Monday, October 15, 2012

Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids, and the Female VomCom

After seeing Pitch Perfect this weekend, I found that my review of the movie could be summarized in one squeamishly staunch opinion: I hated all that vomit.  Because of an annoying case of emetophobia, I was slightly traumatized by the sudden barfiness of Anna Camp's Aubrey within the first five minutes, and never quite recovered my taste for the movie after that.  Aubrey became sort of a barfing time bomb in her uptight antagonism, and her presence onscreen made me instantly worried what the filmmakers had up their sleeve - or regurgitating out of Aubrey's mouth.  And just as I found myself relaxing into the pleasant lack of puking through the film's middle, there came an extended projectile vomiting scene to bring all that trauma screaming right back to me.

When it was all over and done with, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.  I was prepped and ready to love this film!  Female ensemble comedy?  A cappella singing?  Penned by Kay Cannon? Starring Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow and Rebel Wilson and Anna Camp and and and?  It was like Hollywood planets aligned to create a film for the express purpose of delivering directly to my doorstep with a note reading, "For you" with a little smiley face.  And maybe with a box of chocolates for good measure, which I probably wouldn't eat because who eats food anonymously left on one's doorstep?

But you get my point.  And you understand that going to see Pitch Perfect felt a lot like opening my door, discovering that beautiful package left for me, and realizing it was covered in barf.  So with this twinge of disappointment, I also feel a little twinge of guilt.  This was for me!  I was supposed to love this weird barf-covered delivery!  It's a lady comedy with singing!  And yet, I really couldn't give in and love it wholly and now I am sad.  So, I'm trying to negotiate the unfortunate dissonance between expectation and reality, and of course, all that puking.

It's difficult to mention Pitch Perfect without bringing up the film's clear predecessor - no, not Glee.   Bridesmaids.  The 2011 film kicked down a door for female comedy that refuses to don a "chick flick" label and instead hits notes of broad comedy, buddy comedy, sex comedy, and raunch comedy - all subgenres previously restricted to those dudes in Apatow movies.  And not only did Bridesmaids kick down that door, it strode through and was welcomed with applause.  Commercially and critically successful, Bridesmaids announced to Hollywood what should be (but, annoyingly, isn't) plainly obvious to the rest of the world: women are funny!  Women can be in comedy ensembles without looking like a Cathy cartoon!  Women can make jokes about how female comedy usually looks like it's a Cathy cartoon!  Pitch Perfect follows easily in the footsteps of Bridesmaids: both films feature talented female ensembles; they're both penned by women with strong comedy backgrounds; they both aim to make "female comedy" just "comedy," regardless of the gender of the actors.  They are also marketed the same way, as both movie posters feature the women in a line-up against a gritty backdrop, with expressions reading "don't fuck with us."

And, of course, they both contain a fairly over-the-top gross-out element.  In Pitch Perfect, it's the barfing that eventually leads to a physical brawl for leadership.  In Bridesmaids, it's the girls lunch at a Brazilian restaurant that results in a mass attack of food poisoning at the dress shop.  (And, y'know, Maya Rudolph's Lillian shitting in the street.  In a big, poofy, Disney-princess white dress.)

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect both have dedicated time for gross-out humor and the ensuing antics.  These two films exist to deconstruct traditional gender associations for Big Screen Females.  Characters like Annie Walker are meant to maintain the relatability of a "chick flick" lead, but expand the usual limits by including the awkward and messy realities of modern women.  She swears, she gets drunk, she talks about sex, she has sex, she feels alienated from her best friend, she messes up relationships, she has dreams, she has regrets, she has friends, she makes mistakes, she has good intentions, she acts like an asshole sometimes - not a bitch, an asshole - and she apologizes when she needs to.  She exists independently of a man, but it doesn't mean she's an Ice Queen who refuses love.  She has sex, but she's not a slut/whore/tramp/trollop/hussy/take your pick.  She may not look like what you're used to seeing in high-gloss onscreen females, but she's ultimately real, and relatable.

Furthermore, the relationships in these films are meant to redefine the boundaries of traditional onscreen female dynamics: in both Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, there are women who are friends, women who are at odds because of ideology, women who don't get along, women who make out with each other, women who love each other, women who respect each other.  Both films pass the Bechdel Test with repeated and sustained ease.  Characters like Melissa McCarthy's Megan and Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy are subverted away from body self-consciousness and towards brassy self-confidence, both of them generating comedy in their characters as opposed to having comedy derived from their character's weight.  These are active characters, active women, engaged in the narrative in all its messy glory, and we're finally at a place where people will pay money to see these three-dimensional and empowered women onscreen.

So it only makes sense that this deconstruction of traditional expectations for big screen ladies extends in parallel to the types of comedy onscreen women engage in.  And here comes all the barfing.  Gross-out humor is usually reserved for male-dominated comedies; the "raunch-com" of Judd Apatow is a commercially successful formula: romance for the women, raunchy comedy for the guys.  Women are rarely included in the low-brow humor, because it's simply not "ladylike."  She's never in on the joke - the famous semen-as-hair-gel scene from There's Something About Mary is a classic example.  It's a guy-specific masturbation joke that includes Mary only insofar as she's completely clueless as to what the joke is.  She puts semen in her hair thinking it's hair gel, and Ted is embarrassed about it but can't bring himself to say something, and all the while we're laughing hysterically as Mary cheerily goes about her date with her hair stiffened into a ridiculous, gravity-defying swoop.  Mary is simply an object in that joke.  She's not the subject.  She's not the barfer, the masturbator, the one exuding body fluids in any way.  (Women get tears.  That's the one body fluid we're allowed to secrete onscreen.  In action movies we are sometimes allowed to secrete blood, as long as it is blood spilled so the male hero can avenge us or protect us.  Also, I'd just like to apologize for using the word "secrete."  Twice.)

On the one hand, I love the idea that Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect are decreeing "female comedy" mere "comedy" with the inclusion of male-ascribed body humor.  (Or bawdy humor.  Who didn't love Megan's in-flight seduction of Air Marshal Jon, or Stacie's casual reference to her own vagina as not only a hunter but a male one at that?)  But frankly, I'm not really a body humor type of audience member.  Body humor involves a kind of outrageousness to it, which, combined with the usual cringe factor, doesn't quite tickle my fancy.  Also the severe emetophobia probably doesn't make me a great candidate for barf-related chuckles.  Which is fine; it's awfully presumptuous to expect that all female-led films will cater exactly to my tastes.  But the cynical side of me wonders: does the specific effort of Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect to include gross-out humor really break gender norms, or is it merely a way to somehow "validate" the movie as a "real" comedy and not just a "chick flick?"  It's as though the expulsion of body fluids is a badge of honor, somehow.  It seems to say, loud and proud, "We're not that kind of movie," and purposefully distances itself from being labeled with the "chick flick" target of ridicule.

Pitch Perfect in particular seemed to have this attitude more than Bridesmaids, confusing the words "chick flick" with "movies with feelings."  Perhaps skittish about being compared to their show choir counterpart, the overly-saccharine and heavily-messaged trainwreck that is Glee, Pitch Perfect chose instead to undercook their emotional moments.  After all, the "being different is what makes us better" theme, however wonderful, is nothing new - especially in a post-Gaga world.  Sometimes, this express decision worked for Pitch Perfect.  It was refreshing to avoid the lame suspense of a "who's going to win the championship?" moment with an overblown confetti payoff, which the film skipped completely.  It was equally as refreshing to see the love-interest-as-competitor conflict between Anna Kendrick's Beca and Skylar Astin's Jesse underplayed with minimum blowout.

But I do think this insistence to avoid stereotype and schmaltz came at something of a price to the film's structure, relationships, and thematic success.  For one, Chloe's approach of Beca as a possible recruit for the Barden Bellas was never paid off.  Chloe got right up in Beca's face and said, "I think we're going to be fast friends."  And then they never spoke to each other again.  In fact, no one was really friends until the last second, when it was time to come together for the championships.  The entire middle part of the film dragged out the conflict between Aubrey and Beca, and Chloe, who was in a position to actively progress this conflict, was almost cut out completely.  Instead of removing Aubrey from her position as dictator of the Bellas and allowing new conflicts to arise in the progression of Beca's change, the whole second act consisted of them singing "I Saw the Sign" over and over and over again.  It was maddening.  Why string out one joyless and one-dimensional conflict over the stretch of your movie?  This makes no sense to me.  I'm pretty sure I audibly groaned in the theater when we had to hear the "I Saw the Sign" mashup for the third time.  I know it was the intended audience reaction, but I seriously won't listen to that mashup on the soundtrack.  That is how much the movie made me dislike it.  

Of course, this all boomerangs back around to the barf.  For every time that "I Saw the Sign" made an appearance, I was immediately on High Barf Alert.  And when the filmmakers finally, finally remembered that Chloe was a character and also that they had a plot to get on with, right before the film's conclusion, they decided to return to the puke motif.  As the leadership of the Bellas crumbled and multiple members made a bid for the throne, Aubrey threatened to lose control and then projectile vomited all over the floor.  And then Beca walked in and they all decided to have a happy sharing circle, as the movie finally got to the point I'd been waiting for since the story's inciting incident: Becam joining the Bellas.  Except, like my doorstep delivery, it was covered in barf.  Every ounce of emotional payoff I'd been waiting for in the bonding scene was completely pointless because I could not believe they were having their Kumbaya moment six feet away from a monster puddle of vomit.  It must have smelled foul in there.

It's this express choice by Pitch Perfect to skirt away from valid emotional setup and payoff by pairing it with vomit humor that annoys me.  Bridesmaids told the story of a woman and her relationship with her best friend that was changing beyond her control, and it did so with emotional poignance.  You could even argue that the core of that film is the love story between Lillian and Annie.  But Pitch Perfect?  What exactly is the story being told?  It wasn't really the story of a group of girls choosing to be different and reaping the benefits.  It wasn't really a coming-together story.  It wasn't even really a nuanced story about relationships, or a cliché about how this one girl changed the face of the Bellas forever.  At most, it was a movie about Beca learning how to not be so emotionally constipated and try, for once in her life. And that story was split evenly between the Bellas and the subplot with Jesse, the latter of which received more emotional attention, progression, and pacing.  Pitch Perfect passes the Bechdel Test, but only in a crunch of numbers; the fear of being too "chick flick" sentimental seemed to swing any emotion away from the all-female Bellas and, ironically, into a rather basic guy-and-girl love story.

So the vomit is disappointing to me on a level that goes beyond my mere phobia.  It seemed to be included in the movie as a pointed and over-the-top signifier that this wasn't just a "chick flick," and was wielded in a way that precluded any moment of rest for emotional payoff or significance.  In fact, emotional beats tended to belong to the Beca-and-Jesse love story, which, when paired with the insistence to avoid female-centric emotion, sours me from the film.  Not unlike its main character, the movie seemed to not only be allergic to feelings, but completely ignorant of them.  So while Pitch Perfect had rhythm and song, it didn't really have a lot of heart.  It actively refused to go there.  And regardless of gender stereotypes, I want all of my movies to have heart.  Somehow instead all I got was a lot of barf.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x05 - "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date"

Season One hemlines
creep further of Buffy's thighs.
Now that is scary.


Admittedly, I don't have much to say about "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date."  It's an episode that I find ultimately necessary in the conflict it presents to Buffy, but also a bit rote, simply because we know exactly how it's all going to play out.  Buffy struggles to exert her own choice to be a normal teenage girl over her Slayerly duties, and in doing so, puts some people in danger.  She realizes the complication and risks aren't worth it, and devotes herself to the unfortunate responsibility of her position.  While we're waiting for her to get there, Giles protests just enough, Buffy fights back just enough, and we know that they'll meet in the middle at hour's end.  There's a cute but dull boy we know won't be sticking around, but that we like enough to sit through Buffy's interest in him.  Cordelia's there to provide romantic opposition and basic conflict, but doesn't pan out to much consequence.  In short, we know exactly how the episode goes, and the Buffy writers do their best to make it at least quippy, interesting, and authentically emotional for Buffy.

The main thing that succeeds in transcending the premise is Buffy's relationship with Giles.  This is the true establishment of Giles and Buffy's father-daughter dynamic, completely fleshed out in one hour.  They are slightly alienated to one another by age and personality contrast - and job description, in that Buffy is the doer and Giles the thinker.  As such, they are no strangers to the power struggle, both wielding generation-specific sarcasm to the best of their ability.  They butt heads over Buffy's duties, but ultimately Giles relents in an effort to give Buffy what she wants, and when he gets in trouble, Buffy is there to save him.  Their differences are ultimately set aside at the end of the episode when Buffy blames herself for Giles' endangerment, only to be met with sympathy and praise from her oft-critical Watcher.  The coming-together is embodied nicely with Giles literally relating to Buffy's inner conflict: he wanted to be a fighter pilot (or a grocer) when he was younger, but unfortunately, his familial duty came knocking, and so a Watcher he became.  In other words, he knows how hard it is to choose devotion over personal choice.

(Sidenote: is anyone else super-intrigued by Giles' grandmother Watcher?  And, furthermore, is this mythology explored at all in further episodes?  I suppose the existence of the Watcher's Council means that not all Watchers are tasked with curating a Slayer one-on-one... but the idea that Watcher tradition runs through families seems a bit incongruous to what we learn later.  Which is kind of a shame, because I really want to know about Grandma Giles.  I would have liked to know more female watchers in general, frankly.  It would help assuage the slightly disturbing patriarchy of the Slayer tradition.)

Beyond the establishment of Giles and Buffy's dynamic, the main draw for the episode lies with the decision Buffy makes at the end of it.  In "Welcome to the Hellmouth," Buffy is set up as a reluctant hero, and so "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" serves to officially reverse that decision: Buffy makes a choice, at hour's end, to honor her Slayer duties instead of attempting to maintain social normalcy.  A reluctant hero no longer, Buffy is now imbued with the intrinsic conflict of being a teenage girl and superhero: how can you be both people at once?  This duality was demonstrated well, if a bit predictably, in the episode.  Owen picks up on the seemingly divergent Buffys, and Buffy herself uses the concept to explain to him why she has to ditch their date so suddenly.

What's even more interesting about this duality is the choices the wardrobe department makes for the episode.  Let me speak for a moment about the haiku.  (I especially wanted to explain so I don't seem like a big ol' slut-shamer.)  It was evident to me, even when I wrote the above haiku three years ago, that this episode dresses Buffy in very short dresses.  At first I thought, how impractical for hand-to-hand combat!  Then, I simply hand-waved it away as Season 1 trying a bit too hard to make their point that Buffy is a normal teenage girl who happens to be the appointed as the one person standing between the world and supernatural calamity.  After all, this season is very much about establishing the subversion of construct: Buffy is a peppy teenager who likes boys and cheerleading, but who was chosen for something much more cosmically eminent.  So, this season tends to dress Buffy in mini-skirts, halter tops, and platform heels, in popular style.  Femininity and Slaying are not mutually exclusive!  Which, as a message, I quite like.

Before long, we start to see Buffy's wardrobe match "hard" or "masculine" fashion with "soft" or "feminine" fashion, representing her "dual" identity as a young woman action hero.  It's a commentary on the merging of two traditionally opposite concepts - and it's why we see, in "Prophecy Girl," Buffy dressed in a fluffy white dress (feminine, for the "normal" school dance) with a leather jacket over it (masculine, for the practical purposes of slaying).  It's an embodiment of this character's construction, communicated in clothing language.  These were choices carefully made, for this character, her internal conflict, and her place in the narrative.  The decisions extend to "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date."  Buffy wears traditionally feminine clothing for much of the episode, in an effort to exert her identity as a "normal teenage girl."  The clothing helps identify that Buffy's pushing really hard to have this lifestyle, even though it's perhaps a fruitless endeavor.

But at the end of the episode?  Buffy makes her choice.  She carries with her the inherent friction of her double life, her two personas, and that will ultimately reflect in the clothing.  She'll wear leather jackets, and boots, and structured blazers, which all code as "masculine."  But "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" shows Buffy trying to be one thing, not the other, and so we have very short hemlines and some pretty great 90s sartorial gems.  (I feel like that could easily be the actual explanation for Buffy's S1 wardrobe.  It was just the 90s - the 1990s, in point of fact, to quote Miss Summers herself.  90s fashion looks terrible to the new century's eyes.  Why did we ever wear that?)

Beyond these highlights, the rest of the episode is a bit lackluster, for me.  Cordelia as a romantic villain is tiresome, and I honestly didn't care about Owen (or Buffy's interest in him) all that much.  His purpose in the episode is entirely predictable, though I definitely felt for Buffy's plight on principle.  The introduction of The Anointed is exciting in theory, but knowing how it pans out puts a damper on the supposed looming danger that's predicted for the Slayer.  In all, "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" is an episode perhaps necessary only in its devotion to delineating the virtual impossibility of Buffy maintaining a personal life.  It's a bit burdened by this necessity, as well as with the necessity of introducing and jumpstarting the season-long Big Bad.  So, I just aww'd at Giles and Buffy's relationship, and thought way too much about what Buffy was wearing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The RBI Report: "The Break-Up"

For the sole reason of having razed to the ground three of his show's most popular couples in one single episode, I can now confirm that Ryan Murphy is either a brave man, a reckless man, or a sadist.  (Or maybe all three.)  Regardless, he might need bodyguards for a bit, and maybe a raft to keep himself afloat in the wash of fan's tears.  But for my money, "The Break-Up" was inevitable, and healthy.  It was a necessary episode, to transition this show into its new format, and realistic, to usher these characters out of their youth and into adulthood.  Sure, it teetered dangerously on the edge of over-indulging in its own sadness Kool-Aid, but most of the hour rang sincere in conflict, character, and emotion.  

"The Break Up," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Alfonso Gómez-Rejón

Okay, fine.  I was a little excited for this episode.  I can get behind bold storytelling choices if something interesting might come out of it!  And this was the boldest: four couples taking serious heat and trying to struggle through it.  It's finally confronting the inherent conflict in these relationships, and laying it out to actually make conflict onscreen.  Conflict also means that both partners in the relationship are present in their dynamic - neither is backing down; neither is refusing to give up their own sense of self in the situation.  Speaking as a long-time fan of Rachel and Emma in particular gaining relationship backbones, this was like heaven.  No, I don't like sadness, but it's hard to say no to this sadness when it comes on the heels of truth.  "The Break-Up" finally called every bluff, and brought each relationship to a place of shoe-drop realism that has been brewing innocently (and circuitously) for seasons now.  Characterization was strong, and even though a bit wonk in a few places, it was hard not to empathize with all these growing pains.  Let's commence the glorious gloom...

Finn and Rachel: 

So, Glee made the smart decision of skipping right over Rachel having to awkwardly explain to Finn what she and Brody were doing on a blanket in the middle of her apartment when he knocked on her door.  Brody is really just a superficial issue in Rachel and Finn's relationship, and luckily, "The Break Up" centered more on the actual character conflicts at work.  Turns out Finn was only in the army a few weeks before he accidentally shot himself in the leg and got an semi-honorary discharge.  Too embarrassed to call Rachel, he backpacked through Georgia for awhile, then finally decided to plant himself on Rachel's doorstep just as she started making out with another dude.  (Awkward.  But again, not the point.)

Here's the thing.  I really love Finn's storyline right now.  This is the storyline that lingered over that boy all during Season 3, but he had a wedding and a relationship he could distract himself with and the writers chose to leave it all undeveloped, much to my frustration.  But now?  Now, it's on, and I couldn't be more excited.  With no army, no high school, and no Rachel, Finn is adrift in a sea of people who know exactly what they want out of life.  High school made that kid a promise.  High school told Finn Hudson he was a star quarterback, and a hero to geeks, and a guy people look up to, and a guy at least one girl will always fall over herself for, no matter what.  High school, and glee club, promised Finn Hudson he was important, and real life is breaking that promise.  Without even the identity of his dad to cling to, Finn doesn't know where he belongs.  Watching him wander through every scene with the vacant expression of a puppy trying to find his way home was actually heartbreaking.  (And this is coming from someone who usually doesn't find Finn all that heartbreaking.)

I will admit, right now, that this is the sort of storyline that I've always wanted to see for Quinn.  Promises from a carefree youth being swiftly broken resulting in major identity crisis?  It's been on Miss Fabray's dance card since Season 1.  But Finn started in a similar character paradigm to Quinn, and the question of his identity (or dreams, as the show prefers to put it) has been in place since the beginning of Season 3.  I'm dearly excited to see Glee make good on this promise and actually do something with this kid that's self-directed.  I'm tired of seeing Finn feel alienated from sports and singing, only to try and latch onto auto repair, like Burt, or the army, like his dad, or New York, like Rachel.  Get this boy his own dreams, and stat!  Let's do this!

Thus, to that end, I'm not terribly upset about the break-up with Rachel, simply because Finn Hudson needs independence in order to actually find himself.  And what was actually great about the break-up with Rachel was that Rachel not only encouraged that for Finn, she asserted it on her own behalf as well.  This was the even-sided, two-person, mature argument that I always wished Finchel had!  There were no low blows, no guilt-throwing, no Rachel or Finn giving in to the other's wishes.  I loved Rachel's "I don't need you to give me my freedom," and the simple reassurance "you have you."  Not only that, but the writing did a good job of reminding us of the more innocent times in the Rachel-and-Finn history.  (Finn suggesting Grease as a musical idea, in honor of his first glee rehearsal, was a nice touch.  My heart also twinged when Rachel reminded Finn that he was the first boy who made her feel visible.)  Overall, the break-up may have been sad, but it was fitting, character-appropriate, and poignant.  I'm excited to see these two on their individual journeys.

Kurt and Blaine:

I'm just gonna confess right away: I felt the least amount of empathy for Kurt and Blaine, mostly because their break-up felt so contrived.  I don't mean to say that I don't think that Kurt and Blaine had no reason to break up.  Honestly, I was on board with all long-distance break-ups simply in favor of realism and character arc.  Certainly for Brittany/Santana and Kurt/Blaine in particular, long distance is difficult to sustain.  I don't expect it to be problem-free, and I'm glad that it's not.  However, the introduction of Blaine's cheating made for a cheap and easy break.  It came out of nowhere, introduced solely by a close-up of a Facebook app, and was referenced in dialogue only.  We have no face for this sudden conflict, and hanging it on Kurt and Blaine's long-distance issues was a shallow redirect from the point.  It would be like the writers making Finn and Rachel break up solely because of Brody.  

So, I'm a little disappointed that Glee didn't bother exploring the issues at hand with Kurt and Blaine, and just dropped a bomb on them instead - especially when they had a big opportunity with the stripped-down version of "Teenage Dream."  When I first heard that this was on the docket for "The Break-Up," I felt a flicker of excitement.  This could be highly effective: using the same song under different circumstances, with new information, completely changes the meaning of the song while still painfully calling on its original connotation.  It could be heartbreakingly bittersweet, if used properly.  But "Teenage Dream," instead of serving as a wistful bookend to a relationship that meant a lot to these boys in their sometimes-bleak adolescence, was used as an awkward bomb of sadness in a karaoke bar before Kurt even know what was wrong.  I spent most of the song wondering what Blaine's motivations were for singing so desperately in public and why no one at the bar seemed to think it was super awkward.  But since the book never closed on Kurt-and-Blaine, there was nowhere to place "Teenage Dream" as a capper.  

As a result: minimal empathy.  Oh, I wanted to lament the sad inevitable break-up of two teenagers on the verge of adulthood, who couldn't continue to provide the same levity and support for one another that they did in their youth.  (Is that cheesy?  Okay, it's a little cheesy.  But hey, it's the best way to sum up the good parts of Kurt and Blaine's relationship.)  But alas, I did little lamenting, wondering how exactly we went from moping to cheating, and feeling like there should be something more to Blaine's POV than "I miss you."  Kurt perhaps said it best: everything was "weirdly sad."  Or maybe just "weird and sad."  Mostly I just wish the writers had chosen another way to break these two up more amicably, and with more attention to character nuance.

Brittany and Santana:

In the end, it was the once-villainous cheerleaders that got the most mature break-up of the bunch.  Their first part in "The Break-Up" made little sense, though.  In order to introduce the fact that Brittany felt left behind by Santana, the episode went out of its way to create a clunky "Left Behind" club for Brittany to participate in.  This was really, really unnecessary, and mostly resulted in showing that Kitty's character is scrapped together with the leftover dialogue of Sue Sylvester and the ghost of Quinn and Santana's original character purposes.  It was way too "out there" for such an emotionally grounded episode, and while it was maybe used to lighten everything up, the contrast just felt too stark.  Also, what's with all the sudden screentime for Tina's assistant?  The whole endeavor was pointless.  Surely there were more simple ways for Brittany to communicate feeling left behind to Santana.

Anyways, Santana decided they should break up, sort of, so that they don't become one of those long-distance couples who try to stay together but eventually fall apart when things get weird or one of them cheats.  (Read: when they turn into Finchel or Klaine.  Once again, Santana's providing meta commentary.)  Their whole break-up scene was particularly heartwrenching, although I confess to not quite understanding the reason to sing "Mine."  It's very sweet, but if I were Brittany, I'd be like, "Couldn't you have picked a better song to communicate what you're trying to say?  Because I still don't get it."  But I'm being picky.  Any weird Taylor Swift song choices were immediately forgotten with one line of dialogue: "I will always love you the most."  Oh, geez.  I was having a really hard time not sobbing into a tissue whilst creating a montage in my head of all of Santana's coming-out struggles and the genuine smiles she gave to Brittany and Brittany only.  (Turns out I only had to wait a few minutes until the episode all but did that for me, but still.)  

In all, Brittany and Santana's break-up gave me a better sense of what I wanted to see from Kurt and Blaine's: that these relationships were hugely important to the individual characters on their journeys, specifically to Santana and Kurt as gay teenagers.  Both relationships served almost as refuges to these LGBTQ teenagers who were brave enough to endeavor adolescent love and dating in a society that tried to keep them from doing that and even from believing it was possible.  Even typing that sentence gets me a little misty-eyed; I won't lie.  What can I say?  I must be going soft.

Will and Emma:

There's not much to report here.  Will got that spot on the Blue Ribbon Panel for Giving Money to the Arts or Something, and wants Emma to come with him to Washington DC for a few months.  Emma says no, she likes her job.  Will says it doesn't seem that crazy.  Emma turns to walk out, and Will says they still need to talk about this.  Emma replies: "We already did; you just don't like what I have to say."

And then I cheered.

(Okay, on the serious, there's hardly enough content here to really get a feel for the Will/Emma conflict right now.  I'm just glad Emma's not only presenting as a real character onscreen and in the relationship, but also sticking up for this newfound POV.)

Jake and Marley:

The choice to include little tidbits on this surely-blossoming relationship reaped both interest and indifference.  It was smart to use them in contrast to Blaine and Brittany, watching a relationship begin with the knowledge that theirs might be ending soon.  I just wish that contrast was more of a presence in the episode, creating a stronger tether to the more emotional fare of the evening.  It was hard to care about Jake and Marley, characters we hardly know, when familiar relationships were undergoing serious drama.  Aside from that, the dynamic is interesting in that it's set up with many of the same constructs of Glee's Season 1 conflicts and interactions, but seems to be side-stepping the same progression in favor of something a bit more unique.  I'll take it.

Finally, I can't let this recap go by without gushing over the direction - in particular the cinematography and editing.  Alfonso Gómez-Rejón delivered a seriously impressive number of shots that spoke to the story's character interactions and conflicts.  The Kurt-Blaine phone call was cleverly executed, with the splitscreen swapping back and forth, and the final camera movements that resulted in the characters facing each other in their respective locations.  There were several great mirror shots used for Finn and Kurt, and a smart shot of Finn being framed by - or constricted by? - the dark curtains in Rachel's bedroom.  The choice to stay on Finn's face watching  Brody and Rachel duet was a fantastic editing decision, and the editing during the NYC couples fights was smartly done as well.  Actually, there was a genius shot in the "Don't Speak" number which showed Kurt and Blaine seemingly nose-to-nose, standing intimately in each other's space, until the camera starts to move and you realize they're actually standing next to each other looking to opposite horizons.  The direction in all the musical numbers was mercifully simple, yet powerful.  (Although - I wasn't as much of a fan of the splitscreens at the end of "Don't Speak" that made it look like Kurt and Blaine and Finn and Rachel all sleep in the same bed like Charlie Bucket's grandparents.  But that is the teensiest of quibbles.  Really, I'm just bringing it up to see if anyone else thought of Willy Wonka.  No?  Just me?  Okay.)

In all, "The Break-Up" was emotionally sincere, character-authentic, and genuinely sad.  Yes, Kurt and Blaine's portion of the hour was underwhelming and poorly developed, and the "Left Behind" and Jake/Marley parts were perhaps misplaced.  But I actually enjoyed "The Break-Up" for its depth of content and attention to character, something not all Glee episodes endeavor to explore and handle so delicately.  Combined with the excellent cinematography and shot direction, and it's hard not to appreciate the episode's efforts.  As long as you have tissues.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: N/A
Dialogue: B
Plot: B
Characterization: B
Episode MVP: Finn Hudson and his heartbreak crisis

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x04 - "Teacher's Pet"

Angel, a stalker?
No, Buff, just your love int'rest.
(He'll grow on you soon.)


"Teacher's Pet" is one of those episodes that you watch once, find delightfully goofy, and put back on the shelf in favor of other, more memorable episodes.  In fact, my reaction at learning this was what I would be watching after the joy of "Witch" was something along the lines of "...oh."  I didn't even have a haiku for this one!  I skipped clear over it - the above selection is actually excised from Buffy's first interaction with Angel.  (Okay, so I cheated.  Shhhh.)  But upon second look, "Teacher's Pet," despite its hokey premise, offers a few points of interest in the choices made for the main characters at play and the "Monster of the Week" they interact with.

"Teacher's Pet" is basically centered around Xander's experience as a teenage boy struggling with the expectations and assumptions people make about teenage boys.  Of course, Xander's status as a teenage boy is made complicated by his friendship with - and crush on - Buffy, who is supernaturally powerful and therefore self-reliant.  Her entire existence rejects the male fantasy of being the "knight in shining armor."  So, in that Buffy, as a character, is a commentary on the damsel in distress, Xander's relationship with Buffy is meant to highlight that subversion.  After all, you can't exactly subvert expectation without making it clear what that expectation is.  So, early on, we see Xander's fantasy play out: he saves Buffy from vampires, in the narrative tradition of superheroes and cowboys, with Buffy playing the role of damsel in distress.  Xander's smoldering and serious, the classic portrait of masculinity, with a hint of bad boy rockstar allure.  Buffy swoons.

Of course, this is just a fantasy.  In reality, this entire episode plays in contrast to Xander's fantasy, as Xander himself carries out the role of damsel: Buffy must come to his rescue.  Ah, here's the subversion!  And because this is Buffy, even the particulars of the "Monster of the Week" rest on a gender-swapped notion.  Instead of a purity sacrifice in the form of female virgins, as most of Giles' listed examples indicates, the She-Mantis is in fact a female, preying on male virgins!  What a twist.  Of course, male virginity opens up a whole cultural can of worms.  Female virginity is simple: if you are a female virgin, you are either cold and uptight, or wholesome and pure.  If you are a female but not a virgin, you are a whore.  Thanks for playing!  Male virginity, however, makes an audience uncomfortable, because we have been trained to believe that men shouldn't be virgins, somehow.  We feel badly for a guy who is a virgin, because society has taught us that all guys like sex and want sex and have sex, and they like it and want it and have it as soon as puberty hits.  Male virginity implies a lack of masculinity, something most teenage boys struggle with, and Xander?  Xander more than most.

This notion made itself apparent early in the episode, when Xander arrived to the Bronze and ran into Blaine, a football jock who questions his masculinity by asking Xander just how many girls Xander's been with.  Xander awkwardly sidesteps the question, fibs, and uses Willow and Buffy to help him out of the situation.  He receives the same question from Miss French, although she has the opposite stance on male virgins owing to the fact that she likes to, well, feast on them.  Even when the issue comes up with Buffy, Willow, and Giles, Buffy immediately assumes Xander's had sex, for no real reason whatsoever.  She just assumes, because... well, don't all teenage boys have sex?  Willow knows the truth, though: Xander is prime mantis-bait.  (But, it turns out, so is Blaine, the football jock who boasted about picking up chicks and tried to make Xander feel less than manly for his lack of sexual experience.  Clearly, he really doesn't want you to know about it.)

Xander's behavior towards Angel is further evidence of him feeling threatened in his perceived place as "the man" in Buffy's life.  Angel is the picture of masculinity, with his leather jacket, chiseled good looks, and tough guy mystery.  Angel is the embodiment of what Xander fantasized for himself at episode's beginning, and Xander sees Buffy swoon for Angel the way he wished she'd swoon for him. (I mean.  In as much as Buffy ever swoons.)  Xander even lashes out at Buffy over her relationship with Angel, as well as her place as his "protector."  Buffy tries to warn Xander about Miss French, but he bites back and accuses her of being jealous.  He immediately acts as though the conversation they're having has something to do with romantic or sexual attraction.  Yet again, Xander's trying to put Buffy, and his relationship with Buffy, into a fantasy that, unfortunately for Xander's ego, just doesn't align with reality.

What's really interesting about "Teacher's Pet," though, is that the episode doesn't attempt to pay off Xander's masculinity issues.  They're definitely present in the construction of the episode, as a theme and a character point.  But they have nothing to do with the emotional resolution of the hour.  "Teacher's Pet" actually brings Xander to apology.  He tells Buffy's he's acting like an idiot and thanks her for saving him.  Most other television shows, with more basic storytelling, would take a plot arc about a character's deflated sense of masculinity and find some way to mollify that.  Other TV shows would give Xander a leather jacket, and a chance to save the girl, and an outlet for potential rockstar image.  But this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  That male fantasy isn't the world we're living in.  Actually, the writers even twist that knife a bit.  They give Xander some sense of masculinity in the form of Miss French's assumed attraction, but it comes with a twist: she's a preying mantis that's going to kill him.  (Kind of a dealbreaker.)  Then Buffy has to save him anyways.  So the whole message amounts to, "Sorry, bub.  We know this sucks, but you just have to get used to it."  The writers did let him hack at a whole nest of eggs, though, so that was at least cathartic.

Instead, the emotional throughline of "Teacher's Pet" actually went to Buffy, and her brief but meaningful interaction with the doomed Dr. Gregory.  In a continuation of Our Lady Hero being scripted as specifically compassionate towards the victims of Sunnydale's shenanigans, "Teacher's Pet" purposefully gives Buffy a connection to the ill-fated first casualty of the She-Mantis.  Dr. Gregory is Buffy's teacher, and at this point, we've seen school to be kind of an nuisance to Buffy.  She's the Slayer, with worldly duties, and pesky homework gets in the way.  She has a permanent record marred with juvenile delinquency, and also that pesky incident where she burned down the gym.  School is not Buffy's sphere, and Buffy knows it - what's worse, so do the members of the academic sphere. 

But the writers created a lovely little emotional nuance for Buffy in "Teacher's Pet," which actually takes the episode's title seriously.  After class, Dr. Gregory pulls Buffy aside to give her a talking-to.  And no, not the kind of talking-to that she's gotten from Principal Flutie, or Joyce, or even Giles.  Dr. Gregory encourages her.  He actually believes in Buffy as a student, and he tells her as much.  He knows she's smart, and he expects good things from her, even though everyone keeps fixating on her record.  Don't listen to the negative opinions, he tells her, and in that moment, you realize this might be the first time that a teacher's reached out to Buffy academically.  This might even be the first time an adult figure has said to Buffy, "You got this," and she's believed them, and wanted to prove them right.  Obviously Giles and Joyce, as adults in Buffy's life, are supportive and encouraging of Buffy, but there's something about Dr. Gregory's attitude that sets him apart.  The problem is not Buffy's lack of focus, or choice of peer group, or disregard for rules, or perceived delinquency.  No, the problem is that Buffy simply doesn't try.  Dr. Gregory tells Buffy that all she has to do is try.  Just do the homework, and show everybody how great a student you are.  That's it.

And, bless her, this makes Buffy want to try.  Call me a nerd, but I can't help but love seeing Buffy try and do well at school, something that usually takes a serious backseat to her Slayer duties.  There's a part of me as well that enjoys seeing Buffy, the reluctant hero, being encouraged to try at all, at anything.  All you have to do is try, Buffy. You can do it.  Of course, keeping up with her homework is a tall order with the weight of the world on her shoulders, so it's really in just this one episode that Buffy can foist the mantle of academia as well.  But, bless the writers, they let her do so.  Buffy insists on doing her homework, and uses the research to solve the mystery of the She-Mantis.  She even calls upon her knowledge to come up with a solution: using bat sonar will destroy the mantis' nervous system.  

This is all particularly touching when you consider that Dr. Gregory's last act was one of encouragement to Buffy, and in carrying out his wish for her, she's honoring his memory.  There's even a cap to it, where Buffy lovingly places Dr. Gregory's forgotten glasses in the pocket of his lab coat.  This whole concept is a lovely little conceit for the episode itself, and one that's unexpected for one in which Buffy is meant to play the role of Superheroine in contrast to Xander's masculinity issues.  Again, this is noteworthy: wouldn't it be easier to make Buffy the clear brawn of the operation, to highlight that Xander isn't?  But "Teacher's Pet" spends its time making Buffy the brains, too.  You could argue that it's thematically dissonant, but I for one love the nuance given there.  

In all, "Teacher's Pet" is actually worth a second look, in that it makes unexpected decisions with its themes of masculinity and heroism.  Sure, there's silly horror-esque moments, and I still cringe at Miss French's seduction of male students, but there's some good content lurking in the shadows.  It's a good sign of things to come for Buffy: even a "creature feature" episode will provide character insight and subverted expectations, and even a poignant moment here and there.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...