Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Playing Vampire Towns: Notes on “Sleeper”

Notes on “Sleeper” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 7ABB08
Directed by Alan J. Levi
Written by David Fury & Jane Espenson

[ Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Conversations With Dead People" ]

I. REAL BAD NEWS: “Sleeper”, Structural Issues, and the Slow-Healing Heart of Season Seven

"The Sleeper will wake. The Sleeper will wake and the world will bleed."
—Luke, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" (1.1)

As an episode in and of itself, "Sleeper" is Season Seven worrying itself in circles. The plot is something of a detective story, with Spike inexplicably killing humans and serving as Monster of the Week. In the Buffy-centered strand, taking a tip from Holden Webster in the previous episode, the Slayer tails the vampire to determine if he's killing people. In the Spike-centered thread, the amnesiac retraces his steps to determine if he is a monster. All Buffy figures out is that Spike is killing people, it does not seem to be of his own volition, and that something bad, unidentified, and with direct access to their heads is meddling with them.

If we confine ourselves to “Sleeper” proper, there is very little to say about the plot, so we must skip ahead. The sitch is that The First Evil has hypnotically fitted Spike with a mind-control trigger which causes him to regress to his predatory demonic state. This brainwashing likely took place early in the season while Spike was raving in the basement of Sunnydale High, tormented by manifestations of his guilty conscience which were actually visitations from The First Evil. The problem with this is absolutely none of this is made clear in “Sleeper”, and some of it will never be made clear. Any reasonably attentive viewer will grasp a connection between Spike’s fugue states and appearances of the English folk song “Early One Morning”, and likely identify it as the Queen of Diamonds for this Manchurian Candidate. That turns out to be enough to follow the plot, though none of the characters will actually figure it out until the next episode.

The Buffy/Spike material is the only compelling story throughout Season Seven about romantic relationships. If there is another, it is likely between Xander and Anya. Both these stories are pure fallout and coping, rooted in relationships gone awry during Season 6; namely, they’re still dealing with the Spike/Buffy breakup and the cancellation of the Xander/Anya union (note: we do not use shipping nicknames in these parts, keep moving, hombre). Buffy, in essence, has no designated Love Interest this season, breaking tradition and pattern. Except…

While these pairings are old business in and of themselves, they are now the stories of exes in the process of negotiating reconciliation. Truce building stories, moving on stories, love stories about people who aren't exactly in love stories. Our third ensemble lead, Willow, is largely excused from duty in “Sleeper”, but her “love story” this season is also about the end of her relationship with Tara, more than it is about so-called new girlfriend Kennedy. Like Buffy and Spike, and Xander and Anya’s personal character arcs, that one’s about learning to care for yourself, to trust yourself, to put your broken shit back together and function, maybe even improve. One might further propose that everyone’s love interest in Season Seven is, really, themselves. Because if you didn’t notice, this is a show about growing up.

So this is a Buffy romance tale we have not seen before, at least not seen explored with any depth or maturity. While our hero is constantly having to deal with her feelings about Angel, those two are not to be resolved, not to be made stable, and never more together than when they are Officially Not Together. This is because Buffy and Angel kept apart by the very forces of the cosmos is the dramatic center of all Buffyverse romance; the Buffy/Angel they-can’t/they-must dynamic is the core of the mythos. As a very different iteration of Spike once explained, B and A will be in love till it kills them both (even though, of course, they have both already been killed). But we’re not here to talk about Angel, this is about Spike. And where Angel’s thing is to walk away in martyrdom, Spike’s is to constantly insinuate himself into unstable situations and sacrifice himself. So patching things up with Spike isn’t like Oz or Riley popping up for a one-off special appearance. Whether it’s the game of dueling undying torches with Angel or the moth-to-flame work-in-progress quest with Spike, they’re both long-termers, contractually bound to the very end, and once she meets them, they are woven into the fabric of her life.

When The First Evil promised in “Lessons” (7.1) “…we’re going right back to the beginning,” that turns out to mean, among other things, that several main characters will be forced to confront issues at the very core of their conception. We’re going to be looking hard at the wounds and wrongs buried deep in origin stories: original sins, traumatic births, first evils. For Spike, this arc is more or less initiated with “Sleeper” and resolved in “Lies My Parents Told Me” (7.17), and deals with how much of Spike’s sense of self-worth hinges on validation from the women in his life. This folds neatly into the Buffy/Spike reconciliation story, at least on paper.

The episode is all set-up, anomalous in that it isn’t self-contained in any way. Even the most stand-alone Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode is firmly situated in series continuity, and even the most serial-oriented episodes introduce and wrap up some kind of basic plot problem within the hour. This is a Spike episode, and no other character has gone through so many complicated transformations. Much credit to James Marsters for providing the poor lovesick demon with a continuity of character, as Spike is currently: 1) a vampire, 2) a slightly “different” vampire, having always retained some capacity for love, 3) physically unable to harm human beings, due to a violence-inhibiting microchip in his brain, 4) late in possession of his Soul, whatever that means, and was 5) driven (temporarily?) insane by that process. Thus has the matter of how much free will Spike has at any given point, and if he is really to be held responsible for his actions (positive or negative) has been contentious since Season Four.

The First’s plan (whatever that is) serves to bypass the various muzzles placed on Spike over the last five years, showing us Spike As Vampire again. This is Spike roughly where we first met him, another sense in which we have gone “right back to the beginning.” For those following along on your scorecards at home, the musical hypnotic trigger is #6, cutting through Spike Exceptionalism Items 2—5.

II. HOW I ALMOST FELL: Spike In the Dark, Singing Little Songs

“… a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”
—Duke Leto Atreides, Dune

In “Bring On the Night” (7.10), once they've more or less figured out what's going on, Buffy will call these journeys into highly personal beginnings “[facing] our worst fears,” even if it turns out to be more complicated than that. “Sleeper”’s premise is established at the end of “Conversations With Dead People”, where Spike is seen picking up a blonde at The Bronze, walking her home, biting, drinking and killing her on the front steps. This thing, he should not be able or inclined to do, and The First’s trigger provides a scenario in which for all his striving to be a better man, Spike remains nothing but a soulless, irredeemable monster. That is one sense in which the Sleeper awakens. The murder in “Conversations” is depicted as a casual hookup gone horribly wrong; it’s staged as a seduction that erupts into date rape. This seems specifically designed to evoke Spike’s attempted sexual assault on Buffy in “Seeing Red” (6.19).

Spike, on his own trail and therefore on a quest of self-revelation, gets to see himself from an outside perspective. He encounters one of his recent victims in The Bronze but doesn’t remember her. Doesn’t remember killing her. Doesn’t remember siring her. What is this? “One bite stand,” she tells him, if this weren’t underlined enough. This isn’t just about Spike’s capacity for murder. The blackout episodes are also explicitly linked to his love life. He has either attended his relationships with a casual disregard (Harmony, his date to Xander’s not-wedding) or white-hot obsession (Cecily, Dru, Buffy), and either way it’s always about him.

To Buffy on his trail and still trying to get over him, it looks like Spike is lapsing, whether or not he’s vampire-relapsing. When the bouncer at The Bronze tells her that Spike is a player who “every night leaves with a different woman,” she’s hurt, and there it is. Hurt for the run-of-the-mill reasons, and disappointed that maybe all the rumor and accusation was true, and this motherfucker hasn’t changed at all. Maybe she was one of those projects to which he dedicates himself with insane abandon, the latest model in Spike’s century-spanning Slayer fixation, and his quicksilver amour fou has shifted already.

Spike is explicitly called a “bad boy” twice in “Sleeper”. First it’s Anya, who’s been tasked with babysitting Spike as he sleeps. She sneaks into the bedroom to hunt for evidence of evildoing and ends up feigning “nerves and horniness” when he wakes up to find her lurking bedside. It’s a comic scene, but again links Spike’s blackouts to casual sex, his love life, the ugly side of his personal history, and a tendency of his former partners to need to carry wooden stakes. These two comforted each other once, a boozy tryst resulting in disastrous consequences but not quite regret ("Entropy" [6.18]). So it’s a little bittersweet to see that memory turned into a joke as Anya stutters “let’s get it on, you big bad boy!,” and just like last time she ends up with real hurt feelings.

The next time Spike is called a Bad Boy it’s in an alley, so we’re back there again, at the most primal of Buffy scenes. This time he’s lured a woman into the dark recesses of the 3rd Street Promenade, it’s set up like another skeevy pick-up job, and she’s posing the question as they enter the battleground: “Are you a bad boy?” That’s the matter at hand, and our fully customized and kitted-out Season Seven Spike resists biting her, but it’s Rebooted Evil Spike in this round. Buffy is there, too, somehow, and she’s egging him on: “You know you want it. You know I want you to.” That’s all it takes. We know this is not really Buffy because she is acting transparently evil. The tactic is interesting, though. If The First is trying to seduce or provoke Spike, under what circumstances is “you want it/I want you to” what he wants to hear? It’s the kind of language he used in “Fool For Love” (5.7) to describe the intertwined fates of Vampires and Slayers like they were celestial bodies bound in orbit. This is the guy who thinks he and Buffy are partners in a turgid supernatural danse macabre while he’s actually usually sprawled on his ass in the alley, beaten-down. Love’s Bitch eternal.

OK so we’re going down to the basement. There’s a lot of that going around, lately, but Spike has a long, rich history of association with basements. He tends to wind up in them when his inborn villainy is flaring up, which makes sense with the subterranean thing and all. But a basement, an underground government lab, a lushly furnished sex-lair, a labyrinth beneath a school — they’re not quite graves, but specifically basements. Sometimes he retreats there, sometimes he’s forced, sometimes he crashes through the ceiling because he is a dumb guy of easily enflamed passions. They’re id-spaces, downstairs-inside places where he sometimes goes to chain up girls to make them like him, or sometimes to win back his own soul, and for better or worse (really, for better), he emerges transformed.

Oh, right, so: Brainwashed-Spike has been planting corpses in the basement of a suburban house. They’re all timed to rise at the same moment (?), when Spike brings Buffy downstairs and The First sings the trigger song and then away we go. The First’s plan appears to be to send Spike back to the basement and to drag Buffy with him, to force her to see him like that. The First will debase them both, and Spike will bite her, signaling that everything is lost, he’s gone blood simple and maybe one of them dies, who knows, who knows if it matters. When she sees this, will she wonder — is that all we were ever doing? Not dancing, but killing each other? Was he just dragging her down to the basement this whole time? Down there they could cocoon up and wound each other the only way he knew how. The only way, ever since that false-soul brain chip came and made him dishonest, made him cunning, a masochistic beast on a leash who loved it when she jerked him around until the day when he would inevitably bite her. Was he using her? How could he! That’s what she’s supposed to see. That’s the plan, but…

Maybe he's simply overwhelmed by searing guilt of being recently used like a common Dollhouse Active in a serial murder rampage. But the basement attack, with Buffy held down by vampires and Spike looming over her, seems to trigger reminders of the bathroom assault in “Seeing Red” and he recoils — “I remember” — and stops. How, after all, could he use a poor maiden so? The mechanics of how Spike breaks through the conditioning don’t make much more sense than how he got brainwashed in the first place, but the lesson is plain. If you can’t abide the convoluted history of Spike’s development, if you want Old Spike back, well… first, what does that mean? How far should he regress, or when should he stop striving? And if you want him back as we met him, here he is (minus Drusilla), but does that really even look like Spike anymore?

When Anya calls him a bad boy it’s silly — a joke. Under his own power, naked in her bed with Anya on top of him, Spike is kind and even lets her down easy. This is the guy we recognize as Buffy’s boy, not the monster in the alley, not the thing in the basement. From this angle, outside himself, Spike has been able to observe that this is not “him” anymore. Not the casual dalliances, certainly not the murder. By the time we get down to the basement where all the horror and shame lives, it’s not even his basement, properly, and those old bad boy patterns don’t make him happy, they hurt other people, and are, now, beneath him. Yet somehow, with and without the soul, he’s always owned up to who he is and what he has been, so it’s about something else: “As daft a notion as Soulful Spike the Serial Killer is, it is nothing compared to the idea that another girl could mean anything to me.” This “worst fear” is also that this is how others see him, specifically how one person sees him, and God help the boy, it’s still all about Buffy.

And ultimately down in the basement, she sees through it too. He’s pled his case, she's examined evidence, witnesses, etc., and finish that one yourself. In the next episode she will say that she’s seen him change. Here in “Sleeper” she doesn’t need to say it out loud, but when he’s brave enough to ask for her help, she agrees without hesitation and we cut to Spike swaddled in a blanket. In her home. That’s the thing about basements. They’re underneath something, below a structure, and if you climb the stairs you are among the community again.

III. LOST IN SPACE: Other Things

“In the end, we are who we are, no matter how much we appear to have changed.”
—Giles, “Lessons” (7.1)

This is all a slow build to formative incidents centered on Spike’s siring which are revealed/confronted in “Lies My Parents Told Me”, and the story is built backwards, burrowing through Spike’s lifetimes to locate the developmental traumas of his second childhood. But we don’t explain and solve Spike by getting the details on his mommy issues. Maybe it’s more important that we just learned something here and now about Spike as he exists in the here and now. So he’s back in the living room, and it’s cozy scene, no? Spike’s tied to the chair, of course. Because they still might have to kill him for his own good.

There’s not much discussion on that front. The household has convened and everyone is uneasy, but she’s obviously not going to kill him. Right at the moment his case is buffered as he’s the only clue they have about the thing that turns out to be The First Evil. No, this is a quick one about whether to keep Spike in the house. Xander, Anya, Willow and Dawn note that Spike’s clearly a danger to others, for example the ten people he just killed. If you write those books that use BtVS to illustrate philosophy lessons, now is the time to point out that preschools are not morally obligated to take in every starving Rottweiler on the street. But the deck is stacked here, too: they can’t (or won’t) kill him, and they can’t leave him alone. The issue is basically raised in order to sell the idea of Buffy bringing Spike home but doesn’t put the plot to bed. The divide is about Spike in general and Buffy’s judgment in particular; it’s about trust. So the scene does reestablish the factions in this conflict, and those are basically Buffy and Spike versus everyone else. No new business today. Buffy is soft on ensouled vampires. This is the fracture that never heals entirely.

In the end, it does not appear that The First intended for Buffy or Spike to die in the basement. The details of that master plan remain forever unclear, and ultimately it will look like the villain is simply lobbing every available attack at the Slayer until it manages to draw blood. Pitting guilt-racked exes against regressed, primitive versions of each other is exactly the kind of tactic The First used against Willow, Andrew, and Dawn in “Conversations With Dead People”. It tugged at loose threads of insecurity and each of them is going to unravel in turn. The shadows of fault lines are appearing in the topography of the greater Hellmouth area.

Speaking of guilt, there is an abundance hanging over everyone’s head right at this point. The full implications of the folk song are laid out in “Lies”, but “Early One Morning” itself is accusatory. “Sleeper” links it to the season-long back-and-forth between Buffy and Spike about who “used” who. The song is set “just as the sun was rising” over “the valley below”: the maiden’s lament is literally emanating from a Sunny Dale. The musical trigger was foreshadowed by First-as-Drusilla in “Lessons”: “You’ll always be in the dark with me, singing our little songs,” it purred to Spike. “You like our little songs, don’t you. You’ve always liked them, right from the beginning.”

Besides that haunting trigger melody from Spike’s past, “Sleeper” prominently features two Aimee Mann songs from her 2002 album Lost in Space. Appearing in person and on stage at The Bronze, Mann’s performance is intercut with Spike in the balcony chatting with his “one bite stand,” and the show continues even when the kickboxing starts and vampires are falling from the sky onto the dance floor. Both songs, “Pavlov’s Bells” and “This Is How It Goes” resonate with the hypnotic trigger theme. They are concerned with feeling trapped, bound to repeat mistakes, locked into automatic psychological response cycles, stuck in fate’s web. They are also both about feeling bad about yourself, and the editing practically elides the entirety of “This is How It Goes” into one emphatic “hallelujah” from the chorus: “IT’S ALL ABOUT SHAME!” Spike will soon observe of possessing a soul that “It’s about self-loathing” (“Never Leave Me” [7.9]). Maybe there’s something to that, or maybe there’s a little more to it than that. Let it never be said that Spike has no more room to grow. Trotting offstage, Aimee Mann grumbles “Man, I hate playing vampire towns.” I’m sure it’s a drag, but if only she could see how much she resonates with them.

A final note before we let our sleeper rest in peace. Minus the cold open, the episode is bookended by a pair of puzzling cliffhanger snippets. In a well-appointed flat in London (London, England), Robed Figures murder two folks we likely infer are another Watcher and Slayer-to-Be (spoiler: they are). They do not return until the end of the episode. Giles enters the place we don’t know and finds the bodies of the people we don’t know and suddenly Robed Figure (as per the script) “SWINGS A DOUBLE-BLADED BATTLE AXE AT THE BACK OF GILES’S HEAD,” roll credits. A kind of hackneyed surprise, but a surprise. This is all a little out of nowhere, or at least of hazy origin, and doesn’t resolve anything or reveal much, which in its way makes it a perfect set of fore and aft epigraphs for “Sleeper”.


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Special Thanks to the BuffyWorld website and their second-to-none collection of BtVS and Angel resources.
All screen caps courtesy of Buffyworld.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Viewing Notes: ELVIS: ALOHA FROM HAWAII (1973)

Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, 1973, d. Marty Pasetta
with Elvis Presley, J.D. Sumner & the Stamps Quartet, The Sweet Inspirations, The TCB Band, The Joe Guercio Orchestra

January 14, 1973: Elvis Aron Presley performs a benefit concert in Honolulu with a setlist fairly representative of a typical early '70s show. Broadcast Live! Via Satellite! to most of the world, Aloha from Hawaii eventually aired in the U.S. on April 4, 1973. Resplendent in the white rhinestone American Eagle jumpsuit (saving the spreading of its bright blue-lined cape for the finale), Elvis is freshly 38 years old, deeply tanned and helmet-coiffed, tosses out one hundred scarves, accepts two hundred leis from the audience, and pours about ten thousand years of pain and passion into this unforgettable show. Aloha is comfortably Elvis' last indispensable film/television appearance; there was to be one more TV special, 1977's Elvis in Concert, which was taped two months before his death, and veers between ghoulish and tragic — often wrenching in its humanity, but frequently difficult to bear. And so Aloha is the restless heart and sweaty soul of the MOR-rock sound Vegas act era, and Elvis' pinnacle late-period performance.

After a preliminary weird "satellite" beeping-accompanied montage of Elvis' name in every language of the Earth, the man touches down in a helicopter and greets fans, accompanied by the 1965 studio track "Paradise, Hawaiian Style." And I bring this up, because while the song is not inappropriate, and the title number is not the worst song from that film (I rather like it as a lazy fantasy travelogue), it is drawn from the period representing the absolute nadir of Elvis' film career. Any shuddery memories of Tickle Me aroused by this dispatch from the pit are wiped as "Also sprach Zarathustra" wells up over images of local traditional dance and drum performance groups warming up the crowd outside the Honolulu International Center auditorium. In the '68 Comeback Special, Elvis counteracted this phase of his career with a dismissive joke about forgetting how many movies he's made, and reclaimed his image by reinvigorating his R&B classics. In Aloha, he blares Richard Strauss' fanfare announcing the dawn. A sun, rising.

Given this context, but really due to the performance itself, looking at the special as a summation of where he is right at the moment of 1973, each song seems to examine an aspect of Elvis' career, personal life and relationship with his audience. This is, for instance, a definitive performance of "An American Trilogy", the thematically complex medley that moves through nostalgic minstrelsy to folk spiritual to Christian hymn built out of an abolitionist anthem, and Elvis guides it through every turn with the required bombast and/or sensitivity, as if drawing together everything he has ever learned about American music. The towering rendition of Marty Robbins' "You Gave Me a Mountain", wherein Elvis inflates the sad-sack country weeper into a personal despair-anthem like an inverted "My Way", is like a promise to himself and us and God and everyone that though there is no way on this Earth he's going to make it in the end, here in Honolulu he's going to try with every fiber of his being. When he'd do "Mountain" for Elvis in Concert, it would be with far different results: though he's smiling and surrendering, there's no way he's getting over that mountain and he knows it.

There is a little bit of everything on the buffet, but the beefiest material in the show are the big operatic ballads and From Elvis in Memphis era angst-rockers. The 2004 Deluxe Edition 2-DVD set preserves the entire "rehearsal"/backup concert of January 12th (taped in case of broadcast mishap), during which Elvis staggers around and mumbles non sequitur stage patter. He'd do this out of pure musical delirium even in the '50s, but at the rehearsal show seems a little out of it, whether due to fatigue, energy conservation, or other factors. While not as tight as it could be, the rehearsal is not a disaster by any means and occasionally during this show he gets that faraway look in his eyes, loses himself in a song — or even just part of a song — and gives over to the sheer power of the music. He nails "Burning Love" to the wall, for example, despite forgetting the words and swapping verses around to compensate; Elvis stands like a shoreside Easter Island moai as that tidal wave of a song crashes over him. Likewise, during the broadcast "Suspicious Minds" — in blazing arrangement, greatly sped up from the studio version— Elvis drops far too many lines while screwing around with fans for my taste. So here again, I personally prefer the rehearsal performance of "Suspicious Minds," silly crowd-teasing fuck-aroundary near the end notwithstanding. Thankfully, during both shows he offered that sublime alteration to the bridge: "You know I never lied to you/ No, not much...". The ideal Aloha experience is certainly the uninterrupted show of January 14th (also presented on the Deluxe DVD), but for the sorts of reasons above, the slightly off-kilter rehearsal of January 12th is not to be dismissed.

Those in the 21st Century seeking kitsch in Aloha will typically locate it in the costuming and lung-bursting crooning (and, if I may be so bold, "Welcome to My World", which has never been anything but unrefined schmaltz that Elvis was never able to redeem). But in 1973, "Hound Dog" was a 21-year-old song, and Elvis' recording was nearly that old itself. The '50s hits were the nostalgia act portion of the show, both for audience and artist. There is a common complaint that Aloha pays some disrespect to these classic gold records, as the formerly lean-and-mean rockers are loaded up with full orchestration, and Elvis tends to goof around the most during the older numbers. These oldies are simply not as dangerous as when they first bared their claws to the world, and given the venues and style in which Elvis was performing cannot be given the same kind of new lease on life as the ferocious '68 Comeback. Instead, he connects in a more physically intimate way with fans while lightly teasing the pre-'68 material that might seem a bit quaint in '73, as if reaffirming and reminding them that these silly old songs are the basis of this highly devoted fan/artist contract. Make no mistake, The Hillbilly Cat is my favorite Elvis phase as it is yours, but in Aloha we're not listening to records, we're watching a show, and this show radiates an enormous amount of goodwill.

Where playing it straight counts the most, Elvis plays it straight, introducing his respectful take on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" as "probably the saddest song I've ever heard." He would rarely screw around during perennial opener "See See Rider". When he closes with "Can't Help Falling In Love" from Blue Hawaii, there is no doubt: he is singing it straight at you, you personally, and what you find there is between you and Elvis. As a Hawaiian loanword in English, aloha means hello. Aloha means goodbye. Aloha means peace. Aloha means love.

Viewed on: 10/7/13 — DVD (BMG/Elvis Presley Enterprises; Region 1)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Viewing Notes: FOR ME AND MY GAL (Berkeley, 1942)

For Me and My Gal, 1942, d. Busby Berkeley
scr. Sid Silvers, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Richard Sherman
with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, George Murphy

For the most part For Me and My Gal is a by-the-numbers vaudeville backstage musical tracking the romantic travails of up and coming singer Jo Hayden (Judy Garland) and born-in-a-trunk Harry Palmer (Gene Kelly); he's a smoothie and she's guarded, and they make a natural team, see?! The Good Ol' Days of Vaudeville shtick takes a turn for the bleak/weird/propagandistic when WWI breaks out and Harry is drafted, and rather than proudly march off to war like a God-fearing American patriot, he turns draft dodger and has to deal with the consequences. The consequences are everyone thinks he's a piece of shit! Obviously the point is that no matter what the circumstance, fighting for your country when called upon should take all precedence over career and romance. So in the last act Harry needs to face that at various points he's been an opportunist with no loyalty to the ideals of nation, love, and Judy, and scrape together some small measure of dignity. Anyway, in the cinematic highlight Busby Berkeley winds up much flinch-baiting suspense as Harry works up the courage to mutilate his hand so he'll fail his military physical. Will he use his dressing room door jamb? Nah, it's gotta be the obligatory steamer trunk, it's got to be, case… CLOSED. Yikes!

Otherwise, Berkeley stages the production numbers as realistically small-scale and sedate (our heroes are on the route to the big time, so in these sub-palatial theaters we're not going to be craning up into geometric starbursts of kicking legs). In his first screen role, Kelly does one athletic baggy pants comic dance, and in their first pairing he and Garland do peppy renditions of a handful of jazz standards, mostly can't miss material like "Ballin the Jack" and the title number.

The musical highlight is Garland's rendition of "After You've Gone," and, of course, no disrespect to Sophie Tucker, Jolson, Nina Simone, or Fiona Apple, for that matter, but Judy milks it dry. "Owns It," I believe they say. The text is already in the "Some of These Days"/"96 Tears"/you'll-be-sorry family. Judy's singing it just as her character has both figured out that she's in love with her vaudeville partner and also he's, er, breaking up the act and plus he doesn't know how she feels about him. So holy shit, she's got story material to work with, and right in the middle you can feel the moment she realizes what she's Really Singing About and instead of crumbling, channels it into the song. Then she kind of spookily makes with the Get Happy right in time for the big finish and turns it back into something bombastic and cheerful. So the performance effectively encompasses every possible reading of the lyrics, save for blind rage and threat. Judy is a magnifying glass for concentrating a song's emotional rays and frying any ant in her path alive.

Viewed on: 9/21/13 — DVD (Warner/TCM; Region 1)

Viewing Notes: TRAUMA (Argento, 1993)

Trauma, 1993, d. Dario Argento
scr. Argento, T.E.D. Kline
with Asia Argento, Christopher Rydell, Piper Laurie

Looking at this mostly for research on a larger project about the problems, pleasures and classification of post-Opera Argento, so we'll bypass the topic for now. Here we see Argento making his first American feature (after directing half of 1990's Romero collab Two Evil Eyes), probably history's only giallo set in Minneapolis. Like Deep Red (1975; blood), Tenebrae (1982; dark), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005; thriller history and grammar, voyeurism, Hitch cultism) and Giallo (2009; duh redux), Trauma has one of those on-the-nose titles that announces the auteur is going to investigate a pet theme to the hilt and head on. Nearly all of Argento's stories trace an exploding arc of bloody chaos backward to its origin at the scene of some damaged psyche's inciting incident: it's always about trauma. Sometimes that trauma belongs to the killer, sometimes the detective/investigator, sometimes something in-between. In Trauma it rains down on the just, unjust, and all of Minnesota alike.

Not that everyone is specifically, personally born in pain in Trauma's world, but it is a slasher with a decapitation theme as its murder gimmick and it opens with a montage of paper models depicting the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror's guillotine recurs in the 20th century midwestern US as hand-held motorized garrote always used in the rain. The wound of history is open from the start, unhealed and forever purging the current moment into existence, the heavens a-weep!

David (Christopher Rydell) and Aura (Asia Argento) meet morbid-cute when he spots her about to jump off a bridge and talks her down. He's a recovering drug addict and local TV news art director, and she's an anorexic teen daughter of Romanian psychics, who have settled in Minneapolis, as Romanian psychics do. These are our protagonists, both troubled and traumatized, with David covering the Anima-Impaired Artist-Detective duties while Aura picks up the Highly Sensitive Paranormally-Gifted Girl torch from Suzy in Suspiria and Jennifer in Phenomena. In short order, Aura is reluctantly remanded to her creepo psychiatrist (Frederic Forrest), her weirdo mom (Piper Laurie) conducts a spooky seance that goes terribly awry, and everyone starts getting decapitated. And as her parents are murdered and she screams in the rain, Aura witnesses the requisite subtle clue that is misunderstood/ignored/repressed/forgotten.

As the Killer goes about the business that the black-gloved must go about, the victims are largely medical professionals, which would seem to put the physically and mentally not-okay Aura somewhere near the center of the crosshairs. And surely David and Aura become further enmeshed, variously investigating and being further victimized, as that is how slasher/mystery business is supposed to play out. And surely the stalk-and-slash setpieces will be the primary spectacle (Brad Dourif's head severed by a necklace/elevator assault, then plummeting toward the camera in a complex quote fusing Vertigo and Deep Red), and they are excellent and lively when graded against typical American thrillers of the period, if less dazzling in the company of classic period Argento murders.

In this phase of Argento's cinema it is as if the fairy tale logic of the Three Mothers films has seeped into his gialli, which are more traditionally locked into genre strictures. Even Argento's earliest thrillers are atypical Art Gialli, but with Phenomena, Trauma, Stendhal Syndrome, this free-associative strain has fully deformed the narratives. Puzzling themes, apparently unresolved subplots, and inexplicable vignettes jut out at right angles from the main trunk of the plot. Trauma's mystery practically plays out in the background as the film is increasingly preoccupied with the afflictions of its fragile split-focus protagonists.

Protecting Aura from having her head sliced off would not seem directly linked to treating her anorexia, much as the enigma of the eponymous disorder of The Stendhal Syndrome is not readily tied to that film's primary plot about serial rape and identity disintegration. In David's determination to save her, it all gets bound up together, his life crumbles around this white knight rescue fantasy, and he relapses into drug addiction and despair. (It does happen to all rather be bound up together, actually, Bad Doctors being the epicenter of the Headhunter, the eating disorder, the drug abuse, and so on and so on.)

As the mystery works its way back to the originating trauma, a disastrous birth ending in death, the protagonists move toward death/rebirths (Phenomena's insect theme returns, focused on the butterfly/soul connection, here also constituting an Eros and Psyche motif). Along the path, the film considers Aura's anorexia from various angles. Firstly, there is Aura herself: hostile and tormented, defensive and closed off, placed in the abyss between broken mirrors. Her capacity for trust demolished, she pushes back when offered any assistance, and with good reason: her damaged existence has been sculpted largely by the authority figures (mother, doctors) claiming to help her in the first place. Every helper is corrupt, every savior is suspect, including David.

As David's concern for Aura grows, a coworker provides a clinical Freudian psychological profile, claiming that subjects supposedly all experience the same recurring incest dream: a horror/wish/memory in which the father looms, about to close in for a kiss. Even if it were accurate, the one-size-fits-all description of a personality type does not address origins of the disorder, practical medical issues or treatment, and is presented as a prurient pop psych diagnosis (and this information, apparently, is all from daytime talk shows).

After this crash course, David wanders Minneapolis and sees every street haunted by the specters of anorexic girls, the dead, dying and unreachable. This mournful passage moves from the abstract diagnosis of a Problem in Modern Society into a deeply felt sadness, as David begins registering the helplessness of caring about someone who you are not equipped to aid. Still later, after Aura has disappeared again, David is broken and strung out, and stands before a store window displaying John Everett Millais' painting Ophelia. As the designated artist figure of the film, he draws the connections between the drowning young woman driven to madness, the troubled teenager he loved, and himself. The image is of Ophelia at the last moments of melodious lay, it depicts a scene that is described but unstaged, and gives it back to Ophelia. Drowning but not drowned, floating away but afloat. At this, his lowest point, drowning in self-pity, David reaches an empathetic epiphany, and reflected in the window glass, he catches a glimpse of a clue that will lead him back to Aura.

Trauma's closing shot pans right across the final crime scene, past cops sneering at the embracing protagonists, moves down the suburban street and up to a second-story balcony. A reggae ensemble is playing up there, crooning a variation on David and Aura's final dialogue, that nothing can now go wrong, that someone will be loved. And a tall, terribly thin woman we have not seen before dances as the band plays, and she is Anna Ceroli, Asia Argento's two-years-older sister (born to Daria Nicolodi and sculptor Mario Ceroli). And as the credits roll over this mysterious, somehow reassuring image, the upbeat Caribbean dance music crossfades into Pino Donaggio's aching Julee-Cruisesque ballad "Ruby Rain" (The title evokes blood and precipitation, and those lyrics?: "I miss you/ so badly… tears are nothing in the rain/ jewels of pain…"). The camera pushes in on Anna, suddenly bathed in a blown-out golden flare, hair billowing in a wind that has risen from nowhere, just Anna swaying and twisting and dancing in the inexplicable light, in the loveliest, most lyrical of all Argento's closing shots.

The closing credits fail to announce it, but, you have, of course, been watching Trauma.

Viewed on: 9/21/13 — DVD (Anchor Bay; Region 1)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Viewing Notes: DUNE (1984, Lynch)

Dune, 1984, d. David Lynch
scr. Lynch, from the novel by Frank Herbert
with Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Kenneth McMillan

David Lynch dreamwalks through Frank Herbert's information-dense universe in highly graphic, lushly soundscaped style, everything melting and dissolving into everything else. When the Sleeper awakens, you can't be sure the dream is actually shaken off. As to the frequent charges of incomprehensibility, certainly it helps to walk in familiar with the novel, it helps to watch it more than once, or it helps to have spent some time with other Lynch movies. But otherwise I dunno. The finer points of the plot are spelled out in expository dialogue, plus mix-n-match narrators detailing the SF mythology, plus whispery voice over to elaborate on internal character motivations. If anything, this over-articulation is the least typically "Lynchian" thing about Dune, although the actual mechanics of this info-dumping are frequently disorienting, rather inventive, and occasionally lyrical, as in the mysterious opening close ups of Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) fading in and out against a star field like a spaced-out angel.

The splendor of Dune isn't in any kind of traditional pulp-cover outsized imagery of impossible fantasy vistas, but images of water rhyming with billowing sand, human hands in distress and palms open in triumph, close-ups of mouths, the dust becoming spice becoming worm becoming consciousness pried open, as it grasps the chain of connected meaning. [Note: That is a hell of a grandmaster move for a head movie to make btw, as the drug reveals itself by transporting you through the revelation of the drug revealing itself: the Trip is about the Trip.] Where some thoughts have a certain sound and we travel without moving, that's in a dream, in music, and in cinema. Dune is the slow blade that penetrates.


Hot Spots the Lynch obsessive ought watch for:

-The plot hinges as much on conspiracy among the powerful and the training and formation of the superbeing hero as it does visions, emotions and spiritual revelation. This more abstract information is conveyed through expressionistic sequences like avant-garde shorts unto themselves (the Box of Pain, the Water of Life, etc.). The most spectacular of those (and the trippiest by far, if that's what you're here for) is the sexualized Space Folding sequence. These are not all freak-out moments. Paul's waking dream as he stares into the Arrakis night and whispers inside his head "Where are my feelings? I feel for no one" is a melancholy passage as the initiate has stripped away his attachments to body and name and begins one of the most chilling phases of divestment of self.

-Speaking of, Dune is probably ground zero for those combing Lynch's work for direct reference or indirect evidence of the impact of Transcendental Meditation; personally, I suggest the interested continue patiently trawling for the bigger fish.

-A ghastly hole ripped in Jürgen Prochnow's cheek provides the aperture for the signature Lynch ominous push into a black hole.

-Eraserhead-esque effect of a planetary sphere blowing apart in eggshell shards.

-Highly Problematic Depictions of Homosexuality!

-Not his best performance or even a fully delineated character, but Lynch's cameo as a spice miner probably fits him most perfectly. He's facing certain doom as a sandworm closes in on a spice mining facility, but looks like he's loving it down there in the industrial inferno amongst the massive, clanging machinery. He doesn't want to leave!

Viewed on: 9/17/13 — Theatrical Cut DVD (Universal; Region 1)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Viewing Notes: CAFÉ FLESH (Rinse Dream, 1982)

Café Flesh, 1982, d. Rinse Dream (S. Sayadian)
scr. Sayadian, Herbert W. Day (Jerry Stahl)
with Andrew Nichols, Pia Snow (Michelle Bauer), Marie Sharp, and Kevin James as "Rico"

Rinse Dream (née Stephen Sayadian, whose masterpiece is this or the pretty-much-the-same-thing-but-not-porn Dr. Caligari [1989]) made this ambitious cult post-apocalyptic SF porn satire that looks like a Devo video with a killer droning synth jazz soundtrack from Mitchell Froom.

The mean-spirited, highly effective idea is that an audience of diseased Sex Negatives can find no release and only watch the creepy onstage antics of the Positives who perform at Café Flesh. The Bomb made it so that if Negatives try to experience human sexual contact, they start barfing painfully (I guess?). Meanwhile, Positives, being 1% of the populace, are such a commodity that they are forced to perform.

So, see, that's YOU! You in the raincoat, watching Café Flesh itself and getting your Gaze totally Subverted! The "backstage musical" approach frames all the sex acts as stage performances, which are all elaborate bizarro production numbers ("the guys in baby drag were a bit much"), but look, it's not Busby Berkeley or anything. These imaginative, already off-putting sex shows (the best one has a guy with a giant pencil on his head and a secretary chanting "do you want me to type a memo?") are constantly interrupted by close ups of Felliniesque pervs licking their sweaty chops and bugging their eyes out like Dan Clowes drawings. The entire affair is based in humiliation, frustration, and desires thwarted, which is, of course, some people's Thing.

XXXpensive production value as these things go, and every performance is terrible, including Richard Belzer doing a dumb jive-talk routine.

Viewed on: 9/10/13 — via VCI's terrible VHS-sourced-lookin' DVD

Monday, September 09, 2013

Viewing Notes: CITY OF WOMEN (Fellini, 1980)

City of Women, 1980, d. Federico Fellini
scr. Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi, Brunello Rondi
with Marcello Mastroianni, Donatella Damiani

Fellini does that thing where he dresses up Marcello Mastroianni like himself and then sends him to peep in on The Girls' Room circa 1980. It starts with a dream and a train tunnel, ends with a dream and a train tunnel, and in between visits sundry alien landscape sets swarming with women of all kinds. The problem, if it's not obvious, is that the women are Kinds. If these obscure objects of desire are, as usual, something between Jungian archetype and cartoon sketches of types, that is par for course. So again, Fellini's dream-self avatar pulls out his mental Rolodex of Women I Have Known, thumbing through the cardboard girl-shapes like a flip-book, trying to get them to all exist in simultaneous space-time. Where that happens is dreams and reverie.

And in dreams, don't you know, he loves them all, all the time, always did. And I dare say, this wistful affection is the reason this isn't disgusting but sort of tragicomically sweet. The second reason is that this Fellini-stand-in, "Snàporaz," specifically, is befuddled, out of touch, and impossibly easily distracted — the picture is gently teasing him throughout, and even in fantasy the Women do not take him seriously. Finally, the reason this is beautiful and true is that he actually knows all of this: not a problem with the film but the problem with which the film is concerned. In 8 1/2 terms, City of Women is the Guido's Harem sequence fully kitted out into a Satyricon of its own, as we might say Amarcord expands the Saraghina reminisces into a whole town.

Key episodes: Led down the rabbit hole by a casual sexual encounter in the train's WC, Snàporaz somehow ends up at a freeform feminist symposium in a packed-to-the-gills hotel/commune. This stuff is great because Fellini demonstrates an understanding of second-wave feminism, or at least presents its tenets more or less accurately. Snàporaz wanders through these lectures and pep talks with nonplussed fascination, and even claims he "understands" what is being discussed, even when he ends up in a room of women chanting "Castration! Castration!" Point being that neither Snàporaz nor Fellini takes The Feminist Hotel to be a house of villains, exactly; it is, kind of shockingly, more about how none of these people are remotely concerned with making a middle-aged womanizer feel comfortable in their midst because that's exactly what they're not here to do. This is all a useful illustration of the dangers of confusing the Fellini Alter-ego for an idealized self image, or even Fellini Proper, if you catch my drift.

The stylish showstopper eye-popper sequence sees Snàporaz hitching a ride with a carload of stoned, disaffected fashion plate teens who drive aimlessly through the abstract rural nightscape like an Argento taxi. Marcello-Guido-Snàporaz perches atop like those crammed-with-papparazzi La Dolce Vita joyrides to the dawn but now in Toby Dammit's gold Ferrari of Doom, multiplied into a squadron of punk clown cars and barreling toward techno hell.

Finally, the psyche slides down an infinitely regressing plush chute, breezing past ancient formative crushes, erotic infatuations and masturbation fantasies and lands in a cage to be judged by the court of the City of Women. And he finds out, Snàporaz, and Fellini, and maybe you too, exactly where that City is located, where that tunnel leads. Tunnels go inside.

And finally, here is yet another example where Ebert's (Hot Air) Balloon Rule fails.

Viewed on: 9/9/13 — Blu-ray (Masters of Cinema; Region B)

Monday, March 04, 2013

Spend the Night Alone: Notes on "Conversations With Dead People"

Notes on "Conversations With Dead People" — Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 7ABB07

What's Wrong With Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Seven? The season doesn't sit right with a lot of people, and the issues are not necessarily so surface-level as "I don't like the Potential Slayers storyline" or "It's not so bleak as Season Six, but still too dark-hearted for my liking." Not to discount those complaints, but the reasons the season-story as a whole doesn't cohere might be of a more deeply rooted.

Season Seven is a tough nut for those who want to make with the cracking. I usually prefer the close read over the critical evaluation, but it's hard to analyze drama that one suspects is dramatically unsound. It is hard to extract meaning when the text is garbled. Up on the Review Level, where we evaluate the quality and qualities of the work, things are terribly cluttered, making it difficult to get down to the basement or up to the towers. That is: The plot is either inelegant or incoherent, the characters are written in confusing fashion, there is a high percentage of what are generally agreed to be weak episodes, and so forth.

Rather than dismiss these 22 episodes as a text unworthy of scrutiny, I'd like to take some time and care and get to the bottom of What's Wrong With Season Seven?, because it's right there at the end, messing things up, causing caveats, a sinkhole in the giant BtVS/Angel OneStory. Perhaps, like other imperfect spots, it can be redeemed by thorough understanding (BtVS S6) or salvaged by focusing on the positive (Angel S1).

We begin with "Conversations With Dead People" not because it is where the problems start, but because I perceive it to be a much-loved episode (statistically, the 17th most popular) in which the problems with the season have piled up nicely and are affecting the show on a second-by-second basis. "Conversations" is the seventh episode of the season, a slot that generally closes the first act of the overall season arc. Working backward like the First Evil at the end of "Lessons," this place in the season structure was previously occupied by "Once More With Feeling" (6.7), "Fool For Love" (5.7), "The Initiative" (4.7), "Revelations" (3.7), and "Lie To Me" (2.7). To indulge a tangent, the two-part pilot episode serves as a "first act" for Season One. At this point the seeds have usually been laid for the season's plot to unfurl, the configuration of character dynamics is in place (Internal and External Conflicts established), the major themes have been laid out, and the end foreshadowed.

I. STRUCTURE, SUMMARY

"... the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people." —Kazanian, Inferno

"Desde abajo te devora." —Jonathan Levison, "Conversations With Dead People"

Mutant Enemy's unconventional, format-busting episodes are fan-favorites and critic's darlings. They're designed to dazzle, and always succeed. What's on your Top Ten Episodes list? Dunno, but odds are you put "Once More With Feeling," "The Body," "Hush" and "Restless" on there, and if "Storyteller," "The Zeppo" and/or "Superstar" aren't in the mix, I'll eat some kind of hat. "Conversations" both is and isn't so show-offy. Five extended dialogue scenes unfold in simultaneous story-time, the series regulars are isolated from one another for the entire episode, and their stories do not literally intersect, but all end up having ramifications for the rest of the season. Or, simply, it cross-cuts five vignettes to tell one story.

As to the matter of Conversations, two of the vignettes consist largely of what we'd typically think of as "conversation" — Buffy in a cemetery getting free psychoanalysis from newly-sired Sunnydale High alum vampire Holden Webster (Jonathn M. Woodward), and Willow in the UC Sunnydale library visiting with an apparition in the form of Cassie Newton (Azura Skye), the doomed high school poet who the Scoobs were unable to assist in "Help" (7.4). Meanwhile, repentant S6 villains Andrew and Jonathan return to the Hellmouth, doing the hijinx-and-sci-fi-reference-patter thing; their Dead Person takes the form of deceased evil-ringleader Warren Mears, still egging on the weak-willed Andrew. Theirs is a sort of extended tragicomic skit as "conversation." At 1630 Revello, Dawn faces down some kind of poltergeist that is apparently tormenting her mother on the spirit plane or something, with much ghostly spookery and windows imploding. Dawn's bit is conversation as people talking to themselves. Finally, Spike drowns his sorrows at the Bronze and picks up a blonde woman (in his tale, Spike is the Dead Person). Wordless seduction as Conversation.

TV is talky by nature, this show is particularly chatty, and the point is that this isn't exactly the BtVS equivalent of My Dinner with Andre. Jonathan and Andrew are engaged in plot-forwarding footwork in conventionally paced scenes. Dawn mostly monologues in terrified screams because of a ghost, and otherwise helps meet the episode's quota on FX and explosions. Spike's story has no dialogue whatsoever. Willow's story is the episode's gushy love scene stuff. Buffy's conversation is punctuated by intermittent outbursts of classic kickboxing combat. So on one hand, this could've been more daring and ambitious, and most of the plot threads are not "conversations" per se. On the other hand, because they are explicitly framed this way, the episode encourages us to understand these conventional BtVS elements as "conversations." The Dialectics of Buffy, if you need some kind of idea for awful papers.


The cold open sets the stage for each Conversation. We open on a guitar amp being switched on, and an über-rare title card (the only other is in "Once More With Feeling"). Frente! singer Angie Hart does her Julie-Cruise-at-the-Roadhouse thing on the Bronze stage, the Whedon-penned ballad "Blue" uniting the introductions of the main cast. So Buffy's on patrol, shuffling, glum, and tiny in dreamy crane shots over a big blue cemetery. She's a solo act by calling, which is what this is about. Dawn is home alone; her only contact with Buffy is a note on the fridge. She's in need of parental guidance, which is what this is about. Willow is buried in books, or maybe retreating there, feeling unworthy, insecure and unlovable when she starts to nod off, which is what this is about. Spike is wallowing, drinking, and relapsing, which is what this is about. The first gimmick that doesn't quite come off is in a pair of title cards as the band sets up, reading "November 12, 2002" and "8:01 P.M." The idea is that the episode takes place in real time. This bears out, more or less/in a way, with no temporal gaps within each scene, but attempting to cross-cut the stories leads to such implausibility as Willow asking a question of Cassie and waiting in silence for several minutes until we cut back for an answer. That is, the episode cheats just a little too much to say it takes place in real time, but even if it did, the effect probably wouldn't be much of a wow.

This is either glaringly obvious, or the product of my imagination, but if you haven't noticed, the cold open always encapsulates or points to the larger concerns of the episode. Sometimes there's a cliffhanger button afterwards, but usually the very last line of dialogue, final image, or both — the last moment before the theme song — announces the theme. In this case, Angie Hart sings Whedon's final lyric: "Can I spend the night alone?" and Buffy rejoinders: "Here we go." Wolf howl, organ, guitar, and so on.

So this isn't about how we commune with the dead (or it is, but a little) so much as it is about being alone. The first discordant note has been hit. Buffy/Holden, Dawn/Joyce, Willow/Cassie, Andrew and Jonathan/Warren, Spike/Blonde. What's off about this roster of players? For starters, this is notoriously the only episode in which Nicholas Brendan does not appear; no Xander, though he is currently feeling as alone as any of the above. We know from legend and lore that a Xander subplot was planned and axed due to time constraints; if it was ever written or just discussed, I cannot rightly say, but it does not appear in the shooting script.

Here we go.

II. THE LATCHKEY'S TALE — Home Alone With Dawn

Not to harp on the matter, but Xander's absence from "Conversations" sort of summarizes the treatment of the character throughout S7. Things happen to him occasionally, but he isn't given a subplot of his own, and does not contribute or to the central season plot in a meaningful way. Xander is AWOL all year. The same may be said of Dawn, who suffers through several false alarms before an ultimately non-starting character arc fizzles out on the periphery. As if she were a refugee from Angel S1, Mutant Enemy keeps coming up with concept makeovers for the character: we could follow Dawn and her chums on adventures at Sunnydale High, like BtVS 2.0 (this has already petered out by "Conversations"); Dawn could be a Potential in the chain of Slayers (forthcoming). In the end, M.E. opts for: Dawn feels left out and misunderstood, and has a meltdown until someone reaches out to remind her that they care. This is all the writers know how to do with Dawn Stories, and it is because the character was built to tell that story in Season Five and they've been stuck with her since.

The story on the table is a compact little home-alone-with-a-poltergeist sketch and provides the bulk of the horror business. There is a vampire in Buffy's story, but he is never a serious threat. The plot construction is slick and tidy, with the teasing appearance that Dawn is left to fight the episode's threat alone, until the climactic revelations of each story click into place and set up a villain in every corner except, it would seem, Dawn's. When the windows have blown out of 1630 and the demonic spirit seems to have been bested, exorcised by the scrawny teenage girl, an apparition of Joyce Summers appears to Dawn and offers the cryptic bummer "When it's bad, Buffy won't choose you. She'll be against you." (For Teleplay Class Know-It-Alls, note how that vague, evocative set-up allows Mutant Enemy ample wiggle room for misdirects, mistakes, and improvisation.)

On this night that everyone spends alone (and alone with a dead person), Dawn's specific sense of "alone" has to do with feeling neglected at worst, at best a peripheral concern to her sister, kept on the sidelines of Scooby activity, and otherwise not-atypical teen angst. In a bit of sloppy narrative housekeeping, we will never specifically be told that the Joyce Ghost Thing was actually shape-shifting villain The First Evil, intentionally misleading Dawn. In a sense, the shape of the episode is not clear until the matter of "Buffy won't choose you" is settled. Throughout the hour, Dawn comes to believe that Joyce's attempts to communicate from beyond are being blocked by an ambiguous force, but she's being distracted and played for a sucker. Instead, (ambiguous force) The First Evil systematically breaks Dawn down, makes her vulnerable, and picks at a scar that was just beginning to heal, all in order to sever the arteries of Buffy's support network. I believe they call this move The Yoko Factor.

So it is not un-compelling stuff, The First taunting Dawn with images of her dead mother (though Joyce's body prone on the sofa seems more like a moment that would haunt Buffy specifically; likewise, when a radio blares the mariachi music from "Listening to Fear" [5.9], heralding Joyce's "return"). The conversation is a cold-water plunge that sends Dawn back into the immediate, freak-out stage of mourning — the Trachtenberg Screaming Show — and leaves the shaken girl crying at a glimpse of her mother who does not even respond. It is not unrealistic that it might take two years for a child to recover from a parent's death (and a sister's death on top of it, + a bonus pack of additional traumas), but Dawn has not been/will not be depicted as preoccupied with her grief as of late. One might say that the story of Dawn's grief and recovery formed her primary character arc in Season Six and resolved beautifully at the end of "Grave" (6.22). This is inherently powerful material in terms of BtVS lore, but it pops up at a point where it is redundant and in a story about The First manipulating emotions, pushing buttons and taking cheap shots. You just got got.

III. THE WITCH'S TALE — Willow and the Bad Oracle

"High tide inside."
—Angie Hart, "Blue"

"The moon to the tide / I can feel you inside."
—Tara Maclay, "Under Your Spell", "Once More With Feeling"

Unlike Xander and Dawn, Willow has some semblance of a B-story built around her in Season Seven. It might charitably be described as "patchy" or "underwritten," but Willow's arc takes the shape of a recovery narrative. It is also problematic because this Will-in-rehab material is intrinsically linked to the screwy "magic addiction" thread from last season. These issues aren't specific to "Conversations With Dead People," so we'll deal with them as they crop up.

As the cat is already out of the bag, we can begin at the end. The First Evil appears as the ghost of Cassie who claims to speak for the spirit of Tara (to that: Jesus, man!). The First-as-Cassie attempts to convince Willow to never, ever do magic again. When that proves difficult, Cassie suggests Willow kill herself. The object of this round is for The First to remove Willow from the playing field. Willow, like Dawn above and Andrew below, is being duped throughout her conversation, and the First Evil plays on its victims' grief and insecurity.

The first time around we take the conversations at face value, on second pass one can focus on the gamesmanship. Precepts on reading this story: A) It was conceived as an exchange between Willow and Tara's ghost, but either Amber Benson was not available (as per Mutant Enemy) or she didn't want to do it (as per Benson). Television production is nothing if not the art of compromise and resourcefulness, so whichever honorable party one chooses to believe, the result is that Cassie is onscreen and Tara not. B) Looking at what's in and not-in the scene, M.E. could have applied some topical phlebotinum to explain why Tara can't materialize, or more accurately, if/why The First can't appear as Tara. The dialogue offers only First-as-Cassie's explanation "You killed people. You can't see her. That's just how it is. I'm sorry." Oh. Okay, if that's just how it is...

It's impossible to determine the veracity of that claim. The assumption must be made that The First has chosen to appear as someone Willow never met in life. Amber Benson has a point. For Tara's death to carry the weight that it does, the character cannot continue being resurrected in flashbacks, dreams, fantasies and parallel universes; the loss is permanent. Willow knows who Cassie was, but has no real personal connection to the girl, so it is merely "weird" when Cassie appears. The First's gambit is still unbelievably cruel but at least Cassie's presence alone is not emotionally wrenching (as it would be with Tara, or, say, Jenny Calendar). As a Lil' Cassandra figure in "Help", Cassie spent the episode predicting her own death with calm certainty, and proved herself a prophet. If Willow knows anything about Cassie, it's that she wrote doomy poems and was right about what was going to happen. You can trust her.

First-Cassie tells Willow it is her own fault that Tara can't be here ("Because of what you did... you killed people"), then says Willow will heal and be strong again. The conversation keeps making these turns, if you're looking for them, where Will is determined to try to own up to her sins and The First bobs around the issues.

WILLOW: It was horrible. I lost myself — the regular me.
CASSIE: Well, you were grieving.
WILLOW: A lot of people grieve. They don't make with the flaying. I hurt so many people.
CASSIE: It was the power.
WILLOW: I am the power. It's in me. Did I mention the random destruction of property? The Magic Box is not so much a box now...
CASSIE: The power is bigger than you are.

First it's "you were grieving" then "it was the power" then The First tries undermining the idea that Willow is personally responsible for Dark Willow's rampage at all. The Rosenberg girl has always had problems coping with unpleasant feelings, particularly loss and guilt. She has a tendency to seek shortcuts and easy solutions rather than march into the house of pain and take a hard look at the root causes (down in that basement, that tomb, that alley, among those monsters; that's where Buffy does battle, because she's different, you see). Here's Willow finally trying to take responsibility, and The First Evil keeps beating her down. Encouraging her to frame the Dark Willow Experience as a possession brought on by temporary weakness — a virus telling a compromised immune system to hate the game, not the player — The First rubs Will's face in her worst self as she is working on embodying her best self. The First wants her to wallow in self-pity, doubt, fear and lazy moral thinking.

(The Reviewer perpetually on our shoulder whispers that on one hand this hard-won shift in Willow's attitude is rather the topic of this scene, without ever being directly addressed. It's the dramatic core of the scene. Three-Kleenex stuff though it is, this is not about watching Willow cry because she misses her girlfriend. It's about Willow trying to be strong and The First trying to tug her back into the abyss. On the other hand, this epiphany within Willow happened off-screen during those months in England with Giles, and, really, is sketchy even in this very scene.)

When the real attack comes, Cassie offers up a trademark pre-vision: "You're not gonna be okay. You're gonna kill everybody." If Willow uses magic under any circumstances, she'll be too weak to resist turning into a walking, evil neutron magicbomb. This is just what Willow is struggling with, her bleakest self-doubt being broadcast from right across the table: Tara is not here and that's Willow's fault. In the wake of Tara's death, Will did not honor Tara's memory by remaining Amazon-strong. Any backsliding will mean total failure. Relapse would be the end of the world.

And that's what we're all wondering, isn't it? Can Willow be allowed to do magic? What are the parameters? She's been off materializing Indian flowers in England and regenerating her stomach skin, and didn't that seem okay? Twice, Willow invokes the authority of Giles, who apparently warned that "it isn't as simple as quitting it all cold turkey." Perhaps he did at some point. More precisely, in "Lessons" (7.1), he explained that no one can take Willow's power away by force, and that "this isn't a hobby or addiction. It's inside you now, this magic. You're responsible for it." Furthermore, Willow, who has undergone more drastic identity shifts than any character save Spike, must be troubled: if she can't be The Witch, who is she? We run into trouble if we forget that The First is bullshitting Willow, but these questions hang in the air, and the subject of what is to be done with loved ones who have transgressed, and who to allow into one's inner circle are central concerns of Season Seven (see under: Willow, Spike, Anya, Andrew, Faith, and, eventually, Buffy).

As villains tend to do, The First mistakes love for weakness, shifts its approach and suggests Willow kill herself to be reunited with Tara. That is at odds with encouraging her to remain magically straightedge, but most importantly Tara would never suggest it. When Willow recognizes this, the jig is up, The First does some archvillainy taunting business and disapparates. We go out on Will gawping at the sight of First-Cassie literally turning inside out and swallowing herself, but consider who really won here. The First has outed itself, and Willow knows that the enemy sees her as a formidable opponent and has learned that even in the face of temptation and easy succor, she wants to be in this world, wants to live, wants to fight for it.

[ Note: This handful of scenes is a useful example by which to point out the sketchy way in which "magic" is defined on BtVS. That is, the rules, and mechanics, but also the meaning of magic. How it operates physically is less important than how it operates metaphorically. In the mess of addiction/not-addiction/lost-myself/it-was-the-power/I-am-the-power/no-magic/no-black-magic it is impossible to determine Willow's moral culpability and roster of mortal sins. This was a major issue through the latter half of S6, and continues to spread befuddlement into the present story. If anything "works" in this formulation, it's that Willow seems confused as the rest of us. ]

IV . THE FOOLS' TALE — Jonathan and Andrew at the Mouth of Hell

"Can I make it right?"
—Angie Hart, "Blue"

"We're outlaws with hearts of gold!"
—Andrew Wells (Tucker's Brother), "CWDP"

Jonathan and Andrew are coming home. Like "power," "coming home" is a Big Theme this season, one that was promised by The-First-as-The-Master in "Lessons": "... that's where we're going: right back to the beginning. Not the Bang, not the Word, but the true beginning." Roots are being sniffed out, loops are being closed, cycles are, well, cycling. "You keep circling around," groans Andrew in the car, "Just drive straight in."

So these "former" villains are drawn back to Sunnydale, back to the Little Schoolhouse on the Hellmouth. It does that, the Hellmouth; it lures evil, and so it also summons heroes. It's a focal point for converging forces, appropriate, because it is the subterranean dramatic engine of the series. When it all drops away, as Jonathan says about his memories of high school, past the Bang and the Word, the Hellmouth is Narrative Necessity. It's the reason and excuse for every vampire, every MOTW, every drifting scrap of bad juju. When it all drops away, the high school, the second high school, the 'Dale itself, all are just a manhole over the pit of sorrow, the hole in your world, the very idea of dramatic conflict. The Hellmouth is foundational stuff, and if you're taking the tour, you're gonna have to go down to the basement.

We won't know where they're headed or why until the final moments, but it seems there's a sort of literal plug over the Hellmouth, the Seal of Danthazar, and the boys know something about it. Jonathan says he is determined to "make it right," driven by a desire to help, an innate responsibility to the rest of humanity, even if this won't quite redeem him, and can't undo what he's done. Andrew keeps trying on comforting, prepackaged narratives that tidy up his messy reality; they're on "a trial by fire — a quest," and when it's complete, Buffy will let them "join her gang and possibly hang out at her house." Now, Jonathan is obviously not immune to the attraction of making up stories about one's self (see under: "Superstar" [4.17)], but his understanding and clarity deepen as he progresses toward quest's end. And when he's on the spot, standing directly atop the Hellmouth, an epiphany: 36-19-27.

Consider, briefly, the case of Andrew Wells, who is about to stab Jonathan, spill his blood on the Seal of Danthazar, and unleash untold evils upon the world. Now, poor Andrew believes he's being guided by the disembodied spirit of Warren, who promises eternal life and power in exchange for Jonathan as sacrifice. So it's The First again, though that reveal, and exactly what is going through Andrew's head are subjects for another day. What we have is two men walking the same path to the basement, taking the same test — or no, that's what Andrew would say — more to the point, they are faced with the same opportunity. Andrew uses this opportunity to lie and kill his only friend.

Jonathan remembers his old locker combination, and with it is overcome with affection for his high school classmates, even those that bullied and ignored him — which is everyone apart from Buffy, except when she was bullying and ignoring him. So let us consider the last speech of this well-liked, long-running peripheral character before we say goodbye to him forever.
"I miss my friends, I miss my enemies. I miss the people I talked to every day, I miss the people who never knew I existed. I miss 'em all. I want to talk to them, yknow? I want to find out how they're doing. I want to know what's going on in their lives."

This sentiment is colored by nostalgia ("All the cruelty, all the pain, all that humiliation — it all washes away"), but Jonathan expresses an abstract connection to the rest of humanity that grows out of his specific, personal relationships. He has suffered enough ("Earshot", S1—3), and transgressed enough ("Superstar", S6 in full) to know from experience what it takes to be a villain — to actively work for the Greater Bad. Jonathan's previous scheming has all been markedly selfish. The boys have been bringing up Buffy all night: should they seek Buffy's assistance? Will Buffy be impressed? Will Buffy be their friend? Clearly the Slayer is on Jonathan's mind, and she remains some ideal of Heroism to which he might aspire, but he's not bound to duty by calling or imbued with magical martial arts skills. So look at that, Jonathan has a little revelation about what it means to take positive action, to help, to fight the good fight because it is the good fight. When Andrew turns cold and sneers "All those people you just mentioned... not one of them cares about you," Jonathan's love proves simple and unbreakable. There's a correct answer to this, and Jonathan knows it: "Well, I still care about them. That's why I'm here."

And so does Jonathan's Dork/Heel/Face Turn come full circle, and the sometimes-selfish boy dies a man who knows something about selflessness (and psst, hey Angel: ARE U LISTENING?). The question of what it means to be selfless runs through Season Seven, linked to Big Idea themes of Power, Identity and Inevitable Adulthood (if you hadn't noticed, episode 7.5 is helpfully titled "Selfless"). Why, even Buffy constantly struggles with this one, but this sacrifice is pure. And sacrifices? Did somebody say "sacrifice"?... If this seems too little too late, well, after this declaration of universal luvz, Jonathan gets a dagger in his gut, courtesy of his last remaining friend.

With a demon looking over his shoulder, Andrew watches Jonathan bleed out, opening the Seal of Danthazar, as Angie Hart croons "I fell into the moon and it covered you in bluuuue." As if transformed into one final symbolic illustration, Jonathan's body has fallen into the posture of the twelfth tarot trump, The Hanged Man. Does Andrew see it?


A range of The Hanged Man's associations may apply. See under: willing self-sacrifice, suspension between planes, the punishment of traitors, a wisdom gained through inward journey. The annihilation of the body is very literal in this particular sacrifice — the blood opens the Seal — but as Jonathan's body fades, the Allegory of the Locker Combination hangs in the air. Does Andrew hear it?
"Redemption is a bad word; it implies a debt. For every star possesses boundless wealth; the only proper way to deal with the ignorant is to bring them to the knowledge of their starry heritage."
—Aleister Crowley on Hanged Man traditions, The Book of Thoth

V. THE SLAYER'S TALE — Buffy on the Couch

"No friends. Just the kill. We are alone."
—The First Slayer, "Restless" [4.22]

Buffy opens up to a vampire, go figure. This conversation is explicitly staged as an informal psychoanalysis session, so this section is largely about what it is about, if you will, and we needn't walk through it beat by beat. It is, however, backbone of the episode, and this nuanced, lengthy voyage into Buffy's skull is nearly as strong as Season Seven gets, so it is due some examination. "Psych 101 alert," Buffy scoffs at the beginning, and, well, perhaps so, but maybe she could use a refresher course, given that her own Psych 101 experience ended with the professor trying to kill her.

Before we dive in, "Conversations" is a great performance showcase for Sarah Michelle Gellar. Devoid of hysteria, shouting or inconsolable weeping — Big Acting Moments — these intimate scenes are complex and built on seven seasons of Buffy's accumulated history. Gellar gracefully slides around every curve in the conversation, which swerves from comic small talk to dark, confessional monologue and back again and again. The way she absentmindedly fiddles with her massive crucifix necklace when the conversation gets uncomfortable is a personal favorite touch.

The freshly-sired Holden Webster is a terrific one-off character, the quippy and chatty (and potentially obnoxious) writing rounded out by Woodward's intelligence and geniality. Buffy repeatedly goes deeper than she means to, dredges up some difficult confession, or starts wallowing in self-pity, and Holden meets her with perceptive questions, disarming jokes, and the perspective available only to someone on the outside. That is, as he puts it, and we all know, "there's some things you can only tell a stranger." In part, this is all a move in Holden's battle plan; twice when Buffy arrives at a breakthrough, he takes advantage of the moment to resume their physical combat. Once it's all said and done, after the patient has covered her relationships with friends, boyfriends, parents, her past, her duty, God, sex, death and vampires, Holden's conclusion is simple: "It all adds up to you feeling alone. But Buffy, everyone feels alone. Everybody is. Until you die." And well, maybe also after you die, if one is, say, a vampire with a soul or a microchip or both.


I haven't any examples handy, but it is not uncommon to hear Mutant Enemy called out for falling back on the Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown stuff but having little to actually say about it beyond that being special sets you apart by definition and the burden of leadership is, y'know, burdeny. However repetitious it may seem, this is a foundational theme, one of the springs that makes the character go, and the tension is built into the Buffy right in the title: Buffy. Vampire Slayer. On one hand, this eternal back-and-forth drives us in narrative circles; Buffy keeps experiencing the same stories of leadership angst, of extremely gifted and misunderstood angst, misc. & assorted angst, etc. When you keep learning the same lesson, you're not really learning it. On the other hand, like Angel's cursed soul, because Buffy's Chosen One gift is fundamental and non-negotiable to the concept of the character, it is a developmental block that the character can never evolve past. To do so would be to conceive an ending. Because, you see, when you're the only Slayer, then there is truly no other soul alive who can relate. And that, I think, is Heidegger.

The point of this squirrelly aside is that being the Slayer has always caused Buffy some degree of alienation, but by Season Seven the way this manifests has evolved significantly from Season One. The problem with Slayer duty is no longer, say, that it is a chore that prevents her from hanging out at the Bronze on Friday night, or that patrolling cemeteries is not a great place to meet normal boys. Holden's bummer of a conclusion is less helpful than his clinical assessment: "You DO have a superiority complex, and you've got an inferiority complex about it." It's something he spotted early on, and has been prodding Buffy to admit to herself. So yeah, it's lonely at the top and nobody understands, but now it's making her neurotic. You tend to develop messiah complexes when you have sacrificed your life to save the world; and Holden points this out and suggests it these feelings are kind of to be expected ("who could live with that for seven years and not feel superior?"). It's making her hard. It's making her unkind. Unlike Angel, Buffy operates under no edict to help the helpless. Her mission statement is simply to "stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness." There's nothing about life, liberty, or the pursuit of anything in there. Being the Slayer is finally turning her into a Slayer.

FAITH: Something made us different. We're warriors. We're built to kill.
BUFFY: To kill demons! But it does not mean that we get to pass judgment on people like we're better than everybody else!
FAITH: We ARE better.
"Consequences" (3.14)

"It is always different! It's always complicated. And at some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the Slayer is always cut off. There's no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing Council. Human rules don't apply. There's only me. I am the law."
—Buffy, "Selfless" (7.5)

Angel's Soul Thing is designed to torture, punish, and possibly to take the vampire out of commission, but his conscription by The Powers That Be instructs him to make meaningful connections with humanity. Buffy's task as the People's Warrior is to combat evil, but tradition instructs her to forgo personal relationships. There actually was a "guidebook" (Giles didn't give it to her) and a Council (she fired them). This is a Slayer waaaay off Standard Operating Procedure. The conflicts laid out above play out across Season Seven in interlocking threads. Buffy as Leader, general of an army of allies and associates, is in conflict with the lone wolf element of the Slayer paradigm — how can you lead, when part of you thinks you don't need your followers? Buffy as The Law, the Slayer as judge, jury and executioner, has always had to deal with the reality that any time, any place, she may have to kill someone she cares about in the line of duty. The first time she did it, stabbing Angel before a portal to Hell (See under: Andrew & Jonathan), it marked her for life, and she couldn't do it again. And so she could not sacrifice Dawn, tried to domesticate Spike, and dithered too much as Willow fell into shadow. After last season, she can't do that again, and two episodes ago ran a sword through the relapsed Anya without hesitation. It's always different!


As their conversation closes, Jonathan and Andrew discuss those high school classmates that have forgotten them, which is where Buffy and Holden begin their chat. She's forgotten him from school, but they quickly catch up, get chummy and get highly, highly personal. They make fast friends and then she drives a stake through his heart. So much for the "never kill a boy on the first date" policy. Buffy forms bonds with people, and at some point the Slayer ends up having to deal with them. The Buffy/Holden conversation plays out this dynamic in miniature and she has to dust the boy just as he reveals the identity of his sire. As the problem stands right now, this is really all about Spike.

VI. THE MONSTER'S TALE — Spike Drinks

"The living dead and the dying living are all the same; cut from the same cloth."
— Francesco Dellamorte, Dellamorte Dellamore

Spike, after throwing back some beers and walking that blonde home, vamps out and drinks her in front of her apartment. This, if you need a refresher, he should not want to do, on account of his having a soul, and should not be able to do, what with the violence-inhibiting microchip in his brain. On the other hand, the fellow has been mentally unstable and unpredictable since regaining his soul. The ramifications will be dealt with for a good portion of the rest of the season, but here it's all set-up and shock ending.

The hows and whys are complicated, but The First Evil is also manipulating Spike. As with Willow, Dawn, and Andrew, The First has burrowed into Spike's head and dredged up evidence of lingering issues he thought he had moved past (and even without The First's help, Buffy is out there delving into her parents' divorce); their worst traits are pulled up to the surface. The First Evil chips at weak points, gnaws at anxieties you want to think you are above. But from beneath you, it devours.

A long memory is one of the finer qualities of BtVS. Everything that happens counts, stories grow out of continuities that were set in motion in the first episode, right up to the end. That said, it is appropriate The First appear in the guise of familiar characters, as all of these vignettes revolve around old plot material. Willow and Andrew are at least dealing with logical fallout from their Season Six disasters, if not breaking much new ground. Dawn feeling left out is warmed-over Season Five, and Spike as mad dog killer demon is ancient Season Three history. It would seem that going right back to the beginning does indeed look an awful lot like driving around in circles.

In the chorus of "Blue," a plaintive request for solace directed at an absent lover — "Can I spend the night?" — becomes "Can I spend the night? Alone" or maybe "Can I spend the night alone?" We hear it as Holden climbs out of his grave and again as he blows away on the wind, leaving Buffy with a nasty revelation and a nastier duty ahead. It's a question uniting all the conversations. How can any of these people make it through the rising darkness and pooling blood, let alone get through this night alone?

* * * * *
Extra-Special Thanks to the folks at BuffyWorld, easily the greatest online Buffy and Angel resource. Their database of shooting scripts, transcripts, screencaps was invaluable in preparing this piece.
All screencaps courtesy of BuffyWorld.