16 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part 3

For Matt R. and Thomas D.

This final post on active (re)watchings of LOST has less to say and demonstrate than the previous posts, which were recently edited with minor changes and contain a few new links to short video clips. Reflecting on what has already been written, my treatment has been in the spirit of comparative literature and ancient religion. This isn't everyone's cup of tea.When my eye takes notice of a detail, phrase or word, I am often connecting or associating it with what has come before to me - either from my university coursework, independent studies, or lifelong empirical impressions. Is this tendency to reflect an inborn ability or learned? Does it alter what I perceive, changing one thing into another? Is it necessary to interpret what one sees to "understand" LOST?

There are no keys or rather, there are many a key to many a door. Entertainment is behind most doors and it is found to be cheap, high gloss, quick and easy to obtain. Pornography is the ultimate modern entertainment because it exemplifies all of these attributes to the highest degree. The Internet is its ultimate vehicle, and any book or article on the future of global connectivity rates increasing in the next few decades ought to point this fact out and devote a meager section to addressing it. Pornography however does not lend itself to multiple readings. Its function is to illicit a physical response of sexual stimulation for the viewer and no matter how well-crafted or "artistic" it is shot or produced, one is never brought beyond the boundary drawn by its closed narrative. See the failure of the vision of pornographer Jack Horner played by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Vision is occluded by the visual (Locke/Man-in-Black appearing as Locke). 

The above isn't critical interpretation, so much as common sense. If a piece of literature, film or television show instead of invoking a pleasure principle tries to address issues about the nature of knowing, the activity of human will in the world and our capability to love one another, then reading these pieces of art will be - couldn't be - otherwise than multiple and varied. I repeat, not in defense of my writing, but in supplication to the creators of all forms of art, that a closed reading is possible only if and when a form of entertainment is directly addressing the physical appetite alone. If there seems to be more, if there are passages, scenes, moments that cause you to feel or think otherwise, you are not watching from the realm of your body by itself. Your heart and your mind are also recognized, and that recognition must be responded to by an action that comes from you. I can at least say this essential thing and perhaps not much more about the division of the fandom over LOST.

I may have fallen prey to the three cardinal mistakes one can make when offering "help" to someone: Helping when help's not needed; Helping when it's just for one's own ends; Helping when you want good for another. Even if I have been given to all three or one, here however, is the final part of my soapbox stylings. One of my feet is already on the ground.

XLII. LOST as an unwieldy creation but merited achievement in its medium for our time & space

From my computer screen there is an article about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In light of the writing of these posts, already more than a few remarks have been made to me about the circumstances of the disappearance of this plane and the initial setup for LOST . I put aside the resemblance because it's only a joke. My piece has been to say "Some folk just had to go back." With kinder hearts placed before our words we'd express concern for the 239 passengers whose lives have temporarily vanished off the radar screens of our world. But the words of the news are taken almost just as literally as the details of an invented story for us. Making it into the butt of our jokes is an ample way of avoiding real conversation about the event or to cover the fact that one hasn't anything thoughtful to say about it. "Those people are really lost" is all one can truly say.

On another tab, I have an article written by Damon Lindelof for The Hollywood Reporter about the ending of Breaking Bad written in October of last year. He does something sincere in admitting that while he was sitting down to talk about his reaction to the end of the show, the end of his own show remained with him. Lindelof talks about an "unhealthy obsession" with his finale. He indicates that he can't help but mention the feeling he had while involved in the writing process, says he felt "alive." Writing LOST was an experience for him as much as it was for the viewers. The necessary distance he wants to give between the show he wrote and Vince Gilligan's series is impossible because of an unavoidable association between them. The comments below his article are as long of a meandering shallow stream of praising, bickering and everything in-between as any other example of "dialogue."

Here, in an interview with Lindelof conducted a year later by John Lagomarsino for "On The Verge" on his co-writing  of Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus, the focus shifts subtly. It becomes an honest and revealing conversation about his legacy of LOST, the finale, the fan reactions, all with references and examples given by Lindelof for the benefit of any viewers. Take a moment to view the 24-minute, 39-second clip if you haven't already.

The central point Lindelof makes is about impact. "Did you love The X-Files?" he asks John. John loved the show. "What did you think about the ending?" John cannot remember because "it was so long ago." Lindelof shows that he doesn't remember not because the ending was good or bad, but because it was not impactful. Lindelof reiterates a revealing statement he has made elsewhere about the arc of his show up until season 3. From that season's end forward, when there was a finite amount of episodes contractually agreed upon and the story lines were drawn out, all interviews and publications containing his and Cuse's answers to questions about the end of the show being solvency for the series mysteries would be, as predicted, sure to disappoint.

What is hard to say as a writer is that the most assured way of satisfying your audience is by touching them viscerally, in the body. Mind games have a short-lived appreciation once figured out and overly sympathetic or melodramatic performance is hard to bear. How you go about striking balance between the head, heart and hand is where interesting and compelling things are situated and where there lives some quality of a thing that all creators receive from since time immemorial. It makes them feel alive and it answers the ringing call of life by life's own voice. It's about the nature of being (ontology), and we aught to take up caution in our thoughts and actions to seriously consider what Geoffrey Hill's lament that "the greatest tragedy of the last 60 years has been the extinction of the ontological reader" means for us all, not just for poetry in English.

My lady and I watched the finale, and my last viewing of LOST has been completed.

Asked later what she thought, she said "I thought they'd take it in a different direction."


09 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part 2

Hello again. My last post took into consideration the circumstantial factors that went into bringing LOST to light. It also considered the personal experience of watching the show by this writer, who shared it with other viewers over the last 3 seasons. I continue my main proposal that by re-watching the series actively, one gains a new layer of interpretation and earns a critical re-appraisal of the show's structure, form and even fashions a skeleton key of sorts for all it's unanswered questions! Well, perhaps it won't go that far...

This post is dedicated to Alex K., who is looking for answers.

XVI. LOST as a novel-film that approaches/attempts to walk the seam between literature and the cinematic arts in the early 21st century

I began to compose notes once I started my second viewing of the series. I was motivated by the intensity of the reactions to the ending, because it was big. That was the question I needed to answer - why these equal extremes of disdainful hate and passionate praise? I was not so much left with a feeling of being cheated or having had been lead into a corner with Cuse and Lindelof's writing - indeed, as a student of literature I saw themes and familiar story lines that have graced pages under the nose of humanity for centuries. This was what was so perplexing: with decades of television at our fingertips and centuries of texts with recurrent relationships and forms of stories from numerous cultures available, what kept fans from seeing LOST in a disinterested way? It would certainly help lower one's blood pressure and give oneself an opportunity to develop some objectivity in hindsight.

This is when I made some lists. Being a fan of lists, I had no trouble utilizing one for the books. Every season there was a finite amount of books shown on the show. When a book appeared it was framed, the camera lingered, or a character even directly spoke about it and/or touched it. Our first example is Kate picking up a copy of Watership Down by Richard Adams on the beach among clothes. Sawyer emerges from his morning dip in the nude and proclaims "It's about bunnies!" I rather like his exclamation, because it's deceptive. Sawyer's still a hick, a character self-conscious of the appearance he has to the other survivors (as a way of keeping advantage & distance) but he's a reader too. This appearance of Book #1 is in the first episode we get of his flashbacks, episode 8, "Confidence Man," the title itself which can be taken as a literary reference to Herman Melville's novel of the same name. On the other hand, Sawyer's "commentary" on Watership Down could be a young man or woman's take on the entire book after it was assigned to read in school and they hadn't even opened the cover page by the time the book report was due. A different person, an attentive viewer, might ask about connections between the episode and the novel, that is, if one had indeed read the book or is in fact reading the book alongside the show. Very demanding, yes?

Books insinuate themselves throughout the series. Some books are only the titles of episodes, such as above, as with "Exodus","A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Little Prince." My list however was not comprised of those books, but of books handled by characters in frame. Some correspondences stood out: Dostoevsky is the only author on the list twice with The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground; Joseph Heller's Catch 22 is the only book to have appeared in an episode in which the book is also the episode's title; and Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle and Lancelot by Walker Percy are the only books to reappear together and with the original person who handled them: our reader, Sawyer.

There's something more to a facile list of books appearing on LOST. Each book has its own theme, narrative and many other structures which comprise its form. Each episode, each season and the whole series also has these very same things but to a higher degree of complexity and inter-relation. Plenty of shows don't even bother with displaying the reader and his relationship with books, but this is central to all literate human activity, and essential even to watching television. With television or screen narratives usurping a greater part of the attention that was once placed on the page, LOST's goal or moral modus operandi seems to be in hindsight to strike a visual balance between page/screen. One could argue further that the entire series is nothing more than an attempt at pushing viewers back upon themselves in some honest self-reflection. No wonder Sawyer's favorite television show is Little House on the Prairie.

LOST's writing was very successful in combining multiple genres to the delight and dismay of the public. It encompasses and pursues plot lines as a murder mystery, a science/fiction story, a tale of horror & suspense, an adventure, a psychological drama, even includes a buddy cop scenario, a hospital soap, a comedy, multiple romances and a few drug trips for good measure. All common forms of narrative over the past several hundred years of public reading since Gutenberg's printing press are covered. This range and multitude is staggering. The writers paced it out among characters for six seasons and that's quite an accomplishment with relatively few new inclusions. In doing so LOST becomes thinned out, strained and stretched too far on many occasions, and the ratings history reflect these changes. But I cannot find an example in television (perhaps only in Chris Carter's The X-Files or Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation) that approaches and attempts to walk this seam of literature and the cinematic arts in our present time as LOST does. To put it plainly, nothing on TV has tried to sum up our collective story making history as the web spun by LOST. In order to avoid any network or fandom disappointment, we might not see one again for awhile. The most successful television shows are formulaic, predictable, take few risks, make few changes in cast and character, depicting a continuity of setting, situation and style. Mutable forms are shunned or end up surrounded by "cult" followings, as this show has with those fans it hasn't lost and most likely will with new viewers in decades to come.

XXIII. LOST as a mythic-religious epic made of the eternally repeating archetypes that have been with humanity since before art, history or literature

I paused again after seeing the series a third time. I was caught up in taking notes and found myself needing to put them down to immerse myself in the feelings displayed by characters and my feelings of their inter-relationships. There was so much struggle, such stubbornness, a lot of humor, sadness beyond sadness, joys shot out of cannons like fireworks, injustice and cruelty - and those unanswered questions. To be sincere, my utmost unresolved mystery is the nature of the Horace/Jacob cabin. But when I just stayed with the show, really tried to put myself in the position of the characters, I had experiences that were transcendent of my own subjectivity. Great literature does this and the greatest stories have remained with us in the form of epic narratives. But to be one's own witness to this process with audial and visual stimuli is something one does not receive from pages, but from film and television. It is more likened to rituals and dances of older cultures. The imagination cannot paint the picture which words suggest, because that relationship is not present. On the screen before our eyes, it's all provided for. The imagination is thereby rendered inactive or non-participant in forming an impression. The responsibility of the creators becomes fundamentally important again.

Jerry Mander is correct in stating that the rigidity of television does not allow for it to be a democratic instrument in his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. The bandwidth is very narrow, and the Internet is really not much broader. Mander's concern is from a socially determined point of view. He believes that the content is a reduction and the constant slogans, advertising and programs have liquified any quality down to a nearly innutritious pulp. This then informs the way a person acts and behaves in the world. Can television provide something directly to and for a human being that does not make them more susceptible to such autocratic control? These concerns are still valid because the medium has not changed much at all (just picture quality, which is a factor of quantity, of pixels) and we're seemingly none the wiser despite Mad Men and any insight that show offers on the mechanics of advertising.

What could be valuable today is a television show which is self-referential about this potentially harmful influence. If it were to do this, the writers would need to cast a much wider net over their source material and likewise expose their viewers to a higher degree of philosophical and ethical problems which would also be present in the show. Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Berkeley, Bentham - the names are there and the true owners of these signifiers were writers and thinkers orbiting the social transformation of the Enlightenment. It was one of the first things I picked up on when I began the show and if any freshman in a liberal arts college was also watching the first season, she would too.

So what do we do with this? It's a cud to chew on for the first few seasons and then we start getting this Jacob character, Richard Alpert, Hawking, Faraday, Lewis, Dogen. More names and more associations - now spiritual, now scientific. The names do two things for us: they give us a real world anchor in whatever region the show's narrative structure has moved into and paradoxically pushes us out of the show and into discussion when the show's episode has ended. This works on the viewer much like the literary references. Even before literature was written down and disseminated by symbols, the issues which are brought up because of the names and the ideas surrounding them were passed down in oral traditions which graced or continue to grace all cultures the world over as mythology. As a commentary on how our society continues to think about and act out the results of our current linear events, LOST succeeds in isolating the main arguments: fate, destiny, free will, determinism, sacrifice, forgiveness, remembrance of the dead, and self-awareness. The last is distinctly Eastern in its origins, and ever since we see a bagua with the word "DHARMA" inside of it at the Swan Station, the correlations and differences between our world's two dominant hemispheres of civilization are also brought together.

The stories are always the same: the lovers whose love is unrequited; the genius whose downfall is his own ingenuity; the outcast whose true place is in the center of all activity - these archetypes play out the philosophical and ethical quandaries which have plagued and continue to plague the whole of history. Reconciliation of the opposites and establishing growth instead of degradation are the oldest narratives these archetypes play/live within. Jacob and his brother's roles are that of the narrative maker (the tapestry) and the game player (the Senet board). All the initial problems are shown as clear as that island light in "Across the Sea." At the end of the series LOST makes room for the utmost expression: that of the principal of renewal (or grace) which responds to the causes (or gravity) of the creation of the universe. Renewal and return to the source lies in the seedbed of all religious and mythic teachings. Giving of one's Self without seeking reward is the surest path toward this renewal (Jack) and doing so until one's physical death means putting your Self in the shoes of the Other (Hurley). Transcendence is the only true end which justifies the means of one's experience - all else is folly, as Joseph Campbell and the early 20th century mythologists taught (who do not go unaccounted for as an influence upon the writers c.f. the special features of S6 on DVD or Blu-ray). Take particular notice how many times the word "experience" is uttered in Season 6 and by whom. The game only ends once, but it is played by and through many.

What a massive undertaking of a storyline crafted in a post-9/11, war-plagued and severely dialogue-deprived world at the end of the first decade of the 21st century! What happens when we take into our hearts and cogitate with our minds the implications of such a narrative with such a deep focus? The way we live our lives may even be impacted by such force and resonance with this strange substance LOST leaves behind. It might even be the kind of television that need not be eliminated. Wait - can such a story be eliminated? Rituals, dances and rites of initiation tell the story of origins and actually inscribe these on flesh or in the memory - as if one inhabits but for a moment, that real space where all live eternally.

End of Part II

04 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part I

To post a brief interlude from my current train of thought on education and the question of reading our Western tradition in light of the present, I give you Part 1 of an article bridging quite a unique gap between today and March of 2011. It was then that I wrote this article highlighting the differences and strange similarities between the forms in the narrative structure of Rene Daumal's Mount Analogue and the television show created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof (the latter who then continued to spearhead the show's direction with Carlton Cuse). This new post culminates after years of study and note-taking during re-watches of LOST that concerned friends & loved ones who sat down with me have witnessed. May their care for my mental well-being be either rightfully justified or pleasantly relieved by my writing below.

IV. The numbers

I'm finishing up my fourth time watching LOST in toto. The number four is a number of beginning. 4 lines create a square, 4 appendages of the human being, and 4 is the first numeral in the sequence synonymous with the series, which I've discovered is painted in white on a shutter off 2nd Avenue and 14th St last night in the East Village. It was strange, amusing and also telling, "pushing" me on in a way to write this article. Here is a photo of the sequence:

As viewers we come to know each candidate for Jacob's position was allotted a number. Four is John Locke's number. As the episodes of the final season become increasingly intense, full of steadily rising risks, attacks & counter-attacks, revealing plot advances made both on the island and in "the City of Angels," one simultaneously comes to the end and the beginning. As Jin states to Sawyer in Season 6, "that thing is not John Locke," and one character's end has dovetailed into another's (re)birth when Ajira Flight 316 doesn't make it to Guam. 

Locke is number 4. A square without one of its lines is a triangle, or 3. Flight 815 and Flight 316 are uniquely different. Eloise Hawking said to Jack in Season 5 that if the conditions weren't exactly reproduced for their return to the island, the outcome would be "unpredictable." We see that only one number of the sequence is represented in the flight designation - it is off or lopsided. 3 is not 4, and "the Man in Black" is not Locke. The above is an example of critical interpretation which shows through the writing Locke's replacement before the MiB's masquerade is revealed at the end of the season.

Not every answer which is given by the writers either outright, subtly with "easter eggs" or in the minute details of dialogue, can be divined this way. Much was discovered by the writers themselves as they wrote. This completely disagrees with what some might call a binding contract between the creators and the viewers to be omniscient in their roles, but there it is in the link from an interview with Cuse and Lindelof in 2008. A lot more has to be reasoned and turned over on one's own or with others in open discussion, as one would in a college course or in a voluntary book club. The record of the enjoyment fans took away with them while they spoke to each other as the show was airing remains on The Fuselage, on the special features of the DVDs & Blu-Ray copies, and on assorted pages of the Internet.

However, when our own experience shows that there is a lie in the statement that democratic conversation over the Internet is one of its inherent virtues, we cannot be fooled. As I mention in my post from 2011, the dividing line between fans as to the resolution of the series is a wide and deep gulf. My proposal below suggests a different avenue to understanding what happened (or happens) in the experience of watching this landmark television series. If you have left those discussion boards far behind, know that I don't intend on sending you back to them - they are almost totally inactive anyhow!

VIII. Active watching

I propose here that to appreciate the structure and form of LOST, one must at least make it through 4 active watchings. If it is of any merit to devote the 348 hours (or two solid weeks of one's life) by watching the series four times over, it can't be done passively, or, without one's attention upon the way the show is over the way the show could have been. This is not to say that it can always be watched actively. Viewing the series 4 times ensures that the character arcs and plots are known in detail, key dialogue exchanges are known word for word and the function of each season which displays the form of the series is known to the intellect itself, i.e. without having to refer to Lostpedia via Google, etc.

Some details can and will be forgotten - these details are where we take into consideration the lack of a finer energy or power of the story to impress itself upon us. These are places where we can make a critical statement about the quality of the writing. However, each watching can and would ideally give a person enough time and opportunity to enjoy the series, give the series its proper attention, work through their own subjective biases and allow for finer points of focus to come to light, so that what is valuable about the show can shine for itself. One watches and listens and changes one's own faculty of those senses - each time, a new paradigm in a sound that went unnoticed or a scene that finally made some sense in its relationship to the whole. 

The nature of the construction of the series, with its discontinuous narrative and abrupt sea changes, demands that one must pay attention. Otherwise, you're bemused, confused, frustrated and rationalizing your own feelings upon the construction. Why this and not this!?!? LOST wasn't farted out of one person - it was breathed into life from the mouths and minds of a writing staff that pulled from a myriad of sources and influences, both autobiographical (i.e. experiential) and via their own critical readings of other texts, shows, histories, etc. The strong fan base that grew and changed also spoke directly to the writers and influenced the very shape of the show. Even if you didn't participate in that collective voice, you can still benefit from creating your own inner commentary on LOST. An outline of each proposed viewing with a possible focus for your active watching could look like this:

XV. LOST as an ABC television series airing from 2004-2010 in a primetime slot

Taken into consideration, LOST came onto television during a tough time for its network and in a changing landscape for shows running on regular networks. The success of HBO, Showtime and other cable networks to raise unprecedented viewer ratings and collect many a statue at award ceremonies had ABC (the number 4 network at the time) pining for renewal. The unlikely story seems to be covered recently by another more succinct writer than myself, Alan Sepinwall, in his new book The Revolution Was Televised. An excerpt from his book on LOST's inception and first season can be read here. Damon Lindelof's mental and emotional instability as he took on the brunt of the responsibility for the show should be noted, as the title of the article suggests.

As for my own approach to the show, the first three seasons on DVD were brought before me by Matthew Thomas Ross of Portland, Oregon's Neighborhood Films in 2007. The fourth season was about to premiere and I had just entered a period of concentrated, intentional absence from university. I was reading books I wanted to read, writing poetry rather than papers, walking in the forest, enjoying every sip of tea, and letting what came to me attain my acceptance. And so, having not been involved in watching a television show regularly in quite some time, I was interested by Matt's description of the show and tentatively took up my first viewing. I have Matt to thank for every time I watch, feel, think or write about LOST. After the end of Season 1, I was completely engaged and wished to commit to the other two seasons before the first episode of Season 4. It was a marathon: 3 seasons in 2 weeks.

Thenceforward, having avoided the hoopla of time-slot changes by ABC (but not the Writer's Strike to come) I took a seat with Matt and other fellow Losties each night a new episode was aired. We all nursed theories over the "mysteries" of the show. I followed the details and thin threads as close as anyone could, and read much more into them than was probably there. What shined brightest though were the characterizations and the evolutions of the exercise (or withholding) of emotions, thoughts and will power on the island. Even unto this day where the last episode awaits my lady and I, who has yet to see "The End" either to her satisfaction or disappointment, it's the characters and their relationships that cause stirrings from my heart to well-up and out of me in the form of laughter, anger - or tears. Imagining, empathizing with, or responding to their situations of love, fear, betrayal, surprise, are all activities that require no critical acumen or learned insight to appreciate. This is the basis of all further appreciation, and I return to it comfortably after either championing the series or voicing my misgivings.

End of Part I


My photo
Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening