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.