Monday, 28 January 2008

Lost Countdown: No. 7

These reasons for loving Lost are entirely too pretentious, but it's my brain and adrenal glands responding to this, so you'll have to suck it, Lost haters.

Complexifying (?) the universe with easter eggs and real-world Alternate Reality Games:

*Warning! This post contains many uses of the nebulous word, "metatextual"*

Did you know that the man who discovered electromagnetism was called Hans Christian Ørsted? Did you know that The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (seen in the Swan Station) features an underground complex in which can be found a substance called Omnium, which can transmute itself into anything you can wish for? How many Wizard of Oz references have there been? Or Alice in Wonderland? Were you aware that the mark on the tree to point Juliet towards the case of "vaccine" is the same as that of the planet Ummo? Do you know that the guy who got sucked into the engine in the first episode was not only dating the flight attendant Cindy (kidnapped and brainwashed by the Others), but wrote a tell-all book about the Hanso Foundation that got banned, leading him to "write" the novel Bad Twin, which also exists in our world (and is a detective story about The Hanso Foundation and evil twins and isn't actually as bad as Carlton Cuse has made out)? Do any of these things matter to the plot? Not at all. In that case, why keep them? Just to make me happy, I'm tempted to say. Because I love Easter eggs even when they're pointless, and even more when, as I suspect with Lost, they add up to more.

A few years ago I went crazy with anticipation for the release of the sequels to my favourite movie, The Matrix. Warner Brothers and Silver Pictures went into hype overdrive, and I lapped it all up and asked for seconds. I rewatched the original over and over again, devouring books explaining the symbolism of every object, name or event on screen. The first sequel was everything I ever wanted from an extension of the first movie and more, expanding the mythos and throwing out numerous allusions to real world (or Matrix, depending on your viewpoint) religious and scientific ideas and motifs. I saw that movie so many times during that summer, building my excitement for the finale into a frenzy that was horribly shattered when Revolutions came out and seemed to be telling an entirely different story than the one I had expected (which was my fault), as well as sucking on a narrative and pacing level (which was the Wachowski's fault). I've given it a break since (and still maintain Reloaded is excellent), but at the time I was gutted. And yet, the experience of picking apart the dozens of textual and metatextual details still made me happy, and I don't regret it for a second.

It was around that time that I got heavily into The Invisibles, Grant Morrison's complex metatextual diary/call to arms that had finally been collected in its entirety by DC and Vertigo. My first runthrough was done through a perpetually confused squint. So many of his references made no sense to me that I had to get a primer to get the most out of it. Thanks to those two complex works, my library became much more esoteric.

Lost has the same effect on me. The references to real world books and people sends me scurrying to the internet at the end of each episode, to absorb facts about them not just to see how they fit into the Lost experience, but why the showrunners thought them interesting enough to get a mention. Sometimes the books are included just because the writers like them and want to promote them (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume), because of a cool fact they like and want to include (Desmond saving Our Mutual Friend so that it is the last book he ever reads is actually based on John Updike's plan to do the same thing), or because the book has some thematic connection with the plot (The Fountainhead's protagonists are world-changing individuals not unlike the ambitious Alvar Hanso).

Similarly, the naming of the characters delights me, though I also regret not paying more attention while studying for my philosophy degree. John Locke, Rousseau, "Desmond" David Hume, and the most over-the-top one yet, Mikhail Bakunin. There are other connections, less obvious. Anthony Cooper, Kate Austen (okay, different spelling, but still), James Ford, Ben Linus (bit of a stretch, that one). I love that the actual character names are real people who lived in our world, but the aliases used by some of the characters (Sawyer, Henry Gale) match up with fictional characters. I think there might be some significance to the name Christian Shephard but it eludes me right now. The showrunners say that there is a point to this name-linking, but whether it is connected to the mystery or is merely another way to increase the complexity of the thematic web is not yet clear.

I love all of that detail, and think it enriches the narrative and gives the show an air of seriousness. I won't say it gives it an air of intelligence because I think it's plenty intelligent already without namedropping, but it does put the events in the context of the world of ideas as much as the onscreen drama makes it a show about action. It's an understatement to say that not everyone is convinced. John Patterson, the formerly brilliant and now increasingly curmudgeonly film columnist in The Guardian, recently railed against Southland Tales for its aimless complexity, and he had a point. That film meant nothing, probably on purpose. His main thesis, though, is complex works of pop culture and why they're "not as good as the films of the 70s, when Robert Altman blah blah, and Bert Schneider yada yada". You get the drift.
It joins a number of similar pop-culture artefacts, like John August's The Nines and the TV shows Lost and Heroes, among others, whose ambitions are not equalled by execution, and whose immense complexity often proves self-defeating. These are not stand-alone items either. Sprawling and expansive, with multilayered storylines and timeframes, most feature huge casts and, in the case of the television work, are possessed of enormously complicated "Show Bibles" (the ever-expanding encyclopedia of a show's mythos). Their stories spread everywhere, linking every character in a web of coincidence and interrelatedness.

Sounds great to me. He criticises Heroes, saying it had failed because of the same overcomplexity. I'd say it's more to do with the writers forgetting how to pace their show, but whatever. Then he started in on The Nines (which I've yet to see), and then Lost:
Made up of three interlocking stories using the same actors - Ryan Reynolds is, successively, an actor, a screenwriter in a reality show, and then the star of his own TV show, ie inside the show's fiction - it piles inspired weirdness upon witty conceit upon many layers of pop-culture and TV in-jokes, to the point where the resolution to the story can only be a letdown; where the answers retroactively ruin and discredit all the questions. When all is tidily resolved in the final moments, you feel like an idiot for hanging around so long.

This seems likely to be the fate of many Lost viewers as well. Remember, the show's writers have almost as little idea as the viewers about where the show can go next. They might be 10 episodes ahead of us, but that's all. Beyond that, they're as clueless as we are. Each season sees another desperate opening out of the plot into another dimension, answering some questions but foreclosing other possibilities forever. As with The X-Files, the final explanation can only be a disappointment.

So why bother? Why even make anything that is ambitious or filled with metatextual references? Has he no idea what these things do? Firstly, the internet games such as The Lost Experience give valuable information about many aspects of Dharma Initiative's and Hanso Foundation lore, such as the Valenzetti equation, the Life Extension Project, and Magnus Hanso's New World Sea Traders company.

I admit, it's sad that less obsessive viewers of the show don't know of these aspects of the beautifully detailed Lost universe, and probably missed out on the subtly revealed news that the polar bears are on the island to be used for genetic testing by Dharma, in an attempt to keep them alive following drastic climate change. Without the urge to delve deeply into the show, information like this eludes viewers, but that's fine. It's their choice and I respect that. However, I do get mad when stupid TV critics who have no respect for the show bitch about it not even giving up any information about that one thing from the pilot just because they don't have enough respect for a heavily layered sci-fi show to do some research. They're genetically modified to survive a different climate! Get over it! Move on! Other stuff has happened since!

Secondly, as I said above, it nods to the viewer that Lost is about ideas and theories and allegories that aren't spelled out implicitly within the show. The characters don't debate philosophy and theology out loud, but their actions and their beliefs dramatise this debate implictly. The philosophical detail points us to that and provides a contextual framework for the attentive viewer.

As for the little touches like the brand names (Apollo chocolate bars, MacCutcheon whiskey), businesses (Widmore Corporation, Paik Heavy Industries, Herarat Aviation), and research organisations (Mittelos Bioscience, the Global Welfare Consortium, and of course The Hanso Foundation), having these things crop up within the universe over and over again (with connections revealed in-show or in-game) creates that sense of having a functioning, coherent fictional world, as well as giving the show context (it's as much about the scientific research world as it is a world where big business leads). Patterson might be convinced that storytelling only works when confined to the 90-180 minute duration of a movie, and anything else is time-wasting, but with the internet and long-form storytelling coming of age, we can tell stories of much greater complexity, with connections being made between characters, events, themes, organisations, etc., that could never be touched on in previous formats. These connections might seem like frippery, but they mean something to the viewer willing to invest time in finding out about these things.

A story told in a film can be a world. A story told in a complex narrative form like that of Lost can be a universe, and within that universe we can have that cathartic feeling of coming to a conclusion over and over again. The finale might suck and leave the viewer disappointed, but the outcome of the Lost Experience ARG satisfied people, and the scene where the mystery of how Locke broke his back was incredibly satisfying, and Charlie's sacrifice was satisfying, and over and over again we get moments of closure within the Lost universe that resolve things we needed resolved without finishing the story. It's not your parents' storytelling, Patterson. We've moved on. Come join us.

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