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Wanted, Veronica Mars
The first thing we hear in the Veronica Mars movie is a snippet of audio from a telephone message, a young woman’s voice asking for her help. The same plea, the same phrasing – “Veronica, I need your help” – will arrive in Veronica Mars’s cellphone inbox, this time from her former boyfriend and antagonist Logan Echolls, a few minutes into the film, setting the main narrative in motion, a nouveau noir-ish tale about her return to Neptune California to investigate the murder of a pop star with whom she attended high school, and who was part of the privileged crowd of so-called 09ers around whom the storylines of the original three-season television series largely revolved. The movie revisits and remakes the series, of course, but this revision involves much more than nostalgically transplanting an extended new episode of the series onto a big screen. In many ways, the contrast between the cinematic and television screens is no longer an issue of screen size or aspect ratio, which are increasingly and asymptotically close, but rather a question of how that image-system is managed and delivered; Veronica Mars, you could argue, self-consciously puts this screen-to-screen medium-shift at issue, investigating how media wrangle and shape not only audience and fandom – our committed and even addictive reception of television drama – but also our shared perceptual apparatuses: how, as a public, we train ourselves to watch (both as onlookers and as surveillance) and how these communal practices of looking and of listening remediate our worlds. As viewers, I’m saying, we implicitly need Veronica Mars, or television like it, to help us.
The opening scenes of the movie take place in a fictional office space and studio for This American Life, for whom Veronica’s current love-interest Piz – carried over from the third season of the TV show – works as an on-air personality. (We first glimpse him speaking into a microphone.) Now, I’m working from sketchy notes and memory, having only seen the movie once, last night, but as I remember it, Veronica gets the call from Logan as she and Piz exit the building where the studio and offices are housed, and a street musician with an acoustic guitar is playing a version of the opening lines of the series theme-song, The Dandy Warhols’s “We Used to be Friends”: “A long time ago, we used to be friends, / But I haven’t thought of you lately at all.” There are layers of sound, I’m suggesting, particularly of voices, in play at this moment. Here, talk-radio and theme-song offer us a metonymies of the detective-film voiceover (Kristen Bell’s narration defines the teen noir soundscape of the original show) and of soundtrack (an echo ghosted into Veronica’s displaced life, nine years and a continent away from Neptune). The movie literalizes on the screen what its lyrics declare. We hear Veronica’s inner monologue, what she’s “thinking of,” lately: a snappy fusion of Philip Marlowe and Nancy Drew, maybe, but more than that a textual identification of Veronica’s subject-position, her point-of-view, with our viewership, inviting spectators to become co-investigators, and temporary friends. But we also hear in that contrapuntal layering of voices a fraught nostalgia, a “need” that Veronica will soon feel, the pull of her high school life (she has, we also discover in the scenes at This American Life, been refusing Wallace Fennel’s text-message invitations to come to their ten-year Neptune High reunion), but also that informs a return to the pleasures of television drama, as we are reunited as viewers with the show itself – although it’s been seven years, not nine, but who’s counting. My point is, I think, that this return, this nostos, this homecoming, is both shaped and managed by the textual and aural mediations of the voice, layers that we hear and (in word-bubbles, on screens, on paper evidence, and in the opening montage) also see.
Veronica frequently frames her return as addiction. Logan, for instance, is the bad boy rich kid lover in Neptune she can’t resist, while Piz – in New York, where Veronica’s potential career as a lawyer is about to bloom – stands for everything a good guy ought to be. It’s important to recognize, though, that despite her attachments to boyfriends and to her father, and despite her character’s obvious uptake and re-purposing, on screen, of aspects of both the ingénue and the femme fatale, Veronica consistently refused in the TV series and continues to refuse throughout the movie to be contained or determined by masculine desire. The help that Logan or that anyone needsfrom her is not so much erotic fulfillment as it is a kind of necessary deconstruction, a subversion from within, of the stultifying constraints of a patriarchal social system choking on its own authoritarian narcissism. The new corrupt Sherriff Lamb in the movie, for instance, skeevily played by Jerry O’Connell, is taken down by Veronica’s manipulation of his vanity, his own perverse need to be in the media, as seen on TV. As with the original series, the movie concerns itself with the murder of a girl, this time a pop starlet with the stage name of Bonnie DeVille – the “good demon”? – a victim whose Catholic guilt (her recent album is called Confession) seems to be getting the better of her celebrity. Bonnie’s manufactured and sanitized image begins to crack, and to expose its fraudulence and underlying depravity, a disclosure that’s abetted by Veronica’s visual acuity, as she and we begin carefully perusing video, photographic and textual clues. The crime behind the crime, involving another murdered girl, also hinges on a crucial photograph, which the murderer possesses, and uses to blackmail those complicit in the girls’ deaths. (I’m pulling my descriptive punches here, a little; I don’t want to spoil the plot, for those who haven’t seen the movie.) The help that Veronica offers her friends and offers us, at her own peril, is a corrective, a remediation of how we look at images and what we see. It’s about solving a mystery, of course, but she also proactively fixes what amounts to an uninterrogated and even deadly male gaze by actively directing us to re-think, lately, what we have missed.
In his introduction to a 2006 “unauthorized” collection of essays on Veronica Mars, creator Rob Thomas – who writes and directs the movie – claims that the show “saved [his] career and, less importantly, [his] soul,” and that it does so by allow him to participate in the remediation of the medium of television itself:
I taught high school during my mid-twenties in Austin, Texas. I have clear memories of sitting in my living room watching TV and wondering how clearly god-awful programming made it on the air.
He needed and TV needed, he suggests, Veronica Mars’s help as much as the rest of us. Framed as cultural pedagogy, a late return to the unfulfilled social promises of high school. Veronica Mars, in 2006 when he writes, is imperiled as a program and will very soon be cancelled, but Thomas is keen to articulate his gratitude for the transformative work that Veronica Mars continued to undertake, a transformation that hinged on an emerged viewership, a fandom, tied to visual and narrative acuity, to paying close attention:
We’re in the middle of our third season, so we’ve defied the odds, and I can say with absolute certainty, there’s nothing about Veronica Mars that I take for granted. Sure, we don’t do well in the ratings, but our fans are fervent, and they pay attention to detail.
Veronica Mars, for him, is about this renovated – and I would say critically-focused – attentiveness, about thinking of you, lately and carefully. The movie was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign that raised in short-order over five million dollars in crowd-sourced funding from donations by more than 91000 fans (donations for which they received early access to digital versions of the completed film). The movie is, in many ways, a love-letter to those fans, but I think it might be better understood as something like a response to the need for help, and for friendship, that the opening telephone message articulates. (Fandom, a potentially psychotic fandom, might also be the motive for the murder Veronica investigates.)
At one point, Veronica has flowers delivered to Gia, one of her not-so-friendly friends (and whose name, coincidentally, resonates at least for me with the final syllables of nostalgia), and of course the bouquet contains a bug. Veronica tells Logan, over the cellphone, that she has had to use some “old school” tech she has swiped from her father, an FM transmitter that narrowcasts to what she thinks is an unused frequency on the public dial. Meanwhile, she sets up her camera – the one with the huge telephoto lens, an iconic holdover from the TV series, reproduced on the movie poster – across from Gia’s apartment, and, through a set of cinematic echoes of Rear Window (including the lens itself) – we listen to and watch Gia through a grid of windows. Again, the film layers media and voices, reminding us – in the impurity of the audio or the grid-work of the window panes – of the thickness, of the materiality of mediation. We see the graphic surfaces and hear the interferences, the apparatuses that get in our way as much as they enable our access – to information, to character, and even to Neptune’s imaginary spaces. The movie, in my view, feels like television, and I’m not entirely sure why, but part of that sense has to do with its attention not only to smallness, to luminous particulars, but also with its audiovisual self-awareness. Tele-vision – as “distant” seeing – hinges as a medium not only on the feint of intimacy, a scopophilia inherent in surveillance and in the sharp visual analysis on which Veronica’s “investigations” depend, but also on a kind of telephoto thickening, a quality of light. The burnished visual textures that I have come to associate with the fictional Neptune – the red light, for instance, suffused by stained glass throughout Keith Mars’s office – become symptomatic in the film of an almost tactile proximity, a mildly hellish twilight that betokens the lateness, the late return, in which the show is enmeshed. It also draws us in, inviting to reconsider and to investigate our own desires to watch, to look, to see.