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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (3/9/09) 11:04am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week, since I didn't watch much.]

Movies:  In Bruges
TV:  Battlestar Galactica [4x19-4x20] [spoilers], Burn Notice [2x01-2x05] [very slight spoilers]
Books:  The Rest Is Noise

In Bruges
By and large, this was a solid three-star movie.  It wasn't aiming to be the phenomenal blockbuster of the century, nor the artiest art movie that ever arted.  It was limited in its ambition:  it wanted to tell a solid, witty little story about two hit men taking an enforced vacation in Belgium.  It's the exact sort of movie that gets short shrift from most of the moviegoing public, which seems to want films that are either puffed up with arty self-importance or are as mindlessly sleazy as possible.

This movie is a bit odd.

Its basic setup -- with two hitmen vacationing in Bruges -- feels like a TV setup.  You've got two guys who will not get along.  Ray is nervy, sarcastic, and negative; Ken is cheery, peaceful, and cultured.  They can bicker about anything, and will take different courses of action in any situation.  If you were making a TV show, this is what you'd want:  two characters whose fundamental differences in outlook will generate enough conflicts to get you well into syndication.

What's more, Ray and Ken are hit men.  This is also a promising way to generate stories.  Hit men are more likely to get into dramatic and dangerous scenarios than, say, bakers.  Granted, stories don't exactly "walk in the door" for hit men -- that is to say, you can't just use one standing set the way you could for (say) a medical drama or a legal series -- but you've still got two guys who conflict about everything who have to go around killing people.

That's a show, right?

Ah, well, no.  In this case, it's a movie, which means we set up this lovely story generator, burn off all of its potential in one story, and immediately close up shop.  *sigh*

In this case, the exact structure of that story is, too, a bit odd.  It's got a first act that belongs in an unassuming, quasi-mumblecore art film.  The two blokes take in Bruges.  They go to a church.  They ride a boat down the canal.  They visit a film shoot.  It's a really low-key act one.  Then act two happens, and we realize that their boss is not happy with them.  So that ominous bit begins lowering in the sky.  There are a couple action sequences -- Ken gets held at gunpoint on one occasion, and gets into a fight in another.

Then there's act three, which basically feels like it arrived from an 80s crime drama.  Bullets, bullets, bullets.

It's hard for me to verbalize why I find this disappointing.  As far as film construction goes, it's absolutely by the book:  start slow, introduce complications, finish with a bang.  But I think the variation is so wide in this film that it ensures everybody will hate something about it.  Action fans would get bored by the first half.  I, on the other hand, got bored through the second half.  I was learning about these wonderful, detailed characters, and now they were being forced through the usual plot logistics of lengthy chase scenes and uninspired shootouts.

Basically, what I got was a movie, but what I wanted was a pilot.

Battlestar Galactica [4x19-4x20] [spoilers]
This past Friday I watched two more episodes of Battlestar Galactica at the Drafthouse:  "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Islanded in a Stream of Stars".

So now we're two weeks away from the end.  All that remains of Battlestar Galactica is the two-part finale "Daybreak".  It's odd, because in a lot of ways, this doesn't feel like the very end of a TV show.  At the end of a story, any story, you expect certain things.  You expect the action to be bigger than it was in the beginning or the middle.  You expect the stakes to be bigger than they were in the beginning or the middle.  You expect emotions to run higher, and the pace to be faster, and the spectacles to be more spectacular.

Battlestar Galactica is doing none of that, opting for a more quiet, bleak endgame.  The stakes aren't any higher because really, the stakes have been the same all along:  will humanity survive or perish?  (I suppose now we can add "will the Cylons in the fleet survive?" to the stakes, but it doesn't feel much more significant.)  The action, when there is action, is slow and quiet.  Maybe one or two significant things happen per thread per episode.  The rest of the time, we're just taking things in:  the dying ship, the hopeless crew, the maddening lack of answers.

This feels appropriate to the show -- Battlestar often loves to sidestep our plot expectations -- but it's just off-putting.  Two hours from the end, and now we're going to kick back and contemplate stuff?  Really?

In other ways, the series is winding down conventionally.  We are getting a ton of answers.  We are finally killing the ship, which pretty definitively ends the show.  We do have some high-stakes action here and there.  Perhaps the odd thing is that we're doing these things in serial rather than parallel.  We have a couple of episodes that are *all* action, then a couple of episodes that are *all* answers, and now a couple of episodes that are *all* about pondering the death of the ship.

In the end, I was frustrated and disappointed by these two episodes.  Granted, this may have to do with the Drafthouse:  they didn't let us into the theater (tiny theater this time) until 11:59pm, and they had the air conditioning set on 'arctic' the whole time.  Plus I wound up seated next to people who found the more emotionally-wrenching moments of the show just hai-*larious*.  (Okay, so the 'Adama painting the wall' scene doesn't work for you.  Do you *have* to ruin it for the rest of us by busting out laughing?)

Maybe if I'd stuck around the Friday-night dance and caught up with these episodes on BitTorrent, I'd be more favorably disposed towards them.

In the end, though, it just doesn't *feel* like the end.  On the one hand, it's churning up new material -- oh, hey, now there's a Colony! and now there's a plot to kidnap Hera! and now there's some sort of conspiracy involving Hera, Starbuck's father, and the crazy "All Along the Watchtower" cover!  All of this would be fine for the middle of a story, but for the end of a story, I just want the writers working with the pieces already on the chessboard instead of introducing new story elements.

The plot between Kara and the composer was a particular dud for me.  I'll just defer to Alan Sepinwall here:
Counting tonight's show, the time we have left with "Battlestar Galactica" adds up to five hours over four weeks. And I'm guessing that some of you -- maybe most of you -- aren't going to be happy that we just spent a good chunk of one of those hours on Starbuck re-learning how to play the piano.
I know, maybe it's arty on a level that I can't appreciate.  It certainly didn't help that all the story's revelations went right over my head:  Slick was imaginary? and he was Kara's father?  I only found this out from reading reviews of the episode just now.  At the time, I felt like I was watching piano lessons for no reason.  (And hell, I *liked* the boxing episode.)

Burn Notice [2x01-2x05] [very slight spoilers]
Now that I'm writing a spec of Burn Notice, I'm frantically trying to catch up with season two.  Fun note:  it looks like once season three starts, I'll have to rewrite that spec to account for whatever new direction they take the show after the season-two finale.  For the moment, though, I'm okay, because it's basically the same show:  there's an A-story where Michael helps a client, A*Team-style; there's a B-story where Michael continues his dogged investigation into the people who burned him; and there's a C-story where Michael deals with family issues.

Really, the only structural change is that the 'burners' are now making Michael do jobs for them occasionally -- but even in those stories, Michael simultaneously tries to get more dirt on his handlers.

It's a different experience, watching a show for purposes of speccing it.  If they pull off a brilliant plot twist, like (say) some of the brilliant double-crosses they arrange in "Scatter Point", then sure, on one level you're entertained.  On another level, though, you're flat-out scared:  "How the hell am I going to come up with plot twists like that?"

I was also taking notes, trying to figure out where the act breaks were and how they interleaved their three story threads.  I was surprised to discover that the B- and C-stories take up nearly equal amounts of screen time.  Each of them has one scene per act.  The B-story has a slight edge because it gets one extra scene:  the teaser.  Almost every act break occurs when we hit a snag in the A-story job.  Oh, the safe is projected by (I don't know) laser-enhanced sharks?  Well, that discovery is the best place to cut to commercial.

I don't know if there's much else to say about season two, apart from its remarkable adherence to formula and the healthy sense of blind panic it inspires in the would-be spec-writer.  They've added a few more stylistic tics to the editing -- occasionally we see a quick "motion blur" effect from the AVID-o-matic before we cut to interstitial stock footage.

Apart from that?  Oh, right:  they've added a recurring guest role for Tricia Helfer, who's best known for her role as Six in Battlestar Galactica.  As I put it on twitter (here and here), I didn't realize that "watch a scene where Bruce Campbell hits on Tricia Helfer" was on my Bucket List -- thus, I have simultaneously added that item to and removed it from said list.

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross
This is Alex Ross's massive tome about twentieth-century classical music.[1]

It was odd, coming to this book after listening to umpteen audiocourses about classical music from the Teaching Company.  I'm used to hearing a lecture alternate with excerpts from the pieces in question, and I'm used to at least a somewhat technical discussion of how the music is put together.

This time around, I had to rely on my wispy memories of, say, the Firebird sequence from Fantasia 2000 while Mr. Ross discussed Stravinsky. 

It seemed like a book designed for the reader who'd listened to modern classical for years, but never quite had a context to fit everything into.  Maybe some days they idly wondered where John Cage drew his inspiration from, and what he was reacting against.

For me, without much prior knowledge of the field, the whole book sort of flitted by me.   There were anecdotes about one composer, then another.  History floated alongside it.  Excellent verbal turns of phrase conjured up vague memories of how the pieces sounded.

But each new fact had nothing in my head to connect up to, so it would catch my attention for a minute or two and then disappear.

It might have helped if the book had more internal structure.  As far as I can tell, the premise of Noise is that twentieth-century art music used bold innovation to reflect its times.  It's a fine aegis, and serves as a catch-all for its hundred or so mini-biographies.  But I rarely see what all these essays have to do with each other except that they're in the same book.  Instead, one starts from scratch with each new composer, so you're still stuck with very little in your head to connect the new facts to.

For next time:  I'll plod through some more of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, watch some more Burn Notice, and get started on the audiobook of Bonk, Mary Roach's nonfiction book about scientific sex research.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Chopin.  (Études now.)

Podcast-wise, I continue treading water:  "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!", "Sound Opinions", "Podictionary Weekly", and so forth.  I listened to a few more episodes of EscapePod, and was especially impressed with Christmas 2007's "In the Late December" and the following month's "Astromonkeys!"

[1] "But 'Classical' technically describes western art music circa 1750 to --" oh FOR GOD'S SAKE SHUT UP!

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Date:Tuesday (3/10/09) 3:20pm
Fun fact - the game Command & Conquer 3 features main-character actors from Lost (Sawyer), BSG (Six) and House (Cameron). Not to mention Billy Dee Williams and Michael Ironside.

I had played the game a few years ago, before any of these shows came around, and played it again to my shock and amazement.
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Date:Tuesday (3/10/09) 4:10pm
(above was me - silly cookies)
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Date:Sunday (3/22/09) 6:40pm
Apparently a ship from Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun briefly appears in the finale....
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