Médias audiovisuels, culture et société

dimanche, octobre 16, 2005

TV review : Battlestar Galactica, get your war off

Galactica again ? Oh my Dirk !
In the late seventies, George Lucas Star wars spawned off multiple wannabes, including the small screen series Galactica, aired between 1978 and 1979 on ABC. In 2003, the Sci-Fi cable channel launched a remake of this very campy show. On the blackboard, the pitch looks the same : home of the human race is wiped out by a robot army they created, called the Cylons. Along with a few civilian ships, the last battleship around, the Galactica, led by Commander Adama, flees toward a new home in the sun, a place called Earth. It may sounds familiar but once the show starts, it appears to be radically different. Many die hard Galactica fans expected a continuation, but this Mini, which serves as a take off for a whole series, is definitely something else.

A space drama
Whereas the original show may be regarded as a disco era, "Star wars turned into a campy series" hack, with straightforward characters, the brand new Battlestar Galactica (BSG) has the tone of a drama, sporting a fair share of intimate insights and camera close ups, within the scale of an epic journey. The original series felt much more like "heroic wankers in space", especially due to Dirk Benedict's looks and his Starbuck character's attitude. Now the body count, rising in the wake of the Cylon's attacks, along with some critical human decisions, really matters and lingers in the minds and actions of the characters and the viewers alike. In the mini series alone, a baby is killed on screen, the 12 human colonies are nuked, a military officier is forced to shoot a civilian, a group of defenseless Space fighters is massacred one by one by Cylon raiders... And the list goes on and on. Killing off a huge amount of people is usual in a lot of American shows and movies. But the odd stuff is that it mostly bears no consequences at all. In most of these programmes, death is surabondent , and totally absent at the same time. Nobody mourns no one in most of these "cold" products. And nobody mentions the dead afterwards. It appears as a convention and while its ok to kill people off the screen, the loss and the pain is considered like pornography material.

The 9/11 syndrome
The 9/11 allowed the USA to stand on this fictional routine. In the wake of the event, the government and the medias forbid to show the corpses of the dead. They forbid to rerun certain images, such as the people falling from the towers. They forbid a selection of songs over the radio, like Louis Armstrong's What a wonderful world, or John Lennon's Imagine, sung by Neil Young during an overtly reactionnary benefit concert a few days afterwards. After the censorship times came the "how to translate it into our programmes ? " times. And for better or for worse, this catastrophe really altered the way cinema and TV reflected the country. In this very context, it would have been very silly to reproduce the original Galactica inconsequent tone. But the real boldness of the new BSG is about the mourning and the loss. We actually see the corpses and the tears. We can see people ejected into space while in combat. We see bodies lying on the ground, a sacrified techie with blood all over his face and some dead officers with a military sheet during a mourning gathering. We see Commander Adama killing a Cylon much like Ray Ferrier kills Harlan Ogilvy in Spielberg's War of the worlds, another post 9/11 credited movie. In both cases, dirty and shocking, the heroic figure has blood on his hands. On a wider scale, the show departs from usual arrogant and conquering asserts. The main characters are forced to face the reality and to admit that "the war is over, weve lost, now we have to flee". This critical assert, serving as a base for the overall tone of the show, is truly opposite to what the US government is doing, say, on the Iraqi front.

BSG and the witch hunt : a politically biased show ?
BSG seems to show some Johnny Guitar way of critisizing Macarthysm renewal. It seems to adress The Patriot Act voted by President George Bush. For instance, the public relation man arrested for being a Cylon wears... a red jacket. Nonsense ? The Cylon femme fatale, Number six also wears a red dress. Red is a common colour "coda" associated with communism and treason. Though the Cold war is officially over, the show intents to underline the nowadays social climate of the United States. Clothes colours put aside, one of the great ideas put within the show is that we barely see a Cylon at all, yet their menacing presence is fantastically rendered. The trick is that it is indulged to us that the Cylon technology advanced to the point of producing human shaped agents, much like in Terminator, V or Screamers. Henceforth, theres no need to show the robots. Not showing the robots helps in different ways. First, we have to remember the silly look of the original ones. Redoing them in the exact same way would have been suicidal (theres a smart nod to the old ones in the first part of the mini). Creating this kind of creatures is always a big treat and the producers wanted to show new robots. We actually see them at the beginning of the mini. They are quite well done, computer generated ones. But i guess seeing them all the time would spoil the fun and make them ridiculous ennemies. The less you see, the more you thrive. We are told that the real threat is the human looking spy agents. And heres the beauty of the thing : while they dont have to spend money on CG animated robots, the producers introduce real, Macarthy era like paranoia within the show. Everyone can be a Cylon. Considering BSG has some of the most beautiful and smartest special effects around, it never appears as a "saving money" gesture, but as a thriller one. It gives terror, and it clearly deals with real terrorism. There are some clear given speeches and hints about the fact that Cylons were created by human civilisation. In my opinion, this ever menacing question about "whos what ?" deals much with the sleeping terrorist cells our real world is dealing with and the suspicious atmosphere raised by terrorists attacks. For his last zombie movie, George Romero said that he wanted to recreate this post 9/11 selfish tension and paranoia on screen. To the very bone of its narrative strings, BSG applied the Romero observation of the contemporary american landscape.

In a way, BSG outlouds something the USA felt ashamed of. The Cylons are depicted as created by man, and the guilt is an undercurrent feeling running the show all the way. And the dead are brought up on screen, as well as the resulting tears. Though i cant tell BSG creators are sworn democrats, its a fact Hollywood and entertainment medias are mainly balanced on this political side. Given the fact that BSG is broadcasted on a cable channel, with an increased freedom of speech, concealed within a genre people dont expect much in terms of social speech, the guess is up to you. Here are some comments made by Ron Moore on his blog http://blog.scifi.com/battlestar/. The main writer of the show, this is what he says about its politics :

"I want the show to provoke you into thinking about the times you live in and the choices that are being made all around you every day. In a time when the President of the United States actually asserts that he has the power to arrest without warrant and detain indefinitely without charge or appeal, any citizen (indeed any person on the face of the Earth) simply by designating them as an "illegal combatant," we should all be engaged in a vigorous and energetic debate about who we are as a people and as human beings and exactly how we do intend to respond to the very real threat posed to this nation and to the foundations of liberal democracy posed by people capable of, and willing to, fly airplanes into buildings."

Working girls
Another strong aspect of this total Galactica conversion is the male to female turned Starbuck and Boomer. Kara Thrace, callsign Starbuck, is played by actress Katee Sackhoff. As the fleet insubordinate sureshot its a standout woman character, along with Grace's Park existensialism approach with Boomer. More to the point is the political figure of Laura Roslin, played by Mary MacDonnell. A beautiful and classy aging actress known for a nice part in Dance with wolves, she died being the president's wife in the silly Independence day. Here she's abruptly promoted as the president of all the human survivors as all the officials separating her from the President are killed as well during the attacks. Hilary Clinton anyone ? As a woman, she must fight to be heard. In the mini, she manages to change Commander Adama's mind to go back for a revenge on the Cylons. From top to bottom of the social ladder, both Roslin and Starbuck assume roles traditionnaly given to male actors, and they both kick some asses.

Faces in spaces
Battlestar Galactica is a sad, pessimistic, low profile, sci fi programme. Its far away from the arrogance shown in the original show and the arrogance credited to the US policies and lifestyle. It is clearly said that "the war is over, weve lost". Speeding into uncharted space territoties isnt about conquering the country anymore. Its not the old western myth. Its about fleeing and surviving. BSG shows the human/american civilisation on the run. This surprisingly dramatic tone is helped by a stylish, somewhat Nouvelle Vague rooted inspiration (watch out for the "plan sequence" exposition of Starbuck and the ship's crew). The show is a coral one, like the past ER, The Shield and so on but doesnt feel forced into it. Its incredibly "fluide" and the balance between CG sequences and the more intimate ones is fantastic. On the visual side, the surprise comes from multiple aspects. The camera adopts the documentary style known in US series since at least New Yor Police Blues. That basically means the camera, its frame, is free to roam, to jump from one character to one another on the fly, embraces the subjective vision of a bystander, or even puts the viewer as a voyeur. An incredible amount of shots is framing human faces, with their visible scars, anguish, sweat and fear pouring from outstanding performances from the ensemble cast. All the human emotions are rendered in close ups. With the HD technology employed, giving blank colours from the locations, contrasted with the red and yellow ones of the skin, it gives an incredible drama-documentary feel, never thought to be found in a space opera. Commander Adama, played by Edward James Olmos from Blade Runner and Miami Vice fame, is the best television character ive ever seen. Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck is not far behind. Even the red babe played by model Tricia Helfer has a tremendous acting presence. What these people are giving to this show will certainly change acting standards in future Scifi shows, wathever shows, and movies alike.

Sci Fi smart
Aside from the dramatic, "fleeing from Egypt" tone, the show still delivers on the Scifi front. I mean, it knows its background. It takes good ideas from its numerous predecessors. Exemples ?The busy hangar facilities from Star wars, , alive with details and people running around fixing stuff. The military mixity from Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. It even takes the strongest element from the mediocre Species, the alien under a drop dead gorgeous woman skin. And the list goes on. BSG seems to have learned from it all, just to leave the competition behind. The show even allows himself to be realistic during CG combat sequences. No overused orchestral music for instance. Moreover, an interesting work has been done with the engines and blasters sound. They are undertoned. We all know there is no sound in space, and that many space operas break this rule, boasting screaming and shrieking sounds for a dramatic effect. The perfect exemple is the roaring TIE sounds from Star wars. Here, there are sounds too, coming from engines and blasters. But it as a swallowed, semi realistic flavor. It points out that the combat sequences, wich are very strong indeed, are not necessarily the climaxes of the show. This treatment to the core action is artistically on par with the characters and narration driven sequences.

BSG all the way
One of the main rules about making a crowd pleasing show is to deliver a rich and bold pilot, to draw your "first" audience in. Then, the producers can go back to a lower budget and soften the mood if necessary, to appeal to a wider public. After seeing one of the first episodes taking place right after the mini, and reading countless enthousiastic reviews concerning the two existing seasons, it appears that this old technique was simply put to trash. BSG remains BSG all the way. Cable TV allows shows to go farer and farer. It gives more freedom for producers than the regular networks. Because the drama went so far with genres, and im thinking about Oz, Nip Tuck, The Shield, Six Feet Under, and because of whats torturing the country, BSG took the final bold step : they managed to create the space social drama genre.

Sylvain Thuret

samedi, octobre 15, 2005

DVD review : No direction home*

* This article was initially written for the forthcoming Paris Times November issue.

Second time around
No direction home is a BBC coproduced documentary on Bob Dylan's early years. Directed by Martin Scorsese, it was originally a two part program broadcasted at the end of september within the PBS American Masters Series slot. Now available on DVD, the french release is planned on the 4th November.

Following the long awaited Chronicles vol.1 autobiography in 2004, Bob Dylan once again departed from his reclusive attitude and unprecedently opened Martin Scorsese his archives and recent interviews to work with. Though the combination of such cultural key figures is a true wonder, the two of them already met before on film. In 1978, Dylan was featured live in The Last Waltz, a concert movie covering The Band's farewell to the musical scene. Furthermore, Scorsese recently produced The Blues miniseries, even directing one of the seven movies Feel like going home.

No direction home covers the critical 1961-66 period, matching Martin Scorsese's years as a student filmmaker, prior to the release of his first own street wise movie, Who's that knocking at my door. We are told how a juvenile Robert Zimmerman, out of his nowhere town of Hibbing Minnesota, reinvented himself as Bob Dylan and stormed the uprising Greenwich Village folk scene. All the mentor figures he worshipped and met are summoned : Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Fred Neil, Andy Warhol, D.A. Pennebaker... Some of them were still alive to testify when the first dedicated interviews began.

"Contempory ideas, traditional form"
Blowin in the wind, Like a rolling stone, A Hard rain's gonna fall... : as usual, Martin Scorsese, makes a great use of the great given music material to portray the origins, the meaning and the history making live interpretations of these songs. Here, the young poet is credited for having embraced and expressed the sociopolitical changes of his era, the Civil rights movement, the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam war, the demonstrations, the Beat generation, the drugs... And at the same time, we get to learn how individualist he was, how embarrassed he was to be quoted as the "Voice of his generation". As Martin Scorsese recalls, reading a Civil rights ceremony declaration the singer made in 63 : "There's no left and right to me anymore. There's only up and down. And I am tryin to go up without thinkin about (...) politics". Dylan was bold to the point of going electric, a gesture received as a betrayal from the folk crowd, with people calling him "traitor" or "Judas !" during his 66 English tour.

Essential viewing
A few stylistic exceptions aside, Martin Scorsese's approach doesn't show off with the subject. He delivers instead a solid documentary with an incredible care put into choosing and editing the material, comprising previously unseen documents like photographs, movie sketches, news footage, 40 years old articles, interviews, concert performances... It's four hours long, quite demanding, but very rewarding. With so much given context and care, his music truly demonstrates its inspirational power. Whether you are a Dylan addict, or simply interested in cinema or music, it's essential viewing.

Sylvain Thuret