Archive for LOST

Things Strange: The Nostalgic Dungeon Master of Stranger Things

Posted in criticism, movies, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,

Before you read this, watch ‘Stranger Things’. Watch it immediately.

Do not let anyone (like me) spoil anything about the story. Do not let anyone (like me) say cute lines from it that you will then be waiting to hear uttered by some character in some scene or other. Don’t read supplementary articles (like this very one) talking up its themes or hidden references or whatever. Avoid the AV Club. Don’t even ask anyone if it’s good (it is).

Just watch.

Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.

I’ll see you on the other side.

*     *     *

The zeitgeist is funny.  It can speed along so swiftly.  What one moment was a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise.  But then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack.  And this has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet.  Once one of these kinds of entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great.  They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.

It’s strange.  It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

Because in the mere two months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (July 15th), Stranger Things has already lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle.  From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job.  And, what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows – arguably more acutely than any other – is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters can reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scruitiny.  Because Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST.  It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files.  The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day.  It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without changing a single frame.  It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.

For my part, I loved it.

And for once – for perhaps the first time in living history – I was in on the ground floor.  I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and happily got to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show.  Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out.  Before people began quoting things in their facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.

It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback.  Some forgotten film from the eighties I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that had been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm.  I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed play.  Five minutes later I knew I was going to follow that show wherever it led.

It was sumptuous and lean and wry.  It’s characters layered and fully fleshed.  It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore.  And it deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.

On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers.  It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can dangerous liars with malicious agendas.  On the level of the teenager characters, it was a monster flick.  Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence, like peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat.  For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.

And for eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until colliding in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, setting all of these narratives in motion.

I thought it was splendid.  Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.

Little did I realise that I was wrong.  And the show was bad.  And that my nostalgia had been exploited.  Thankfully I had critics like Film Crit Hulk, who are sick and tired of the adulation that this show has received over the past few weeks, to set me straight.

Because didn’t you know it was riddled with nonsensical creative decisions?  Like, didn’t you realise it was silly of the show to linger on the moment where the towns people think they have discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death?  Well, it was.  Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out that the show was dumb for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died.  …Even though what was actually being depicting was the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen.  Also, at this point in the narrative, in truth, we really don’t know what is going on with the boy – he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit.  But never mind all that.  Because didn’t you also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into it instead of scurrying away in fright is totally unrealistic?  …Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc.  Because never mind that either.  And surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened.  …Even though his character has been repeatedly established to have an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment.  Nope.  Never mind that too.  Despite all of these things arguably making sense, be assured that none of them make sense.  Because reasons.  Because shows have to behave in the predetermined ways that Film Crit Hulk has decided.

So bad show is bad.

(And yes, that’s Film Crit Hulk.  The same guy who furiously defended the lazy, racist nihilism of the Mass Effect ending because he had head-cannoned over its garbled script with a pseudo-philosophy about the cyclical nature of existence.  Who disliked The Dark Knight Rises because he was convinced a distraught Christopher Nolan, still mourning the death of Heath Ledger, had been dragged against his will through the writing and filming process.  Suddenly now an audience projecting anything into its experience of a text – nostalgia; an awareness of hackneyed narrative conventions – is a sign of the text’s weakness, and the audience’s poor, sad foolishness for buying into all this malarkey.)

The show trades in nostalgia, he complains.  It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps.  It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others.  On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand.  And somehow all of this is outrageous – as if it has never happened in cinema before.  …Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.

And that, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically.  His is by no means the only negative review.  His scathing reaction against the validity of the show in particular just strikes me as representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected.  Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic (at this point I would strenuously argue that the all-caps affectation is decidedly not one of them), his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a text.  Nor, I should add, should it be.

Criticism is an act of intimate engagement with a work of art, an interplay between audience and text.  Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the experience.  It is that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft.  It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers – creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things – employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their audience.

Because despite what its detractors claim, the eighties aesthetic and storytelling Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing.  It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot.  It’s an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity proves to be key to its purpose.  It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.

To begin with, there’s a lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things – a show that you can view alone on a streaming service that enables you to avoid speaking to anyone outside of your house – evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio.  It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it.  Just so someone you know can go on that journey with you.

More significantly, however, there is the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar.  Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps haughtily dismiss) is the most abiding narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling.  The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons.  The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a session of the game; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their campaign.  In between, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the D&D shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised though the rules of teamwork that govern the game; and the creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).

Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations – treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. – and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that you never perceived before, or that were never previously present.  By inviting the audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new.  Done well, it creates an experience, in the process of upending these conventions, more than the sum of its parts.

And that it precisely what Stranger Things, by touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, presents.  The series itself operates as a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed douchebag boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant.  So, fun!

And in perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast to whom she is warming to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life.  And even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Back in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.

All these things – these rote, familiar things – are appropriated and made strange.  And in so doing the show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself.  In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges.  Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’.  It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow.  It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you have not been steeped in texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.

But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly.  About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be.  It is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself – in either the world or the narrative.  With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts.  The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap.  The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world.  With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.

Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting these tired conventions, astounds.  But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone.  That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity.  Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in the show.  And that’s fine.  Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience at one.  Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience.  And as the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.

Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Secrets Revealed!: Lost Poem of Coleridge

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 13, 2016 by drayfish

LOST wheel

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an extraordinary poet.  Alongside William Wordsworth, he was one of the founders of the English Romantic movement, producing exquisite works like ‘Frost At Midnight’ and ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.  Sadly, it is also part of his legacy that he was negatively impacted by a crippling addiction to opium.  Whether the story is apocryphal or not, it is said that one of his most famous poems, ‘Kubla Khan’ was both the product of a drug-induced vision, and was unable to be completed due to the debilitating effects of his usage.

What is less well known is that Coleridge was also huge fan of binge watching high concept serialised genre fare.  So even though he died in 1834, technically before the term ‘water-cooler television’ was ever uttered, he somehow managed to write the following reflection upon ABC’s sci-fi/supernatural/drama series, LOST. 

I know.  Weird, right?

Thus, I now present this completely real and not made up work for the first time in history:

Dharma Da
Or, ‘Six Seasons In A Dream.’
(A Fragment.)

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

To ‘purgatory’ plunged the flight
Of Oceanic eight one five,
Toward an island built, it seemed,
From maddened, nonsense fever dreams,
And the Twilight Zone archive.
And so six seasons came to falter
Sacrificed upon an altar
That worshiped vapid mystery boxes,
Of stall, delay and plot regressions,
Where mysticism was sour and noxious,
And characters ne’er answer simple questions.

But oh! That ceaseless hope of revelation,
A reason to the tangents, jumps and asides!
Smoke monsters, polar bears, and Dharma stations,
An entire season where they went back in time,
And lazy ‘twist’ character suicides!
That iced wagon wheel of space vortex jumping,
The ghostly cabin where Jacob was slumping,
Egyptian statues with only four toes,
Was Hurley hiding a stash of Ho Hos?
The hatches, the numbers, the hieroglyphs,
Astrophysical dimensional shifts!
And ‘mid this tumult came the writers’ assurance
Reward awaited every fans’ endurance,
Even for those who liked Nicki and Paulo.*
But six meandering years: for a dumb fist fight,
Some faked up church to greet eternal night,
And all to stuff a cork in a magic grotto.
Scarce wonder the fans, with gnashed teeth and scorn
Enflamed the internet the following morn!

No Sherlock for their witless Watson,
They wept that such a fertile tale
Adrift amongst pretentious flotsam
Had left a corpse so trite and stale:
From fuel for weekly water cooler rants
To synonym for ‘fly by seat of pants’.

A boy called Walt with psychic powers
Once unknowingly foretold:
The let-down of the following hours
The ripening set-ups left to sour
When the actor got to old.
This nonpareil ‘chosen’ one,
The Others sought obsessively
Suddenly bundled on a boat and gone
The day he’d entered puberty.
For just as Walt was painted off
The writer’s ‘plan’! their grand canvas!
Those ‘truths’ that kept the plot aloft
Mumbled away with no payoff,
Reassured by Cuse and Lindeloff
That truly it was always thus:
There ne’er was need for explanation,
T’was the ‘journey’ now, not ‘destination’,
As soon t’would be in Prometheus

* No one liked Nicki and Paulo

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(Another of Coleridge’s works, ‘Christabreaking Bad’ does not survive in its entirety.)

Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns

Posted in television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2014 by drayfish

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IMAGE: The Cast of LOST, season one (ABC)

It’s been ten years since LOST burst onto our televisions screens making bold promises that its writers now admit they never intended to keep.

I don’t say that to be a jerk or get pissy about it; that is literally what the showrunners, Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, have themselves described in several interviews and statements in the years since the show’s controversial conclusion. It was the very point of the show, apparently. For them, LOST was always a narrative about people searching for meaning. And searching – as the narrative went on to prove – is very different from discovering. Searching, for example, doesn’t necessitate that anyone actually finds the answers they seek.

This past month I wrote a long, convoluted article about the ending of LOST (because the world needs more of those, right?) for the PopMatters journal. You can read it here. Weirdly, despite being decade-old news, it seemed the thing to do. The ending of How I Met Your Mother was foremost in pop culture’s communal consciousness (and went on to provoke a good deal of audience dissatisfaction itself*), and the creators of LOST had just appeared at the Paley Centre to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the their show, once again referencing their controversial conclusion as the definitive statement that they wanted to make, even if in their opinion it still appears to be misunderstood.

It all got me thinking. Firstly, about what it is that makes the ending of LOST so controversial – why it still enflames audiences, for and against it, even now. Plenty of shows have ended poorly, and yet the ending of LOST still remains the punching bag of narrative letdowns. Meanwhile, it’s by no means universally despised: it has quite a vocal group of supporters who cannot themselves see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s the Vegemite of television: there are those who love it, who will never understand those who don’t; while those who despise it, who will stare in bafflement at anyone that could find it edible. I guess I wanted to know what was in the ingredients.

Secondly, I was curious to understand why one of its creators, Damon Lindeloff, seems intent on repeatedly revisiting this argument – in the reviews he writes about other programs and films; in his (now defunct) Twitter account; in interviews – almost as though he legitimately doesn’t understand why people would not appreciate (or at least respect) the authorial decisions he made in closing his opus. Lindeloff can be delightfully self-depreciating about his work, but this seemed like a peculiar form of self-flagellation, actively inviting further criticism by constantly bringing the topic up, even when it wasn’t part of the conversation.

So I set about wildly speculating about why all of this was. Why some fans found the ending a violation of trust, and a complete abandonment of the show’s entire premise; why others found it an ideal, even inspired resolve for their characters’ journeys; and even why Damon Lindeloff, understandably, seems unable to let go. Hopefully I teased out an answer. Almost certainly those who read it will disagree. In any case, it’s done, it involves a minimal amount of snark, and for some reason contains a faked up poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘Cause that makes complete sense.

For the sake of neutrality, I tried (and undoubtedly failed) to leave my own personal history with the show out of the article. But I did want to talk, briefly (ha!) about it here. Not because I think it will be particularly revealing, not even because I think anyone else shared my experience, but just to get it out.

Because I have a complicated history with LOST. One filled with a lot of conflicting emotion. I loved LOST. I hated LOST. I loved to hate it, then hated to love it. By the time the tenth anniversary rolled around I told myself that I now mostly just think of it as a cautionary tale about buying into too much marketing hype …and yet I go and write a several thousand word article about it, trying to constantly tamp down the rising emotions that are rekindled with just the mention of its name…

I think, much as I say in the article, it’s because I really was enamoured with its potential. So for me it remains one of the most frustrating, contradictory, and aggressively wasteful uses of an extremely fertile premise ever conceived. It wasn’t offensive in the way that something like the end of Mass Effect 3 was. It wasn’t gaudy pretentious drivel that lazily milked religious iconography the way The Matrix sequels had (although the hero of LOST was a ‘Shephard’, with a father called ‘Christian’, who led them all to an afterlife in a church… so it was certainly pushing it). It just felt as though it was actively and continuously dishonest with its audience, so that when it concluded not only was I left let down by the ‘resolution’ it offered (not a big surprise, this is television after all), I felt as though it had actually robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the program for what it always was – not what it had constantly purported, falsely, to be.

It is a particular personal shame, because I would have had no problem had they been up front to begin with and just admitted that there was no overarching plan – that it was all just an experiment in storytelling in which the writers too were on a ride – just as the audience were. After all, I’m one of the viewers who drank the Ron Moore Kool Aid of the Battlestar Galactica remake, happy to follow that narrative wherever it led, accepting that (despite the first few season’s naff pronouncement that the Cylons ‘Had a plan’) it was less of a tightly ordered tele-visual novel and more an excursion into reactive, evolving, serialised plot. Just as the human race’s familiar conventions and structures had been decimated, leaving the survivors to eke out new social orders and an endlessly renegotiated status quo, so too was the narrative racing to keep up, testing its character’s hopes and fears and faiths.

Sure, it plunged into some pretty nutty mysticism, and swung for the fences on a central theme of cyclical technological singularity and self-destruction that it struggled to always fully articulate, but this kind of urgency, of desperately trying to find meaning in the face of incomprehensible loss, to rebuild belief structures in a vacuum, was always thrilling. You just weighed the wins (’33’; ‘Unfinished Business’; ‘Exodus’) against the losses (whatever the hell ‘Black Market’ was meant to be), and you ended up way, way ahead. And when resolve was finally reached, and a new Earth founded (although many, many, many people no doubt disagree with me here), the peace was earned. The gauntlet of struggle and bewilderment along their journey revealed to be the chrysalis for a necessary change.

But LOST was always a text irreconcilably torn between its intent and its execution, seemingly unsure of what viewership it was trying to serve.

If you were watching for the mystery, what you finally discover is that there isn’t actually a puzzle to unpack. All that fan investment, all that effort to parse out the clues, all the theorems and hypothesis and projections into the text to give it meaning, all risks being revealed a waste of time. That’s not to say that such fan imagination is itself invalidated, or pointless; but it is, ultimately only a projection onto a text that is trying to remain wilfully abstruse.

If, on the other hand, you were watching the show for its characters, and for human drama, then this too was constantly swallowed by the plot’s overriding infatuation with mysteries. The characters were obsessed with searching for answers. The episodes invariably revolved around big honking questions: Who are the Others? What’s under the hatch? Who is Jacob? So what’s going on in that weird room with the –

AHHH!!! POLAR BEAR!!!

Consequentially, I’ve often wondered what I would of made of the show if I had not followed it as it first went to air; if I’d not (for the first few seasons at least) actually believed the writers when they assured their audience that there was a grand narrative they intended to unveil. Perhaps if I was instead seeing it all for the first time on DVD, fully aware the entire time that there would never be any fundamental answers coming (ever), then maybe I would be able to enjoy it all a great deal more. To actually see it for the courageous, oddball mesh of genre tropes and bombast that it attempted to be.

Because for all of its floundering around** – trying to gesture towards arguments about free will and determinism, about the nature of the metaphysical, the impossibility of human comprehension – LOST was ultimately just an elegantly made, exceptionally well-acted, rollicking adventure story. Nothing more.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It actually rescues the whole enterprise. It makes all its efforts to tie inconsequential puzzles into one another a fun quirk that propels its eccentric momentum. It makes the whole adventure fun, rather than pretentiously obscure. And if I had have known all that going in, rather than getting incessantly distracted by the aimless magic trick of ‘mystery’ perpetuated by its writers, I suspect it would have been a far less aggravating, and infinitely more satisfying ride.

It certainly would have justified the mawkish, totally-illogical-but-feel-good ending they eventually bowed out with. Because, ‘Thanks! We love you! And we appreciate you hanging out with us for six years!’ is a lot sweeter a message when it’s coming from a show that was just trying its hardest, every week, to take you on a big, fun giddy ride, instead of from a text that just called you a gullible idiot for making you believe it could ever be anything more.

Lost ending

IMAGE:  The Sensation of Watching the End of LOST (ABC)

* I was never a viewer of How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t speak to its ending personally, but I did have the details of it spoiled by a particularly irate friend who had always adored the show and needed to vent his frustrations to someone. …And yikes. (He rechristened the program ‘How I Met Your Disposable Plot Device’.) For whatever it’s worth, in his opinion the last few minutes of the finale would have worked well after a season or two; but once several years had passed, once characters had moved on and the mother herself had been introduced as a legitimate, likeable character, he felt that the way both she and the emotional growth of the other characters were treated, all to service a trite ‘happy ending’, was not cool. …But again, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea.

** The second and third series are particularly guilty of this: can anyone explain why the survivors of the back of the plane were in any way relevant to anything?

LIMBO and LOST: One is a dark, dreary, ominous excursion into a nihilistic nothingness …the other is LIMBO.

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by drayfish

or: Wherever You Are, There You Are (Even If You’re Nowhere)

IMAGE: LOST (ABC)

An eye opens.  A pair of eyes in fact.  Two eyes; both opening.  Two orbs waiting to perceive, to absorb their strange new surrounds, and in that act of viewing, to come to know themselves.

The owner of those eyes, our protagonist, staggers slowly to his feet.  An unfamiliar landscape suddenly meets his gaze.  He is bewildered.  This alien environment is unsettling, foreboding; strange sounds filter in from beyond the trees, and a portentous, thunderous music punctuates the air.  Our solitary hero has no recollection of the events that flung him into this anachronistic land, and over the course of his adventures he will confront dangerous, shadowy ‘others’, predatory animals and otherworldly beasts, even convoluted machines that change the very fabric of space, time, and influence the elemental forces themselves.  He will find himself in world that seems to defy all logic or expectation, and over the course of his attempts to free himself and return to the familiar, he will seek to comprehend the nature of his circumstance, and in doing so perhaps better know himself.

This premise (indeed, this exact introduction) is the set up for two very distinct, yet thematically analogous works: one a videogame, LIMBO; the other a multimillion dollar television epic, LOST.  In the first a young boy, in haunting silhouette, moves across a shadowy two-dimensional plane solving a series of perilous puzzles in order to progress; in the second a character named Jack awakens on a mysterious island after a plane crash, soon finds himself the leader of a makeshift band of survivors, and likewise fights to survive in an environment that appears to defy all conventional reason.

Both texts invite their audiences to invest in their respective journeys into the inexplicable: LOST asks its audience to keep watching, promising that eventually all of its seemingly random narrative threads will link together into a cohesive whole; LIMBO meanwhile is propelled by the possibility that, perhaps, by continuing through its stages, the player will eventually be able to conceive of where exactly this small boy is located, what this nebulous ‘limbo’ state actually is.  And yet ultimately both texts knowingly thwart this desire for resolution, disabusing their audience of the hope that any of these mysteries will ever resolve into meaning.

For the six seasons that it ran (2004-10), LOST proved itself to be a recursive Russian Doll of ambiguity.  As the showcontinued from week-to-week viewers were left to hunt for clues to make sense of the narrative’s overarching mythology, sifting through a pastiche of sci-fi, horror, mystery, philosophical and spiritualist tropes for evidence from which they might glean answers to the riddle of what was actually going on in the tale.  Smoke monsters; electromagnetic Rube Goldberg machines; Egyptian hieroglyphs; ubiquitous recurring number chains; time travel; mysterious caverns with magical properties; every new puzzle piece seemed to tempt revelation, and yet each led only to more obscurity and confusion.  Indeed, often it seemed that the writers were just free-associating imagery (something that appears to have been true for the first three seasons at least, as show-runner and writer Damon Lindelof has since indicated in an interview with The Verge*).

Eventually, the viewer is compelled to realise that all hope of ultimate explanation is fraught with disappointment.  Just as the central characters find their questioning met with only more queries, so too does the audience find that every avenue of reasoning fails to offer absolutes to the experience of this island.  Instead we repeatedly watch as characters flushed with surety that they can penetrate the meaning of the island are stripped of their hubris and forced to realise that they too are but unknowing cogs in a larger, incomprehensible metaphysical machine.  The physicist Daniel Faraday who claims that the answers lie in science; industrialist Charles Widmore who believes the island can be possessed and exploited for profit; John Locke who experiences a transformative epiphany and comes to see the island as a spiritual oasis; the calculating Ben Linus, political leader of the Others, who, using his mastery of behavioural manipulation schemes his way into power; each figure represents one of numerous diverse fields of human endeavour, each purporting to know the answers to the island, all of whom fail profoundly, robbed of their misapprehensions, and often killed for their presumption.  Even the immortal figures like Richard Alpert and Jacob, who appear to themselves be products of these irrational elements, are themselves exposed to be little more than victims of circumstance.

Life is mystery, the work wants to suggest, and the grand metaphysical questions of what motivates us all cannot ever satisfactorily be answered, locked as we are behind our subjective vision and singular beliefs.  Indeed, the structure of the program itself embraces this notion of an individual’s fundamentally limited perspective: each episode is bound to a loose first-person viewpoint as we watch events unfold from one character’s angle, even dipping back into personal history that seems comparable to their current circumstance.  And in every instance, though they may yearn for comprehension, they consistently fail to see their place in the larger unfolding of events.

Curiously (for a narrative that fuels itself utterly with mystery), the final message of the show seems to be that no one can ever know all the answers, can ever escape their bewildered ignorance.  There is no key that will unlock meaning, and the pursuit of such answers are merely breadcrumbs leading us down several forking paths of aberrant misinformation, hubristic confusions, and mystic irresolvable vagary.  Instead of celebrating the pursuit of ultimately unattainable truth, the narrative instead acts as a cautionary tale: life is mysterious, so don’t try to figure it out or you’ll just go nuts, be slaughtered, abandoned, or get attacked by a polar bear.

And so the endpoint (as much as there is one) comes as our central character descends into a cave to move a gigantic plug in a pool of illuminated water (…honestly, I haven’t a clue).  Somehow he restores order, and eventually is mortally wounded, left unknowingly wandering, bleeding, back to the exact spot in which his journey began.  Jack slumps to the ground, prostrate, his consciousness fading to rest in the same position in which his adventure on this island, long ago, began.  He becomes the last in a long line of believers succumbing to death, his eyes now closing, his wandering fugue state now at an end.

The game LIMBO likewise ends where it started: the character lying back on the same patch of grass, his eyes sliding shut as a seeming death overwhelms him.  The journey to this point has similarly been fraught with peril, laced with conundrums and complexities that must be overcome.  Antigravity machines that require precision and poise to utilise; spidery beasts that must be outpaced or outwitted; mind-controlling bugs; vicious children with elaborate snares; electricity; cavernous drops; decaying suburban ruins; having seen his way through them all, the nameless boy undertakes the final puzzle, and in the course of its solution is propelled, weightless, through a glass pane (much like the monitor/screen through which we are viewing his journey), time slowing as his body flips gracefully through the glistening shards, tumbling to rest in precisely the same position that the game began.  Just as in LOST, we struggle onward in LIMBO invited to believe that the truth of where we are and what’s going on might at last be revealed, only to realise in the end that we are literally right back where we started…

But then something masterful happens: the boy wakes back up.

In LIMBO death has not been the end: the boy rises again and sets out once more upon his ceaseless quest.  Although nothing substantive in the narrative has been addressed – indeed, we have been left in no doubt that this is a literal state of limbo – our whole perception of his journey, and its meaning, is fundamentally altered.

Here the revelation of the endpoint invites us to embrace the indeterminate state within which we too have existed for a time.  Rather than watch a quest for meaning flicker and die we realise that there is no escape from this pattern of repetition and action; we end up right back where we began, having now realised that it was in the doing of things that our actions most mattered.  There was no magic endpoint, no final resolve, just action: what you did and how you did it.  We are instead invited to lose ourselves in the accomplishment of the game itself; like the unnamed, faceless protagonist, compelled to appreciate our place in this loop of programming and gameplay, we too are ensnared in the unceasing repetition of a platforming purgatory.

In its absence of narrative conclusion LIMBO therefore celebrates the momentary, embracing the ephemeral nature of agency.  We are presented with the definition of a Sisyphean task, not tasked with rolling a rock up a hill for eternity, but locked in a similarly experiential web without end.  And just as Camus described in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, we, like the absurd hero, must struggle on, perpetually rolling the rock up the hill, knowing that there will be no end to his labour, because by embracing this inevitability, by welcoming the truth of it, we claim ownership of the task, folding the noble absurdity of our circumstance back into ourselves.

If we are not blindly struggling for an imagined metaphysical enlightenment we become masters of our own action, empowered by the knowledge that it is our actions that define our identity, our morality, ourselves.  Thus, when we play through the game again, the ease, the grace with which each dilemma is confronted and conquered delights us with the thrill of a task embraced and elegantly resolved.

Both texts, LIMBO and LOST, seem to embrace the structure of a dream.  Both begin and conclude with the actions of fading or waking from sleep, a sleep that is emblematic of death; indeed, both texts seem to articulate the Shakespearean adage that ‘Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.’   The line is taken from his extraordinary play The Tempest, a narrative itself concerned with a mysterious, magical island, removed from the real world.*  More specifically the line comes from a scene in which Shakespeare, in a wonderfully self-reflexive acknowledgement of his own practice, is directly advocating the capacity for plays to express the profound truths of human experience.

In the scene, the all-powerful Prospero has been presenting a masque for the entertainment of his daughter and her prospective lover Ferdinand (it’s also a none-too-subtle warning not to get up to any pre-marital nookie).  As he scatters the performers to the wind, mid-performance, he offers a speech about the nature of art, likewise dissipating all the traditional delineations between fiction and lived experience, pretence and reality, dream and the waking world:

                                              These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep. (Act 4, Sc 1, lines 148-58)

I showed you merely a vision, he says, but this vision speaks to our own experience of existence.  We too are merely the stuff of dreams, beginning and ending in an immortal sleep – our brief span on Earth but the flicker of a transitory illumination, soon reclaimed by the dark.  His exquisite, meta-textual play – folding our mortal existence, our fantasies, his own theatrical history altogether – celebrates humanity’s capacity for self-expression and imagination, a means of capturing, even in fragment, the exquisite vibrancy and expressive potential of exploratory play.  (He also throws in a magnificent reference to the ‘Globe’ – a literalised world of potential that shimmers with imagination – that I have to believe was an acknowledgement of his own Globe Theatre.)

For Prospero, as for Shakespeare, the fantastical dream of the theatre was an artful enactment of the most fundamental defining attribute of human experience: our brief, grasping efforts to define our own existence before fading to the transom of death.  In their respective articulations of this same vision in television and videogame, LOST and LIMBO too both seek to articulate the span of all human life, and our efforts to comprehend ourselves.  Both texts therefore operate as an elaborate form of imagistic ouroboros: the ending immediately reinitiating the beginning, returning us to point of deathly status quo.

In LOST this moment presents a conclusion: the eyes close rather than open.  Jack is warmed by the sight of the plane full of his friends rising from the island, presumably to a newfound freedom far from the island’s strange purgatory.  But this seemingly conclusive image merely reinstates the arbitrary nature of the journey that has been undertaken.  Jack is back where he began, and despite the text’s allusions to an awakening knowledge, or a peace that transcends reason, he has learned nothing of his place in the universe.  He has fought for what he believed was right and given all that he could, but is no wiser, and has watched people die arbitrarily at his command, sacrificing themselves for his leadership in wholly unjustified ways; and by extension, we the audience have learned that only frustration, disappointment and death await those who bother to pursue the most fundamental human desires to understand our place in the universe.

In LIMBO one is likewise right back where they started, but the world they now view is utterly reborn.  By embracing the absurdity of our circumstance, the unknowability of the grand metaphysical truths, we can instead refocus upon the present, and our engagement with ourselves and others.  In our exploration of the dream we come to see the value in our every movement and interaction.  Gameplay becomes the expression of selfhood, and we illuminate ourselves, validating our own worth to the uncaring void.

And so, as all three texts conclude, The Tempest, LOST and LIMBO,the lights dim and we are left to ponder our own place amongst the fantasy.  The pair of eyes shut.  The dream is over.  And we have learned all or nothing as the darkness seeps over us all.

IMAGE: LIMBO (Playdead) 

* http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/21/3030913/damon-lindelof-on-lost-on-the-verge

** LOST even makes a number of thematic and explicit references to the play: the character of Ben, who appears to be in control of the island like Prospero, has a (adopted) daughter whose romance becomes central to her story, much like Miranda; characters vie for control of the island much as the shipwrecked stewards of the King did; each of the characters brings with them baggage from their previous lives that must be resolved in their time upon the island; and one of Dharma stations on the island is even called ‘The Tempest’.

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