Monday, May 19, 2003

Zeppo: The Boy that had No Cool

I'm used to being in love. For the longest while, starting in junior high when my hormones kicked in (and probably even before that), I thought it was my natural state of being. Love was being inspired, love was being uplifted, love was proof of God's existence because who else would have us and how else could we ever experience such a powerful all encompassing feeling?

So there I was a boy becoming a man (or at least faking it) trying to find something to explain this new feeling that only seemed like it had always existed. And that's where I discovered the power of art comes in. Not trusting my suburban raised claustrophobic (closed?) mind, I turned to the critics; art's critics to affirm those pieces of music, literature and cinema that transcend time, that come to mean more and more over the years. I read about Citizen Kane, Pet Sounds, and The Great Gatsby long before they became my favorite movie, LP, and book of all time. I was told they were great even though the first time through I didn't think any of them was all that special, though I most certainly saw that they were peculiarly different from what at the time was my favorite movie, music and/or book.

Called by some the best movie of all time, the first time I saw Citizen Kane was in 10th grade and after it was done I was bored and thought to myself, "what the hell was so special about that?" But since then I've watched it more than any other movie (well except for Speed) and each time I watch it I'm amazed because it's like I've never really seen it before. The use of shadows, the cryptic storyline ("don't trespass" "Rosebud") are as intriguing as director/star Orson Welles' use of shadows and spaces. It's a beautiful film full of understated beauty and power. I see more each time I watch it.

Called by some the best LP of our time, the first time I heard the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was in my freshman year of college and I thought it was rather bland and less than challenging music. But upon repeated listening I can't believe how much one can hear anew through song after song. This is the brilliant Brian Wilson's masterpiece and the care and effort is inspiring enough- that there are so many great songs, so many great sounds- it's a song cycle I never grow tired from hearing over and over.

Called by some the greatest American novel, the first time I read The Great Gatsby was for my 12th grade literature class. I wrote a scathing review, so critical that my teacher, Mr. Houts, told me I may want to re-read the book some day. So I did. And I have every year since. After each and every read I'm absolutely overcome by Fitzgerald's writing- his wondrous use of language and feeling that conveyed such a personal yet universal story. Wow.

The day I discovered Bob Dylan's music was the day everything would never quite be the same as ever before. The creativity, the originality, the cryptic mysticism, an admiration for the universal insight that comes from revealing one's heart- if that's what I take from this grounded too worldly place it would almost be enough. Great art, the thing about it is it doesn't change. By it's nature, being captured at a particular place in history, being a snapshot of time it can't change. But it changes you.

After being inspired by such great works of art I knew, just knew that our purpose in this world was to try to make a difference, big or small, significant or unnoticed, in someone else's life. Equal to that noble mission was to find someone, anyone who could inspire the same things within me. If both were ever accomplished then the meaninglessness of the every day tedium, of the temptation of just doing what we need to do to get by without making the effort to think about "greater" things, would somehow be all worthwhile.

The first time I fell in love in junior high was deeper (and darker?) than ever since. A lot of the feeling was feeling like she knew me as no one else ever had. It helped that she seemed to like my attempts at writing but it went far beyond the words. At the time I wasn't even sure she noticed me (and it felt like she didn't even know I was alive despite how alive she made me feel). With all the surging emotions, all the unexplainable confusion none of it made any sense until I got home and before bed I would write in my journal and somehow the process of writing just felt right. There were times I thought I was chronicling greatness- some kind of feeling no one had ever felt before- but reading my journals these days makes me cringe in pain. It is proof positive that I was a teenager at one time.

The "last" time I fell in love was five years ago when I actually had the courage to mutter the words to her for one of the few times in my life. And those three little words took more out of me than what was left of my heart. I highly doubt I'll ever feel the same again and that doubt has taken its toll. As I read on the Internet, Beauty was once an escape mechanism but if this Muse of mine were to show me an ultimate and transcendent Beauty, after which nothing else would appear beautiful at all, then I'd have no choice but to remain with her. And yet, my whole witness now is that she has disappeared. In her absence, nothing else will ever satisfy. The ones you love the most are the ones that hurt you the deepest.

Now as I somehow find myself a 38-year-old somewhat respectable working professional I can most of the time thankfully look back upon those years of development and not cringe so much. Perhaps that background can explain why I became an immediate fan of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the show debut seven years ago. The initial premise of the seemingly silly show on its surface was about a bubble headed California blonde who happened to be the chosen one saving humanity against the attacks of the undead.

But the show, with its constantly witty writing and sharp humor proved to be about something much deeper. In its first few seasons it became the best show about growing up that the medium has ever seen. Buffy and her friends were not only fighting fanged toothed vampires, they were fighting the "normal" teenage demons of not being popular enough, of falling in love with someone who doesn't love you back, of not being smart enough or pretty enough or something enough to ever find true happiness.

Over the years the show has blossomed even further into something much much deeper. With his unmatched ability to create a fluid storyline where one never quite knows where the characters will end up going next, Buffy's creator Joss Whedon created a world full of vampires, werewolves, and witches, that was not only more of a reflection of the "real" world than the current spate of reality TV shows, but also skillfully anticipated the scary place this society has somehow come to and we all find ourselves in.

Great art helps make sense out of nonsense and chaos. For me and many other fans of the show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the one TV show that can fall into that high art transcendental category. Unlike any other show I've ever seen, at it's best, it is that good. Yes with its mixture of campy martial arts action and Beauty and the Beast style fantasy, the show can at times live up to its awful title in a manner that those who have never seen it assume it is about. But by creating a world full of vampires and slayers, Whedon has created a canvass where he can weave his masterful storytelling in a way that incorporates philosophical themes seldom dealt with very well on the small screen. The show regularly asks questions about what a soul is, what love is, and whether where those two intertwine is what the meaning of life is all about.

In Buffy's world things are rarely if ever the way they seem let alone black and white. In its initial season Buffy struggled mightily with balancing the life of a "normal" teenager with trying to accept the responsibility of saving the world from vampires. Things were thrown further askew when she met and fell in love with Angel, a vampire who was cursed by having his soul restored so he could feel the weight of all the pain and death he had caused. Falling in love with the person (thing) that can hurt you the most has been a constant theme throughout the series.

How artful the series became can perhaps best be seen in the episode in season five when Buffy's mom died unexpectedly from complications from a brain tumor. In a stark subtle Bergmanesque style Whedon through use of light and silence captured the essence of dealing with the death of a loved one in an achingly accurate fashion. For years Buffy's mission involved killing but with the death of her mother we see that the end of life for any living creature isn't something to be so blithely dismissed. Key characters of the show have been named Angel, Faith, and Glory and not superficially so. Above all the rest it is the deep dark look into spirituality that separates this show from the rest.

In the next season Whedon gave us a masterful musical episode that had the characters of the show singing their hearts out in a perfectly logical way. The world of Buffy is so rich and so unpredictable yet at the same time utterly recognizable, that the moment the characters break out into song it isn't a gimmick like it might be on other TV shows but something that everyone who appreciates great writing and performing should see.

Entering her final season Buffy continues to struggle with what being a slayer is all about. It is easy to kill when the enemy is demonized to such a degree that we don't even see them as human. It becomes a little more difficult when we consider part of human nature is inherently selfish if not "evil" that in the end it's part of us that wants what's best for us over what's best for the rest of the world. We can justify extremes like going to war that involves killing innocent people in the name of freeing them as long as the enemy offers something even more demonic.

Last winter during her winter break the Duke senior, the intern, terribly impressed me because she reaffirmed another meaning of life (or life meaning) by demonstrating that above all else one doesn't ever really get old as long as one keeps an open mind and makes the effort to continue the effort to try and learn and expose one's self to new and different experiences. Most my friends dismiss my love of Buffy as somehow being smitten with the star of the show (who I actually think is one of the weakest parts of the series- at it's core Buffy has always worked best when focusing on the friendship between co-stars Xander and Willow- and all the "minor" characters so richly fleshed out that each and every one could have an interesting series developed for them). The blue-eyed intern told me she wanted me to share with her my favorite Buffy episodes because many of the people she most respected had told her how great the series is.

So we got together over the Christmas break for a Buffy marathon. Picking out a handful of episodes for her to see was extremely difficult but she seemed dutifully impressed by what we watched. Unfortunately I don't know of anyone else willing to listen and watch so carefully over something as silly as I can be (and have been accused of being) and somehow that thought saddens me as deeply as how grateful I was at sharing a love of mine.

A show about killing vampires probably can't ever be justified as respectable as shows about the inner workings of the White House or of neurotic members of the mob yet to dismiss Buffy the Vampire Slayer as ignorable fluff is a great loss to TV viewers who aren't paying close enough attention.

This final season has set up the ultimate finale- Buffy facing off against the origin of evil. After last season's heart wrenching dark season in which Buffy is pulled out of a heavenly bliss only to be betrayed by her best friend the show has turned back to one of its most redeeming qualities- a wicked sense of humor. Whether Buffy can finally figure out her place in this short term world is one of the penultimate moments in the history of TV, perhaps a great exaggeration but one that should not be missed. It's been a masterful run, one that is as perceptive as it is enlightening, and it's a rare TV show that rises above all that has come before. God I'm gonna miss this true love of mine.

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