Friday, May 6, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Band Candy"

OK, in the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I love “Band Candy”. Because of this I sometimes wonder what role the love of cinema, what role my love of television, and what role my love of “progressive politics”, and what role my love of Buffy plays in my analysis of Buffy.

In recent years some commentators have begun to distinguish between “scholar fans”, fans who write scholarly essays on films and TV shows like Buffy, and “fan scholars”, academic fans of films and TV shows like Buffy who write scholarly essays on the series for academic publishers. Assuming this distinction is a valid one—and one can and several have questioned whether it is—one must ask whether there is a real difference between “scholar fans” and “fan scholars”. My answer to this question? I think there is.

The difference between the fan scholars and scholar fans has, in my opinion, a lot to do with the different contexts that surround and envelop academic Buffy fans as opposed to Buffy scholar fans. Many contemporary academics, for a variety of historical reasons, are obsessed with things like the male gaze, colonialism, racism, sexism, feminism, and Lacanianism, all important intellectual movements of post-60s academic culture. On the other hand, scholar fans, by and large, still work within the critical framework that dominated film studies prior to the transformation of one of the leading French film journals, Cahiers du Cinema, from a journal dominated by auteurism to a journal dominated by structuralism and later by that theoretical blend of Marxism, Lacanianism, and feminism perspective, a theoretical genre blending recapitulated in that other influential journal of the era, the British journal Screen in the 1970s, that became dominant in academic film and TV academic culture from the 1970s until today, auteurism, the notion that a director or a writer is the author of a film or television text.

I mention all of this because I see myself as as much a fan as a scholar. I have long been a film fan and a fan of British and to a lesser extent American television. I have long been a devotee of the polemics and apologetics associated with auteurism though I have to admit that even I went in for fads when I was deeply influenced by the structuralist variant of auteurism prominent, briefly, in Cahiers and the writings of film scholar Peter Wollen, particularly his monograph Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, in the 1970s and 1980s. But interrogating my auteurism is not a simple task. One must, though far too few do, ask what kind of an auteurist I am. Am I one of those straw man auteurists of so many critics of auteurism, the auteurist who seems to reside in a lala land intellectual romantic universe where the auteur is the individualist genius of romantic legend? Or am I an auteurist of the contextualist variety, an auteurist who realizes that auteurs exist in social and cultural contexts including, in some instances, the collaborative nature of the film and televisual “art”? Regardless of what type of auteurist I am, I am, in my heart, a cinephile, and my cinephilia tends to work its “magic” through my auteurism.

So how did I become a cinephile? I blame my Dad for it. My father was a Hitchcock devotee. It was him who introduced me and my sister, Cindy, to Hitchcock. He made us watch Hitchcock films—and I am thankful he did—thereby instilling within me over time a love of and for the cinema, a love, I am happy to say, that continues to this day. I vividly recall my father taking me and my sister to see Richard Lester’s and the Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night at one of the old movie palaces, the Embassy I think it was, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the city in which we were living at the time. We were both very young at the time. I must have been around nine, my sister eight. And we were both Beatles fans which is why we begged my Dad to take us or allow us to see A Hard Day’s Night. We were not yet cinephiles, in other words. But that was about to change. I also fondly recall me and my sister spending our teenage years watching every film we possibly could particularly during the weekends because one local independent channel from Bloomington and Indianapolis, WTTV, Channel 4, showed large quantities of mostly classic American films every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. This situation was, as we found out, a cinephiles delight and we were becoming cinephiles.

When I went to college in Bloomington, Indiana, my cinephilic tendencies continued and grew as foreign films were added to the ever increasing numbers of movies I’d seen. It was during my college years that I expanded my horizons beyond simply watching films into also reading about films. I increasingly looked to the criticism of Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard, auterists all, to find out about other directors I should pay attention to in my voracious search for great cinema. I also took a few film classes now and again. And fortunately for me there were great teachers of film in Bloomington when I was a student there. I took a course on Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick with the late lamented Harry Geduld, I sat in on an Italian cinema course with the Italian cinema specialist Peter Bondanella. I took a semiotics and cinema course with the Hitchcock, Welles, Minnelli, film noir, and acting in the cinema specialist James Naremore. All three would have a major influence on my conception of cinema and my conception of what constituted great cinema.

It was also during my college years that I grew to appreciate British TV. During my spare time I discovered PBS and wonderful TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs, Danger UXB, I Claudius, Shoulder to Shoulder, All Creatures Great and Small, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Monty Python, and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, among others. Television with a brain. By the 2000s after I moved to Albany, New York I discovered that US TV could have a brain too. That was when I happened upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time while channel surfing. I soon became obsessed with it. I became, as a result, and remain a Buffyphile even a Buffynatic. I regard Joss Whedon as Buffy’s auteur (without the romanticism often attached to such a concept, however). I would argue that Buffy is one of those few television programmes which shows that television, with its greater length and its consequent greater depth and narrative and character complexity, shows that television can be, though on far too rare occasions at the moment, of comparable or superior quality to film.

So what does this all have to do with “Band Candy”? Well actually a lot. “Band Candy”, one of the many Buffy episodes I truly adore, is the first episode written by one of my favourite Buffy writers, Jane Espenson. Espenson along with Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, Doug Petrie, and David Fury, would become the core writers for Buffy between season three and season seven of the series, the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In my book Espenson is second, a close second to the master himself, Joss Whedon, when it comes to writing Buffy episodes.

“Band Candy” continues the season three thread. The big bad of season three, the mayor of Sunnydale, Mayor Richard Wilkins III, has an obligation, he has a sacrifice to fulfill to the monster of the week, the reptilian like (shades of the snake monster in “Reptile Boy”?) demon Lurconis. The sacrifice Lurconis demands? All of Sunndale’s newborn babies. The mayor has to figure out a way to give Lurconis his ritual due while keeping all of this a secret from the adults of Sunnydale and his role in it secret from our Scooby heroes.

To fulfill his obligations to Lurconis Mayor Wilkins has his henchman, the Mr. Trick we have seen in earlier episodes, subcontract out his plan to sell magic laced band candy (Milkbar) to the adults of Sunnydale who as a result and to the horror of our Scoobies, turn into mirror images (“sobering”, says Oz), sometimes darker mirror images (Giles becomes a Ripper version of the James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause and of the Marlon Brando from The Wild One) of the irresponsible kids our Scoobies are sometimes sometimes seemed to be or are sometimes perceived to be. The subcontractor? Giles nemesis Ethan Rayne who we last saw in “Halloween” and “The Dark Age” in season two. The purveyors of this magical candy? Ironically the students of Sunnydale High themselves including our Scoobies. Principal Snyder, presumably following the orders of the mayor, forces even those who aren’t in the band—including Buffy, Xander, and Willow—to sell candy to raise money for the high school band of Sunnydale High School. Hence the title of the episode.

The plot is now in motion. Adults turn into juvenile teenagers thanks to the candy. The real teenagers are aghast at the behaviours of the juvenilised adults. Mr. Trick’s henchmen steal the innocent children from one of Sunnydale’s hospitals to give to Lurconis. And it is Buffy to the rescue. “Band Candy” ends with conflict in the sewers of Sunnydale, where Lurconis lives, between Buffy, Giles, and Joyce and Lurconis, Mr. Trick, and the mayor. This battle, which ends with the triumph of Buffy over Lurconis and the rescue of the babies.

This closure, is, as is often the case with episodes of Buffy, not complete. During the battle scene Trick tells Buffy that he has to see what Buffy has got in terms of fighting skills. Buffy responds to the challenge by telling him that she is ready to fight (“Just tell me when it hurts”). The big fight between Trick and Buffy is interrupted, however, by Giles who steps in to fight Trick and is quickly thrown into a pool of water near Lurconis and is, as a result, put in danger of being eaten by Lurconis. Buffy, of course, comes to the rescue. The big knock down drag out fight between the two, as a result, won’t come until later in season three. The mayor responds to Buffy coming to the rescue by fading into the shadows of the sewer so, as a result, he isn’t seen by Buffy and Giles, appropriately enough since the big bad of season three is, of course, unknown to the Scoobies at this point. He will become known to the Scoobies later in season three.

The episode and seasonal arcs aren’t the only ones which weave their way through “Band Candy”. Other more “mundane” threads weave their way through the episode simultaneously as well. Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies prepare to take that high school ritual the SAT (the Scholastic Aptitude Test). Giles is helping her study for this college entrance examination in one of Sunnydale’s many cemeteries in the teaser of “Band Candy”. We will hear the results later in season three. Buffy is still keeping Angel’s return from a hell dimension to Sunnydale and is bringing him animal blood from the butchers to help restore his health. We will see the fallout from this later in season three. Giles is playing the role of Buffy’s father figure even more than before. This motif will continue to thread its way through the remaining seasons of Buffy in interesting ways. Xander and Willow continue their illicit if innocent relationship with each other despite the fact that they are boyfriend and girlfriend of Cordelia and Oz respectively. We will see the fallout from this later in season three and even into later seasons of Buffy.

It is not only arcs which run through “Band Candy”. Themes also appear in the episode most prominently the themes of responsibility, irresponsibility, keeping secrets, and growing up. Buffy, once again, raises the issue of driving to Joyce but Joyce rebuffs Buffy by telling Buffy she wants Buffy her, home. Joyce is still traumatized by Buffy’s irresponsible running away from home at the end of season two and the beginning of season three. Buffy, by the way, is a horrible driver so Joyce may have good reason for not letting the Buffster drive. Buffy is acting irresponsibly by lying to Willow, Joyce, and Giles and by keeping Angel’s return from hell secret from the other Scoobies. Xander and Willow are acting irresponsibly by continuing their secretive relationship with each other playing footsies under the science class table. Faith is irresponsibly absent from “Band Candy” doing what we do not know. Buffy accuses Joyce of acting like a child when she becomes the miniskirt wearing and Seals and Crofts loving teenage Joyce thanks to the juvenilising effect of the band candy.bGiles and Joyce have an immature and somewhat surreptitious relationship with each other. Buffy will, of course, learn about the full extent of this tryst in another (brilliant) Jane Espenson penned episode of season three, “Earshot”. The mayor is keeping his big bad of season three role a secret from most of the residents of Sunnydale and the Scoobies. These themes, of course, run throughout season three—Buffy, for example, as we will see, flirts with irresponsibility during season three while Faith drowns in it—and the seven seasons of Buffy as we will see.

It isn’t, by the way, only on the narrative level that the themes of Buffy and Buffy season three weave through “Band Candy”. The music of “Band Candy” comments on the themes of Buffy as well. Giles listens to a song by the British super group Cream, “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from 1967. The song’s subject is the journey of Ulysses from Troy, where he was fighting for the honour of Helen and Hellas, back home. Not coincidentally Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about the journey of a hero as well. The journey of the hero Buffy, the Vampire Slayer toward acceptance of slayerness.

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