Wednesday, August 1, 2012

To Be Twenty: Two Decades of The First "Slayer"

Once upon a time twenty years ago, Joss Whedon, perhaps the most brilliant screenwriter/director/visionary of my lifetime, had his heart broken with disappointment over Fran Rubel Kuzui's film adaptation of his first screenplay. Five years later, in a turn of events that only his brilliant wife Kai could predict, Whedon was given a second chance to breathe life into his greatest character. The impact that that TV incarnation had on my life and my writing (to say nothing of its impact on pop culture) warrants its own post. But today, twenty years after its opening weekend, I would like to offer my perspective on the film that preceded it, and the leading performance that no doubt positively affected countless other young LGBTQ lives as much as it did mine.

In my mythical Summer of 1991, Kristy Swanson was up there with Madonna and Paula Abdul as one of my chief Goddesses. I became obsessed with the film version of the V.C. Andrews bestseller Flowers in the Attic that summer, and particularly with Kristy Swanson’s performance. When my Dad took my sister and I to see Hot Shots! that same summer, I nearly died when I realized she was part of the ensemble cast. After the movie I couldn’t contain my delight that the star I was forever going on about had just appeared before my eyes on the big screen.

Flash forward to early summer 1992, when People Magazine put out their annual “Summer Preview” issue. Jennie Garth and Grant Shaw were on the cover to promote Melrose Place, and buried in there was a black and white photo of Kristy Swanson and a plot blurb about a movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought the plotline about a cheerleader killing vampires meant a straight-out horror film, and as a ten year old, I felt like Hollywood was making this movie just for me. I loved horror movies, choreography, and Kristy Swanson. And after months of being obsessed with Heather Langenkamp’s ‘Nancy Thompson’ in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and Sigourney Weaver’s ‘Ellen Ripley’ in the Alien films, I REALLY loved monster-defeating heroines. 

The ridiculously quotable trailer showed up before seemingly every single movie I saw that summer—complete with the cut “I am SO sure!” line. My excitement only mounted when I first saw the Kristy-less teaser poster on the very same day that I went to see Madonna in A League of Their Own. I can still remember the overwhelming thrill for its impending release, and looking back, I am truly shocked that I did not overdose on Goddess Energy that day. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was scheduled to be released on July 31st, and that same day was the opening of another movie I was waiting for all summer: Death Becomes Her. On opening day, there was a war amongst my friends about which we’d go see. Alas, that one and only time, “Buffy" did not win. 

I loved Death Becomes Her, but felt genuine guilt for not being there on the opening night of “Buffy”. About a week later, my Dad took my Sister and my friend Mike and I to see Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the same theater where we had seen Hot Shots!: the dearly departed General Cinema in Peabody, Massachusetts. My Dad and my sister sat in the back, while Mike and I sat in the front. I don’t remember anyone else excerpt for a pair of young girls sitting a few rows behind Mike and I. I only remember them because I didn’t know how we were supposed to react when they threw ice cubes at us for no reason. The unexplained mid-movie pelting marked the only time I was distracted during those 85 glorious minutes, for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was EVERYTHING I wanted it to be: the ultimate realization of my fantasy version of the film. 

I thought it was hilarious, and yet I may have been the only audience member who found it terrifying: despite already being a fan of The Exorcist, Halloween, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, the thought of friends turning into vampires frightened me more than my favorite horror films. But I was most affected by Kristy Swanson's performance and by her relationship with the male characters in the film: the lover (Luke Perry), the tormentor (Rutger Hauer), and the father figure (Donald Sutherland). It’s amazing how much this focus on one woman’s relationship with several men influenced the way I write movies as an adult. When I look back now, it’s all rather clear to me: I felt more like a girl than a boy. I didn't feel in inferior to boys, and certainly didn't dislike them. But I definitely felt different, and I yearned to better understand them.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer came out on video the day that my class got out for Christmas vacation, and I was once again counting down until we could go to the video store and rent the first copy. It wasn’t long before watching “Buffy” over and over became a way of life for me. It also wasn’t long before that practice became widespread amongst my generation, as the film became (unsurprisingly) a cult hit on video. Around that time, I was also constantly rewatching the “Elm Street” sequels, whose heroines I have always felt paved the way for Buffy. The impact of so many strong, self-reliant, seemingly fearless female warriors playing on the VCR throughout the fifth grade played a huge role in shaping my self-image. It also laid the foundation for my relentless opposition to gender roleplay: I loved that these heroines defied their gender expectations, but I also loved that I was able to personally relate to them far more than I could to male heroes. Even then, when I thought I was going through a bisexual phase and had no clue what “transgender” meant, it was important for me to underline that people’s perceptions of “man” and “woman” were severely miscalculated—if not total bullshit.

As evidenced by my attachment to Luke Perry’s turn as the almost unbearably dreamy ‘Pike’, I was also figuring out that I wanted one man to love me back. I was at the beginning of understanding my sexuality at that time, and it would be many home video viewings before I figured out why my fixation on Luke Perry’s beauty felt so different from my fixation on the beauty of Kristy Swanson. It's rather appropriate that a film which could easily be interpreted as a coming-out metaphor would play such a vital role in my own self-discovery. I vaguely recall trying to convince myself that my attraction was to one star and not the other, until denial became utterly ridiculous and Luke Perry became one of the first men I was ever consciously infatuated with. 

Pike remains one of my favorite romantic leading men in any of my favorite movies because he’s not perfected to the point of being a Hollywood fantasy. My identification with the original Buffy Summers had as much to do with wanting to save the world as it did with wanting to be one half of a partnership with a guy who would love, support, and empower me the way Pike did for Buffy. People like Pike do exist, as men and as women. They’re all “cool” in the way that matters most, and sometimes they’re even as gorgeous as Luke Perry. That’s why people like Pike fit with people like Buffy—and vice versa. Indeed, and while I don’t want to give away the ending for the uninitiated (SPOILER ALERT!), I have always felt that when Buffy and Pike rode off into the sunrise together on his motorcycle, they lived happily ever after in their alternate universe…and continue to do so.

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