Thursday, August 06, 2009

WATCHERS' COUNCIL: Rough Draft - The Original of Buffy

"The pattern of the thing precedes the thing."
-Vladimir Nabokov

Into the Alley

So this blonde girl walks into a dark alley...

That's how it starts, right? It always starts this way.

This girl walks into an alley, and a vampire appears. It menaces her, attacks. She kicks its ass. This blonde girl walks into a dark alley and that's the premise, the inspirational flash that spawns all incarnations and cross-media franchise that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yet somehow it never actually plays out that way. It is not how the TV series opens, nor the original film, nor Joss Whedon's shooting draft of the screenplay. They all begin with variants on the girl menaced, the alley, the monster, the switcheroo.

This girl would not even walk into an alley in the first place.

A mission statement is coded into this imagined scene, the conceptual spark that summarizes Joss Whedon's Buffy concept. The moment actually does play out roughly one hundred million times in the course of BtVS. Over and over, Buffy will combat monsters in dark alleys. Though this beat plays out in a hundred variations, we never hear the main theme. Each time through, we know the turnabout, know the reveal that Buffy is the Vampire Slayer. The dynamic only plays out with the surprise intact once: the first time one reads the title. Buffy... Buffy? THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Her pattern precedes her.

Arches symbolize the heavens, eternity. Windows= portals, passages. Grids= structure, order. Cheerleaders= hot.

The 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer has all but been receded into those infinitely deep filing cabinets at Wolfram & Hart; absorbed into the tissue of Buffyverse mythos like a vanishing twin, failed and dissolved before birth. Comparisons are bound to favor the experience of the series for dozens of reasons, central among them that only enthusiasts of the television series would make such a comparison in any detail. The lens is warped, and it is nigh impossible to watch the movie (hereafter Buffy the Vampire Slayer) without referencing the television version (hereafter Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no italics). As the BtVS fan is nearly universally in the thrall of the creator's cult of personality, the proceedings may be colored by the very public grumblings of creator and executive producer Joss Whedon.

In interview with IGN, Whedon explains: " was right around the time when Revenge of the Bimbos, or Attack of the Killer Bimbos or something – there were a lot of movies coming out that were proto-silly '50s style titles. They were on the video store shelves. I worked at a video store. I would watch them, and I'd be like, 'You know what? This is just another bimbo movie. These women aren't empowered at all. They just made up a funny title.'..." The specific film he is thinking of is probably Assault of the Killer Bimbos (1988), but video stores were awash with pseudo-(and-genuine)-Troma pictures like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988). The way Whedon tells it, the title plays out as a third-gen exploitation movie fan-artist's workbook exercise; like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse (2007), part of the goal is to deliver what other films promised but could/would not fulfill. In Buffy's case, actual empowered-girl turnabout. The title is a throwback —"proto-silly"? I suspect "pseudo-silly" is intended? — to pulp-tradition fantasy that reads as naive, kitschy or campy to modern audiences, regardless of the imagination or sophistication in the actual work.

Buffy aims to reconfigure a tradition that may or may not exist in reality. Conventional wisdom has it that women are persistently victimized in horror movies, that fictional monsters supernatural and human alike prey primarily on women, that the genre itself always sacrifices the blonde girl. It is not exactly true, as some more astute scholars like Carol J. Clover (Men, Women and Chainsaws) and Maitland McDonagh (Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds) have pointed out, horror cinema has a complicated attitude toward gender. But in plainspeak, no statistical studies exist to back up the anecdotal wisdom that female/ feminized victims are the victims of male monsters. It is just one of those things you Know To Be True, despite that Frankenstein's monster and Freddy Kreuger alike have studious interest in doing violence to men, and have been foiled by women who are not particularly masculinized. An equally convincing argument can be built that this most subversive genre has a rich tradition of female protagonists who escape and defeat the demons through specifically female virtues and strengths, a tradition too of the untamed feminine which survives pulsing through subterranean tunnels of folklore and pop culture.

Party Decorations: The Lite Ages

In any case, art and interpretation are not strictly a matter of statistic. These assumptions that an innate misogyny and single-minded viciousness toward women are universal in horror reveal a fairly naive reading of the function of horror genres. Horror's purpose is to horrify; to provide a frightening hyperbolic vision of the Way Things Are, the Way Things Might Be, our real world fears made metaphor, a bleak critique of our species' shortcomings. Thus, horror films from The Wolf Man (1941) to American Psycho (2000), whether as subtext or (with post-modern self-awareness) part of their agenda, examine the outer reaches of brutal male drives by depicting frightening appetites in extremis. If it is upsetting, it is supposed to be. Were it Whedon's project to undermine the gender politics of Gothic horror, we might rightfully ask if it is a useful, necessary or relevant goal. But that is not quite what the screenwriter is up to (thought for another day: a majority of scholarly work agrees that BtVS tends to reject and reenforce Gothic fiction tropes in equal measure).

All genre pieces are multi-genre pieces. It is foolish to insist (in example/strawman argument with which you may be familiar) that Alien is "not science-fiction but horror". It is, of course, science-fiction and horror. Specifically it's Ten Little Indians in the future on a spaceship with a creature-feature beast, and follows the same plot structure as a slasher picture. The relevant question is not "what genre is it 'really'?" but "to which familial genres does the film belong?" and "what cogent argument can be made when viewing the film as a member of a particular genre family?" BtVS, by Whedon's account above, was only partly designed to undermine various horror conventions and assumptions, but belongs to a small family of (supposedly) cheeky, campy post-modern satires of exploitation films. In effort to not simply turn horror tropes on their ear but provide correctives, BtVS inevitably spends more time being a superhero story than a horror story. It is partly a comic horror film, but more to the point, all incarnations of the "Buffy" mythos are superhero stories with Gothic trappings. Interesting, surely, and in this way — whether any embodiment of "Buffy" has adopted ideas from her sisters or not — part of yet another lineage: Doctor Strange (1963), Swamp Thing (1971), Marvel Comics' Werewolf by Night (1972) and Tomb of Dracula (1973), Jack Kirby's The Demon (1972), Blade (1973), Vampire Hunter D (1983), Todd McFarlane's Spawn (1992) all the way to Van Helsing (2004).

This extended sidetrack is relevant because we are at the sensitive spot of the "Buffy" concept's origin. Whedon's screenplay works with a rich stew of blended genres. When approaching and reworking the screenplay (variously in further drafts, preproduction, on the set or in post) Kuzui necessarily made decisions about the attitude and concerns of the piece; that is, with a concept working on so many levels, she had to choose which paths the film would hew to most closely. It is perfectly possible that BtVS could veer into the spirit of magical girl manga, or Elizabethan comedy or supernatural martial arts comedy. Those possibilities are all written into the screenplay, and should we forget the wide genre potentials built into the Buffyverse, Angel starts out as a vampiric noir detective yarn and evolves into Arthurian quest and high fantasy. Kuzui opts to cast BtVS as a very broad comic horror film, farcical cousin to An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Gremlins (1984). This is a perfectly noble tradition in itself and a valid choice, but not the only possibility provided by the script. More pointedly, it is not the direction Whedon would take when revising his concept for the television series.

Whedon has done a fair amount of public grousing about the realization of his screenplay by director Fran Rubel Kuzui. Any number of screenwriters could make similar complaints, of course, and may even release their unsullied screenplays for comparison, but few also have 240 hours of a fleshed-out personalized version of their vision to underline the point. The existence of an alternate take on the concept which — let us just say it — is richer, more ambitious, and frankly superior, tends to shift the authorship over to Whedon. It also puts the writer in position for constant questioning about what went wrong with the movie. The very question implies that Whedon's screenplay is wildly different, indeed better than, more than the film. A quick read confirms a less confused plot and more fully realized mythos were written than play out on screen. A closer study reveals the script is painted impasto-thick with theme and motif which have been excised from the film or survive only with a variation intact, a song with a chorus that arrives only once. These alterations, it must be said, do not serve to streamline the plot, strengthen the narrative backbone, or constrain the running time or budget. So the Whedon sympathizer is prone to speculate that Kuzui did not understand the story she was telling.

A running gag about the school dance's halfhearted environmental theme is entirely lacking in punchline ("What do we do with all these decorations?" "Throw them away!") and its link to Slayer-as-Savior/Protector in the larger scope. The Earth Day jokes in present day link to a Black Plague motif in the History of the Slayer flashback scenes — it's gone, so the link's gone, so the point is, well, it's gone. The relationship between villain and protagonist is muddled to the point of nonsense (more later). Another runner about a coveted yellow leather jacket misses its climax when Buffy is no longer interested in high fashion window shopping, but gazes with desire at a hardware store chainsaw display.

The screenplay begins with a carefully schematized comic action setpiece. In generically dirty Monty Python medieval times Italy, a knight errant enters an inn tended by a disinterested barmaid. A vampire attacks, the knight is helpless, but the barmaid leaps into action. There is a vital element in this sequence which bolsters the intent of the legendary Girl Walks Into an Alley scene: the knight. The clear-cut reversal is written into the scene, and the knight's comparative weakness is crucial in establishing an expectation to subvert. The finished film reworks the scene simply to establish a far-reaching lineage of Slayers, shows one in action, but does not set up the Slayer as a counter-tradition to male heroism. The film never offers a viable decoy male champion, thus cannot illustrate a reversal with any evidence but an imagined audience's presumed sexism. It does set up the Dark Ages Slayer in juxtaposition with Buffy, via sarcastic match cut between a triumpantly hoisted stake and a thrusting pom-pon — effective enough narrative shorthand. Though the shape of the story looks the same, the details pile up or don't pile up and deform the tale's purpose.

There is more to the Joss Whedon writing voice than grammatically inventive pithy teen slang, but that notorious sort of dialogue is, of course, a BtVS hallmark (the beloved "What's the sitch?" is one of the first lines). As with choice Whedon witticisms in Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000), Kuzui does not seem to comprehend the language layers built into the jokes, or at least doesn't choose takes in which her teen performers really nail the lines. This matters because besides stepping on the toes of comedy, it underlines that the actors have a nigh-impossible task. When granted creative control, Whedon's stories take their world, fantasy rules and characters seriously, providing the jokes a context that is, if not relentlessly sober, at least sincere. Kuzui vacillates between cartoonish comedy and action and comparatively overwrought Gothic horror and melodrama. Whedon's vision is an elegant blend of genres, Kuzui's is schizoid and tonally inconsistent.

In metaseries which retell roughly the same tale across multiple media (M*A*S*H to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Transformers), we often expect the major motion picture incarnation to represent the "ultimate" version of the story. The scale, budget, compacted running time, and inflated expectations of a movie lend themselves to a version playing out as pop myth writ large. In big screen scope, even intimate character stories like The X-Files, or sparely staged idea-dramas like Star Trek tend to inflate their scenarios into legends, characters into IconGods. We might expect Buffy the Vampire Slayer to play out as the concise, focused, distilled but grandest vision of Buffy Summers' story, and the TV show to be the more textured, detailed but smaller-scaled version. Instead the film is the miniature reenactment, the series the epic. The movie is a rinky-dink thumbnail sketch when compared even to the screenplay. The temptation to consider the film a rough draft for the TV show is too great...

The Chain, Take One

If this is a rough draft, then, we should be able to discern the outlines of the more developed product. The basics of Slayer mythos are here: the Chosen One, the Watcher, the vampires. The general shape of Buffy's arc is in place: resistance to the calling, initiation, lifestyle conflict, despair over choicelessness, the forging of choice in the face of bad faith, finally integration, paradigm busting. The Girl and the Slayer make peace.

The eye starts to rove... are embryonic versions of major BtVS character dynamics present, coiled and waiting to pop? Certainly the shifting father figure/codependent pal relationship between Buffy and Giles is established early in the Buffy/Merrick relationship. Everything being large-writ, designed for one-time use, Giles' stuffiness, British gentility and etc. etc. manifest as Merrick's complete disconnect from the modern world — he is immortal, his soul born repeatedly into new bodies but (plausibility iffy here) social skills never upgraded. Giles is Old World, but Merrick is Really Old World. This "immortal Watcher" device is a nascent version of the way the Council of Watchers stands in for patriarchal tradition in the series. Buffy constantly quarrels with Merrick, but the Giles and Council figures being rolled into one, she never really rebuffs him, never breaks ties as spectacularly as with the Council.

The series' full relationship with the film is complex. Mutant Enemy does not wipe the slate entirely, nor are they shy about making bold alterations. Certain elements work in the tightened elbow room of a feature film, and pushing back the heroine's age from senior to sophomore, jettisoning Buffy's caricatured L.A. socialite mom, and the Slayer's abdominal cramping vamp detection system (a wonderful, perfect, audacious touch) provide space for workable long-term replacements. Simultaneously retaining the Movie-Buffy in continuity allows Mutant Enemy to avoid pedantic restaging of the origin story, and to piggyback on the character arc experienced in the film. Movie-Buffy begins as a true Valley Girl stereotype, mired in privileged L.A. mall culture, at the top of the high school social food chain, and exceptionally mean, catty, shallow and stupid. Her dumbness and cruelty are gradually revealed as a sort of choice. Buffy does not need to be smart or empathetic and these qualities are not valued by her peer group. They won't get her anywhere, so she sees no need to develop them. Simply put, being forced into the position of protector of humanity forces Buffy to examine her own humanity. Though nowhere near as bright or perceptive, Buffy starts her arc in roughly the same place as Cordelia Chase (Cordy is shallow, Movie-Buffy is vapid), and is given a similar social clique/chorus of followers. As the television show is constructed, partially acknowledging that the film's events "happened," Mutant Enemy gets to have it both ways: Cordelia can play foil to Buffy, and Buffy can endure a steeper change in character for those who recall the film.

An Exchange of Butts.

Buffy's major internal conflict is rather solved in the finale, though not nearly as gloriously as on the series, where the battle between The Slayer and The Girl is a series of negotiations and metaphor-charged blowouts. Movie-Buffy does integrate headstrong Modern Gal-ness with the warrior tradition on her own terms, but as it is in shorthand, the transformation is neither so big nor so complex. In her final crisis, Movie-Buffy does arrive at the school dance both stag and attempting to ditch The Slayer: she shows up in a bosom-boosting white dress and sans weapons. Scruff-ball love interest Pike gives her the final nudge, accepting both Buffy and the Vampire Slayer — the boy arrives with a kiss and a bag of stakes. It's not so much that Buffy needs final a final seal of male approval so much as that she is encouraged by Pike's receptivity. This would not be a proper climax for the TV show, where Buffy has varied and complicated relationships with the men in her life, and the narrative space to explore them. Pike, in certain light, bundles Buffy's relationships with key series characters Spike, Xander, Riley, and parts of Angel and Giles into one figure, later exploded out into five men's arcs in full. All these fellows are/become comfortable with a woman fighting at their side, most of them to accept that she is stronger. This is not, of course, all they have to offer Buffy, but it is a vital function of Pike in the film. Pike stands in direct contrast to the rest of the boys and vampire-boys of his peer group who can only objectify the cheerleader.

Butt Exchange: Resolution.

The extremely game Luke Perry plays Pike with bad boy appeal — he's an unkempt slacker (Xander), on the fashion fringe and comfortable with a degree of camp in his DNA (Spike; the rest of the comic rough trade swagger is funneled into/out of Paul Reubens as the vampire Amilyn) and gives good mysterious brood while masking insecurities (Angel) — while also being knocked on his ass a dozen times. Had BtVS more bite (sshh) and Beverly Hills 90210 been a larger cultural force, Perry would deserve some kind of award for cheerfully subverting his own pouty teen hearthtrob image. The movie is not as toothsome, the actor not as funny, but for project selection Perry is rather besting the trick Johnny Depp did with Cry-Baby (1990). The screenwriter and Perry are thwarted, but the actor seems to grasp Whedon's intentions. In the vintage EPK preserved on the DVD, Perry gives the only remarkable soundbite, enthusing that his job in the film is to play damsel in distress. In the film's motivating joke, the reversal and demolition of horror tropes, Perry's assessment dead-on. Best gag example: while vamp fighting, Pike and Buffy end up rolling on the ground, stop, girl on top. Did he save her butt? Did she save his butt? "Well. There was sort of an exchange of butts," concedes Pike. He's got it. They've swapped. To this end, Perry plays Pike's coolness and slack-appeal as genuine and his respect for Buffy straight.

Giles would probably not throw a knife at Buffy's head this early in the relationship.

The film's notion that Slayer and Watcher are eternally reincarnated souls (obviously stricken from the TV record) does not seem to originate with Whedon, for the screenplay describes something aligned with television Buffyverse rules. It is problematic, for the Slayer remembers nothing but dream impressions of past lives, while the Watcher retains everything, self-awareness included. Some of Whedon's conflicts with Donald Sutherland revolve around the star rewriting his own dialogue at whim and in ways the writer believed made no sense. This element of the Watcher backstory is very likely a prime example. This inconsistency in logistics may be read another way. Hypothetically, were the Slayer reincarnated with full knowledge and ability, there would be no need for a Watcher. The film provides no origin myth for the Slayer, but the very inclusion of a male Watcher who wields authority over the Slayer implies that the Powers That Be of this world have rigged the game to keep the Slayer in check. Pity that Whedon cannot enjoy it, for Sutherland's performance as Merrick is the film's best. He makes the hoary wise man stuff natural, the fish out of water material funny. Like Perry, Sutherland has a finger on the pulse of his character, even if he found the mythology uninteresting.

She Kicks Its Ass

In the Universe's carnival, the squirrels wear tutus.

The grandest muddle of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is at the center of the plot, as globetrotting, centuries-old Vampire King Lothos arrives in L.A. to menace the latest Slayer. Kuzui's choice to have Kristy Swanson play all versions of the Slayer gives this element of the story a slight boost, lending the feeling that the whole cast is just reciting the latest verse of a song that never ends. Rutger Hauer looks puffed and tired in Halloween cape, costume jewelry and unflattering mustache, but acts at full bore, as if his dialogue about linked destinies, inexplicable violin playing, and one-sided romantic link to the Slayer make any damn kind of sense.


There will be exploration in the TV mythos of power dynamics which echo through the halls of eternity. But the film offers nothing so elegant as Spike's poetic episode-long monologue on the hunter-beast waltz in "Fool for Love" or Holland Manners' discourse with Angel on Existentialist ethics in an elevator in "Reprise". A best guess is that BtVS is shooting for something like this, and either Whedon aims too high or Kuzui too low. Lothos' forever-task being to confront, confound, and destroy the Slayer, he goes to enormous lengths to throw himself in Buffy's path. He works overtime to orchestrate their face to face meeting, preps to eat her, then changes his mind for no discernible reason. The excuse that "she's not ready" is intriguing, but goes nowhere. Lothos forestalls the conflict until later, again insists they are "joined" (even Buffy doesn't know what to make of this, and with grossed-out face: "Joined?")... and gives utterly baffling speeches in which he fights Buffy with a sword then announces "I could never hurt you... I'm gonna send you to the pits of Hell!" (... Joined?) Again, a guess. Has Lothos been killing Slayers so long that he simply feels obligated? Or gone mad and believes he is fulfilling a cosmic role? Or in communion with greater forces confirming this duty? No telling. Lothos lacks any apparent motivation beyond vaguely indicated pattern of repetition. Rather than potent subtext, this can only read as storytelling contrivance. Metafictionalists from Resnais to Antonioni to De Palma might make this a theme unto itself but... nah, it's just sloppy storytelling.

The Master, Angel and Spike X 2, First Pass. Includes bonus/confused multiple Christ symbols.

In the rearview, Lothos obviously contains the seeds of Season One villain The Master, a vampire cult leader who appears in prophecy and whose presence forces Buffy to fulfill her role in the same (see under: "Prophecy Girl", no less); The Master is locked beneath Sunnydale for a century, as if waiting to synch up with Buffy's stride. Their fates are bound like Lothos and Movie-Buffy's are implied to be "joined." Lothos appears in Buffy's dreams as potential lover. In the film's only eerie sequence, Buffy's vulnerable, nightgown'd dream self leans back in bed, not noticing that she is snuggling into the Vampire King's embrace. Lothos is, then, also proto-Angel, star-aligned lover (metaphorically on film, literally on TV) whose darkness gives Buffy a brutal push into the light and ultimately provides some strength and motivation in breaking the Slayer paradigm. We may see a pinch of Spike, too, in Lothos' otherwise nonsensical obsession with the linked fates of Slayer and Vampire. If Spike called it a dance, then Lothos plays the tune on his fiddle.

Amazon. Jungle. Keen fashion sense.

And there is a Buffy at the center of this whirl, golden, health-glowing Kristy Swanson. Gaspingly funny when deadpanning "What a homeless!" at her first glimpse of Merrick, and affecting when mourning her Watcher's death, Swanson makes a bold and vigorous Buffy. This is Movie-Buffy as written. Of all the inevitable comparisosn, Swanson to Sarah Michelle Gellar is the least fair. Swanson's Buffy has neither Gellar's wrenching vulnerability, petite frame, or sparkly, wiry verve, but she needs none of it: that's TV-Buffy. What Swanson does have is a completely different comic bounce, and in her few opportunities to plumb for tenderness and pathos, she wrings as much out of the scenes as is possible. Here is a genre satire about those blonde sexpots that walk into alleys and are punished for being blonde girls in alleys. The television series will rotate this concept in every possible direction, but for this straightforward inversion of tradition, Swanson is the more intuitively correct Buffy. Had the film gone for the mythic, fated tone of the screenplay — and even in its final, compromised state — Swanson's take makes perfect sense. Athletic, strong-boned, sexed-up and sweaty, she is a goddess-Buffy, idealized and ideal.

Once upon a time, a blonde girl walked into an alley... It always starts this way.


Volo said...

Although I've always avoided the movie, this is the first description or analysis that has ever tempted me to go watch it. DOn't know if I'll give in now, but thanks for the thought provoking article...

David Mello said...

I wrote my own column about the Buffy movie on my website at Your essay is more extensive about comparing the movie to what was to come years later. I concentrated on the public's response to the movie, and how it could be fodder for the late, lamented MST3K. You have some very good points about how we should recognize the original movie as the source of the TV show we know and love.

Unknown said...

Excellent article. I always wondered why Whedon left the film project. The muddled ad lib back story from Sutherland kind of stepped all over the mythology. I'll have what he's smoking. I don't know what stage the new BTVS film is but without Joss it's only purpose will be to illustrate the short-comings of Fran and Rebel Kuzai.

Fixerupper said...

It's worth watching the movie for comparison AND to see the best and longest vampire death ever...

Unknown said...

Interesting 'insider' info and meta on, well - everything. I've always loved the movie, and never understood why people hated it so. It came first, and gave us the *idea* that a cute, perky blonde could be the hero. It got refined on TV, but the germination process started with Ms. Swanson and Mr. Haur, and I, for one, enjoy every moment of it.

Alexandra said...

This essay is a thing of beauty.

I've said for years that Luke Perry is the only actor who realizes he's in a Joss Whedon production — nice to see I'm not the only one who thinks so. (It's all in the line delivery. The "I'm hungry." / "You're floating!" exchange could have played exactly the same on the show.)