Monday, June 2, 2008

The Vortex and its Wrangling

Check out some of the prose in this appreciation of the hugely mediocre LOST, by Times TV Critic, Gina Bellafonte.
Good dramas confound our expectations, but “Lost,” about a factionalized group of plane crash survivors on a cartographically indeterminate island not anything like Aruba, pushes further, destabilizing the ground on which those expectations might be built. It is an opiate, and like all opiates, it produces its own masochistic delirium.  With this season truncated by the writers’ strike, “Lost” has quickened its pace and wrangled us deep into the vortex of its revelations
On no level does this work. ("Wrangled us deep into the vortex"!?!)   It’s murkily written, rhetorically obfuscating, and laughably pretentious. It sounds like it was written for an undergrad class on "Understanding Media" by someone who's stayed up all night reading Roland Barthes. But then, if you're going to write with any degree of rigor and intellectual honesty you're not going to have a chance in hell of defending "Lost" --that endless shell game of unkept narrative promises.


Cartooniste said...

good god, i absolutely agree. i keep watching "lost" purely because i am so nostalgic for season two, when all we did was run around discovering new hatches and finding things about about the dharma initiative. WHY did we get away from the dharma initiative? i hate them.

Seb said...

You and I have vastly different tastes, my friend.

Seb said...

I should qualify: when it comes to television. Is there a single show we both like?

Seb said...

I'm sorry. Let me back up a half-step:

But then, if you're going to write with any degree of rigor and intellectual honesty you're not going to have a chance in hell of defending "Lost" --that endless shell game of unkept narrative promises.

Wait - I'm sorry. Did you just use the phrase "intellectual honesty" with reference to a show about supernatural events?

Your invective on the subject of this show, which I admit has been uneven, especially in the first two seasons, provokes a sincere temptation in me to resort to bombastic language of my own.

This bit -

It’s murkily written, rhetorically obfuscating, and laughably pretentious.

- is a bit like watching planet irony and planet hyperbole collide.

Not everybody derives satisfaction from entertainment on an intellectual or rhetorical level. I would argue the reverse, if anything. Good entertainment, to me, invokes what Campbell and certain ethologists call "sign stimuli" - symbols that move us, and the reaction to these images is in no way intellectual, but physical. I've been planning to email you and several others a relevant bit from Masks of God, but here I just can't help myself.

Yes, I tired of the shell-game. Yes, the ham-fisted direction got to me more than once. Unlike Cartooniste, who loved the second season, I damn near stopped watching the show there. And we're still finding out about the Dharma Initiative!

If the show is not to your tastes, I can accept that. The polemic sticks in my craw. I have never offered my opinion of Seinfeld in your presence, that I can recall, and there is a reason for that: I cannot bring myself to be remotely polite about the subject.

A good TV show draws me in and gets me to care about its characters. Lost, despite its many failings, somehow managed that with me. In the middle of the season 4 finale, a character you particularly despise jumps from a helicopter so that the others aboard might live. Fiona asked me why he would do such a thing, and I explained to her that it is the nicest thing anyone can do for anyone else. And then, for no reason I can discern, I burst into tears.

Over Lost. Now, I don't know why you watch television, but to say a show possesses the ability to provoke an emotional reaction of that intensity from me is the highest compliment I can pay to the medium.

It's a sign stimulus, sacrifice. I respond, and I don't know why. Only in the 21st century has this phenomenon started to receive rigorous empirical study, even though certain philosophers and philosophically inclined scientists have suspected its presence and its power for decades and more.

The last I heard, you stopped watching the show in the first season. I don't blame you.

But this is one of the very few shows that Angela and I can watch together and enjoy. I very much doubt that we could explain with rigorous intellectual honesty why we like it, any more than my dog Annie could tell you why she likes to play fetch. And I don't see why we should have to. The Ancient Greeks viewed the catharsis of tragedy as a religious experience: picking apart the logic or rhetorical style of Oedipus Rex is like complaining that the myth of Midas serves no purpose because clearly no one ever transmuted food into gold merely by touching it.

Le Chat said...

I'm confused - I thought the screed was primarily regarding the poor writing of the NYT review, secondarily about the actual quality of Lost, particularly the quote that Seb used. However, the tone of the post did cause me to wonder if someone possibly got up on the wrong side of the bed?

Mr. Guapo said...

Well, Seb, I wouldn't dispute your right to like the show, and I don't think I was. Nor do you have to justify your enjoyment. Clearly you're not alone; the show gets good enough ratings to have continued for four seasons. It must be doing something right.

However, I do think it's useful, as an artist/critic, to try and identify, deconstruct, tease out--whatever verb you want to use--what it is in pieces of art that either does or does not excite admiration. (Given that I'm trying, as a writer, to excite a similar admiration in others). It's not all that interesting for me to say "Lost doesn't do anything for me." It is useful (though maybe not interesting) for me to explain how and why I find it lacking.

It's also why I find it useful to try and appreciate art that might not do much for me on first viewing. Because maybe I'm missing something--maybe the admiration and joy an artwork inspires in others COULD inspire the same in me, if I did something different. Paid more attention...watched/read it differently.

You say that emotional signs/acts have universal power; that may be true. If it is, though, then any TV show/artwork can just resort to those acts and an audience will respond. I don't think this is the case--"Lost" must have more going for it than that. But I don't know.

The point is, really, that I'm not asking you to justify your admiration for the show. Nor do I think you should be personally offended--as you seem to be--by the general weariness it provokes in me. Go on all you want about your hatred of "Seinfeld." I'd like to hear what you have to say. Certainly I'm not going to feel personally offended.

My point, regarding the prose of the article, was that its rhetorical murkiness reflected the murkiness, structurally, of the show. I thought it was telling that the critic had to twist herself into such syntactic/linguistic knots in order to praise the show. That's all.

JMW said...

I liked this post, and Seb's response. Does that mean my head should explode? I like the got-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed tone, because that writing deserves it. Wranging into a vortex, indeed. Likewise, without ever having seen it for a sustained amount of time, I feel like my reaction to Lost would be similar.

That said, Seb says compelling things, too. Plus, I like the idea of blurbing a TV show by saying, "It's as inexplicably fun as playing fetch!"

Seb said...

Guap -

First of all, I am deeply grateful that you did not take my head-exploding disaster of a post personally. That I took your remark so personally is instructive to me; I care very deeply what you think of me, and I sometimes (but not always) compare myself to you and find myself wanting.

If I conveyed the impression that sign stimuli are universal, I have miscommunicated (easily done while ranting at 3 AM). Human beings are far more complex than, say, the birds in whom sign stimuli were first observed.

What moves me will not necessarily move you - though, were you to watch the scene I described, you might understand me a little better, or such is my hypothesis. But I know you are familiar with what I mean. Sometimes a song, an image, or a story will provoke a physical reaction in the observer. Take, for example, "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town"; something in me responds to this song in a way that is neither wholly emotional nor wholly rational, though it is perhaps describable in rational terms. The quote at the top of your blog is my point of reference. When I read it, every time I read it, I have a strange sense of belonging. The irony of that sense is not lost on me, given the lyrics and tone of that song (and, indeed, the whole album; " I should like that...").

Critics of Campbell often (mistakenly, I suggest) suppose he means there is only one common root of all sign stimulus in humans. Perhaps that is what he meant in the Fifties, writing Masks of God, but it seems clear to me that his perspective matured with time rather than regressing into the cookie-cutter, bed of Procrustes set of archetypes he is sometimes accused of presenting.

So, to nod to LeChat, as dazzling in intellect as she is in every other way (and it is unfair, you know, to us mere mortals, O Cat: not that you belittle us with your sinuous elegance, for you elevate us, but that you leave), I took the ambiguity in your (guap)'s post and exploited it ruthlessly. I have no reason to disagree with your assessment of the reviewer's breathless and overheated, to steal a phrase from you, to say nothing of purple, leprous, and contorted prose. I took issue with your dismissal of the show, as you clearly realized.

So to return to your much cooler analysis, I would suggest a mythological analogy, as I am Seb, after all. That Lost fails, and fails spectacularly, many times over, is a matter to me beyond serious dispute. As I observed to the B(s)-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and as perhaps you recall, at its worst Lost resembles a billowing fireball of a trainwreck with fatalities in the double digits. But I contend to you Sieur, more honored in my imagination than perhaps you shall ever fully realize, that Lost fails greatly in precise proportion to its grandiose ambitions. Time and again, the show attempts to invoke the impact of which Campbell writes, which he calls the central power of Art in all its myriad forms. More often than not it fails. I cannot, however, fault it for trying so many times because amid the dross are moments of stunning impact; this is what I have found. If you are the Doc Holliday of the 21st Century, and you surely are, then perhaps I am William Munny, vicious and intemperate, or merely the star-struck Scofield Kid; and if The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Wire are Daedalus, artists by whose invention our collective breath is stolen, then Lost is Icarus, drunk with ambition, daring ludicrously, and perhaps doomed to epic failure. I ask you to consider, then, Icarus at the summit of his flight, joyful, uninhibited, and blissfully ignorant of his impending fate.

Johannes said...

Good Lord, you guys.

I'm posting this while sucking my thumb and rocking in a corner.

Didn't anyone like the polar bears? I mean, polar bears are cool, right? And what are they doing on a tropical island? Eh? Ehhhhh? Grrrr.{resumes thumb rocking}

Cartooniste said...

Johannes, though meant to be joking your post nevertheless approaches what is, to me, the central frustration of the program. The characters are compelling to be sure, and I will watch Matthew Fox do anything (tax forms? tooth brushing?) and pay good money for it. My issue with the program is its failure of structure. The signal pleasure of an alternative universe such as that created by a compelling work of fiction lies in its ability to lure you into trying to discover its limitations. This is why a "deus ex machina" plot solution is inherently unsatisfying- it robs us of the pleasure of learning how the rules work in this imaginary space. That there are polar bears on a tropical island instantly signals that whatever rules there are, are not our own. Ditto an airplane from Africa, or a series of secret early eighties experimental stations. However, the writing of the program has not kept control of the rules of the alternate universe. The same thing happened when "The X-Files" started to pull apart at the seams. The pleasure there was that there was a structure, and we could gather clues to learn the structure's boundaries. But as the narrative expanded and control was lost the boundaries slipped away. Soon anything at all could be the case. One anything at all could be the case, there are essentially no rules anymore, and so no more reason to sustain belief in the alternate universe. We demand- we require!- constraint on our actions or else the actions are not believable. And I fear that "Lost" has passed the point of constraint.

Seb said...

Well, cartooniste, with deepest respect, I confess I find your remarks strange indeed. The biggest mysteries of the Island were introduced in the first two episodes of Season 1. We have come only a bit closer to understanding the rules of this alternate universe, but that is one reason Angela still watches the show.

Angela is a script-doctor par excellence. When we first started dating, I had to keep reminding her that simply because she could predict the ending of a movie after watching the first ten minutes did not mean I wanted to know what she had already discerned. Angela rubs elbows with the show's most obsessive fans without quite becoming one herself, and is delighted that she cannot predict more than the next line of dialogue. Even I can do that.

My perception of the show, having gone through fascination to contempt back 'round again to zeal, is that we continue to learn more about the rules of the universe of the show. That we do not know these rules and have never been on terra firma is part of the program's appeal. Meanwhile, new characters add depth to this fantastic universe: the enigmatic Juliet, the gifted and sarcastic Miles, the I'm-going-to-kill-her-or-I'm-beginning-to-like-her Charlotte, and Benjamin Linus (surely one of the most entertaining, complex, and frustrating villains in the history of television). And they have done so all along. Dan Farraday explained more than a little, and bit by pit certain pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.

As much as I like the character of Jack, Matthew Fox seems to me one of the weaker links in a very strong cast: Naveen Andrews, Terry O'Quinn, Elizabeth Mitchell, Michael Emerson, and Yunjin Kim, whose role was invented just to keep the actress... and others such as Jorge Garcia and Daniel Dae Kim who have shown astonishing range.

In the end, I find the show's universe runs counter to our expectations: we begin with the passengers, in a word, lost, and fumble our way toward meaning. Risky? Yes. Sometimes it fails abysmally. But its high points are worth the wait, especially to an escapist such as myself, and I am glad to be alive to have seen them.

Anonymous said...

Cartooniste says it all, I think--or at least says all that I think about the show. I was going to mention X-Files, earlier, C; I'm glad you brought it up.

I think the problem is that episodic TV is generally not designed with the idea of a set number of shows, or hours, in mind. The writers therefore don't really know how big to make the structure; they don't know how long it has to keep going. What ends up happening is that at some point a show gets successful and what was originally a smallish metanarrative has to be glommed onto. But because the new material is not part of the original structure, it doesn't cohere.

I don't know if this is what happened with "Lost"; from what I remember reading about the show, its creators have intended it to be a seven-season arc from the start. But I completely agree that its structure long ago ceased to be in any way coherent. It seems as if its central means of generating interest in the viewer is to invert and surprise. So that, every time we think something is a certain way, a new character or wrinkle is introduced and: voila--it's not that way at all. Its fans see this endless novelty as exciting and expansive. I think it's kind of a cheap trick--and ultimately, pretty damn cynical. It's incredibly easy to keep introducing new wrinkles; what's hard is to create, as C notes, an alternate universe with its own rules which somehow hangs together.

Great, or even good art, should be at the same time intuitive and surprising; it has to walk a boundary between being so predictable that it bores us (because there are no surprises) and so "surprising" that it...well, also bores us. If there is no coherence, no order, then why am I watching? I can find chaos and random events in my everyday life. What we want from art is the illusion--because it probably is only illusion--that if we pay close enough attention we will find, in experience, some deeper structures. I don't suggest that those structures should be as regular and obvious as geometric shapes (this is one of the great flaws of most sitcoms; the structures are so obvious as to seem ridiculous, false in every way to lived experience). But there must be some coherence. Seb, you seem to say that the point of Lost is not coherence, that it's after something bigger. I guess I just don't think you can have one without the other.


Seb said...

If I've said coherence is not the point of Lost, again, I've failed to convey the idea. From what I've heard, Abrams, Lindelof, and Cuse were only able to sell the idea of the show on the basis of a pre-plotted 6-season arc. Lynch tried to propel Twin Peaks as a perpetual mystery - we were never meant to know who killed Laura Palmer. The network demanded otherwise, both sides felt very badly burned, and the outcome was, despite moments of brilliance in the supernatural arc and one hell of a series finale, disastrous. Nobody wanted to repeat that mistake, I think.

I don't see the complexity of the show's characters as a cheap and cynical trick. Ben, whom I want to hate but cannot, not fully, and Juliet, whom I want to love, but cannot, not fully, seem like characters with depth. They are hard to predict because they defy formulaic patterns. But by the same token, characters such as Sayid, Sawyer, Locke, and Hurley are intuitively recognizable. Drawn from archetypes - the Hunter, the Trickster, the Magician, and the Big Brother - they provide us (or me, at least) a basis for relating to the show's alternate universe. Inversion and surprise are an oft-used ploy in the writers' bag of tricks, but familiarity is summoned just as often, not always deftly, but conjured all the same. Ah! Hurley - we know thee well... and you we can trust, if none other. Sawyer, your suffering, your alienation, is mine. Rose, Sun, Claire, tripartite goddess, by turns you are our mothers, our wives, our children. Locke - goddamn you and your blind faith!

I do find coherence in Lost, but I don't always like the coherence it provides. I'd much rather What Kate Did had remained a mystery. I was much happier before the Hatch (now known as the Swan) was opened, and my dismay at finding it occupied very nearly threw me from engagement with the show. Instead, I find that the writing has been consistently stronger as the show has matured, and I am very grateful for that. The Island is a character in itself, and like the gods of old, has unseen plans, miraculous powers, and strange desires. Watching those plans unfold and learning some of its mysteries has provided me with a great deal of pleasure, though I hope in the end it remains ineffable at its core. The best myths can only point to something beyond rational description. I have to fall back on Campbell quoting Housman, which I cannot even paraphrase without doing it justice, but I can say this much: a story can be nothing more than a story and be a thing of surpassing beauty, but true myths are neither falsehoods nor mere relations of characters and events. What I like in Lost is something I can only call the elements of modern myth - a remarkably audacious goal for television, but one I find laudable simply for the fact of making the attempt.

Seb said...

which I cannot even paraphrase without doing it justice

Don't drink too much coffee and post. This should read, "which I cannot even paraphrase and do it justice."

Seb said...

One thing more: guap, I think you do the show's structure a disservice, perhaps because you have not followed its narrative thread very far. Desmond's and Farraday's temporal loopbacks and Charlotte's and Ben's intimations of space-time displacement seem to my stunted perception to fit, mosaic-like, into the pattern of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-we-don't-know-just-yets. I'm seeing a growing coherence where you and the revered cartooniste see dissolution. It's not enough to cry, "I am not alone!" A review of Maher's Religulous trailer points up the folly of such a position. Perhaps it is that my tastes are less refined?