2005 Arts & Entertainment Issue
Slay Me Why Don't You
A Buffy fan sinks her teeth into SlayerCon
Downtown library boasts Sights & Sounds
SEEN & HEARD: Nelda Hill manages Lawson McGhee’s AV department.
Master of Mastering
Studio guru Seva seeks enlightenment
2005 Arts & Entertainment Issue
Slay Me Why Don't You
I'm embarrassed when I find myself talking about TV. Supposedly smart, college-educated people talk about current events, news segments on All Things Considered , award-winning books, New Yorker articles or cinema (art films, not blockbusters). They don’t talk about television shows and—for Seventh Heaven ’s sake—definitely not shows on the WB.
But for the past six years, my small-screen desires have found nirvana in a series that turns young people’s run-of-the mill lives into clever, poignant, funny, scary and metaphorically dense tales of supernatural adventure—with great clothes, smart dialogue and hot vampires to boot. And now a few hundred like-minded fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will descend upon Knoxville for a unique event called SlayerCon. It’s almost more than a mortal girl can handle.
My fascination/obsession started in 1999 when a new acquaintance professed that Buffy was his favorite show. I accepted this news with a straight face and tuned in to the next episode to learn what Buffy , then in its second season, was all about.
My first impressions might have been different had I seen the 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry. Joss Whedon, the film’s screenwriter, disowned the greatly rewritten movie version as very different from his original screenplay and its motive—that is, to blend humor and darkness into one thoughtful and entertaining glob. But I didn’t expect fluffy comedy from this Buffy . If anything, from having watched seven seasons of The X-Files , I was drawn to the darkness. And that’s exactly what Whedon’s TV series had in spades when it premiered in 1997 on WB starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular Chosen One called to rid the Earth of evil demons.
I know this next paragraph like it’s my autobiography—better than, really, which is probably why Buffy fans can get so obsessed: countless near-death experiences at the hands of evil demons beats the heck out of being a college student, working hack, whatever.
Buffy Summers is blonde, carefree, somewhat fluffy-headed SoCal 16-year-old without a care in the world until she’s told she’s the Slayer, a young woman endowed with superhuman strength destined to fight the forcesof evil (mostly vampires, but it turns out there are plenty of other icky demonic creatures lurking about, too).
Whedon’s original script had Buffy burn down her high school gym to kill a nest of vampires, and the series follows this prologue although the plot twist was cut from the movie. So the TV series begins with Buffy and her mother moving to Sunnydale, a normal (ha!), quiet (double ha!) California suburb where Buffy enrolls in a new school in hopes of escaping the previous unpleasantness. No such luck, as Sunnydale High is located on the Hellmouth, a supernatural chasm from which demons find entrance into this dimension, and other evil things are drawn to the bad vibes emanating from within.
As she continues to deny her role as the Slayer, Buffy soon meets Rupert Giles, the school’s librarian, who knows an awful lot about her past, her strength and her penchant for getting in trouble with vamps. As Buffy’s Watcher, Giles has his hands full with a teenager more interested in shopping, boys and fitting in than fulfilling her role as a martyr to the cause of good over evil. He gets some help from Buffy’s friends Willow and Xander, two mere mortals whose proximity to Buffy’s demonic encounters pulls them into the action.
Scholarly articles, academic theses, online journals and countless fan-to-fan conversations analyze Buffy episodes for their spot-on observations of growing up. The figurative notion of high school as Hell becomes literal. A crush-worthy teacher turns out to be a demon. An online romance stems from a possessed computer system. A power-hungry principal becomes a tool of the dark side.
Buffy’s otherwise normal experiences have twists that only the Hellmouth can guarantee. Her first boyfriend is a vampire (one with a soul, although he loses said soul and tortures her . Who doesn’t have an ex who fits that description?). Willow gets addicted to magic. Xander almost marries an ex-demon. Buffy gets a “real job” at a fast-food burger joint and discovers that the food service industry spawns its own brand of mindless clones. And when Buffy and her pals feel like their world is ending, well, it probably is.
To paraphrase Buffy’s tombstone, she saves the world a lot. Living vicariously through a pretty, well-dressed young woman who always has a snappy comeback isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours of your life.
That’s what SlayerCon is all about—getting closer to the people who made this show (and its spin-off, Angel ) not only possible but so great that, to their most ardent fans, they’re an integral part of a meaningful existence. Never mind that the last episode of Buffy aired in May 2003 (after being relocated to the fledgling UPN network), and WB showed the final Angel in May 2004. SlayerCon keeps the spirit of the series alive.
Sci-fi conventions—whether they’re specific to a certain show, like Star Trek, or more broadly about comics and collectibles—are where geeks immerse themselves in a shared geekiness, which doesn’t sound much different from, say, the National Republican Convention or an NRA conference. Who can say who’s more fanatical?
Close proximity to such adoration doesn’t faze Clare Kramer, an angelically gorgeous blonde actress who played Glory, Buffy’s arch nemesis in Season 5. Glory is a powerful god who appeared in Sunnydale in search of The Key, a mysterious object she needed to open the border between demon dimensions and ours.
Typical of Whedonverse villains, Glory talks with as much eye-rolling, slang-laden wit as her Scooby pursuers. She loves designer dresses, shoes, bubble baths, mimosas, and sucking the life force out of people’s brains. Minions—lumpy-faced goons in monks’ robes—do her bidding, their language laced with worshipful praise—“oh glittering, glistening Glorificus,” they call her. “We bathe in your splendiferous radiance, your aromatic….” And Glory appreciates their fawning: “How about you shut up and listen to me, you disgusting little fools?” She’s very, very bad, but she’s one of the most entertaining femmes fatale in TV history.
Clare Kramer didn’t let all the deity treatment go to her head. The 31-year-old actress had a supporting part in the Kirsten Dunst flick Bring It On , just before she auditioned for Buffy . The character of Glory was mostly unformed at that time, with only two pages of text to audition from, says Kramer. So she did her own thing and got the part.
Kramer says she liked Glory because she wasn’t your run of the mill baddy. “She was multifaceted, and that was important to me,” Kramer says, adding that she didn’t want audiences to dismiss her as a plain ol’ villainess. “I wanted them to find humor and compassion and different aspects in Glory, not just evil. To me that would’ve been the easy way out.”
Kramer wasn’t familiar with Buffy before her tryout, but she quickly got up to speed on the show’s backstory and clued into the passion of its fans. She’s gotten an even closer look at Buffy fanatics (who don’t have an overarching moniker like Trekkers or X-Philes) at some conventions in Europe and at least one autograph event organized by SlayerCon’s masterminds, Las Vegas Autographs.
“It’s a really good chance for actors to get to meet the audience of the show,” she says of such events. “There’s a shared passion. Attendees love the show, and actors have a special place for it. And it’s a chance for actors to share each other’s perspectives and learn from that.”
Why, exactly, would an actress want to be crammed into a convention center or lecture hall with hundreds of Buffy fans (well, without police protection)?
“The Buffy audience is very intelligent, thankfully,” Kramer says. When event attendees cower like minions in her presence, they’re usually only joking.
SlayerCon and other such events include autograph sessions, panel discussions and Q&A hours, during which fans ask the usual questions, like what it was like to work with the other actors, what it was like to enter the show in the fifth season, and what’s up with Glory’s hair. “That’s how curly my hair is naturally,” she says. “I’ve never worn it curly for another role.”
Kramer says it adds up to a “very relaxing weekend.”
“The people who attend these thing are really intelligent and normal. They have a passion just like people who love sports.”
I suspect that at least one reason people attend is to shove aside any feelings of shame they might harbor about their obsession with a TV show and jump in fully clothed. There isn’t anything wrong with immersion into a world of fantasy (as long as you can continue to live in this one with a modicum of normalcy), but there’s comfort in sharing your most culturally marginal passions with strangers who are suddenly less strange for what you have in common.
Thanks to all the Buffy and Angel fans whose exhaustive online chronicles of all things Whedon helped me tremendously with this story.
What: SlayerCon. Guests include Anthony Stewart Head (Giles), Andy Hallett (Lorne), Julie Benz (Darla), Clare Kramer (Glory), Mercedes McNab (Harmony), Mark Lutz (Groosalugg from Angel ) and Scott L. Schwartz (Biker Vamp). Activities include autograph and Q&A sessions, a performance by Anthony Stewart Head, a Caritas karaoke party, and a Buffy musical sing-along.
Movies on Market Square is today’s answer to the drive-in movies of the 1950s—sans the turquoise Chevys and incessant, slurpy necking. To recreate the magic of bygone evenings, the Knox County Public Library has scheduled its second season of Movies on Market Square, an outdoor film series that runs every Friday night from Sept. 9 to Oct. 29, beginning at dark.
On any given Friday this fall, one is likely to see Humphrey Bogart, Tom Cruise or Judy Garland right here in Knoxville, larger than life and strolling across a screen suspended against the night sky. Families and friends will settle into folding chairs, husbands will put arms around their wives’ shoulders, children will eat popcorn absentmindedly, and a few clandestine dogs will bark when it’s most inappropriate. It’s not the ’50s anymore, though, because there’s likely to be a pesky fellow up front talking loudly into his cell phone as if he’s at home in his own living room.
Mayor Bill Haslam insists Market Square is everyone’s living room, and his assessment never rings so true as at Movies on Market Square, when an average of 1,500 Knoxvillians sprawl out to take in a flick together.
This year’s lineup, voted on with an online poll, includes Jaws (Sept. 9) , Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Sept. 16) , Wizard of Oz (Sept. 30) , The Maltese Falcon (Oct. 14) , Grease (Oct. 21) and E.T. (Oct. 28). The Graduate and O, Brother, Where Art Thou were recently replaced with runners-up Top Gun (Sept. 23) and Close Encounters (Oct. 7), due to copyright laws and legal disputes. Library Communications Director Mary Pom Claiborne is in the midst of planning programming to correspond with each film. Already she’s gotten Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies lined up to do a shark demonstration before Jaws , and a magician scheduled before Willie Wonka . An ’80s band may be in the works for Top Gun , and she’s recruiting swing dancers for The Maltese Falcon .
Claiborne says she put Movies on Market Square together last year to showcase the library’s “broad and deep” audio video collection, from which all of the Market Square films are pulled. But also she’d grown tired of watching other cities have all the fun. Places like Nashville, New York and Chicago regularly screen movies outdoors. In the past couple of years, a couple of Knoxvillians have tried their hands at screening movies outdoors, but the response was invariably faint. Yee-Haw Industries, for one, sometimes aired rare black and white reels on the face of the J.C. Penney Building, across the way from their Gay Street business. Although the effect was dramatic, generally only a dozen or so people turned up. Local entrepreneurs Scott and Bernadette West, who owned the now-defunct ThInQ Tank in the Old City, also broadcast movies on the rear of their building every Thursday after Sundown in the City.
“They’ve gotten to be the thing to do, the popular thing,” she says. Like a girl who needs a prom date and fast, Claiborne made some calls, did a little pleading and wouldn’t take no for an answer. “It looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and she just really persevered and pushed through,” says Nelda Hill, head of the library’s Sights and Sounds collection.
Though Claiborne recruited a Nashville production company last year, she’s now gotten local company Luna Cinemas lined up for this fall’s screenings; Phoenix Theaters is also an important partner, as is the Market Square District Association, though it’s less involved this year.
“The whole thing really got started because we have such an excellent [AV] collection here,” says Claiborne. “People think of the library as just books, so it was a good way to say we are more than books. People need to use [the AV collection] and be proud of it. You can find some obscure stuff here.”
The library makes it a priority to provide things that the average browser wouldn’t ever come across in a Blockbuster or local theater. One library brochure reads, “There’s a book called ‘Never Coming to a Theater Near You’ and that’s how we like to think about the library’s video collection.”
Well-stocked in documentaries, instructional and educational films, both DVDs and VHS, as well as Hollywood blockbusters, the library now has 10,776 videos (1,703 of which are on DVD). “Just like the book collection, we want to feel like we’ll have things that you’re not going to find anywhere else, things that are out print, that sort of thing,” says Hill.
The library has 9,592 audio books, 1,190 music CDs, and some phonograph records. An average of 8,600 AV materials are checked out from the library each month, says Hill, helping in part to increase circulation at the main library by 18.8 percent in the last year. Claiborne believes that at least part of that increase can be attributed to the helping hand of Movies on Market Square. (Nonfiction DVDs and videos are free to check out, and feature films are $2 for seven days.)
Dale Watermulder, a bassist with both the Oak Ridge Symphony and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, retired from his position as head of the library’s Sights and Sounds department in 2004 after 27 years on the job. His former colleagues credit him almost entirely with handpicking the library’s eclectic AV collection.
“Choosing a collection is an art form,” says Claiborne. “If I started just building a collection it would end up being probably just what I like. Dale just had real knack for understanding the broader picture, and not just going with the blockbusters but going with the important stuff.”
When Watermulder began working at the library in ‘77, his predecessor Jane Powell had only just begun to collect records and 16mm films. She’d also amassed a small video collection, though it wasn’t offered to the public until late ‘82. Watermulder built on this collection by using “basic librarian principles,” reading reviews, and keeping quality and diversity in mind.
“I’d buy titles even if I felt they wouldn’t go out very often,” Watermulder says, citing his purchase of holocaust documentary Night and Fog as an example.
“We needed to be sure that we were up to date on the best of the new films too,” says Watermulder, “because often that’s what will attract people to a collection, but once they’re there, they’ll discover the broader collection that we have, broader than any store or movie theater.”
Despite increased circulation, a significant cut in the library’s materials budget has significantly impacted the growth of the AV collection. “A lot of our purchases depend on nothing more than money,” admits Hill. In the past two years, the library’s annual materials fee has been depleted by nearly 50 percent. “[Considering] the budget that Nelda has to work with,” says Watermulder, “she’s going to have to eliminate things that are worth putting in there. She’s not going to be able to build the collection the way that I could.”
The library staff admits its AV (and book) collection hasn’t gotten some of the updates it cries out for, but they’re more appreciative than ever of the library’s shelves of CDs, movies and audio books, and of the staff members who’ve tended the AV collection throughout the years.
In a multi-media society, the library values a number of educational media. It has stepped up its programming for music and video, conducting children’s workshops on filmmaking and scheduling local musicians to play among its volumes.
Movies on Market Square, Claiborne says, is just one component of the library’s grand plan to let the public know it’s not stuck in the ’50s.
by Mike Gibson
Teacher, author, and musician Seva (aka Seva David-Louis Ball) represents his latest sound art project “Ready, Fire, Aim” as a commentary on both the war in Iraq, and on the emptiness of Western consumer culture.
But the title might just as easily refer to the questionable administrative decision that eliminated his part-time position teaching sound art in the University of Tennessee’s media arts program. In a cost-cutting move, college officials met this summer and chose not to renew Seva’s adjunct professorship for 2006, and remained unwilling to retain him even after he offered to teach courses for no salary.
“Teaching has become really important for me, so that’s why it has been so frustrating that I couldn’t do it anymore, even if the alternative was that I would have had to have worked for free,” says Seva, noting that in the past, other UT departments have made arrangements to enable certain professors to continue teaching on a volunteer basis. “But they said they wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of arrangement. Why that would be the case—why anyone who wanted to offer their skills wouldn’t be accepted—is something I can’t fathom.
“I still have hopes that I will eventually be able to teach again,” he continues. “There haven’t been any indicators that I should hold out hope, but I do.”
It behooves someone to find a faculty opening for the 47-year-old former classic rock DJ, whom many remember as the effortlessly smooth “Commander Dave” from radio station 103.5-FM, WIMZ. One of the most amiably eccentric—not to mention diversely talented—figures on the local music scene, Seva typically handles more work than any other five record-producer, single-father, converted-Sihk, ex-disc-jockeys you’d care to name put together.
“You can say that you’re blessed with work, and then you can say you’re fucking blessed with work,” he says with a chuckle. “But never say you’re tired of work. Because then the Universe might take you seriously, and take the problem off your hands.”
In addition to his studio and engineering chores, Seva still does radio voice-overs on the sly, and works intermittently as a musical archivist, committing old analog recordings to digital format for the Library of Congress and the Lewiston Archives. He also manages a considerable number of personal artistic and musical projects, including the aforementioned “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Seva stages “RFA” with the Academentia Audio Ensemble, a trans-media performance art group (of which he is a founder) that features an ever-changing cast of performers.
“Many artists tend to think that audio is ancillary to visual media, whether it’s video or theater or whatever,” Seva says. “But I’m coming at it from the opposite perspective. I’m an audio guy first; I pick out some visual elements to look at while you listen.”
Held at venues like the A-1 Art Gallery and the UT College of Art, the “RFA” Academentia Ensemble performances include a particularly disturbing selection of photos of dead soldiers from the war in Iraq, as well as video images taken from the “shallow, low-brow” side of Western popular culture—Paris Hilton pics, reality television clips, pornography, etc. Seva’s collaborators in previous Academentia performances have included Knoxville Circle’s Modern Dance troupe; video artist Wendy Warren; multi-instrumentalist William Daski; and hip-hop producer Lifesource.
The triumph of sound over the tyranny of the visual arts has been a continuing theme throughout Seva’s career, whether it be in his stint as a rock jock, his work as a local music producer and engineer, or via the classes he more recently taught at the University of Tennessee.
“What I taught in class was essentially modern electronic music creation as it applies to other media—film, TV or even video games,” Seva explains. “Most people aren’t aware how much sound art is created along with, for instance, a movie. Without the ambiance, the sound effects, the aural space, film doesn’t have nearly the same impact.”
At his home-based Soundcurrent Mastering studio, Seva’s other recent projects have included mastering (the final sonic “touch-up” stage of producing an album) a CD by Americana artist Jan Smith, another by Maryland heavy metal artists Earthride, and a third from Kentucky slamgrass outfit the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. In 2004, he was producer of record for God Bless the American Plague, the sophomore album from Knoxville’s American Plague.
“One minute there ‘s monkey-chant music coming out of my basement; then there’s some death metal; then some electronic music from the ’70s,” Seva says. “Sound is the fastest way to change somebody’s mental space; it’s faster than poison gas, faster than bright light. It can make you change mood in half a second. That’s why it’s important for me to work with all kinds of music.”
So important, in fact, that Seva is currently writing a book on the subject of audio recording—The Recording Studio Adviser, to be released by Thomson Publishing sometime in 2006. Seva says the book addresses the philosophy of finding a good recorded sound, rather than the technical aspects of such.
“There are plenty of technical books available; this one is about the human part,” he says. “This one is about how to work on your talent, not on the tools. When the publishers approached me, I wanted to write something that would be relevant for a long time to come. Technology comes and goes, so I talk more about the physics of sound, and about teaching yourself how to hear. The principles will still be valid in another 25 years.”
But though he has a book coming out, an uncountable number of engineering and recording gigs on his plate, and even some voice-over work for symphony orchestras in St. Paul, Pittsburgh, and Israel thrown in for good measure, Seva says his most important project for the foreseeable future is that of raising his son Gurudev Jeremiah. According to his father, the precocious nine-year-old is already exhibiting some of dad’s musical aptitudes— not to mention his eccentricities. Fans of the Sci-Fi network’s Farscape, father and son are currently learning and transcribing the show’s theme music for piano and keyboard.
“I can’t accentuate how important it is being a father,” Seva enthuses. “I want my boy to be a Renaissance boy. I want him to know math and music and spirituality and art...”
Early indications are that young Gurudev is well on his way; Seva describes him as “a small rocket scientist with a red belt in Tae Kwon Do.” And for a role model—the eccentric, productive, self-sufficient and spiritually enlightened kind—the boy need look no further than his own immediate paternal ancestor.
“I’ve turned into the older guy who noodles around his house all day,” Seva says. “Which is pretty damned cool, because it’s all I ever wanted to do anyway.”