Buff with Silence — Zen Rhetoric in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Brandon Analysis, Essay, Film, Moviemaking, Movies, Rhetoric, Zen

Soon he utilizes the same technique in an opposite manner. In a common area within the Sunnydale University, students have gathered to support each other. No one can speak, so many of them are simply holding each other. The room is completely silent and still. A student at center frame drops a glass bottle and it shatters on the floor. The sound is loud and dominates the soundtrack, drawing attention to the action for the audience, but also pulling everyone on screen into observation of the mistake. Whedon uses silence to bookmark the event, only drawing attention to it in the moment. He awakens the viewer and the characters on screen to the present through his use of silence juxtaposed to an isolated sound and action.

When directing scenes, like this, in which the characters would progress the narrative only with gesture and action, Whedon noticed the actors’ inadequacy in the absence of language. He describes how a scene that should have taken several minutes, took merely seconds on their first try. “It was very rushed”, because the actors had such a strong dependency on language (Buffy). He simply told them, “It’s OK to wait”: one of the central ideas behind the episode (Buffy). Characters move so fast in attempt to communicate that they do things like attempt to use the phone not realizing the fruitless nature of their action. Others die at the hands of the Gentlemen, because they try to scream rather than act.

Tara, a female character in the show, is chased by some of the Gentlemen. She, too, tries to scream, but also runs. She bounces down the hallway, banging on the doors of dorm rooms as her attacker pursues her. Here Whedon incorporates the element of surprise. He plays with audience expectation dependent upon filmic tradition. Tara bangs on a specific door in the hallway. We cut to another character, Tara’s friend named Willow, who sits in her room. Willow hears the banging and gets up to get the door. Whedon cuts back to Tara as the door opens, except it isn’t Willow. It is one of the Gentlemen. Here, Whedon subverts a traditional filmic technique called montage. We expect that Willow will answer the door, because the images placed together in the sequence in which they are leads us to believe that. And decades of film history support the notion, but this time Whedon surprises us. He scares the reader and awakens them in the moment.

As described earlier, the Gentlemen steal Sunnydale’s citizens’ voices. They do this so that their victims will not be able to scream when they take from them, their heart. Through the Gentlemen, Joss Whedon employs the Koan tool of contradiction. In fact, the Gentlemen are a walking visual contradiction. They wear perfectly tailored suits and big beaming smiles. They practice general etiquette and politeness in their gesture, bowing and waving their hands for each other. Whedon’s “favorite thing about these guys [the Gentlemen], is how polite they are” (Buffy). Their politeness and their smiles are outweighed by their metallic teeth and their slight shark-like nature. Also, they cut out the hearts of their victims. The Gentlemen represent the construction of societal norms and standards. They only come when all is silent. In other words, we can only see them clearly for what they are when we are silent. As soon as Buffy gets her voice back the creatures are destroyed by her scream. The manifestation of decorum is destroyed.

But Whedon doesn’t end the episode there. He says, “Once we get our voices back, we stop communicating” (Buffy). At the end of the episode, Riley and Buffy fight with the Gentlemen together, revealing to each other their deep hidden secrets. It is only in action that they discover the truth about each other. The next day, with their voices intact they meet in order to discuss the revelation, but have nothing to say.

Though Whedon is not a Buddhist, he utilizes several Zen techniques in order to point towards a Reality that is hard to describe in words. His fictional world favors action over suffering. He even encourages silence as a way to some greater understanding of yourself and others. He is practicing Zen rhetoric.