Indirect Television Surviving: An interview with Beth Heinly on the Buffy ReWatch film and lecture series
“For example, we may feel the violence of history as something ‘it’ does to ‘us,’ but Sedgwick argues that the stories we tell about our subjectivity takes shape must also represent our involvement with the pain and error, the bad memory and mental lag, that also shapes our desires perverse, twisted, or, if you prefer, indirect routes toward pleasure and survival. To admit your surprising attachments, to trace your transformation over the course of a long (life) sentence, is sentience – that’s what i’ve learned. The pain of paying attention pays me back in the form of eloquence: a sound pleasure.”
-Lauren Berlant, ‘Two Girls, Fat and Thin’’
Vampires and Zombies hurt, but not only. In television, they can be caricatures, villains rendered as 2-dimensional characters that push plots forward allowing viewers to witness flexible and intuitive protagonists. Television can exemplify intuition, so much. For example, The Walking Dead is a television show about how characters get by within a post-apocalyptic zombie environment. In, S3E6, Hounded, a relatively new character at the time, Michonne (an autonomous African-American woman) is being hunted by Merle (strong-jawed southerner with a history of racism.) When Merle and Michonne finally meet mid-way through the episode, they momentarily fight… but zombies approach! Both their attentions turn to killing zombies as opposed to each other. As the scuffle unfolds Michonne accidentally cuts into the belly of a zombie whose innards cover her, literally, with the stench of death. She quickly escapes the situation, only to realize that she no longer needs to kill zombies, the stench of death that covers her renders her invisible to those that want to feed on the living flesh. Faking death (passing as a mindless drone) allows her to move quietly and conserve energy (earlier in the episode she suffered a gunshot wound.) This provides the opportunity for survival both from the potential of a racist hunter and the zombies who are seemingly everywhere. This skill of faking death comes up here and there for Michonne throughout her first two seasons, which in turn raises difficult questions for her. Her dead-role-play, as she occasionally realizes, renders her body dead-as-such. In her moments of passing she is as ineffective and motionless as the zombies are (in Walking Dead the zombies don’t move quickly or creatively.) This scene exemplifies the messy relationship of survival and passing, and asks how getting by through role-play can leave a body in performance as a body embodying; or if you prefer, the question becomes, when is it appropriate to get by through passing and when is not? The scene can be read as a playful reminder of Nietzsche’s statement which can be simplified into a challenge, ‘when fighting monsters, try not to be a monster.’
How annoying is it when you see a shirt that says, “throw away your television, read a book,” or a friend says, “I don’t even have a television in my house” with lofty accomplishment. Not everyone needs to watch television, but the assumption that it lacks virtue is arrogantly misled and incorrect. Not to mention, what about the right to pleasure?
Beth Heinly is an artist, curator, and maker of comic books based in Philadelphia, PA. She has, for the month of October, invited a diverse set of thinkers to produce a lecture & screening series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at Vox Populi. These lectures, under the title Buffy ReWatch, are led from persons in academia, art, curation, fandom, and podcasting. These lecturers will explore intimate narratives from the lecturers, what this series represented/embodied during the 90’s, and the latent political possibilities suspended in camp working within supernatural narratives. In advance of Buffy ReWatch, I asked Beth Heinly a series of interview questions about the impetus for this project. Additionally, the other lecturers of the series responded to a single prompt question about which character they find particularly exciting to think about. Often these answers drip with enthusiasm, and embody a mixture of slight critical distance and messy personal attachments. The answers also embody a reparative relationship with Popular Culture. A reparative relationship, comically not dissimilar from Eve Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading, both of which embrace the possibilities of camp. Camp, for these lecturers, seems to be a space that develops between 2-dimensional characters from fragments of personalities. These fragments become the parts that are shared and held as cathartic, serving as an unlikely chance for the solidarity of being like (a Vampire Slayer, Michonne, etc.)
Zach Rawe: Is there a particular reason why you’ve chosen to rewatch Buffy, now? Do you feel as though it has a particular relevance at this moment?
Beth Heinly: I’ve chosen to ReWatch Buffy because I LOVE BUFFY, in particular, the subtext is what makes the ReWatch enjoyable because you are continually discovering new material or further appreciating the layered format of writing which makes Buffy such an incredible show. Essentially, Buffy subverts the horror genre utilizing dark humor and the writing is similar to the novel in terms of character development & story arc with short plots acted out 22 times within a season, it’s brilliant! In those ways you could think of a Buffy ReWatch like looking at painting; it’s well crafted and you never grow tired of looking and finding something new to appreciate. Buffy is timeless and continues to be relevant to those who relate to the adolescent experience that it portrays while viewers returning to ReWatch as adults appreciate the show in part as nostalgia and in part coming into the ReWatch with a new viewpoint relating more to the adult aspects of Buffy in seasons 6 & 7. Additionally I’ve noticed a resurgence of 90’s fashion and the high school girl aesthetic dominant from the 90’s making it seem like Buffy could have happened just yesterday rather than over a decade ago. Also Netflix, which has made the ReWatch more prominent in our tv watching culture. i.e. X-Files, Gilmore Girls, etc.
ZR: Who are the other lecturers, can you describe why your practice tends towards the sharing responsibility. How would you describe this creative maneuver (egalitarian, collaborative, etc.)?
BH: The other lecturers are (in order of appearance) Megan Carr, Jon McCabe, James Myers & Ann Cornell, Homay King, Lynn Dorwaldt and Kate Kraczon. Across the board they’re all Buffy fans of course, but they’re also professors, curators and artists, we’re talking exceptionally intelligent and creative people who are able to conduct thoughtful conversations. I wanted to recreate my dream television watching experience where after watching an episode of your favorite show you then discuss every aspect of it with your friends who are equally enthused. This particular ReWatch ups the ante with versed lectures and round table discussion pairing Buffy Academia with casual fan-like conversations discussing character development, fashion, language and pop cultural references. So, of course, to have a conversation you need more people. I also wanted to expand the conversation. I personally, do not know everything. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to be egalitarian. I’m trying to put together a rich format for an event series through collaboration. It is essentially through my fruition this event is happening, but it’s collaborating that makes it actually work. For instance, Kate suggested Homay King & Lynn Dorwaldt. Homay is an Art History professor at Bryn Mawr College specializing in Feminist Film & Film Theory – which is pretty much like specializing in Buffy and Lynn is a librarian at the Wagner Free Institute. Could you have a Buffy ReWatch lecture series without a librarian? Um, no. Megan invited her friend Jon McCabe to lecture who teaches creative writing with a degree from Temple University in Media and Film Studies who also happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Buffy. Conclusively, let’s take a screencap from the Buffyverse here to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not have survived without the help of her friends.
ZR: There are certainly overlaps between your installation, Reading Room and the upcoming Buffy ReWatch Lecture Series. Both allude to moments of high school rebellion, dark humor playing out in fantastical (supernatural?) scenarios, and occasionally angst ridden characters and narratives. Can you speak a little bit to the archive you have presented in Reading Room as well as the Buffy ReWatch series, and what qualities they have in common.
BH: Within the Reading Room installation I have Buffy’s High School Yearbook compiled by Nancy Holder and Christopher Golden. For the exhibit I designed a book jacket for the yearbook from the season 3 finale ‘Graduation Day’ furthering the idea of prop replica from the publication. You pretty much hit on point within your question. A majority of the publications work within the horror genre and employ dark humor. The selection of books takes itself seriously as much as it knows when not to take itself seriously, a Buffy trope no doubt. Grace Miceli’s Fade Into Me on display is a book of poetry that heavily references BtVS. Zoe Burnett, Ward Zwart, Margaret V Haines reference the supernatural horror genres found in television via X-Files. Annette Monnier’s ‘Vampires Everywhere’ employs a 90’s nostalgia, horror and mystery within the YA short story fiction.
ZR: What character (relationship between characters) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a particular resonance to you? What are you excited to highlight about a particular character (relationship between characters)?
BH: I’m on my fourth ReWatch and as I am watching now at 34 vs. myself at 20 I relate much more to Buffy’s character. I find her more endearing with every Buffy puppy dog face. Watching her grow up from adolescence to adulthood through the seasons I am more aware of what she is going through, from dealing with death to paying the rent. There is an overarching theme in Buffy as Buffy tends to be anti-authoritative turning away from the Watcher’s Council in Season 3 then fighting evil independently with the Scooby Gang and in Season 4 realizing the flaws within the structure of the institution through the Initiative. Both the Watcher’s Council and the Initiative are government run organizations primarily run by older white males who fight evil. In this way, I look up to Buffy. In comparison I relate to finding myself at odds with the institution within the art world. I liken Buffy’s work experience with my own in the art industry. As an artist, like Buffy, I work making minimum wage at a dead end job (Double Meat Palace) to come home and make art. Though slaying and art making aren’t necessarily the same I’d like to believe they are both a higher calling.
Jon McCabe: In Season two, after years of slipping through windows and hiding holy water in her closet, Buffy finally admits to her mother that she is the chosen one. It’s the climax of an arc that begins in School Hard, when Joyce picks up an axe to defend her daughter against a vampire attack, and continues through episodes like Ted and Bad Eggs. Among the demons, monsters, and gangs on PCP, this moment of truth between mother and daughter seems like a long time coming, but Joyce is clouded by denial, and, perhaps, by fear that her daughter may not be as normal as she would like her to be.
Coming out to my mom was a long process, and it happened during the run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought I could ease us into a common understanding with the posters I hung, the clothes I wore, and the music I listened to. But sometimes denial sets in too deep, and you just have to just say what you mean. I thought of Buffy and Joyce when I came out to my mom, of their struggle to both find and avoid each other’s acceptance. That pivotal moment of truth telling on the Summers’ lawn was in my head and in my gut when I finally spoke my own truth. And eventually, like Joyce, my mom marched the Slayer Pride Parade.
Megan Carr: So, I have to go with Spike. I’m a sucker for a Billy Idol look-alike, particularly one with the soul of a really terrible poet. From Big Bad, to kinda good, to trusted babysitter, to tortured schizophrenic – Spike’s like one of those bloomin’ onion things – lots of crunchy layers. On top of his passionately loved/hated character redemption arc, Spike brought humor and rock ‘n roll when he entered the Buffyverse and in later seasons provided much needed breaks from all the self-righteous do-gooding.“Can’t any one of your damned little Scooby club at least try to remember that I hate you all?” For Season 2’s Rewatch, we’ll delve into Spike’s first series appearance in School Hard, his relationship with Angel/Angelus and manifestations of other familiar relationships (both blood and chosen) among the show’s characters.
James Myers: I’ve got to go with Giles. He’s introduced to us a stereotype and treated as such by Buffy and the Scoobies for a long time (in much the same way that any child fails to see the humanity, complexity and layered personality of a parental figure.) As the seasons pass, we are continually treated to revelations about those layers — Giles’ bad boy past, his rich and interesting personal life (open mic night, anyone?) and his ability to play the badass card when least expected.
Ann Cornell: I’ll piggyback on James’ response and say Joyce as a character and the Joyce/Buffy relationship resonates with me and will be featured in our lecture. Joyce starts the series in the dark (perhaps a bit willfully so) about her daughter being the Slayer. It’s a long, rough road to acceptance after Buffy reveals who she is to Joyce, and it’s a good example of how our own parents can struggle with our identities or life choices. Besides, who doesn’t feel a stab of pain when anyone mentions “The Body”?
Homay King: Willow. In Hush (season 4 episode 10), she becomes aware of the strength of her supernatural powers, a major transition for her character. It parallels her transition from high school to college in this season: bullied in high school, she thrives at UC Sunnydale. In a sense, she is finding her voice.
Kate Kraczon: Though Anya won’t make much of an appearance in my lecture, she’s my favorite character (tied with Spike). She defuses maudlin moments in the show and reminds the viewer how wonderfully absurd it is to become emotionally entrenched in television as Anya relearns how to be human. I’m hoping someone else is able to focus on her.
ZR: ‘What shows are in production now that particularly excite you? Could you see yourself holding a lecture series about any contemporary shows in the future?’
BH: At the moment, I pretty much only watch The Walking Dead & Supernatural. I am one of the few people that really like Hemlock Grove, I am anxiously awaiting it’s final season. Out of those three, I am the biggest fan of Supernatural. Considering it has eleven seasons it would require a lot more time and work, but it maybe interesting to do a ReWatch when the series comes to a close. I have found there are very few people in the art community that like Supernatural, so it would be fun to try and win them over. It is far from a perfect television show, but is comparable to Buffy’s humor as well as including many Buffy cast members as special guests. The internet fandom for Supernatural is massive. Someone once told me no matter who you follow on tumblr you end up discovering they’re into Supernatural. Um, please check out my last exhibit at Vox Populi where I curated prop replicas from the Supernatural television series. I’m completely shocked Title Magazine did not review that exhibit. With Hemlock Grove you only have three seasons, so you can really go in depth with the characters. It’s aesthetic and storytelling are similar to “Twin Peaks”, so I think it would be interesting to contextualize a ReWatch within the theme of cross referencing, a popular trope amongst television fandoms. “The Walking Dead” is most like the traditional novel structure with character development and story arc, which are themes I enjoy talking about within television writing. I’m curious how the Buffy ReWatch goes at an art venue and will go from there to decide on continuing this type of screening series.
Zachary Rawe is an artist, writer, and curator based in Philadelphia, PA. Rawe creates anxious objects and texts invested in affective responses generated from the dissolved relationship between work and leisure. Recently, he began to track his interests on a tumblr runonsentencereview.
Beth Heinly is a performance artist and sometimes curator who draws comics under the pseudonym 3:00. To view more of her work please go to domesticwildcatrefuge.com