Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tell Me a Story . . .

That's really where we began, isn't it? Well, life is sometimes wonderfully circular and last night we finished the official course by analyzing the Season Seven episode "Storyteller."

A summary of the episode can be found here.

Among the aspects of the story we discussed were - is Andrew's re-telling of the story a way of making himself a "Mary Sue" (or a "Garry Stu," in his case)? Isn't it a common human reaction to re-tool stories to suit ourselves? Brad Paisley seems to think so, since he's "So Much Cooler Online."

We agreed that stories are powerful learning tools and it's wise to approach such tools with caution and respect. After all, tell a kid often enough that "you're stupid, you're worthless, you're ugly" and sure enough, it comes to pass. Contrariwise (as Alice's Tweedledee might say), tell someone often enough that "you're clever, you're brave, you're pretty" and lo, it comes to be.
Seems Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young got it right.

While there's still much to discuss, our time has ended. But the blog will remain, and I'll check back from time to time.

The next class is already scheduled and you can register for it now - beat the holiday rush!

It'll meet Thursdays next semester, beginning on Feb. 7 and running until March 13. The time is still 6 - 8 p.m. We'll expand beyond Buffy into the worlds of Angel and Firefly to explore families - it's been said that blood is thicker than water. Does that mean that only biological families are our haven from the world? Depending on your family, that can be a great comfort or very depressing news. Or can we create our own families to protect and receive protection from?

Hmmm. What would Andrew say?

(Oh, the Alice reference earlier in the post: `Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, `if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.')

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"I Feel Like a Joan"

Okay, I'll admit - I feel a twinge of guilt, as the title of this post was also the title of quite a good paper at the Istanbul conference, but I'm going to ride the wave of my guilt.

Naturally, characters are created by authors. (By the way, are you following the writers' strike? You may want to check out this site. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog, already in progress . . .) To then have those characters question who they are provides a great way to delve into basic issues of identity, as well as providing some highly comic moments. This past week, we watched the Season Six episode "Tabula Rasa" (a summary can be found here) and boy! was there a lot to discuss in there, beginning with the doozy question - Who are we? Not just our names (very important to Whedon), but deep down, at the core - who are we?

Due to a spell going awry, our gang must craft their identities from scratch, figuring out not only who they are, but how they fit in with the others who are present. Some of these moments are delightfully funny - Spike and Giles constructing family bonds? Anya trapped in "cottontail hell"? And some of the moments are poignant - Buffy suddenly thinks being a "superhero" is cool, instead of a crushing burden. (Well, until she nearly gets her ribs kicked in.) Tara's realization that Willow is in too deep to see straight and that the only way to survive is to leave. The use of Michelle Branch's "Goodbye to You" to underscore the ways in which we are (sometimes) all alone - and the ways in which we will desperately clutch at something (or someone) to not feel that way.

Not to mention an actual "loan shark" and a debt measured in Siamese kittens - really, this episode has so many places to go.

The title "tabula rasa" means "blank slate." Willow recites that term several times during the casting of her spell. The idea goes back at least to Aristotle - although he wouldn't have used the Latin term, since he was Greek. Anyway . . . while Plato espoused the belief that a heavenly soul came down and animated the human body, Aristotle took the view that human were born empty and, as they gained experience and perception, their natures developed. John Locke comes into this discussion as well and social/behavioral scientists continue to debate the role of "nature vs. nurture" when it comes to the development of intelligence, personality, reaction to stress, etc. This link provides some useful information.

For our discussion, we ventured into the Uncharted Land of the Wallet (which borders the Dismal Swamp of the Unexplored Handbag). If you didn't know who you were - what could you construct from the items you carry with you? License, membership cards, pictures, credit cards, and so forth can only provide so many clues.

By the way, our gang is not suffering from amnesia nearly as much as a collective dissociative fugue state, which is a much scarier condition. Follow the link for some details.

As it typical of Whedon, at the end, a certain balance has been established, but all is definitely not well. Good may win, but this is a war with a body count. Giles has left for England, Tara has left Willow, Dawn feels abandoned, and Buffy - despite her friends' vows to spend more time with her; to ease her transition back into this world - is alone at the Bronze. Or maybe not so alone - Spike is there. And, at least for a moment or two, that'll do.

Next week is our last week (sob, rending of clothes, gnashing of teeth). We'll talk about what happens when stories get told; how they evolve with the telling. And with the "teller."

It's time to meet Andrew.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Strikes and Storytelling

Members of the Writers' Guild of America are currently on strike - the core issues revolve around royalty payments for new-ish and emerging technologies such as DVDs and Internet streaming. (Did you know that, on average, the writer gets four CENTS from the sale of a DVD? And the writer gets nuttin' for streaming broadcasts? Me neither.) Whedon is one of many, many writers on the picket lines and yesterday, he posted the following on whedonesque.com (which is NOT run by him, by the way - he just drops by from time to time) -

Reporters are funny people. At least, some of the New York Times reporters are. Their story on the strike was the most dispiriting and inaccurate that I read. But it also contained one of my favorite phrases of the month. “All the trappings of a union protest were there… …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.” Oh my God. Arty glasses and fancy scarves. That is so cute! My head is aflame with images of writers in ruffled collars, silk pantaloons and ribbons upon their buckled shoes. A towering powdered wig upon David Fury’s head [me again - this is the "Mustard Man" from OMWF"], and Drew Goddard in his yellow stockings (cross-gartered, needless to say). Such popinjays, we! The entire writers’ guild as Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Delicious. Except this is exactly the problem. The easiest tactic is for people to paint writers as namby pamby arty scarfy posers, because it’s what most people think even when we’re not striking. Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work. Work is a thing you physically labor at, or at the very least, hate. Art is fun. (And Hollywood writers are overpaid, scarf-wearing dainties.) It’s an easy argument to make. And a hard one to dispute. My son is almost five. He is just beginning to understand what I do as a concept. If I drove a construction crane he’d have understood it at birth. And he’d probably think I was King of all the Lands in my fine yellow crane. But writing – especially writing a movie or show, where people other than the writer are all saying things that they’re clearly (to an unschooled mind) making up right then – is something to get your head around. And as work? Well, in the first place, it IS fun. When it’s going well, it’s the most fun I can imagine having. (Tim Minear might dispute that.) And when it’s not going well, it’s often not going well in the company of a bunch of funny, thoughtful people. So how is that work? You got no muscles to show for it (yes, the brain is a muscle, but if you show it to people it’s usually because part of your skull has been torn off and that doesn’t impress the ladies – unless the ladies are ZOMBIES! Where did this paragraph go?) Writing is enjoyable and ephemeral. And it’s hard work. It’s always hard. Not just dealing with obtuse, intrusive studio execs, temperamental stars and family-prohibiting hours. Those are producer issues as much as anything else. Not just trying to get your first script sold, or seen, or finished, when nobody around believes you can/will/should… the ACT of writing is hard. When Buffy was flowing at its flowingest, David Greenwalt used to turn to me at some point during every torturous story-breaking session and say “Why is it still hard? When do we just get to be good at it?” I’ll only bore you with one theory: because every good story needs to be completely personal (so there are no guidelines) and completely universal (so it’s all been done). It’s just never simple. It’s necessary, though. We’re talking about story-telling, the most basic human need. Food? That’s an animal need. Shelter? That’s a luxury item that leads to social grouping, which leads directly to fancy scarves. But human awareness is all about story-telling. The selective narrative of your memory. The story of why the Sky Bully throws lightning at you. From the first, stories, even unspoken, separated us from the other, cooler beasts. And now we’re talking about the stories that define our nation’s popular culture – a huge part of its identity. These are the people that think those up. Working writers. “The trappings of a union protest…” You see how that works? Since we aren’t real workers, this isn’t a real union issue. (We’re just a guild!) And that’s where all my ‘what is a writer’ rambling becomes important. Because this IS a union issue, one that will affect not just artists but every member of a community that could find itself at the mercy of a machine that absolutely and unhesitatingly would dismantle every union, remove every benefit, turn every worker into a cowed wage-slave in the singular pursuit of profit. (There is a machine. Its program is ‘profit’. This is not a myth.) This is about a fair wage for our work. No different than any other union. The teamsters have recognized the importance of this strike, for which I’m deeply grateful. Hopefully the Times will too.

Storytelling as "the most basic human need." I like that.

So wear some arty glasses and a fancy scarf today. When people ask you about your look, tell 'em that storytelling is how we live and learn and progress as a society. And if doing that isn't work - well, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Give Me Something to Sing About!

Regarding musicals, Whedon has said many nice things. But this really stood out to me:

[My kids] don't watch TV and we only watch a few things selectively, and I tend to show them musicals first because I don't like to show them a lot of heavy cutting. I don't like to do that to their brains. I like "Mr. Rogers," I like long takes. Musicals are very peppy and they are very much about just showing you what's going on instead of the magic of cutting and cutting and cutting, so that they become confused, visually. So since I'm easing them into the whole concept of filmed entertainment, it's a good place to start. Besides, I get to watch them. [And Singin' in the Rain] is the best movie that has ever been and I have shown that to my kids, because it's "Singin' in the Rain." Every number is magical and every joke is actually funny and every bit works, so that makes sense.

Last night, we watched the musical extravaganza "Once More, with Feeling" and noticed several things. A quick recap:

1. No one lies when they sing, whether their feelings center on mustard stains or on deep fears of abandonment and loss. It seems the further we get from regular dialogue ("Hush" serving as another example); the closer we get to the truth.
2. Xander obviously never read the "Halloween Rules" handout or he would have known better than to wish upon an unknown talisman. Silly boy! But at least he got the 30s screwball comedy duet with Anya in return.
3. Whedon's musical lineage can be traced directly back to Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein, both of whom "revamped" (no, I won't apologize for the pun) the American musical. In fact, Whedon posted about his own "fan feelings" upon meeting Sondheim. (You need to scroll down a bit - Joss's tagline is purple.) He's clearly a big fan.
4. Good musicals contain songs that advance the plot, rather than bringing the action to a screeching halt so pretty girls can twirl about the stage.
5. Be very careful with resurrection spells - they are notorious for going wrong.

"Once More, with Feeling" is very popular among fans and I'm pleased that several of you expressed versions of, "I wasn't sure about this, but I'm glad I saw it." I've already discussed the stage show (that's now caught in a licensing dispute), but here are some other links you may enjoy exploring.

The lyrics. This site also has plot summaries and screen captures for each episode.

Notes on the DVD commentary. Here you'll find some interesting snippets on the creative process of putting together the songs, the dance sequences, and what Whedon thought worked and what he thought needed polishing.

How a chaplain uses BUFFY to relate to patients in the emergency room.

Next week, we'll look at identity. If you don't know who you are, how could you construct an identity for yourself? Take a look at the contents of your own purse, backpack, wallet, etc. - is that you? We'll get a look at these issues in "Tabula Rasa," which is the very next episode after "OMWF." We get bunnies AND kittens in this one!

Friday, November 2, 2007

That's Another Story

Whedon fans throughout the world rejoiced as they received a lovely goodie in their trick-or-treat bags on Halloween. After an absence of far too long, Joss Whedon is returning to television, perhaps as early as this spring (although I don't count on that - impending writers' strike). Interestingly, the lead actress in the new series will be Eliza Dushku, who famously portrayed the dark Slayer, Faith. Details are still somewhat sketchy, but the new series is titled Dollhouse and will be shown on Fox.

That alone was enough to make me wonder is Joss had leapt away from his good senses, then I remembered that he's not Southern and probably doesn't hold a grudge for seven generations as some do. Some of us are still upset over that "Recent Unpleasantness" that supposedly ended at Appomattox, so we're really not over the mistreatment of Firefly, which was only an eyeblink ago.

Anyway, the show looks interesting, at the very least. A little Stepford Wives, a little Dark Angel by way of Alias and a whole lotta Joss! However, knowing that he has a solid grounding in the classics and looking at that title, if there's a character named "Nora," keep your eye on her. And if there's one called "Hedda," it might be best to back away slowly.

(Yes, yes, I know Ibsen's masterwork is more usually translated as "A Doll's House," but allow me a little poetic license here, would you?)