Sunday, December 10, 2017

Female Filmmakers Finding Their Voices

Every day it seems the government in Washington does something new that targets women, whether it is health care or birth control or Neil Gorsuch or a tax bill that skews very much against middle class households, many of which are headed by women. But in 2017, women have begun fighting back. Trump’s inauguration was greeted with nationwide marches protesting his election and political beliefs. Over the summer, Bill Cosby finally came to trial for one in a series of rapes he allegedly perpetrated, a trial that, though it resulted in a hung jury, has been scheduled for re-prosecution. And, most significant of all, the year’s fourth quarter saw the rise of the #MeToo movement and the subsequent outing of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Jeffrey Tambor, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Brett Ratner and many others, including several U.S. congressmen.

It is a rising tide of empowerment for women across the country, and it comes in a year that has also seen important films made by female directors like Katherine Bigelow, Patty Jenkins, Dee Rees, Sofia Coppola, Valerie Faris, Angela Robinson, and Greta Gerwig, whose “Ladybird” is in line for possible Oscar nods both for best film and best director.

Lain Kienzle, a young Brooklyn filmmaker, is seeking to ride this wave with a new short film called “The Mouse and the Lion,” a story set in 1920s Virginia and about a young woman who, after the death of her abusive husband, finds a stranger collapsed on her door step in the middle of a blizzard. As he regains his strength, their growing bond unearths secrets each would rather keep hidden.

“It’s about moving on after an abusive relationship, and reclaiming your identity and power as a woman,” Kienzle said. “It was a time of real upheaval in the world and in the US in particular. A lot of men had left to fight in the war, which was much more technologically advanced than any war previous. So a lot of the soldiers came home with what was named shell shock, but we now know as PTSD.

“And while the men were gone, women were taking on increased roles at home and professionally, so when the men came back, the women didn’t necessarily want to go back to how things were with a newfound taste of freedom.”

Kienzle feels that, despite what is happening in Washington, right now is a very important and positive time for women.

“I think this has been brewing for so long that it was kind of inevitable. I think women in general are exhausted. We’re all tired of being told to smile, or patted on the head and sent on our way. We’re tired of watching male director after male director allowed to make movies that bomb and still have lucrative careers. I think having an administration that clearly doesn’t support women, and watching a few brave women speak out about abusive industry titans in such an assertive way really opened the floodgates.”

I think having an administration that clearly doesn’t support women, and watching a few brave women speak out about abusive industry titans in such an assertive way really opened the floodgates. — Lain Kienzle
Being overlooked for being female was a significant part of Kienzle’s early career. After significant festival success even as a high school student in Lake Forest, Illinois, Kienzle moved on to study film and TV production at NYU, and has been working in the industry ever since graduation. She has worked in various capacities for several television programs including “Quantico” and “Blacklist,” as well as her current job, script supervisor.

Traditionally, that role has been largely filled by women. In old photos from Hollywood studios, there’s always one woman by the camera, and that’s the script supervisor. And that’s still very much the case. I don’t think I’ve worked on a single movie where the director, cinematographer or assistant director were women. So a lot of times, it’s these men standing in a circle, and I’m trying to interject from just outside the circle.
This, however, has not meant that all or even most directors have held her back.

A lot of directors love their script supervisors and really make them creative partners. And a lot of directors I’ve worked with do value what I do. A lot of actors immediately want to meet the script supervisor because that’s the crew member who’s going to save them in a lot of cases. So for me, it feels more like a way for women to really work their way into a position of power and get close to the action. That said, I’ve been told by men to “go back behind monitor where you belong” and “I’m a man and I know women do this action all the time, so that’s what the character’s going to do.
With her own film, Kienzle is tearing down those norms.

“The other thing that’s really important to me,” she said,” is that we’re not only empowering women narratively, but professionally. Our team is majority women, and we’re making it a point to hire a diverse and female heavy crew. We’d like to really put our money where our mouth is and support women and underserved communities of filmmakers in all aspects.”
Serving this underserved community and seeking to create more opportunities in the industry for creative women is precisely the goal of Cinefemme, an LA-based organization founded fifteen years ago and now headed by Michelle Kantor.

Members of Cinefemme: Jenny Payne, Michelle Kantor, Rory Gory, Lagueria Davis
“We are witnessing a galvanizing moment in history where for the first time, women's voices and stories are being heard and believed (and reported en masse by the press),” Kantor said, and that plays directly into the mission of Cinefemme, which was “founded on the belief that there is a much-needed shift that needs to occur in the hearts and minds of our global culture in challenging the socioeconomic systems that perpetually marginalize our voices within the mainstream by excluding women from directing jobs, having inherent bias in terms of investment, and not updating the Equal Pay Act to close the wage gap.”

Kantor’s co-founder of Cinefemme agrees that this is a key moment in history for women in general. Katrina Parks, whose films focus on women’s history, said, “I definitely feel like the election of arguably the most misogynist President has caused a lot of internal soul-searching, and that can be connected to activism. It feels good, but it’s important to ask ourselves as women how did this happen. Clearly a lot of women voted for Trump. So, what is it inside women that makes them reject other powerful women? And what of the women who support the patriarchy by not standing up and defending people when they should? We are getting to the point as women where we are going to reject that kind of self-sabotage that can play into things.”

I definitely feel like the election of arguably the most misogynist President has caused a lot of internal soul-searching, and that can be connected to activism. —Katrina Parks
At this moment especially, all of these women agree that it is critically important that women’s voices are heard and listened to. As the only non-profit on the West Coast that exclusively incubates and fiscally sponsors women's projects, Cinefemme occupies a very important niche in the movie-making industry. Kantor wants Hollywood to recognize that, by telling all of its stories through the lens of a man’s point of view, it is skewing the way our culture is seen.

Parks’ current documentary, The Women of the Mother Road, examines some of these missing stories, in this case the stories of the many diverse women whose lives were lived along and impacted by America’s Road, Rt. 66. “When we think of Rt. 66,” she said, “we typically think of Jack Kerouac or a man behind the wheel with a woman as a passenger, maybe with a bunch of kids in the back, so I wanted to expand that representation.” She found tales of archeologists, anthropologists, artists, waitresses, politicians, and many others, over 75 stories in all about women whose lives centered on Rt. 66, and it is those stories that are now being told.

“The female auteur has altogether been lost in the cinematic narrative,” Kantor said, “and we choose to instead revere alleged pedophiles like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I would rather put my dollars and attention on the overlooked and underserved artistic minority...which may in fact be a majority waiting to come out of the shadows.”

Organizations such as Cinefemme have to exist, and have to grow stronger, in order to correct a fundamental flaw in the system that stems from long-standing perceptions that are not, in fact, true. Jenna Payne, Cinefemme’s treasurer and program director, points out that new statistics show that, in almost every category, women auteurs have as great or greater returns on investment as compared to their male counterparts, yet the Powers That Be in Hollywood don’t seem to see these studies. “And it’s much worse for women of color,” she points out, which is why Cinefemme makes it a point to seek out a diverse group of women each year to sponsor.

One such woman is Kayden Phoenix, a young Latino filmmaker currently working on the creation of what she terms the world’s first Latina superhero,"Jalisco." Being young, and having what she calls “the luxury of having a unisex name,” Phoenix has not yet experienced noticeable discrimination because of her gender of which she is aware. “It might just be my being na├»ve,” she said, “but I don’t see myself as different than males.” Nonetheless, Phoenix celebrates the current feminist political climate. “I’m so happy males are being held accountable. It’s too bad the females that spoke out decades and years ago have been overlooked and shunned.”

Kantor pointed out that young male filmmakers have inherently come from a place of privilege, and are often the ones chosen to be mentored by established men in power who are inclined to bring up those who remind them of themselves. “I forget who said it, but the quote ‘Don't let the song within you die unsung’ springs to mind. We need to empower women to get their creative works into the cultural narrative. Until all women of talent and ambition, who may not necessarily have the privilege of inner connections or wealth, have a chance to see their dreams of being a director realized, then I won't stop working on this issue. We need these voices in our lives, we need these stories to be told, and we need women to do it. We are losing out on incredible creative works by not recognizing and funding the works of female artists.”

We need these voices in our lives, we need these stories to be told, and we need women to do it. We are losing out on incredible creative works by not recognizing and funding the works of female artists. ---Michelle Kantor
Payne notes that one of the most significant projects Cinefemme offers, Dinner With Dames, seeks to provide a solution to this issue. “The hot topic of diversity in film has many people pointing fingers without offering many practical solutions,” she said. “Cinefemme invites Hollywood to tackle the gender diversity issue by sitting down for dinner with up and coming female writers, directors, producers, and other skilled department heads.” The goal, of course, is to find a way of getting around the “old boys’ network” and level the playing field.

With women like Lain Kienzle, Katrina Parks, Kayden Phoenix, Michelle Kantor, whose documentary, Red Star—about her parents’ daring escape from Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia (her father scuba-dived across a river!)—is in the editing stages, and Jenna Payne, who is working on a short film fictionalizing the life of her moonshining great-grandfather, out there working on telling the stories they want to tell, it seems that the next generation of female filmmakers is well on the way. But Kantor knows it isn’t enough. As it is with all non-profits, funds are not easy to find, and Kantor is concerned about the effect the new tax bill might have. She has hope, through, that 2018 will bring with it an angel or two who will help her to sponsor far more than the 7-10 women at a time she can handle now.

“Our mission at Cinefemme is to get as many of these women telling the stories they want to tell in the mainstream, ultimately creating a mindset shift in our culture through empathy, and bring about greater equality for all of us. We do it by supporting each other, by challenging the narrative myth that there isn't enough, and by choosing inclusivity over elitism. When we are successful, we bring other women up with us, and we praise our male allies who wield their power for good. This is the road to success, for all women and men in society, and we will do it together. And we will all be better for it.”

To contribute to Cinefemme or to the individual works of the artists mentioned, go to the Cinefemme website. Lain Kienzle also has a current crowd-funding campaign.
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Monday, October 30, 2017

The Only Solution to a Trump/Russia Coup Is to Replay the 2016 Election

The following is never going to happen...but it should.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two news stories today. The first was the story of the indictment against Paul Manafort for what was termed a “conspiracy against the United States.” The second was a story that Donald Trump’s approval rating as President had dropped yet again, this time to 38%, a Nixonian level and an apt one: it was the nation’s 37th President who was the last one to conspire so brazenly for his own benefit against the greater good of the country. The difference between Trump and Nixon, though, is simple: while Nixon conspired against some of his fellow Americans, Trump conspired against all of us, if the allegations against Manafort and others yet to come are proved. It’s as simple and blunt as this: he committed treason, using a foreign power to steal the Presidency of the United States.

Richard Nixon was forced to resign his office in order to avoid impeachment for his crimes. As the nation’s reaction to his pardon by Gerald Ford showed, though, this did not seem quite enough to Americans at the time: we wanted him to pay even more dearly for despoiling the greatest office on earth. Ford’s pardon robbed us of our chance to see him on trial, to hear more of the truth, and Ford paid dearly for that, being denied an elected Presidency of his own.

What, then, would be the current outcome of this horrific mess, should it all play out as it well may, with indictments following indictments, with verdicts that prove that collusion with our enemy did in fact occur and that Trump’s campaign knew about it, with the possibility of an indictment against the President himself? We know our timid, self-aggrandizing Republican Congress, too happy with their current majority status, will do nothing about him, so that role goes to the courts, but what then? It would be an unprecedented situation in the history of this country: an election that was stolen by foreign conspiracy, by treason. There is, quite simply, no Constitutional remedy for it. Every single part of Trump’s White House is tainted by connection to him since none of them would be there had he not done what he did; thus, ordinary Constitutional law does not apply. This was, in all reality, a coup. It calls for something extra-Constitutional.

Proof of conspiracy would call not only for the removal of Donald Trump but the negation of the entire 2016 Presidential election. Period. There can be no halfway solution to this terrifying situation: if a person or party is allowed to steal an election and then be forced out of office, leaving his entire cabinet and platform intact, the coup still remains in effect. No: the situation is unprecedented. As in South Korea last year, when its president was indicted and forced out of office, a new election must take place as soon as possible. Until then, the result of 2016 must be negated completely. All Trump appointees must be removed from office, up to and including Justice Neil Gorsuch, as they are all, in legal terms, fruits of the poisoned tree. It all must be replayed.

Until it is, though, we will need a President. And the Constitution does come into play for that. Paul Ryan, as Speaker of the House, is next in line for the office after the White House is returned to mainstream America. A new election could likely be held within several months, and Ryan is certainly capable of holding things together for that amount of time without creating any new crisis. The election couldn’t be done in the same way we usually hold them, with endless primaries and conventions, etc. But why does it need to? Let it be done in the style other countries use: candidates can throw their names into the ring, have six weeks to campaign followed by a debate and an election, followed by a run-off between the top vote-getters. It’s not rocket science; we make it way too complicated (which is why we make it so expensive).

This solution may seem absurd. But once again I point out: a coup of the highest office of the United States of America may have occurred. If so, surely there is no potential solution that should be dismissed as absurd. And one that wipes out the coup entirely and then relies on the American democratic system to replace it, I would argue, is not absurd at all; it is elegant. Within months, we would be up and running again, all of this behind us except whatever trials remain.

Therefore, if the Russian conspiracy is proved, we must replay the 2016 election. It is the only reasonable action we can take. It is the only truly democratic and American action we can take.
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Thursday, September 28, 2017

How the Democrats Can Defeat Roy Moore: Run Luther Strange

Somewhere deep in the heart of Alabama there are voices being raised in shock and agony, echoing that of the Chicago Tribune’s Rex Huppke, who opined in his column that the victory of Roy Moore over Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP senatorial primary signified what happens when the “sane vs. crazy” elements of America face off in today’s political world: “the latter, in Alabama, prevailed.”

There is no doubt whatsoever that Roy Moore is what might generously be called a “loose cannon.” He is a man who believes that homosexuality should be against the law and that “Putin is right” with his opposition to gay marriage. He believes “it was the Providential hand of God” that put Trump in the White House. He believes there are communities in America today under Sharia law. (”Up in Illinois. Christian communities.”) He professes not even to know what DACA is. He believes 9/11 happened “maybe, just maybe, because we’ve distanced ourselves from the one that has it within his hands to heal this land” and we because upset God by “legitimizing” sodomy and abortion. And of course he famously joined with Trump in questioning Barack Obama’s American birth.

This is the man Alabamans would send to the Senate. As Huppke said, “When Alabama Republicans cast their ballots in the state's U.S. Senate primary Tuesday, a majority of them thought: ‘Yep. This conspiracy-theory-believing religious zealot who was twice suspended when he was chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is the best man to send to Washington!’”

And there are Democrats in Alabama suddenly thinking: hey! maybe this provides us with an opportunity to steal a Deep South Senate seat! They are thinking, with logic on their side, that only 262,000 people voted for this jackass in a GOP primary with another 218,000 GOP voters against him. Compare that the the 505,000 who voted for Richard Shelby in the primary just a year ago. The Dems can certainly be justified for thinking: the GOP has a highly polarizing, unpopular candidate! We can get the sane GOP voters to side with us and claim this seat!


That kind of thinking did not work so well in the Clinton vs. Trump race, and it won’t work here either. There might be a tiny possibility that the Dems could succeed and manage to walk away with what surely ought to be a safe GOP seat, but it simply isn’t worth risking placing Roy Moore into the Senate for at least the next three years when the Democrats possess the power to stop him. And they do. The solution is simple.

Although Doug Jones is a moderate candidate who has had some success in Alabama and might engender some support, especially with the backing of Vice President Joe Biden, who intends to campaign for him, and although he’d undoubtedly be a strong senator, the Democratic Party must immediately urge him to withdraw from the race and replace him on the ballot with Luther Strange. There is little to no chance that Strange would enter the race as an Independent and practically hand the seat to the Dems, despite his own distaste for Moore and his lunacy. But if the Dems approached him and offered him their ballot spot, no strings attached, he’d be a fool not to take it.

In a general election, with anyone in the state voting, adding Democratic votes to the returning Luther Strange votes would certainly be enough to overwhelm Moore’s support.

I know, I know: this would be a bitter pill for Dems to swallow. Strange, in his tenure as Alabama Attorney General, opposed gay marriage, abortion rights, transgender rights, Obamacare, and most of what the left holds dear. He was one of 22 Senators to sign a letter urging Trump to pull out of the Paris Agreements. Why on earth should we fight to keep him around? And the answer is simple: Roy Moore. Consider what you wouldn’t give right now to have pretty much any other GOP President in the White House than Donald J. Trump, and you get what I mean. Loose cannons are dangerous. Loose cannons with bully pulpits are more so.

Senator Luther Strange is a terrible thing for Democrats. Senator Roy Moore would be a terrible thing for America. It is the responsibility of the Democratic Party to stop this insanity because the GOP as it is currently constituted simply cannot. They had the President and the Senate Majority Leader campaigning for Strange and look what happened? Moore beat him in August and again in September. America simply cannot afford to allow Moore to win again in December, and if he faces a Democrat in Alabama he will. If he faces Strange and Democratic voters choke down their disgust and vote for their current senator, Roy Moore will finally be able to go to the place he belongs: the same dung heap where all of the political caricatures of the past have retired.
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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Valkyries: Badasses on Bikes" Is One Sweet Ride

Last week, on consecutive nights, I went to two theatrical events in Chicago. On Thursday, I had the pleasure of seeing "Aladdin" at the Cadillac Palace, a lavish musical derived from the Disney film, one that won me over from its opening number and kept building from there in sheer entertainment force. But the previous night's more low-key experience, played in a black box theatre to a house of perhaps fifteen souls on a cold, rainy evening, possessed every bit of the charm, the joy, and the emotional heart of the far more expansive Broadway in Chicago production. In a tiny theatre, Gorilla Tango Theatre's one-hour long homage to a real-life NYC lesbian biker club, "The Valkyries: Badasses on Bikes," reminds those who seek it out that theatre need not be expensive spectacle to be worth the trip.

The play, a new one written by Camille Smith, concerns a group of lesbian friends (and the trans lover of the group's leader), who have decided to start a biker gang in order to accomplish some altruistic purpose they have not yet decided upon. In a series of short scenes, we learn about these people, the joy they find in their togetherness, their shared and individual histories, and some of the pain in their lives. We also discover that, most of the time, first impressions are only skin deep (though, yes, there are always exceptions), and family is, or anyway ought to be, family, whether you're born into it or you've chosen it as your own.

Katy Johnson holds the story together with a bittersweet performance as Deena, the leader of the group, who is trying both to establish this new biker gang and to navigate the deepening chasm growing between her and her pregnant sister Kelly, a dour Kate Souza, pouring unspoken—and spoken—pain into their relationship over Deena's love for her transgender boyfriend, Quinn (North Rory Homeward) and the loss of their parents. The struggle between the sisters, as well as its effects on the relationship between Deena and Quinn, form the ongoing pathos of the piece, and all three central players here shine. Homeward, a transgender actor in his first onstage transgender role, easily captures the frustration of someone caught between two impossible choices: Quinn cannot make a strong stand either way despite Kelly's apparently transphobic attitude for fear of driving a stake between the sisters and having his lover come to blame him later. There are many small, subtle acting choices all three make that add much to the unfolding drama.

But the play is a true ensemble play, and its other players are every bit as important. The bar at which the bikers meet is run by Marie, (a dynamic, feisty Marie Treadway). Marie is basically a "take no crap" lesbian, and her huge character, to which Treadway gives her heart, her soul, and at one point pretty much all of her breath, often dominates the stage, and creates a large amount of the comedy of the piece. Another comic focal point is the character of Bella (Cat McKay), a free spirit, devil-may-care young woman whose attitude might best be summarized as "life is meant for me to have fun." And right now her fun involves a woman she has her eyes on, Evie (Elodie Sinetra), whom she is sure must at least be bisexual and who is in a completely self-destructive relationship with prototypical frat-boy, self-involved goon Jake (played to the hilt by Nate Curlott, having a great time being a total jerk). The secondary plot of the story is Evie's coming out, and one scene in particular between her and Jake somehow manages to be hilarious, frightening, and full of pathos all at the same time.

By the time the gang discovers its raison d'etre and the light and sound crew have tons of fun with a motorcycle ride through Chicago, the play has done more than its share to inspire and entertain. This may not be a play with a huge name, but it deserves to be seen. It plays on Wednesdays at 8 PM at Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago 60647 until June 28. Do yourself a favor: instead of seeing a movie some night, see this play. You won't be disappointed.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Once More With Meaning: A Deconstruction of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 6

Fans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the cult hit that celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, disagree about a lot of things regarding what, for many of them, is the Best Show Ever Made. (Full disclosure: I am part of that camp.) Ask about their favorite episodes and some will say "The Body" while others argue for "Hush" or "Tabula Rasa" and more will sing the praises of "Once More With Feeling" or other episodes in the seven season canon of the series. Ask about their favorite Buffy boyfriend and you'll have a huge fight on your hands between Angel and Spike. (No one is likely to expend much breath over Riley.) Ask about their favorite villains or monsters, and you'll get all sorts of answers.
But there is one thing on which “Buffy” fans have, for fourteen years, agreed on as if with a single voice: Season 6 of the show was a low point for the series. Heck, in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, star Sarah Michelle Gellar herself discussed her distaste for that season: “I’ve always said that season 6 was not my favorite. I felt it betrayed who she was.” For a long time, I shared that opinion. It was, after all, Buffy’s own: she spends much of Season 6 loathing her own behavior. She keeps secrets from her friends. She isn’t present emotionally for her little sister Dawn. She can’t sense the deep needs her friends Xander and Willow have until it is far too late. She can’t seem to find a way to “adult” in any variation of the term. She finds herself in a torrid sexual affair with Spike, an erstwhile nemesis who is still, according to both of them, “evil.” And she simply can’t shake her feelings: even after he attempts to rape her, she still trusts him to care for Dawn. Her decision-making in Season 6 is, in a word, miserable.

Fans find a lot miserable about Season 6, starting with its Big Bad. While other seasons gave us The Master, Angelus, Adam, the Mayor, and Glory, all worthy supernatural opponents, Season 6 has Buffy face off against a “Trio” of nerds who failed at everything they tried to do in high school and now have joined together in all of their elaborate nerdness (nerdity?) to try to get some revenge. Even Buffy, in one episode, describes their efforts as “lame.” Interestingly, many fans have even more trouble with the one supernatural Big Bad of the season, Dark Willow. Her power is as great as the Hell-god Glory’s the previous season—perhaps greater—but many fans simply can’t get past adorable Allyson Hannigan as the bringer of doom. And some don’t feel the threat is great enough until the very end, since she is hunting the Trio, who sort of deserve it. Other fans point to the overall depressing tone of the season, noting that creator Joss Whedon was busy with two other programs (”Angel” and the new “Firefly”) and was not involved in direct oversight of “Buffy” that year and thus was not around to insert his trademark wit. (For the record, Whedon disagrees with Gellar about the effectiveness of Season 6 as well as his own involvement.)

However, a two-day binge watch of Season 6 now, a decade and a half after it first aired, reveals something that was not readily apparent the first time through, when we were reeling along with the characters from what was happening in Sunnydale. Watching it now, it’s easy to see that there are several major themes working through this season, and ultimately every one of them ties together. Beyond that, something else becomes obvious: far from lacking wit and cleverness, this season, above all others, is a total deconstruction and self-examination of the entire series that, in the end, blows it all up and puts it back together to set up a grand finale.

Among the themes that weave their way through the episodes of Season 6:

The hell of being alive

At the end of Season 5, Buffy, who had learned cryptically that her “gift is death,” finally understands that, in order to save the little sister who doesn’t even exist when the season began but, due to memory manipulation, seems to her to have been present all of her life, she needs to sacrifice herself. It is the second death with which the Slayer gifts the world, the first occurring near the end of Season 1 at the hands of The Master. Season 6 begins, appropriately enough, three months later, and Buffy’s friends have taken over the slaying with the help of a robot who looks like Buffy, an effort to fool the demons and vampires into believing that she is still around. But Willow, now a powerful witch, can’t get past the pain of believing her friend must be residing in some unknown hell dimension, suffering because of the sacrifice she made for them. Thus she casts a spell that pulls Buffy back from the grave. From the start, it goes wrong: demons scatter the friends as they work the spell and Buffy is left to claw her way from her own coffin, an image we’ve seen so many times in the series: the dead rising.

As we learn, Buffy was not in a demon dimension at all, but in heaven. Returning to earth, she asks a single question in the first episode in which she appears: “Is this hell?” It’s a question that plagues her throughout the season. In the musical episode “Once More With Feeling,” she sings about it directly: “There was no pain. No fear, no doubt, till they pulled me out of Heaven. So that's my refrain. I live in Hell 'cause I've been expelled from Heaven.” It’s a hell without emotion: Buffy can no longer feel.

Now, through the smoke she calls to me To make my way across the flame To save the day or maybe melt away I guess it's all the same
It is in this state, desperate to feel anything, that she turns to Spike, who is everything she hates, for physical solace. Their initial liaison is nothing like the tender love-making she had with Angel or Riley: it is a tornado, a boxing match, an unleashing of emotions so primal that, when they finish, the abandoned building in which it happens literally falls down around them. And she says it is “the most perverse, degrading experience of my life,” but she does it again...and again because she needs to feel. She is addicted. Which brings me to the next theme.

The power of addiction

Buffy learns it through her escapades with Spike: there are times when the need for something is so great that it overwhelms common sense. Dawn also discovers the power addiction has during the season, as she continues the shoplifting that she began in Season 5, bragging to a friend about how much she has stolen and eventually getting to the point where, in “Entropy,” she and Buffy literally can’t shop in downtown Sunnydale because she’s been banned from so many shops. Indirectly, her shoplifting helps bring about the dancing demon Sweet in “Once More With Feeling”: Xander actually calls him for a lark, but it is Dawn who may determine the moment by wearing the charm she lifted from the Magic Box.

Another character dealing with a form of addiction is Spike, who simply cannot get past his emotional need for Buffy.

I know I should go But I follow you like a man possessed There's a traitor here beneath my breast And it hurts me more than you've ever guessed If my heart could beat, it would break my chest But I can see you're unimpressed
Eventually, his obsessive pain is so great that he risks death to return his soul in order to be with her properly.

The single greatest example of addiction, of course, is Willow, whose addiction to magic is front and center for much of the season. She finds herself in so deep that she ends up visiting a warlock to get herself hooked up with serious dark magic, the scene so like an addict seeing her fixer that it is impossible to miss the metaphor. She’s in so far that she nearly gets Dawn killed. Eventually Tara gets her to stop cold turkey by leaving her, and that proves to be her wake-up call. Late in the season, the two lovers finally reunite and all seems joyful and happy until a stray bullet meant for Buffy hits and kills Tara, and Willow’s intense rage and pain send her completely over the deep end, turning her into the witch monster Dark Willow, whose addiction to power is so great that she can no longer distinguish her friends or even herself, and she can’t see the value in human life at all.

The critical importance of friends

Like Dark Willow, every time anyone goes it alone in this season, things go completely awry. Willow with her magic, Buffy with her secrets, Giles with his returns to England, Dawn with her shoplifting, Xander with his wedding fiasco: going off on your own never leads to anything good. Anya, too, makes a poor decision when left to her own devices, getting back into the demon business (though her ability to teleport does indeed come in handy in the season’s climax). Even within the Trio, Warren (clearly the one making all of the decisions) makes many bad calls when he is not tempered by his cohorts, up to and including the bullets that trigger his own destruction. Though people continue throughout the season to undervalue their friendships, it is clear again and again how important they are.

The first images we have in the season are of the Scooby Gang banding together to fight the vampires none of them could fight alone. The only moments of calm during the season come in those rare moments when two or more people are allowed just to sit and talk (though Buffy’s birthday party, as usual, turns into a near-disaster). Very little, really, is joyful in this season. Sex, as we’ve noted, certainly isn’t. Xander and Anya’s wedding devolves into a riot before the groom walks off (alone). Pretty much all social gatherings involve at least one character who is depressed and needing comfort or terribly angry at someone else. Working together, as the Scoobies do in the first episode of the season and as they’ve done all along, just seems to vanish. It isn’t until everyone comes together to stop Dark Willow that they seem to remember that they are a team. Anya holds Willow off with a spell. Giles fights her with powerful good magic. Xander and Dawn work together to move what remains of the Trio away from her.

In the end, Dawn actually joins in with Buffy to hold off the supernatural monsters Willow has called into creation to keep the Slayer busy while she destroys the world, and it’s left to another friend, the usually feckless Xander, to save the day by placing himself in harm’s way and desperately (and successfully) seeking whatever small grain of humanity might remain with Willow’s darkness.

The meta-cognition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Season 6 is, without a doubt, the most meta season ever put together by a show that was not self-consciously meta in the first place. (”Community” fans, you don’t count.) From the beginning, this season is a complete and complex deconstruction of the entire series that has preceded it.

Let’s begin with the Trio. Positioned at first to be the season’s Big Bad (and they would have been without a doubt the lamest such villain of all seven seasons), what they are, in truth, is a “trio” of high school losers who think that, by joining forces, they can become winners. Call it “Revenge of the Geeks.” My husband, watching Season 6 for the first time, made this observation: “They are the show’s fans.” (Now I took some umbrage with that, pointing out that I am a fan, but he just said that was a proof, not a refutation.) But he’s essentially correct: in previous seasons, “Buffy” aimed high and higher, eventually finding the level of god for its Big Bad. It’s a bit difficult to continue a steady rise at that point. Further, Buffy had, at the end of Season 5, as already noted, died, a fact that had to be dealt with. All of which made Season 6 a very interesting year. Instead of simply trying to continue the unimpeded growth in power and evil of the Big Bads, the show turns its figurative cameras inward, dissecting itself, exploring exactly what made it work, and rewiring some of the narrative threads almost as blatantly as it did a year earlier with the introduction of Dawn.

The Trio works because they are relatable. We all have known (or are) people like that. And as the season wears on and they reveal that, yes, they do have some talents, but their clear ineptitude will never allow them to succeed, we start feeling sorry for Jonathan and weak-willed Andrew, who falls under Warren’s spell. Warren, though, is another matter: he is a malevolent geek. It was clear when he was introduced (in the Season 5 episode “I Was Made to Love You”) that he has a misogynistic and sociopathic streak. Season 6 allows him to play more fully with both, and eventually leads him to murder. But until Warren’s darkness takes over, the Trio are basically everyman. And it is, in fact, as if Whedon and his partner in crime Marti Noxon have unleashed a group of fans into the Buffyverse just to see what kind of havoc they might cause. And the answer, apparently, is a lot. It is the annoying kid of havoc, as Buffy observes, rather than the apocalyptical kind: “You three have, what, banded together to be pains in my ass?” But in its varying odd types, it is also revelatory.

In one signature episode, “Gone,” the Trio accidentally turns Buffy invisible. Far from being irritated by this development, though, the Slayer discovers a newfound freedom in her lack of reflective matter. It’s as if for the first time all season she can breathe. Unobserved, she glides from place to place like a ghost—which in fact is what she feels like anyway—to make little things work better in her life and to have a bit of fun with her newfound status. But what she doesn’t see is what her sister sees easily: her own desire to slip away from a life she never asked for in the first place.

The Trio expand the meta element in other ways as well. One example is quite literal: they plant cameras everywhere the Scoobies hang out to watch them. Thus, within the show, we have characters (the aforementioned fanboys) watching the show.

Beyond the Trio, though, this season is full of meta riffs on what this series has been and continues to be. “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode that serves as a mini-climax to the first third of the season, uses the motif of a demon who forces everyone to reveal truth in songs to create commentary about characters, secrets, the show itself, and even the very songs they are singing. In one lyric, for example, Willow notes, “I think this line’s mostly filler.” Anya, after the duet she and Xander sing, complains, “Clearly our number is a retro-pastiche that's never going to be a break-away pop hit.” And Buffy, at one point, critiques everything from her wardrobe to the show’s basic demon-hunting tropes:

Well, I'm not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots, but there's definitely something unnatural going on here. And that doesn't usually lead to hugs and puppies.
The entire episode, a bit of a meta joke in itself, is one revealing comment or busted secret after another. By the time it’s finished, the demon Sweet observes, “there’s not a one who can say this ended well.”

The ultimate expression of this theme lies in the episode “Normal Again,” in which Buffy imagines that her entire universe is actually the insane dream of a lunatic in an asylum. Several times during this episode she questions her own reality, wondering which is more likely: a teenager in an asylum unable to cope and living in a fantasy, or a superhero “chosen one” fighting vampires and demons. The episode is structured so that it is just barely possible to believe that the alternative reality is, in fact, the truth. In this exchange, the asylum version of Buffy listens to her doctor and her mother, who is now dead in her Sunnydale life, deconstructing her “fantasy”:

Doctor: A magical key. Buffy inserted Dawn into her delusion, actually rewriting the entire history of it to accommodate a need for a familial bond. [to Buffy] Buffy, but that created inconsistencies, didn't it? Your sister, your friends - all of those people you created in Sunnydale - they aren't as comforting as they once were, are they? They're coming apart.
Joyce Summers: Buffy, listen to what the doctor's saying. It's important.
Doctor: Buffy, you used to create these grand villains to battle against, and now what is it? Just ordinary students you went to high school with. No gods or monsters, just three pathetic little men... who like playing with toys.
The comment about Dawn’s sudden intrusion upon the landscape of the series and how her presence seemed to have shifted the “comfort” factor of the “fantasy” is a direct reference to a fanbase controversy about that character that was still raging at the time. And the comment about the villains is about as self-aware as any comment can possibly be.

A final area in which Season 6 is turning its cameras inward is in the characters’ individual and collective relationships with life. For the first three seasons, the main characters are in high school, which creates both a comfortable boundary and a fundamental theme (high school is hell). In season 4, Willow and Buffy move on to college, leaving Xander behind. The focus becomes the college campus, especially with The Initiative. Season 5 moves back home with Buffy, once more spreading things out and moving the focal point to the Magic Box. It is in this season, too, that the Scoobies begin to fragment. Xander proposes to Anya. Willow and Tara are deeply in love and nesting. Dawn is in the picture and they are fighting a god to keep her alive. Joyce dies. Buffy dies. It is a painful, sad year despite some emotional highlights.

For five years, with Buffy to lead the group, there was always some kind of cohesion. Now, though, first without Buffy and then with a “broken” Buffy, the whole group seems lost, and entire episodes and parts of episodes are dedicated to the mundane and important realities of living life: getting a job, getting a loan, trying to hold on to your family against society’s odds, getting a haircut, making meals, fixing leaky pipes, cleaning a word, adulting. Buffy, for one, is lousy at it. Willow isn’t much better, seduced as she is by the Dark Side Magicks. Anya is almost good at it, but she’s emotionally immature and easily sent over the edge by Xander, who isnt good at it. Basically, Tara is the only one who’s any good at it, and she doesn’t last the season. She does, though, seem to understand that life isn’t a game you play all the time.

“Buffy’s” penultimate season breaks down its previous rules and situations and sets its fans up for one final ride. Buffy dies without another slayer being called, opening the door for the 7th seasons’s concept of Potentials. The two couples created in Season 5 are decoupled, reuniting the Scoobies as the central force of the show. Dawn’s whiny, self-centered shoplifting days appear to be behind her. Giles seems to have returned for good. Spike regains his soul. It’s a new day in Sunnydale.

Ultimately, Season 6 might come down to something that is said, again, in “Once More With Feeling.” Spike stops Buffy from dancing herself to death and sings to her:

Life's not a song. Life isn't bliss, life is just this. It's living. You'll get along. The pain that you feel can only heal by living. You have to go on living. So one of us is living.
It’s a reflection of a line Buffy herself had told her sister before she sacrificed herself so Dawn could live, a line that Dawn echoes, a line that can serve, if any one line can, for the fundamental theme of this pivotal season: “Dawn, the hardest thing in this to live in it.”

This is why “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is such an important program and Joss Whedon such a brilliant writer and producer. In a show about a “chosen one” who slays monsters and demons and vampires he managed to create something completely universal, something that speaks to anyone if they let themselves immerse in it. I’m of the opinion that there are only two types of people in the world: those who love “Buffy” and those who haven’t watched it yet.
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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and