Sunday, January 18, 2009

Battlestar Criteria

This morning, St. Sisyphus pointed out to me that I'm making season 1 of Battlestar Galactica sound kind of lousy, though he remembered enjoying it. To him I replied;

Well, I'm mainly enjoying the series, too. I wouldn't be griping as much if I didn't--I'd have quit watching already. For the most part, it's unpredictable and the characters are consistent, but this makes the problem areas stick out more for me. It's a matter of perspective, too. I just watched Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, which is essentially flawless, and even the best television series is going to have trouble shining next to it. It's like when I was editor on the college literary magazine--there was a fantasy story the other editors and I were looking at, and I was the only one championing it. I realised it was because I was the only one who liked fantasy among them--everyone else would gladly vote for any average narcissistic story about a bad breakup or something. I finally said to the guy speaking most strongly against the fantasy story, "Look, I know it's not good, but we've never had anything better." Of course, thinking rationally, one realises how unlikely it is that someone at a community college is going to produce anything even passable. Likewise, the odds of even the best major television series being more than 40 percent good are very slim. I think it's important to keep that perspective because life gets depressing when you learn to settle for 40%. Also, snarking is fun.

I'd actually been sort of pondering the fact that I was dumping so much on a series I actually enjoy. Is this some kind of psychological issue? Am I jealous I'm not making Battlestar Galactica? I don't really think so. I think the show simply happens to be flawed, as most shows are, and it's fun pointing those flaws out. If Battlestar Galactica were a struggling little series instead of something that's enormously popular, I'd probably be emphasising its positive aspects a lot more. It's largely why I don't gripe about my favourite anime series so much, even though most of them are about as flawed as Battlestar Galactica--I don't think as many of my readers have seen those series as have seen Battlestar Galactica, so I tend to concentrate on their positive aspects a little more.

I was reminded of a popular quote from the movie Ratatouille. A food critic named Anton Ego has this speech near the end of the movie;

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new; an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking, is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, "Anyone can cook". But I realize - only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.

There's a kind of pretty melodrama to this statement, but I've always enjoyed it for the wrong reasons. First of all, I've never seen Ratatouille, though I mean to see it at some point because I loved Wall-E (which was made by the same people) and a lot of my friends seem to love Ratatouille. But it's sort of ironic, I think, that this critic's statement has already made more of an impression on me than the movie itself.

It seems rather obviously to be more of the screenwriter's rumination on critics who've effected his work rather than on food critics--I mean, is the word "meaningful" really applicable to food? And there are a couple fallacies in the statement. Negative criticism is not invariably less meaningful than bad art. I think there are movies on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 you'd have to be brain damaged to enjoy without the commentary. And Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is likely to endure far longer than the films the show riffs on did as stand alone entities.

But even in the case of traditional critics, I seriously doubt the original cut of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny will ever be as interesting as Roger Ebert's original review of it. I frequently remember the snark far longer than a movie, particularly when a critic decides to hold forth on artistic theory in the process--much as the fictional critic in Ratatouille does.

Neil Gaiman, in his blog recently, said, "You bring yourself to a book, after all; every book is collaborative." Which I think is true, and true of any artform. To an extent, I think it's of any thing. I think it's possible to really dig a specific tree. I personally distinguish artwork as being that which is crafted with some intent of provoking a specific reaction from a viewer/reader/audience/listener. On that basis, I'd actually characterise criticism as an artform.

Last night, I watched the tenth episode of Battlestar Galactica's first season, and as it happens, I actually don't have many complaints about it, aside from the fact that it didn't really establish why it was so important to Gaius that he know where the sweet spot on the Cylon base was, nor did I understand why everyone expected him to know.

I also watched part of the first episode of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica, which, while not as good as the new series, was actually much better than I remembered it being on the few occasions when I saw it as a child. Its production values are actually quite good for a television series of the time.

The show's very obviously an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Star Wars and aspects of it inspired by the George Lucas film couldn't be more obvious. A dogfight sequence pitting Apollo and Zack against some Cylon fighters was almost exactly like the Millennium Falcon's battle with TIE Fighters following the escape from the Death Star, except the Star Wars scene has never made my mind wander away completely halfway through.

Which made me realise that there hasn't really been any good space dogfight sequence since Star Wars, though it's certainly been attempted often enough. As dull as the 1978 Battlestar Galactica scene was, it was nice to see someone attempting it.

And this was one of the nice things about the episode of the new series I watched last night, featuring a fighter assault on a Cylon mining facility. It featured Apollo flying into an access tube reminiscent of both Death Star battles. I could feel the enthusiasm of the people crafting the sequence, trying to fit in every idea they could, from the other fighters getting shot down to Apollo having difficulty believing he's going to do something this crazy.

I was put in the mood to play TIE Fighter, which was my favourite computer game in high school. A Star Wars flight simulator, it really captured the excitement of the Star Wars style dogfight in a way nothing else has, including the Battlestar Galactica episode last night. And it was a real flight simulator, too, not a thing that puts you in a confined level where the ship's systems are managed by an invisible omnipotent game designer laziness. I need to get a new joystick . . .

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