Thursday, June 12, 2008

Slayage Conference: Jeanine Basinger




Joss Whedon once said, "I've had two great teachers in my life -- one was my mother, and the other was Jeanine Basinger." On Saturday night, I got to go out to dinner with the second great teacher of Joss's life. Jeanine Basinger is one of the world's leading film historians. She was a professor and mentor to Whedon when he was at Wesleyan College, and also boasts among her students Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), Matt Weiner (Sopranos, Mad Men), Alex Kurtzman (Alias, Fringe, Transformers), Toby Emmerich (exec producer of too many to mention), Michael Bay (any film with a giant stylized explosion in it), and many, many, many others.

Joss Whedon took every class of hers except one (The Four Directors, which he still complains about to this day; he joked with her that on his tombstone it will say, "He didn't get to take the Four Directors class.") and since then he not only keeps in touch with her, but calls her on a regular basis, asks for her help and input and criticism, and will go spend weeks at her house hashing out ideas. Her students say that despite her strictness in the classroom (she does not tolerate absences or lateness or extensions AT ALL) she is amazing one on one, and always makes you feel better about yourself and what you do. She can buoy up a person who's about to give up, and she makes her students feel like they can do whatever they set their minds to.

At dinner she was lovely, and we went to a very posh place called "The Hamburger Barn" with onion rings the size of my head. Jeanine loved the onion rings. I had ordered fries so I didn't eat one of these gargantuan things, but I think you'd have to be some sort of superhero to be able to do so... and Jeanine is certainly that. Although we were all hanging on every word she said, she showed an interest in what we did and thought, especially when it came to film and television. David Lavery had told her we were the keynotes, so she went around asking each of us what our papers were on. When she got to me, I explained that mine was about Whedon's realistic portrayal of high school, and that I compared it with John Hughes movies. She replied, "That's very interesting, Joss LOVED John Hughes movies." I felt like my paper had just been given a gold star. :)

Then she asked us a doozy... for all those who easily answer, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" whenever anyone asks you what your favourite show is, consider this question she posed to each of us, "What is your favourite non-Whedon television show? In other words, you cannot say Buffy, Angel, or Firefly." Uh... I eventually said Lost, because I love it and am immersed in it, but it might be a tie with The Wire, which I didn't say. Other answers were My So-Called Life, M*A*S*H, and Due South. She also asked about favourite sci-fi film (Blade Runner for me) and then she told us this hilarious story about one of her students. It sounds like many of them come to her for motherly advice, not just teacherly, and this guy had introduced her to his girlfriend. In a short conversation, she somehow figured out this woman did not like Vertigo. Jeanine was appalled, but said nothing. As she tells the story (I'm paraphrasing, obviously), with much drama: "So a few weeks later he comes back to me and tells me he's getting engaged. I decided to take the high road. 'Well. That's very nice, I'm very... happy for you, and, um, marriage is good, and I think that you will be very ... happy, and OH FOR GOD'S SAKES HOW CAN YOU MARRY SOMEONE WHO DOESN'T LIKE VERTIGO??!!"

They broke up two weeks later.

She told us some stories about Joss, but they were always respectful of him, and she wouldn't say anything that she considered private, which was very gracious. She said he was very interested in Slayage, (he'd been invited him to come but he couldn't because of Dollhouse), and she seemed to suggest she'd sort of been sent by him to scout it out and report back if we were a bunch of crazy people. He'd said to her, "Grab everything you can, I want to see EVERYTHING. Programs, books, everything." She talked about other aspects of film, and mentioned in passing her good friends Marty, Capra, and Kazan. Wow. She was one of the most fascinating people I've ever met, and I just wanted to sit there and listen to her talk for ages.

Then Sue and I headed back to the B&B room, where, on TV, they were playing Footloose. We were thrilled! Especially since we were totally convinced we were in Footloose territory all weekend, with the no alcohol (I'm sure if we'd started dancing in the streets someone would have stopped us). By the end of the movie, which I hadn't seen in many years, I wondered aloud, "Wow, do you think Kevin Bacon watches this now and cringes?" I especially loved the idea that by learning to dance, they could now kick the asses of the guys in the parking lot, using wicked awesome dance moves.

The next morning was Jeanine's keynote. She'd told us the night before that she had absolutely nothing prepared. Either she's a liar, or one of the greatest impromptu speakers ever (I'm still not convinced which it is, though she did have notes). She introduced her talk as being very Citizen Kane, and said she was going to jump around, and give us puzzle pieces, and she would leave it up to us to decide why she'd formulated it that way. It was brilliant. She started in 1983, where a young Joss Whedon had walked into her office to ask to enroll in her class. Because of the huge demand for her classes, you had to register for them one to two years in advance, so that's what he was doing. She said, "He walked in and sat down, and we began a conversation that is still continuing 25 years later, and it's one of the most important and meaningful conversations of my life." She added that she was looking forward to leaving the conference so she could get back to their conversation.

When she'd told him about Slayage, he said to her, "Make sure you don't tell them that thing." She said, "Oh, you mean the time you ---?" He said, "No, that's not what I meant... but don't tell them that, either!" "Well, the time when you and I--?" "Oh God, no, I'd totally forgot about that, don't tell them that, either!" She said after 10 minutes of this she said, "Joss, I'm hanging up, you're not leaving me anything to tell!!"

She said the one thing you could say about Joss is that fame never changed him. Despite the adoration and adulation and cult status and "Joss is my God" t-shirts, he's the same guy, wearing the same t-shirt and shoes, that he was 25 years ago when she first met him.

She told amazing stories about him at Wesleyan, and said that for each film she assigned that they watch (on 16mm in the screening room on campus) she'd have 3 alternates, and he would go every night and watch all 4 of them, until 2am, when he'd go home and pop on the TV and see what else was on. He was a consummate watcher. She said the students had to run the movie theatre on campus and choose the movies, and his choices were "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Furies," "Laura," and "The Scarlet Empress." She said her students feel passionately about their films, and they'd get into fistfights over them. She said, "While Joss is a very effective screenwriter, he is weak in the punching department." He liked Brian DePalma, and would defend those movies to the bitter end, while he hated Masterpiece Theatre-type films like Merchant-Ivory.

See if you can see the Buffy connection here: She said he loved Hitchcock, and when he presented a paper analyzing The Birds he divided the movie up into 4 themes: The Watcher/The Watched/Isolation/The Role of the Viewer. In talking about Hedren's character, he said "She has to give up her superficial life to survive," and added "Stop thinking of why the birds are attacking... they just are, that's all that matters." In other words, horror needs no explanation. It just exists.

She said when she first watched BtVS, "I could hear Joss's voice, I could hear his cadences, his language, his nuances, emotions, pain... I could feel his heartbeat."

In his third year, he became Jeanine's TA, and one of her favourite notes that he'd jotted on another student's paper was, "This guy misses all the points in a single bound."

In an analysis of Rear Window, Joss told the students to look at Jimmy Stewart as the Watcher, and that he thinks life is a movie, and it can't hurt him, but it does. Watching him watch them, can hurt us. I noticed when Jeanine was talking about his analyses of Hitchcock that Whedon always seemed caught up in the role of the viewer, as if when he's writing he's constantly aware of how this will be watched.

In 1989 she received a letter from him while he was writing for Roseanne (on the Roseanne letterhead) and in it he said, "I'm making my way."

In the mid-90s they went out to lunch and he said he wanted to talk to her about a new project, and he looked up and said, "Don't say anything.... Don't say ANYthing.... Now... just don't say anything." She said, "Joss, I'm not saying anything!!" "Okay... just don't say anything. You remember that movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I'm thinking about turning it into a television show." "Joss!! That was such a terrible experience, why would you--" "I said don't say anything!!"

Hahahaha! Eventually he explained to her that it had always irked him that he couldn't do it his way, and besides, it'll only last a few episodes and then be cancelled, but he'll get to "do it a little bit my way." Jeanine concurred, and decided it'll be good for Joss to let him do it for a few episodes a little bit his way. She explained what it was like on March 10, 1997, sitting in front of her television. "A moon. The sound of an organ. A wolf howls. Guitars start playing. Cheerleaders start jumping. Now my husband is interested." Joss called her when it was done. "What did you think?" "Joss, I thought it was very good." She said she never missed a single episode, never watched it recorded, she always watched it live after that.

As for Firefly, she calls it the biggest screwup in television, and if she could kill television execs, she'd kill these guys. She apparently chews them out every time she sees them. She was in on the ground floor on this one, leading him to noir westerns to help him out with his idea.

She concluded by saying that Joss Whedon is a storyteller, and he must do it. He's unhappy if he isn't telling stories. She likened him to a tribal storyteller: if he were in the cavemen age, he would be the tribal storyteller who would be invited over to the fire of the chieftains, wearing their fur. Sometimes they would feed him, and sometimes they would beat him with a stick. She said the same is true today. He walks into the network offices in his sneakers and t-shirt, and the chieftains wearing their fur invite him in. Sometimes they feed him (Buffy) sometimes they beat him with a stick (Firefly).

She had a LOT more to say, but I was so caught up in what she was saying I wasn't always taking notes (and to be honest, I actually have more notes, but I feel like the talk was meant for a small group, and I wouldn't want to give it all away). She was a truly amazing and gracious lady, and I wish she'd write a book on Joss. But even more interestingly (sorry Joss), I wish someone would write a book on her.

16 comments:

redeem147 said...

You are so privileged, and I am so jealous.

I knew of her, of course. Sounds like an absolutely remarkable lady.

The Leonard's said...

What an awesome experience to meet the woman who influenced and supported a creative god.

I just came across your blog and enjoyed your post.
thanks for sharing.
Debbie

elrambo said...

You take excellent notes! Thanks for this recap of one of the highlights of SC3. Your talk was also brilliant. It was such a pleasure to meet you, and JB. I now consider myself a fan of you both.

Adventuress said...

"The Furies" - it was "The Furies"! I only was able to get 3 of the 4 movies and that's the one I missed! Fantastic!

Lovely recap and let me say again that you're the very nicest keynote speaker I've ever met who spoke behind pie.

Haunt said...

Thank you so much for this very detailed account. Mrs. Haunt and I were in the front row frantically trying to keep notes but, as you say, had a hard time remembering to write. Most of the time we just listened in rapt fascination.

And I completely agree with adventuress... you were the nicest, funniest keynote speaker yet at a Slayage Conference. The pie was just an added bonus.

Haunt said...

Oh yeah, and you really missed out on those onion rings. They were legen- ...wait for it... dary!

NYPinTA said...

She sounds like a fascinating person!

"As for Firefly, she calls it the biggest screwup in television, and if she could kill television execs, she'd kill these guys. She apparently chews them out every time she sees them."

Hurray! Good for her!

Michael Holland said...

I have long been a fan of Mr. Whedon's, and can now say I'm a fan of yours. Honestly, how wonderfully this was written! And, to echo redeem147, how jealous I am as well. Cheers ...

Sabrina said...

I was at the conference, and I heard your keynote. It was absolutely great, funny, down to earth, and clever. I too love love John Hughes films; thank you for your account, as I had to leave early Sunday morning to catch a flight back to North Carolina, so I missed her keynote address. I am sad I missed it. I wanted to come say hi to you and tell you how awesome I thought your address was, but I was starstruck/awestruck by all of you Buffy scholars; I'm a lowly graduate student working my through. I also, however, adore, Veronica Mars, The office, BSG, etc.

skingshott said...

I have to say that this talk was the most interesting I had ever attended on any subject. Jeanine is fascinating. I too could have listened to her stories all day and night. She was wonderfully kind and generous. The conference was a fantastic and memorable experience. I met many lovely people and was exposed to many interesting topics and points of view re the Whedonverse. I can't wait until Slayage 2010.

Nikki Stafford said...

redeem: She IS remarkable. I'm going to go and read her books now.

theleonards: Welcome to the blog!

elrambo: LOL! Yes, I take copious notes... it's pretty much the thing that got me through grad school. It was so wonderful to meet you, and I hope we stay in touch!

Adventuress: Hmm... I'm having to try to figure out these pseudonyms now! I think I know who this is, though (Dale, is that you?), and thank you so much for your comments! It was so lovely to meet you.

Haunt: Now, this one I still haven't figured out. Did we meet? I hope so! Damn... now I have to go back and try those onion rings. They were just so... massive. Like, seriously, the size of my burger. I've never seen anything like them. We kept joking that I could take one back home with me, but I'd have to pull it out at the border and say, "Hi, I need to declare this ginormous onion ring?"

nypinta: Welcome! I LOVED Jeanine's comments about Firefly... she talked about it a lot at dinner, too.

Michael Holland: What a nice thing to say! Thank you for your post. :)

Sabrina: Another Office fan! Next conference I hope you introduce yourself; I could talk about the Office all day. :) I hope you keep coming back to the blog; I love talking about it here, too. :)

skingshott: I can't wait until 2010, either! Here's hoping for another queen-sized bed. Heehee!

Haunt said...

Sadly we did not actually meet. I WAS within a seat or two of you several times during the conference though (so that should make you really think). Maybe next time my wife and I will actually introduce ourselves. Love your writing and loved your keynote.

Nikki Stafford said...

Haunt: Were you by any chance sitting on the stairs during Matthew's keynote? I'm trying to think of people I saw in couples, and I remember two people who were in a few of the papers I attended. During Matthew's talk, I shared the handout with the woman, who had long dark hair, and the man was sitting in front of her on the steps with short brown hair. Could that have been you?

Haunt said...

lol No, sorry. My wife and I were usually seated somewhere near the front (first two or three rows) of most of the panels we attended. Sitting right behind David and Rhonda at the keynotes on days two and three. At the banquet we were seated at the table next to yours, directely behind from the two gentlemen seated across the table from you. We're "the Smiths" that Rhonda sort of called out at the banquet, the ones that suggested next time we add some Angel songs to the sing-along, like 'Mandy'. I'm also the one in the Intertextuality panel that commented one of my favorite moments of the entire conference was probably watching the reactions of everyone who clearly hadn't ever seen Moonlight and it's blatant Angel rip-offs. Not sure if you were at that panel or not.

All of this is a really longwinded way of saying that unfortunately we never did get to actually meet face-to-face. Next time, I promise. :)

Adventuress said...

I'm so glad you were able to come and discover that we're not a batch of crazy people! (Quirky, sure, but that's where the fun is; everyone knows that!)

And what a nice thrill to be reading along with the blog and discover that I have an "exquisite Southern accent." My parents would be very pleased, indeed!

(Aside: I got lucky being paired up with Janet Halfyard - what a paper!)

Come back in two years! And yes, you guessed the name on the first try - there's a story, but it'll wait until later. Although maybe not until Slayage 4 . . .

helfron said...

Pardon the recommendation but...Pick up Basinger's book on Anthony Mann, who was clearly an influence on Whedon. It has recently been republished by Wesleyan University Press. It is one of the few books in English on one of the great directors of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. His films are, as you can guess, filled to the brim with damaged men...

As for Mann films, Winchester 73, Bend of the River, Man from Laramie (my personal favourite), Man of the West (recently released), El Cid (recently released in a wonderful transfer), Decline of the Roman Empire (recently released in a wonderful transfer) are in available on DVD and are more than worth checking out. As for coming Mann attractions, Criterion is bringing out The Furies (starring the goddess Barbara Stanwyck) in the next several months. Unfortunately, the superb Far Country has been released in an awful pan and scan. Word is that the version in the new Stewart Western box set is in the correct aspect ratio.