Friday, February 20, 2009


I am a huge fan of ABC's Lost. In certain respects, it is utterly conventional television: nearly every character is white (the only black or Latino cast members have been either killed or exiled from the island), every single female character is played by a stunning perfect-10 type, and the only female character without ludicrous pulchritude, Rose, is also the only non-white character who's still alive, although this is mostly a by-product of her being saddled with another American pop-culture trope, the Magical Negro. So it goes.

On one level, I think the writers are simply playing a game amongst themselves to see how much complexity can be revealed gradually over time. The X-Files broke new ground because it made clear from the outset that it was going to have a broad scope -- a story that affects the fate of the entire world. Lost is breaking new ground because, although it, too, tells a story that affects the fate of the entire world, that fact was not at all made clear from the outset. At the outset it looked like it was going to be a tropical version of Alive.

Around the end of the second season and the beginning of the third season (we are now about 7 or 8 episodes into the fifth season) I began to think about a possible explanation for what was going on in Lost. There are entire web sites devoted to fans presenting such theories and interactively critiquing them. I never published mine on one of these boards, but I did mention it to a few people.

I began to wonder if the point of the show was to put us, the American audience, in the role of reviled foreign terrorists. In this arrangement, "The Others" -- who live on "their island" with an orderly, courteous, regimented, productive social structure, yet at the same time seem perfectly content to be left alone on "their island" and exhibit no curiosity about anything off the island -- represent us, the American audience. And the substance of the plot consists of these "Others" systematically imprisoning, torturing, murdering, abducting, seducing, manipulating, and deceiving this ragtag band of protagonists. There were even shades of 9/11 in the fact that the way the Others are first made aware of the protagonists is by their arrival on a crashing plane. Over time we learn that the most frightening thing about the Others is their righteousness; their certainty that their cause is of such transcendentally greater purpose than you mere non-Others could ever imagine.

My confidence in this theory began to wane when the show introduced "the flash-forward of doom" at the end of Season 3, which established that some of the characters would in fact be able to leave the island. It seemed to me like the entirety of the action would have to play out on the island if my conjecture were to be strengthened.

Then the most recent episode aired, and my faith in the "we're the terrorists" hypothesis was renewed:

At this point in the story, a subset of the original plane crash's survivors -- the "Oceanic Six" -- have managed to get off the island, leaving some of their compatriots behind. They have been persuaded by "the Others" to return to the island. A mysterious woman somehow affiliated with "the Others" tells them that the only way to get back to the island is to get on another plane, this one going from L.A. to Guam, and for reasons having to do with "strong electromagnetic currents flowing throughout the earth" or something, this plane will also crash on the island. So they have to do the whole plane-crash thing over again, except this time they'll know what's going to happen.

This leads us to an extraordinary sequence in which, one by one, the "Oceanic Six" board this commercial airliner, and each gets this look on his or her face of rapturous anticipation, complete with lingering camera pans underscored with lush strings. These people are finally doing something they've thought about for a long time. They are united in purpose and conviction. They know they are going to crash, but are unafraid because they view the crash simply as a gateway to something wonderful beyond. A brief exchange of dialogue even makes it clear that they are aware, and simply don't care, that non-good things are going to happen to the other passengers on the plane.

These are the people that we have come to identify with over the last four seasons, yet they are shown boarding a commercial jet in the exact same emotional frame of mind that the nineteen Al Qaeda hijackers presumably were in on the morning of 9/11. The whole show has been leading up to a moment in which we are given a glimpse into what it must have felt like to be one of those suicide operatives. It's a profoundly creepy experience.

It's worth noting that, even if my conjecture is totally wrong, Lost could probably never have been made without 9/11 having happened first. Before 9/11, plane crashes were among the worst things people could think of. After 9/11, having a jet crash merely by accident into something that wasn't a crowded urban building seemed positively quaint. Before 9/11, pitching the Lost story would have been like pitching a prime-time sitcom about child molestation.

The other thing I'm loving about Lost is that the writers seem to have been profoundly influenced by one of my favorite books, Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. The idea that the island can continuously move from one "pocket of strong electromagnetic energy" to another seems very similar to Eco's notion of "telluric currents" that, when properly harnessed and controlled, can remake the geography of the earth, and do in a few seconds what would take natural forces millions of years to do.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

An Unusually Perceptive DailyKos Post

This is the kind of political writing I like. Let's talk about the systemic flaws that prevent us from making good policy, as opposed to hurling canned arguments about specific issues at each other.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Movie Roundup

In the last few months I've been very impressed by two psychological thrillers, each very different from the other but both quite excellent in their attention to character. Psychological thrillers used to rely on psychology to thrill us, but the James Wan generation of directors abuse the word "psychological" just as a way to put cardboard-cutout characters into bizarre and improbable situations. I love a good cinematic mindfuck as much as the next person, but if you don't have any insight into the minds on screen getting fucked, it all seems kind of pointless and contorted in the end. (This is the way a vocal minority felt about The Usual Suspects, although I loved it.)

2008's Transsiberian, written and directed by Brad Anderson and starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer among others, is set on the cross-continental railroad of the same name, and involves heroin traffickers, marital secrets, guilt, and Ben Kingsley with a kick-ass Russian accent. 3.5 out of 4 stars from Ebert, for those who care what he thinks.

2006's Bug, adapted from some play but directed on the screen by William Friedkin, starring Ashley Judd (!) and some dude I'd never heard of named Michael Shannon, was absolutely amazing. Just a vicious, devilish, perverse, but always believable ride. I haven't often been truly frightened or horrified by a movie, but this one did it. And there's very little violence (although what little there is disturbs). Also 3.5 out of 4 stars from Ebert.

Also, I had the opportunity to see The Golden Compass on pay-per-view. This was the so-called "atheist movie" that had the characteristically open-minded and well-informed Catholics up in arms. Not surprisingly, the fans of the British series of books on which the film was based were upset that not enough of author Philip Pullman's atheist message survived the translation from page to screen.

From my point of view, I thought the film was ideologically heavy-handed, but along much more environmental lines than atheistic ones. No explicit mention is ever made of God or belief or anything else, and the metaphorical attempt to depict mankind's better nature as a physical substance -- the mysterious Dust -- seemed less like a shot at God than a shot at people who don't believe global warming is real.

The large, oppressive bureaucratic villain -- the Magisterium -- presumably was a stand-in for the Catholic Church in the books, but in the film seems like a reasonable representative of multinational oil companies. When Daniel Craig ruffles the Magisterium's feathers early in the film by presenting concrete proof of Dust's existence, I took that as a metaphor for the eventual day of reckoning in which even the staunchest climate-change denier is confronted with irrefutable proof of anthropocentric global warming.

That, plus the fact that half the film takes place in the Arctic, with Scottish-brogued CGI polar bears in armor (don't ask) playing out the intrigues of their own moribund ursine kingdom, just left me with a very "environmentaly" vibe.

I'm tempted to read the books, but it takes a lot to get me to read fiction lately. We'll see. Ebert gave the movie 4 out of 4 stars, which seems a tad generous to me; 3 seems more reasonable. I also found it interesting that, while some saw The Golden Compass as the ideological antidote to the first installment of the Narnia Chronicles (with its thinly veiled retelling of the Christ story), both films essentially fetishize youthful innocence at the expense of adulthood, knowledge, and experience, which apparently Philip Pullman found very irritating and was one of the precise things his books were trying to stamp out.

Those damn atheists are never happy.