Friday, September 28, 2012

Xander: "You don't know how to kill this thing." Buffy: "I thought I might try violence.": Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 2 Episodes 12-22

Man, it's hard to cut Season 2 down. Now, here's a time for a confession: I love anything having to do with Giles, maybe because child-father figure stories usually get me. For comparison, anytime Clark Kent and Jonathan Kent get into a conversation about where Superman got his values, that's the sort of stuff that gets me all the time.

So, season 2 has some crucial plot and character arcs; and there are some excellent one-offs that I might want to include. Right now, my list of necessary episodes includes

  1. Surprise and Innocence (13 and 14)--all about Buffy and Angel
  2. Phases (15)--Oz goodness
  3. Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered (16)--a fun episode
  4. Passion (17)--Giles goodness
  5. Becoming, Part One and Two (21 and 22)
That brings the total episodes up to ...

(2: Season 1, Episodes 6 (The Pack) and 9 (Puppet Show)
12: Season 2, Episodes 3 (School Hard), 6 (Halloween), 9 and 10 (What's My Line, Part 1 and 2), 11 (Ted), 13 (Surprise), 14 (Innocence), 15 (Phases), 16 (Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered), 17 (Passion), 21 and 22 (Becoming, Part 1 and 2))

... 14 episodes total. I do like the one-offs "Bad Eggs" and "Go Fish" and even "I Only Have Eyes For You" (with a young John Hawkes!), but at 14 episodes, my playlist is beginning to show a little bloat. I think I'll keep "Ted" in the list rather than swap out one of the other one-offs because, if I'm prepping this list for my girlfriend, I think she'd like John Ritter.

Now here's my second confession of the day: I'm bored by the fight scenes in Buffy--they may be well choreographed but they don't always have much besides spectacle going for them. Rarely do they examine character or make jokes; mostly it's just "there's a blonde girl who vaguely looks like Buffy from far away doing some roundhouse kicks."

A final note: because the episodes are thematically organized, it may be easy to turn them into afterschool specials. For instance, "Go Fish" clearly contains a lesson about the dangers of steroids. Some of these little lessons may be past their sell-by-date for certain audiences. (If I was going to take steroids, it would've been during my illustrious fencing career in college. Though the idea of a steroidally-jacked fencer is sketch-comedy worthy.) It's still a good episode, but might cause a little eye-rolling as they hammer the lesson home.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Super Short Review: Headhunters (Hodejegerne) (2011)

An excellent Norwegian thriller, available on Netflix now. Occasionally slips into Grand Guignol territory with the bloodplay--dog attack, stabbing, shaving without cream. But mostly focuses on suspense and mystery and human motivation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Did anyone explain to you what 'secret identity' means?": Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 2 Episodes 1-11

Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more solid than Season One; and starts to lay down the serious relationship material that will be instrumental in twisting the knife in Season Three. So it seems harder to pass up some of these episodes, and I worry this playlist may end up pretty long.

One thing that you should start to notice when you're 24 episodes into 144 is how well-crafted the episodes are, how thematically focused they are. For instance, the Halloween episode is all about trying out different parts of your (forming) personality, and we see this idea across the major characters, both magically-induced and stress-induced: Buffy becomes regular (and helpless); Xander becomes tough; Willow--seeking invisibility--becomes hypervisible; Cordelia continues her growth into a helpful partner; while we also see a first glimpse of Giles's darker past--the part of his personality that he left behind.

Right now, my playlist for the second season is

  1. School Hard (3), which introduces Spike
  2. Halloween (6)
  3. What's My Line, Part 1 and 2 (9 and 10)
  4. Ted (11)

"Ted" might be controversial, but I think it's important to show a "monster of the week" episode and I think John Ritter really sells the 1950s psychokiller.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Enough with the hyperbole!": Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1

It's long been a dream of mine to come up with the perfect episode playlist for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the kind of limited list that you could give to someone if they asked you "Why do you love Buffy and what might convince me to love it, too?" To be honest, I think it would be impossible to make a list that would work completely for anyone--this list would have to be aimed carefully at the heart of the viewer. In other words, this is the type of quest best performed for a loved one who never got into Buffy but whose taste is generally a known quality, like my girlfriend.

So, I've been home sick this week with a minor fever that might warp my speaking ability but has left intact my Netflix-navigation acumen. So I rewatched the first, short season of Buffy, and here's my take:

The thirteen episodes of Buffy's first season set up the general dynamic for the long, three-season arc of Sunnydale High, including all the main characters--Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Jenny Calendar, Angel, Principal Snyder; and yet none of the episodes reaches the level of must-see. Almost anything you need to know about those characters, a dedicated viewer could sum up in a sentence or two, or maybe just a phrase: slayer with a ditzy side, male friend with unrequited crush, etc.

The only episodes that rise to the top for me are those non-vampire, weird episodes that make the metaphor of monstrous teenagerhood into something real, like "The Pack," which is all about cliquehood (and involves the authentically weird moment where the students eat the principal); or "The Puppet Show," which involves issues of being out of place and out of control.

"The Puppet Show" has one advantage in Principal Snyder's introductory line about how children are criminals and any attempt to deal with them as humans is just "the kind of wooly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten." This is an issue that comes up a lot in the series: the powerlessness and assumed criminality of the young.

Also, another issue that comes up frequently: Xander's clothes are so dated.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How does a book shape a country?; Or, Why can't you read?

This is late news, but then again, this is a semi-moribund blog, so it fits.

Starting in late June, the Library of Congress put on a display of Books That Shaped America, which is the kind of title that demands to be shouted from the rooftops. It's a collection of 88 books by American authors that "have had a profound effect on American life." 

There are numerous problems with a list like this. For instance, presentism: we read the development of America from a particular point in time, so certain things will seem more or less important now than they once were. 

Case in point: Moby Dick, which has been around for roughly 150 years but pretty much only read for 100. So if you organizing this exhibit in 1900 and wanted to include Moby Dick, there's a chance you would've been locked up as incurably crazy. It's true that it's shaped reading lists in schools for the past century, but how has that really shaped America? Here's a counterfactual thought experiment: Imagine a US where Moby Dick was never written--what's different from our world?

Case in point (2): I would've included some Jonathan Edwards, an important theologian, author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and intellectual forebear of the Great Awakening--even though he's not all that important to America today in a direct way.

Another problem--though it's probably a self-conscious strategy on the part of the LoC--is that the concept of "shaping" is inherently vague. So the exhibition can say that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was a best-seller (in England), but that's a far cry from saying that it started a tradition of American supernatural folk-tales or somehow shaped America in some way besides making money.

So the list has problems, sure, but it also has a built-in argument that these are some of the books that shaped America. This isn't an exclusive list; and it isn't even presenting itself as a list of the books that most shaped America. This is simply an exhibition to start a conversation. If you don't like this list, make up your own to add the books that you think should be added to this category.

That said, there's a lot of predictable boo-hooing about how mean this list is to religious-Americans or otherwise fails--complaints that tend to cast more light on the writer's ignorance or perversity than on the list's failure. 

For instance, professor of religion Stephen Prothero complains that there's not enough religion on the list; we could call this the "Where's the Bible?" problem, as I've seen that question asked around the internet in comments. Except the list is clearly restricted to American authors and people would know that if they bothered to read the info. Prothero knows this, but oddly calls the restriction "a technicality," making it sound as if it's a quibbling little detail instead of the organizing principle of the whole exhibit. He probably means that it's "arbitrary," which is fair, but then most organizing principles are. It's especially telling that his list (in a book you can buy now!) includes several non-book items, like a memorial, which shows how non-conventional his thinking is--or how he refuses to obey the rules of the game.

On the more materialistic end of the spectrum, Reason magazine blogger Tim Cavanaugh complains that there aren't enough best-sellers (because, for a Libertarian, the market is always right). I agree in parts with Cavanaugh's argument about presentism, though it pains me to be on the same side as someone who can't bother to look up how to spell Edgar Allan Poe's name. But Cavanaugh's organizing principle ("Who made the most money?") is so blinkered and narrow that it comes out self-parodizing: "to shape America" is the same thing for this crowd as "to make money." Cavanaugh's entry ends on the perfect note, with a complaint that the LoC has too many librarians. Because who needs librarians when you have best-seller lists?