Sunday, September 16, 2012

What happened to Warehouse 13?

Warehouse 13 has never been a great show but it's usually lightly done and quite entertaining.  The first season aimed at little more than that - vaguely The X-Files minus the angst, incoherent backstory and, let's face it, some of the smarts.  The second season added a fantastic plot twist that made me laugh and then they built on that with just a tad of quite effective moral ambiguity.

The third season is now streaming on Netflix and the first episodes of the fourth have aired but something is way off.  It's like a key writer or even the show runner left so everybody remaining is falling back on the least imaginative TV writing possible.  For one thing the eps are now mostly solve-the-riddle format, something that's always been there but usually more in the background.  These riddles should be the MacGuffins that drive the story not the actual point of the story - watching characters figure out something that's completely arbitrary and that we have no way of figuring out ourselves is quite pointless. 

Season 3's bad guy similarly shows little thought.  In the earlier seasons the main baddie was driven by understandable motives - greed, anger, revenge.  Plus they had some connection to Warehouse 13 that added texture to the story.  In Season 3 he's doing all these bad things because he's evil.  Seriously, that's it - an artifact turned him evil.  This descends into bottom-of-the-barrel pulp/comics writing.  Oddly the show's creators decided to toy with his identity, very obviously withholding it by keeping him just out of the frame during numerous scenes and building up to a big reveal.  And then we learn that....TAH DAH it's somebody we've never seen before!  This is notably clumsy and almost makes me wonder if in fact they decided to change this person's identity partway through the season - otherwise this makes almost no sense except as incompetence.  (Well to be fair we have met this person before but it was as a child so there's no way anybody could have drawn that connection.)

Then we get to the issue of the cliffhanger.  At the end of Season 3 they take the big step of, gasp, actually destroying the warehouse.  Boom, flames, gone.  This seems like a clever way to push the show in a new direction but alas the start of Season 4 pushes a "reset" button and undoes all that.  Even worse, undoes it in another tedious, connect-the-opaque-dots story.  Hey didn't we mention there's an artifact that resets the entire world to 24 hours earlier?  For no particular reason?  The creators do try to complicate this a bit by stating that the reset will unleash Something Bad but since so far that has remained under wraps there's really no dilemma.

Warehouse 13 has never really bothered to fill out its background so a lot of it doesn't make sense or hold together.  But as long as that wasn't a focus it didn't much matter, sort of how The X-Files worked until they tried to piece together a "mythology" out of unconnected stories until even fans gave up on it.  Warehouse 13 might be headed down that path - we'll have to see how this season plays out.  As a sidenote it's interesting to see how the show tries to position itself as science fiction when it's inarguably fantasy.  But considering how confused the creators seem to be then that's not particularly surprising.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

John Cage

It's safe to say that John Cage changed my life though it's safer to say I couldn't really explain how.  My first encounter with Cage came in the Fall of 1980 (or possibly 1981) when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.  He visited campus and all I knew is that he made strange music, something that immediately drew my attention.  The concert in the student center's auditorium (the spot that ignited my cinephilia though that story is for another time) was packed and consisted of Cage pieces interspersed with Satie.  Of course I had no idea who Satie was but I immediately liked the piano music that almost wasn't music.  The Cage pieces I mainly remember for having the music faculty and grad students parading around tapping on cardboard - they didn't seem very amused but I was.

The following day made perhaps a greater impression.  Cage gave a short lecture and longer Q&A, the main point being that people should be open to more experiences and that academics in particular are far too compartmentalized.  Seems pretty obvious to me even though my exposure to academia at that time was quite slight.  But it wasn't obvious to many, maybe most, of the faculty in the audience who were quite annoyed and didn't hesitate to say Cage was wrong.  Cage wasn't argumentative, in fact wasn't even trying to convince people at least not in the way we're familiar with seeing.  That I now know as typical Cage but this kind of discussion without debate, without attempting to impose your view (possibly even a variation on negative capability) was a revelation.  (And in its own way so was the academics' responses.  I've spent many years working alongside but not in academia and though there's a lot of talk given to crossing disciplines it's no more fluid than it was then.  The odd thing is that most academics I know are quite curious, open-minded people; they just aren't too concerned about what's outside their pastures.)

Since then I've spent a lot of time reading material by and about Cage and of course listening to his music.  He seems to some degree a trickster figure (not a charlatan, a quite different thing), laughing at wayward ideas, strange coincidences and the sheer bounty of thought, sharing beautiful little objects he found, running after some stray sound.  I've always loved that nearly every photo of Cage shows him smiling.  And though some people take him as such I've never found Cage a particularly deep or even revelatory thinker - he was far too taken with ideas instead of systems.  Maybe that's why the music has lasted instead of stuck in the museum alongside other modernist inventions.  He didn't always know what it would sound like at the end but he cared about the end and even more about getting there, not about the method itself.  I think it was Kyle Gann who said Cage inspired countless people but almost no imitators and maybe that's the real point.  We're so concerned with methods and algorithms and results and winners that we have pretty much no vocabulary to describe how we might think about using and enjoying all this (and the failures too! and the stuff that doesn't matter!) in the way that Cage often did.  Or maybe the point is just listening to his prepared piano sonatas, the Europeras, the Imaginary Landscapes, the early string quartets, the number pieces that I can never keep separate and whatever might be floating past as you read this.....