Monday, January 31, 2011

Io9, Battlestar Galactica, and the American Idol culture

"Born Originals, how comes it to pass that we die Copies?"--"Conjectures on Original Composition" by Edward Young, 1759


I'll tell you up front, this is a rant. I try not to do them often, and usually delete them after I write them. If you're reading this one, it means I'm still fuming even after an acceptable cooling-off period.

Io9, the go-to website for SF news, recently ran this article by site managing editor Charlie Jane Anders about Ron Moore's "bible" for the series Battlestar Galactica. In these notes for series writers, Moore claims he's after "nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series."

That's all well and good, except for one thing: it was a remake. All the heavy lifting of creating the concepts, the basic spaceship designs, the names of characters and their home planets, even the all-purpose curse word "frak," was done by Glen A. Larson back in the seventies. Whatever you may think of the original show (and you won't hear me sing its praises, believe me), you have to acknowledge that Moore is, in effect, putting a new coat of paint on the house Larson built. Painting a house is hard, but it's not nearly as hard as building one from scratch. Or even more harshly, you could say that Moore is pissing off of Larson's shoulders, and judging from the article's final line--"And it's definitely a reminder how fresh and exciting the show was when it launched."--there's quite a few people standing below with their mouths open.

That's a crude judgment of creators and fans, I realize. People are entitled to make what they want, and like what they want. But goddamn, people. In her review of the movie Burlesque for Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum nails it: "[In] these American Idol times...we agree to pretend that mediocre mimicry of better artists is good enough to keep us entertained." I make no case for the original Battlestar, but its remake is certainly not unique or different enough to count as "the reinvention of the science fiction television series"; it may not be mediocre mimicry, but it's still mimicry.

(Glen A. Larson's Battlestar...)

(...and Ron Moore's "totally reinvented" Battlestar)

If Ron Moore really wanted to reinvent the science fiction television series, he could've taken the original Battlestar as an inspiration and come up with his own ideas for setting, backstory, names, etc. In other words, he could've MADE UP HIS OWN SHOW. It's okay to 'fess up to being influenced; everyone has influences. To claim originality while doing a remake is both inane and arrogant. But really, what frustrates me most is that he's being celebrated by an audience that apparently doesn't know or care what originality is. Anders barely acknowledges the new show's status as a remake; the article in question is even headlined, "The original Battlestar Galactica series bible..." To paraphrase Douglas Adams, this must be a definition of "original" with which I was previously unfamiliar.

In a New York Times article on rethinking "open source" culture, Jaron Lanier may have pegged the origin and continuing source of this level of cannibalism. “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump."

The next logical step--praising salvagers as creators--has apparently begun as well. For a generation now coming of age, they literally have no concept of what constitutes "creation." Mash-ups, remakes and "re-imaginings" are all they get. And, if Moore can be praised for essentially claiming he built a house that he only repainted, they may never know the joy of encountering something truly original.

Well, except for Pixar.

Since I ranted here, feel free to rant back at me in the comments.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Low Road: Donald Goines and urban tragedy

I discovered the novels of Donald Goines when I worked for a book distributor that sold collections to libraries. Often this meant orders for all the books by a particular author, as was the case with Goines, whose novels bore vivid titles like Whoreson, Black Gangster, Swamp Man and White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief. Goines' first novel appeared in 1971, and he died in 1974 at age 37 after writing sixteen books, a meteoric career by any standards. And they're all still in print today.

Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines is an attempt to put his life and accomplishments into the context of their specific times. Occasionally it seems like author Eddie B. Allen, Jr. is more interested in the context than the man, but ultimately his approach pays off. Allen describes the Detroit in which Goines grew up, as well as the racial situation throughout the country. Goines, son of a successful middle-class black family, faked his way into the air force at fifteen, served in Korea and returned at seventeen a veteran and heroin addict. He tried careers as pimp and hustler, served time in prison and then, inspired by former pimp turned literary darling Iceberg Slim, decided to pursue writing. He wrote what he knew, but he wrote with a blinding honesty and the kind of grit you can't fake. His street hustlers weren't glamorous or admirable, and even when they tried to do the right thing, they still had past sins that needed atonement. But it was more than a transcription of his own experience; these were stories, crafted and polished, by a man who too late discovered his true calling.

It isn't until the penultimate chapter, "Prodigal Son," that Allen goes in depth into Goines' work, connecting characters and situations among the books, and with Goines' own life. Here he presents an analysis of what Goines tried to accomplish, his motivations and why he connected with readers. The first Goines novel I read, Swamp Man, turns out to be an anomaly, set in Mississippi and dealing with a brother's revenge for his sister's degradation at the hands of repulsive rednecks. The rest of Goines' output is urban and concerned mainly with survival, although a little vengeance gets had as well.

Oddly Allen, also a Detroit native like his subject, seems unable to fully accept that Goines, untrained and unschooled, could have simply imagined the stories, going into great depths to find real-life sources and qualifying observations with statements like, "[Goines] might not have intended it, but the symbolism in the story is conspicuous." Or, "Whether Donnie did it consciously or without thought, he gave several different characters in his books identical names." This skepticism seems strange in a book about a man who, we assume, fascinated Allen enough to write about him.

(I think this is the profound lesson of Goines' work to other writers: the fact that you don't need formal training, no MFA or fancy residency in Iowa. You can simply decide be a writer. The technical skills will come with practice and help, but the core drive requires nothing but the desire to tell a story uniquely your own [and figuring out that part can be harder than it sounds]. Goines had that desire, which is why we still remember him.)

Still, Allen does a good job of presenting Goines' ouvre in detail, qualified or not. In the epilogue, he explains his own connection to Goines, his attempts to solve the writer's 1974 murder (no one was ever arrested or charged), and thoughts on Goines' legacy from academics.

There is, ultimately, a lot of Allen in the book. Whether this detracts from the reading experience is something for each reader to decide. It didn't bother me; it was like having a tour guide, and given the areas that the book explores, it was handy to have someone along who knew the territory. Ultimately Low Road gives as much insight into Goines as we're likely to get at this late date, and if the man remains an enigma to the reader, it's probably because he was one to himself as well.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thirty years of Excalibur

Thirty years ago the Arthurian myth first grabbed hold of me when I saw Excalibur on its initial release. Prior to that, I'd encountered King Arthur only through the Disneyfied Sword in the Stone, or the bloodless Technicolor epic Knights of the Round Table. John Boorman's 1981 film was different: limbs were hacked off, breasts were bared and there was a timeless sense of a blood-and-thunder past throbbing with life. Sure, it was stiff in places, and the acting was stylized to the point of ridiculousness, but it was still a movie in the pure sense, loaded with unforgettable images.

Thirty years on, I still love the film, and not just for sentimental reasons. There's a sure hand at work, one that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish with every shot and sequence. Boorman, who'd once tried to wrangle Lord of the Rings onto the screen as a live-action epic, is a fearless filmmaker as notable for his daring successes (Deliverance) as his audacious failures (Exorcist II: The Heretic). He depicts Arthur not as a neat or elderly monarch, but with the long hair and scruffy beard of a biker. Guinevere is an earthy princess who knows herbal remedies as well as courtly dances. Lancelot, in gleaming silver armor, has the curls and square jaw of a laid-back surfer. Boorman uses green backlight to give even the metal armor a hint of the organic, most beautifully during the emergence of the sword from the lake. The actors don't perform so much as embody their roles, as the film tends to show them only at moments of high emotion.

But the wild card is Nicol Williamson as Merlin. Whatever the behind-the-scenes process that arrived at this interpretation, Williamson is both the focal point and the most entertaining thing in the film. Using every possible range of his voice, clad in a silver skullcap and black ragged robes, he's a buffoon one moment, a sage the next, and never less than enthralling. Whenever the film seems about to take itself too seriously, Williamson saves the day with a pratfall or a goofy line reading.

I can understand why contemporary viewers might find it overblown and silly. In an age of ironic detachment, when everything has a wink-wink element, the worst offense is to take something seriously, and to unapologetically present a unique vision.

Excalibur does exactly that. And if you let it cast its spell (which goes something like, "Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha") I think you'll find yourself watching it again in another thirty years, too.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Who, at the Beginning

I have a soft spot for the current incarnation of the British show Doctor Who that can be distilled down to a comment made by the title character during the recent Christmas special. When told by a villainous type than someone "wasn't important," the Doctor replied, "I've never met anyone who wasn't important." That sort of unabashed optimism and compassion, especially when so much TV SF tends toward the downbeat and dystopian, really appeals to me.

So I decided to check out the original episodes of the original show, made and broadcast in 1963 (the same year I was made and broadcast). The first episode, the Ur-Who if you will, is called "An Unearthly Child." And in it, you will see nothing of the show that's so popular now.

Well, that's not true. There's the T.A.R.D.I.S., still in the form of a police call box. But there's no sonic screwdriver. The Doctor is revealed to be an alien, but he's a crotchety old man with an equally alien teenage granddaughter in tow. Susan, for reasons not really revealed in the first eleven episodes (where I stopped), is enamored of Earth in the twentieth century and tries to blend in at the local school. Two of her teachers, Ian and Barbara, decide to find out why she gave the school a phony address, and end up antagonizing the Doctor (not hard to do) into proving the T.A.R.D.I.S. is real. First they travel into the past and run afoul of cavemen, then to the future where for the first time they meet the Doctor's greatest enemies, the Daleks.

The dynamics are so vastly different that it's hard to believe the current Doctor (Matt Smith) is actually supposed to be part of the same continuity. Made as a children's show, the audience identification figure is Susan, while authority is represented by Ian and Barbara, two gigantically annoying companions. The Doctor is the anarchic wild card, omnipotent one moment and completely at a loss the next. Further, the humanistic determination to help those in need that characterizes the recent Doctor(s) is completely missing. This original Doctor is quite willing to run away, abandon Ian and Barbara (can't argue with that, really) and look out for himself and Susan at the expense of anyone else. And yet he's not the total dickweed this makes him sound like; he abhors violence, is resourceful in a pinch and, as played by William Hartnell, is generally a hoot to watch. There's none of David Tennant's wide-eyed lunacy, or Matt Smith's quirky body language, but he conveys how fast the Doctor's brain works and how tedious normal people must be to him.

Ten Doctors later, there's virtually nothing from this original conception left in the show beyond the T.A.R.D.I.S. The new show has a budget, terrific special effects and casts that can bring this goofy universe to thrilling life. Yet there's something delightful in the original concept of a bad-tempered, super-intelligent alien dragging his granddaughter's snooty teachers through space and time for no good reason. While it seems unlikely that the current run of young, handsome Doctors will end anytime soon, I have a sneaking wish for a return to Hartnell's conception. It's in the same wish box that has Michael Keaton in a film version of The Dark Knight Returns and Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Lucas' original concept as Ben Gunn from Treasure Island. None of them will ever happen. But thinking about them sure is fun.

This is me and Suzie Hunt on the campus PBS station circa 1983, hosting a fundraiser during the broadcast of The Five Doctors. I was chosen for this because I was one of the few people at UT-Martin who'd ever heard of Who.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Finn Substitution

Some have brewed a ha-ha about a new edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that removes what is euphemistically called "the N word" and replaces it with the word, "slave." This has brought all kinds of interesting trivia to light ("the N word" is used 219 times in Finn, "slave" is not actually a synonym for it, Finn is the fourth most-banned book in the country, etc.). But as I read the ever-increasing attempts to be the most offended by this, I can only think: what's the big deal? It was done twenty years ago, too, and no one thought anything about it. In fact, it's been done multiple times.

The one with which I'm most familiar is part of the Great Illustrated Classics series that takes well-known (and public domain) novels and repackages them for young readers, simplifying the stories and adding illustrations on every facing page. We have a shelf of them, and I've enjoyed reading them aloud to my kids (my oldest son's favorite is Journey to the Center of the Earth). And we've read both Finn and Tom Sawyer. Finn was published in 1990, and to my knowledge has never stirred the least bit of ire.

Now I admit, in reading Sawyer, it annoyed me that villainous Injun Joe was now "Crazy Joe." I understood the impulse to change it, but I disagreed with it. Similarly, in their version of Finn there's no "N word," and the dialogue has been rewritten so that no one-for-one substitution is needed. Jim is a slave, and that's enough.

So why all the outrage about this new edition that boldly goes where...well, many have gone before?

Probably for two reasons. First, the recent release of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, a volume he stipulated could only be published a century after his death. It's both a best seller and a critical darling, so Twain is back in the public eye.

And two...well, now there's the internet, and people on the internet love to be offended. Any time there's an issue like this, people rush to show how outraged they are, in a pile-on usually as distasteful as whatever the original offense might've been.* You can see some of it here and here. Even Roger Ebert, who should really know better, chimed in with a particularly crass and tasteless tweet.

Yes, rewriting Finn bugs me, but I'll respond in the proper adult fashion: by not buying this edition. That's all any of us need to do, to register our disapproval. I won't rant and rave about the greater social ills its existence reveals, or try to show how much more it offends me than it does anyone else.

I'm not defending this editorial bowdlerizing by any means; I disapprove of it, and think the concepts behind it are both shallow and wrong. But it's not real censorship as long as the original text is available. And I'm pretty sure it still is.

*(And yes, I recognize the potential hypocrisy in saying this in the context of a post that could be interpreted as doing exactly that. If you think so, please disregard anything I say.)