Omnibus (week of Sept. 24, 2017)

Only 12 reviews, because again I watched half a season of Battlestar Galactica. I am now finished Battlestar Galactica. I have thoughts. Read on.

Movies

Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two — I have a friend who’s really into Pearl Jam. You can read about that here. I am not a Pearl Jam fan, but to a certain extent I have cultivated the ability to appreciate other people’s obsessions by osmosis. What I jerk I’d be if I hadn’t! Many of my favourite musicians, filmmakers and writers are the sorts of artists who alienate general audiences while playing to a fervent cult of devotees (see Terry Gilliam, China Miéville, Rush). Far be it from me to judge my fellow anoraks. Devotion to these kinds of artists runs deeper than devotion to universally acclaimed artists. Other people not liking the thing you love makes that thing seem more specifically aimed at you. Pearl Jam doesn’t fit this category as comfortably as, say, Rush, who have had scorn heaped on them by critics and casual listeners alike. But they do strike me as a band that breeds obsession in a large few more so than casual enthusiasm in a small many. Being on the outside of this fandom, I would never have enjoyed this on my own. But with Sachi, I could possibly watch it the way I sometimes watch sports: cluelessly, but with a vicarious sense of somebody else’s enthusiasm. Sometimes that’s enough. Also, Sachi is the person responsible for my only recently abating obsession with Doctor Who. You never know. Pearl Jam might be the next thing. Probably not, I figured. I was basically right. My sports analogy above is less figurative than it might seem, seeing as how watching this concert documentary entails watching quite a lot of baseball, and moreover quite a lot of watching Eddie Vedder watch baseball. The premise of the film is that Pearl Jam’s 2016 concert at Wrigley Field was a major event in Chicago’s cultural life, given that it happened during the course of the Cubs’ first triumphant World Series in over a century. It interleaves footage from the concert with documentary footage about the Cubs’ miraculous year, Vedder’s longstanding devotion to the team, and the overlap between Pearl Jam’s Chicago-based fandom (who regard Vedder as a hometown hero) and Cubs fans. It’s a bit contrived. There’s a thesis statement in there somewhere about unconditional devotion, but it gets buried beneath a pile of tenuous connections and thematic leaps. On the other hand, the concert footage is beautifully shot, and finds the band giving a super-energized performance. I have no idea if this is just normal for them or if they really pulled out the stops for a show that was meant to be special (and that they knew would become a permanent document). I knew none of these songs going in (I’d heard a couple but that’s not the same) and I left with a couple of distinct favourites and a vague memory of bunch of other stuff that all blended together into a passionate, energetic rock ‘n’ roll blur. The distinct favourites were “Go,” a near-metal track with an infectious heavy riff and some serious shredding from Mike McCready, and “Better Man,” a ballad that begins with uncharacteristic delicacy and has a bittersweet chorus where the major-key openness of the music clashes with the sad resignation of the lyrics. These are good songs. So is “Corduroy,” with its wordless singalong outro. Love me a good wordless singalong outro. I have not been converted to the church of Pearl Jam. But I suppose I get it a little more now. Baseball, on the other hand, continues to befuddle me.

Music

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas — The second album in my Mountain Goats journey after The Sunset Tree. This has some outstanding songs on it, particularly “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which is one of those beautiful-fantasy-meets-unpleasant-reality stories that I seem to love so much. It’s the specificity that makes it: this song is about two very particular kids with a very particular dream for their future. This is what is good about these songs in general. The note on the front cover gives as accurate a sense of what the music is like as any prose description could: “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” The songs in general are character songs and story songs in the vein of the Decemberists, but without that band’s whimsy and artifice. Where Colin Meloy’s lyrics caper and prance, John Darnielle’s simply tread quickly and frequently turn corners. This difference resonates with Darnielle’s choice of an aggressively D.I.Y. aesthetic: where the Decemberists’ story songs are clothed in elaborate arrangements full of bouzouki and accordion, Darnielle simply recorded this whole album (minus the cheap keyboard construction “Blues in Dallas”) with an acoustic guitar and a Panasonic boom box. It is probably the most aggressively lo-fi thing I have ever actually enjoyed. And that’s all because the songs themselves are so fussily constructed. It is both easier and more essential to focus on the lyrics of this album than it is on The Sunset Tree, because there is nothing else of note going on. Frankly I find that a bit exhausting and I need to listen again to register the four or five songs that just slipped past me altogether. But I liked this. I don’t think there’s anything on it that I like as much as “Up the Wolves” or “Dilaudid,” but it won me over in spite of being a type of album that I pathologically do not like, namely an unprofessional-sounding one.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy, Season 4.5 and The Plan(A reminder that I don’t do paragraph breaks on this site, even though I should. Here is an alternative for you.) Let me say two things. Firstly, I think that the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica is on balance the weakest one. Secondly, this has nothing to do with the way that the story ended. (Spoilers ahoy, and do bear this in mind because you need to watch Battlestar Galactica. It is one of the best shows ever. And it is definitely something I think is best viewed unspoilt.) I really liked the ending of Battlestar Galactica, probably for many of the same reasons why others hate it. I’ll cop to a certain perversity that leads me to feel this way about virtually every controversial TV finale, from Lost to How I Met Your Mother. But before we get to everything I love about BSG’s final salvo, let’s touch on what sucks about season four. (I’ll deal with the whole season, though this week’s viewing only accounts for the latter half.) The biggest problem with season four is that it follows up the biggest pair of twists the show has ever dealt (Starbuck’s resurrection and the reveal of four of the final five Cylons) with a series of time-biding miniature story arcs that hinder the show’s forward momentum. BSG saunters, rather than hurtles towards its ending. The first offender is the Demitrius plotline, in which an increasingly crazed Starbuck searches for Earth in a sewage tanker with an increasingly mutinous crew. Mad prophet isn’t a good look for Starbuck. I don’t see why she couldn’t have been made to face her destiny with a leveller head and a continuing penchant for self-destruction. And this went on for eight, long episodes. And if spiritual enlightenment looks weird on Starbuck, it looks perversely terrible on Gaius Baltar — terrible to the point that I actually think it was a really interesting end state for the character. But the road to that point leads through some very rocky scenes of Baltar with a harem of extremely dumb female acolytes. I suppose that a large crew of unquestioningly devoted young women would be the sort of thing that would facilitate enlightenment for Baltar, but this development strains credulity in a way that certain more controversial reveals do not. Baltar’s ascension from loathed, treasonous turncoat to revered holy man seems like it happens by showrunner fiat sometime during the writing of the season three finale. We didn’t get to see how his followers came to worship him and find each other: by the time we meet them, they’re already organized enough to rescue and shelter Baltar after the trial. Without more background on who they are and why they feel the way they do, none of this makes any sense to me at all. It doesn’t help that Head Six vanishes for a long stretch of this plotline. Baltar’s not interesting without Head Six, regardless of what she is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And then there’s Gaeta’s uprising. Completionist that I am, I watched the Gaeta-focussed web series The Face of the Enemy in its proper place in the narrative. My heart bleeds for those who did not, since Felix Gaeta’s character arc is hard enough to sympathize with even having seen this essential bit of context. It’s hard to credit the transformation of one of the show’s most mild-mannered — compromising, even — characters into an extremist. I get that losing his leg took a serious toll. But this, as much as Baltar’s deification, strikes me as an example of BSG not remaining true to its characters. More than that, however, I object to Tom Zarek’s role in the uprising. This character has always been a bit troublesome, as he falls straight into the trope of idealistic revolutionaries being completely self-serving under the mask. This plot arc provides him with his most direct route to power yet — leveraging the fleet’s hate and resentment for their new Cylon allies. Any shred of principles that might have previously existed and made the character interesting are gone once Zarek allies with Gaeta. Speaking of that scene, it features some of the series’ most ham-fisted writing: “People know something has to be done. The world is frakked. It’s upside down and somebody’s gotta turn it right side up.” Do furtive revolutionary conversations like this ever actually rely on such overdramatic generalities, I wonder? You get the idea. It’s an uneven season. But at its best, it draws on all of the elements that made the first three seasons of the show great. (Yes, all three. I’m not sure season three isn’t my favourite.) Something I’ve always appreciated about Battlestar Galactica is that, for a show about a war with robots who are indistinguishable from humans, it does not really dive into the well of “what it means to be human.” (This is good because Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing has already had the last word on that subject in genre fiction.) The Cylons have never taunted the humans with the prospect that they are in some way “the same.” In fact, possibly the greatest broad masterstroke of this series has been making the Cylons explicitly distinct from humans: a separate culture, defined by their differences from the humans whose form they take. I can understand why most viewers prefer the first two seasons of this show, because it is governed by the tension implicit in not knowing who’s a Cylon. (And I confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips back to that era of the show offered in Razor and especially The Plan.) But the main thrust of the last two seasons is equally interesting for close to the opposite reason. Where the first two seasons rely on the uncanny similarity between Cylons and humans as its narrative engine, the latter two relies on establishing the unique culture, mythology and spirituality of the Cylons as a species unto themselves. Season four doubles down on this distinction in Saul Tigh’s storyline. Tigh has always strained credulity ever so slightly, because it’s hard to believe that somebody as competent as Bill Adama would place so much trust in somebody as incompetent as Tigh. Nonetheless, he’s always been one of my favourites because of his loyalty — which is presumably the one thing he’s got going for him. Tigh’s decision to continue living as what he’s always considered himself to be, a colonial officer, after learning he’s a Cylon emphasizes the show’s general feeling that you are what you think you are — the culture in which you find yourself has more bearing on your identity than any nebulous fundamental category like human or Cylon. And cylon culture is a foreign concept to Tigh. The other four of the final five don’t walk such a straight path, but there’s an argument to be made that the reason for that is less that they don’t feel human than simply that they feel unsafe in a way that Tigh doesn’t. Considering that this is the season that features an uneasy alliance between humans and cylons, it does a lot of work to maintain this fundamental cultural distinction between the two societies. Much of this comes down to the Galactica itself, and its contrast with the Cylon basestar that now travels with the fleet. There was never a moment in this show where I ceased to marvel at the set design of the basestar interior. While the deliberately disorienting editing of the early scenes in this setting gradually faded as we became familiar with it, the captivating strangeness of the liquid-based interface and the cascading projections of red characters never failed to make me feel uneasy. Of course, the thing that makes the Cylons unsettling is their uncanny organicism in spite of being machines. This follows through into their technology: think of the raiders that splat into messes of blood and meat when they’re hit, or the humanoid figure in a tub that powers the basestar. The Cylons’ tech is more “human” than the humans’ is, and that makes it uncanny and inhuman. This is why the plotline about Galactica breaking down and being repaired with organic Cylon goo is my favourite thing in the leadup to the finale. As a story idea, the notion of the end of Galactica as we know it is the only thing in the final episodes that really feels like a story that belongs in a series’ final stretch. From the very beginning, it was the Galactica’s resolutely analogue setup that kept it safe. The fact that it is a blunt, dumb chunk of metal, subject entirely to the whims of the people who control it made it a symbol of humanity, because it is beholden to humanity. The Cylons, by contrast, cannot even trust their basestar not to jump light years away unexpectedly, due to the unpredictable nature of the hybrid. Watching Galactica gradually turn into a semi-organic ship with living tissues holding its frame together and a hybridized Sam Anders plugged into the CIC is the most perverse thing the show has ever done. It feels like the end of an era for the characters, and that gives the last few episodes the gravity they need. It’s worth noting that the basestar, with its touch interfaces and unpredictable AI core in the form of the hybrid, feels much more like modern computer technology than Galactica does. 21st-century humans arguably have as much in common with the Cylons as we do with the humans of the fleet. And that is what makes the finale’s epilogue so convincing. Far more than when it aired in 2008, we are living in a world where BSG’s technology doesn’t seem farfetched. But it’s not because of the robots we build, like the ones shown in the final montage set to Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” It’s because we are living in a state of increasing symbiosis with machines that are increasingly artificially intelligent. We’re not building Cylons. We’re becoming them. It may prove to be a distinction without a difference. Okay, so we’ve come to it. The ever-contentious finale of Battlestar Galactica. The episode where the show’s primary remaining mysteries — the resurrection of Starbuck and the nature of Head Six and Head Baltar — are resolved by revealing that they are all angels. Truthfully, I don’t even feel like this development actually requires any justification. It is so totally in keeping with the show’s general attitude towards spirituality and esoteric beliefs that I actually find it genuinely shocking how many people think it’s a cop out. BSG has always traded on visions and premonitions as a key part of its story. And it has never made any effort to rationalize these away — there’s no tenable way to believe that, for instance, Roslin’s visions are mere drug hallucinations, when they inevitably come true. The presence of angels in the universe of this show is entirely in keeping with the rest of it. God is canon in Battlestar Galactica, and always has been. I can understand how fans of big, militaristic sci-fi shows might wish for a more rational explanation. Like maybe Baltar is insane with remorse for his treachery and Head Six is the hallucination he’s conjured to punish himself. To me that’s the province of more pedestrian shows, like Dexter. (By the way, if there’s one controversial finale I will not defend, it is Dexter’s. That was bullshit.) Also Fight Club. But more to the point, the show has firmly established that there’s a real supernatural element that lives alongside all of the classic SF trappings. Why resort to banal rationality to clue up a mystery? Surely if there’s ever been a narrative that justifies a deus ex machina ending — the most literal one since Ancient Greece — it’s Battlestar Galactica. In my view, the controversy surrounding this ending is the result of a misreading of the entire series that preceded it. Battlestar Galactica season four is the show in microcosm: flawed, weird, enormously ambitious, and dazzling. When all’s said and done, BSG is one of the crowning glories of its medium. Finally: “And you think there’s some kind of meaning in these musical notes,” says Adama. “I dunno,” replies Starbuck, “I’m just groping, mostly. Looking for patterns, trying to see what comes to me.” Remind me to make this the epigraph of the book about Rush I’m eventually going to write. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — I’m exactly halfway through. So far, it’s easily my favourite of the first three Dark Tower novels. The Gunslinger existed primarily to introduce Roland and his quest. The Drawing of the Three existed primarily to do the same for a small cast of supporting characters. (Though it told a damn good yarn along the way.) But The Waste Lands is the first novel in the series to really feel like it’s focussed on pushing the series’ larger narrative substantially forward. Structurally, this first half of the book has been less contrived than the first two, which are both organized into distinct set pieces, and which both wear their structures on their sleeves. There are no three doors in The Waste Lands — just a natural succession of strange and unpredictable story events. I will say this: my favourite sequence in The Dark Tower so far is still the bit of The Drawing of the Three that focusses on Eddie. This one hasn’t quite hit that standard yet, but if it keeps pace it’ll be better than the second novel on average. Will report back.

Podcasts

The Daily: Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 — This is a great summary of the background behind the N.F.L. protests, which is something I needed because as a non-sports person, I am missing most of the context.

This American Life: “White Haze” — Zoe Chace is maybe the best producer on this show right now. She is so good at talking to people who are obviously horrible and trying to actually understand them. Her look at the Proud Boys (even the name makes me shudder) in this episode is fascinating. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Gatekeeper” — Criminal’s true story about fictional crime stories. It’s an interview with the New York Times Book Review’s crime columnist about what attracts her to this genre. She’s fun.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Movie Roundup: The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, And Mother!” — I’m with Linda Holmes on mother! Glen Weldon is frustrated by how Darren Aronofsky is explaining away all of the ambivalence in his weird movie. I sympathize, because as I said in my review, allegories are banal. But I do think there’s one layer of this movie that Weldon hasn’t gotten to, which is the incredibly arch layer that casts doubt on the validity of the allegory at all. I made an addendum to my review of mother! while I listened to this. The original review ended: “It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.” I added this, in response to Weldon’s remarks: “BTW when I used the phrase “justify the ways of Aronofsky to man” in the last paragraph of this I was paraphrasing Paradise Lost which draws a connection to Aronofsky’s own Biblical allusions and by explaining that here like this I am doing the same thing Aronofsky’s been doing when he for some reason explains all of the symbolism in his weird movie and I am doing it in the context of an ostensibly comedic rhetorical device which is what this movie is. God am I ever a genius.” I dunno what I was on about there. Maybe I’ve lost the plot.

On the Media: “OTM live at the Texas Tribune Festival” — Two interviews, one with a pair of journalists, one with a pair of politicians, both on the topic of how Trump’s lack of regard for the truth affects the way they do their job. Worth checking out.

Code Switch: “Befuddled by Babies, Love And Ice Pops? Ask Code Switch” — This show is doing an advice segment now, which is good because they are rather excellent at sorting through complex stuff. The segment about tensions between the families of a soon-to-be-married couple, over the cultural representation in the ceremony, has got some solid advice.

Mogul: “Mogul Live!” — Mogul’s victory lap has officially outstayed its welcome. It is one of the best shows of the year, but these bonus episodes are starting to feel thin. This live show is too long by half.

99% Invisible: “Ponte City Tower” — This is about the changing perception of one particular high rise in Johannesburg after apartheid. It’s nice. Also, I have to say, I quite admire the elegant way this show has started incorporating midroll ads (the kind of ads that happen in the middle of an episode as opposed to at the start or end — they are more profitable for podcasters). They air the story in one piece like always, then throw an extra bit after the ads. Clever, and unobtrusive.

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