Polish and Bones

That esteemed sage of our time, Tycho Brahe (the video gamer, not the astronomer) once wrote:

I think our people are sort of obsessed with polish, to be honest.  I’m not a masochist by any means, and it is my preference to play games that function, but I feel very strongly that I need to be receptive – both for myself, and in your service.  We can’t assume that every incredible, epochal idea is matched by mechanically incredible execution.

Likewise, my mom (a painter, and a pretty good one) talks about a painting having “good bones.” That means that the fundamentals of a painting – composition, value, palette – are strong, even if some details may be off. It may not be polished, but deep down, it’s got the right stuff.

My mom’s comment and Tycho’s are saying basically the same thing. In any art form, there’s deep quality – the “bones” – and surface quality – the “polish.” And, as consumers of art, we should be wise enough to know the difference.

Why? Because we’ll miss a lot of gold if we’re not willing to brush off the muck.

Babylon 5 is one of the greatest TV shows ever made – if you ignore the first season…and a lot of the second season…and the fifth season…and the cheesy special effects…and the occasionally over-the-top dialogue…and – well, you get the idea. The point is that it’s hard to draw someone new into Babylon 5 because it’s so easy to dismiss, since it lacks polish in a lot of places. But the price for dismissing it is never getting to see those sublime moments of visual poetry: Londo taking out the island of Shadows…Ivanova realizing that the voice of God is the voice of Marcus…Vir answering Moridin’s question, “What do you want?”…

Star Trek: The Next Generation has its moments of startling beauty, but you wouldn’t know it from the first season. Buffy is the same. Reading The Silmarillion is somewhere between sipping ambrosia and smashing your own eye sockets with a ball-peen hammer.

As artists, of course, we strive for both the bones and the polish, and there’s plenty out there that succeeds on both levels – stuff that’s deep and also easy to recommend, like Breaking BadAvatar: The Last AirbenderLittle Miss Sunshine, and Ender’s Game (the book, not the movie). Wonderful. Stand up and applaud.

Other stuff is just polish, with nothing much underneath. A lot of summer blockbusters are that way – munch your popcorn and forget. Nothing wrong with that either.

All I’m saying is, if you have reason to think a story might be great, don’t give up on it too quick. It may be awkward or boring or baffling at first, but brush off the dust. See what’s underneath. You might be surprised.

And if you get through the whole thing, and it still sucks, well…rant about it in a blog post.

2 responses to “Polish and Bones

  1. I grew up obsessed with Dark Shadows (an obsession which continues to this day). I’m pretty sure the special effects were cheesier, and the dialogue maybe farther over the top, than Babylon 5. I was, and am, fine with that.

    I enjoy the Cinemasins videos on YouTube, pointing out the plot holes and cliches in popular movies, but they’ve never made me like the movies any less.

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