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06 January 2012 @ 04:24 pm
Bookend Imagery in BtVS  

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.

Buffy Summers and her friends didn't spring fully formed from Joss Whedon's forehead, like mighty Athena did from the head of Zeus. They grew and changed, fell and rose, gradually guided by their many creators towards their final destinies. Like Athena, however, they are also more than words typed on a page.  A myth isn't a "text", after all; it's an intersection of writings, songs, statues, icons, paintings, buildings, crafts and countless other interpretations and mediums that have been handed down through the ages, and a marriage of these elements that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.  And because the seven seasons of the Buffy comprise a modern mythology, I think the compositions and visual motifs we see in the show matter as much as what is being said.  Our screens fill with these images - schools and buses, doors opening and closing, battle axes and fire axes, beds and graves - and unlike the props and sets of many other TV shows, they are more than just window dressing meant to aid our suspension of disbelief.

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.


---


Season One


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.



Season Two:


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.



Season Three:


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.



Season Four:


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.



Season Five:


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.



Season Six:


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.



Season Seven:


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? 
 
 
( 26 hollers — Holler back )
shabazmatazshabazmataz on January 6th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
I think the ending shot of Season 7 is always a scene that sticks out in my mind. It's a classic!

I'm going to dig through my DVDs and try to catch more of these.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 7th, 2012 12:47 am (UTC)
> I think the ending shot of Season 7 is always a scene that sticks out in my mind. It's a classic!

Isn't it, though? Along with what you have called that "Mona Lisa smile", it is one of the most beautifully composed shots I've seen in any film or video.
Anne: sad: buffy looks downnvrbnkisst on January 7th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
this entire post is made of absolute win!

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.

SO LOVELY!!

When it comes to opening and closing images the one that I ALWAYS immediately go to (probably because of it's obviousness) is in "Surprise"
The first image has Buffy walking through a dream/nightmare, and the end of the episode has Angel waking up to an actual nightmare of becoming Angelus. The visual storytelling of that episode is remarkable!

I know there are more. I'll have to look for them and come back to you.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 7th, 2012 12:51 am (UTC)
Thanks, nvrbnkisst.

When it comes to opening and closing images the one that I ALWAYS immediately go to (probably because of it's obviousness) is in "Surprise"
The first image has Buffy walking through a dream/nightmare, and the end of the episode has Angel waking up to an actual nightmare of becoming Angelus. The visual storytelling of that episode is remarkable!


Oh yeah! The roundness of that episode was really great, and there is this internal roundness to so many episodes that makes the story feel like less of a "TV show" and more like a great book.

Sculllaaaaaaaaay!blackfrancine on January 7th, 2012 02:42 am (UTC)
Dude. Why do you keep writing so much wonderful meta-y stuff lately? Nevermind--the why is not important. I'm just glad that you do.

I love this--and I love that you come from a visual arts background because I'm the exact opposite--I come from lit, and it's taken me a while to start seeing these types of visual patterns and motifs. And when I DO see them? My mind just is blown. It's so exciting to me (after spending however long concentrating on words on a page) to see that same attention to artfulness that I look for in literature in a visual medium--especially in a pop culture medium.

Anyway. This is wonderful.

Doors are metaphors for the (sometimes guarded) pathways to hearts, and Buffy has left her heart open for Dawn.

Oooh. I love that.

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.

Gah! YES. The beauty of this sentence is making me sniffle.

The composition here is Knowledge, Faith and Love.

OMG. That's so wonderful. So. Wonderful.

Brilliant.

lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 7th, 2012 01:25 pm (UTC)
Dude. Why do you keep writing so much wonderful meta-y stuff lately?

I don't know why, but thanks for dropping me a note!

It's so exciting to me (after spending however long concentrating on words on a page) to see that same attention to artfulness that I look for in literature in a visual medium-especially in a pop culture medium.

An interesting thing to me is how literate the show sometimes was, despite all the pop semiotics being flaunted. Jean Baudrillaud might have said that the show really doesn't contain the meaningful references I think it does, because there are no referents to connect to, and that these meanings and symbols are illusions produced by my own subjective interrelation to the forms. But fuck that guy. Seriously. If he tried to lay that structuralist jazz on me, I'd bust out some crazy Laser Shit on him, like when Buffy slaughtered Adam.
readerjanereaderjane on January 7th, 2012 03:33 am (UTC)
Couldn't have said it better.

I'm watching through the series with my kids (18 and 21 -- it's taking a LONG time). Can't wait til I can share this meta with them after we've seen Chosen.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 7th, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks, readerjane. I'd really like to know what they think after they do.
(Deleted comment)
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 7th, 2012 01:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks! You know, whenever I see your user name, I think of the bookend in "Pangs", when the camera shifts to Buffy's point of view.

Rebcake: btvs_spi_peckishrebcake on January 7th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
Huh. Is this the episode that begins with "And they say one person can't make a difference" or does it go straight to the digging?
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 7th, 2012 11:35 pm (UTC)
This is the last shot of the fourth season Thanksgiving episode, "Pangs", where Xander accidentally lets it slip that Angel had been back in town.
Rebcake: btvs_gimmerebcake on January 7th, 2012 11:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, but how does the episode BEGIN? The other end of the bookend? I don't always have the beginnings as clear in my mind...
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 8th, 2012 12:38 am (UTC)
The episode starts with a stranger walking through a wooded area looking vaguely scared (he turns out to be a vampire).
Rebcake: btvs_buf_slayerrebcake on January 8th, 2012 01:47 am (UTC)
I had to look it up, but yep it's the "one person" bit, which makes the closing shot feel like a visual pun on the teaser.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 8th, 2012 02:01 am (UTC)
Hmmm. I'm not sure if we are talking about the same episode. The one I was talking about starts with this image:



Or, maybe is that what you meant by "one person"? That there is one person on the screen. Sorry for being confused.
Rebcake: btvs_buffy_whateverrebcake on January 10th, 2012 10:23 pm (UTC)
Back again! See, this is what I mean about knowing the text, but still finding new things! Buffy's verbal exchange with the vamp you have pictured ends with her saying, "And they say one person can't make a difference" before the camera pans to Angel hiding in the bushes. Obviously, there are lots of individuals who make a difference, not least Buffy herself, though it's arguable whether Angel makes any kind of positive difference in this episode. By going behind Buffy's back, his main effect is to cut her off from her team, albeit in a minor way. When the camera switches to her perspective at the very end, it highlights her realization of her isolation within the group. Without this shot, the episode would end with the impression that the group all pulled together to defeat their foes. True, but not exactly...
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 10th, 2012 10:43 pm (UTC)
Ah, I see now. Sorry, I wasn't really understanding what you said before, but it makes total sense now. Yeah, the teasers in general (not just the first shot, but everything leading up to the opening credits) mapped back to the endings too, both visually and textually. Well, at least, the really GREAT episodes like Pangs did that, adding to the "roundness" of the storytelling that I found so compelling.

Edited at 2012-01-10 10:43 pm (UTC)
Rebcake: btvs_spi_thumbsrebcake on January 7th, 2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
Neat! I love your presentation of "Buffy as Myth" (and I don't think you're myth-taken). While I would never discount the contribution of the auteur to really great works, and think that "art by committee" often becomes too dilute, BtVS is a prime example of how great stories become even more great through synergy.

And while I feel that the text of the series (actual words) is plenty complex and open to interpretation, I also sometimes feel that I've pretty much digested them all by this point. Yet, as you point out, the text is only one aspect of the whole. There's still so much to discover. (I can't tell you how many times I watched School Hard before noticing that Spike and Buffy had matching red smears on their cheeks, for instance.) So much Buffy to love! Thanks for pointing out another interesting facet.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 8th, 2012 12:58 am (UTC)
Neat! I love your presentation of "Buffy as Myth" (and I don't think you're myth-taken).

Thanks! And thank you for the pun. :)

While I would never discount the contribution of the auteur to really great works, and think that "art by committee" often becomes too dilute, BtVS is a prime example of how great stories become even more great through synergy.

Just from my own career, I've seen a certain magic that happens in a group setting under the duress of harsh deadlines, and sometimes even a weirdly creative violence and chaos. I can imagine all kinds of laughter, angst, outbursts of rage, group hugs, fear, loathing, jealousy, insanity, hope and love among the pool of writers, directors, producers, editors, prop artists, set designers, costumers, actors and other artists involved in making this train go down the track.

There's still so much to discover.

Yep. Once you go down this rabbit hole, it is hard to resurface.

local_max on January 8th, 2012 01:19 am (UTC)
It's really hard to stop once you start. Off the top of my head, I love how Helpless begins with the Buffy/Angel fight, which seemingly is irrelevant to the episode, but which establishes:

1) this is an episode about the eternal slayer/vampire and woman/man struggle;

2) the fuzzy line between love and fight; a reminder of the last major betrayal of Buffy by a man on her birthday;

3) a reminder of the cost of the last Buffy/Angel tussle: which is Jenny Calendar, presumably part of the reason Giles is willing to let himself be talked into giving Buffy up.
local_max on January 8th, 2012 02:18 am (UTC)
A few more quick thoughts (I really do love what you've written here):

1. The vampire running away in the season six premiere is also a sign of the complete change of the show's moral landscape. Buffy is dead; childhood is over; and it is no longer clear that the vampires can't be victims or heroes themselves. Spike plays both abuse victim and hero this season and next, after all, as well as villain. The image of Spike pursuing a woman running away from him is meaningful, non? I like how the season six opening also calls back to Willow as the Buffy substitute, since she is the one who is ultimately running the show far above.

2. The image of an angel in the season four opening also suggests Angel, the character. Angel the character is not there to save Buffy (if he ever was), but the season particularly makes note of his absence from Buffy's life, and Buffy is living her life, at least a little bit, with the idea of Angel casting a shadow over her. Angel is on her mind.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 8th, 2012 03:04 pm (UTC)
(I really do love what you've written here)

Thanks!

1. The vampire running away in the season six premiere is also a sign of the complete change of the show's moral landscape. Buffy is dead; childhood is over; and it is no longer clear that the vampires can't be victims or heroes themselves.

I think this is an interesting thought, because this is the season where Spike, in certain ways, becomes Buffy's "victim", even as she is saving him by giving him hope. But the reason I don't connect this theme to the scared vampire in the Season Six premiere is because, throughout the series, most vampires are scared of Buffy. She is, in a sense, the Batman to their Gotham city crooks, the "thing that monsters have nightmares about." ("Showtime")

So, I think the scared vampire in the Season Six premiere is connected to all the other scared vampires in the series - including, for instance, the one I showed in the above screencap for the beginning of "Pangs" and Andrew Hotlich - the fledgling vampire who Willow, Xander and Oz feebly, and unsuccessfully, fight in the Season Three premiere.

The nameless running vamp in Season Six is even more terrified than Andrew Hotlich because - although Spike is also a fake proxy, and not as scary as Buffy - the combination of him and the other Scoobies chasing him are now closer to being like the real Buffy than ever before. Willow is still the leader of this S6 Fake Buffy Team, but she is far more powerful than she was when the first version of the team fought Hotlich. She has become the chess player surveying the battlefield and moving her pawns - who also happen to be her friends, which is a foreshadowing of the climax of her downward arc to come. The Fake Buffies of S6 even boast an ultimate "Fake Buffy", the Buffybot, as part of their team - a creation of Warren who his Dark Nerd Twin Willow now maintains.

2. The image of an angel in the season four opening also suggests Angel, the character. Angel the character is not there to save Buffy (if he ever was), but the season particularly makes note of his absence from Buffy's life, and Buffy is living her life, at least a little bit, with the idea of Angel casting a shadow over her. Angel is on her mind.

Oh, yeah, absolutely it is representative of the character. In a way, it could even be seen as the character's grave marker (which it sort of is - he won't really be a part of the show anymore, except for a few cameos in future seasons). It works very well in evoking him, and also the idea he represents - that "angels" are really watching over us.

I think what cements the "tranformation" part for me is the blocking itself. SMG hits her mark more or less perfectly, and in that moment the camera lens' focus shifts from Angel to her: the human hero. Not only is the focal point of the lens telling us the the focus of the story is shifting, but it's rather sharply telling us, "No, Angel isn't coming back" and "Yes, humans are the real, living things that save us." One of my favorite opening shots.

Edited at 2012-01-08 03:15 pm (UTC)
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 8th, 2012 03:10 pm (UTC)
Also, just to tease out a little more about your second thought, there are two more elements in the frame which I probably should have mentioned in the post itself - two "lights". One is bright and close, and the other is distant and blurry. They are two souls: Buffy's is the closer light, and Angel's is the one far away.
dancing till the world ends: politics: big damn herolynnenne on January 8th, 2012 04:37 am (UTC)
The composition here is Knowledge, Faith and Love.

Oh, very nice analysis! I hadn't recognized that before, but I totally buy it.
lostboy_ljlostboy_lj on January 8th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
Bone_Dry1013bone_dry1013 on February 4th, 2014 05:06 am (UTC)
Ha, this was linked on r/Buffy. Was surprised when I was clicking through and randomly ended up here.

Awesome!
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