Hailing from a background in painting and commercial art, I think I tend to pay a lot of extra attention to the composition of shots in films and TV shows. I don't think the attention is either undue or completely subjective - I've worked with art directors, and have a good sense of the kinds of conversations that lead to visual decisions - but I also know that the visual language of most TV shows is generally geared towards servicing the setting and tone (as well as constrained by other stuff like budget, the needs of the plot, etc). Still, I think that with a special show like "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" we sometimes don't pay enough attention to the visual language and the recurring motifs that supply their own layer of meaning.
In case you didn't already know, "Buffy" is the single greatest show in TV history, crafted by the finest storytellers of our generation. Like Alice's rabbit hole, it is outwardly simple by design, yet thematically as deep as a canyon, leading its viewers to a secret world rich with symbols and meaning. Its supernatural premise evokes all of the greatest monster stories ever told, and helps to foster the kind of primal mythology human beings have always created to in order to better understand ourselves and our place in the world.
"Buffy" wasn't the Dadaist anti-art of the fractured, neurotic 20th century, either. It was the grand art of Michelangelo's ceiling and Dante's verse. But in many ways it was an even older kind of art, because, despite the oversimplified caricature of Joss Whedon as the "author" that is usually presented, it was a work of art made by many hands and minds. Like the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome, the show had both no author and countless authors.
Some of the most enjoyable visual aspects of BtVS for me were its interesting bookends, meaning the first and last shots of any given episode. There were rarely any episodes that just sort of "petered out" or concluded with a lame "here is the moral of this story" comment from a character. And, as the series continued along, the punch and artistry of these first and last images grew along with it. By the end, there was a blade-sharpness to them. They begin to generate their own kind of meaning, as though the show is trying to tell us why stories have beginnings and ends, and how they are related to the beginnings and endings of other stories.
I suspect this is why they eventually ditched the opening voiceover. There was something too important about those first images to bother wrapping them in ritual. Instead of seeing familiar images that tell your brain a show is about to begin, the story starts the instant your mind becomes aware that the image on your TV is no longer trying to sell you something, but rather inviting you to explore yourself through art. And the final images became like the final notes of songs, and the last lines of poems. Sometimes they teased you with their meaning; other times they drove it into your heart like a wooden stake.
When I started thinking about this idea of these "bookend" images, I realized that there are so many examples of great ones on the show that it would be tough to curate even a tenth of them on LJ. So I decided to just start with the bookends for each season - in other words, with the first image of each season's premiere and the last image of its finale. Looking at them all together, I think I've discovered a few interesting things about them.
These stills are just references; the real images are motion pictures, and to really understand them it is better to watch the video than to look at screencaps. Many of these shots I list have camera movements attached to them - pans and tilts and zooms - and I think that the whole shot is important, like an eye roving across the surface of a painting to reveal its details. But, until I find an easy way to create video clips, I'm just going to stick with the stills for now, and describe what happens in the shots.
Opening: Establishing shot of a high school. "Learning" is a core theme of the seven-year story that is about to commence, and the first shot of the show simultaneously introduces us to the setting and one of the primary motifs.
Closing: Skeleton! The Master's skeleton, in particular, laying amidst the wreckage and books. The shot begins with an image of the Scooby Gang leaving the library and panning down to this final composition. Wreckage and books (and the wreckage of books) will become primary motifs of the show as well. This final image, like the other seasonal bookends, has a soul mate - another bookend image that it both corresponds and compares to later in the series.
Opening: A tombstone with the word, "GRAY" written on it. Obviously this is a name, but it's also a signifier of the shift in tone that this season will mark. This is one of those screencaps that I really think should be looked at in the context of the full camera movement, though, because it's actually the beginning of a long pan across the graveyard that ends on the street. The next image we see in this pan is a statue of the Virgin Mary (also a portent of things to come this season) and the final image that the camera stops on is that of Willow and Xander walking down the street together.
Closing: The bus carries Buffy away from Sunnydale. This is not the last bus we will see doing this.
Opening: Here is the first "soulmate" image. Again we start with a name on a grave, and again this is the beginning of a camera movement. The camera pans down to "Andrew Hotlich's" grave, and shows him climbing out of it, like an infant from a womb. When his head is through, the camera pulls back slightly to reveal a typical psychosexual image (and - in my opinion, at least - an example of a highbrow fart joke): a woman's legs spread in a V above the man's head, with the tip of the stake pointed just below the crotch (lampooning the old Freudian "penis envy" theory). We can't see the woman's face until the next shot, revealing that this is actually Willow, not Buffy, and cementing its connection to the opening shot of Season Two. This is also not the last time we will see a Season open with a fake "proxy Buffy."
Closing: This shot is the soul mate of the final shot of Season One. Again we begin with the Scooby Gang leaving - this time not just the library, but the high school and their childhoods. The camera pans down to reveal a scene of wreckage and books (just as it did the first time), only now instead of the dessicated past that the Master's skeleton represents, we get the hope for the future that the yearbook represents.
Opening: We see a statue of a winged angel. Buffy walks into the frame, and hits her mark in such a way that her face replaces the angel's face. It's a gnostic image, though probably not a specifically religious one - the reality of our living, human protectors replaces the icon of our otherworldly ones. The winged angels aren't going to save us; the human heroes will.
Closing: Buffy stands in the open doorway for a few moments, examining the bed that will soon contain Dawn - the "miraculous birth" that will change the world, and set into motion certain events that will result in an act of self-sacrifice to save it. Doors are a big motif throughout the show - opening them, closing them and crossing their thresholds. Doors are metaphors for the (sometimes guarded) pathways to hearts, and Buffy has left her heart open for Dawn.
Opening: We see Buffy laying in bed with someone (we suspect it's Riley, but we don't know yet; we just see an arm). She is tossing and turning, uncomfortable in her own skin and restless. It evokes the final episode (and image) of the previous season, and continues the sense that something is amiss with Buffy, and that she might not even know what that 'something' is.
Closing: Season Five's arc of Christian allegory ends with another gravestone. Unlike the other two ("Gray" and "Andrew Hotlich"), this time we know the name of the person on it. This image also completes her arc of "restlessness" (the first image of this season) to eternal rest.
Opening: Running legs of someone being chased through a graveyard. We don't know who is running, or whether they are the pursuer or the one being pursued, but the image involves terror somehow. We'll learn in the next shot that it is a terrified vampire being chased (and in the shot after that, we learn that the fake "proxy Buffy" Spike is who he's terrified of, tying this reveal back to the reveal of Willow as the "proxy Buffy" in the Season Three premiere.)
Closing: I think this image is the soulmate of the angel-to-Buffy transformation in the Season Four premiere - or, at least, the yang to its ying. In the Angel image, I think we were seeing otherworldly transcendence being traded for worldly heroism. Here, what the demon (fallen angel) is doing to Spike is not only very otherworldly, but evokes Calvinism's concept of "irresistible grace", meaning that God saves who he wants, when he wants, regardless of whether the person truly wants to be saved or not. It's arguable whether or not Spike actually wants to be rescued from the darkness or to return to it as he claims; words and actual wants are often at odds in the Buffyverse, and in Spike particularly. But this image seems to suggest that, even if Spike found the will within himself to restore his own soul, perhaps he could only gain the strength to search for it because of some unknowable and metaphysical act of grace. It also connects to the ending of Season Four, with an image of a light through a open door (heart). Both the lamp in the hallway and the light in Spike's chest are "sparks" in the night.
Opening: Very long, lilting establishing shot of Istanbul. It's really a very alien image for a Buffy episode, not just because it's a real city in a land both geographically and culturally far from the fictional Sunnydale, but because it is almost the anti-Sunnydale, as ancient as Sunnydale is new. This is 'the world', and we realize now that the story is much larger than the goings-on in Sunnydale. The story of Buffy is about the world - about our world. The camera cranes down from the cityscape, pans across a house, down a stairwell, and finally stops on an open door. A woman runs through the door. She is another terrified stranger being chased (as in the opening of Season Six), only this time she is human.
Closing: The shot is another very long shot, only this time it is a very slow zoom. This screencap is the final image - the final frame of film we will see of Buffy's life. It begins with all of her friends gathered together in the center of the frame, outside another bus that just carried them all away from Sunnydale, the way the Greyhound bus took Buffy away at the end of Season Two. It's a school bus this time, chaining it back to the first ever image of the series. As the camera zooms closer and closer on Buffy's face, her loved ones begin to vanish, one by one, until only three images are left in the frame: Buffy, the school bus, and the blurred and faded image of Buffy's shadow, Faith. Faith has completed her journey of redemption at this point, giving her name exactly the kind of meaning that it previously mocked. She has become a symbol of Buffy's faith; it's the same faith that allowed her to save Spike by loving him, to save Dawn by loving her, and to save the world by loving herself. Buffy's education is complete now; she knows herself, and trusts her own heart. Like the yearbook cover of the Season Three finale, her future belongs to her now. The composition here is Knowledge, Faith and Love. If there is a better image on which to end a tale about heroes, I haven't seen it yet.
Thoughts? Any other examples of bookends that from certain episodes that struck you as particularly meaningful or interesting?