Friday, March 10, 2017

Buffy the Vampire Slayer at year 20

HT to Mockingbird in particular.

What's stranger to think about than the idea that Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer is now twenty years old is that, for some reason, I feel as though time has not been that kind to the series. 

The basic premise of the show is a wry twist on a horror trope, that the ditzy blonde who is usually first to get killed off ends up being the victorious final girl.  It's perhaps clever in an inversely proportional relationship to how seriously people attempt to read socio-political significance into it. 

I kinda began to lose interest in the series starting in season 3.  Once the characters graduated from high school it seemed like the conceit of the premise was in some ways played out.  Cheeky riffs on how American high schools are rampant with a suffocating caste system and supernatural evil is funny and also able to be poignant but for me a lot of the charm of this premise depended on it staying within the insular confines of the American high school of the public school variety. 

From season 4 onward it began to seem that Buffy Summers was no longer a playful quip-as-character about horror genre tropes.  The characters grew and changed but there were things that were lost as well as gained.  Buffy Summers is a super-heroine and I'm afraid that as her series mythology expanded to approach the mythic aspirations and proportions so endemic to superhero narratives these last twenty years Buffy became ... more routine.

I've also come around to the thought that Whedon gets a disproportionately large amount of credit for creating characters that would not be what they are if he wasn't so fortunate as to keep being able to work with actresses who are better than the dialogue he writes for them. That the writers for Buffy began to cater to and tailor lines to the strengths and interests of the cast could be normal television writing.  Had Hannigan not been cast as Willow Rosenberg we would have gotten a completely, almost inconceivably different character than the one we got.

Now maybe back in the decade when Fukuyama could talk about "the end of history" the arch genre savvy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer could work in a way that it might not n the Bush 2 era of the War on Terror.  Without having the patience to explain on a late Friday night post exactly how and why, Whedon's creation was paradoxically easier to enjoy when it didn't take itself seriously and the more seriously the people making the show took themselves as to "what" they were saying the less interest I had in the show.  I didn't really follow it steadily after a few episodes in season 4.  Apparently for loyalists the show took flight between seasons 3 and 5.  Buffy died at the end of five but was brought back for two more seasons.  The comics, it seems, have us in a season 10 of some kind.

So Buffy is Batman or Superman at this point. 

The transformation from wry riff on horror tropes to self-serious superheroine seems to be complete.  It's not that there aren't fun episodes along the way ... but Whedon now seems like a one-trick pony.  It's a great trick more often than not but a super-powered vampire slayer in some ways set Whedon down an odd path.

I can't find any reason to like River Tam, for instance.  It's not about an aversion to strong or compelling female characters.  I enjoy novels by Jane Austen.  Joan Didion's been one o my touchstones as a blogger.  Rumiko Takahasi possesses what I regard as a gift for comedic genius.  I love the Powerpuff Girls.  Katara and Toph from The Last Airbender are wonderful characters.  I plan to see Wonder Woman. 

But Whedon deserves at least some, or even a lot, of blame for what's known as waif-fu.  River Tam embodies the waif-fu trope in a way that is easier to see as a trope.  Now tiny women wielding swords can work.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ran with the fiery beautiful waif with a blade causing trouble.  But  the minute she dealt with seasoned fighters she was as good as dead and the story drove this home.  Jen's egotism and self-regarded led to the doom of the people she cared about and she took her own life as a kind of penance. 

Yes, we've had Kate and Milla doing a kind of waif-fu but a vampire and a super-powered guinea pig can break the rules of physics.  River Tam's a punchline about a 90 pound girl beating up a guy two to three times her weight that is not the Slayer but who is supposed to be able to kick ass just because. 

Can she manipulate the earth itself?  Nope?  Can she bend the water in your body on a full moon night to make you do what she wants you to do?  No.  Can she generate electrical bursts that can blow holes in your abdomen or blow-torch your hand off with fire?  No.  Katura, Toph and Azula in The Last Airbender are tiny girls who wield huge amounts of power thanks to the magical abilities they have in their narrative world.  But what they all do is manipulate the environment in ways that give them an advantage.  It's not the same thing as grabbing a blade, talking about how nothing in the universe can stop you, and then just magically winning off-screen aka Serenity

In comics fandom River has a collossal character shield.  Buffy's invulnerability worked at two levels.  She had magical super-powers for one, but at another level the joke that the blonde who would normally be killed off first can't be killed so easily sold the joke.

Buffy became a joke that wanted us to take it seriously.  The question the series has not necessarily answered is "why?"  Is there a feminist text or subtext that could give us a reason?  Well ... yes ... but then there's how Whedon and company put female characters in refrigerators, so to speak.  Whedon and company were reveling in torturing characters and killing them before they could get what they wanted before Martin's Game of Thrones became prestige TV.

At some point if you do that to female characters enough times shouldn't you ... say ... lose the empowered female card?  If we step back and consider how many female characters got killed off by the writers throughout the series just for the feels it seems that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in some crucial respects far more retrograde about women as agents than an earlier show from the same decade, The X-Files.  Tropes abounded on that show, too, but The X-Files could send themselves up better than anyone else could. 

What ultimately feels off about Joss Whedon's approach to story-telling is that insistence upon life-and-death stakes while simultaneously quipping away.  Age of Ultron rolled out Arvo Part's Kyrie from the Berliner Mass and also gave us Hawkeye rambling in a trying-too-hard contrast between the epic destruction and his aspirations of domestic redecorating.  Qucksilver's inevitable death might have carried more weight if we hadn't seen Elizabeth Olson's Scarlet Witch dutifully falling to her knees and screaming in trailers.  As Honest Trailers put it last year (?) there's only so many times the villain's master plan can involve a beam of light with a halo of junk floating around it before the villain plots wear thin.  You can make fairly small adjustments to the villain arc and have it work.  Let's say the villain realizes that the heroes can't be defeated by the bad guys but you could try to get them to fight each other.  Civil War, there you go.  Or you could have a shadow form of an old villainous cabal infiltrate the team of the heroes and silently take over, Winter Soldier.  Part of what has made the Captain America series hold up a little better than the other franchises in Marvel is the stories, though they may have issues, take seriously the idea that many a villain recognizes that a straight up fight with the powers of good is likely to fail.  Why try to overpower when you can mislead? 

So it's interesting that with two Avengers movies in a row Whedon's stories were all about power against power with the heroes winning.  We're going to get Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet ... and Whedon's not going to be helming that project.  Since my feeling about Marvel villains is that they are interesting in an inversely proportional relationship to how powerful they are I might skip Infinity War. 

Nolan's films lack Whedon's witticisms but I admit to liking Nolan's Batman films more than I like the Avengers films (the first was fun and the second was frustrating).  While Christopher Nolan's Batman films have been scorned in some quarters as too grim, too dark, too nasty and brutish we might want to forego making this judgment by way of comparison to Marvel films, often too drunk on their own sense of wit to take themselves seriously at the points they need to.  Nolan's characters generally don't quip in the face of the death of innocent bystanders or their own potential demise.  Agent Coulson was belittling Loki with his putatively dying words in The Avengers.  That, too, would have had more pathos if not for bathos ... and since in Marvel there's this macabre joke that nobody stays dead except for maybe Uncle Ben ... death in the land of the super-powered isn't final.

Unless you're not a superhero and can die like anyone else.

But then Buffy got brought back from the dead.  Much like Superman in the previous decade, Buffy Summers' death was undone in a fairly short period of time. By the end of the TV series Buffy had distributed the power of the Slayer to an army of slayers-in-training.  The climax of the series involved Buffy questioning the foundational premise of the show.  Now perhaps this was intended to be profound and ... maybe ... it was for some people.  By the time I slogged through season 7 it seemed that straight up questioning the premise of the show could be taken as a sign that all the old rules that the early show's humor depended upon were being explicitly rejected.  Whedon and company wanted us to take Buffy seriously in the midst of proposing that the rules changed.  Okay, series finale ... and here we are years later with comics and Buffy joining the ranks of the super-powered ... .

I don't know.  At this point I might just stick with Batman or read some old Wonder Woman comics.  It's always the end of the world and the world is never really going to end.  Even post-apocalyptic futures depend on the assumption that this world isn't really going to end.  Maybe we could be mean and put it another way, we don't so much believe the world is going to end as much as we believe that a world without US in it is not a world worth living in.  Buffy was more fun to watch when she didn't exactly want to save the world but did it anyway because then she could go to the dance or hang out with friends at The Bronze.  When so much of the humor of a character comes from her demonstrable belief that she really has more fun and interesting things she'd like to be doing with her time than fighting the evil undead and saving the world can you really go all the way toward taking Buffy seriously as a character who faces shattering experiences when the foundational conceit of her character is regarding the apocalyptic as trivial and the trivial as apocalyptic? 

Whedon's really gone much farther on the good graces of actresses better than the dialogue he writes for them than he may have deserved.

And yet Whedon's not necessarily to blame for a culture in which so much discourse has trafficked in the apocalyptic and in which in the political sphere people are described in terms applicable to superheroes and supervillains.  We have not lost a capacity for apocalypticism in terms of surreal and exaggerated imagery but we may have lost the older sense of the apocalyptic as a revelation of what the world is really like.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer was fun in the first three seasons when it leveraged the insularity of high school experience and the expectations of horror tropes by anchoring them in the limited perspective of its teenage protagonists.  It was also a bit more charming when we had a Buffy who actively objected to and resisted all the weight and seriousness of the Slayer role Giles lectured her about.  She made a sympathetic Chosen One because she couldn't hide her feeling that being a Chosen One was really just super lame. 

By season four Buffy might as well have been Batman, even a Christopher Nolan style Batman.

But there was that loquacious cast constantly playing off each other.  There were all the inside jokes, the pop culture references, the banter.  Keeping that up on television season after season is no small feat.  As 1990s geeky specialists in stories about insular self-regarding loquacious people go Joss Whedon came into his own at the end of the Clinton years while in cinema Whit Stillman was confecting three films about what he called the doomed bourgeois in love.    It's a deliberately weird and impudent comparison to make, Joss Whedon's television aesthetic and Whit Stillman's stagey cinematic/literary aesthetic--but it might be a useful comparison to consider seeing as I've written for Mockingbird for years and Mockingbird has some love both Whedon and Stillman.

So I'm just going to throw this idea out--Joss Whedon takes characters seriously but not ideas.  Whit Stillman takes ideas seriously but does not necessarily take his characters seriously.  Maybe Whedon wants hope but it's hard to say on what basis he observes hope for humanity. 

Maybe Whedon wants to run with this idea that everyone who made it through adolescence is a hero but who in their right mind can honestly believe that?  Saying he wanted Buffy to be iconic is direct, but this gets me thinking about someone else who has been saying he wanted to create a potent mythology that would distill for a generation what friendship and honor and all that mean, George Lucas.  Has Buffy the Vampire Slayer found a niche in television comparable to that of Star Wars for film?  Apparently so, if the fan bases are any indicators.

So here we are at twenty years of Buffy. As super-powered girls from shows in the late 1990s go I'm finding that I like Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup now pretty much as much as I did back then.  Buffy, it's weird that for a show I enthusiastically watched in the 1990s I haven't felt much interest in going back to it.  It feels like Whedon had the advantage of being a third-generation screenwriter able to work with actresses who brought his ideas to life and while he might half-jokingly talk about how woke he is these days or fret about the narcissistic psychopath in the Oval Office, there's a sense in which generations of white male privilege were necessary preconditions for his brand.  And the thing is, a bit weirdly as I mull it over this weekend, Whedon's vision of his achievement may have been blinkered by looking at his legacy in televised terms.  Whedon's brand of progressivism seems to have been a precondition for the imputed greatness of his female-led action show. 

And yet he tries to separate politics from art.  Maybe that's a weakness rather than a strength.  Stillman, since I bothered to compare Whedon to Stillman, comes off like he's kind of a conservative Episcopalian sort in both religion and politics but it may be his work benefits from that.  Whedon's axiom of trying to keep his politics and his art distinct could explain why his second Avengers film felt like a slog.  If he thought he was saying the Avengers were rich peole out of touch that didn't extend to himself, apparently.  Which gets to the juxtaposition, Whit Stillman's whole cinematic career has been about lampooning just how extravagantly out of touch with the world rich kids are and Stillman's managed to do this while coming across like he's not a progressive about either politics or religion. That scene in Metropolitan where Audrey goes to Christmas mass didn't come off like the kind of scene that would have been written or filmed by a secularist.

So in a way I guess I stand by the proposal, that Whedon wants characters to be taken seriously but not ideas.  If he did want ideas to be taken seriously he'd be as unashamed as Stillman to build entire movies out of debates about the merits and demerits of ideas.  It might be, too, that Stillman recognizes his patrician stock in a way Whedon doesn't.

Well, in any case, I guess here's to twenty years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

No comments: