Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Glenn Beck is an Intellectual Idiot...

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Glenn Beck has compared the Norwegian social democratic Labour camp on Utoye Island, yes the same youth camp to which Anders Behring Breivik brought right wing terrorism and mass murder over the weekend, to the camp meetings of Hitler-Jugend, Hitler Youth, in the 1930s and 1940s (http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/glenn-beck-compares-victims-of-norway-attack-to-hitler-youth-1.375388). This comparison, of course, is not a new idea. Beck is simply mouthing the cliches and stereotypes that have become common among some on the right since the Cold War, the same right who ironically whinge about, for instance, comparisons of Western bureaucracies with those that existed in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Some on the right have long liked to argue that those who have often been the victims of fascistic terror, socialists, are the same as the fascistic terrorists who yearn to kill them. Can you say rationalising and justifying there own ideologies?

This comparison is just another example of why Beck is an intellectual idiot. Historically speaking there have been and continue to be camps of all kinds: political camps (the Labour Camp on Utoye, Young Republican retreats, Young Democrat retreats, Tea Party camps in Missouri and Florida), economic camps (the get togethers of political and economic elites at places like the Bohemian Grove), religious camps (Christian and Jewish camps in the US), and nature camps (Boy Scout camps, Girl Scout camps, Eagle Scout camps, Pioneer Camps). It is important to remember that these different types of camps are more Weberian ideal types than different types of camps. The Boy Scouts, for instance, bring together political ideologies (democracy), economic ideologies (laissez faire and/or social insurance capitalism), somewhat generalised religious ideologies (notions about the upright moral life drawn from Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism), and cultural ideologies about manhood and womanhood.

All of these camps, thus, served and serve a socialising function, often a broad socialising function. All societies, groups, nations, corporations, educational institutions, cliques and so on, of course, socialise and, in particular, socialise their young. Most of these camps, however, didn't and don't socialise their members to kill or committ genocide. I know of no evidence, for instance, that the Norwegian Labour Party has or is organising its members to genocide the right. I know, however, of evidence that the Hitler-Jugend did, in part, train their members to hate Jews, to hate political leftists, to hate Romani, and to hate homosexuals and that there was a final solution to each of these problem categories that would allow the "German race" to achieve its historical destiny through lebensraum, a code word for genocide. And I know that several self-described rightists have targeted and sometimes killed "abortionists", "liberal unitarians", and, here we are back to Mr. Breivik, social democrats, liberals and leftists, in other words.

Anyway, Beck is an ideologue and demagogue not a comparative historian. And he is the worse for it. What is a pity is that so many Americans (and beyond) eat this intellectual lunacy up and spit it back out as though it were their own. Can you say this is how demagogic oligarchic populism typically works? And to top it off I'll bet many of these same guys and gals who were adults at the time of the Cold War whinged at the time about "evil" "godless" Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban communisms breeding mindless automatons who mouthed communist platitudes thanks to "brainwashing". Can you say people living in glass houses shouldn't be throwing stones? Well I can and just did.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tim Stanley and the Curiousness and Curiousnerousness of History...

Ah history and historians. After reading Dr. Tim Stanley's attempt to defend American Tea Partiers from the slings and arrows of liberal and leftist critical desire in the Telegraph I can't help but think about the curiosities of the historical profession and discipline.

It is hard to know where to begin criticising Dr. Stanley's polemical and apologetic blog piece,a blog post which argues that the right shouldn't be blamed for the sins of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Brevik despite the fact that he mouthed similar right wing platitudes similar to those that come out of the mouths of American Tea Party not so babes. Well let's begin with the comparative. Ethnocentrism and xenophobia, of course, are related and, historically speaking, have been found in different times in different places all across the globe including in the United States and in Norway. In the early nineteenth century, for instance, many Americans expressed in verbal form and occasionally through physical violence (tar and feathering, the massacre of Mormons at Haun's Mill in Missouri, the assassination of the Mormon prophet by a mob of vigilantes: vigilantism was quite prominent in 19th and 20th century America, by the way) a fear and hatred of Mormons and Freemasons. In the late nineteenth century many "real" Americans expressed through verbal abuse and physical attacks a fear and hatred of labour and the left. In the twentieth century many who believed themselves real Americans verbally and physically attacked Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Blacks, and leftists and fought, successfully, to limit immigration into the US from Japan, China, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

The same anti-immigrant and anti-leftist ethnocentrism and xenophobia is present in contemporary Norway as the recent actions of Mr. Breivik have made clear. Norway, like other parts of the Western world, was impacted, if not perhaps to the same degree as the US, by European anti-leftism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by the anti-immigrant xenophobia of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries particularly as Norway became more multicultural in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and by nineteenth and twentieth century notions of national racial "purity".

It is here, in this nexus of ethnocentrism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and national "purity", that the American Tea Party and the Norway for "real" Norwegians (or whatever you want to call this intellectual movement, the Norwegian Knights Templars perhaps?) meet. Both groups exhibit fears about national purity (America for real Americans, Norway for real Norwegians). Many Norwegians, not to mention many Europeans, harp about the dangers of the Muslimisation of Western Europe. Many tea partiers and other populist conservatives exhibit a fear about the increasing diversity of the US. This fear of diversity has manifested itself in a number of ways. Some American right wingers promote building a wall between the US and Mexico. Others raise questions about the increasing growth and influence of Muslims in America. Some even want to ban any attempt to make Muslim shari'a law, law in the US though the chances of this ever occurring are nill. Still others promote making English the national language of the US. Xenophobias all. Similar anti-immigrant and racial and cultural purity movements exist all across Europe as well. You can find them in Norway, in Sweden, in Denmark, in Finland, in the Netherlands, in France, in Austria, in England (the EDL), and in Austria. And you can find them outside of Europe. There is, for instance, a religious purity movement prominent among Hindus in India.

Now to a few of the more specific claims of Dr. Stanley:
Breivik was a madman. Wow, now that is a tried and true and very cliched and I might add very ahistorical way to deflect attention away from Breivik's historical, political, and cultural contexts. Gee let's see, let's just make everyone from Grinevitsky to Czolgosz to Ataturk to Hitler to Pol Pot to McViegh to Adkisson to Loughner to Breivik mad men so we can dehistoricise them and, in the process, avoid coming to grips with political violence in our midst.

Breivik was a loner. Breivik was hardly a "loner". He trawled the internet interacting with others of similar or like minds and was influenced by others of similar or like minds, as he notes in his manifesto, including American "counter jihadist" Robert Spencer, American "counter jihadist" Pamela Gellar, American "counter jihadist" Frank Gaffney, "counterjihadist" Andrew Bostom, Investigative Project on Terrorism’s Director Steven Emerson, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes, America's Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and a host of other European and American Christian neo-crusaders. Historians really need to get with the modern world of the world wide web which has expanded access to right wing ideologies and created cybercommunities among like minded individuals just as it has expanded access to used books stores. One has to wonder whether far too many historians have a literal and geographical notion of community (historians as fundamentalists?) and a rather literal perception of space which inhibits them from adapting to the realities of modern (or postmodern) geographies of cyberspace and modern interactions in these geographies of cyberspace.

Christian fundamentalists in the US are different from Islamic fundamentalists. There are similarities between Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Baha'i fundamentalists, well fundamentalists of all stripes and all meaning systems, religious, political, cultural. These similarities include nationalism, literalism, a tendency to believe in their own moral superiority, a fear of women, and a tendency to use the mechanisms of the state to enforce their own sense of moral rightness. Are there some differences? Yes, there are differences of culture and geography. But, as I said, there are also similarities and these similarities are important.

The Tea Party is not violent. Social movements, whatever their political stripe, can be non-violent and they can be violent. Many of the latter use the idea of a just revolution to justify their violent actions a perspective that mirrors and reflects Western just war theory (examples: the use of US Revolutionary discourse about fighting government tyranny among the US right, Breivik's assertion that his actions, while awful, were necessary given the Islamic threat to Norway and Norwegians). There have been several instances of right violence in the US including attacks on "abortionists", the killing of "liberals" in a Unitarian Church in Knoxville, and violent verbal attacks on legislators and others during town hall meetings during the health care debate. By the way, violence is not, historically speaking, something peculiar to the Norwegian or European right. Organised violence seems to be a very human trait.

And now for something not so completely different:
Breivik, the Scandinavian Right, Henning Mankell, and Stig Larsson. It is hard not to think about the darkness portrayed in the writings of Henning Mankell, creator of the Ystad detective Kurt Wallander, and Stig Larsson, author of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy of books and journalist who investigated Scandinavia's right, and Anders Behring Breivik. Why? Because anti-immigrant ideologies, anti-women ideologies, and the populist right often thread their way through the fictional writings of both Mankell and Larsson.

Bibliography on Breivik and His Influences:
Andrew Brown, "Andrew Breivik's Spider Web of Hate: An analysis of the Norwegian killer's manifesto reveals the online network that features in his paranoid universe"
James Ridgeway, "Oslo Shooting: Read Anders Behring Breivik's Internet Comments Here"
Mark Townsend and Ian Traynor, "Norway Attacks: How Far Right Views Created Anders Behring Breivik"
Connor Friedersdorf, "Anders Behring Breivik and the 'Anti-Jihadist' Blogosphere"
Eugene Robinson, "Anders Behring Brevik and the Influence Industry of Rage"
William Saletin, "Christian Terrorism: If Muslims are responsible for Islamic terrorism, are Muslim-bashers Responsible For the Massacre in Norway?"
James Ridgeway, "Anders Breivik, Stieg Larsson, and the Men with the Nazi Tatoos"
Brian Oliver, "When Writers are Confronted by a National Trauma…"
This World, "Norway's Massacre", BBC, 17 April 2012

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Talking about Vine Talk

Recently I watched a marathon of WNET's and WLIW's Vine Talk on Create, one of the new national networks of PBS that came on the air with the transition to digital television in the United States. Vine Talk, which was created by Olive Productions, a production company owned by actors Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi, attempts, as one of the hosts says at the beginning of each episode, to demystify wine for the general public or at least the general public that might or does watch PBS.

Each episode of Vine Talk is hosted by Ray Isle of Food&Wine magazine and one of two sommeliers and wine experts, Stephanie Carraway and Emilie Perrier, and centres around six wines chosen by a panel of experts from a larger number of wines from particular wine regions of the world including Burgundy in France, the Napa Valley of California, the Barossa Valley of Australia, and the Mendoza region of Argentina. During each episode each of the chosen six wines are sampled by an audience present at each show taping downstairs and three to four "celebrity" tasters with varying degrees of wine expertise (none, some, quite a bit) upstairs (some might find this symbolism meaningful). The celebrity panel is guided in its wine tasting by Stanley Tucci, one of the executive producers of the show. At the end of each episode the audience and the celebrity panel chose their favorite wine from among the six.

I found the show interesting and, as someone who knows incredibly little about wine, occasionally informative. I learned much about wine, wine regions, wine microclimates, the impact of microclimates on wine, and more from the comments by the sommeliers, who remain upstairs with the celebrities in order to fill in their blanks about all things wine, from Mr. Isle, and from the "celebrity" chefs that are almost always in the celebrity panels of each show. The comments from some celebrity guests like John Litgow and Nathan Lane, both of whom seemed to think that their function on the show was to act as court jester during the evening (the late night talk show effect?), didn't do much for me. On the other hand Gay Talese's intelligent questions about wine were questions I would have wanted to ask of the sommeliers present at the Vine Talk table, Tucci's and Talese's memories of Italian-American childhoods filled with wine making and wine drinking were fascinating, and guest glassmaker Maximillian Riedel's discussions of wine drinking and the science of wine glasses--he argues that different wines demand different shapes glasses--was utterly fascinating and highly educational.

What is as much if not more interesting to me about Vine Talk has been the reaction to the show by TV journalists and web commentators. Troy Patterson's review of the show on Slate with the revealing title Coastal Elites Sipping Wine: Vine Talk confirms every Republican suspicion about PBS (http://www.slate.com/id/2290602/) tells you all you need to know about his take on Vine Talk. And then there was this not unexpected cliched and stereotypical gem from Michael in the comments area under Mr. Patterson's "review":
"whether the show is about wine-tasting or stock-car racing, why should we spend TAX money to support it? There should be a strategic drive behind the use of OUR money; if we're talking about spending on TV, then it seems that it should educate, inform, or entertain. I'm guessing we have plenty of options for entertainment on TV, so that's probably not a good use of TAX funds. Educate or inform then? Well, we have many options for that in the media, too, so the compelling reason to use OUR money for this would be because it was something no one else was informing us about - like the old whitepaper/documentaries - and it was something that was worth all of us knowing about. So, I'm guessing wine tasting - not really a compelling reason there. It's a hobby. Now, if we were gonna' educate people on growing, or the business, or perhaps alcohol abuse - seems we might have a compelling reason - maybe. But this isn't an example Republicans should point to, it's an example ALL of us should point to and say - private funding is fine, but not with OUR TAX money."

I have to admit that I just love reviews like this. Not because they are factual but because posts like "Michael's" reflect a tendency in so much right wing rhetoric and demagoguery. They are full of ideologically correct fiction masquerading as fact. A couple of examples: "Michael" claims that Vine Talk is being funded by public tax monies but provides absolutely no evidence that the show is or was funded with tax payer money. In fact, Vine Talk was actually funded by Metrokane maker of the rabbit wine opener, wine preserver, and rabbit aerating pourer and by public television stations WNET and WLIW. "Michael" conveniently forgets or is simply ignorant about the fact that a significant percentage of the funds for public television comes from VOLUNTARY contributions by viewers and sponsors. So "Michael's" pronouncements to the contrary I am not sure we know fully how Vine Talk was funded. Was it funded with tax payers money? Was it funded solely by Metrokane? Was it funded, in part, by voluntary contributions from viewers? Gee wouldn't it be nice to get even a sliver of empirical evidence from ideologues and demagogues like "Michael"?

Beyond the facts related to the funding of Vine Talk so what if Vine Talk is funded by federal, state, or local governments? Tax payers money goes to help fund megacorporations like Boeing and Mobil so why not public television and Vine Talk, both of which serve important and critical education functions in American society and we have often, in the past, used taxpayer money for educational purposes. Vine Talk certainly teaches anyone a little something about wine and thus does educational work. I have a sneaking suspicion that this hellfire and damnation rhetoric about taxpayer funding of PBS is a lot more about greed and the unwillingness of many to pay taxes for almost anything if it means separating people from their beloved mammon. It is also, I think, about what it means to be an American. Many American conservatives of many different stripes have never, it seems to me, been able to come to grips with American diversity in all its forms. Americans, in general, have long had problems with increasing diversity in the US brought about by religious diversity, political diversity, and Southern European, Eastern European, and increasingly "non-European" immigration into the United States (ironically, of course, a lot of the Latin immigrants they appear to fear are actually, at least in part, significantly European). In the end I suspect that many on the "all-American" right would only be happy, irony of ironies, if all America and all of those represented on American television looked (unfortunately) like most of the folks on Vine Talk, minus the gays, of course, White.

Speaking or ironies, for many self-proclaimed conservatives PBS appears, if their rhetoric is to be believed, to be their ultimate liberal and left wing great satan. How a network that shows programmes like "This Old House", "The French Chef" (Julia Child once worked for the OSS), "The Donna Dewberry Show" (Dewberry is a Mormon and Mormons aren't particularly known for their political radicalism these days), "Barbeque University" and "Primal Grill" with chef Steven Raichlen, Lidia's Italy with chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich along with its more political fare of documentaries and investigative journalism is sapping the conservative all-American red, white, and blue bodily fluids of US citizens has never been clear to me. In fact, I would think that many conservatives would cheer PBS for its highly decentralised and highly local structure and remember that local commercial television used to programme local cooking and children's shows that looked a lot like those on PBS once upon a time when the FCC was as interested in educational content as in sex, breasts, dirty words, and extending corporate dominance. PBS, after all, was meant to be and is still largely decentralised and local even if certain PBS stations dominate its airwaves because of size and hence revenue. But no, apparently many conservatives prefer mega centralised bureaucracies like, no not Stalinist Russia, but Clear Channel Radio to PBS.

But back to Vine Talk. Yes the show has some problems. Not all of the guests are particularly interesting and some, like Nathan Lane, were, at least to me, incredibly annoying. This may be just me but I prefer to learn more about wine than to experience an overload of the humour of Nathan Lane which I frankly don't find that humourous. But come on give the show a break. Vine Talk is still a relatively new show and is still finding its feet. Give it time. I know that being patient is difficult in an era where watching or reading something for more than a few minutes without an action/adventure cgi spectacular breaking out can seem like an eternity, but hey humour me.

Check out the Vine Talk website here http://www.vinetalk.com/

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Open "Letter" to Colin Cowherd on American Exceptionalism

There Colin Cowherd goes again. Once again the popular host of The Herd heard on ESPN Radio is claiming that the number of high achieving Americans starring in American sports prove that Yanks are more individualistic and more achievement oriented than our friends to the North, the cooperative safety net nation of Canada.

OK I admit it. This nerd likes sports. Like many of my fellow Yanks I grew up on a steady diet of your standard American sports baseball, the misnamed football (handball or catch ball would be a more accurate description for this sport), and basketball. In my youth I closely followed baseball and worshiped Sandy Koufax. In my teens I came to love football and, like many other adopted Dallasites and Texans, worshiped and suffered at the temple of the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Texas Longhorns. Me as microcosm. Recently I have developed a love of real football, the football played largely with the feet, and rugby, both on the world cup level. Me as anomaly in American context.

Because I like sports I sometimes listen to sports radio, well specifically the limited choices for sports radio we have here in the United States, Fox and ESPN. One of the things I really like about sports radio is that it is one of the few places in the United States where you can hear actual intellectual debates nationally, intellectual debates that look at sports through the economic, political, cultural, demographic, and statistical prisms that dominate intellectual and academic life, on a regular basis. Sports radio is to the 2000s what PBS's Firing Line and Dick Cavett were to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. My Fox and ESPN listening habits are limited, however. I tend to listen during NCAA March Madness week one and during the football World Cup, one of the few times, along with yet another Tiger Woods scandal (sports celebrity culture), when Fox and ESPN actually stray from talking solely about US football, baseball, and basketball.

So recently I was listening to sports radio to see if anyone was talking about the wonderful women's football world cup final between the US and Japan and they actually were but only for a day. As I was changing channels I came across the ever provocative host of ESPN radio's The Herd, Colin Cowherd, going on about what appears to be one of his treasured obsessions, American exceptionalism, this notion that American is unique and singular among the nations of the world. Fox and ESPN sports hosts have learned, as did A Current Affair, TMZ, and the Hearst press before it, that being provocative can attract, expand, and keep an audience, both critically important in a ratings centred and ratings obsessed US media culture. Anyway, according to Mr. Cowherd the US is more individualistic than either Canada or Europe and this is why there is so much more wealth in the US relative to those other places and it is why the US has the best health care system in the world and why the world's elite doctors want to and usually do practise here. Mr. Cowherd, in a kind of shades of Sarah Palin, seems to regard himself a specialist on Canada and Canadian culture and talks about the differences between the US and the Great White North on his radio show periodically because he once lived in the Pacific Northwest, not too far, in other words, from Canada's British Columbia.

While there may be some truth in Mr. Cowherd's argument there are also a number of problems with his perspective. First problem, history. The intellectual revolution that began with the Renaissance, passed through the Scientific Revolution, and gave birth to the Enlightenment (there were actually many enlightenments) with its individualism, its emphasis on liberty from tyranny, its emphasis on property, its focus on happiness, its secularity, and its fascination with the workings of free market capitalism, impacted all of Northwestern Europe, the UK, and the colonies of the UK, those settler societies of US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Little if any US exceptionalism here.

Second problem, size. Size, geographical and demographic, does sometimes matter. Compared to the nations of Europe, including the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia are huge. Compared to the nations of Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand the US, population wise, is huge. The US has 350 million or so souls compared to the UK's some 60 million, Canada's some 30 million, Australia's some 20 million, and New Zealand's some 4.5 million souls. This difference in population, of course, has economic impacts. Because of its significant size and its favourable climate and extensive raw materials, the US is one of the largest economies in the world. It is size which has made the US one of the dominant military powers in the world since the late nineteenth century. It is size which has made the US one of the largest producers of media product in the world. It is size which has made the US a place where some can get rich. There is some American exceptionalism here but it is not the product of American individualism, as Cowherd would have it, since the US shares its Enlightenment individualism with the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it is more a function of geography and population size.

There are, of course, other differences between the US, Western Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Football and to a lesser extent rugby are more important in Western Europe than they are in the US. Rugby and cricket are more important in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand than in the US. Hockey is more important in Canada, which likes to think of itself as the home of hockey, a Canadian exceptionalism reflected on Canadian sports radio and television, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic than in the US. Some of this has to do with the weather.

There may be cultural factors beyond individualism which make the US, Western Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand different from each another. Recently I have been thinking a lot about Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism (1977, Norton), a book which became a topic of intellectual conversation in the US in the late 1970s. I have increasingly come to believe that the major difference between the US and Western Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand has to do with this culture of narcissism. It seems to me that with the triumph of corporations during the Gilded Age, the lionisation of the Gilded Age's robber barons, the triumph of consumer capitalism, the rise of Hollywood and its celebrity culture, the rise of a manipulative advertising and mass marketed advertising that sold sex, the rise of television, and the rise of a celebrity obsessed press trying to supply the demand of the masses for information about the intimate strangers they are obsessed with, a culture of narcissism, has come to dominate US business (greed is good), US politics (politicians as celebrities), and US media culture (celebrity culture) in a way it still doesn't in other parts of the industrial world.

I suppose Mr. Cowherd could object to all the above and argue that what he meant was that Americans are more attached to individualism than Western Europeans, Brits, Canadians, Aussies, and Kiwis. But even this more nuanced argument is problematic. For instance the myths of the American frontier (the West which many Americans have long believed gave birth to American individualism not the Enlightenment) and the Horatio Alger myths are paralleled by Britain's "white man's burden" myth, the Canada's we struggled against a difficult environment myth (think Fraser in the Northwest Territories in "Due South" for a contemporary version of this myth), Australia's individualist frontier battler (think Crocodile Dundee as a contemporary example of this myth), and New Zealand's individualist Kiwi battler myth (see the faux tale of Kiwi battler Colin McKenzie in "Forgotten Silver" for a contemporary version of this myth). Little if any American exceptionalism here.

I want to end this open "letter" by addressing a few pronouncements by Mr. Cowherd that annoy me.

Annoying pronouncement one: The US, claims Mr. Cowherd, is the wealthiest country on earth. Yes, I suppose that is accurate if one looks only at raw numbers. But you can't simply look only at raw numbers since the size of nations varies. You can't compare a New Zealand of limited geographic and demographic size with the much larger US unless, of course, you control for size. When one does control for size an analysis of gross domestic product shows that Singapore and the Scandinavian countries are wealthier than the US.

Annoying pronouncement two: The US claims Mr. Cowherd, has the "best" health care system in the world. Of course, one of the problems with Mr. Cowherd's argument here is that he confuses the descriptive, a description of global health care systems, with the normative, the notion that one health care system is better than another. There have been attempts to rate health care systems empirically by looking at quality. The World Health Organisation rankings (2000), for example, looking at responsiveness, fairness, overall level of health, distribution of health, distribution of finances, ranks France number one, Italy number two, the UK number eighteen, Israel number twenty-eight, Canada number thirty, and the US number thirty-seven right below Costa Rica. According to Forbes (2008) the healthiest countries on earth are Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Denmark, Canada, Austria, the Netherlands, the US, Israel, the Czech Republic, Spain and France. Forbes rates the US the eleventh healthiest in the world despite the fact that the US spends the highest percentage of its GDP on health care.

One can, of course, raise all sorts of questions about this data. How does one determine what quality is? Is there an ideological aspect to our notions of what constitutes quality? What can't be contested, however, is the fact that most of the industrialised nations of the world have universal health care systems, that they have universal health care systems because you get the biggest bang for the buck or euro with them--the more people in the insurance pool the more you can spread the cost--and the universal health care systems they have, and these are mostly private or public/private hybrids, lead to healthier populations, as survey after survey shows, because more people have access to health care in nations with universal health care systems.

Annoying pronouncement three: The US, because of its emphasis on individualism, claims Mr. Cowherd, produces individuals who strive for excellence in a variety of domains of life while European, UK, and Canadian mutual aid societies don't. The cooperative societies of Europe, the UK, and Canada, claims Mr. Cowherd, produce citizens who are more oriented toward cooperation than individualism. As a result Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand produce fewer outstanding sports stars. Mr. Cowherd often points to a lack of Canadians among the elite in the dominant American sports of football, basketball, and baseball as evidence for this claim. The problem with this perspective, of course, is obvious. Canadians, though they have grown more interested in the holy trinity of US sports, football, baseball, and basketball, grow up with a first love for hockey, the Canadian national sport and national religion. And that is why there are lots of Canadians among the National Hockey League's elite athletes. Kiwis grow up with rugby as their first sports love. That is why there are so many New Zealanders among rugby's athlete elites. Cultural variations, in other words, do matter.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Musings on theory, method, and history...

To be honest I don't think there is such a thing as historical methodology as a distinct phenomenon. If history is about going to the primary source material to "discover" history than history is not unique. Virtually every "discipline" that I know of has its own primary source material whether it is the universe of physics and astronomy, the DNA of biology, the films of Film Studies, or the television shows of television studies.

Moreover, the history that historians do is as constructed as any other intellectual enterprise. Historians like to tell others and like to tell themselves, presumably in order to rationalise what they are doing, that they are simply doing a Sgt. Friday, i.e, collecting facts from primary source material and constructing a historical tale out of it. But it is not as simple as that. In my dissertation on the history of Mormon Studies I try to show that historians constructed Mormon Studies by "reading" Mormonism through the intellectual prisms that have come to dominate academia in the post-Enlightenment period, economics, politics, culture, geography, demography.

While some might try to argue that these theoretical prisms of economics, politics, culture, geography, and demography arise out of the primary source material, I would argue that these intellectual frames are imposed on the primary source rather than products of it. Those who converted to Mormonism in the early and mid-nineteenth century, for instance, did not say, as contemporary academics do, that I became a Mormon because of economic changes brought about by the building of the Erie Canal in upstate New York or that I became a Mormon because I hated the democracy that was rising in Jacksonian America. They claim they became Mormons because they believed Joseph Smith was God's prophet and that the book he claimed to have translated and the revelations he claimed to receive were of divine origin. Academics, of course, generally eschew and dismiss such theological and metaphysical explanations.

There is, I think, a unique problem with some variants English, Film, and TV theory. Crystal ball textualism, or as my mentor at Notre Dame Gene Halton calls it, the doughnut approach to literature, film, and TV, has the theory down but it cuts, as Halton notes, the heart or the dougnut hole out of that theory. Crystal ball textualists to the contrary, you simply can't gaze into a a literary text, a film, or a television programme and divine, as if you were looking into a crystal ball, everything about that text. Archival work, interviews, and actual audience research is necessary to fully understand what goes into the making of a film and how audiences watch films.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hollywood and Teen...Thoughts on Whatever it Takes...

So I spent part of yesterday (Saturday, 9 July) watching the teen flick Whatever it Takes written by Mark Schwahnn and directed by David Raynr. I wanted to watch this film, I guess, because I heard or read somewhere that it was an updated version of Cyrano de Bergerac. I have an interest in Hollywood updated adaptations of the classics be it Cyrano (Roxanne), Laclos (Cruel Intentions), or Shakespeare (O, She's the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You). The final and perhaps most important reason I viewed Whatever it Takes is because I picked up the DVD of the film for $3 bucks at a local Big Lots. There's nothing like a bargain to make you take a chance on something you may only have a modest interest in all things being equal.

I found Whatever it Takes to be a mediocre film. It did have a bit of the Cyrano in it but it was a Cyrano transformed and mixed up with a significant number of teen film cliches. There was the usual insider and outsider divide. On the looser side were Ryan, Maggie, and their friends Floyd, Cosmo, and Harris. On the beautiful people side were Chris and Ashley (played by former model Jodi Lynn O'Keefe). There were the teen romance cliches, the high school students going to the prom cliches, and the teen nerd cliches.

Two main narrative threads run through Whatever it Takes. The major story thread revolves around Ryan's attempt to get the girl of his dreams, the beautiful insider Ashley, and Chris's attempt to get the girl of his dreams, the romantic and intellectual Maggie. So Ryan and Chris cut a deal and here is where the Cyrano part comes in. Ryan agrees to help Chris get Maggie if Chris helps him get Ashley. So while Ryan is feeding Chris the words and the knowledge of flims, TV shows, and rock groups that will get him get Maggie, Chris is teaching and helping Ryan to get mean because nothing attracts the I have problems with my self-esteem Ashley more than a guy who ignores her.

As the film progresses Whatever it Takes has the normal twists and turns of a typical Hollywood teen flick. Ryan discovers he loves Maggie while feeding words to Chris in the high school theatre as Maggie prepares the set for a play. Ryan discovers that Chris's interest in Maggie doesn't go beyond getting her into bed on prom night. He simply wants another I had sex with her notch for his belt.

There are also a number of subplots that run through Whatever it Takes. Floyd wants to go out of high school with a bang and so, in a shout out to Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life--Whatever it Takes was filmed at Beverly Hills High School, the same school where Capra filmed It's a Wonderful Life--he presses a button that opens the gym floor to reveal a pool underneath on the night of the prom sending prom goers flying into the pool beneath. At the end of the film he succeeds in achieving his dream: he places the neck of a statue at the front of the school which had been stolen by a previous student prankster years before, a prank that had entered school folklore, back on the statue, backwards. As a result Floyd takes his place in high school folklore as well.

Though I found Whatever it Takes pretty mediocre I found the commentary track on the DVD release of the film with director David Raynr, one of the few Black directors working in Hollywood, and actors Marla Sokoloff and Shane West, quite interesting. On the commentary Raynr talks quite frankly about how contemporary Hollywood really works. Raynr notes that he had to cut several scenes in the film in order to obtain a PG-13 rating, critical for a film, as he notes, aimed at an 18 and under audience. Cuts were made in a sexual foreplay scene between West and O'Keefe, a scene that revealed part of O'Keefe's breast in side shot. He cut O'Keefe's reference to West's shrinking manhood. He cut a scene in which Franco's thonged derriere appeared briefly in frame. Raynr goes on to note that several scenes had to be taken out of the film and several scenes had to be put into the film after the film was tested with audiences. This was necessary because audiences weren't quite sure why Ryan would want Ashley when the gorgeous, bright, and funny Maggie lived right across the balcony from him next door. Raynr notes that test audiences didn't like the original title of the film so the films title had to be changed. Raynr talks briefly about a Japanese version of the film made for the Japanese market. This version of Whatever it Takes incorporated a subplot with a Japanese character played by a "well known Japanese actress"--you can see a brief clip of her in the deleted extras on the Whatever it Takes DVD--into the film. Finally, Raynr talks about the problems associated with filming (weather, time, locations) and the fact that he, a Black director well aware of the Caucasian persuasion of most Hollywood cinema, intended to have a Black actor play one of the secondary plot roles in Whatever it Takes. He was unable to do this, however, because another studio, Warner Brothers, had the actor under contract for a film that was planned to at the same time. All of this, but particularly the inability of Raynr to use the black actor he wanted to give Whatever it Takes a bit of colour, is worth remembering, particularly by academics, because far too often academics eschew production analysis of a film in favour of a crystal ball textualism, a crystal ball textualism that I suspect would see the Caucasian persuasion of Whatever it Takes and of Hollywood films, in general, as black and white evidence that Hollywood is racist. That would be wrong in this instance.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Buffy Blog "Graduation Day"

“Graduation Day” written and directed by Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon is, in this viewers opinion, a superbly written, superbly directed, superbly edited, nicely paced, and superbly acted episode. It is a thrilling ride with pauses enough for the Scoobies, well some of the Scoobies anyway, to relax a bit and for viewers like me to catch their breath. And it is a great way to end yet another thrilling year of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There is enough stuff going on in “Graduation Day” to keep a host of critics and academics writing essays for years. In many ways season three of Buffy (if not seasons one and two too) has been heading toward Sunnydale High School graduation day since it began. Graduation, that rite of passage when adolescent teenagehood ends and young adulthood begins, has been a theme that has wound its way through season three of Buffy as our Scoobies have struggled with relationships, senses of self, sexuality, and the choices they make. Nowhere is this sense of old endings and new beginnings more apparent than in “Graduation Day”.

Endings first. The Buffy/Angel relationship is winding down to its final conclusion, well perhaps it’s not so final conclusion. In “The Prom” Angel told Buffy that he was going to leave Buffy and Sunnydale if he survived the “Ascension”. In “Graduation Day” Angel tells Buffy that he is not even going to say goodbye. He is just going to leave.

But sometime endings are not that easy. Faith, still smarting from Angel’s rejection in “Enemies”, and trying to turn Buffy’s attention away from the evil matter of the moment, the mayor’s “ascension”, shoots an arrow into an Angel arguing once again with Buffy about their relationship. It was not Angel’s heart that Faith was aiming for and missed. Her intention, as soon becomes apparent, was to poison our Vampire with a soul. The arrow tip she shoots has a deadly poison smeared on it. Learning that the only thing that can cure Angel of the poison Faith as shot into Angel is the blood of the Slayer—once again blood plays an important role in the Buffyverse—Buffy goes off in search of Slayer blood to cure her “lover”. Buffy, in other words, goes off to kill Faith.

Buffy injures Faith but she is not able to bring her to Angel so he can drink her blood. It is Buffy who forces Angel to drink her blood in a sexually charged scene (Whedon, in an interview on the season three DVD set notes that the metaphor is pretty close to the surface). This doesn’t stop Angel doing what he said he will do. At the end of the battle between the mayor and the Scoobies our vampire with a soul leaves Sunnydale without saying goodbye. Buffy glimpses her white knight briefly before he turns his back on our Slayer and disappears into the smoke and darkness (very noir) that remain from the epic battle just fought and won. Whither Angel? A new beginning?

“Graduation Day” also brings the Buffy and Faith arc to a conclusion, at least for the moment. I say for the moment because in Buffy, as all devoted viewers should know by now, endings aren’t necessarily always endings. Sometimes they lead to new beginnings or new beginnings enmeshed in old endings. Thanks to the Xandman, who is quickly becoming the Scooby you need to go to when you need to find one of those hard to find persons (he found the address of the demon who wanted to sell Buffy and Faith the “Books of Ascension” in“Enemies” if you recall), Buffy, dressed in red and black, red the colour of blood—a foreshadowing of what is shortly to come?—and black—symbolising that Buffy is a double of Faith?—tracks “big sis” down to the apartment the mayor has put our rogue Slayer up in. The result is the second great epic battle in the Buffy and Faith saga. The first, of course, was in “Revelations”. The end result of this Slayer on Slayer fight is rather different from the first. Buffy, uses the knife the mayor gave Faith—there has to be a psychoanalytical critic out there who can make much oedipal and electra hay out of this—to gut our rogue Slayer (the red blood that matches Buffy’s red slacks). Faith, however, does not go easily into the you’ll be fed to Angel night. Before Buffy can grab her, Faith hits Buffy knocking her backwards and throws herself down from her third storey (?) landing into a bed of a passing lorry. Faith has managed to snatch one little victory out of the mouth defeat.

Another ending: When the Watcher’s Council won’t help the Scoobies find a cure for the poison that is killing Angel, it is not their policy, Wesley says, “to cure vampires, Buffy graduates from, quits, the Watcher’s Council leaving Wesley without a job.

And another: The Wesley/Cordelia romance is in full bloom. Cordelia even comes into the library to demand an explanation for why Wesley is planning to return to England. She is told by Giles that it is because Buffy has quit the Council. In the Buffyverse, however, romances don’t always, don’t even usually, last very long. Wesley’s and Cordy’s doesn’t last long at all. When Wesley and Cordy’s lips meets as both are doing their duty by packing books in preparation for the final battle with the mayor—a sure tip off to the careful viewer that something big is about to take place in the library—the Wes and Cordy romance comes to an inglorious end with one of the worst kisses ever seen on the screen, big or small, in film and television history.

And now the big ending or conclusion: the mayor ascends as planned, eats Snyder who berates the mayor for his unacceptable behaviour and the disorder he causes (earning a bit of redemption in the process?), and kills Larry (Ron expresses sadness since he really liked the character of Larry) who like the “white hat” he was in “The Wish” is fighting the good fight on our Scoobies side. Buffy is able to turn the fight in our heroes direction when she finds the mayor’s Achilles heel with a little help from Angel—Angel tells Buffy that the mayor was seriously crazed when he learned Faith was in a comma thanks to Buffy—and a lot of help from Faith—Faith and Buffy share a dream in which Faith tells Buffy that the mayor’s weakness is his “[h]uman weakness”. Buffy uses the mayor’s human weakness for Faith by goading him into chasing her through the Sunnydale High halls into the library where Giles blows him to kingdom come. The big bad of season three is no more.

Speaking of new or possibly new beginnings coming from seeming endings: Wesley now a former Watcher is decked by a vampire within the first few seconds of the epic battle with the mayor’s forces and spends the rest of the battle writing in pain on the sidewalk. Whither Wesley? Harmony is bitten during the epic battle. Whither Harm? Willow and Oz move their relationship into new territory when they, in the midst of melancholia about the coming battle against the mayor during his ascension, they have sex not once but twice, the first in Willow’s bedroom and the second in Oz’s van. Whither Willow and Oz? Faith is alive but in a coma. Does the fact that Faith helps Buffy in their collective dream represent a new beginning for Faith? Has Faith reconciled with Buffy? Has Faith earned some level of redemption?

And then there’s that big ending and big new beginning: “Graduation Day” ends with a bit of the happiness of those usual happy Hollywood endings. The mayor has been defeated and is dead. The Scoobies have graduated from high school. Willow and Buffy will soon be off to the University of California, Sunnydale. But there is also sadness and pain: Larry is dead, Harm may be dead, Wes is injured and is no longer Buffy’s Watcher, Faith is in a coma, Angel has left to where we don’t know, Giles no longer is a Watcher and , since the library has been destroyed, is presumably without a job, Cordelia can’t go to college, and Xander’s future, though he was “key guy” in the battle against the mayor (remember when he was the Zeppo in “The Zeppo?) doesn’t seem the best or the brightest. Viewers, well this viewer anyway, can’t help but be a little unsettled by the question of where our Scoobies might going?

Harry Groener’s characterization of the mayor as a largely genial throughout season three makes the anger that erupts periodically out of the mayor (“Choices”, “Graduation Day”) all the more effective. Speaking of the mayor and anger, the tense scene when the mayor enters the sanctum of the Scobbies, the Sunnydale High School library and the confrontation scene between the mayor and Angel (David Boreanaz) in the hospital after Angel saves Buffy from the Wilkins’s attempt to kill her by cutting off her air, is brilliantly done by all concerned.

The mayor was yet another one of those complex big bads that Buffy does so well and that you see far to little in television and film. In particular he was the father, the good father that his surrogate daughter Faith needed. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Graduation Day” where Mayor Wilkins tells Faith how lovely she looks in the new (if overly bright) dress she wears that he has just bought her, how the Ascension isn’t only his day but also her day to “blossom”, how no father could be prouder of her than he is, and how there is no way she could ever let him down. These shots in the self-esteem arm are just what Faith needs.

Though the mayor has built Sunnydale for his Ascension and so he can feed on the people of Sunnydale after his ascension one gets the mayor really believes what he says. As Joss Whedon points out in the interview on “Graduation Day” in the season DVD set the mayor’s speech on graduation day describes what Buffy up to this point has been all about.
...It's been a
long road getting here (to graduation day), for you, for
Sunnydale... there's been achievement,
joy, good times... and there's been grief.
There's been loss. Some people who
should be here today, aren't.
He's looking right at Buffy. She's looking right back.
MAYOR (cont'd)
But we are. Journey's end. And what
is a journey? Is it just distance traveled?
Time spent? No. It's what happens on
the way, it's the things that shape you.
At the end of the journey, you're not the
same. Today is about change. Graduation
doesn't just mean your circumstances change,
it means you do. You ascend to a higher
level. Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing.
Buffy has been a journey of change for Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Angel, Giles, and Faith and nothing will ever again be the same.

The Shape of Things to Come?: In the Faith and Buffy dream Buffy tells Faith that “[t]heres” something I’m supposed to be doing”. Faith responds with the cryptic “[o]h yeah. Miles to go. Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0 .” For what this means wait for season four’s “This Year’s Girl”, “Restless”, and season five.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Buffy Blog: "The Prom"

Before the deluge? “The Prom” written and directed by Buffy regulars Marti Noxon and David Solomon, is the last episode before the third season finale of “Graduation Day”. It offers a bit, I emphasise a bit here, of a breather between “Choices” and “Graduation Day”, episodes that respectively move the big bad arc of season three forward and bring it to an action/adventure end.

“The Prom” is, ostensibly at least, an episode that centres around yet another American high school ritual (though I am told it is spreading beyond the boundaries of the United States into other parts of the Western world), that, as Buffy puts it, “… big end-of-high-school-rite-of-passage" thingy…”, the prom. While the ascension of the mayor is briefly mentioned in the episode and “The Prom” is on one level about the prom, the focus of “The Prom” is on a number of character arcs, character arcs that find a kind of closure at the prom.

The Buffy/Angel arc is what is really at the heart of “The Prom”. Ever since Spike told Buffy and Angel in “Lovers Walk” that they will never be friends, there has been a bit of fatalism surrounding the Buffy and Angel relationship. The mayor’s spot on remarks in “Choices” about the absurdities surrounding the relationship added to this sense of fatalism surrounding the Buffy/Angel relationship and has even led to a bit of self-reflection on their part as Angel admits to Buffy that the mayor was right about their relationship having no future. In “The Prom” Buffy’s mum adds fuel to the Buffy and Angel really have no future fire. Realising that Buffy has spent the night with Angel Joyce comes to Angel’s Mansion and tells Angel that he has tough “choices” (there are those choices again) to make about their relationship.

It is Angel’s dream (it has to be a dream given that no one is at the wedding and it, thanks to the music, the POV shot of the church windows, Angel’s increasing fear about exiting into the sun, has an eerie dreamlike quality to it), a dream in which Buffy, rather than Angel, as we would expect, is burned up by the sun after they exit the church after their wedding, that finally leads Angel to make his choice. He tells Buffy after they have entered the sewers of Sunnydale in search of demons—Buffy finds and kills one—that he is leaving her and leaving Sunnydale if they survive the “ascension”.

Buffy is, of course, devastated. The scene between Buffy and Angel is followed by a wonderful and painful scene—I have to fight back tears every time I see it—where Buffy and Willow commiserate while sitting together on Buffy’s bed about the break-up. Willow, as best friends are supposed to do, tries to make Angel into the bad guy. Buffy says she doesn’t have to because “…he's [Angel] right. In the long run – I think maybe he's right”. In a devastating and powerful scene that equals if not surpasses any of the emotional intensity in Ingmar Bergman films and television shows, Buffy breaks down, tells Willow she feels like she is dying and can’t breath, and falls in tears into Willow’s lap. And despite Angel showing up to be with Buffy at the prom the relationship of the vampire slayer and the vampire, the girl from the right side of the tracks and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, seems to be at an end, at least for now. The pain just keeps on coming.

The Giles arc. Giles continues to play the surrogate father to Buffy’s surrogate daughter promising her ice cream to help her get over the loss of Angel.

The Cordy and Cordy and Xander arc. Xander, once again, as he did in “Choices”, is walking by April Fools, a Sunnydale woman’s dress shop, sees Cordy inside, and goes in to engage in his usual verbal gymnastics and abuse with her. Cordy is not, however, in a verbal sparring mood thanks to the fact that her Dad has made a little mistake on his taxes during the last twelve years and that Cordy and her family have lost everything. As a result Cordy is not going to be able to attend any of the colleges that accepted her and has to work part time at April Fools in order to buy the dress she wants to wear to the prom. Buffy and the pain that is life.

Xander, initially dumbstruck, covers for Cordy the name tag girl when all the Scoobies gather in the library to view a video of a Hell Hound attack on Tux Guy at April Fools—an attack that occurred during the Cordy/Xander conversation—to try and figure out what is going on. Later when Cordy is getting ready to leave April Fools without the dress because she hasn’t earned enough money to purchase it. We viewers and Cordy learns that somebody has bought it for her. Touchingly that someone is Xander. With Wesley on Cordy’s arm—the Wesley and Cordy arc takes another step forward toward romance—Cordy thanks Xander bringing the Cordy/Xander relationship arc to closure.

The Anya arc. Anya is back and in her remembering with joy the various punishments she inflicted on men and her men are evil way, asks Xander to the prom because he “is not quite as obnoxious as most of the alpha males around here (Sunnydale). Plus I know you don't have a date”. He accepts. What is it with Xander and demons (remember the praying mantis femme fatale of “Teachers Pet” and the mummy girl of“Inca Mummy Girl”?). Will we be seeing a Xander/Anya arc in the future?

Finally there is the episode arc of “The Prom”. The monster of the week is Tucker Wells and the Hell Hounds he has trained to attack Sunnydale High School students in formal wear (Cordy in her usual attention to fashion way recognizes this before any of the other Scoobies) by showing them teen films like Carrie (a film referenced in “The Prom” by Buffy who says she has “to stop a crazy person from pulling a Carrie at the prom”), Pump up the Volume, and Pretty in Pink (a breaking of the fourth wall laugh out loud moment). The mystery of the week is whether the Scoobies will be able to save prom goers from Tucker and his Hell Hounds.

It isn't long before we know the answer to that mystery. Buffy, of course, saves the day. And she saves the day by herself. Buffy tells the other Scoobies to go to the prom promising them a prom night even “if [she has] to kill every single person on the face of the Earth” to give it to them. She doesn’t have to kill everybody. She has to kill just three of Tucker’s “fiercest” Hell Hound “babies” he has set loose on the prom. Buffy dispatches them and then puts on her pink dress (which she looks really good in) and heads to the prom herself.

“The Prom” ends with a scene that could have been saccharine and maudlin but turns out to be quite touching and, for those of us who have followed Buffy and the Scoobies and identified with one or more of them (not because of some male, xenophobic, racist, or colonial gaze but because we identified with one or more of the Scoobies because they were like us, because they like us were nerdy, needy, outsiders, in love, beaten up by life, unsure of ourselves, unsure of our futures) from the beginning through triumph and tragedy and joy and pain, packs quite an emotional punch and gives us, at the same time, a vicarious sense of pleasure, not the sexual pleasure academics seem to be obsessed with, but simple viewing pleasure. We viewers, or at least this viewer, feel a sense of pleasure, of pride, of satisfaction, that Buffy is finally noticed by her classmates, that Buffy is presented a special award by the 1999 Senior Class of Sunnydale High, the Class Protector umbrella (Jonathan is back and presents it to her) for making the 1999 Sunnydale High graduating class mortality the rate the lowest of any graduating class in Sunnydale High history. Happiness.

This being Buffy “The Prom” cannot end without some pain. Xander looses out on Sunnydale High class clown to Jack Mayhew.

And speaking of pain and happiness its time we were off to the action packed season three finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Choices"

“Choices” written and directed by Buffy regulars David Fury and James Contner brings us back to the season three Mayor Wilkins big bad arc. It’s time for the mayor to complete yet another ritual on his path to “ascension”. This time it involves a box, the Box of Gavrok, and what is inside that box, billions of spider like demons called Gavrok that have something to do with the mayor’s “ascension”.

This being Buffy the mayor arc isn’t the only arc moving forward in “Choices”. Buffy, Willow, and Cordelia pass through another one of those growing up rituals of high school, admissions letters to colleges. Buffy gets admitted to Northwestern and the University of California Sunnydale (the first time we learn that Sunnydale has a branch of the University of California). Willow gets into Oxford, Harvard, MIT, Yale, and the University of California Sunnydale and is thinking about the joys of studying and eating scones at the first. Cordy is admitted to USC, Colorado State, and Duke. Xander, who apparently didn’t get into college anywhere, is planning to follow in Jack Kerouac’s footsteps and take his bohemian anti-establishment victim show on the road. Oz is typically silent about his future plans.

Faith’s plans, at the moment, continue to be all about doing the mayor’s dirty work. In “Choices” the mayor, who is acting more and more the father to our rogue Slayer, gives her cookies and a knife, “this thing of beauty”, as Faith lovingly calls it. It is not long before our rogue Slayer is using her new sharp and pointy best friend. While running an errand for the mayor—she goes to the aeroport to pick up the Box of Gavrok for his honour—Faith uses her new gore toy to cut the Box of Garvrok off an arm of a man she has killed that it is handcuffed to. Faith has become, as Angel said she would, a nihilist who apparently now has a taste for blood.

As the mayor plays surrogate Dad to his Slayer, so Giles continues to be surrogate Dad to his Slayer, Buffy (their relationship has really improved since “Helpless”). Giles, unlike new Watcher Wesley, is filled with pride when he learns that his Slayer has gotten into Northwestern. Buffy’s real father is mentioned as a possible source for Buffy’s financial support at Northwestern, but he is once again heard about but never seen. He continues to be absent without leave from Buffy’s life.

Cordelia is particularly verbally vicious to Xander and Buffy in “Choices”. When Cordy comes upon the Scoobies talking about going away to college she mocks Xander in that particularly Cordelia way and then, when Buffy tries to mediate peace between them says, “I'm sorry, Buffy. This conversation is reserved for people who actually HAVE a future” hitting Buffy in that sore spot that has occasionally festered during seasons one, two, and three—do I want to be a normal girl or a Slayer. Something seems to be up with Cordelia and this something seems to be making her particularly verbally vicious today. In a surprise, surprise dear viewers moment at the end of the episode we learn what it might be, Cordy, daughter of one of Sunnydale’s well off, is working at a women’s clothing store. Why? What’s up with that?

Stung by Cordelia’s mean girl you have no future quip Buffy, wondering whether if she deals with the mayor and Faith problems of the moment she can play the normal girl and go to school in Evanston and leave the Slaying, until college breaks, to Wes and Giles, decides to go on the offensive against the mayor and Faith. So off the Scoobies go to see if they can find out more about this “ascension”.

Buffy, Willow, and Angel head to City Hall to get the Box of Gavrok. Giles and Wesley wait outside in a van to create a diversion once they have the box. Xander and Oz are at the library preparing a potion to deal with the Box of Gavrok once Buffy and Angel bring the box to the library. Getting the Box of Gavrok seems as easy as 1, 2, 3. Willow casts a spell to reveal and then get rid of the supernatural alarms the mayor has safeguarded his treasure with. Buffy and Angel—Willow has made her getaway—forget about one thing, however, the non-supernatural alarm the mayor has put on the box. Despite a malfunction with the hoist with which Angel lowers Buffy down into a conference room in the City Hall, Buffy and Angel, thanks to Giles’s and Wes’s diversionary tactics, manage to make their getaway and bring the box to the library. They are missing one important thing, however. Willow.

Willow has, as we soon learn, been captured by Faith. The Scoobies recognizing what has happened argue about whether to trade the Box of Gavrok for Willow. Buffy, Xander, and Oz are all for the trade while Wesley is not, saying that he is not willing to trade one life, Willow’s, for the thousands that would be lost if the mayor gets the box back and ascends. Oz puts an end to the argument in untypically Oz fashion . He knocks the pot containing the potion to destroy the box off its post very “emphatically”.

Meanwhile back at the City Hall ranch the mayor is acting rather unlike himself as well. Learning that the Scoobies have the box he reacts with verbal anger (we will see more of the mayors temper in “Graduation Day”).
While the Scoobies are arguing and the mayor is licking his would Willow, who the mayor and Willow have imprisoned in a room, escapes from a cell by killing one of the mayors vampire minions through witchcraft by floating a pencil and then rapidly propelling it into the vamp’s back (we have seen Willow do both before in “Bad Girls”/”Consequences”). Rather than escaping, however, Willow finds her way into the mayor’s office where she looks through “The Books of Ascension”. There, confronted by Faith, Willow responds to Faith’s threats with courage and takes a big step forward in her own heroes journey:
Faith, I want to tell you something...
Oh, yeah, please give me the
speech again: "Faith, we're still
your friends, we can help you,
it's not too late."
It's way too late.
Willow allows that to sink in, as Faith's grin fades.
WILLOW (cont'd)
It didn't have to be this way, but
you made your choice. I know
you've had a tough life. I know
some people think you've had a
lot of bad breaks, and that you've
hardened your heart to protect
yourself from the pain.
Faith softens, listening. Then Willow moves in and attacks.
WILLOW (cont'd)
Well, boo-hoo. Poor you. You
had a lot more in your life than
some people. You had friends
like Buffy. Now you've got no
one. And you were a slayer!
One of the Chosen. Now you're
nothing. Just a selfish,
worthless, waste.
A beat. Faith punches Willow in the face, sends her flying back to the floor. Willow gets groggily back up, holding her nose, tears streaming down her face.
You try to hurt me, I try to hurt
you. I'm just a little more efficient.
And here I thought you just
didn't have a comeback.
You're begging for some deep pain.
I'm not afraid of you.
Faith pulls out her new knife.

Just as Faith pulls out her sharp new toy to threaten Willow the mayor enters with the news that he has just arranged a trade. He will give the Scoobies Willow if they give him the Box of Gavrok.

Back to Sunnydale High School where the Scoobies are preparing for the trade in the Sunnydale High School cafeteria. Off go the lights and in comes the mayor and Faith holding Willow in a threatening way. But then Buffy does what Buffy does so well: it takes an unexpected u-turn. Buffy’s vampires and demons, are sometimes quite insightful, think Spike. This time Buffy’s insightful big bad is the mayor:
Speaking to Buffy and Angel
Well, I wish you kids the best, I
really do. But if you don't mind
a bit of fatherly advice, I, well
gosh I don't see much of a future
for you two. I don't sense a
lasting relationship, and not just
because I plan to kill the both of
you. You have a bumpy road ahead.
I don't think we need to talk
about this.
You kids, you don't like to think
about the future, don't like to
plan but unless you want Faith
to gut your friend like a seabass
you'll show a little respect for
your elders.
You're not my elder. I gotta lot
of years on you.
And that's just one of the things
you're gonna have to deal with.
You're immortal, she's not. It's
not easy. I married my Edna Mae
in aught three and I was with her
right until the end. Not a pretty
scene. Wrinkled and senile and
cursing me for my youth, it
wasn't our happiest time.
Buffy and Angel both stare steely-eyed at the Mayor, neither admitting that he is making sense. He moves slowly toward Angel.
MAYOR (cont'd)
(to Angel)
And let's forget the fact that any
moment of true happiness will
turn you evil. What kind of life
can you offer her? I don't see a
lot of Sunday picnics in the
offing. Skulking in the shadows,
hiding from the sun -- she's a
blossoming young girl! You
want to keep her from the life she
should have till it's passed her by
and by God I think that's a little
selfish. Is that what you came
back from Hell for? Is that your
greater purpose?
He's face to face with him now, and dead serious. Nobody says anything. Angel stares at him but has no comeback. Nor does Buffy. He's hit the mark, and in front of everyone.

The mayor’s insightfulness here can’t help but make this viewer wonder where the Buffy and Angel relationship is going and whether it has a future. Needless to say, we will see.

With the mayor’s speech over Principal Snyder proves once again to be the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time when he and a couple of policemen enter the cafeteria thinking that a drug sale is going down. Thanks to Snyder a couple of gavrok manage to get out of their box cage, kill one of the policemen, and injure the mayor who, thanks to his impregnability, heals himself. Faith kills the other gavrok spider which is climbing up the cafeteria wall with the knife the mayor gave her. She leaves the knife in the wall, though not willingly, when told by the mayor that it is time to take up their Box of Gavrok and leave.

“Choices”, of course, is about choices. Throughout season three our heroes and some of our villains have made choices in their lives just as they did in seasons one and two. Buffy chose not to become a bad girl. Faith did. Willow chooses to become a witch. Giles chooses Buffy over the Watcher’s Council and is fired. Wesley chooses to work with Giles rather than against him. Oz chooses to destroy the potion that could have been used to destroy the Box of Gavrok. At the end of the episode two of our heroes make one more choice: Buffy and Willow decide to matriculate at the University of Sunnydale both taking, in the process, two more steps in the fighting evil part of their heroes journey and two more steps in their journey to adulthood. This is not the end of choices in Buffy, however. As we will see our heroes and villains will have more choices to make before season three is over.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Earshot"

“Earshot” was written by Jane Espenson and directed by Regis B. Kimble. As I think I have mentioned before Espenson, who is often singled out for praise for her comedy writing in Buffy alone is one one of my favourite Buffy writers. While Espenson does deserve praise for her wonderful and intelligent comedy in Buffy she also, as “Earshot” shows, deserves praise for her superb dramatic and tragic writing. "Earshot", in my not so humble opinion, is one of the finest moments of television I have ever seen.

On the most obvious level “Earshot” is about how Buffy takes on an “aspect” of a Scabby Demon she kills—another escapes—in the teaser of the episode when the blood of this demon is absorbed into our Slayers hand. The “aspect” of the demon Buffy takes on, as we soon learn, is the ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around her.

At first Buffy and Giles are excited by Buffy’s new telepathic abilities. “It would”, says Giles, “be useful. You can anticipate an opponent's moves, turn their plans against them...” But Buffy has other ideas about the uses to which she can put her new found telepathic abilities: “Oh, way better than that”, she responds to Giles. So what is “better” than the ability to know your enemy’s moves and his plans? Well for Buffy it’s being able to astutely engage in a discussion of Shakepeare’s Othello in English class thanks to her ability to hear what others, including her teacher Ms. Murray, are thinking and her ability to hear, or so Buffy thinks (she actually can’t hear Angel’s thoughts because, while Angel’s thoughts are, as he says, there, they give off no “reflection”), what Angel is really thinking. Buffy is particularly interested in hearing Angel’s mind after last weeks charade in “Enemies” during which which Angel masqueraded as Angelus and feigned a sexual interest in Faith, a charade with enough ambiguity to make Buffy go into jealousy mode. The fact that “Earshot” cuts from a Shakespeare play about jealousy (Iago manipulating the jealousies of Othello) and about doubles (Iago as the dark double of Othello) to a Buffy and Angel scene that centres, in part, on jealousy—Buffy’s jealousy of the Angel and Faith relationship—and doppelgangers—Faith is the dark double of Buffy—should not be lost on thoughtful viewers.

The darkness of Shakespeare’s Othello prefigures where “Earshot”, which has been largely a comedy up to this point, is about to go. What Buffy and Giles initially thought was going to be a plus—the ability to hear what others are thinking and planning—now becomes a disability for Buffy as “Earshot” moves increasingly into dramatic and tragic territory. The voices Buffy hears are full of loneliness, self-doubt, cynicism, obsession, and pain. Individual Sunnydale High School students, including our Scoobies, are obsessed with their and others bodies, depressed because no one notices them (Jonathan), obsessed with dating (Cordy), obsessed with sex (Xander), philosophical (Oz), and rent through with expectations and the psychological discontents such expectations bring (Nancy). Faculty members think one thing and say another and are deeply cynical about students. Watcher Wesley is obsessed with “jail bait”, as Faith puts it in “Bad Girls”/”Consequences”, Cordelia. And someone, as Buffy discovers in the cafeteria during lunchtime, is planning to kill the students at Sunnydale High School.

Who that someone is who intends to kill the students of Sunnydale High is not clear to our Slayer because Buffy is no longer able to distinguish one voice from another. Giles is worried that if a cure for Buffy’s telepathy overload isn’t found soon our Slayer will go crazy. Learning that what has happened to Buffy recently happened to a man in Ecuador whose only salvation is total isolation, Giles and Wesley take Buffy home. But they are unable to isolate her even there. The bedridden Buffy hears the thoughts of her mom—“You had sex with Giles!...On the hood of a police car? Twice?!” (“Band Candy” comes back to haunt)—and the pained voices of her neighbours as they think about their marital infidelities, their crappy jobs, and their alcohol abuse. Learning that Buffy’s cure requires the heart of the Scabby Demon Buffy did not kill Giles and Wesley send Buffy’s knight in shining army, Angel, off in search of the demon. Angel succeeds in killing the demon, brings the demon heart to Giles and Wesley who use it to create a glowing liquid which Angel helps Buffy drink. It works. Just in the nick of time our Slayer is cured.

While Giles, Wes, and Angel attempt to find a cure for a mentally suffering Buffy Willow (now the leader), Oz, Cordelia, and Xander go into full interrogation mode to try to find out who is planning to kill the students of Sunnydale. Xander interrogates Larry who is now out of the closet. Cordy forthrightly asks teacher Mr. Beach if he is planning on killing students “tomorrow”. Oz uses Willow’s “murder questionnaires” to interrogate Sunnydale High basketball star Hogan Martin. When he tries to interrogate the cynical editor of the Sunnydale High School newspaper, the Sentinel, Freddy Iverson, however, Freddy studiously avoids him (eventually we find out that Freddy has written a negative review of a performance by Oz’s band, Dingoes Ate My Baby). Is Freddy the killer to be? Willow interrogates Nancy (Nancy, by the way, was one of the White Hats in “The Wish) and Jonathan just as she interrogated him in “Go Fish”. This time she asks him if he has been using magicks to “make it so people don't ignore you. Make them pay attention.” He hasn’t been this time but wait until season fours “Superstar”, another Jane Espenson penned script (Espenson, by the way, has said in interviews how Jonathan is one of her favourite Buffyverse characters). It is not until the Scoobies, including Buffy, corner Freddy Iverson in the newspaper office that they learn that the person they are looking for, or think they are looking for, is Jonathan.

It is Buffy who finds Jonathan in the Sunnydale High School tower holding a rifle. The resulting scene is one of my favourites in the seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, in my opinion, one of the greatest scenes in television and film history):
Jonathan is putting the rifle together. The muzzle protrudes over the edge of the tower.
Buffy runs on the roof. She reaches the edge of the tower and JUMPS...
...CRASHING through into the tower. Buffy LANDS, ROLLS right into the line of fire of the rifle.
Get away from me!
She comes up slow, eyes on him.
Okay, Jonathan, you wanna point
that somewhere else?
You better not try and stop me.
No. No stopping. I'm just here for the
view. Hey look, city hall.
Go away.
Never gonna happen.
You think I won't use this?
I don't know, Jonathan, I'm just --
Stop doing that!
Doing what?
Stop saying my name like we're friends.
We're not friends. You all think I'm an
idiot. A short idiot.
I don't.
His hands tighten on the gun. He's getting angry.
I don't think about you much at all.
Most people here don't. Bugs you,
doesn't it? You've got all this pain,
all these feelings and nobody's
paying attention.
You think I just want attention?
No, I think you're in the bell tower
with a high powered rifle because you
want to blend in. Believe it or not, Jonathan,
I understand. About the pain.
Oh, right. 'Cause the burden of being
beautiful and athletic, that's a crippler.
I'm sorry, I was wrong. You are an idiot.
This stops him.
My life happens very occasionally to
suck beyond the telling of it. More than
I can stand sometimes. And not just me.
Every single person down there is
ignoring your pain because they're way
too busy with their own. The beautiful
ones, the popular ones, the guys that
pick on you... everyone.
She comes around to look down at the courtyard. He looks as well, his grip on the gun loosening.
If you could hear what they're feeling -
the confusion, the loneliness... It looks
quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening.
They stand side by side for a moment, looking down.
You know I could have taken the
gun by now.
I know.
(holds out her hand)
Rather do it this way.
Slowly, he hands her the gun. Her hand is shaking a little as she takes it and unloads it.
I just wanted it to stop.
Well, mass murder is not actually
doctor recommended for this kind
of pain. And by the way, prison? A
lot like high school, only instead
of noogies --
What are you talking about?
Actions having consequences, stuff
like that --
I wouldn't ever hurt anybody. I came up here to kill myself.

This scene with its pain, its drama, its tragedy, its little bit of humour, its superb acting, its superb writing, and its existentialism and humanism, is, in miniature, everything I love about Buffy.

It is also a bit of misdirection. Jonathan intends not to kill Sunnydale High School students but himself. It is Xander who, thanks to his taste for jello, discovers that it is the lunch lady who plans to kill Sunnydale’s “vermin” students, as she calls them, with rat poison. Xander seeing this runs into the lunchroom spilling the plates of students so they don’t eat anything with the poison in it. Lunch Lady follows him with cleaver in hand. Just as the lunch lady is about to take a cleaver to Xander its Buffy to the rescue. Another “monster” of the week dealt with. Sunnydale High School saved by Buffy and the Scoobies once again.

“Earshot” ends with another scene I adore: Giles and Buffy walk across the grounds of Sunnydale High School talking.
How are you?
Lovin' the quiet. Nobody in here but me.
And Jonathan? How is he doing?
Pretty crappy. His parents are freaking,
he's suspended, and toting a piece to
school not exactly earning him a place
with the 'in' crowd. But I think he's dealing.
It's good of you to check up on him.
It's nice to be able to help someone in
a non-slaying capacity. But he's starting
to get that look, like he's gonna ask me
to the prom.
Well, you know, it would probably help
his self esteem if –
What am I, Saint Buffy? He's like three
feet tall.
Good to see you've emerged from
your psychic adventure more or less
intact. Feel up to some training?
Sure. We can work out after school.
You know, if you're not too busy

So what do I love about this scene? I love its humour. I love Buffy’s memory—this is as you careful nonreaders know a flashback to a moment in “Band Candy that was somewhat ambiguous. I love it that Buffy doesn't become Saint Buffy.

While “Earshot” is largely a monster (Scabby Demon, Lunch Lady) and mystery of the week (who is plotting to kill the students of Sunnydale High) episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer it does also move several series, seasonal, and character arcs along: the Buffy/Angel on/off romance is back on, the Cordy/Wes romance that may be may yet be, Xander continues to be obsessed with sex, Cordy, we learn, says what she thinks, Oz, in addition to being stoical loves to riff philosophical on Descartes, and despite what the Scoobies learned from Faith last week about the mayor and his ascension plans our Slayer and slayerettes are still in the dark about exactly what the ascension is.

I want to end on a historical note. The broadcast of “Earshot’s” was delayed by the WB until the fourth season (21 September 1999; it was originally supposed to have been 27 April) because of the shootings at Columbine High School near Denver, Colorado occurred just before the episode was supposed to have been broadcast in late April (20 April 1999). Many commentators have noted the irony in the cancellation of an episode which so profoundly and humanely explores the mental anguish of high school loneliness, pain, and outsiderness. But on the other hand Xander does rather flippantly ask “who hasn't just idly thought about taking out the whole place (Sunnydale High School) with a semi-automatic?” And who hasn't?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Enemies"

“Enemies” written by Doug Petrie and directed by David Grossman, really kicks a number of season three arcs into gear. And it continues to explore several of the arcs that have been at play in Buffy since season one and season two.

At the heart of “Enemies” are the Faith, Faith/Mayor, Faith/Buffy, Faith/Angel, and Angel and Buffy arcs. Faith continues to play the Scooby but also continues to covertly work for the mayor. When a demon who doesn’t, says Buffy, fall into “deadly threat to humanity category” (note how Buffy continues to add moral complexity to the category of “demon” here) offers to sell the Slayers the “Books of Ascension” while they are on patrol in the teaser together Faith later informs the mayor of the threat, kills the demon at Wilkins’s insistence, and gives the “Books of Ascension” to the Mayor. Both Faith and the mayor put a plan to turn Angel into Angelus and bring him over to their dark side (shades of season two) in action in act two. Wilkins’ seems interested in his services, particularly his potential for killing Buffy. Faith seems interested in his body: she appears interested in “get in, get out” sex with Angel. In act three it appears that they have succeeded as Angel after trying to kill the now “impervious” mayor agrees to “torture, maim, and kill” our Buffy.

The second coming of Angelus, however, turns out to be a ruse. The shaman who the mayor hires to turn Angel into Angelus once again turns out to owe Giles a favour, “I introduced him to his wife”, Giles tells the Scoobies, and informs Giles off camera of the mayors plans. So the Scoobies decide to use this bit of information to their advantage. Angel, playing the role of Angelus, plays along with Faith and the mayor chaining Buffy to the wall of the mansion where both Angel and Faith threaten to torture and maim the Buffster in order to gain information from Faith about the mayor, the mayor’s plans, and the “Ascension”. Through their ruse they discover that Faith is not working for the mayor and that the Ascension is set to occur on “graduation day”. The Scoobies and we viewers now know, at least in general terms, where season three is heading.

But Buffy’s and Angel’s ruse has an unintended consequence (Buffy tragedy). Angel playing Angelus reminds Buff of the psychological torture he submitted her to and the violence he perpetrated in season two. As a result Buffy tells Angel she needs a “bit of a break” from him in act four of “Enemies”. So an episode that began with yet another Buffy and Angel kiss and high hopes that their relationship might be revised (though without the sex) ends with yet another roadblock placed in the way of a Buffy/Angel romance and raises questions for Buffy and us viewers about where the Buffy and Angel romance is going.

As I mentioned earlier, a number of things are going on with character arcs in “Enemies”, particularly as they relate to the mayor as big bad arc of season three. Faith and Buffy, of course, are the “Enemies” of the title as Faith’s ties to Wilkins become clear to the Scoobies in the episode. Cordelia asks Wesley for help with her English paper, he’s English, she notes, so the Cordy/Wes fascination continues. The mayor’s fatherly concern for Faith continues to grow. He gives her a glass of milk for healthy teeth and bones and tells Angelus to have her “home by eleven”. The mayor, we learn, in “Enemies”, thanks to Oz and the archives at the Sunnydale Hall of Records, is over a hundred years old and founded Sunnydale so that demons can feed on humans. He will be among the demons feeding off humans after his ascension. Faith, we learn, is jealous of Buffy, jealous that Buffy has a mom, jealous that Buffy has Scooby friends, jealous that Buffy has the Watcher, and jealous that everyone talks about Buffy and not her.

So dear unreaders we are off on our journey to season three’s end…

Angel tells Faith that he didn’t have a choice when he did the evil that Angelus did, but that she does.

Angel playing the role of Angelus, acting, he claims that is superior to Faith’s playing the good Scooby all the while working for the mayor, refers back to the scene in season two’s “Surprise”/”Innocence” when he compares his taste for the Slayer as similar to his taste for cigarettes. He likes them both. This reference to cigarettes, of course, refers back to Angelus’s expiration of cigarette smoke after he bites the “woman of ill if not professional” repute in “Innocence” exhaling, after he does, the cigarette smoke she has just inhaled.