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The Body - dealing with fictional death

Death is a subject that a lot of tv, movies, books, etc. attempt to handle... and most don't manage to handle it very well. Strangely, I think the most compelling, engaging and evokative handling of death that I've seen has come from a super campy fantasy-horror TV series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, this show ended a decade ago, so I'm going to be talking some specific "spoilers" here.

I didn't watch Buffy back when it was on TV. I was into more "serious" vampire settings (primarily the World of Darkness material, and classic vampires) in high school, and thought Buffy to be, well, stupid. I decided a couple months ago to watch it, given that I've enjoyed so much of the later material that Joss Whedon has produced, and have found it (and Angel) to be pretty damn good (if extremely campy, but that's part of the charm). My wife and I are now on season 6 of Buffy and season 3 of Angel.

In season 5, Buffy's mother ends up ill and eventually dying. The episode "The Body" runs in stark contrast to much of the rest of the series' humour and irreverence. Instead, it is powerful, engaging, and moving. Joss Whedon pulled out some intriguing cinematic tricks and concepts to hammer home the weight of the subject matter, which kept me engaged as much as the story itself. What struck me most, perhaps, was the prodigious use of silence in the episode; easily a quarter of the episode had no sound. The silence really helped to convey the seriousness, isolation, and bleak helplessness of the characters, as well as the finality of the whole thing. Somehow, removing a medium of expression made the scenes, and the characters' actions even more expressive. Camera angles, and pacing tipped several scenes into power too. The whole episode had a very sluggish, almost still quality, impressing the idea of loss, longing, and (again) helplessness. The cast, normally so powerful and unstoppable, was left weak and broken, emotionally unstable and unsure of themselves, uncertain how to react and how to interact.

On the whole, I was quite taken aback by the quality and immensity of the episode, and highly recommend it (though it wouldn't be nearly as interesting without some background watching first). I watched the episode a couple weeks ago and I still think about how good it was fairly frequently... perhaps because I haven't really chatted about it with anyone but my wife, so haven't moved it through my system. On the whole, death in media tends to be fairly one dimensional. Sure, it can be moving or emotional, but, I think it's usually moving for us as invested consumers; The Body, on the other hand, I think, lets us empathize and really get to understand the perspectives of the characters as they experience the situation... we're not just observers, but a little of us is almost a part of the scenario. Pretty freakin neat.

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