Catch-Up Catch-All Blog Post of Doom! MusicfestNW, Dollhouse 2.3 “Belle Chose” and Oregon authors

The number of things I haven’t found time to blog about in the last few months — hey, it’s Best of Eugene, and a girl only has so many hours in the week! — is nearing moderately frightful but not yet epic proportions. I think it’s time for a Catch-All Catch-Up Post. It’s cleansing for one and all! And when it’s over, I can feel free to write about Wordstock and the men’s basketball team without guilt!


Three days of music and debauchery! OK, mostly music. The last night of the fest, we loved The Brunettes, with their delicate and quirky percussion — at one point in a song, there was a sort of round of percussion that involved more tiny clicking and clacking instruments than I can remember — sweet harmonies and generally grand use of the kind of expansive instrumentation that makes the stage look like a third-grade music classroom exploded in the general vicinity. The levels of sheer charm were through the roof.

We tried to watch Youth Group next, but after the Brunettes, they felt a little plain, and the delicious cocktails at Clyde Common were calling to us. Intermission, with French fries!

And then there was The Get Up Kids‘ show. I’m not sure there are many other people still willing to admit their love for the Get Up Kids, but I’m one of ’em, even if the band did play “Mass Pike” like it was the musical equivalent of an ex who shows up at a party and who you’re supposed to be “friends” with — but you really just don’t want to be in the same room with the person, out of some squirrelly blend of residual love and maybe embarrassment that you once felt like you did.

It’s an emo band, OK? I can use tangled relationship metaphors. I should use tangled relationship metaphors.

After that show, we watched Frank Blank for a minute, but there’d been some confusion in the program about whether the show would be Frank Black or Grand Duchy, and the hopes were for Grand Duchy. Sorry, Frank. And sorry, Beach House, whose gorgeous compositions, while swoony — the way “Gila” goes from a moody “Oh, oh, oh” into an uplifting and unintelligible wash of vocals nearly gives me goosebumps — had a weirdly hollow feeling. Or maybe that was just us, tired and sore-footed. We’ll try again next time.

MusicfestNW is awesome.


Earlier in the fall — which is, at the moment, pretending to be summer, but I’m not fooled — I read two very different books by Oregon authors, but never had the chance to review them in the paper:

Tattoo Machine by Jeff Johnson (Speigel & Grau, $25) is subtitled Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life In Ink. Are there actually any tall tales here? Hard to say. Johnson, as the Mercury put it, “writes like he isn’t afraid of being arrested.” His stories of life in a Portland tattoo shop are bawdy, speckled liberally with horrifically colorful images (and equally colorful language) and, despite his tendency to front like a certain kind of badass, keenly observed and funny as shit. Things I learned from Johnson include the meaning of the word “flash,” which tattoos are best for covering other tattoos, and various bits of tattoo-world slang that’s so specific, I kind of felt like Johnson was telling secrets. His anecdotes are sometimes about customers (the more batshit, the better) and sometimes about himself (ditto), but there’s a gruffness to his voice that seems built of equal parts pragmatism, genuine warmth and a particular kind of storytelling that’s part one-upsmanship and part enjoyment of the weird forms life takes. Johnson does tend to write about women like we’re actually some strange other species, but if you just take that as part of his schtick, it gets less distracting.

The Bell at Sealey Head is by Oregonian fantasy writer extraordinaire Patricia A. McKillip, whose books I’ve been reading since I was pretty small. Her stories often feel familiar, like I’ve heard them before, dressed up in other trappings or wrapped in a careful disguise. This one takes place in a seaside town, Sealey Head, where a bell tolls with the sunset each night. To Gwyneth, a merchant’s daughter, the bell is a source of endless inspiration for stories, which she shares with her siblings and with Judd Cauley, who’s taken over his family’s inn since his father lost his sight. Their town is small, and most everyone knows everyone else, from the horse-obsessed suitor who’s after Gwyneth’s hand to the old lady in Aislinn House, a decaying place on the edge of town that has a pretty interesting secret.

And then a stranger comes to town: Ridley Dow, a scholar who wants to solve the mystery of the tolling bell. Naturally, his presence stirs all kinds of things up; naturally, McKillip winds his tale in with the strands of Judd’s life in the inn, Gwyneth’s life as a writer and the life of a maid in Aislinn House who’s more familiar with the building’s secrets than most. Sealey Head is a lovely read, written with McKillip’s reliably graceful, gentle and image-laden prose, but it feels a bit slight and a bit familiar. The layers of story, and Gwyneth’s variations on the story of the bell, are nicely pieced together, but at the end, when story becomes more important than ever, the book seems to simply settle into a quiet finale without binding all the pieces together into a satisfying whole. It’s a bit of a trifle, this one, not as touching or as deep as McKillip can be when she’s at her enticing, engrossing best.

GODDAMMIT, DOLLHOUSE. Let’s talk about your failings, shall we?

I keep holding onto hope, squeezing it like a little kid who’s just learning to handle a kitten. “Belle Chose,” last week’s episode, started oddly, got fantastic and then died a quiet little death. The premise was an odd one: A serial killer who happens to be the nephew of one of the Rossom Corporation’s bigwigs (played, in a nice guest spot, by Battlestar Galactica‘s Michael Hogan) gets hit by a car while looking for his next victim. Having a serial killer in a coma might be a good thing, but this one’s current victims — whom he drugs and then plays with as if they’re overgrown dolls (ooh, I see what you did there, show)— are still trapped out there somewhere. So what do the Dollhouse geniuses do? After sending Agent Helo Ballard in to do a nice bit of “Hey, I used to be in the FBI!” profile work on the Terry, the killer, they dump his entire personality into the active doll Victor (Enver Gjokaj).

Meanwhile, Echo (Eliza Dushku) is on assignment as a student who wants to sleep with her professor, and while Dushku does dumb-as-a-post pretty amusingly, her storyline is just there so that when Topher (Fran Kranz) tries to remotely wipe Terry’s personality from Victor’s head, things can go terribly wrong and the woman-hating serial killer personality can wind up … in a woman’s body!

This premise is not half as clever as the show seems to think it is. But up to this point, “Belle Chose” had me hooked, mostly because Gjokaj was beyond exceptional. His body language, when he’s Terry, is downright creepy; when he becomes Kiki, the ditzy young woman who was in Echo’s body, it’s played for laughs in an uncomfortably awkward way, but Gjokaj runs with it, getting down with — well, not with his bad self, exactly, but he’s certainly getting down on thedance floor.

The trouble is that once you swap personalities and bodies around, you’ve got Dushku carrying the serial killer story, and she just doesn’t do it justice. She’s not scary, and Echo is half broken anyway, her mind glitching and dancing between Terry and … some other persona. It’s sad, and it could be fascinating, but the way it plays out is weak: Once she finds the captive women, they’ve freed themselves from a cage (hurrah for that) but not from the building, and they kind of fight back, but they’re confused (understandably) and Echo is too weak to control the people in her head.

So they all have to be saved by a SWAT team.

Setting aside my various other gripes with this episode — including the totally unbelievable violence, from a car cash in which no airbags go off to the apparently not-that-painful whacks with a croquet mallet — I have a very simple complaint about this: I’m really tired of seeing women need rescuing. I expect more from Joss Whedon. The last two weeks have involved weird semi-rescues during which Echo had to be saved from herself by either a) be talked down from her maternal-instinct craziness or b) be beaten into remembering her badass fight skills. By Ballard, the poster child for moral ambiguity, no less. I like this about Ballard’s character; I like that he’ss a little off his rocker, stretched a little thin and definitely playing a more complicated game than he’s used to. But I don’t like this boring place that Echo keeps being led to.

I can accept that maybe there’s supposed to be more to these scenarios, more to do with the way Echo’s brain isn’t working like a doll or like a person; I can hope that there’s more bubbling under the surface with regards to humanity and choice and all the scientific and moral weirdness that the Dollhouse suggests and creates. There’s so much potential there! So! Much! So much nastiness about personality and control and how people justify their actions! So much possibility in Echo’s need to find herself amid all the people in her head! So much heartbreak in the way Dr. Saunders doesn’t trust the world she’s been built into, but doesn’t want to be who she was before, either! But right now, the show is playing its stories and characters so simply, so shallowly, so … traditionally.

(For a wicked awesome take on Dollhouse and its many problems, please click here; for the same author saying some very interesting things about the show’s potential, go here.)

Dollhouse is off this week, and in a couple of weeks, we get Summer Glau as the Topher of another Dollhouse. Please, show. Please get it right.