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Reject Linky

It is launched! New online venue publishes poems – and the rejection letters they received. Check out Rejectamenta

The Millennium Falcon, rendered in cardboard

Bad Neil Gaiman imitations read by Neil Gaiman

How to fold the best paper airplane it won a competition ok

Fascinating article about Biblical scholarship, papyrus fragments, fakery and forgery, and those media reports about Jesus having a wife

Whole lotta Lone Wolf, free for legal download (via Dave Keyes)

Hey Kiwis! Enter your address – no other details needed – and find out what kind of New Zealander you are! We were young inner-city strivers. Thanks Roy Morgan Research!

And finally, via Andrew Wood, this Sarah Silverman clip contains extreme NSFW gross-out comedy but I think it’s also quite amazing. Watch here!

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Watching Buffy: s01e04 “Teacher’s Pet”

1.4 Teacher's Pet

The previous episode Witch was an attempt to do Buffy-by-numbers that pretty much landed. It demonstrates a Buffy-specific approach to self-contained stories that will hold for seven seasons.

Teacher’s Pet is another shot at Buffy-by-numbers, but this one doesn’t work out. As far as I can tell, the popular opinion on this ep is that it’s just a dumb misfire, the kind of thing that every show does when it’s just finding its feet. I think that’s part-way right. In Teacher’s Pet I think you have an episode that actually hits its marks perfectly, but still ends up feeling wrong. Everything in this episode follows on logically and sensibly from the pitch and concept. In a sense it’s a glimpse of a different way to do Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The core problem, of course, is the monster of the week. Miss French is a substitute teacher at the school, but it turns out she’s actually a giant praying mantis in disguise, and she likes to lure virginal high school boys into her basement to mate with them and then kill them. That’s… a pretty broad sort of concept for your monster.

She is unexplained. She’s just a giant praying mantis who can disguise herself as a human woman, no further explanation needed. At this stage of the show’s development, that was just fine, but it is jarring in comparison to the show’s future. Soon, most monsters of the week will be identified as demons giving the show the appearance of a consistent mystical ecology. But Miss French is not a demon. She’s a mantis. It’s weird, and cartoonish, and it feels off.

She is thematically askew. The pitch for Buffy famously suggests that it uses monsters to represent and explore the ordinary horrors of teenage/high school life, and you don’t have to stretch far to make this fit: it’s about the uncontrollable lusts and inappropriate fantasies of teenage boys, or it’s about sexual exploitation and manipulation of teenagers by adults. Except neither of these is really a strong fit for the metaphorical storytelling the show is aiming at. It’s your second regular episode and the best teenage problem you can come up with is “horny teenage boys can get themselves into trouble with older women”? That’s the universal experience you want to explore here? Lusting after a hot teacher is not really part of the horrors of adolescence, guys.

She is icky as hell. She’s a sexual predator who explicitly rapes her victims to death. This is not neutral stuff – this is over-the-line weirdness and it’s a black mark against the show that they’d go there, and in such a casual way. Sexual violence is actually a strong recurring theme in Buffy, but (although there’s one other bit of nastiness in season 1) it comes to be handled with much more maturity and sensitivity pretty damn soon.

That’s enough to make my point – Miss French is just not a good Buffy monster. But, and here’s the crucial thing, if you just heard the pitch from Whedon that gave this show a green light? You would think she’d fit perfectly. The trick is in the details. Nailing down the show’s theme, working out how to incorporate sexual threat into your narratives, building a coherent mythos – that stuff is too precise to get written down in the show bible (Buffy didn’t actually have one of those anyway, but bear with me). They had to try these things to see how they felt on the screen, and each misstep helped them find a better path in future.

It was up to the showrunner (and of course the network) to decide what was a misstep, and what would be a better path. Buffy became the show it did because of Whedon’s sensibility about storytelling details like this, and a different showrunner could have – would have – made different choices. If Whedon had somehow fallen into disfavour and been fired from his fledgling show (1), his replacement might well have seen in this episode a perfectly acceptable way forward. This episode is a glimpse at an alternate reality Buffy, where the monsters are broadly sketched and the metaphors don’t focus on emotional trauma but instead on any old thing that was part of the high school experience. It would be a simpler show, like Eerie, Indiana a little grown up, and it would not have inspired the cult following Buffy enjoys. But it would have still worked for a season. Maybe even two.

So, those details were important. Over the weeks to come I guess I’ll be trying to pay some attention to them…

Other notes:
* There’s also a vampire running around for Buffy to work her slayage on. Again, it’s obviously early days here from the design of the vamp – he’s a scary biker with a big fork, or something. Featured vamps in the future have a lot more personality, and many fewer forks.
* Angel returns! It’s time to get that big romance arc underway, so he gives Buffy his jacket. Such babe.
* Xander gets a lot of focus this episode, and he does a lot of dumb stuff. For now I’m just inclined to shrug and say “grow up Xander”. Others might find him a bit more annoying, and that’s totally understandable.
* The end-of-episode sting, a reveal that OMG THERE ARE EGGS IN THE BUILDING, is straight out of the Twilight Zone playbook. It is totally understandable that an alternate version of Buffy would go for this highly-traditional storytelling move. The Buffy we ended up with, however, had a bunch of different moves to try out, and a finish like this would be almost instantly subverted.

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(1) Yup, much of my thinking here was informed by Community season 4, a.k.a. the gas-leak year.

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Much Cooks Linky

okay so you have watched this right

right?

Rolling Stone has a great interview with the creator of this weirdness
And it’s added a credit to Lars von Trier’s IMDB page too.

Everyone’s going gaga over the Serial podcast! The Verge has a roundup of what the hell is going on and what to read if you’re already into it.

Listen to Wikipedia being updated (via Angus D)

I’ve seen about five of my regular sources link to this and it was even on stuff.co.nz, but I still haven’t read beyond the first paragraph. Still it seems to be an important piece so: Matt Taibbi talks to the woman JPMorgan Chase paid a $9 billion fine to keep from talking

Svend has dropped a bunch of interesting linky on me lately. Here’s a short article series on the typographical character the “pilcrow”, which you will probably recognise. Svend writes, “No phone/twitter salvation for this character, though it’s doing better than the double-dagger. I liked the comments — there are the occasional characters that spring forth full-formed, like the chap who wrote about developing the boustrophedon style of writing independently, and wanted to develop word-processor support for it. Perhaps unfairly, it feels like his comment sketches out a whole person. :)”

Also from Svend: A New Acoustic Instrument That Creates Sounds like a Digital Synthesizer

AndyMac sent this: “I found an online exhibition of “How the other half live” of photos taken by Jacob Riis a proto-photojournalist in the late 19th Century/early 20th. Basically, if you haven’t seen it, it’s a depiction of grinding poverty in New York City slums. It’s quite extraordinary.” Straight photos, photos + original text.

I’ve read and watched quite a few things about The Knowledge, the London cab-driver’s legendary awareness of their city. This NYT piece is the single best thing I’ve ever encountered on it. It actually goes into detail on what the Knowledge is (and it’s a lot more than I thought it was), as well as the arduous process of education complete with cram schools and feared quiz sessions steeped in 19th century traditions. Along the way you get a sense of why London is the way it is, and the incredible density of history and meaning loaded on to every street corner. Marvellous.

David Roberts (who is tweeting again, and thank heaven for that) thinks a current Obamacare battle is the point where, if they succeed, US Conservatives will completing their long process of detaching entirely from reality. And then things will really get crazy.

Ten hours of Princess Leia walking in NYC

And finally, for those following #Gamergate, the true extent of Social Justice Warrior impact on game development

too many cooks
too many cooks
too many cooks too many cooks

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Watching Buffy: s01e03 “Witch”

witch-clip-4

This episode is basically a shakedown of the BtVS concept, giving pretty much every aspect of the show a workout. You have:

  • Buffy caught between her desire for a normal life and slayer duties with attendant Giles tension on one side and (Buffy’s mother) Joyce tension on the other;
  • the support crew established as a support crew for the first time (Willow tries out the name “Slayerettes”);
  • ongoing romantic tensions are clarified: Xander has a thing for Buffy but she only sees him as a friend, while Willow has a thing for Xander but he only sees her as a friend.
  • Cordy functioning as Buffy’s dark mirror;
  • supernatural shenanigans drawn from a metaphorical high-school problem, in this case, failing to live up to a family reputation.

This is all straight out of the pitch document, Buffy-by-numbers, which is exactly the job of the first regular episode so that’s fine by me. (No Angel this week though!) But there’s something else that comes in with this episode and becomes a real feature of Buffy moving forward: the three-quarter swerve. From the accounts I’ve heard, Joss Whedon kept his writing room focused tight on story-breaking with a really heavy angle on the pre-commercial cliffhangers. In network TV dramas, a big cliffhanger at the 3/4 mark is typical – it’s where you set up your big climax, pumping the viewer for maximum excitement so they’ll finish watching off a nice high. But Whedon pushed the BtVS room into leaning heavily on big reversals of expectation, usually at the 3/4 mark – plot twists that upend all your assumptions and make the final challenge surprising as well as exciting. It’s a great technique, although it’s one the show perhaps came to rely on a bit too much as it went on.

Here, the big swerve is the reveal that Amy is not the witch – Amy’s mum is the witch, and she has swapped bodies with Amy to relive her glory days. Shock and surprise! Except, well, it doesn’t quite work. It sets up Amy as a meek klutz, then shows her doing witchery, then has her revealed by a witch test as a witch, then shows her reacting with shock at the effects of witchery, then shows her stalking around being mean to her mother – this is just an incoherent mess of conflicting data, so the reveal when it comes is muted. It makes sense of some of what has come before, but other bits make no sense – if the mother was in control, why was Amy such a loveable klutz, and why was she horrified by the magic effect?

So, early days for this trick, another sign that a big part of season 1 is Whedon & co. working out how to tell stories their way. The story here doesn’t quite work but you can see what they’re shooting for. I remember seeing this on first run and being excited for the potential of this show. I can see why I liked it.

A few other notes:

  • Joyce, Buffy’s mum, has a job bringing her in close contact with weird figurines from strange foreign cultures. Pretty obviously, this was set up as a potential source of plotlines – strange statues imbued with evil sprits are something of a staple of the horror genre. Thankfully, given the dubious racial/cultural politics of such tales, this is about as prominent as Joyce’s job ever gets.
  • The driver of that big black bus that nearly runs down blind Cordy has the slowest reactions of anyone in the world.
  • The Sunnydale cheer and basketball teams don’t turn up on-screen again, right? They make Sunnydale High feel like a pretty normal high school, a perception that steadily dwindles over the ensuing seasons.
  • Willow, whose dress sense is vastly more reasonable all of a sudden, gets to show off her special skill: computer hacking! Every show in the ’90s had a character who was good at computer hacking. But curiously enough, this episode also has her mixing up her very first potion – and the black-eyed power of dark magic also makes an appearance. Foreshadowing… (at least in hindsight!)
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Ira Linky

Ira Glass dressed as a dog dressed as Ira Glass.

Kurt Cobain’s wild teenage mixtape

Photo portraits of teen dancers from 1969 Upper Hutt. Mum, anyone you know?

Was a black PI named Sam Marlowe the inspiration for Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe? Follow the investigation…

Rolling Stone has a good long Stephen King interview

Also from Rolling Stone, I don’t know what to make of this but I like it: a preview of the new NBA basketball season, presented in the form of Dungeons & Dragons character descriptions (complete with artwork).

You know the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene? Um, it doesn’t actually have a balcony in it.

Jesse Singal digs into the science behind Gamergate and the gamer identity – it’s a great article although it only scratches the surface of the topic. (Academic social psychologists who are smart will be building huge datasets out of Twitter right now, they’ll be able to publish on this for years.)

And finally, Skeletor’s best insults

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Gone Girl (USA, 2014)

Made it to the movies! A rare treat.

Gone Girl is a twisty mystery/psychological thriller. Wife disappears apparently kidnapped, but some things don’t add up, and husband has secrets. Director David Fincher underplays everything, including his directorial style – it felt to me like he was taking some of the moves from Zodiac (probably his masterpiece) and playing them more broadly, without the obsessive control that gave many sequences of that film their power.

Film has a big wrenching swerve in the middle, and becomes quite a different beast thereafter. Felt to me that the film overplayed its hand here, partly the fault of novel author Gillian Flynn adapting her own work. It had more endings than Return of the King and would be a better movie with almost the entire last half hour simply cut. I also didn’t find the emotional resonance that other viewers and critics have reported – it had disappeared too far into its own reality for that.

For all these grumbles, it is definitely entertaining and I’d unhesitatingly recommend it.

This review has SPOILERS from here…

The chief failure for me was the film’s attempt to set up some kind of moral equivalence between the sins of Nick and those of Amy, and to locate those within an interrogation of the idea of marriage. Those are some interesting questions but they don’t work if you make Amy a less realistic character than Hannibal Lecter. The revelation that Amy was alive and was planning everything – her insanely detailed lists and plans and their expected outcome of Nick’s execution – instantly framed the character as a nearly cartoonish villain, and I still enjoyed the film with that in mind, but you’d probably find an equally good examination of marriage in those Stepfather movies.

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Watching Buffy: s1e01/02 “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest”

JesseMcNally

Late in 2013, Cal and I began a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rewatch, and it got me thinking. I started making notes. Might as well share them! “Watching Buffy” is intended as a weekly series. That’s the plan anyway. Fair warning: looking at my notes from a year ago, sometimes episode entries might be very short…

Note on spoilers: I’ll be talking about episodes in the context of the entire series. I’ll try and avoid specific spoilers but some will surely sneak in. In other words, if you want a pure Buffy-watching experience, don’t read these until you’ve caught up with all seven seasons.

—-

Let’s talk about Jesse.

In the first BtVS story, told over episode one “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and episode two “The Harvest”, Buffy befriends a close-knit trio on the outer rings of school popularity. Willow, Xander and Jesse appear to have no other friends. They clearly rely on each other for pretty much everything.

Buffy’s arrival coincides with a vampiric eruption in Sunnydale. The vampires seize Jesse, turn him into a vampire, and send him out to kill his friends. After discovering Jesse’s transformation, Xander destroys his best friend. But just a few scenes later, Xander and Willow trade quips with their new friend Buffy and their new mentor Giles, then go laughing into the sunset. And that’s it for Jesse. The emotional fallout from his death is cheerfully waved offscreen, and his place in the group is handed over to Buffy.* Jesse himself is quickly forgotten.** Poor guy.

In series creator Joss Whedon’s original plan, Jesse was going to feature in the opening credits of these episodes alongside Willow and Xander. He would appear to be an equal member of the cast. Jesse’s harsh fate was meant as a signal that in this show, anyone can die. No-one is safe, whether or not their name pops up under the theme tune. Subsequent seasons (and other shows by Whedon) showed this was not an idle promise, and in fact this commitment to real threat does give significant power to the narrative.

That’s not the only source of this show’s power, however. Over time, BtVS did become known for ruthlessness towards its characters, but also for the depth of emotion it gave them. Buffy characters die, and Buffy characters feel.

Put like that, it’s obvious there’s a tension here. If characters die and characters feel, then how do you stop your funny/serious show from being overwhelmed by grief?

So, Jesse. His death is a dramatic reversal, it signals no-one is safe, and it gives Xander and Willow some scenes of confusion and anguish. This is good stuff to make the two-part pilot an exciting tale. But as the establishing moment of an ongoing series, it plays very differently. If you want to dodge the long, heavy spectre of grief, the only way forward is to forget Jesse. He becomes almost instantly just another death, one of a long line that would accumulate over the years. (That said, Jesse does bear the dubious distinction of being the first teenager to die in the whole series.)

But when your show intends to build viewer investment through intensely-realised emotional continuity for its characters, forgetting Jesse is problematic. Two of your three central characters start out with their emotional truth broken into pieces. It’s a mis-step. This is “the problem of Jesse”, i.e. the tension between emotional continuity and genuine threat in a narrative whose tone cannot sustain grief. As I watch the series this time, I’m expecting to see a bunch of attempts to solve this problem. I don’t know if it will ever get solved – maybe it can’t be, not really. Either way, I suspect this is the source of its greatest triumphs and greatest failures, and I’m looking forward to watching the show try.

Jesse’s fate and the lack of emotional fallout doesn’t square with what lies ahead for the series. It’s not alone! There’s plenty of other stuff here that looks weird on a rewatch. Like:

  • Buffy is considerably less careful about her secret. She makes numerous verbal slips where she almost talks about vampires. (“I mean, the gym was full of vamp… uh, asbestos.”; “From now on, I’m only hanging out with the living. I – I mean, the lively… people.”) These slips disappear completely after this episode, presumably because they’re only there so slower audience members don’t need to think about subtext, and they do that at the cost of making Buffy a buffoon.
  • Giles suggests that Buffy should have the slayer power to sense vampires: “You should know! Even through this mass and this din you should be able to sense them. Try. Reach out with your mind. You have to hone your senses, focus until the energy washes over you, till you can feel every particle of…” If I recall correctly, this Slayer power doesn’t really get mentioned again (although I guess you could assume Buffy’s using a low-level version of it the whole time?)
  • Cordelia has a mobile phone! This disappears right away, even though it would be extremely useful on many occasions later. That’s why it disappears too – much easier to get Cordy into trouble if she doesn’t have a cellphone.
  • Angel’s dialogue here indicates he’s never seen Buffy before, but later it is revealed he has been watching her for some time – a straightforward retcon.
  • Willow’s outfit is… special. Pretty much a caricature of an unwise bookish girl with no fashion sense. From the very next episode her fashion choices are very different, as the show worked out more about what the show needed Willow to be.

Now, these aren’t mistakes (or mis-steps!), just discontinuities. This isn’t unusual for pilot episodes, it is just what happens when a show has to learn what it is as it goes. Even so, there’s enough weirdness that watching these episodes feels off. They aren’t doing it right! (Fanwank: These episodes don’t show what “really happened”. Instead they show one of Buffy’s prophetic dreams. The dream version doesn’t quite match reality, for example, real Jesse wasn’t actually a close friend of Xander and Willow at all. That means his death needn’t haunt the narrative to honour the show’s commitment to emotional continuity. Problem solved?)

Ultimate recommendation: If you want to be introduced to the ideas and ethos and style of BtVS, episodes 1 and 2 are great. But if you want a coherent BtVS experience, pretend these episodes don’t exist, and start with episode 3.

Final note: on this rewatch I’m also expecting to spot a bunch of stuff that relates to rape culture. (That phrase wasn’t in my lexicon the last time I watched the series.) In this episode, note Jesse’s moves on Cordelia – forthright and confident and continual, despite her repeated insistence that she isn’t interested. A sympathetic character acting like this might be telling the audience that no means yes – but this character is the one who turns into a vampire, and likes it. Compare with Xander, whose interest in Buffy shows no expectation of return, and who doesn’t turn into a vampire. Might just be a coincidence, but there’s the germ of something thematic here…

* Not only does Buffy takes Jesse’s place, but she is set up as his inverse: Jesse seeks Cordelia’s approval and is rebuffed, Buffy is gifted Cordelia’s approval but rebuffs her; Jesse is glad to be a vampire while Buffy is unhappy to be the slayer.

** OK, that’s not quite true. Xander’s stubborn distrust of vampires is a character trait that arises, it is implied, from the trauma of Jesse’s death. And there was an aborted sequence in season 7 that would have brought Jesse back, which would’ve been… interesting.

[N.B. Slightly re-edited the “final note” para on 2 November, to make it a bit more sensical.]

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Halloween Linky

This has been blowing up on social media in the last few days, which tells me I should have put it in last week’s linky instead of holding it over for this Halloween special. It is one heck of a musical number: Cannibal Shia LaBeouf. (via Svend)

Good Guardian piece on the origins of Halloween.

Star Wars triple-header:
1. Site dedicated to tracking every single astromech droid (the squat rubbish-bin looking ones, like Artoo)
2.
Every screen death in the original trilogy
3. Loads of close photo shots of the spaceship models from the films. Most of these pics were new to me.

A very fair evaluation of the phenomenon that was the Blair Witch Project, 15 years on.

I knew Scroobius Pip had started a podcast – but I didn’t know the guest after Zane Lowe was ALAN MOORE. (Thanks Angus D!)

Beautiful maps of space through the ages (via Maire)

And finally, in keeping with the day, an updated Monster Mash:

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Goldblum Linky

Sheet music for Jeff Goldblum’s laugh from Jurassic Park.

My friend Warren’s new project is getting covered at the AVClub, choice. Lego recreations of famous film moments!

And here’s number three from the AVC – The Wire event at Paleyfest, featuring loads of cast members and David Simon, talking straight about the show. I haven’t watched this yet, one day…

How the public apology became a tool of power and privilege (via @saniac, whose description I also stole because why not)

Early camera tricks: headless photo portraits from the 1800s

Star Wars characters and vehicles, relocated to the contemporary world, embedded in arty B&W photography. Actually way better than I just made it sound.

And finally, Dawson’s Creek as performed by dachsunds wearing wigs.

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History Linky

Old amigo Malcolm Craig, formerly of this parish but now back in that parish, has launched a new podcast (with a friend). It ties in more-or-less with the undergrad American history course they’re teaching at University of Edinburgh. First ep is about slavery, and is up now in all the usual podcasty places.

Urban design foolishness of the week: apparently the standard city street lane in the US is 12 feet. That is… very wide indeed. And it’s killing people.

Master Jedi David-R Kenobi advised me that the completely mad shot-by-shot recreation of Empire Strikes Back is now finished. He recommends the asteroid sequence, at 38 mins-ish. I just randomly clicked into several places, and of the bits I saw, the C3PO at 34:45 was my favourite. Perfection.

British military black ops teams planted fake evidence of black masses in Northern Ireland to convince people that paramilitaries were also Satanists, or something. (via Robert Whitaker)

Deadspin’s explainer for Gamergate is great. Because Gamergate is a mess. It started with dumb misogyny, grew, and currently claims to be a respectable movement for journalist ethics in computer games, but identifies the principal ethical dangers as “social justice warriors making games all feminist and stuff”. Or something. (The death threats continued of course.) But better than talking through the madness of Gamergate, this article also identifies the patterns sitting in here and how they are the future of the culture wars – when the Tea Party is made up of digital natives, these are the tactics they’ll use. A great read, if hugely frustrating.

I’ve linked before to the marvellous levitation photos of Natsumi Hayashi. I received an email: she’s got an Artsy page now, love from a person connected with Artsy. Artsy is a thing with artists where you can follow them, explore their work, buy prints etc. Check it out.

Predator: The Musical. The voices for all the supporting characters are perfect.

And finally, pretty sure this is indeed the worst cat ever. Certainly the least photogenic.

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