, and seed of his brotherly bond, continuing even after Dean is dead. When Sam gives it back to Dean, it recalls the earlier, original scene of giving which heightens the power of the amulet-as-fetish.  Both brothers inscribed their bond into it by wearing it.

Sam wears it to maintain the bond while Dean's dead

Dean reclaims the amulet, reinscribing it as a fetish for their bond

Sam gave Dean the amulet when they were children; Dean wore it constantly for 16 years until he died; then Sam wore it during Dean’s time in Hell.  Dean reclaims it upon his raising from perdition, and wears it faithfully even through what he perceives as Sam’s betrayals and selfish actions, until he reluctantly gives it to Castiel to help him find God (and he warns Castiel explicitly not to lose it).  Yet when he gets the amulet back from Cas, he doesn’t put it on, doesn’t even put it among his things.  Instead, he lets Castiel call it worthless and implicitly agrees by dropping it in the rubbish bin, slowly, performing this act in front of Sam, because of Sam, for Sam’s benefit.  He understands the power of the fetish as much as he understands the power of his denial of the fetish.

There is, however, some precedent for this act.  Dean is positioned as a character that strongly identifies a few key objects with the few people he loves.  In episode 3.10 “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” Dean faces his dark double in his dreamworld:

Dark Dean: I mean after all, you got nothing outside of Sam. You are nothing. You’re as mindless and obedient as an attack dog.

Dean: That’s not true.

DD: No? What are the things you want? What are you things you dream? Your car? That’s Dad’s. Your favorite leather jacket? Dad’s. Your music? Dad’s. Do you even have an original thought? All there is is watch out for Sammy! Look out for your little brother, boy! You can still hear your dad’s voice in your head, clear as a bell.

Dean’s esteem issues fill entire worlds of fan discussion, but the car is perhaps the most key piece of evidence for my argument.  The 1967 Chevy Impala is often said to be the third main character of the show and the only permanent home the boys have had.  So in 3.02 “Everybody Loves a Clown,” when Dean attacks the Impala with a crowbar, it’s another incidence of emotions bursting into the melodramatic mode by Dean’s desecration and denial of a key emotional/relational fetish.

In this scene, we can perhaps see hope regarding the final seconds of “Dark Side of the Moon” and the disavowal of the amulet.  Though Dean destroys part of the Impala as he is trying to reclaim it after an accident, the next episode sees the car back in full force as both a means of conveyance and a fetish for the Winchester home.

Metallicar, the third Winchester

Dean is still broken, but he knows that using the fetish to express his anger is not the end of the fetish’s power.  Similarly, though Dean discards the amulet-fetish in his depression and disappointment, from the look on Sam’s face and the ceremony of Dean’s action we know that the power of the fetish still exists, ready to be reclaimed and repaired, likely in a scene with more to tell than can be said.