Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Viewing Notes: SUMMER STOCK (1950)

Summer Stock, 1950, d. Charles Walters
scr. Sy Gromberg, George Welles
with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven

Conventional Wisdom has it that there's little to see in Summer Stock but "Get Happy", which, shout hallelujah, is in itself a hell of a Thing to See anyway, even if it was patched in three months after principle photography and found its famous costume among Minnelli's cast-offs. And yet!... There's also a silent Gene Kelly partnered with a squeaky floorboard and discarded newspaper, gliding and hopping and inventing 100 rhythmic gags to an instrumental reprise of "You, Wonderful You" like he's a permagrinning Buster Keaton. And there's the tour de force fight-n-flirt deconstructed-square-dance between Judy and Gene. And Kelly going at tornado speed through a cramped country kitchen, up on the table and practically pushing the fourth wall out past the edge of the set in "Dig Dig Dig Dig for Your Dinner". And, and, and Eddie Bracken and Marjorie Main out comic-relieving Phil Silvers without breaking a goddamn sweat. Point being that's at least enough to justify looking at something for an hour and forty minutes.

That plot, with Judy (as Jane) trying to run the family farm while her sister's crazy showbiz pals (led by Kelly as Joe) rehearse in the barn, recalls the Mickey & Judy pictures of yore, and maybe Oz, too. Ironically-ish, the Major Theme involves Judy coming to understand that putting on a show is for reals hard work, just like farm chores, and her sister gradually emerges as a sort of villain whose diva behavior (ahem, sleeping too late, disappearing during rehearsals, running up expenses) threatens to ruin the show. However troubled Garland was during production on Summer Stock (i.e.: Troubled), she does the buoyant optimist thing, the tough-talking can-do! thing, and the cute funny nervous motormouth routine and there's not a crack in her armor on screen.

So you've got this slick, bright-hearted, colorful kids-puttin-on-a-show-in-the-barn throwback with a classic roadblocked-courtship plot, at least two truly great numbers and several really really good ones. This being Garland's final film for MGM, perhaps we have a phantom ache for a grander (or more grandiose) send-off — a whole 120 minutes of "Get Happy". The loss in underrating Summer Stock, I think, is that if MGM musicals are a thing with you, then second or third tier is really not so far from the top shelf. This is rather a primo example of that particular dream machine doing what it did in 1950.

Under a pink spotlight on a darkened stage, Joe tries to explain his show to Jane. Nestled in the functional segue dialogue before the romantic confession number "You, Wonderful You", Summer Stock offers possibly the simplest, wisest of explanations for the existence of the musical itself. It's a throwaway moment, sweet and slight, and — in spite of all well-documented effort behind Summer Stock — it is effortless.:
JOE: We're trying to tell a story with music and song and dance, not just with words. For instance, if the boy tells the girl that he loves her, he doesn't just say it. He sings it.
JANE: Why doesn't he just say it?
JOE: Why? Oh, I don't know. But it's kind of nice.

Viewed on: 3/19/14 — DVD (Warner/TCM, Region 1)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Protected By Powerful Forces: Notes on “Never Leave Me”

Notes on “Never Leave Me” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 7ABB09
Directed by David Solomon
Written by Drew Goddard

[ Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Sleeper” ]

This again.
She pretty much gives him looks like this through the whole episode.

Monsters! Explosions! Torture! Revelation! Topless Spike in bondage! All this and more! And yet “Never Leave Me” is one of the odd Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes that does not have a strong, clear dramatic throughline. The DVD packaging summarizes the plot thusly: “Buffy’s interrogation of Spike is interrupted when the Bringers attack her house, while in England the Watcher’s Council comes under attack from The First.” While those things certainly occur, that really only describes two brief scenes. Where the previous episode, “Sleeper” (7.8), curiously lacked resolution and was fuzzy on the particulars, at least it focused on a central plot about getting to the bottom of whether or not Spike was feeding on Sunnydaleites again. “Never Leave Me”, by comparison, is jam-packed with meaty drama, and advances the Season Seven plot substantially, but as a story in and of itself is all over the map.

If “Never Leave Me” has a unifying dramatic concern, it’s the Seal of Danthazar in the basement of Sunnydale High. You remember the Seal — the one Andrew opened in “Conversations With Dead People” by killing Jonathan. Except it turns out it didn’t open. When we catch up with Andrew Wells, least competent but last surviving member of The Trio, he’s still in the company of The First Evil, still being directed to open the Seal, now in fumbling Keystone Kops fashion, chasing a sacrificial piglet around the demon portal and doing pratfalls. Besides the general lameness of the conceit, this is symptomatic of the repetitive motion syndrome plaguing Season Seven, and reduces Jonathan’s death to a joke when First-Evil-Jonathan apologizes for being anemic. On the upswing, this loophole restores a measure of dignity to the last moments of a beloved character, as if Jonathan’s ernest repentance rendered his blood too fine to open the evil Seal. That very business — whose side you’re truly on and what that means — is rather the subject of “Never Leave Me”.

Dangerous murderers fighting in an alley.

Well, if we’re going back to the beginning as we keep insisting, doesn’t a rebooted Sunnydale High need a live pig running around? Too squeamish to kill the poor animal, Andrew is reduced to buying blood from the butcher’s shop. Here he’s intercepted by Willow, and in an alley the remnants of Season Six’s battling villains face each other for the first time this year. They both end up fronting that they’re still bad to the bone and boasting about their magical
prowess. It’s all a joke, Andrew transparently bluffing “Stand down, She-Witch, your defeat is at hand!” and Will indignantly blustering “I am a she-witch, a very powerful she-witch, or witch, as is more accurate!” Funny, except that in this confrontation Willow is reminded that her own allegiances have been shaky in very recent memory. And here is another recent villain just jabbering “I’m good! I do good things now!…" and changing his mind, "I’m am bad! I’m bad,” and does she sound any different? As she says it, Willow seems to remember the extent to which she really, really is not to be trifled with. Doubt flickers through them both, but at the moment they are on opposite sides and those sides are fairly clear.

So she packs him up and hauls him back to Scooby Central, which is the other major concern of “Never Leave Me”.

A house being put back together.


“Gather them. It’s started,” Robson tells Giles at the end of “Sleeper”. That’s the important message from a dying man in a cliffhanger scene, and it’s the lead-in clip in the Previously On for “Never Leave Me”. Giles won’t appear in this episode, so it’s Robson’s last words to note. Cats are popping out of bags right and left here, so no time to fret over spoilers. Robson is telling Giles to gather the Potential Slayers, and that the war with The First Evil has started. It’s a message arriving too late — the conflict is underway, not about to start. Those cryptic teaser snippets of teenage girls around the world being pursued and murdered, the attempts to open the Seal of Danthazar, Spike’s brainwashing — anything that looked like a preliminary skirmish — was all part of a plan already in execution before the targets know what hit them. The enemy is going to have to improvise right and left through the season, and indeed in “Never Leave Me”, but its battle plan tends toward sneak attack and complex boobytraps. Our heroes are perpetually a step behind The First, chasing an invisible enemy through a plexiglass maze only to find they are being led by the nose.

The gathering has started, too. Certainly The First has summoned its legion of Harbingers (or “Bringers” — ? well, w/e), and lured Andrew and Jonathan (R.I…P?) back up from Mexico. But the goodies are massing as well. Watchers are assembling at Watcher HQ, and Giles has instruction to round up the remaining Potentials. The Sunnydale Scoobies have been reuniting all season, with Willow returning from England, Spike from Africa. Xander and Anya are increasingly compelled to stay at the Summers’ house. “Sleeper” delivered Spike back to 1630 Revello Drive, and “Never Leave Me” pulls Andrew into the house, too. More core cast and fascinating newbies will be arriving shortly. The teams are forming, and this snowballing effect will continue until the very end of the series.

Who are you going to gather, then? “Never Leave Me” concerns the matter of two villains, Spike and Andrew Wells, both of whom have recently murdered people. Spike is officially reformed, and tries to demonstrate heroism in his actions but is constantly forced to talk about it and explain himself. Andrew talks constantly about how he is reformed, but demonstrates this by stabbing Jonathan a couple of days ago. Spike killed in a mind-control trance, Andrew of his own free will. And somehow these two blonde killers dressed in black both end up tied to chairs in Buffy's house. Their situations are nearly identical but with poles reversed.

This “gathering” business isn’t about maternal nesting instincts, or teamwork, or the value of friendship. It’s about which side you pick when it’s time to pick sides. That’s picking sides for a war, certainly; these are bands of warriors being assembled, and the subject of Buffy’s leadership will drive the next act of the season. But gathering is also about who you let into your life, who you have to cut out, and who you choose to stick your neck out for.

So two interrogations, two allegiances under examination. We’re explicitly reminded that Spike still feeds on blood, while Andrew is uncomfortable procuring it from a butcher. And we’re explicitly reminded Spike has a soul, while Andrew sputters to Willow “I’m evil, but protected by powerful forces. Forces you can’t begin to imagine, little girl.” Team Slayer appears to have the upper hand through the bulk of the episode, as they are in possession of The First’s sleeper agent and current right-hand (or corporeal-hand, anyway) man. There is a take-one-leave-one balance to the events of the episode, but in the war itself there is no balance: this is a string of defeats for the Slayer’s side and all they gain is a tiny scrap of information. But Knowledge, etc., etc., something About Power.

Sun shines in the bedroom.


“Suffer love! A good epithet! I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.”
—Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, act V, scene 2

The Buffy/Spike interrogation actually doesn’t get very far in terms of the murders she’s questioning him about. Instead they end up discussing their relationship in a frank manner, and that takes the form of a kind of interrogation. Through the wall and simultaneously, there is another interrogation as Anya and Xander lay into Andrew. But the same thing ends up happening: Andrew is an excuse to look at the current state of Anya/Xander relations.

It’s called "Never Leave Me". That’s a line from "Early One Morning", of course, Spike’s "trigger" song, as in "Oh don’t deceive me / Oh, never leave me." In the song, the maiden is singing this lament to a runaway lover. In the context of the episode title, though we have two fractured couples at the center, the phrase reenforces the gathering motif. Who, after all, might be saying "Never Leave Me"? To whom are they saying it? Or, as in "Tough Love" (5.19) or "Dirty Girls" (7.18), is it ironic?

Apparently Spike is having "withdraws," the craving for human blood described in language that implies it is worse than just a gnawing hunger. This isn’t strictly in line with previous depictions of vamps going cold turkey, but adds an edge of peril and haze of confusion to the scene. "Sleeper" worked a "recovering addict" parallel into its story of Spike confronting his latent vampire bloodlust. Here’s B hand-feeding Spike because he must be restrained; she’s administering methadone. And it’s gross and pathetic, Spike suckling from a bag of butcher shop leavings like it’s some kind of grotesque oral blood transfusion. He’s in enormous discomfort, but Buffy’s there to get him through this (which is, maybe, also a sort of methadone), so hey, hunger hurts, but starving works.

But we’re not in one of Spike’s crazy basements, we’re not in Angel’s Alley where we fight, or The Bronze dance floor where we court. Not the Library, Cemetery, or Hellmouth. Buffy, it seems, has Spike tied up in her bedroom, and in the last line before the theme song, he warns: "If I get free, someone’s gonna die." Now, that means odds are he’s gonna get free. His words ring down the halls of Season Seven, as the overarching story of Spike himself is the tale of a soul striving for freedom. Where Angel struggles to find reasons to exist, grapples with greater existential purpose, Spike simply yearns to be Spike. He’s not just currently tied to the chair, but bowed under the weight of a sundry artificial restraints: vampirism, brain chip, soul, brainwashing. But he moves toward the light, that one. And if he got free — truly free — would someone die?

Well, right now, unfortunately, they might. The Buffy/Spike interrogation is the dramatic centerpiece of "Never Leave Me". It boils down to two scenes, and in both, Buffy only asks a few questions about how Spike might be connected to the mysterious shapeshifting villain before Buffy and Spike are back on the topic of Buffy and Spike. They segue into hashing out personal business with almost comical speed and inevitability, first in her bedroom and then in her basement. And indeed, the sex stuff is up on the surface of things; it needs to be addressed, but something else is down in the deep dark.

When Spike half-jokes that the trials required to earn back his soul are nothing compared with the agony of being in love with Buffy Summers, it’s bound to set her off. She’s hurt, insulted, takes a defensive, closed-off posture, but lets him talk that way. She calls him self-pitying but generally puts the ugliest possible spin on things like tainting his view of the relationship will help him get over it.

The bedroom conversation builds to Spike’s accusation to Buffy that "You used me," and how he finally understands this, and that "you hated yourself and you took it out on me." Buffy stonily agrees, and (snidely?) reminds him that she told him this at the time. But that isn’t quite what he’s getting at. His soul is giving Spike the capacity to understand what Buffy was putting herself through during her fling with him. He can feel her pain now — "I get it. Had to travel 'round the world, but I understand you now." Beautiful, lovely, except what he sees is still red: "I understand the violence inside." Ah. He had to learn to hate himself as much as she did to be with him in the first place and awww, who’s feeling sorry for themselves after all?

Spike thinks he’s being "honest" with himself now, but he’s always generally been an honest guy. Buffy’s acting like it's all self-evident, like she told him over and over that she didn’t care about him, slept with him just to feel something even if it was disgust, used him as a receptacle for her sorrow. So they both realize this now, and that’s painful. It’s also painful because of what they’re not realizing. As a vampire, Spike was convinced B was secretly in love with him, maybe even mythologically bound to him; now with this glowing soul of beautiful light in him, Spike is convinced that she always hated him. Something about these star-whacked romances seems to make people think in extremes, yeah?

There is a fine joke in "Sleeper", when Buffy starts to correct the bouncer at The Bronze — it was actually Billy Idol who ripped off Spike’s personal fashions. Besides the laugh, the lovely thing is that it is a rare moment where Buffy acts like Spike is her boyfriend. A moment where she is excited about him and wants to talk about him with other people. Where she acts like she likes him. And it is sad, too, because it comes now, when they appear to be definitively split up. Because it was always there. At some point, they talked about Billy Idol. And we saw it in flashes, but in occasional postcoital cuddles, in the wacky invisible sex in "Gone" (6.11), and point being: These two do like each other, and if they "used" one another in some way, both got something out of that use. We just saw in "Sleeper" a reminder of how Buffy has been catalytic in Spike's growth over the past four years. And if that is true, then Buffy Summers very literally helped William the Bloody save his soul and so who cares if she miseryfucked him a couple times?

In this scene, she finally asks: "How’d you get your soul back?" Nice of everyone to respect a fellow’s privacy, but given the nature of bartering for souls throughout history, maybe that’s an important question. Spike’s account of reclaiming his soul places Buffy at the center: "Went to see a man about a girl." Aww. But consider that part of his motivation was that he had hit absolute bottom, particularly by this program’s standards. And they’re not talking right now about how she's been a support and inspiration, nor about how his love is so strong and pure that his demon body required an actual-factual Soul to withstand it.

No, they’re talking about how now he understands the kind of degradation Buffy was feeling during their fling in Season Six, and the residue that still clogs up her self-image. There is not a little bit of emotional violence happening here; they’re getting in subtle digs at each other, alluding to major injuries and mutual distrusts and if they’re getting into it this deep, it’s almost certainly time to head down to the basement.

You have slayed me, you have made me
I got to laugh halfways off my heels
I got to know, babe, will you surround me?
So I can know if I am really real

—Bob Dylan, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, 1964

The chip isn’t working and the trigger is, and The First appears as First-Spike and sings to Real-Spike, and sends the vampire crashing through the wall to attack Andrew. The First is using Spike to 86 Andrew before he can spill about the Seal of Danthazar, effectively making this a villain using a villain to go after a villain. Following this? Dividers breaking, bedrooms turning into war zones, and the next thing you know Spike’s manacled in Buffy’s basement. This time Buffy’s wiping the blood off of him. Here he is chained to her, and here she is taking care of him. Up in the bedroom the conversation was intimate but grim, and love ended up debased and broken on the cross; down here things look appalling, and these two spit some serious venom, but something else happens.

This conversation takes some hard zigzags, but the overarching topic is that Spike believes Buffy needs to stake him here and now. Spike’s arguments are honest as always, but he takes the most negative perspective possible to make his point, letting himself be the bad guy as Buffy did upstairs. If she won’t rid herself of him to protect herself and a houseful of loved ones, maybe she’ll stake him for being an asshole.

Now, if it were any other vampire, he’d be dust, but he’s not any other vampire, and it’s always different. She’s giving him extra lives, more leeway, the benefit of the doubt, and furthermore she’s helping him again. She’s going out of her way to find reasons and ways not to eliminate Spike, like she always has. Later, she’s going to have this thrown in her face by trusted advisors, like it’s a character flaw, like Spike’s a blind spot with her. But she doesn’t look away from him. He’s straight in her line of sight, and Gellar barely blinks during the scene.

Two land mines go off. Spike pops the first one, and proposes that she can’t kill him because “You like men who hurt you.” I understand Andrew is doing fine upstairs, but nonetheless I believe someone just hit a vein.

“No,” she counters. But also “Not anymore.” (“I’m not bad anymore,” said Andrew Wells, “I’m good. I do good things now.”)

What is this? A biting insult? a Terrible Truth? He’s trying to goad her into staking him, but he doesn’t sneer it at her; it sounds like it’s hard to say. Does he even believe it? This is the same bomb he dropped on her in “Fool for Love”: All Slayers Have a Death Wish, here considered as it applies to romance. Spike’s way of cutting people down with a couple of excruciatingly perceptive derisive remarks — that quality he shares with Cordelia Chase — is only useful when he hits the mark. Only knocks his target off-balance when he’s walloping them with something they don’t know about themselves or thought they’d hidden. It’s gotta be insightful. And this time he’s not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. Heck, even Holden Webster knew it. They’re talking about Buffy’s inferiority complex creeping up to devour her superiority complex from below.

Even if Spike’s just now playing catchup, she’s been dealing with the question ever since Season Six, and just had a breakthrough in therapy two episodes ago. But let’s not dodge the subject: Does Buffy Summers like men who hurt her? Well, maybe Buffy just liked some men who ended up hurting her. Or maybe, yep, he’s right, she’s already identified this pattern in her life, and she is making efforts to address it, as her real response, “I don’t hate like that. Not you, or myself. Not anymore” indicates.

Or maybe being the Slayer forces Buffy into destructive/impossible relationships because it makes relationships impossible. The "rule" is that the Slayer isn’t supposed to have personal relationships. What’s that even mean though? Whose rule? Who made it? Yeah, nobody tells her what to do and love the earth and woman power, but somehow she’s still stuck in this set of circumstances where her dating life is a fucked-up hell. Because there are the patriarchal "rules" of the Watchers’ Council, but if you ignore those stuffed shirts they’ll blow up on their own. It’s built into the mythos, it’s intrinsic to being the Slayer, it’s the invisible program running inside that leads the One to the Architect. You think you’re free but you’re playing their game. And being the Vampire Slayer, she never asked for that. She might be Chosen, but who chose her? Who wrote her into this story? How the fuck do you get out of that? And where might Buffy find, say, a source of inspiration of her own? Angel? Hm.

Landmine #2 comes from Buffy.

Spike keeps trying to downplay the soul further, calling it "window dressing," and he’s kind of angling the conversation that way the whole time. Knowing he’s a risk, he focuses his Inherently Evil Core; it’s not a delusion or a lie, he’s just emphasizing the awful odds that his trigger can be exploited at any moment. Trouble is, by this point he’s actually demonstrated so much strength of character, and he’s so very chained to her basement walls, that the argument just doesn’t fly. Buffy can’t pretend she doesn’t know him inside and out. And if, as she tells him, “You’re alive because I saw you change. Because I saw your penance,” that means that when she looked at him up close and highly personal, she did not just see a twisted black reflection of blah blah blah. She may be talking about the soul specifically, but she’s seen him change over and over. Spike has talked about how he needs to be killed, offed, etc., but “alive,” that’s Buffy's word.

You can see it in his eyes, once he gets the affirmation he’s needed the whole time. My God, there’s no special effects, but it’s like he’s actually getting his soul right now, again. They’ll always be Cosmic Dancers to this guy, it’ll never leave his system entirely. You can’t cure a romantic, you can only turn them into a cynic. They’re easy to revive: give 'em a little blood. But this isn’t just for Spike, it can’t be. "Be easier, wouldn’t it, if it were all an act, but it’s not." Oh, that’s Buffy talking to Spike, who’s begging to be killed like he's Lon Chaney, Jr., but maybe she can hear herself say it. Because Buffy needs to say it. She needs to say it out loud.

So say it. Say it like you mean it! And she does: "I believe in you, Spike."

Well. Close enough for now. Maybe if she’d gone all-in... but no time, for the enemy breaks up the party. Because this is all very nice, but somehow talking about their feelings isn’t proving a critical tactic in this war. OR IS IT!



There is a pleasing symmetry to the events of “Never Leave Me”. Xander repairs the windows at the beginning, and the Bringers wreck his work again at the end. The Scoobies take Andrew captive at the beginning, and The First's minions take Spike captive at the end. It opens with a discussion of stabbing Spike in the chest and whether he can restrain his vampire nature, and ends with Spike’s pierced breast triggering the release of a "real vampire."

And so during the Spike/Buffy interrogation, another interrogation. Andrew’s not going to give up crucial intel; he’s stuck in with the comic relief, as Xander and Anya work him over. The captive is just a foil for the couple, and in their good cop/ex-demon cop routine we find a brief reminder of how well they work together, even if terrorizing and beating a hostage is not necessarily the healthiest bonding activity. When Xander is left alone to explain Andrew’s Hard Way options, he monologues about Anya’s resume as a vengeance demon. Rather than focus on her actual history of mass murder, Xander tells a transparently autobiographical story about where he stands with his ex-fiancée:

XANDER: Well, there was this one guy — there was this one guy, he, uh, he hurt her real bad, so she paid him back. She killed him, but she did it real slow. See, first she stopped his heart. Then she replaced it with darkness. Then she made him live his life like that. But he still had to go do his job and see his friends and wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, but he had to do it all empty. Without anything to look forward to. Ever.

This account is singularly self-serving, whether it is what Xander is actually feeling or not. If we’ve forgotten, that "hurt her real bad" consisted of leaving Anya at the alter with little provocation and no articulate explanation of how the relationship fell into ruin. He is surely still damaged from the breakup, this we know even if we believe that Xander ultimately broke his own heart. But the monologue shifts blame for his current misery onto Anya, and ties it to the narrative of her vengeance demon career. And how unfair is that, to claim she’s responsible when what he’s feeling is guilt? Because he dumped her, Xander is the eternal heel, right? Maybe it is fair, though. Or at least complicated. It’s always different. Maybe shortly after their still-unresolved split, she got drunk and rebound-fucked Spike. Maybe that wasn’t a technical violation of any terms and bylaws, but maybe it was an insensitive thing to do knowing it might impact someone she still cared about. Maybe she recently went berserk with Jilted Lass Rage and butchered a frat house and had to be put down like a crazy goddamn animal. Got it? Anya had to be killed.

And maybe this extravagant display of exceptionally poor behavior is actually kind of disappointing to Xander. Now it could be all that, or it could be that Xander simply isn’t fully owning up to why he and Anya are not he-and-Anya anymore. Lotta that going around. Whether we find his position defensible or smacking of denial, Xander is sad, and has Unresolved Feelings for Anya.

The monologue’s oblique reference to Heart of Darkness links it to the Apocalypse Now motif in Xander’s dream sequence in "Restless" (4.22). A military presence marches through the shadows of Xander Harris’ psyche, an anxiety nightmare concept that we might say crystalizes his resistance to being forced into a warrior culture. Which is to say: he’s a normal dude who feels compelled to aid in the battle against the Forces of Darkness and that feeds directly into his insecurities. Xander is possessed of an adventurous spirit, but when he sets out to emulate On the Road always finds himself back in his parents' basement. And clearly he’s chosen his side and fights the good fight, but from a certain point of view when things get rough he just hides behind his Buffy.

The callback to "Restless" via Heart of Darkness connects with the overarching battlezone theme, and reinforces the schema laid out in "Primeval" (4.21), where the (imaginary) Tarot-like deck used in Willow’s enjoining spell assigns each Scooby a sort of archetypal function. The cards describe the roles each member plays in the group; in the spell they become synecdoches for the conceptual cores of their characters. A full accounting of the "Primeval" trump cards is surely lofty and byzantine beyond this point. But Xander was once confirmed to be The Heart. And if he’s no longer able to fulfill his function as the Heart, what is to become of him?

Fatemasters & Soulcaptains

Speaking of the outmoded and useless…

Meanwhile in jolly old London (that’s LONDON, ENGLAND), Quentin Travers of the International Council of Watchers refuses to share information with Buffy over the phone, mostly to remind you that he’s a dickhead. Then the whole Watcher headquarters building explodes and they all die. Though this is the shocking death scene of an organization that has figured large in BtVS mythos since the story began, their exit is practically staged as a joke. That’s how irrelevant they are now. The old white man stands up, puffs out his chest and makes a speech about how important he is, backs it up with quotes from “Invictus” and the Bible of all things, and promptly goes kablooey. This isn’t the time to recount the entire tortured history of Buffy Versus the Watchers’ Council, because that time was back in Season Five when she stopped playing their game and told them to go fuck themselves. And now Buffy the Vampire Slayer won’t have to deal with those pricks on the Watchers’ Council anymore. But there’s a funny thing about being apparently trapped in eternal cycles. And, too, about going back to beginnings, which is totally In this season. The Watchers’ Council is dead. Long Live, etc.

To be clear, it’s not the key to the episode or anything, but when Quentin Travers’ quotes Proverbs 24:6 he cites it by name. These constitute the last words of a long-running recurring character, so let us pay Mr. Travers this final respect and look them over. “O, by wise council you will make your war.” Blam-O. He’s actually paraphrasing; the good old NRSV has it as “for by wise guidance you can wage your war.” QT strikes me as a sturdy Church of England type, and the King James puts it “For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety.” “Council” is pretty standard across various versions, let's don’t sweat the small stuff. The “war” metaphor here (in Proverbs and on BtVS) is about the ongoing spiritual conflict of daily life.

The scripture quotation is largely present for its immediate subversion. But aren't councils, planners, and advisors important in waging war, even if the wisdom of this particular council is moot? The next section of Buffy’s arc this season will concern her leadership skills, and pretty specifically whose advice she chooses to take, and when; that is, it’s about Buffy and her Council, in war and through life. Proverbs 24 (it’s a short chapter, might as well check it out) starts with a Proverbs 23-esque warning about envying sinners/associating with known wicked persons, uses a house-building metaphor, and addresses the importance of councils in war, advisors in general. Besides broadly outlining "Never Leave Me", Proverbs 24 is largely about righteousness and judgment; some of its advice Buffy could use, some she will disprove.

As Season Seven looks back to Season One, at how far we’ve come and how we’re circling the same problems, this is our last check-in with the Watchers’ Council on this plane. As it happens, Buffy’s first acts of rebellion way back when were against the petty authority of Watchers. Watchers and their far lowlier civilian equivalent: Principals. How long’s it been since Buffy had conflict with a principal? The Council, she’s done with. The Principal — she’s still feeling that one out.

Things half in shadow and halfway in light.

Principal Wood is creeping around the edges of the episode, doing sketchy-but-ambiguous stuff like cleaning up Jonathan’s corpse from the Seal of Danthazar. But Wood has a far more interesting kind of scene in his office, where he deals with two high school vandals in his official capacity. First he offers the juvenile delinquents a choice between repainting the graffitied wall and suspension. The little devils think he’s opening with Bad-But-Weak Cop, and when they defiantly choose suspension, Wood admits his bluff. Instead, he offers, they can repaint the walls or he’ll call the cops. What he opens with is actually a polite, rational face on the illusion of a choice, and when they choose wrong, he follows up by boxing them in. It’s not quite an interrogation, because Wood isn’t looking for information, but as with the Spike and Andrew interviews above, Wood is in the position of authority but needs the compliance of the transgressors in the chairs. So we see he uses his natural charm strategically, and perhaps demonstrates a sense of tough-love justice. Or something like that.

The squad of Bringers attacks Buffy’s house, tearing apart the work Xander did in the prologue, but the adversary doesn’t obliterate our heroes with surprise explosives. The immediate goal is to retrieve valuable Sleeper Agent Spike, so there are tactical reasons for this, but also a sense that the enemy wants Buffy — and maybe the others — alive for other reasons. They’ve met before. They go way back. And it’s here, dead Bringer at her feet, that Buffy pieces it together, names it as much as it ever had a name. The First. The First Evil. They once faced off in Season Three, episode 10, “Amends”, in which it attempted to manipulate Angel into killing Buffy, and nearly drove him to suicide before he was saved by the power of Christmas. This thing just cannot stay away from these vampires with souls. It wants Buffy dead, but with all these assassins and incendiary devices at its disposal, The First clearly wants to choose the time and place, wants her broken and defeated to its satisfaction. So knowledge is a start, but this is approximately as dire as revelations — or at least Big Bad reveals — come.

As we officially say hello again to The First, and goodbye to the Watchers’ Council, it is becoming apparent that this is a story about manipulating characters into the deaths they deserve.

And all the while as vampires feed, I bleed.


The Seal of Danthazar’s about to open for-real cross-my-heart this time, so stand back. The seal — basically a manhole with modified Sigil of Baphomet and some vaguely Celtic knots — isn’t literally over the Hellmouth. The Hellmouth is a colorful term for the focal point of mystical energies. In other circumstances, that might read as fantasy gobbledy-gook to smear over any number of sins in plotting mechanics. Lately, down at the convergence point in the basement, the floor plan has become unmappable, shifting, nonlinear. Tricky. And the Hellmouth is nowhere, but does seem to end up manifesting as a hole in the dirt which belches forth unclean things. And the Hellmouth is everywhere, but seems to draw all dramatic focus to the sepulchral caverns under a school. This spot seems to want to be a school or need to be a school. If you burn it down, the Hellmouth pushes a new one up through the rubble. If you switch campuses to UC Sunnydale, you’ll find the Hellmouth’s manmade twin malfunctioning downstairs. When you get close to it, it’s dangerous to take things too literally. The Hellmouth is a concept. Watch your motherfuckin step. "School," I believe a wise woman once said, "is where you learn."

The First uses Spike to open the Seal, which is where we started with Andrew up at the top. We’re doing this again, opening this seal that we dramatically opened in "Conversations With Dead People", gathered around a hole in a basement in a school where we’ve been circling the same topics for seven years. The first time we ever went down under this school, it was to visit a particularly old, nasty vampire. The Master and his Order of Aurelias serve as the mythos’ distillation of the enemy, they are the shadow horde and the Vampire King built to scale for a truncated mid-season-replacement-sized story. The Buffyverse is infinite in imagined/implied scope, but very small in on-screen practice. The Master was the first to try to end the world, the one who killed her, who made a prophecy girl of her, and this fixation on preordainment, on things playing out as they are scripted, harkens back to MetaBuffy's own First Vampire King, Rutger Hauer as Lothos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), who believed they were “joined.” All the way back to the beginning.

As above, so below.

On the next leg of Spike’s journey, his reclaimed soul will help him slough off the muck, layer by layer. It’s going to take awhile — most of the season — for there’s a lot of gunk built up. The first thing to go is that Vampire nature. But... but he’s stuck with that, of course. That magical-matter in the shape of a reanimated dead man is his body and form, and therefore it's all surface. Maybe it’s the least important layer to Spike. He ceased to be a proper upstanding vampire a long, long time ago, and he was never any good at serving evil or serving anything but himself, really. We just got a vivid reminder in "Sleeper" that he may still have the fangs and forehead, but Spike no longer has the vampire spirit, if you will. This is all rather conceptual, compared to, say, if one were to physically remove the violence-inhibiting brain chip. As Spike can’t really shuck the physical reality of his vampirism, perhaps it can be purged in on a symbolic level. Which doesn't mean it's not going to hurt.

And so a crucifixion — in a basement, no less! Or is it? Spike is stripped to the waist, bound with his arms out, and he's up there to suffer. But you don’t put this guy on a cross; he'll smolder. The only one who puts Spike on a cross is Spike. Hovering above the mouth of hell, Spike is spread-eagled on the Wheel that is both Catherine Wheel and Rota Fortunae. On The Wheel of Fortune, and bound by ancient logics. But don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin! Where Baphomet’s goat ears would usually be, the Seal is marked with the symbols for Taurus and Libra, encompassing sacrifice, the seeds of growth, balance of body and spirit; equilibrium and possibility. If Spike is going to stand in the light, the demon's got to go. And if it can’t, literally, we’ll purge it in this slightly messier, more abstract, but highly spectacular way. His decision is made. He’s chosen.

When The First Evil bleeds out this anomalous, most romanticized, pathetic excuse for a demon, something terrible crawls out of the ground, like the humors draining out of Spike are congealing into pure symbol-forms. The First calls this "a real vampire," we only meet it for a moment, a full-body makeup nosferatu-beast clawing it's way from the world-grave. And this is not our sophisticated romantic vampire men, dark mirror of human passions and all that, but a primal blood-eating non-human Thing. The thing that rises is feral beyond even the Van-Tal form vampires take in the Pylean dimension over on Angel. There is no forbidden fantasy lover mixed in there, no bloodsucking stand-in for the patriarchy or aristocracy, no subversive parallel to Christianity. Just the Vampire stripped of all metaphor. What emerges from the hole is a concept. It is the idea of a monster itself. Forces you can’t begin to imagine, little girl. If it gets free, someone’s gonna die.

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Special Thanks to BuffyWorld for sharing their first-class collection of BtVS and Angel resources with the world.
All screen caps courtesy of Buffyworld.

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