Posts Tagged Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Wonder Woman – the Man who Can

MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.

Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”

Diana: “I am the man who can.”

NB What follows contains some spoilers…  Caveat lector.

gal gadot 2

It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful.  I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar.  But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.

And she did.

It’s not that she’s the first or the only.  She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies.  But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.

 

 

And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey.  The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really.  But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out.  There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength.  And there’s always and forever Buffy.

 

 

Wonder Woman is different.  First off, she’s a half-god.  Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.

 

 

The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.

wonder-woman-dceu-origin-story-amazons-themyscira-236572Of course all these women are beautiful.  But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent.  Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.

Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous.  That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere.  (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do.  The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)

She’s presented, in some ways, as naive.  That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira.  That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.

“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”

I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:

It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:

“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”

Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.

Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.

 without hope, without reward, without witness

What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira.  It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it.  But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.

Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?

 

I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War.  But I think actually that’s right.  The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be.  The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme).  So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself.  Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.

Interestingly,  whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice.  Murky, messy, or what…

We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this.  We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength.  But we can be inspired by her moral strength.  That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).

But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places.  That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.

And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons.  From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.

From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer.  Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up.  … Are you ready to be strong?

 

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/05/why-wonder-woman-is-a-masterpiece-of-subversive-feminism

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/04/wonder-woman-review-gloriously-badass-breath-fresh-air-gal-gadot

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Buffy – 20th anniversary (Guest post from Arthur Annabel)

 

Last weekend Buffy the Vampire Slayer got more attention online than I can ever remember. It’s the 20th anniversary of the show’s first air date and my week was emphatically improved by reading so many love letters to a show that means everything to me. Seeing article after article from authors who adored the show and revelling in the fact that quite often it was something entirely different that drew them to it has inevitably led me to start yet another binge watching session. These articles have done better justice to the cultural importance of the show than I could, so I’ll focus on the personal instead.

I’ve tried to write about Buffy many times. I usually end up losing myself in the rabbit hole of how to explain why this show matters without feeling like I’m straying a long way off of the reservation. How do I write about a show like Buffy without losing my flimsy grip on objectivity? For as long as I’ve been obsessing over essentially unanswerable questions, two of my old favourites to return to are these: Can a TV show/film/song change your life? And if so, could it ever be argued it saved it?

Even with an honorary PhD in hyperbole and a tendency to overthink things, the question of where to draw the line on the influence of media on a (my) life has always fascinated me above and beyond any other.

There are individual films that make a strong argument that it can happen but it’s the form as a whole that I struggle to imagine life without. When I look at music there are stronger arguments for life changing interventions, with Frank Turner responsible for getting me through more days than most, but that’s a separate argument for another blog. I also owe more of my degree from De Montfort University to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” than I’m entirely comfortable with.

TV has offered me plenty of great options and probably consumed more of my time than either of the two former media. However while I frequently crumble into a bumbling mess when asked what my favourite band or film is, if the same question is posed about television there’s only one answer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Reading a lot of the responses to the anniversary I’ve been struck by a whole bunch of thoughts.

Many describe the show as a feminist awakening for them. That’d be a stretch for me, but it was certainly an essential part of my education. A strong woman kicking every arse that had the temerity to do anything other than respect her was perhaps less revelatory to me than some simply because I had the utterly blind luck to be raised in a household where strength and influence weren’t framed by gender. My mum was always the primary bread winner, my go to guide for how to face the world and as I grew up a continuous reminder of how utterly fucked so many of the default structures of our society are. My dad might argue over whether he is a feminist (mostly because he’s never been presented with a claim he won’t try and dispute for the sheer joy he experiences from being on the opposite side of an argument) but I learnt from him how to be a man utterly un-reliant on outdated stereotypes. I was introduced to the show by them both and we still regularly end up talking about it. In honour of the anniversary we watched “Once More With Feeling” together.

Buffy may not have taught me something entirely new but it delivered the most emphatic argument for my budding and formative world view I could have hoped for. The central female characters were my heroes (and, let’s be honest, crushes) for what they represented. Buffy and her vulnerable strength. Willow and her genius. Joyce and her compassion and aspiration. Faith’s ferocity and self-reliance. Cordelia’s willingness to fight the entire world if it got in her way. Anya’s ability to embrace the changes in her life.  Tara’s integrity. And as crazy as she was, even Drusilla had two of the most powerful characters in the show wrapped around her little finger most of the time.

This was the company I spent my teenage years with and one of the main reasons I tried my best to surround myself with female friends. I’d already been insanely lucky with the circle of friends I had, but the idea of forming my own wonderfully diverse Scooby gang was inevitably part of my thinking as I went through my A-Levels and tried to work out what on earth I was doing with my life.

In amongst the multitude of angry male leads (and for balance I loved 24 far more than my lefty politics should have let me) not just Buffy herself, but the entire cast provided expression for dozens of different concepts of strength, whether it was individual or collective, selfish or selfless, calm or angry.

Staring out at the world with perhaps even more uncertainty than the average teenager, I was constantly aware of one of the abiding messages of BTVS: the family you choose is as important as the one you’re born with. So I surrounded myself with the best and the brightest, the kindest and the most fascinating people I could, both during 6th form and Uni. It’s not an overstatement to say I owe an awful lot of my happiest memories from that time to the influence of Buffy and Joss.

I don’t know if I’d have believed that a constantly awkward and self-doubt filled teenager could befriend the kind of people I did without having grown up on a diet of Buffy.

And I don’t know if I’d have made it through the days when that support network couldn’t offset my depression anymore without a few key moments that kept echoing around in my head long after most rational arguments had retreated in the face of the stubborn self-destructiveness that defines those utterly bleak days.

Buffy was a show that managed to combine wit, drama and a hefty emotional punch, always reluctant to sacrifice any of the above to the other. Its most heartbreaking episodes have some great one liners (other than “The Body” in season 5 which is an exquisite exploration of grief and you should never watch it expecting anything other than a rush in demand for tissues). It did a better job of capturing the joys, traumas and uncertainties of being a teenager and trying to become an adult better than most “grounded” dramas I’d seen. It is also a show that revels in language to a degree few other shows manage, no small factor in my enduring love for it.

It was a show about defiance. About accepting who you are and fighting every single day to try and make the world a little bit better. It’s a twin message I frequently fall short of both halves of but keep coming back to. On shitty nights when I’m starting to wallow in my self-pity I can escape into an episode that never shames a character for feeling lost but reminds you of how essential it is that they fight. On good nights where I want that elusive boost to keep me going there are episodes to fire me up with righteous passion that the world can be better if you have the will to fight for it.

It’s been difficult to write this piece without throwing out too many spoilers, but it’s a challenge that is now two decades old. How do you get reluctant audiences past a silly sounding name and concept without giving the game away? How do you hint at how much this show can mean without taking the joy out of its highs and stings out of its lows? I might write a separate, spoiler heavy, piece soon about my favourite moments from the series, but for now I’ll draw to a close.

I was always going to want to finish this post with a quote from the show. There’s plenty to choose from, but there was one that maybe comes closest to providing an answer to the question I posed earlier: Can a TV show save your life?

It would be a stretch to say Buffy saved my life, but not a sizable one. Without the constant reminder of what I could be, of what the fight can be worth or of why fighting for lost causes is worth more than fighting for a thousand sure things, I can’t guarantee I’d be sitting here writing this.

Of all the quotes I could have chosen, all the words Joss put on scripts that shaped the majority of my life, there is one line I keep coming back to. A line that has echoed around my head in the darkest of hours and fired me up in those all too rare moments of defiance, a line that to a neutral observer I suspect might seem lightweight and innocuous.

It’s not possible to give the full context for the line without straying into spoilers, but I’ll frame it as well as I can. Faced with moving on from an almost unbearable sacrifice by a loved one, they reflect on the final words of the fallen. It’s a line I return to over and over again. A line that I rely on to remind myself that no matter how dark it gets there is always hope, so long as you accept that everything in this life that is worth having is worth fighting for. A sentiment that has become even more relevant in the face of recent political developments. A line that works whether I’m just barely holding on or facing a day head on. In good times and bad, Buffy has been there for me and I suspect it still will be when the 40th anniversary rolls around.

“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

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A slight apocalypse

buffy

Buffy is 20 years old today.  That is, for those to whom those words are meaningless (where have you been??  what is wrong with you??), it is now twenty years since the first episode of TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was broadcast.

Twenty years ago I was far too old for a show with a daft name like that.  So I caught it more or less accidentally, and realised that the daft name belied a drama with depth, intelligence, wit and invention.  A few years back, pondering more generally on why I care about fantasy as a genre, I wrote this about Buffy:

It all goes back to Buffy.  Not, for me,  to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror.   Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King.    Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that.  The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline.    Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake.   For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.

I quote Buffy all the time.  In daily life, and in this blog.  When I write about death, and how we deal with it, I go back again and again to this:

Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):

“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.” (‘The Body’, season 5)

And there are other moments that come back to me, inspire me.

There’s a cracking body-swap episode where Buffy and Faith swap places.  Faith, as Buffy, begins by mocking what she sees as Buffy’s humourless puritanism, practising in front of the mirror saying ‘Because it’s wrong’, po-facedly. And then later, confronted with the reality of evil, and knowing that she could walk away, instead asserts that she will stop that evil from killing its intended victims, ‘Because it’s wrong’.

And then there’s the finale.

MONTAGE

EXT. BASEBALL DIAMOND – DAY
A young woman stands at the plate staring at the pitcher, waiting to bat. She looks a little nervous.
BUFFY (V.O.)
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer…
INT. HIGH SCHOOL HALLWAY – DAY
A young woman breathes heavily as she leans on her locker for support.
will be a slayer.
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
A young woman is lying across the floor, having fallen out of her chair.
Every girl who could have the power…
INT. DINING ROOM – DAY
In a Japanese-style dining room, a young woman stands up at family dinner.
will have the power… can stand up,
INT. BASEMENT – DAY
A young woman grabs the wrist of a man who’s trying to slap her face, preventing him.
will stand up.
EXT. BASEBALL DIAMOND – DAY
The girl at the plate changes from nervous to confident, smiling as she waits for the pitch.
Slayers… every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

That montage was really important to me.  I wrote this, a couple of years back:

That bit where the potentials become actuals – that beautiful sequence of young women taking that power on, without understanding it but knowing that its theirs, and standing up, literally or figuratively… Lord, that moves me so much, I can’t even speak about it without choking up. Over the last, very tough, year, it has played in my head at so many moments when I’ve felt powerless and defeated, and made me stand up straighter too.

Buffy fans will argue endlessly about which episode or which series is best, or worst.  Each series has its advocates, even if there’s a pretty powerful consensus about episodes (‘Beer Bad’ is unlikely to feature as anyone’s favourite, though I could be proved wrong…) – any ‘best of’ list would have to include ‘The Body’, cited above.  And ‘Hush’, and ‘Once More with Feeling’.  And those three episodes illustrate the sheer variety of the series.

The first is a viscerally powerful portrayal of death and grief.   It nods briefly to the vampire slayer role but fundamentally it’s about humanity, and mortality.  It’s known as ‘the one without music’. ‘Once More with Feeling’ is of course the one with music, and ‘Hush’ is the one without dialogue (virtually).  In ‘The Body’ the ‘big bad’ is death itself.  In ‘Once More…’ and ‘Hush’ both the compulsion to sing and dance, and the inability to speak, are demonic, but their outworkings emphasise humanity – our failure to communicate, the way in which our fear of losing those we love leads us to hide part of ourselves from them.

And whilst Series 7 is not many people’s favourite, I think that one of the reasons why it stays with me, has become part of me, that it allows us to see these characters that we’ve followed through multiple apocalypses, many of whom we love,  so damaged and scarred.   Not bouncing back with a merry quip, not any more.   We used to mock so many TV series in the 70s in which, whatever happened in the episode, whatever traumas, terrors, dangers and disasters were visited upon the characters, at the end they got to go home and have tea, and have a bit of a chuckle.  Buffy never did that – if there was a gag at the end it was tightly tied in with the preceding narrative, and had a bit of a kick to it, or a poignancy that stopped it being trite.  But here over a whole series (and going back to S6) we see these battered veterans, hanging on as best they can to their loyalties and loves and to whatever humour they can find, but unable to be what they were, carrying the weight of so many losses.  It’s right we left them there, but I’m glad we got to go that far.

There are so many aspects to Buffy that I haven’t even touched upon.  Cos what I really want to do right now is to dust down those DVDs and go back to Series 1, Episode 1.  Back to the Hellmouth.

Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen.

 

Lucy Mangan’s Guardian tribute

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Everyone suddenly burst out singing

A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’.  As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.

I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies.  But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing.  And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.

Obviously there are variations on the genre.  To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song.  In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs.  In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra).  In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.

So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.

Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think.  The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic).  But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.

From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft.  Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time?  But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget.  The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer.  He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.

astaire_rogers_cheek_to_cheek

There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.

There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific.  1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.

south-pacific

There’s the beautiful Bali Hai, the exuberant ‘I’m gonna wash that man…’, and one song  that I quote regularly:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

west-side-story

Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever.  Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction.  The tunes, the moves, the words.

DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!

Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!

ACTION
I’m disturbed!

JETS
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.

DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.

ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.

If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.

 

An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide.  It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot.  Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members.  This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.

And so to La La Land.

lalaland

The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film.  But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references).  The director has said that he wants to  “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”

The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:

Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene

A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.

Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works.  Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)

What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows?  I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage.  Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’.  The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.

The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power.  We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this.   Which is why we need it.

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath.  He walks and halts to his song.  Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can.  The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos.  Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace.  But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.  There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread.  Or the song of Orpheus.  …  One launches forth, hazards an improvisation.  But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.

(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari –  A Thousand Plateaus)

 

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times.  But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.

We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear.  That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman.   What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations.  If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too.  That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.

It’s not enough, but it’s vital.  Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)

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Death and the Doctor

Previously published on the Doctor Who Forum – contains spoilers for Series 8

 

Sometimes everything you read or watch seems to have a connection, a theme that’s so clear it feels as though it cannot be mere coincidence, even though it is impossible for it to be otherwise. It’s been that way lately with death. Obviously once one heads into middle age and beyond, intimations of mortality come thick and fast. But it really isn’t just that.

The theme that has been so inescapable over recent weeks is not just mortality in general. It’s the blurring of the boundaries between death and life, about attempts to make the barrier between the two permeable. I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Revival, about which I can say little without risking spoilers, but which, suffice it to say, explores this theme in compelling and haunting fashion. And then there was Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary thriller, The Pierced Heart, after previous works drawing on, variously, Austen, Dickens and the Shelleys, this time turning to Stoker and the Dracula mythos, subverting the genre tropes without losing the chills. So when I picked up Peter Carey’s Bliss, and read the first sentence: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him’, I was tempted to say, enough already with the whole thing.

Especially as this season of Doctor Who has had such a preoccupation with death. Death and regeneration/rebirth, death and afterlife. These themes have percolated through the episodes, with varying degrees of intensity, culminating in the series finale, whose first part saw the highly disturbing notion that the dead maintain consciousness, aware of what is happening to their mortal remains, and that the message they want to convey to us, the living, is ‘Don’t cremate me!’.   Of course, this was a con, but it was unsettling, to say the least, and the thought, once planted, may prove difficult to uproot. Part two showed us mortuaries and graveyards giving up their dead, now encased in cyberman armour and awaiting orders to destroy and/or assimilate the living.

Not only this, but the finale presented us with the deaths of Danny, Osgood and Kate, to name only those who have had the chance to embed themselves in the consciousness and affections of regular watchers of the show. (The body count in previous episodes has been high too, whether significantly higher than in previous series I will leave to other Whovians to assess.)

However for some, death proved to be less than permanent. Danny Pink reappeared as a semi-cyberman, retaining enough of his humanity to resist the orders of Missy and lead his cyber army to suicide rather than to victory. Is he now gone, for good?   Kate fell to earth but her dead father saved her. Osgood appears, as far as we know now, to be simply dead.

Sci fi and fantasy take liberties with the boundaries between life and death, on a regular basis. In The Walking Dead all who die, unless despatched in a particular way, will reawaken as zombies (walkers). The living are engaged in a constant battle against the dead.   French series The Returned gives us more mysterious revenants, seemingly unchanged from their living selves, and seemingly not out to harm the living (though we will see, in series 2, whether that is really the case).

In the context of Who, however, I’d suggest it’s more relevant to look at the way in which the Buffyverse handles death. Doctor Who Forum contributor JimTheFish has already noted the nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the finale: ‘And again with the Buffy maybe? Plucky lone girl surrounded by gravestones as creatures rise from the grave. Not to mention tear-jerking goodbyes with her now-undead boyfriend.’

buffymp_handsfromthegravecyberman

Clara rages about Danny’s death, that it should have been significant and instead it was mundane, ‘boring’:

It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus’

This had echoes too, of the death of Buffy’s mother – a prosaic tragedy without supernatural cause and, particularly, of Anya’s speech about it:

I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)

Osgood’s death, and Kate’s, whilst not mundane in terms of cause, are almost casual in presentation. No time for heroics, or farewell speeches. Joss Whedon killed Anya almost casually – she dies fighting the uber vampires, but blink and you’ll miss it, it’s not highlighted or dramatised. Death’s like that. Arbitrary, stupid, pointless.

Except that there’s another strand, of death as chosen, heroic, self-sacrificial. In Death in Heaven, Danny gets a crack at a less boring exit. He’s given the chance to choose death second time around (and to make a speech about it).

Attention! This is not a good day. This is Earth’s darkest hour. And look at you miserable lot. We are the fallen. But today, we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living. This is not the order of a general. Nor the whim of a lunatic…. This is a promise. The promise of a soldier. You will sleep safe tonight.

The speech may appear to be aimed at his cyber-comrades but clearly its real audience is Missy, the Doctor and above all Clara. It’s – perhaps deliberately – classic eve of battle rhetoric – think Idris Elba cancelling the apocalypse in Pacific Rim, or Leonidas sending his Spartans into battle.

We await the Christmas special to find out Danny will have a third go at some sort of life. I kind of hope not. Not that I begrudge Clara a chance to make a better job of loving him than she did first time around, or Danny himself a chance to redeem his past through living rather than dying. But where death is chosen, self-sacrificial, does its reversal squander the emotional weight of the sacrifice? Not necessarily – Buffy’s return in Season 6 was shown as something itself painful and traumatic, rather than just the cancellation of the pain and trauma of her death in the finale of Season 5. It can work, but Buffy, after all, whilst mortal, is kind of a super-hero, and they play by different rules. Danny, as far as we know, is just a bloke.

Kate’s rescue seems to me to make Osgood’s less likely. Along with so many viewers, I really wanted Osgood not to die, and there was much shouting at the screen when we realised what was afoot. But I’m not sure that I want another death to be overturned,

There are a number of issues here. The first is common to all long-running TV dramas – how to keep real suspense and tension when the audience knows that certain characters cannot be killed off.   When the Enterprise crew beams down onto a hostile planet, we know full well that it is the red shirts that will be zapped or otherwise despatched into oblivion, not the captain or any of his core crew. Occasionally that confidence is misplaced.   But mostly, if one of the core characters appears to be dead, we are pretty sure that some plot device is in motion to bring them back (see Spock, Tasha Yar, Buffy, Loki, the Master/Missy…). And of course the sci-fi/fantasy context means that a way can always be found, retro-engineered if need be into the cosmology of the show, to get around the problem of losing a character that is felt to be essential to its long-term success.

Not that the absence of timey-wimey or supernatural mechanisms prevents soap operas from playing fast and loose with death. News just in – Madge and Harold Bishop are back! Both of them have been previously killed off, but the writers are undeterred, it’s Neighbours 30th anniversary, and it wouldn’t be the same without them. And unless one has personally checked the corpse for vital signs and got a DNA match it would be unwise to believe in the demise of anyone on Hollyoaks.   It might seem odd to claim a greater degree of realism for a programme whose protagonist is a two-hearted time travelling alien than for the soaps. But far happier to suspend my disbelief with regard to Who, Buffy and other dramas which play havoc with the laws of physics but at their best offer us emotional truths.

Doctor Who has the particular challenge of its status as a family/children’s programme. It’s never been just a kids’ show and certainly with each regeneration it has retained the children who first watched it into their adulthood and parenthood whilst gathering in their children, and so on. It is still a show that the generations watch together, but the adults are there not just to comfort and reassure their frightened offspring but to enjoy it for themselves. But the presence of the children is a constraint which Buffy did not have to work within. That’s why the deaths, when they occur, are off-screen, or else clean – people are vapourised rather than eviscerated. We rightly shield younger viewers from the kind of gore that The Walking Dead so delights in. We can’t and shouldn’t however skate around the issue of death.

Of course children’s stories have always brought us face to face with death. My own and earlier generations wept for Bambi’s mother, as my children’s generation did for Simba’s father. In fact, the child heroes of many of the classics had misplaced one or both parents, even if the manner of their loss was not dwelt upon. The generations contemporary with Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lucy M Montgomery and their ilk were familiar with death, after all, with child mortality and perinatal maternal mortality at levels unimaginable to us today, at least here in the First World. Stories give us ways of understanding, of dealing with, the stuff that happens to us, and the best ones don’t just sugar the pill, cosying everything up, with rainbow bridges and happy ever afters, but acknowledge mortality in all its cruelty, that it takes whoever it wishes, pets, parents, friends.

I have no problem therefore with death – real, permanent, boring, pointless death – being part of the drama of Who, nor yet with the freedom that sci-fi/fantasy allows to take some of the sting of death away. But for the reversals to have any dramatic or emotional weight, we need there to be the possibility that this time it’s for keeps, that the danger is real, that we may lose someone we care for and that others we care for may be plunged into terrible grief.

We will not know until the Christmas special – if then – whether Danny Pink will return. We’ve been given the nod that things can’t be left as they were at the end of Death in Heaven. Quite right – that was bleak. Too bleak for the kids, too bleak for me. But I hope that there will be a different way of making things better, so that we can leave the Doctor and Clara in a more hopeful place, without simply erasing the loss and hurt that they’ve been through.

After all, what have we learned this series? OK, that there’s no such thing as an arboreal coincidence, which may or may not ever be a particularly handy bit of info. More importantly, we’ve learned that ‘stories can make us fly’. And we’ve learned about our ordinary human superpowers, not just the power to forget, but the most important one, fear. And all of the things that we fear come back to this – our own extinction, or the extinction of the people we love.

Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger. … if you’re very wise and very strong fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed or in the dark so long as you know it’s okay to be afraid of it. So listen. If you listen to anything else, listen to this. You’re always gonna be afraid even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion, a constant companion, always there. But that’s okay because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m gonna leave you something just so you’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.

 

 

 

Peter Carey – Bliss (Faber & Faber, 1981)

Stephen King – Revival (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)

Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart (NY: Delacorte Press, 2014)

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In the midst of life, we are in death, etc…

…. and nowhere more so than in the haunting (in so many ways) French drama The Returned which recently left viewers on tenterhooks (or alternatively furious and vowing never to darken its doors again) with a final episode that left more questions than answers, and a long wait for series 2.

The dead return, apparently unchanged (at least initially), and unaware of their deadness.  Camille walks through her front door as if nothing untoward had happened (she’d died in a coach accident a couple of years previously), demanding food and  complaining bitterly that her room has been rearranged.  There’s no overt horror in her re-appearance, which allows a much more subtle take on its effects upon her family.  The pattern is repeated elsewhere as the newly undead attempt to find their old lives and slip back into them, only to be confronted by the fact that other lives have moved on in the meantime.

Where do these revenants fit in, in the literature and mythology of the undead?   They are not ghosts, which tend to be seen only fitfully and not by all, and to have no physical substance – Camille and her fellow returners are absolutely here, physically, ravenously hungry and startlingly randy too.  Ghosts often have a purpose too – like Banquo they are here to shake their gory locks at those responsible for their untimely demise, or to seek a way of resolving their unfinished business in this world – but if these have a purpose it’s not clear what it might be – at least not yet. They are not zombies, whose physical substance has been reactivated without the personality, the mind, the soul (if you will) that previously accompanied it –  an ex-person, reduced to a body and a hunger – these returners know who they were, who they loved, and have the full range of human thought and emotion.

Dramatically, there is much that recalls those stories of individuals believed to be dead, and reappearing unexpectedly to cause consternation and conflict as they try to reclaim their lives (Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Martin Guerre, Rebecca West‘s Return of the Soldier).   However, Rebecca West’s returning soldier and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are not instantly recognisable as the people they once were.  Chabert, who has clawed his way out of a mound of corpses, looks like what his former wife would wish to believe he was, a madman and an imposter.  Those who made their way home across Europe, as he did, over a century later, were often changed beyond recognition too, their health (mental and physical) permanently damaged, skeletal and haunted both by what they had witnessed and by their own survival.  The return of the deportees was a ‘retour a la vie’, and some at least, with care and medical treatment, did begin again to resemble their previous selves.   Like Dickens’ Dr Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after years of incarceration, and gradually establishing a fragile hold on life again.

In The Returned, Camille’s father says to his estranged wife Claire that ‘you prayed for this’ – it’s an accusation rather than a statement, even though in his own way he too had sought a continuing connection with the daughter he’d lost.  That reminded me of the episode of Buffy (‘Forever’, Season 5), where Dawn attempts to use witchcraft to bring back her mother, realising as she hears the footsteps approach the door that what has come back will not be the person she is grieving for.  She breaks the spell, just in time.  This thread is picked up in the following season as Buffy herself crosses back over that threshold between death and life, and feels that she isn’t quite as she was, that she has ‘come back wrong’.

Stephen King explored this too, in Pet Sematary, where the knowledge that one could bring back the deceased is too powerful for the protagonist to resist, even having tested the water, as it were, with a cat (who most decidedly isn’t the creature it was before)

and in the madness of terrible loss and grief does not turn back as Dawn did from bringing back his lost son.   The returned in King’s narrative look and sound almost like themselves.  Almost.  They know stuff though, that they should not know, and they are malign, clearly demonic.  Some of The Returned’s revenants seem to know stuff in the same way and to be able to use their knowledge to challenge or goad the living.  But whether they are on the side of the angels I would not want to say.  Ask me in a year or so, when I’ve seen Season 2.

The Returned‘s revenants were not (despite Claire’s prayers) brought back by the living, they appear to have simply returned.  But throughout literature the appearance of the dead amongst the living has always been associated with a threat – with the terror or destruction of the living, or with the exposure of past crimes and injustices.  Or, at the very least, the confrontation of the living with the trauma of death, in the person of those who have inhabited the liminal space between death and life. Thus neither the unexpectedly alive nor the undead can simply be reintegrated into society, even if the living can accept them.  They haunt us, and are themselves haunted,

What these various narratives address is the sense of unfinished business that is inevitably part of bereavement, and the notion that death is a threshold that might, just, be permeable.  There’s a moment in an otherwise entirely negligible children’s film, Caspar the Friendly Ghost (yes, I know, bear with me) where the dead mother entreats her husband and daughter: ‘I know you have been searching for me, but there’s something you must understand. You and Kat loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business, please don’t let me be yours.’  That one line justifies the existence of the film, for me.  Because so many of these narratives are really about how impossible it is for the living to deal with death.

Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):

I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)

So the unfinished business is not theirs, but ours.  And they come back, in dreams, but we know that their presence is not quite right, that time is out of joint if they are here.  I’ve dreamed so often that my mother is alive.  But never without that sense of unease, which could not be further from the feeling that I associate with her, of warmth and comfort and of being loved.  She has gone, and we haven’t got over it, and we won’t, but we know it is real.

Still, that boundary, that threshold, is always disturbingly present, just on the edge of our field of vision, and so we will continue to be fascinated by the notion that sometimes they do come back, and how that might be, even if it is and will always be the stuff of nightmares.

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In defence of the undead

In response to Stuart Heritage’s article in this week’s Guardian Guide, I  have no intention of defending the indefensible (i.e. Twilight).   And I haven’t yet seen the first episodes of the new series of True Blood, The Walking Dead, or Being Human – Heritage may, for all I know, be right that all of these have exhausted whatever value they had.   However …  I do rather mind being stereotyped by my love of these shows.   For the record, I do occasionally wear a black t-shirt, but I do not practice witchcraft, do not have either a cat or a Tumblr site (que?) and if I did I would neither dress one as a butler nor call the other Elysian Moonquaver.  And I do not accept that I have to choose between dressed up cats and Robert Pattinson or forswearing the whole genre.

I fully intend to continue to despise the wretched Twilight and to regard Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the absolute high points of television drama, and to love True Blood (madly over the top, and, yes, featuring some rather fetching topless men), and the Brit equivalents,  Being Human (can it survive the departures of Mitchell, George and Nina?), Misfits (can it continue, after that frankly rather gobsmacking final episode?), The Fades (will there be another series?).

It all goes back to Buffy.  Not, for me,  to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror.   Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King.    Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that.  The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline.    Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake.   For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.

I am, in general, less fond of zombies.   Vamps – in the worlds created by or inspired by Whedon – are conflicted, capable of both savagery and love, and so can be interesting.  Zombies per se are not.  As Heritage points out, they basically just shuffle around, slurp brains and shed body parts.   However, zombie drama is not fundamentally about zombies, it’s about surviving in an apocalyptic landscape, with a mindless and relentless threat always out there, and about how human beings act together and apart in the face of that.   It’s about the fragility of civilisation – it’s no accident that  The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later use the same opening dramatic device as Day of the Triffids, as our hero, waking in a hospital bed, is thrown into the midst of the post-apocalyptic chaos without any warning or preparation, and has to try to find allies, and figure out what it takes to survive.   The Walking Dead gets its scares from the zombies,  but its drama from the beleaguered human protagonists.  Buffy required us to learn the plural of apocalypse – she saved the world, a lot – but the zombie drama requires us to face the terror of a world where no one saved us.

Fundamentally, all of these dramas, like Stephen King’s novels,  deal with the sense that there is something bigger than the stuff of our everyday lives, and that people are making moral choices in the face of those bigger questions, about which side they’re on.  In other words, what it means to be human.  To quote the eleventh doctor, ‘Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is’.

Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen.  See http://slayageonline.com/ for academic takes on the Buffy/Whedonverse.

A very incomplete list of some of my favourite apocalypses not mentioned above: Stephen King – The Mist, Cormac McCarthy – The Road, John Wyndham –  The Chrysalids, Chris Marker – La Jetee, Barry Hines – Threads, P D James – Children of Men (and the rather different but also excellent film thereof), Liz Jensen – The Rapture

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