Buffy the Archetype Slayer

•June 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Can you tell I enjoy discussing genre archetypes? I always seem to come back to them – and why not? As I mentioned in my original post on teen movie archetypes, these genre conventions are what define the genre itself. When it comes to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (primarily in the television series, but also in the original movie), however, we find that many of these teen movie archetypes have been turned on their ear. But first, a little background on Buffy.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a Joss Whedon character first portrayed by Kristy Swanson in the 1992 film of the same name, then by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the television series that started in 1997 and continued until 2003. Buffy Summers is, in a nutshell, a high school cheerleader who finds out that she is “The Slayer”: a person born into every generation who is fated to fight vampires and other supernatural nasties. Cue opening credits with music by Nerfherder.
Joss Whedon has been quoted as saying that “the idea for Buffy came from all the horror movies he had seen featuring a helpless young blonde who would almost always be the first to die. He felt she needed a better image.” (source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118276/trivia), so right away we know that this subverting of the archetypal blonde cheerleader is completely intentional. In addition to subverting the character archetype of the cheerleader, Whedon also delivers his own twist on the archetypical high school clique. Take a look.

The Scooby Gang

The Scooby Gang

They could be right out of “The Breakfast Club” or “The Faculty”, right? From left to right we have the nerd, the social misfit, the cheerleader, the teacher (or in this case, the librarian), and the popular girl. But consider that, in “Buffy”, these characters associate with eachother more out of choice than out of circumstance. At the beginning of the series, the characters are thrown together because of the supernatural events that are going on, but as the series progresses, genuine friendships and relationships form. It’s almost as though Joss Whedon wanted to show what happens with the archetypical “Breakfast Club” characters after they are forced to hang out for the first time and start becoming friends. The teacher character being a part of the clique is also unusual, as the teacher character is almost always seperated from the group of friends, even when the teacher is a mentor figure as in films like “Dead Poet’s Society”. The character of Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) fulfils a similar role to John Keating (Robin Williams) as the group’s wise and experienced mentor, but as Buffy’s Watcher (her assigned guardian), he also takes on a fatherly role, replacing Buffy’s ever-absent biological dad.
I feel a bit like I’m babbling here, and I apologize. There’s a lot of ground to cover with Buffy.

One of the most important characters of the series (not pictured above) is the character of Angel: the mysterious rebel, ever the man of Buffy’s heart, and also…a vampire. Oh, the drama!

Angel: dark, mysterious, and prone to hemoglobin consumption

Angel: dark, mysterious, and prone to hemoglobin consumption

The troubled, on-again-off-again relationship between Buffy and Angel is a constant throughout the first three seasons of the series, and incorporates many themes and motifs from teen films and television shows, such as star-crossed romance, issues associated with a younger girl dating an older guy, and, not least of all, the loss of virginity. One of the two episodes that we watched on Tuesday night was the episode “Innocence” from second season, wherein Buffy loses her virginity to Angel and, as a result of the curse placed on him, he loses his soul, becoming an evil vampire just like any other.
This episode is all about a fear common to high school teens (girls in particular) that losing their virginity will change them drastically, and that, immediately following the loss of their virginity, their significant other will change as well – into someone who is the total opposite of who they thought he/she was. The loss of one’s virginity is also a sort of high school rite of passage, considered the defining moment of someone becoming an adult. This idea is echoed in the final moments of the episode: as Buffy and her mother celebrate Buffy’s birthday, Buffy’s mother comments that Buffy doesn’t look any different than usual, while Buffy admits that she feels as though her whole life has changed.

All this is only the tip of the iceberg. I could write an entire blog on how “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” relates to the teen movie genre in general (and the teen horror and romance genres in particular), but there is simply not enough space here to encompass it all. Suffice to say, the episodic structure of the television series, coupled with the fact that, unlike many television series, the characters on “Buffy” actually grow, graduate high school, and become adults, allows for thorough explorations of a variety of teenage and young adult issues in a way that movies simply cannot.

Loyalty to the Clique in River’s Edge

•May 24, 2009 • 1 Comment

River’s Edge (1986)
Dir. Tim Hunter
Starring Keanu Reeves (Matt), Crispin Glover (Layne), Ione Skye (Clarissa), Daniel Roebuck (Samson/”John”), Dennis Hopper (Feck)

Thursday’s movie was the Tim Hunter film “River’s Edge”, inspired by a true story, about a teenager nicknamed John who kills his 14 year old girlfriend Jamie and leaves her body by the river in his hometown. He brags to his friends at school that he murdered Jamie, but none of them believe him, so he leads them to the river to show them the body. Though most of his friends are shocked by John’s actions, none of them go to the authorities. Only his friend Layne seems truly concerned, not because of the death of Jamie (formerly a member of their clique), but because John will be arrested and sent to jail should the police find out. Layne feebly tries to help John by rolling the body into the river and arranging for John to hide out with the local drug-dealing recluse Feck.

“River’s Edge” is a study of teen apathy and of the sense of loyalty that teens feel towards their peers. The characters are generally unconcerned with John’s actions and while some, such as Clarissa, are bothered by the murder, they are not so disturbed as to alert the authorities. In this article on the real-life events that inspired the film, the author speculates that the murderer’s (John, or in the real-life case, Anthony Jacques Broussard) friends didn’t act because they would be seen as “violators of a code of teen-age loyalty that, in combination with a fear of police blame, kept the others silent.”
This idea of loyalty to one’s clique, even in the face of death and the threat of legal reprecussions, has been hinted at the films we have already seen in the course like “Heathers” (wherein loyalty to the clique is a top priority, even if the protagonist, Veronica, doesn’t see it that way) and “The Faculty” (wherein the protagonists must remain loyal to eachother in the face of death and legal reprecussion even though they are not from the same clique), and particularly in “Jawbreaker”, of which we have only seen clips. This “clique loyalty” was also mentioned in our most recent reading for the course from the World Health Organization’s “World Report on Violence and Health”, available here.

"The things I do for my fucking friends!"

"The things I do for my fucking friends!"

“River’s Edge” also contains another example of the subverted rebel archetype that I described in my previous post. John is portrayed as the dangerous rebel, the only one in his group of friends, the others of whom are portrayed as misunderstood misfits of the traditional rebel archetype instead.

For further reading on the actual murder case that inspired the film, including a few reviews on the film, I recommend this site.

J.D.: Just Dangerous

•May 24, 2009 • 1 Comment

Before I move on to last Thursday’s film “River’s Edge”, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the character of J.D. from “Heathers”, played by Christian Slater. J.D. (or Jason Dean) is a subversion of the archetypical rebel character for, rather than being sympathetic and/or misunderstood like other teen movie rebels (Zeke from “The Faculty”, Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause”, Bender from “The Breakfast Club”), he is portrayed as, well, insane. There is even a line in “Heathers” that points out this difference.

"You think you're a rebel? You're not a rebel you're fucking psychotic!"

"You think you're a rebel? You're not a rebel you're fucking psychotic!"

I find this subverting of the rebel archetype interesting, as though the writer was pointing out that not all social outcasts like Jim Stark are simply misunderstood, and that some are have such devil-may-care attitudes as to be seriously dangerous to others. The connection between J.D. and Jim Stark was brought to my attention by the professor in Thursday’s lecture as he pointed out that the name “Jason Dean” is very close to “James Dean”, and that J.D. can also stand for “Juvenile Delinquent”.

Since this is the first time, as far as the course goes, that I have seen the rebel archetype in a sort of sick and twisted light, I’ll be interested to see which of the other films in the course portray the rebel as genuinely dangerous and scary rather than simply a misunderstood social outcast (I’m looking at you, “Elephant”).

Is Suicide Trendy? A Look At Heathers

•May 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Heathers (1988)
Dir. Michael Lehmann
Starring Winona Ryder (Veronica Sawyer), Christian Slater (J.D.)

Last night’s film was “Heathers”, a 1988 dark comedy set in a fictional high school, wherein a clique of three bitchy girls (all named Heather) rules the school. A fourth girl, Veronica, half-heartedly participates in their cruel behaviour, such as sending a fake note from a handsome jock to a misfit girl (whom they have dubbed Martha Dumptruck) confessing his love for her, but clearly doesn’t fit in with the Heathers. Veronica isn’t impressed with the Heathers’ attitudes towards the other students and, with the help of her new, rebellious boyfriend J.D., sets about changing the school’s social politics by commiting murders and making them look like suicides.

“Heathers” is a pretty bizarre film, and would never have even been considered for production had it been pitched after the events at Columbine. That isn’t to say the film has no merit – while it wasn’t my favourite kind of movie, it definitely had its moments – but I find it very interesting that a film like this will likely never be made again.

“Heathers” is all about cliques, popularity, and suicide, and the intermingling of these three themes. Veronica pretends to be a member of the Heathers clique so that she can fit in with the “in” crowd and not be written off as a nerd like her old friend Betty Finn. The Heathers’ leader, Heather Chandler, is the most popular girl in school and the envy of the other Heathers, who desperately want to take her place as the leader of their group. Heather Chandler turns out to be Veronica and J.D.’s first victim.

It is never exactly clear whether or not Veronica actually intended to kill Heather Chandler; she claims to have simply wanted to make Heather sick as revenge for Heather having made fun of Veronica for drinking too much and throwing up the night before. J.D., however, thinks that they would be doing the world a favour by killing Heather, and repeatedly suggests that they give her a cup of liquid drain cleaner instead of Veronica’s suggested orange-juice-and-milk concoction. At the last minute, Veronica picks up the cup of drain cleaner and gives it to Heather, poisoning her and killing her instantly. I’ve done some research to see if I could find any concrete proof as to whether or not Veronica meant to kill Heather, and after consulting the script for the film, it appears as though killing Heather was a mistake. However, if my memory serves correctly, there is some discrepancy between what appears on the script and what appears in the film. Regardless, Heather dies, and instantly becomes more popular, as evidenced by the following quotes:

COURTNEY: (on TV) In my heart, Heather’s still alive.
VERONICA: (muting Courtney) What are you talking about? She hated you! You hated her!(to J.D.) What are you smiling at?
J.D.: Heather Chandler is more popular than ever now.
VERONICA: Yeah. Scary stuff.

DENNIS: I’m not belittling the Foodless Fund, Peter, but we’re talking teen suicide! Ask Alison here, the number one song right now is “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” by BigFun. Jesus man, Westerburg finally got one of these things and I’m not going to blow it.

This motif of suicide as a trend, or as a source of popularity, continues throughout the film, as each of Veronica and J.D.’s victims suddenly becomes posthumously beloved, regardless of how awful they were when they were alive.

Suicide gave Heather depth, Kurt a soul, and Ram a brain.

Suicide gave Heather depth, Kurt a soul, and Ram a brain.

This suicide trend influences everyone at school, even causing Martha Dumptruck to attempt it herself.

HEATHER DUKE: Veronica, did you hear? We were doing Chinese at the food fair, when it comes over the radio that Martha Dumptruck tried to buy the farm. She belly-flopped in front of a car wearing a suicide note.
VERONICA: Is she dead?
HEATHER: No… that’s the punchline. She’s alive, and in stable condition. Just another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people and failing miserably.

I realize I’m using a lot of quotes from the movie to support my point, so here’s one last one, and then I’m done:

VERONICA: If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?
HEATHER MCNAMARA: Probably.

So what does this mean? This could be the writer and/or director’s commentary on how the social microcosm of high school affects everyone within it so deeply that when a trend is set it spreads like wildfire, regardless of what that trend actually is. Or perhaps the filmmakers are cautioning us that teens will do anything to be a part of the in crowd, even going so far as to kill themselves for the sake of popularity. The idea of suicide as a trend is not a completely fictitious one, as can be seen in this article from safeyouth.org, which states that “Suicide can be facilitated in vulnerable teens by exposure to real or fictional accounts of suicide, including media coverage of suicide, such as intensive reporting of the suicide of a celebrity, or the fictional representation of a suicide in a popular movie or TV show. In addition, there is evidence of suicide clusters, that is, local epidemics of suicide that have a contagious influence. Suicide clusters nearly always involve previously disturbed young people who knew about each other’s death but rarely knew the other victims personally.”

Regardless of the message that the filmmakers were trying to send, I suspect the theme of teen suicide will be a reoccuring one in the other films that we study in this course.

Some Final Thoughts On The Faculty

•May 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

As a supplement to our viewing of “The Faculty”, we were assigned a reading titled “Alt. Everything: The Youth Market and the Marketing of Cool” by Naomi Klein and were instructed to take a look at the following ad:

For some reason, I skipped past the reading and viewed the ad first, and was immediately struck by what I considered to be hypocrisy on the part of the actors. I saw the alien invasion of a high school in the film as an allegory for conformity (a thinly veiled one, at that), and the protagonists – most of them living on the fringe of high school society, and except for Delilah and Stan, not popular kids (Stan is even planning on leaving his popularity behind by focusing on his studies instead of football) – spend the movie rebelling against this conformity. But then I watched this ad, and thought “What turncoats these actors are! They make a movie about defending individuality to the death, and follow it up with a commercial advertising a popular brand name.”

In bringing up these thoughts in our class discussion, I was reminded by a classmate that “The Faculty” is, after all, a Hollywood film and like any Hollywood film, product placement is just another part of what makes a big-budget movie a big-budget movie. And although I could see the point he was making, things didn’t really become clear to me until I did the reading and found these quotes:

“Selling out is not only accepted, it’s considered hip.”
– Jeff Jensen, reporter for Advertising Age

“[Today’s youth are] used to sponsorship. If a kid went to a concert and there wasn’t merchandise to buy, he’d probably go out of his mind”
– John Roberts, Woodstock promoter

Of course! It all made sense now. After all, how many popular brands advertise themselves with slogans like “Be somebody” or “Express yourself”? Individuality in today’s youth is defined by what brands you identify with. Essentially, you are what you wear. So, in the case of “The Faculty”, it makes perfect sense that the cast of young, hip actors could play characters who rebel against conformity, and then advertise a popular brand. They’re pandering to their audience, their fans. If you want to be rebellious, an individual, just like them…well, all you have to do is buy some Tommy jeans.

Invasion of the Archetypes

•May 19, 2009 • 1 Comment

Thursday’s lecture focused on character archetypes prevalent in teen films. From studying other film genres in the past, I’ve learnt that these archetypes are essentially the building blocks of a genre: they are the semantics of a genre, and through them we can learn more about the syntax of said genre. The teen movie character archetypes that were outlined in class are as follows:

– The Jock
– The Nerd
– The Popular Girl
– The Outcast/Delinquent
– The Rebel

The film that the professor used to demonstrate these archetypes was the John Hughes classic “The Breakfast Club”

An arrangement of archetypes

An arrangement of archetypes

Just looking at the poster, you can tell which character fits which archetype; the jock in his letter jacket, the rebel with his fingerless gloves and menacing pose, the milquetoast nerd with a morose look on his face, the outcast clad in black and curled up in an odd position, and the sultry popular girl lying out in front of them all.

While this sort of thing may seem obvious, it is very important when studying genre. Like I said before, these kinds of archetypes help to define a genre, and the reason they seem so obvious is that they appear really, REALLY frequently, as you will see in the film we watched on Thursday…

The Faculty (1998)
Dir. Robert Rodriguez
Starring Elijah Wood (Casey), Jordana Brewster (Delilah), Clea Duvall (Stokely), Josh Hartnett (Zeke), Shawn Hatosy (Stan), Laura Harris (Marybeth)

“The Faculty” is, in a nutshell, “The Breakfast Club” meets “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. A group of teens who all attend the same high school and normally don’t associate with one another find themselves surrounded by an alien menace that is taking over the bodies of the people at their school. This alien parasite starts with the faculty (hence the title), then begins assimilating their classmates, and it is up to our ragtag gang of heroes to save the day.

Similarly to “The Breakfast Club”, it is easy to see which character fits which archetype. (Captions are taken from Thursday’s lecture)

The Jock: sensitive, steeped in masculinity

The Jock: sensitive, steeped in masculinity

The Nerd: Change or perish

The Nerd: Change or perish

The Outcast: Lashes out against students and teachers

The Outcast: Lashes out against students and teachers

The Popular Girl: Need to fit in while simultaneously being an individual

The Popular Girl: Need to fit in while simultaneously being an individual

The Rebel: Refusal to conform, need to maintain individuality, and in the case of "The Breakfast Club" and "The Faculty, associated with drugs

The Rebel: Refusal to conform, need to maintain individuality, and in the case of "The Breakfast Club" and "The Faculty, associated with drugs

After watching “The Faculty”, I noticed another character archetype, although this one may not be as common as the others. The oppressive, angry teacher:

The Angry Teacher: Sees students as "young punks"

The Angry Teacher: Sees students as "young punks"

In both “The Breakfast Club” and “The Faculty” we are presented with a teacher (in the case of “The Faculty”, the first teacher to become infected with the alien parasite) who clearly has some anger issues. He sees the students as “young punks” and has several aggressive confrontations with them. It should be noted, however, that the teacher in “The Breakfast Club” does not turn into an alien the way the teachers in “The Faculty” do…

Rrrraaaaarrrgghh!!!

Rrrraaaaarrrgghh!!!

As well, “The Faculty” includes another character archetype – one which may or may not be as common as the other character archetypes in teen films (more research will be needed to determine this) – the new girl:

The New Girl: just trying to fit in...and turn everyone into alien slaves...

The New Girl: just trying to fit in...and turn everyone into alien slaves...

What is interesting about the character of Marybeth is that not only does she not fit in to the popular character archetypes that we discussed in class, but (SPOILER ALERT!) she turns out to be the villain in disguise. Watching “The Faculty” as an example of character archetypes in teen movies with the prior knowledge that Marybeth was the alien queen in disguise, it was easy to draw the connection: the one principal character who didn’t fit any of the archetypes we studied was the villain all along.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, these archetypes will be of great help in studying teen films as a genre, and while every archetype may not appear in every movie, there will always be one or more in any given film. In my last post I listed some of my favourite teen movies, so I thought it might be fun to list a few of them again and include sub-lists of the character archetypes present in these films.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

– Ferris is clearly the rebel, rebelling against authority, refusing to conform, and intent on maintaining his individuality
– His girlfriend Sloan could be the popular girl, but we’re never given much indication of what her social life is like at school
– His best friend Cameron is a sort of combination of the nerd and the outcast, though leaning more towards the nerd

“Back to the Future”

– Marty is the rebel, but not nearly as much of a delinquent as Judd Nelson’s character in “The Breakfast Club”. Marty does, however, rebel against authority, try to maintain his individuality and ride a skateboard (definitely indicative of rebellious behaviour)
– Biff is the other half of the rebel archetype: he’s aggressive and violent, the school bully
– George McFly is the nerd, as evidenced by his love of science fiction, his choice of drinks at the diner (“Gimme a milk…chocolate!”) and his general awkward, nerdy behaviour.

“Stand By Me”

– Gordie is the nerd, though this is only really evidenced by his passion for writing
– Vern is also a bit of a nerd, mainly because of his awkward behaviour
– Chris is the rebel, evidenced by his tough-guy attitude
– Teddy is both the rebel and the outcast: he’s tough and rebellious, but lashes out at other people and is generally unaccepted by society
– Ace is also a rebel, much closer to Bender from “The Breakfast Club”

I’m not as sure of my connections between characters and archetypes in”Stand By Me” as I am of the connections I’ve drawn in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Back to the Future”. I suspect this is largely because “Stand By Me” does not take place in a school.

(all images courtesy of http://www.infinitecoolness.com)

Favourite Teen Flicks

•May 16, 2009 • 4 Comments

My professor posted a topic on our film course discussion boards asking what our favourite teen movies were, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to list some of my favourite teen films. In no particular order, they are:

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

“Back to the Future”

“Superbad”

“Rushmore”

“Say Anything”

“Orange County”

“Stand By Me”

“Y Tu Mama Tambien”

“Scream”

“Brick”

“Hostel”

“Battle Royale”

“The Sasquatch Gang”

“Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer” (maybe not a teen movie, but very much in the style of a teen horror movie)

“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

I think that’s all of them, but I’m sure that I’m forgetting one or two. What teen movies do YOU like?

I consider Fogel from "Superbad" to be one of cinema's funniest nerds

I consider Fogel from "Superbad" to be one of cinema's funniest nerds