Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Simulation, Simulation, All is Simulation?: Musings on An American Family

I spent a significant part of Sunday and Monday, 24 and 25 April, watching PBS World’s fortieth anniversary rerunning of PBS’s seminal “reality show” An American Family. I found it time well spent.

An American Family was filmed throughout 1971 in the home of the Loud family, dad Bill, mom Pat, and kids Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele, in Santa Barbara, California. The 300 plus hours of filmed material recorded, essentially on a daily basis, and directed by Alan and Susan Raymond over a seven month period was edited down to 12 and broadcast to a large audience, for PBS that is, of 10 million or so, between January and March 1973. During its run An American Family became a topic of water cooler conversation and a cause célèbre as pundits, religious leaders, politicians and others debated whether the Loud's were smug or not, whether the Loud’s child rearing practises were good or bad, whether the Loud's supposed lack of political engagement should be condemned, and whether the Raymond’s cameras truly captured reality even though producer Craig Gilbert’s said during his introduction to the documentary series said that they didn’t and that the camera’s presence in the Loud household did affect what happened when it was there. Some commentators argued that An American Family was more soap opera fiction than realistic fact. Others that it portrayed realistically the realities of the contemporary American family. Still others were disturbed by the fact that viewers were essentially peering into other peoples private lives (voyeurism on a Hitchcockian scale). Interesting takes on the show, by the way, as well as WNET, the PBS station that commissioned An American family, publicity materials can be found at http://subcin.com/americanfamily.html.

There is a lot to admire in An American Family. It was and is of great historical importance: It was one of the first reality shows ever on US television and one of the first docudramas or docusoaps though unlike its legion of contemporary clones (think The Osbournes, The Hills, and Keeping up with the Kardashians) it was unscripted and, in my opinion, all the better for it. It was and is of great sociological importance: It is a time capsule into an American past, a past that was somewhat similar to mine. Like a couple of the Loud kids I was in high school in the 1970s. Like Lance and Grant I loved and lived for music. I adored the Beatles, I loved The Who’s Who’s Next, and I was taken with Procol Harum. Like Lance and Delilah I loved movies. I watched classic Hollywood films every Saturday and Sunday with my sister from noon until night. It is of great cinematic importance: An American Family is the ultimate in direct cinema or cinema verite, film movements prominent in the 1960s and 1970s and considered by many to be revolutionary. It is of great ethnographic importance: An American Family's has that fly on the wall quality of direct cinema. Some have argued that the show was an example of filmed domesticity but it should also be remembered that An American Family followed Pat to home to Eugene, Oregon, to Taos, New Mexico, followed Kevin, Garth, and Delilah to school, Delilah and Michele to dance class, followed Pat and Bill into restaurants, and followed Bill to work and on business trips. And finally An American Family was one of the few American TV shows that spawned a British series, The Family, which, points up the differences between US and British television at the time and perhaps today. While The Family concentrated on a working class family in Reading, An American Family focused on an upper middle class from a trendy California town.

Like so many European or American independent art films or books An American Family takes a while to get going and to warm up to. Eventually, I really got into it for a variety of reasons. Here are a few: I was fascinated by Lance, the first “real” gay man ever on US TV. What a performer. I was fascinated by the interaction between the kids. They seemed to genuinely care for and love one another. I was fascinated by the slow burn that eventually led to the end of Pat and Bill's marriage. I found the vacuity of some of the conversations, particularly the one in Taos, so interesting because they did capture the banality that is characteristic so much of American bourgeois life. No wonder I hated America’s bourgeois “culture” when I was a kid (actually I still do). I was fascinated by the show’s portrayal of the American domesticity common at the time. Pat seemed to be eternally the one cooking the meals, cleaning up after the kids and her husband, and doing the shopping. I was fascinated by the performative aspect of the series. The kids said later on the Dick Cavett Show that they felt compelled to talk simply because the camera was there. So much for “reality”. On the other hand, I sometimes felt an honesty and truthfulness coming sometimes through during the show, some of it very painful. I was fascinated by the incorporation of a bit of backstory about the Loud's into the series. I was horrified by Bill’s and his work buddies total disregard for the environment. I was fascinated by the camera work of the show, particularly its concentration on the body parts of the bodies of the Loud's, feet, hands, toes. This seemed a strategy to try to get beyond the performances for the camera aspects of the family and into the Loud's “souls” (many Amish preach the gospel that human souls and hence human illnesses can be deduced by looking into the eyes of the patient). I am so glad I finally got to see all of An American Family. Thank you PBS. I wish the entire series was available on DVD.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Homecoming"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of those TV shows in which so much going on in each episode, during each season, and during the series as a whole that it is hard to know where to begin when analysing it. There are the mysteries of the week, the monsters of the week, character developments, seasonal arcs, seasonal big bads, character arcs, and series arcs that need to be explored.

Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon said somewhere that one of the themes of Buffy is that high school (and life after high school as we will see) is hell (for one of Whedon’s statements to this effect see Linda Yovanovich , "Young Blood", OnSat (July 14, 1997); also at Smgfan.com). Buffy’s writers and craftspeople have repeatedly used high school and the rituals associated with American high schools to emphasise the pain, sorrow, drama, tragedy, melodrama, defeats, and small victories of high school life. In “The Wish” (1/3) we saw that ritual of American schools, cheerleader tryouts, and the pain they can cause in the lives of students and the lives of parents of students. In “Some Assembly Required” (2/2) we saw that American ritual of attending high school football games and the pain being a once upon a time football hero can bring once you are no longer a high school football hero. In “Nightmares” (1/10) and “Faith, Hope, and Trick” (3/3) we saw Buffy taking, well kind of taking in the former, those American high school rituals, tests and the pain they can cause students. In “I Only Have Eyes for You” (2/10) we saw that ritual of American high schools the annual (or once annual) Sadie Hawkins dance and the pain it can cause students and teachers. Wow lots of pain. In “Homecoming” the high school ritual of the moment is all in the title, homecoming.

“Homecoming”, written and directed by David Greenwalt, works, as most Buffy episodes do, on several levels. On the most fundamental and literal level homecoming, that American high school ritual usually centred these days around a football game, is coming to Sunnydale High School and Cordy is one of the students running for homecoming queen. Buffy who has just been dumped by Scott Hope (hope destroyed?), who has missed getting her picture taken for another ritual of high school, the high school yearbook thanks in part to training and in part to Cordy not telling her because she is busy running for homecoming queen, is feeling the pain of what her life used to be. “At Hemery”, she says, “I was Prom Queen, Fiesta Queen, I was on the cheerleading squad—the yearbook was, like, a story of me”. At Sunnydale High, however, Buffy was not prom queen, fiesta queen, cheerleader, and she won’t even have her tiny picture in the yearbook. Buffy is feeling, as she says, like a “nobody”. Angry at Cordy for not telling her that yearbook pictures were being taken Buffy decides to challenge Cordelia for homecoming queen. There is, by the way, a wonderful camera shot that encapsulates Buffy’s current state of loneliness. Just after Scott breaks up with the Buffster the camera, which was focused on Buffy, tracks back further and further providing a visual expression of Buffy’s sense of inner loneliness. This elegant camera shot and movement also links the Buffy the nobody thread to another thread that runs through “Homecoming”, the contest to kill the two Slayers, Buffy and Faith.

Unbeknownst to Buffy and the other Scoobies another contest is taking place in Sunnydale as well simultaneously with the one for homecoming queen. Mr. Trick is back and he is mounting Slayerfest 1998. Trick, as I mentioned in my musings on “Faith, Hope, and Trick” has a bit of the Spike in him. Unlike Spike, however, Mr. Trick is an innovative entrepreneur. In a riff on the humans being hunted motif one finds in short stories and films like “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924 and 1932) Trick is chief entrepreneur of and master of ceremonies for a contest to see who can kill the two Slayers, for a price, of course. Among those paying and vying for the honour of killing the two Slayers is a “Daniel Boone” like figure, a demon, two Germans and their eye in the technological sky, and Lyle Gorch, who we last saw in Bad Eggs (2/12), and his wife, Candy.

The Scoobies have rented a limo for the homecoming dance. They decide to absent themselves from riding in it, however, in order to try to get Buffy and Cordy back together after their combative contest to become homecoming queen. The limo is not taking them to school, however. Instead the limo has been requisitioned by Mr. Trick for Slayerfest 98. So when it stops Mr. Trick, via a TV and video player, introduces the two Slayers, Buffy and a Cordy mistaken for Faith, to the rules of the Slayerfest game. With a shot fired at them Buffy and Cordy begin to run for their lives. After escaping “Daniel Boone” and the demon Buffy and Cordy hole up in a cabin in the woods. Cordy goes into whinging mode but Buffy, thanks to anger management, manages to turn Cordy’s self pity into anger and they eventually make their way back to Sunnydale High and Giles where Buffy dispatches Candy with a spatula and the Germans, thanks to wet toilet paper. Cordy, playing the role of a Slayer quite well, manages to put Slayer fear into Lyle Gorch who once again flees into the night just as he did at the end of “Bad Eggs”. Following their triumph Buffy and Cordy walk into the homecoming dance looking, as Oz so aptly puts it (Oz’s descriptions are generally concise, precise, and apt), like they have just been mud wrestling, to discover that they have lost the homecoming queen contest to Holly Charleston and Michelle Blake.

Like so many Buffy episodes “Homecoming” is tremendously humourous and tremendously tragic all at the same time. An example of the humour first: Faith rallies behind Buffy when Scott dumps her and tells Scott at the homecoming dance, and in front of his date, “Scott, there you are, Honey. Good news—doctor says the itching and the swelling and the burning should clear up, but we gotta keep using the ointment (to his date, nice)”. Another example of humour: the fight scene in the cabin between Buffy and the demon, Kulak, of the Miquot clan, who, when a “grenade” is shot into the cabin by two Germans, tries to jump out of a shuttered window.

I have already talked about the tragedy in “Homecoming” but I want to quote in full Buffy’s wonderful response to Cordy while the two are hiding in a cabin in the woods while fleeing those who want to kill them who has asked her why she wants to be prom queen. “Because”, says Buffy, “this [Slaying] is all I do. This is what my life is, fighting monsters no one even knows about while everyone else gets to... I thought Homecoming Queen, I could open a yearbook someday and say "I was there. I went to high school and had friends and for one minute, I got to live in the world." And there'd be proof. Proof that I was chosen for something other than this. (holds up gun)... besides (pumps shell in gun)... I look cute in a tiara”. Immense tragedy in the midst of superb comedy.

As Buffy so often does “Homecoming” has several surprises in store for us, surprises that we retrospectively recognise were being laid down for us in season two. It becomes clear why those comments about the mayor in season two’s “I Only Have Eyes for You” (2/19), “Becoming” (2/21 and 2/22), and season three’s “Dead Man’s Party” (3/2) were so important. In “Homecoming” we finally get to meet this mayor Principal Snyder and the Police Chief have been talking about, Mayor Richard Wilkens III. Wilkens is keeping an eye of the German “terrorists” Frederick and Hans Gruenshtahler. Initially this seems like what any good mayor would do but there is something odd about the cleanliness is next to godliness (“let me see your hands”, “moist towelette”) Mayor Richard Wilkens III. This sense that something is askew with the Mayor becomes clear at the end of “Homecoming”. At the end of the episode Wilkens has a couple of his officers pick up and bring Mr. Trick in to his office for an interview. Instead of asking Mr. Trick, who Wilkens knows is a vampire to leave town (Buffy uses vampirism as a metaphor for racial intolerance here) Wilkens asks the “enterprising” Wilkens to go to work for him helping him control the “rebellious” youth element in town (the Scoobies) in this important year of his life. The introduction of the mayor really, as we will soon see, kicks the third season arc into gear.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Beauty and the Beasts"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has throughout its run exhibited a penchant for playing in genre and playing with genre. In season one’s “The Witch” (1/03) Buffy took the witch tale and spun it around turning it into a commentary on parents trying to relive their high school glories through their high school aged children. In “I Robot, You Jane (1/08) Buffy took the demon possession story and turned it into a exploration of the dangers of computer dating. In season two’s “Some Assembly Required” (2/02) Buffy took James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and turned them into the tragic tale of a now deformed former high school football star looking for a little female companionship. In “Go Fish” (2/20) Buffy took the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and turned it into a commentary on a high school coach with a win at all costs attitude. In “Beauty and the Beasts” written and directed by the same team who did “Dead Man’s Party (3/02) Buffy takes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and morphs into a commentary on anger, jealousy, and girlfriend beating.

The mystery of the week is who is the beast who killed Sunnydale High School student Jeff and, later on, Sunnydale High guidance counselor Mr. Platt. Is it Oz who is in the midst of one of his three-day a month periods (pun intended) of being a werewolf? Is it Angel who, as in Buffy’s dream in “Faith, Hope, and Trick”, has returned from a hell dimension but as a beast who cannot speak? Eventually we viewers and Buffy, Willow, Giles, and Faith learn that it is neither. The monster of the week is Pete, Scott’s friend, Debbie’s boyfriend, the Pete who in trying to be the macho man his girlfriend Debbie wanted him to be has developed a liquid formula which gives him super strength but which also exacerbates his jealousy and anger over any man who gets close in some way, shape, or form to his girlfriend including Jeff, Mr. Platt, and Oz.

Some Buffy commentators have observed that writer Marti Noxon tends to wear her feminism on her sleeve. There is some truth to this. One has to look no further for a prime example of Noxon’s feminism on her sleeve than “Beauty and the Beasts”. This episode is clearly a commentary on and a critique of male machismo, male jealousy, male anger, and male aggression against women. It is also an exploration of a far too common reality: women who continue to stand by their men even though they are suffering abuse at their hands because they think they love them, a perspective Buffy and Willow try to undermine when they confront Debbie in the bathroom late in the episode.

But it is not entirely fair to reduce “Beauty and the Beasts” to either of these social criticism motifs. It is possible to have some sympathy for Peter and see him as a tragic figure given that he is simply trying to live up to expectations, to the “be a man” syndrome, in other words. Pete is not simply a misogynistic Jekyll and Hyde. Moreover, the existentialist motif that runs through the episode, the notion that, as Mr. Platt says, all of us have a beast within, means that all of us, be we characters in the Buffyverse or be we viewers of Buffy, have, to some extent, the potentiality to be Pete, the potentiality to be Oz, or the potentiality to be Angel. We have the potential to allow our inner demons to turn us into angry and jealous killers and abusers of others or, on the other hand, to make sure we keep our inner demons in check (Oz caging himself) or to use them for positive purposes like saving someone from danger (Angel killing Pete to protect Buffy at the end of the episode; whether Buffy needs the protection is an entirely different issue). “Beauty and the Beasts” then is not only a condemnation of misogyny it is also, as is common in Buffy, an episode with a deeply humanitarian quality to it. Moreover, as I noted earlier “The Witch”, “I Robot, You Jane”, “Some Assembly Required”, and “Go Fish” have a social commentary quality to them and Buffy has, as Buffy creator Joss Whedon has said repeatedly, was, even before Marti Noxon joined the writing team, a show that, to some extent, always wore its feminism on its sleeve.

There are a several interesting (at least to me) things going on in “Beauty and the Beasts”. The title, of course, is a take off on a French fairy tale first published in 1740, a fairy tale that has been filmed several times before, most famously by Jean Cocteau (his magical La belle et la bête of 1946) though both of these have an entirely different point than Buffy’s “Beauty and the Beasts. “Beauty and the Beasts” is, along with “Passion” (2/17) one of the few times that Buffy has voice over narration: Buffy then Willow, at the beginning of the episode, and then Buffy again, at the end of the episode, read passages, appropriately enough, about the primal wildness within the seemingly “tame” dog Buck, from Jack London’s famous book Call of the Wild (1903). The music is appropriately eerie and plays variations with and eventually quotes the now famous Buffy/Angel theme. The sound, particularly when it brings us Angel’s beastly growls and Oz’s beastly whimpers (the angel and beast within each of us?) is superbly done and quite frightening.

By the way, don't you just love the mirror mirror on the wall in the photo at the beginning of this blog post? And don't you just love how Whedon and company manipulate and give new meaning to that famous fairy tale image?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Faith, Hope, and Trick"

There is so much going on in this David Greenwalt penned and James Contner directed episode. In this brief essay I want to concentrate on several aspects of “Faith, Hope, and Trick that I think are important: new arrivals, flashbacks, trauma, hope, and revelations.

New Arrivals: There is, as Oz notes early on in “Faith, Hope, and Trick” a new Slayer in town. Her name is Faith (the Faith of the title). Faith, the Slayer called after the death of Kendra, is cocky or self-assured, sexy, dressed in black, plastered in dark makeup (Cordy refers to Faith’s fashion, make-up, and dancing sense as “slut-o-rama”), and a more than willing story teller when it comes to talking about her Slayer past.

The Scoobies first see Faith at the Bronze dancing with a guy who looks like he should be boogeying down to a K.C. and the Sunshine Band (a disco band that found success in the 1970s) tune. As Faith and the disco vamp leave the Bronze Buffy realizes that disco vamp is, like carbon dated guy from “Welcome to the Hellmouth, a vamp. So Buffy and the Scoobies exit the Bronze stage it turns out right to protect Faith from what they are sure will be certain death at the hands of yet another carbon dated vampire. But just as Buffy turned the tables on vampires in season one Faith turns the tables on disco vamp and dusts him announcing afterwards that she is Faith, the Vampire Slayer.

Faith says she has come to Sunnydale to meet the famous B, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seems, however, that it is the Scoobies who are more interested in Faith and Faith’s tales than Buffy. Xander, being Xander, is fascinated by Faith’s slayer tales of fighting vampires, “naked”. Cordy is jealous of Xander’s continuing Slayer fixation telling him to change the theme. Buffy is also jealous of the attention the other Scoobbies, save Cordy, are paying to Faith and her stories just as she was jealous of Kendra.

Unbeknownst to the Scoobies there are a couple of other new arrivals in town, the somewhat Spike-like snarky, cynical, smart, technologically savvy, and innovative Mister Trick (the Trick of the title) and Trick’s vampire “master” (apparently other vampire collectivities have, just like “the Master” and his group in the first season of Buffy, “masters”).

And then there is that other new arrival Scott Hope (the Hope of the title). Scott, a student at Sunnydale High School and Buster Keaton fan, is interested in dating Buffy. Willow, in good Jewish fashion (think Thornton Wilder's “The Matchmaker”), is trying to play matchmaker between Buffy and Scott.

Flashbacks: Memory continues to haunt Buffy the Vampire Slayer and “Faith, Hope, and Trick”. Buffy’s killing of Angel continues to haunt her dreams. Buffy dreams early on in the episode about Angel and the claddagh ring her gave her. She flashes back to the battle with Angel at the end of “Becoming” when Scott gives her the same friendship ring Angel gave her in season two, a claddagh ring after Buffy finally agrees to go out with him. The music underlines the traumatic memories Buffy has of Angel via the Buffy/Angel theme and variations on it.

Trauma: Memories in “Faith, Hope, and Trick” and Buffy in general are intimately linked to trauma. Trauma, of course, has become something of an obsession with film analysts in recent years as books and articles like Trauma Cinema (Walker), Trauma and Cinema (edited by Kaplan and Wang), “Trauma Cinema and the Algerian War” (Austin) and Trauma Cinema (Conley) show. Trauma, however, whether it be the traumas of war, the traumas of genocide, the traumas of dating, or the traumas of high school have long impacted human life and films (think film noir and Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima mon amour) and television shows.

In Buffy the traumas are personal ones. Buffy is still traumatized by her killing of Angel. She also remains traumatized by her Slayerness. While Faith seems to accept her Slayerness and revel in the joy of being a Slayer Buffy is, as Faith says, “wound up”, up-tight. She seems, in other words, to subconsciously or unconsciously be uncomfortable on some level with who she is, a Slayer.

Buffy, as we learn in the course of “Faith, Hope, and Trick”, is not the only Slayer who has been traumatized. Though Faith says early in the episode that she came to Sunnydale looking for B while her Watcher attended a Watcher’s Council retreat in the Cotswalds, Faith has a secret. Her secret will out while she and Buffy are in the midst of fighting several vamps, not, of course, the best time for traumatic secrets to emerge from repression. While Buffy is cornered by two vamps Faith “lives” large on one putting Buffy in danger. It doesn’t take long for Buffy to recognise that Faith is taking out her traumas on the vamp she is wailing on and alerts Giles to the danger. Giles finds out that rather than her Watcher being at the Council retreat in England she has been killed by Kakistos, “the worst of the worst”, a vamp so old his hands are now cloven as Giles tells Buffy. Kakistos, it turns out, has killed Faith’s Watcher in front of Faith’s eyes and she was not, as she admits to Buffy, able to do anything about it.

Kakistos as we know but Faith and Buffy don’t has come to Sunnydale for revenge for though Faith was unable to save her Watcher she did injure Kakistos giving him a scar along the right side of his face. With Trick’s help Kakistos find the Slayers at the cheap hotel at which Faith is staying. When Buffy tells Faith that Kakistos has followed her to Sunnydale Faith goes into hysterics and packs her bag intending to flee Sunndydale just as Buffy fled Sunnydale after killing Angel at the end of season two (what is it with Slayers and flight?). As Faith is packing and telling Buffy about what Kakistos did to her Watcher Buffy tries to calm Faith down. Just then, however, Kakistos, Mister Trick, and several of Kakistos’s henchmen arrive at the hotel. Buffy and Faith escape but they soon realise they have been tricked by Trick and end up exactly where Kakistos wants them, in Kakistos’s Sunnydale warehouse lair. Faith tries to fight Kakistos but her traumas and his strength force her to cower against a wall. Buffy, however, continues to fight Kakistos. She even stakes him but the stake isn’t big enough to kill the old one. It is Faith who, finally and now somewhat mentally together, who comes to the rescue staking Kakistos with a monstrous stake making up, in the process, for her sin of putting Buffy in danger earlier in the episode as she took out her traumas by wailing on a vampire.

Hope: Though Hope is the last name of one of Buffy’s new arrivals, Scott Hope, hope refers to more than simply Scott in this episode. Buffy hopes that she will once again be able to return to a normal life of dating, shopping, going to school, hanging out, and saving the world, all the normal girl stuff as she says. LOL. Though Buffy says she wants to do all the normal girl stuff including saving the world one can’t help but think that in some way Buffy secretly hopes that Faith may be over to take over Slayer duties for her, just as she once hoped Kendra could replace her as Slayer, so she can lead a normal life.

Revelations: There are quite a lot of revelations that are revealed in “Faith, Hope, and Trick” during the course of the episode. We learn that slaying makes a Slayer “hungry and horny” or at least, Buffy’s case hungry. Xander, of course, is more interested in the “horny” part. And then there is the revelation that ends the episode. Buffy takes the claddagh ring Angel gave her to the mansion and puts it on the floor just as in her dream at the beginning of the episode. The screen fades out on the ring encircled in a small shaft of light amidst the blackness of the Mansion. Then the ring reappears, there is a tremor, and a man, a naked man, comes down from above. It is Angel. Angel is back. If “Angel” was the first episode so to speak of the Angel/Angelus, “Lie to Me” the second, “Becoming the third, then “Faith, Hope, and Trick” is the fourth. It will not be the last. Finally, at the end of the episode we learn that Willow had cured Angel right before Buffy killed him thanks, in large part, Giles faux binding ritual for Acathla that was really about helping Buffy work through her trauma. Season three is off and running.

Mormons: Eliza Dushku who plays Faith is the second LDSer to play a major role in the Buffyverse. Larry Bagby, who plays Larry, was the other.

Witchy Woman: Willow pesters Giles to let him help her with the binding spell for Acathla. Giles warns Willow for the first time in Buffy about the dangers of witchcraft.

It's all in the nose...

I have been thinking about one of my favourite books this morning the Jewish Czech writer Jiri Weil's wonderful Mendelssohn is on the Roof. Weil's book tells the tale of the Nazi obsession with finding and removing the figure of the Jewish born composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Opera House. Unfortunately for them the figures on the top of the Opera House have no names attached to them so an SS officer is given the task of finding and then removing the Mendelssohn from the roof. Thinking that it is all in the nose the Nazis believe at one point that they have found the Mendelssohn on the roof and set about removing it. But, irony or ironies, the stature turns out to be Wagner, that inveterate anti-Semite himself, author of the infamous "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (The Jews in Music) which argues that Jews could never be the authors of "true art", and a favourite of Adolf Hitler.

One thing I have been wondering about this morning is if Weil's humourous take on the Holocaust was as controversial as Roberto Benigni's 1997 comedic, dramatic, and tragic film La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) was when it was published in 1960. Did Mendelssohn is on the Roof like Life is Beautiful generate a debate over whether the Shoah, the Holocaust, can be treated comically?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Buffy Blog; "Dead Man's Party"

Written by Marti Noxon and directed by James Whitmore Jnr. “Dead Man’s Party”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer doing zombies, takes its title from a song by Danny Elfman’s band, “Oingo Boingo” called, surprise, surprise, “Dead Man’s Party”. As I was watching this episode for probably for the sixth or seventh time I couldn’t help but think about that Oingo Boingo song as well as what is probably the most famous zombie movie of my generation, George Romero’s infamous black and white “Night of the Living Dead” from 1968, a low budget flick that would stimulate a revival of the zombie horror film in Hollywood and beyond afterwards.

One of the things I really loved about Buffy when I first started watching it was that the series had a memory. “Dead Man’s Party” is, like the films of the great French director Alain Resnais, haunted by memory. It is haunted by the memory of Joyce’s kicking of Buffy out of the house. It is haunted by the memory of Buffy leaving Sunnydale for the Scoobies know not where because throughout this episode Buffy is loath to discuss where she went. It is haunted by Buffy’s memories of killing Angel. It is haunted by the memory that Buffy has been kicked out of school. It is haunted by the memory of and the reality of Principal Snyder’s hatred (why? We will see) for the Slayer. And it is haunted by recent memories of which Buffy has no part: the relationship between Joyce and Pat and the recent memories of the Scoobies sans Buffy fighting, more successfully than in “Anne” if Oz is to be believed, the things that go bump in the Buffy night.

As is often the case with Buffy (and the work of Joss Whedon in general) there is a striking degree of realism in this ostensibly fantasy show. “Dead Man’s Party” begins just a few hours after Buffy shows up at the door of her home and Joyce welcomes her back. Night has fallen and Buffy decides to go in search of the other Scoobies. Buffy runs into Xander “Nighthawk” Harris first and shortly thereafter the rest of the Scooby Gang in full vampire killing battle mode. At first the Scoobies are genuinely glad to see Buffy. But soon it is clear that with Buffy away the other Scoobies and in particular Xander and Cordelia and Willow and Oz have grown tighter. Buffy increasingly feels like a fifth wheel. There is also an undercurrent of Scooby discomfort and anger at Buffy that appears first in Xander’s “Mad cause you ran away…” speech to Buffy as the Scoobies stand in front of Giles’s door so they can show the Watcher that the Slayer has returned. This discomfort with and anger at Buffy emerges, as we will see, from Scooby repression as “Dead Man’s Party” plays out.

Something else that emerges in the course of “Dead Man’s Party” is that the Nigerian ceremonial mask that Joyce has bought and nailed up on her bedroom wall is, as Giles eventually discovers, raising the dead. Masks, not surprisingly, are a central aspect of “Dead Man’s Party”. It is the Nigerian mask that turns out to be the reason Sunnydale is beset by zombies. All of the Scoobies, save Giles, are masking or hiding, at least in the early part of the episode, their discomfort and anger at Buffy. Giles is described in the script as having his “mask” fall away and having to fight back tears while he is in the kitchen preparing snacks for the Scoobies after he learns that Buffy is back. And Cordelia in true Cordy fashion, confuses mask as in Nigerian mask with mask as in make-up mask. So Cordy.

It is the welcome back Buffy hootenanny (I love Oz’s speech about the differences between “gathering”, “shindig”, and “hootenanny”) the Scoobies give at Buffy’s house, so to avoid talking about the discomfort and anger they have toward Buffy, that brings the realist emotional and the fantasy zombie threads in “Dead Man’s Party” together. It is at Buffy’s hootenanny that the discomfort and anger really comes out. Willow is avoiding Buffy and when Buffy confronts her on it she says she can’t hear because the band (Dingoes Ate My Baby, of course, the band Willow’s boyfriend is in) is too loud and then, when Buffy pulls her into the dining room, claims that she is not trying to avoid talking to Buffy. Xander and Cordy are in full public display of affection mode and as a result avoiding Buffy. Joyce is in the kitchen talking to her new friend Pat telling her, in a snatch of conversation Buffy happens to catch out of context, that Buffy’s return has not really improved things as she expected it would.

Buffy feeling like a fifth wheel and feeling hurt heads upstairs and starts packing unsure what to do. Willow comes into Buffy’s bedroom and seeing her packing tells Buffy how angry she was and is that while she was experiencing the modern day horrors of dating, dating a werewolf, and being a novice witch her best friend, Buffy, was not there so she could talk to her about them. Buffy feeling attacked tells Willow that she does not know what she, Buffy, went through referring, of course to the end of “Becoming” when she had to kill Angel. Soon Joyce comes upstairs as well and seeing Buffy’s packed bag tells her in a loud and angry voice to explain herself.

Buffy feeling attacked heads downstairs. Willow and Joyce follow her. Buffy and Joyce continues to argue in the living room. Joyce, somewhat drunk on schnapps, tells Buffy that she doesn’t know how much pain Buffy caused her when she was away during the entire summer. Buffy responds by reminding Joyce that it was she, Joyce, who told Buffy not to come back if she left the house to “save the world”. Soon Xander joins in. Xander in a holier than thou fashion (he gets this way far too often) tells Buffy how she hurt Joyce and how she needs to talk about what she is repressing. Buffy responds by saying “What's the point? There was nothing anyone could do. I just had to deal on my own”. Xander responds by telling Buffy, “And you see how well that went. You can't just bury stuff, Buffy! It'll come right back up to get you...”. As Xander says his final words the zombies attack right on cue.

The zombie attack on 1630 Revello Drive does what all the talking and arguing couldn’t: it unites the Scoobies and Joyce as they go into full battle mode. In short order the Scoobies and Joyce win the battle. Buffy realizes the Nigerian mask is the monster of the week and forces a shovel into Pat’s eyes—Pat, killed by a zombie puts the mask on and becomes the object of worship for the other zombies—putting an end to the zombie threat.

But wait there is a more “realistic" threat to Buffy that remains: Principal Snyder has no intention of letting Buffy return to school. It is Ripper who tries to do something about this. In the final act of “Dead Man’s Party” Giles goes into Snyder’s office urging him to reinstate Buffy. When he refuses Ripper re-emerges to threaten Snyder slamming him up against a wall asking him if this has convinced Snyder to allow Buffy back into Sunnydale High School. We will see if it did shortly.

In the final scene of “Dead Man’s Party” Willow and Buffy finally meet at the Espresso Pump café (the first time we see this set on the Mutant Enemy lot)—the first meeting didn’t take place because Willow was in full avoidance mode earlier in the episode. Buffy and Willow go after each other in a whinge off with Willow calling Buffy a “quitter”, “bailer”, “delinquent” and “bad seed” and Buffy calling Willow a “whiner”, “harpy”, “tramp”, and “witch”. Talking, as we will find out, proves, at least in this case, to be exactly the cure needed for Buffy’s and Willow’s relationship. Grr. Argh.

LOL: Buffy asking Jonathan during the living room argument between the Scoobies, Joyce, and Buffy if he wants to weigh in on blaming Buffy. He says “No thanks. “I’m good”.

On Sidney Lumet

Film and television director Sidney Lumet died 9 April 2011. If I had to choose my favourite Lumet film it would probably be "Running on Empty". "Running on Empty" will always be, for me, one of the few films that looks back at the radicals of the sixtes with a healthy degree of honesty.

Lumet, I suppose, to many will always remain a theatrical director, a dirty phrase for many critics. Many have criticised his camera placement and his supposedly limited interest in what has become an obsession for critics in the wake of the young turks at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, mise-en-scene. I have never thought, however, that mise-en-scene and camera movement were he be all and end all of cinema. I guess I still appreciate a good story and it seems to me that there is a place in cinema for good stories along with the mise-en-scene of a Hitchcock and the camera movements of an Orson Welles. And for me Lumet told many good stories from his wonderful realistic adaptation of the "static" teleplay "12 Angry Men" (1957) to the gritty social realism of Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), and Running on Empty (1988).

Sadly, good storytelling and social realism seems out of place in a Hollywood dominated by juvenalia, little in the way of intelligent narrative, the omnipresence of unmemorable pop music, and special effects. And so did Sidney Lumet in his final years. That says something tragic and something very sad about contemporary Hollywood in my mind.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Anne"

“Anne”, the title of this Joss Whedon written and directed episode, is, as we learn for the first time in this episode, Buffy Summers middle name. Buffy, as you may remember, left Sunnydale at the end of season two when her mother, Joyce, who had discovered that her daughter was the slayer, the chosen one, tells her in a fit of anger not to come back home if she leaves the house to save the world from the apocalypse that Angelus and Dru are trying to bring about. Buffy, of course, does leave the house, does save the world by killing Angel, the man she loves, and does leave that wonderful craftsman house on 1630 Revello Drive in Sunnydale, California.

Buffy is now living in Los Angelus waitressing at a local greasy spoon. She is no longer the Slayer. She doesn’t even react in typical Buffy fashion when one neanderthal man comes on to her and another smacks her arse at the restaurant at which she works. She is no longer Buffy. She is Anne.

Someone, however, knows that Anne is Buffy. Chantarelle, who we last saw in “Lie to Me” early in season two as one of those who “worshiped” vampires, comes into the restaurant at which Anne works. She is with her boyfriend, the boyfriend who takes care of her because, as she says later in the episode, she can’t really take care of herself, Ricky. Chantarelle, now calling herself Lily, asks Anne if she, Lily, knows her. Buffy tells Lily that no you don’t know me. But one can’t help but think that Buffy recognizes “Lily” since she suddenly leaves work claiming she is sick. Lily, as we learn later in “Anne” does recognise Buffy.

“Anne” is a mystery tale. At the centre of the episode is the disappearance of Ricky. After Ricky disappears Lily comes to Buffy for help in finding Ricky. Buffy initially hesitates to come to Lily’s aid. She is no longer the Slayer. Buffy, however, after Lily’s pleas decides to help Lily look for Ricky. Her Slayer instincts are starting to kick back in.

After looking for Ricky at one of those establishments that pay people for their blood (it always seems to be about blood in Buffy) or plasma--the look on Buffy’s face seems to suggest that she doesn’t fully buy the claim of an employee at the blood centre that Ricky hasn’t been there--Buffy finds a dead Ricky in an old decaying building inhabited by LA’s homeless. But the Ricky Buffy finds, the Ricky with the tattoo heart with Lily written in it she saw at the restaurant, is no longer young. He, says Buffy, “looked about eighty”.

Lily, upset at being told that Ricky is dead and blaming Buffy for her boyfriend’s death leaves Buffy’s tiny apartment in a squalid part of Los Angeles. Running into Ken, the dogooder from Family Home who we met earlier when Buffy inadvertently ran into him after saving a man from being hit by a car—Buffy is, as Ken tells her running from something. Ken tells Lily that Ricky is alive and at Family Home.

Taking Lily to Family Home Ken prepares Lily for the “cleansing” of her past (Lily asks Ken if it is “like a baptism”). Buffy, in the meantime, has broken into the blood centre and discovered that Ricky is numbered among the “candidates” in the blood centres files. Candidate for what? Joan, the blood centre employee, gives Buffy the answer. I give “him” the names of the healthy ones (earlier in the episode Ricky tells Lily that they must eat healthy to keep healthy), she tells the Slayer.

“Him”, of course, is Ken. Buffy shows up at Family Home feigning, quite badly, a need to cleanse herself of her sins. Fighting her way past the guards at the door of Family Home Buffy breaks into the room in which Lily is being cleansed. Buffy fights with Ken as Lily is pulled through the “dirty” cleansing pool. Buffy and Ken fall through the same portal during their fight.

Lily and Buffy now find themselves in what they soon learn is a hell dimension. Ken, "Anne's" monster of the week, is a demon who lures those many street people and runaways in LA who chose to lose themselves into his hell dimension. Once there he and his black clad Nazi looking colleagues work these lost people to near death or death.

The hell dimension Buffy and Lily enter against their will is a combination Christian, capitalist, and Nazi hell. The script describes the hell dimension as having more than a little of the Spanish inquisition in it. Workers all wearing the same nondescript garb are used as captive and exploited labour to turn lead into molten lead that runs into vats in this industrial hell dimension where one day is like one hundred years.

Buffy, of course, has no intention of remaining in this Christian capitalist hell dimension for even a day. Our Slayer eventually leads her work group into rebellion (the revolt of the toiling masses) and after battling with the demon guards in this hell, this place with a total absence of hope (note the existentialism here), she and the others escape from this dimension of hopelessness. Other captives, however, are not so fortunate.

This being Buffy “Anne” is not simply an action adventure tale that follows our Slayer as she helps herself and helps others escape from a hell dimension (the first hell dimension, by the way, we see in Buffy). The central themes of “Anne” are, just like Buffy in general, identity and empowerment.

Buffy has left Sunnydale and turned herself into Anne. She is, as Ken notes at one point in the episode, running from something. She is running, among other things, from being a Slayer, the Slayer who she really is.

Chantarelle is also running from something. Chantarelle has turned herself into Lily—she was once Sister Sunshine she tells Buffy at one point in “Anne”—a Lily who has little in the way of an identity—she keeps changing it—and little in the way of an ability to help herself in the absence of her boyfriend Ricky or later Buffy.

Anne and Ricky aren’t the only lost ones in “Anne”. Twice in the episode we hear an elderly man and an elderly woman proclaim that they are “no one” while wandering aimlessly around the streets of Los Angeles.

It is not until Buffy is in the hell dimension that she once again becomes who she is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a guard prepares to take his slave detail to work he asks each prisoner who they are. The first slave answers with his real name. The guard kills him. Next the guard proceeds to ask all the other slaves who they are. Everyone says "no one" until the guard comes to Buffy. Anne answers the demon’s query with “I’m Buffy the vampire slayer. And you are?” With this Buffy’s rebellion against this industrial and capitalist inquisitory hell begins. With this Anne has once again become Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy’s rebellion, Buffy’s decision to fight, eventually inspires Lily to fight as well. When Ken captures Lily and launches into a speech about what he is going to do to the rebellious Buffy Lily pushes him from the walkway above the work floor and escapes. At the end of the episode Lily, the Lily who has been empowered by Buffy to fight, takes the name Anne, an Anne who is about to embark on a path she hasn’t walked before, a path of self help. The next time we see Anne will be on the Buffy spin off Angel where she will be running a teen shelter in East LA (Angel “Blood Money”).

At the end of “Anne” Buffy, once again the Slayer, returns home. Joyce opens the door and hugs her daughter.

Music: The Buffy/Angel theme makes an appearance as Buffy dreams that she and Angel are on a beautiful beach near, presumably, LA. For me it has a certain romantic quality thanks to that piano. Think romantic piano concerti. Note the over the top romantic music that plays as a Cordy and Xander finally get their love groove back (they have been imaging that each other had affairs during summer vacation and are on the outs) in the middle of “Anne”.

Welcome Back: Larry is briefly seen talking about how if the team can keep sudden mysterious deaths down the football team may be able to achieve the best football season at SHS ever.

Memories: Buffy is still impacted by what she had to do to save the world at the end of season two, kill her love Angel.

Awesome: the scene where Joyce tells Giles she doesn’t blame herself for Buffy’s running away from home (Joyce, of course, actually told her to not come back home if she did her Slayer duty). She tells Giles she blames him. Look at Anthony Stewart-Head’s face as Kristine Sutherland says her lines. Superb acting by Stewart-Head. Superb acting by Kristine Sutherland as well in this scene.

LOL: look at all the students in the library. I have never seen so many SHS students in the SHS Library. Clearly it is the first day of school.

Punning We Really Miss Ye: Love the wonderful scene (and the tease that Willow’s legs might be Buffy’s) as Willow, Xander, and Oz fill in, not very successfully, for Buffy the slayer missing in action during the teaser. And I love that Xander realizes that the Scoobies have taken Buffy’s puns for granted. Puns give Buffy power.

The Happy World of Waitressing: What is it with Buffy and restaurants? She works as a waitress in a greasy spoon in “Anne”. In season six Buffy will get a job at a fast food restaurant (“Doublemeat Palace”).

Leavings and Returnings: “Anne” continues the tradition of Buffy coming and returning to Sunnydale. In “Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest” Buffy comes to Sunnydale for the first time. Between the first season finale “Prophecy Girl” and the second season premiere “When She Was Bad" our Slayer spends her summer with her Dad in LA and returns to Sunnydale just before school begins again. Between the second season finale “Becoming” and the third season premiere episode “Anne” Buffy leaves Sunnydale for LA. At the end of “Anne” she returns home again. The hero’s return?