Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nikki's Slayage Report, Day 1, Part 1: Puppets, Puppets It Must Be PUPPETS!!!

Day One of the Slayage conference kicked off with Cynthea Masson as the opening keynote speaker. Cynthea won the Mr Pointy Award (the Whedon Studies Association award that is shaped like a more phallic version of Buffy’s stake) for her 2008 Slayage conference paper where she demanded a second look at the oft-overlooked Angel episode, “The Girl in Question.” She was a featured speaker at the 2010 Slayage conference, and now she was the opening day keynote. For those of you who followed the Buffy Rewatch, Cynthea was the one who deftly guided us through Week 7 (“Lie to Me” and “The Dark Age”); the “hated it” side of the “Beer Bad” debate; Week 26 (“Who Are You,” “Superstar,” “Where the Wild Things Are”); Week 29 (“Buffy Vs. Dracula,” “Real Me,” “The Replacement”); the English Department committee meeting parody of “Rest In Peace” for our “Once More With Feeling” week; Week 43 (“Normal Again,” “Entropy,” “Seeing Red”); and Week 51 (“Empty Places,” “Touched,” “End of Days”).

In other words, Cynthea was probably as glad as I was to see the end of the Rewatch. Thank you once again for all your hard work with that, Cynthea!!

I’ve regretted missing her 2008 presentation on “The Girl in Question” (though I did have the opportunity to read the excellent paper on it), but I marveled at her featured talk in 2010 on the episode “Belle Chose” on Dollhouse. Once again, Masson didn’t disappoint. Her opening keynote was entitled, “‘Break Out the Champagne, Pinocchio’: Angel and the Puppet Paradox.” It was all about how Smile Time wasn’t just a one-off, but a culmination of several references to Angel being a puppet leading up to it, and how other characters fall into the puppet theory. First of all, who knew there was such a thing as puppet theory? But now that I do know, I’m fascinated by the topic. Puppets have always fascinated me — marionettes are clearly beholden to their masters, who hold the strings and force them to do what they want, and there’s always a subtle creepiness to watching a puppet show, from the way they move so astonishingly (if you see a truly masterful puppeteer at work) to that impassive, almost sad look on their faces. From the puppet in La double vie de Veronique to the puppet show in Being John Malkovich (the first time I'd ever seen a puppet have a facial expression), they are truly remarkable creatures. And it wasn’t until Cynthea’s talk that I realized just how much they interested me. I’ve always been a fan of stop-motion animation, mostly because they appear to be puppets without the strings. Tool’s video for “Sober” is still possibly my all-time favourite music video followed by His Name Is Alive’s “Are We Still Married?” because they both captivated me the first time I saw them. And I’ll never forget flipping channels one night in my early 20s to find PBS showing the Jan Svankmajer film Alice, a stop-motion nightmarish retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It took me two years to track down the film on video, but I did, and I still have it. I’ve bought imports of the works of the Brothers Quay, and Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mr Punch so riveted me with the cover alone that I not only devoured the graphic novel, but a poster of the cover — signed by both author and illustrator — is the only thing that hangs in my office.

So yeah. I’m not sure there could have been another topic in the Whedonverse that would have captured my attention like this one did, and Cynthea delivered it with her usual brilliance and enthusiasm, and had the entire room in the palm of her hand. She pointed out several incidences of puppet commentary throughout her talk:
-the fact that both puppets and vampires share the same existential condition in that they are both simultaneously alive and not alive (mind = blown)
-puppet theory is full of language you would use to describe the living dead
-the Puppet Paradox refers to both a demon and a soul
-Skip tells Gunn they’re all puppets
-in S5 Angel has a dream that Spike is turned into a real boy
-Cordy refers to Angel as “Pinocchio” when he discovers the Shanshu Prophecy

She even introduced us (well, me) to a fabulous comic called “Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer” where Pinocchio tells a lie, his nose grows, and he breaks it off to use as a stake against vampires, hahaha! (I MUST find this.) Amazing, amazing paper, and I hope it’s published soon so I can read it again. Her paper ended with a call for people to hold up their own puppets (she’d told everyone ahead of time to bring them” and everyone joined in a rousing chorus of “Self Esteem” from “Smile Time.” There were Angel puppets, sock puppets, Spike puppets, Derrida puppets, and hand puppets everywhere. The perfect start to the conference. And just as I was going to grab a photo for something else, I realized I had video! I'm the annoying giggler (that's pretty much me 24/7) and you might not be able to read it but at the end, the screen says this paper was brought to you by the letters S, C, W, and the number 5. Genius.

Next was the first difficult part of the conference: having to choose what to watch and what to miss. There was so much I wanted to see, but having seen two of Rhonda Wilcox’s papers before — and being blown away by both — I simply couldn’t pass up seeing another. The panel was called Law and Language, and the first paper was from Erma Petrova, entitled “I’m Declaring an Emergency”: Leadership and the State of Exception in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her paper was asking whether a Slayer has the right to declare the War Measures Act and suspend the rights of people for their own good. Faith believes so, and Giles does as well — both of them tell Buffy at different points that she needs to stop and look at the Big Picture. In “Get it Done,” Buffy does essentially declare a state of emergency, and in doing so she gets people to use their power, rather than finding a way to claim more power for herself.

The next paper was Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan’s “Vampires, Reavers, and Lawyers: Joss Whedon’s Lens on Law,” where they showed just how many different kinds of law are in Whedon shows. They were looking specifically at the exploration of law in non-law TV shows, and broke it down into three categories:
-People having to take matters into their own hands because the law failed them (Dexter, 24, House)
-explorations of how the legal institutions are inadequate (The Wire, Veronica Mars, The L-Word)
-the development of new legal systems in the face of lack of an existing one (Deadwood, BSG)
-Whedon Law covers all three. They looked at the scene where Buffy and Xander argue over whether or not Anya should be killed in “Selfless.” They showed the scene of Gavin talking to Lilah about how they could nail Angel from a legal angle rather than a supernatural one. On Firefly they showed the clip between Mal and Inara where they discuss the fact he defends her honour while calling her a whore, and who is a slave in this world and who isn’t. And on Dollhouse they showed the contract negotiation between Caroline and Adelle. It was a great paper (that they said was a work in progress) that really made you think about the different ways law has been used in Whedon properties.

Rhonda Wilcox was next. You’ll remember her as the “Mother of Buffy Studies,” who joined our Rewatch to brilliantly tackle Week 10 (“Phases,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Passion”); Week 31 (“Fool for Love,” “Shadow,” “Listening to Fear”); and beautifully sang the “Parking Ticket” song in our “Once More With Feeling” week. Her paper was “A Soliloquy by Any Other Name: Speech-Making in the Whedonverses.” She began by asking if we remembered the following speeches, and as she outlined them, of course we remembered every one of them: Spike talking about this world as home in “Becoming, Part 2”; Spike’s “love’s bitch” speech in “Lover’s Walk”; Buffy’s speech to Jonathan in “Earshot”; Buffy’s speech to the First/Tara in “Restless”; Anya’s fruit punch speech in “The Body” (sniffle…); Jonathan’s speech in “Conversations with Dead People”; Angel talking to Kate in “Epiphany”; Mal’s “I aim to misbehave” speech in Serenity. She showed how these key speeches (and others) are integral to the show thematically. One of my favourite lines in her talk was about that last one, saying that Mal’s speech is the controlled speech of a man who refuses to be controlled. Oh, Rhonda, you slayed us again.

Okay, I think I’m going to break these up a bit, so I’ll stop there. Next up… more wonderful Whedon scholarship!! 


Marebabe said...

Wonderful stuff! I, too, hope that Cynthea's paper is published soon so that anyone (like me!) can read it. Do let us know when it becomes available.

Dusk said...

Sounds great. The puppet/doll story worked well on Smile Time but it was a very very obvious plot device in a cetain comic.

Was there any talk of the comics at Slayage that you heard Nikki?I can think of something recent that most people will have various opnions about.

Me, I hated S8, S9 sounds decent, the topic I'm dancing around, it was not handled brillliantly, but at least this time they seem to expect backlash and I know what they are trying to do for the plot. And the sentiment at the end was nice.

The other title Dark Horse is doing sounds awesome however and I recently read it's first arc in paperback, and think it is the best one out of all the Buffy stuff they've done so far.