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Entries in alice bolin (25)

Thursday
Jul192012

In Which Its Badness Is Thorough And Complex

Compiled from the Minutes of the Bad Movie Club

by ALICE BOLIN

The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy...

— Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”

1. Beginning

July 2011. I found myself unemployed and temporarily homeless in Missoula, Montana, and I had to tap into what goodwill I had built up over the previous two years, bouncing from friend’s couch to friend’s couch for a month, repaying them intermittently with alcohol.

The Missoula summer is in its essence carefree and shiftless, and my friend Emily was letting me stay with her for a few days while her roommate was out of town, despite the fact that I am always randomly breaking her stuff — absentmindedly prying a part off of her computer, or, more horrifyingly, bumping the wine bottle she was drinking from on Halloween, chipping one of her teeth. She still welcomed me into her home, is what I’m getting at, because Emily is a good friend.

We had nothing to do but hang out, so we rented several movies one day, seeking specifically crappy romantic comedies. The first one we watched was a paragon of the genre: 2001’s Head Over Heels follows an art restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who has given up on men. She moves into an apartment with three fashion models and meet-cutes inexplicable heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. when his Great Dane sexually harasses her. Her boss at the museum walks into her workroom holding an enormous Titian painting and says, “Look at this piece of crap!” There is a disconcerting plot twist involving the international diamond smuggling business. At one point the models are hiding in a bathroom stall and they get sprayed with feces.

The rest of the time I spent at Emily’s house, we watched more bad movies, including Twilight and Whatever It Takes, an irredeemably boring early-00’s high school comedy starring James Franco and forgotten teen idol Shane West. In this way the Bad Movie Club was born. Over the course of the past year, Emily and I have watched more than twenty terrible movies, sometimes joined by the club’s associate members, Emma and Zoey. Watching things together has marked my friendship with Emily since we met — we are almost exactly the same age and we share remarkably overlapping cultural knowledge. Once, when talking about a mutual acquaintance, Emily said “She’s so Amaya,” and I knew immediately that she was referring to one of the roommates from The Real World: Hawaii. We revisited the runs of 2000s MTV classics Laguna Beach and The Hills as well as Ashlee Simpson’s incredible reality show, most of which (no need to thank me) is on YouTube.

But it wasn’t only mutual nostalgia that spawned the Bad Movie Club.  It was more importantly an appreciation of the good-bad. Not everyone likes bad things, which is something I accept but don’t completely understand. “Why don’t you and Alice just watch a good movie?” Emily’s boyfriend Brett asked her. It’s because the good and the bad hold completely different pleasures, and we consume them for different purposes.

2. Bad

Our interest in bad movies has nothing to do with the current conception of “irony”: liking things that are old, ugly, poorly made, or weird for the sake of novelty. Ironic appreciation is kindred to Susan Sontag’s notion of “Camp” as laid out in her essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” She indicates that though “many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch,” in its essence, Camp as a point of view is generous. “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment,” she writes. We on the other hand do not strive to be generous. The mission of the Bad Movie Club is generally mean-spirited, taking joy in laughing at and making fun of other people’s terrible work. Bad movies are often very funny, and the comedy is stranger and more sublime than in something well made.

And watching a bad movie with someone else, there is none of the reverence that enforces silence during movie watching — you can talk all you want without fear of missing something, since the plot likely doesn’t make sense anyway. We do things with other people because we don’t want to do them alone, but sometimes the universe sends you the exact right person to do them with. And Emily is one of the sharpest and funniest people I have ever known.

We can imagine a good/bad graph to help conceptualize the selections of the Bad Movie Club. In the upper right quadrant is the good-good, movies that are both enjoyable and well made, which are obviously irrelevant to the club’s interests. In the bottom right there is the bad-good, films that are generally acclaimed but are in reality hackneyed, boring, or stupid. (NB: Most of the films that are nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards would fall into this category.) Since these movies are at best not fun to watch and at worst infuriating, they would never be featured in The Bad Movie Club. (Though time can convert bad-good to good-bad, see: Titanic.)

The sweet spot we are seeking is the top left quadrant, the good-bad, the kind of satisfying awfulness that Lifetime movies don’t even pretend not to be trading in. Frequent sources of the good-bad: films made for TV, films released directly to DVD, films made for and marketed to tweens, films from the 1980s, films from the 1990s, films about dancing, films starring Anna Faris. The Disney Channel is a great supplier of the good-bad, as all of its original movies have outlandish premises, star untalented child actors, feature an overall dorky/dipshit aesthetic, and appear to be made on budgets in the hundreds of dollars.

High School Musical may be the exemplar, with its doubly implausible conceits that the short and scrawny Zac Efron would be the star of his high school basketball team and Vanessa Hudgens would be some sort of chemistry genius. The two are star-crossed lovers, kept apart by high school’s tyrannical cliquishness—one of the songs is actually called “Stick to the Status Quo.” “I don’t think my high school was really cliquey like this,” Emma said while we were watching it. “Was your high school like this?” “Emma, everyone in this high school is singing and dancing,” we said.

Where to find bad movies: Netflix, obviously. In Missoula, there is also Hastings, a western chain of media megastores with a vaguely Christian-bookstore vibe and a huge selection of badly scratched DVDs and bizarre candies. I am also fond of buying movies off of the DVD rack at Albertson’s grocery store. In the fall when I had pneumonia I went to Albertson’s in a fevered stupor and bought a half dozen movies—some pretty good, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and some very bad, like The Power Rangers Movie and a late sequel to Bring It On called Bring It On: In It to Win It.

In It to Win It is roughly based on West Side Story and follows two competing cheerleading squads naturally called the Sharks and the Jets. It takes place at Universal Studios. A key moment is a late night “cheer rumble” in some old-timey part of the amusement park. One character is a goth cheerleader who wears a pair of fangs at all times. When I was sick I watched this movie with awed attention, and I remembered it as a strange, disturbing and wonderful experience. I was disappointed when Emily and I watched it later and it was actually tedious and absurd, in addition to clearly being of exclusive interest to people with experience in cheerleading. I had to admit it: some movies are so-bad-it’s-bad.

The bad-bad, found in the bottom left quadrant of the good/bad graph and comprising movies that are neither well made nor entertaining, is like a trap laid for the Bad Movie Club to fall into. It’s often obvious that a film will be bad from its premise, its DVD cover, the people starring in it — and most bad movies are a reliable delight to ridicule. But then you rent The Last Song, a Miley Cyrus vehicle written by Nicholas Sparks and featuring the same maudlin trope that has been employed to manipulate teenage girls from time eternal: cosmic true love complicated only by external factors, most importantly, cancer. Miley plays an unruly emo teenager-slash-piano prodigy who has just been sent back to live with her dad, Greg Kinnear, at his beach house. There are lots of meaningful shots of a piano she beat up with a baseball bat, because psychology.

She falls in love with a preppy pretty boy, played by Miley’s real-life fiancé Liam Hemsworth, who she meets on the boardwalk, there’s an entire subplot about them rescuing baby turtles, and, sorry for spoilers, Greg Kinnear dies of cancer.  There is one hilarious scene where Miley screeches along to Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” and Liam Hemsworth is astonished (“She can sing, too!”), but generally The Last Song is an awful slog — slow, pointless, depressing. And how were we to know.

3. Camp

I said that the purpose of the Bad Movie Club is basically different from that of Sontag’s Camp, which “[finds] the success in certain passionate failures,” but that’s not completely true — in some movies we’ve watched and in the way we received them there is an element of Camp at play. Here I endeavor a hazy distinction between the basic good-bad and two other categories of bad movie, the campy and the beyond-bad. In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag differentiates between Camp and “just bad,” explaining that when something is just-bad “it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.” This is helpful when considering specific Bad Movie Club films that, while terrible, have a certain grandness and their own kind of integrity, as if they are a complete vision: they seem to be pristine artifacts. I can think of no better example of this than Showgirls.

Following the rise and fall of Las Vegas exotic dancer Nomi Malone, Showgirls exhibits the quality of Camp that Sontag calls “seriousness that fails,” and that we might more simply call melodrama, in spades: its many dance sequences are dazzling and insane, and it is full of random, horrifying violence, like when Nomi’s best friend is gang-raped by a singer she idolized. Of course, it is also so rife with graphic nudity and sex that the word “gratuitous” doesn’t even apply, since it must be part of the film’s point — it is Sontag’s “stag film seen without lust,” one of the most overtly pornographic non-porn movies ever made, and it is not even remotely sexy.

Camp is likeable: although generally in the Bad Movie Club we are not seeking the good in the bad, but rather the bad in the bad — it’s funnier that way — there are some movies we have watched that, somewhat by accident, we like. One is The Crush, in which Alicia Stone plays a fourteen-year-old version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction — she uses wasps to attack the girlfriend of the man she is obsessed with (wasps!). Sontag says of specimens of pure Camp, “in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy — and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.” This extreme quality, some sincere ridiculousness, makes campy movies a little better than bad — or lets them transcend these classifications altogether, as in Sontag’s words, Camp “turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.”

The beyond-bad seems related, although it is not Camp for important reasons: it can involve melodrama, but it most often lacks the sincerity and enthusiasm of Camp. And films that are beyond-bad are notable mostly for their extreme place on the “good-bad axis,” so it is unlikely that they would ever transcend it—they are only enjoyable insofar as one can note and comment on their badness, but insofar as one can do that, they can be extremely enjoyable. These are films that are so ill-conceived that their very existence is, in short, confusing.

There is Mac and Me, an unfortunate rip off of E.T. where the main innovations are that the child who befriends the alien is in a wheelchair, and the alien is icky rather than adorable. The movie promotes Coca-Cola and McDonalds in a way that feels pathological, and there is a jarring five-minute dance sequence at a McDonalds featuring Ronald McDonald in his first film role. I think also of Gigli: some movies are such infamous disasters, and then you watch them, and they are as dreadful as you could have ever hoped.

In Gigli, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are untalented gangsters who have kidnapped a mentally challenged man, and Ben Affleck falls for Jennifer Lopez even though she is a lesbian, and if you could not guess from this synopsis, it is offensive to the mentally challenged and to lesbians. One hallmark of movies this bad is that they are indescribable: I can recount the most ludicrous scenes, but that would not communicate how pervasive the badness is. But I will tell you that in one scene Ben Affleck breaks a teenager’s laptop and shouts “Suck my dick dot com!”

But no movie the Bad Movie Club has watched epitomizes this indescribable quality like The Room. I remember distinctly when Emily texted to ask if I’d ever seen The Room — I had never heard of it, and she told me it was a very weird, famously bad movie, which is really the only helpful description of it. Later, in her living room, I looked on with horror as just seven minutes in, the film launched in to one of the most patently un-erotic sex scenes I’ve ever seen. “Oh yeah,” Emily said, and I thought she was going to say something to reassure me. “There are like three more sex scenes. And they’re all really long.”

Things only get more deranged from there, but to write precisely how would take volumes. The Room is possibly the worst movie of all time, and no detail I would provide could give a full picture of why — Entertainment Weekly called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and its badness is thorough and complex. The plot looks flat, if a bit overwrought on the page: it is a psychological drama about a virtuous man and his duplicitous fiancé; she cheats on him with his best friend, eventually driving him the man to suicide. Many of its funniest lines — “Oh hi, Mark;” “You think about everything” — are completely neutral out of context. The allure of The Room is concentrated in its writer/director/star, Tommy Wiseau, an obvious maniac with a lilting Eastern European accent (though he claims he was born in New Orleans) who has the look of an aged body builder with caveman hair.

Emily and I have watched The Room together three times, and it remains as inexplicable as ever. New wonders await with each revisit, lines we previously missed that are like perfect golden nuggets — e.g. “As far as I’m concerned, you can drop off the earth. That’s a promise.” It is the icon and the apex of The Bad Movie Club, and it’s the film I like best. The Room is not only good-bad; it’s the best bad.

4. End

The Missoula summer is here again, and I’ve been looking listlessly at the dry hot sky, and it’s just as big as they would have you believe. Summer is the time when I wonder most about friendship, since it is when I am most surrounded by friends, idyllically, barbequing against a genial mountain backdrop and inner tubing on the Clark Fork, the big, calm river that flows through the center of town.

Summer is also when friends start to leave. Post-adolescent life is essentially transient: there’s the morbid sense that you could go anywhere and do anything, and your friends are always leaving you for grad school, for jobs, for romance, for no reason. Emily moved to Iowa at the beginning of July, and it’s left me with a lot of time to think. When someone you spent almost every day with is suddenly gone, it becomes clear that friendship is to an extent about occupying time — a kind of entertainment.

And most people’s company is at least minimally enjoyable. Missoula’s most famous poet, Richard Hugo, once wrote of “some wretched town/Where friendship is based on just being around,” but in truth, every town is that town — friendship is proximity, and our friends are restricted to the people we could possibly know. We take what we can get. It is the mystery central to friendship that amid all the luck involved, and with the fact that most of us would rather hang out with just anyone than no one, at so many points in life we chance to meet the best people, people we couldn’t love more.

As I float down the Clark Fork this month, I stare abstractly at the trees, the birds, the water, the sun, and I’m thinking about Frank Ocean and Pretty Little Liars and Magic Mike, pieces of pop culture as far removed from the river’s natural glory as its gets, an escape from the escape. And when I get off the river, I will probably have a new text message or two from Emily about Pretty Little Liars, our recent mutual bad-TV obsession—not about her road trip to the Midwest, or her family, or her feelings, or her life.

Enjoying the same culture for the same reasons — like mutually seeking the bad in bad movies—is another kind of lucky proximity: what a person likes doesn’t necessarily say anything about who a person is, how good or how bad, how worthy or unworthy. But for two people to be friends, they have to have something to talk about. I am reminded of Camp’s neutrality in regards to content in Sontag: the ideas that a work is “about” are arbitrary and the way those ideas are expressed are paramount, because Camp is crucially a way to enjoy art, whether high or low, good or bad.

Friendship is neutral to content: as a medium it isn’t about anything. It is a vessel that can be filled with whatever, and maybe the more whatever that whatever is, the better. Two people can cultivate a lot of closeness when they meet on neutral ground: a movie, a joke, a mountain town, a text message, a Dairy Queen, a day off, all the things that life doesn’t seem to be but is. There’s so much I can’t say simply to Emily about how much I miss her, so let’s not talk about it, let’s keep talking.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Mr. Bones" - Tiny Victories (mp3)

"Gravitron" - Tiny Victories (mp3)

The latest release from the Brooklyn band Tiny Victories is Those Of Us Still Alive, which you can purchase here.

Thursday
Jun282012

In Which We Take A Shine To The Surviving Horse

photo by Ursula Coyote

No Comment, Cowboy

by ALICE BOLIN

In the first episode of A&E’s new series Longmire, the show’s cowboy detective Walt Longmire asks his sidekick, Victoria “Vic” Moretti, “You know what they call a flock of ravens?” She confesses she does not. “An unkindness,” he says. “And what the hell is wrong with ‘flock?’” she says. “Unkindness is just a little more apropos,” Longmire says, and a second later they discover a frozen corpse in the snow-covered sheep field they were walking through.

The combination of the ham-fisted and the self-satisfied is inherently funny. I know this can’t just be my problem.

When something is utterly derivative, it is easiest to attribute this to creative exhaustion. But when something is well made, as Longmire is, and utterly derivative, the question of intention becomes murkier. The “why” of parody is defined: humor, commentary. The “why” of pastiche is harder to pin down. When something is as replete with clichés as Longmire is, and as totally serious, and as lacking any hint of the meta, maybe then the conventions of the purposely unoriginal do not apply? Maybe then it’s just stupid?

Longmire is woven from clichés on both large and small scales. In true detective-show form, Longmire is tormented by the tragic death of his wife and has a loving but complicated relationship with his daughter. He is also a Sherlock Holmes-style polymath who reads widely, speaks German, and has a magical ability to tell whether a gun has been fired. He gives his rival Branch Connally The Hound of the Baskervilles so that he might pick up a few pointers.

Branch is also a familiar figure, the young upstart deputy who is challenging Longmire for sheriff but whose skills and priorities — glad handing and outfitting that the sheriff’s department with current technology — are trifling compared to Longmire’s intelligence, toughness, and perfect drive to protect the citizens of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Vic, Longmire’s wisecracking girl Friday, is the show’s resident city mouse: she spent five years working homicide in Philadelphia and then became one of three deputies in a tiny sheriff’s department in the wilds of Wyoming, inexplicably. During a shoot-out at a ranch, Vic suggests that in Philadelphia they would have called in a SWAT team, and Longmire laughs in her face.

Beyond detective-genre tropes, the creators of Longmire are also obviously indulging in the cowboy archetype: Longmire is stoic, laconic, independent, idiosyncratic, and brave. He’s obsessed with not having a cell phone. “No comment” is described as “the Longmire yes.” He arrives at the scene of a barn burning and barges inside to look for the body of the barn’s owner. “At least wear my hat,” a firefighter calls after him. “No thanks,” Longmire says, and gestures at his cowboy hat. “I’ve got one.”

And with Longmire’s best friend and informant on all things Native, Henry Standing Bear, there is an inescapable a Lone Ranger and Tonto vibe. Henry is a likeable character, though it is easy to bristle at his ostensible Indian wisdom. When Longmire is going to meet with one of the operators of a prostitution ring, Henry warns that it sounds like a set up. He suggests what he calls an O.I.T., an old Indian trick, which is essentially to go to the meeting place early. “Surprise is a powerful weapon,” Longmire later explains. When Longmire tells Henry about a Mennonite father who was impassive at the news of his daughter’s death, Henry says smugly, “Every culture processes grief in its own way.”

Longmire also resembles The Lone Ranger’s campier descendent, Walker, Texas Ranger. Though there is a mystery solved in each episode, Longmire definitely favors action to suspense, and, like in Walker, its middle-aged protagonist sees his share of combat. Longmire wrestles for long minutes with a fraudulent federal marshal and eventually incapacitates him. He ends the first episode running and ducking from a sniper, timing his movements by how long it will take the gunman to reload. When he goes to the nearby Cheyenne Indian Reservation to look for a missing girl, he is met at the border by the Tribal Police, who surround him and beat him.

It seems Longmire made enemies of the Tribal Police when he busted them for running an extortion racket. This larger cowboys versus Indians trope, particularly with the portrayal of the reservation as an anarchic nether-zone and the tribal police as corrupt and incompetent, is intro-to-cultural-studies “problematic.” But it’s part of what makes Longmire so resolutely western, and its setting is, in some ways, the show’s strength. The pilot, especially, was astoundingly beautiful, with wide shots of sprawling ranchland building into snowy mountains.  At one point a herd of antelope arc across a field, in a visual echo of “Home on the Range.”

Absaroka is in a lonesome corner of Wyoming — “That’s practically Montana,” someone says of it — and its rural police force is low on resources and high on vigilante ethic. Longmire actively hates and avoids involvement from the feds, scoffs at computers and cell phones, and, conveniently for the show, has to do most of the work on every case by himself. And the purported lawlessness of the mountain west might help to explain why such bucolic surroundings experience so many homicides: “This is Wyoming,” a character explains. “Everyone hears gunshots.”

And this isolation means that Longmire interacts with cultural enclaves that exist sheltered by the mountains — we might think of the Indian reservation this way. In the show’s second episode Longmire encounters a group of Mennonite kids who are on their rumspringa, the time in late adolescence when they live apart from their families before deciding whether whey want to stay on the Mennonite colony for good. He visits the colony and its inhabitants are wearing full Amish garb, riding in horse-drawn carriages, and speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. The Mennonite girl who was murdered is a stripper in a nearby town, one that has experienced an economic surge thanks to the discovery of oil nearby. The tension stemming from an energy boom on the once-empty range is refreshingly real — this is an issue that people living in this region are actually dealing with, rather than an exaggeration or a product of cultural myth, John Wayne’s western fantasia.

Life in big sky country isn’t as remote as Longmire would have you believe, but in the show’s sweeping views of field, mountain, forest, and sky, there is the sense that true wilderness is startlingly close. Maybe that’s why the lives of the animal citizens of Absaroka County are protected just as strenuously by its police force as its human ones—in the pilot, Vic is sent out to investigate the shooting of a sheep before they come upon the man who was murdered. In the barn fire, two champion show horses are killed and a third is badly injured. Longmire’s father was a farrier, and he takes a shine to the surviving horse — he pays for the horse’s veterinary bills, visits it at the vet’s office and keeps it company. 

When it seems like the horse is going to die, Longmire talks to it, and tells it that it doesn’t have to prove how tough it is. “It’s okay to go,” he tells it. This moment is quiet, well acted, and genuinely moving — as are Longmire’s love for his daughter and his grief for his wife. And in this way, Longmire succeeds. It may not be subtle or original, but there is something real working beneath its surface. Like its protagonist, Longmire is plodding, but it’s got some heart.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording, a polymath and the finest horse trainer of her time. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Just a Silhouette" - Exlovers (mp3)

"Emily" - Exlovers (mp3)

The new album from Exlovers is entitled Moth.


Tuesday
Jun052012

In Which We Cite The Original For A Change

But I’m a Cheerleader

by ALICE BOLIN

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui
86 minutes

As far as high school movies go, as far as the line between the comic and the uncanny, for what it’s worth, the original, early-nineties Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes a turn for the weird almost immediately. In the first scene, high school queen bee Buffy, played by Kristy Swanson, and her fellow cheerleaders perform a dance routine at a basketball game. The film’s first lines of dialogue come from the school’s basketball coach, giving his players a pep talk. “Repeat after me,” he says. “I am a person. I have a right to the ball.” His self-help-y rhetoric continues in the other game shown in the movie. “You’re in,” he tells a player. “Now remember: you’re special. Assert your personhood! Actualize!” “Score some uh… points!” he calls from the sidelines.

The basketball coach isn’t an important character; he has no bearing on the plot, and he doesn’t even interact with any of the film’s major characters. He is only part of the absurdity that the film’s horror elements afford it. There are many features of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in addition to its goth-punk vampires, that feel almost imaginary, a step beyond the real. Take Buffy’s supremely self-absorbed parents. “Kiss noise!” her mother calls as she and Buffy’s father take off for the weekend. When Buffy comes home dirty and bruised from fighting vampires in the graveyard, her mother meets her at the door, looking stern. “Do you know what time it is?” she asks. “A little after ten?” Buffy says. Her mother looks at her watch. “I knew this thing was slow. You pay a fortune for something!”

There’s also Buffy’s school principal, played by Stephen Root, who, believing Buffy is on drugs after her attendance slips once she begins fighting vampires, tells her a long story about taking acid at a Doobie Brothers concert and thinking he had turned into a giant toaster. Even the school’s mascot — The Hogs — feels a little not-quite-right. This heightened reality is one of the things that make Buffy the Vampire Slayer so enjoyable and special; it is also a reason it is surprising that the film hasn’t received more cult acclaim. What, after all, do cult audiences desire more than camp?

The immense success of the Buffy TV series has not been good for the film’s reputation, and Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon, who wrote the film, has distanced himself from it, saying that his vision for it was darker and less comedic. “It didn’t turn out to be the movie that I had written,” Whedon said. “They never do, but that was my first lesson in that.” He walked off the film because he couldn’t stand the presence of Donald Sutherland, who played Buffy’s guardian “watcher” Merrick, and who, according to Whedon, was “a prick” with “a very bad attitude.” So his devoted fans have exiled the Buffy movie from the Whedon canon. This is really too bad.

It is true that the film is strange and uneven, with a plot that might not make complete sense even after many viewings. Los Angeles experiences a rash of vampire attacks, so superficial valley girl Buffy is sought by the watcher, Merrick, as the latest in the long line of slayers fighting the vampire kingpin, Lothos (Rutger Hauer). Midway through the film, when Lothos kills Merrick as Merrick is trying to protect Buffy, Merrick tells her to listen for when the music stops; then, he echoes Hamlet, the rest is silence. This cryptic wisdom about the music and silence somehow helps Buffy to defeat Lothos in their final conflict at her high school’s senior dance, in ways that aren’t totally clear. But the film is also hilarious and delightful, and an artifact of a kind of feminism unique to its time, one we might think of as genuine “girl power,” less cynical than The Spice Girls’ packaged independent-women schtick.

In fact, this feminism is the guiding ethic of the film: any man who displays sexist attitudes is swiftly and often gruesomely punished. At times it is up to the universe to avenge misogyny. Buffy’s ultimate love interest and partner in vampire elimination is the grungy mechanic Pike, played by Luke Perry. When they first meet, though, Buffy and her friends clash with Pike and his friend Benny, played by David Arquette, at hangout spot Café Blasé. Afterwards Pike and Benny wander drunk at the top of some cliffs, and Benny complains about Buffy and her friends. “Those rich bitches are a plague,” Benny says. “Like they’re not even human.” “But would you bone ‘em?” Pike asks. Benny says emphatically that he would, especially Buffy. “You’re disgusting,” says the noble Pike. “You don’t even like her, and you’d sleep with her.” Immediately after, Pike passes out on the street and is rescued by Merrick, and a vampire flies up behind Benny and bites him on the neck.

More often, though, this justice is meted out by Buffy herself. At the café, Benny taunts Buffy with a hot dog held to his crotch, which she spears in two with a butter knife. Lothos’ clownish right-hand-man, played by Paul Reubens, says, “Admit it, Buffy. Aren’t there times when you feel less than fresh?” shortly before she drives a stake into his heart. Some bikers catcall her on the street, asking if she wants “some real power between her legs.” “Yeah I do,” Buffy replies, throwing one of them to the ground and riding off on his bike. “Dyke!” they call after her. “You’re a dyke!”

We have in Buffy’s avenging spirit a depiction of girlhood that is smart, sympathetic, and legitimately empowering. Buffy was one in a string of young female characters in the early nineties who were naïve and superficial but also goodhearted and confident — this rehabilitation of the valley girl included Parker Posey’s downtown club kid-turned-librarian in Party Girl and culminated with benevolent Beverly Hills socialite Cher Horowitz in Clueless. (We may remember that Cher was saving herself for Luke Perry.) In these movies, the main characters may become more responsible and less self-involved, but they don’t lose their admirable qualities — those qualities are actually what enable their transformation.

Even more refreshingly, these characters are not punished for not knowing everything, nor for being beautiful or interested in fashion, parties, or other traditionally frivolous things. This is a version of female empowerment that is not, thank you God, just a repudiation of the feminine — though Buffy becomes more hardcore, she ultimately defeats Lothos wearing a ruffly white dress.

Relatedly, importantly, Buffy is a testament to teenage-girl aggression. Buffy’s dual identities as cheerleader/prom queen/mall rat and anti-vampire warrior are not really that incongruous — Swanson looks like the beautiful but terrifying volleyball players who rule every high school. The film has a training montage, of course, with Buffy doing gymnastics and karate kicks and using a punching bag, but we are also to understand that Buffy’s slayer-ness was inborn; she has always been “the chosen one,” and her character is fierce and snotty from the outset. When she first meets Merrick, she is understandably suspicious of him. “All right, let’s get this straight,” she says. “You want me to go to the graveyard with you because I’m the chosen one and there are vampires? Does Elvis talk to you? Does he tell you to do things?” Later she complains that Merrick doesn’t do enough to help her fight the vampires. “I play my part,” Merrick says. “You can play with your part all you want, but it’s my neck on the block,” she replies.

In fact, it is Buffy’s snottiness, her defiance, that leads to her success. “None of the other girls ever gave me this much trouble,” Merrick says when Buffy insists on cheerleading at a basketball game. “And where are they now? Hello,” Buffy says. As Merrick is dying, he commends her for making trouble. “You do everything wrong,” he tells her. “Do it wrong. Don’t play our game.” Buffy says at one point that it is her “keen fashion sense” that sets her apart from the other slayers, and while this does eventually help her with Lothos — she holds a burning cross to his face and then sprays it with hairspray — it really is her sense of self that distinguishes her. Lothos attempts to use a supernatural charisma to overpower her, but Buffy refuses to be seduced by his narratives: “You and I are joined,” Lothos says, and “You are my destiny.” “You and I are one,” he tells Buffy. “One what?” she says. “Cute couple? I don’t think so!”

If in Buffy the Vampire Slayer we have an innovative depiction of feminine strength, we have an equally liberating take on masculinity. At the scene of Buffy’s first confrontation with Lothos, Pike shows up unexpectedly, ready to slay some vampires. “What are you doing here?” she asks him. “I’m saving your butt,” he says. She looks at him skeptically, and he backpedals. “Well, it was more like an exchange of butts.” The dynamics of protection in their relationship are based on exchange. Buffy is certainly no damsel in distress — in the last scene, she prepares to leave the dance to fight Lothos’ hoards. “I’m not going to let you go out there by yourself,” Pike says. “Don’t piss me off,” Buffy says, then she kisses him and goes by herself into the night. But it isn’t a pure role reversal either, with Buffy constantly saving Pike from peril. Their relationship is a real partnership, where neither is resentful of the other’s strength.

Here we have an illustration of what pages of feminist theory will tell you: that subverting the patriarchal order makes both men and women better. “You know what it’s like when everything’s suddenly different?” Buffy asks Pike after their first joint skirmish with the vampires. “You find yourself babbling incoherently to a strange man in your living room.” “Are you calling me a man?” Pike asks. Pike is more grown up, more manly, because he values Buffy for her power and lets her exercise it. It’s pretty beautiful.

Before the vampires descend on the dance, Pike says, “Buffy, you’re not like other girls.” Buffy shakes her head. “Yes I am,” she says. The equality present in Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t a result of its heroine’s remarkable strength — it’s a result of male and female characters who are allowed both strength and weakness, who can rely on one another, who don’t always have to be remarkable. There is an amazing moment at the very end of the film, after Buffy and Pike have defeated Lothos. In the midst of the destruction the vampires have wrought in the school gym, Pike tells Buffy he’s saved her a dance. “I suppose you’ll want to lead?” he asks her. “No,” she says. “Me neither,” he says.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the explanation. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Dear Believe" - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (mp3)

"All Wash Out" - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (mp3)

The second album from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, entitled Here, was released on May 29th.

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