Maybe I saw something in her that reminded me of a girl I knew in high school; if not precisely that, then something similar. Gen Y women in the media/pop culture business share several intriguing characteristics – a combination of reticence and availability, subtlety and brashness, carefree yet deadly serious. I had heard of her, vaguely, in connection with her lead role on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but I was not familiar with her work. Now I would have to say I am a modest fan.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is part of the cultural zeitgeist. As a recurrent meme it is precursor to the current wave of vampire movies and TV shows such as “True Blood, “Vampire Diaries” and “Twilight.” The semiotics of “Buffy” somehow became a closet industry with academicians writing theses on what it’s all about. But I want to consider Ms. Gellar as an actress on her own terms and within the framework of her own ambitions.
I started off by watching all of the Buffy episodes. OK, some of them. She has what I would characterize as a repertoire of stock looks, which she deploys broadly depending on the situation. There are six of them:
(1) concentration or determination, as when slaying vampires;
(2) mild disgust or contempt;
(3) she mopes around for much of the time, achieving a zombie-like catanoia;
(4) a mirthful pout;
(5) consternation – not concernful, but more like being surprised by someting; and
(6) my favorite, which is apprehension, disorientation, confusion, or even shock. She freezes like a deer caught in the headlights of life.
There are two Buffy scenes I like the best. (1) One of the season finales in which she dispatches Adam the robot. Borrowing an effect from The Matrix, she stops a bullet in her hand and it turns into a dove. (2) In another season finale, she sacrifices herself in lieu of her sister Michelle Trachtenberg by diving off a platform, looking radiantly confident (a variation of look 1), her long blonde hair fluttering behind her.
I then decided to watch four of the movies she’s been in. These are: (1) The Grudge; (2) Suburban Girl; (3) The Air I Breathe; and (4) The Return.
The Grudge is unwatchable. Its plot is a lot of Japanese kabuki figures popping up from various nooks and crannies in an ostensibly haunted house. This is meant to be scary but instead the whole affair is cartoonish. This becomes particularly evident if one turns off the sound and views it at 2x speed, which always is a good litmus test. Although Grudge features plenty of look 6, the pleasure this affords is outweighed by the stupid plot, hackneyed characters, poor direction and flat monochromatic look.
Suburban Girl is a romantic comedy with Alec Baldwin. I am familiar with this genre having made a movie called Dawg with Elizabeth Hurley and Denis Leary. It’s not clear to me why the movie is called Suburban Girl seeing as how Buffy (er, I mean, Ms. Geller) is a book editor living in downtown Manhattan. The movie is cute but totally formulaic but she is well-cast in the role and displays plenty of look 2 and look 4.
More challenging is The Air I Breathe, which is four stories linked together in the manner of Bunuel. This is a movie that requires itself to be taken seriously and that makes an aesthetic statement. Ms. Geller portrays a washed-up pop singer whose management contract is sold to a mobster (played by Andy Garcia). I made a movie with similar look and feel called The Man From Elysian Fields, so I’m well aware of what this movie was trying to accomplish and how it tries to get there. Elysian Fields in fact also starred Mr. Garcia. Ms. Geller is in look 2 and look 3 most of the time. There is a last-minute plot twist at the end where she succeeds to a satchel of cash originally stolen by the character in the first vignette, enabling her to start a new life. As she walks down an airport concourse we see a slight but welcome flash of look 1.
Her most challenging role by far is The Return. Here she is on a journey of self-discovery, reconstructing a car accident she was in when she was a young girl. She took on the spirit of another woman who died and started experiencing life as if she was her. Filmed predominantly in rural, out-back settings, the movie has a gritty feel to it. Ms. Gellar is required to stretch out of her more familiar postures and actually do some serious acting. She portrays an emotionally disturbed cutter, a role requiring some psychological nuance and finesse. By and large she achieves this objective and I would recommend this as the best movie in her oeuvre. With plenty of look 6, plus some look 1 in particularly intense scenes.