Recently I deleted a comment on an old post here from someone who suggested it was "retarded" to apply critical analysis to a movie. I deleted the post because the author of same tossed out their insults behind the cowardly "anonymous" label. People are welcome to say anything here, but insults must be owned up to if they are going to remain. Little children who play ring-and-run do not get indulged.
However, this is not the first time that someone has cast disparaging remarks on posts that examine film and television in detail. The phrase we so often here in these cases is "It's only a movie."
I got to say, that sort of quip really gets my goat. It's a vacuous statement. Meaningless. To Kill a Mockingbird is only a movie too. Citizen Kane is only a movie. So is The Godfather. For that matter, Cry, the Beloved Country is only a book. Hamlet is only a play. Hey, New York is only a city. Christianity is only a religion. Earth is only a planet.
It is fine for the analysis and appreciate of art to be equal to the effort that goes into its creation.
Weekend at Bernie's Two may be only a movie. But when you look at all the effort, all the thought, all the awareness of genre history that went into crafting something like Batman Begins or the Matrix, there is nothing wrong with time spent reveling in examination of the end result.
Hey wait - you say. Those are fun movies. I thought you were going to hold up an example of something like 5 Easy Pieces or The Deer Hunter. Not a comic book adaptation and a martial arts flick. Do people really care what goes into their summer blockbusters?
Well, yes, some do. And some people care about what goes in. And the qualitative difference between The Lord of the Rings and the Dungeons & Dragons movie is profound for this reason. Yes, the vast majority of Hollywood studio projects may be about making a quick, sure buck pumping out something puerile and predictable. But there are filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, or Ron Howard, who would probably take issue with the statement that what they produced was "only a movie." And all of them make commercially successful films.
The drummer Steward Copeland, formerly of the Police, was once asked by a reporter why he went to such lengths with his riffs, traveling to Africa to learn unusual beats and bringing them back to incorporate into his music. "Are any of your listerners really going to understand what it is you are doing here?" the reporter asked. "No, of course not," came Copeland's reply, "but they'll appreciate the music the better for it, even if they don't know why."
Again: It is fine for the analysis and appreciate of art to be equal to the effort that goes into its creation.
But also: It is fine for art to strive for excellence regardless of whether those who will live in the house appreciate or even notice every brick that went into its construction.
Some of us enjoy examining the bricks. Admiring the craftsmanship. Seeing how they pieces fit together. Studying what worked and what didn't. This is fun. This is also instructive for those who might harbor aspirations to "go thou and do likewise."
One of the first lessens I hope to impart to my young son is that the world is divided between passive and active participants. In the past, a very small portion of people, largely gathered in a few key geographic locations, produced the media that the majority of us consumed. Now, thanks to the democratization of the Internet, we are all potentially active participants in our entertainment and this trend will only increase rapidly in the coming years. You like music? Get on your Apple and start mixing your tracks. You like videgames? Get to work programming one. You like movies - here's a digital camcorder. You like special effects and model work - go subscribe to Make. There's never been a better time to be creative - the threshold for entry has never been lower. And in a level playing field, quality of product will be more important than ever.
So, you can be a couch potato all you want, and more power to you. But personally, I think the idea that any creative media, whether it's a book, a movie, a cartoon, or a comic book, should limit its aspirations of quality, is, well, "mentally deficient." Format prejudice is ugly. There are moments of real briliance on Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. (The latter, btw, was pitched to HBO as a children's show that would end war. Okay, they didn't actually succeed in that aspiration, but that's a much better goal than just moving a few plastic toys in an Happy Meal, isn't it?.)
Now, again, I'm not talking about War and Peace here. Or the art house film that only plays in a few select cities. ("Not that there is anything wrong with that," he says in his best Jerry Seinfeld.) I'm talking about commercial entertainment and the attitude that says because a thing is popular it can't or shouldn't be good.
Quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.
Recently, Alan Beatts, owner of one of my favorite bookstores in America, Borderlands Books, and a very wise and smart man, wrote in his October newsletter, Dispatches from the Border:
"But when people (writers and editors especially) forget that we're in the business of providing entertainment, the result is crappy fiction that doesn't sell. That's not to say that the lofty ideas that I mentioned can't be served by genre fiction or that genre fiction can't or shouldn't aspire to the highest levels of writing. But the story and the entertainment has to come first because that's why people buy and read this stuff. They want a good story, a fun ride, something to relax with and take a break. And if they don't get it, they won't read it and the work cannot accomplish anything, neither something base like entertainment or lofty like changing people's
lives or their world."
Yes, absolutely. Couldn't have said it better myself. I go on a LOT about the importance of science fiction, but the prime component of fiction is entertainment and without that, it's not going to accoomplish much else. I have very little patience with writers or performers who complain that their audience doesn't understand them or aren't smart enough to appreciate their genius. Fiction is about reaching people. (And I hope that, with the average Pyr book, readers come away enjoying fiction that is both action-packed and thought provoking. That's the goal, anyway).
Again, quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.
That being said, I do feel that speculative fiction in specific has an additional role to play beyond the laudable goal of being entertaining. As I have said elsewhere, I grew up in the Deep South, at a time when it was considerably deeper than it is now. My childhood peers frequently told racist jokes, used the N-word, and when we came of age to drive, more than once we amused ourselves by throwing eggs at the local gay bar. (Ideally, this was accomplished while one or more patrons was in the doorway). And, not knowing any better, I partook of all these shameful activities myself. Nor was this atypical behaviour for Southern teenagers. Who went to church and had good parents and attended good schools. But the dominant social atttidudes were not those of tolerance. And the only difference between me and my companions was that I had a father who shoved A Princess of Mars into my hands and ordered me to read it despite my protests. And an uncle who was into the original Star Trek. And it is very hard to not to question bigotry against fellow human beings when one is onboard with Klingons and the green men of Mars.
My late grandmother hated minorities (and would probably have disowned me as having "betrayed my race" for marrying a non-white had she lived to see it). When I was grammar school, we took her on a trip to Disney World. When the animatronic Abraham Lincoln stood up in the Hall of Presidents to give a speech, she growled out loud enough for the whole auditorium to hear "Sit down, traitor!" I showed her and her second husband an episode of The Next Generation once. It was their first exposure to Star Trek and they saw right through it. Before the first commercial break, they had decried the show as liberal propoganda, funny foreheads as metaphors for the idea that we should all just get along. They hated it. They knew it was a deliberate and calculated assault on their world view. They knew it was a legitimate threat. They were absolutely correct.
For all its faults, Star Trek changed the world. It's message of tolerance and its depiction of a universe blessed with "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" was radical for its day and still vital for our day. So science fiction for me isn't just an alternative to romance novels and cop & laywer shows. In a very real and meaningful way, speculative fiction is an alternative to throwing eggs at homosexuals.
I have a bi-racial son who understands more Mandarin than English. And that's not something you could have predicted had you met me in the 1980s.
Didn't Brian Aldiss remark once that it wasn't truly science fiction if it wasn't subversive? Recently, the very wise Paul McAuley reminded us all of science fiction's obligation to be subversive on the blog Meme Therapy:
"Science fiction is the holy fool of literature. It can say what it likes and get away with an examination of truly radical and subversive ideas because no one takes it seriously. When it’s at its best, we’re generally in trouble. Science fiction flourished during the social and economic upheavals of the 1930s, during the Cold War, and during the Iron Age of the 1980s. It should be flourishing now, damn it, but too many people who used to hang out with it have wandered off into some kind of fluffy make-believe world or other. Real science fiction doesn’t make stuff up. It turns reality up to eleven. It takes stuff from contemporary weather - stuff no one else has bothered or dared to question - and uses it to make an end run on reality. It not only shows us what could happen if things carry on the way they are, but it pushes what’s going on to the extremes of absurdity. That’s not its job: that’s its nature. And what’s happened to science fiction lately, it isn’t natural. It’s pale and lank and kind of out of focus. It needs to straighten up and fly right. It needs to reconnect with the world’s weather, and get medieval on reality’s ass."
While I applauded McAuley's words, I was disheartened by how many writers didn't say the same. I felt a bit like Bill Maher, wondering why the traditional news media waited so long to call this administration's bullshit. But hey, Bill Maher, John Stewart, Steven Colbert. They're only comedians, right? They shouldn't actually be trying to say anything relevant should they?
Remember that USA Today article I found so encouraging, "Science Fiction Gets Real". The one in which quite a few prominent tv & filmmakers talk about science fiction's importance as legitimate social criticism. Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema, says pretty much the same thing as McAuley:
"Historically, science fiction springs from tension. The big boon we had in the '40s and '50s came from war and Cold War tensions. When times are tense, it causes us to look forward and imagine what it's all going to mean."
So Hollywood has gotten it right once. And let's pause right here and praise Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, whose blog Making Light does just about the best job of addressing that tension as anyone in our field, writer or editor, is doing. But I would suggest that science fiction's job has never been more important and while it can't do that job if it isn't entertaining enough to reach its readers, it very much has a job and this is very much the time to remember that.
Which brings me to the two-hour premier of season three of Battlestar Galactica and to a show that isn't perfect, but certainly knows what science fiction is for.
As Paul Levinson says on his blog (and which I hope he will forgive me for quoting in its entirety here, since what he says is on the money and not everyone has a MySpace account):
"I thought the two-hour premier of Battlestar Galactica on the SciFi Channel tonight was mind-blowingly powerful and extraordinary in its continuing probing of excrutiating ethical issues. One that made even me a little uncomfortable was the depiction of some humans as suicide bombers in their resistance to the Cylon occupation of new Caprica. The implication - or, at least one of the implications - is that the U.S. forces in Iraq are the Cylons. As much as I am unhappy about our conduct of the continuing war there, I don't think we're quite as bad as the Cylons - the worst of whom (which is pretty much all of them, except two) - kill with complete amoral abandon. And certainly the Israelis, who have far more of a right to be in Israel than we do in Iraq, have no resemblance to the Cylons at all. (Hezbollah seems to have more in common with the androids and robots.) But I've got to admire Battlestar Galactica for daring to insert this and other difficult and painful issues into its story. Treatment of political and ethical issues in science fiction on television certainly did not begin with the current Battlestar Galactica. The Twilight Zone more than once, brilliantly, addessed the insanity of nuclear war. Star Trek looked at the Cold War, race relations in the U.S., and other searing topics in the 1960s. The original Battlestar Galactica back in the late 1970s had plenty of Cold War analogies, too. But none of those hold a candle to the current BG in its consideration of wrenching issues. The first two seasons had some of the best military vs. civilian power confrontations in a democracy - in a time of life-and-death all-out war - I've even seen or read in any genre. And if tonight's episode is any indication, we can expect stories that will make us think - and squirm - even more in the months ahead. It's the end of space opera as we know it. A journey into the heart of darkness and light of space realism. I'm looking forward."
Amen. And anyone who watched the episode, whatever they thought of it and its politics, will understand why notions that "it's only television" make my blood boil. Because somewhere out there today is some kid who's still telling N-word jokes and hurling eggs or worse at those who are different, or if not that extreme, simply someone with a less considered opinion about the morality of our current invasion/occupation, and he or she has tuned in to Battlestar Galactica for the action and the robots, and is surreptitiously getting a lot more than they bargained for.
Does this matter? Or are Ron Moore and company just being "retarded," as horrendously pretentious as that Jim Hensen fellow was to think they can impact how people think about war. You decide.
After all, an open mind is just an alternative to a closed one.