Thursday, May 24, 2007

LOST's season finale: Maintaining the mystery through misdirection; or, Giving the audience what they thought they wanted

This is post is going to feature some spoilers for the season finale of Lost, so read on with that warning in mind...

The question about Lost has long been about how it can avoid making the mistakes of other long-running cult shows. A short while ago, they responded to the charge that, so long as it's profitable, the show might just drag on until it's tired and directionless (a la the X-Files) by announcing that there will be three more seasons at 16 episodes apiece. But with the finale of season three, the show has answered the biggest question of all: how do you maintain interest in the central mystery of the show (the island, what it is, and how they'll escape) without pissing off your viewers by being obviously avoidant (as with the X-Files, again); conversely, if you give your viewers the satisfaction of resolving the mystery, how do you maintain their interest? (this being the problem with Twin Peaks)

The answer, if you're Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, is that you pretend to do both while actually accomplishing neither - the finale is all about misdirection and only appearing to give us what we want. They wrap up the plot of rescue but leave the matter of the island's nature itself dangling, a conciliatory gesture that is satisfying in that it resolves a plot point that was going to get tired very soon but maintain the most engaging mysteries. And, to top it off, they even introduce some more provocative questions. Really, it's brilliant stuff.

At the end of the episode, we learn that the survivors have been located and are soon to be rescued. We also learn, via the flashback that is revealed to be a flashforward about two and a half years into the narrative future (as confirmed in a screen-capture of Jack's newspaper), that this is no ruse - for better or worse, they will be rescued. The central conflict that has dogged our characters for 3 years has been resolved - they found a way off the island.

Or have they? Jack's flashforward* (*flashforward isn't technically correct - see my comment below) is a cautionary tale that the viewers would do well to consider: the dangers of getting what you ask for and all that. Jack is miserable and has come to realize that he never actually wanted to get off the island - and now he wants answers and intends to return. Cuse and Lindelof have found a narrative justification for returning to the island without being forced to concoct ridiculous or overly complicated reasons to keep the Losties trapped and unable to contact the outside world. Now they (well, Jack, at least - but it's reasonable to assume he isn't alone in this) want to return and we want to return with them.

This is also a very cute way to get around certain practical issues endemic to producing a show of this unique sort: moving the time-frame ahead by 3 years or so allows for them to update each character's appearance and admit that they've aged, which was soon going to demand too much of our sense of disbelief. It also allows for the cast to change - to bring, say, Walt back or introduce someone totally new without having to claim once again that they were always there or someone stumbled on to the island. These tricks have been done, and now Lindelof and Cuse don't need to rely on them anymore. (Assuming, of course, that season four will now relocate the narrative present in 2007 or 2008 to show the survivors returning. But why wouldn't they, given that the ambiguity of their fate was what held our interest in the narrative frame of December 2004?)

I'm not going to speculate on matters of plot or theme, here, though the shoe does much to prompt plenty of new questions of this sort: who was left behind on the island (the Others, I assume - Locke too?), what has happened to the island over the last 2 and a half years (have those who remained been killed?), who's visitation did Jack attend (Michael's is my guess), and how will they ever get back are only some of the more interesting questions. But in closing I'll return to the Biblical thread that I visited yesterday: both the biblical tale of Joseph's brothers and of Moses (with whom Ben compared Jack in the finale) feature prolonged periods of suffering and travel before an eventual return. In Joseph's story, the family is eventually reunited but only after his brothers have been tested; in Moses' story, the people eventually reach their promised land, but only after a war and the death of Moses himself.

Which is simply to restate the obvious: that the flashforward isn't an indication of how the story ends, nor is the rescue the beginning of the end. The end of this first part or series, maybe. But if you think they'd leave us with an alcoholic, pill-addicted protagonist without offering him the opportunity to redeem himself in some way, you haven't been watching this show for the last three years.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

LOST and the Bible: some notes

I've pointed out quite a lot of Biblical subtext in the Ben/Locke/Jacob relationship on Geoff Klock's blog (linked to your right) and at the Lost message board hosted by, but given that the finale airs tonight, it feels appropriate to record some of those thoughts here. (I mean, in all likelihood the finale will prove that they're wrong-headed anyway, so I'm running out of time, right?)

There's a certain bit of obviousness to the Ben/Jacob end of it. Benjamin, one of Jacob's 12 sons and one of only two children born of his favorite wife, Rachel, was a founder of one of the 12 tribes of Israel and one of the two tribes that would eventually break off to form the Kingdom of Judah after the exodus. More subtly, the Bible/Torah's Benjamin was also one of his father's favorites, often placed only behind Jacob's most favored son, Joseph - not coincidently, Rachel's other son. (One other commonality is obvious but obscure, and while it reveals little about the character, it reinforces the textual connection - the mother of both Lost's Benjamin and the Biblical Benjamin died after giving birth.)

Here's where it gets interesting: Joseph was attacked by his 10 other brothers, all of them jealous that he was their father's favorite, and dumped in a pit, left for dead until some Midianites wandered by and eventually bought him as a slave. John Locke was shot by Benjamin, who was similarly jealous of Locke's connection to the island and his ability to hear Jacob in the cabin, and likewise left for dead in a pit. An important difference, though, is that the Biblical Benjamin was the only brother that did not participate in the attack on Joseph.

So what does this mean for Lost? Well, one of the things that Joseph did to anger his brothers was tell them of his prophetic dreams, which suggested that he would rule over them. This eventually came true when, after a famine lasting seven years decimated Canaan, the brothers relocated to Egypt, which was now administered by Joseph. If I were to guess, Ben is being set up for a fall - just as the brothers unintentionally aided the prophecy when they sold Joseph into slavery, Ben will hasten his own destruction by trying to kill Locke. Given the eerily apologetic tone of Ben's voice-over in the promo for the season finale - 'everything i did, i did for the island' - I suspect that his famine is about to arrive.

The real question, though, is whether Locke is Joseph - will he re-emerge as Joseph did, unrecognizable and with great power? As a villain? (Joseph pretended to be a villain in order to test his brothers - but, importantly, he did reveal himself to Benjamin first, who was subsequently in on the ruse.) And what of the dreams? Prophetic visions are Desmond's deal, not Locke's, and Desmond's future seems ominous and potentially short. But while we're playing with names, why not ask whether Joseph's place could be taken by the only 'Joe' on the island - Kelvin 'Joe' Inman, the officer that conscripted Sayid into serving the American military and was living in the hatch when Desmond arrived several years ago? Sure, Desmond seemed to think that he killed him when they fought for control of the sailboat, but can we be certain?

More likely, of course, this is a red herring. If Lost has done anything well, it's done a great job of forcing us to shift our analytic lens, juggling its ancestor texts and influences so as to avoid ever seeming to favor one over the others for more than a short period of time. The Bible has been prominent this season, but that only leads me to suspect that it's usefulness must be coming to an end - and soon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

You get what you pay for, it seems

There’s an old but good joke about the guy who brags about getting something for free, only to later learn that he paid too much. I feel the same way about the Free Comic Book Day Amazing Spider-man comic.

It’s actually a very funny story. The story of why I feel this way, I mean, not the story in the comic book itself. The comic is dreadful: unremarkable and cliché in all the worst ways. The funny story is that, superficially anyway, it offers everything that I lambasted Spider-man 3 for failing to offer, which I described in a post on the Spidey Message Board. It’s very much in the vein of 'Spider-man as the loveable loser', where he has to stop the bad guy, rescue Aunt May’s cake, and be home in time for dinner. But the villain is bland and uninteresting, and the story is one that we’ve read a thousand times with nothing new or special to recommend it. This is the sort of comic that you only remember fondly because it was your first issue of Spidey. Otherwise, it ends up in the back of your closet. And you never look at it again.

What’s truly unforgivable, though, is the way this comic has been marketed and the way that it accounts for itself. Dan Slott was hyping the FCBD Amazing Spider-man as a story that would have a real impact on the Marvel Universe, but it’s hard to see why or how. Following Slott's comments, some readers have speculated that it takes place after the upcoming ‘One More Day’ storyline. Well, if it does, we’re not told and there's nothing in the comic to actually suggest as much. Some fans have suggested the opposite, then, that it’s actually an untold story from Spidey’s past – that would explain why there’s no Mary Jane, right? Or is Mary Jane the super-heroine that debuts here - Jackpot? (Apparently, I’m the only person who assumed MJ must be Jackpot, though this assumption does nothing to clear up MJ’s status in this confusing mess of a Spider-verse - if this is supposed to be in continuity, that is.) Others have done away with trying to make it fit somewhere and declared it to be outside continuity altogether. About the only thing we do know is that it doesn’t take place in anything resembling the narrative present.

I shouldn’t have to buy ‘One More Day’ to make some sense of this story, but I suppose that this is precisely what Marvel is going for. Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit in the planning department – the lack of context and by-the-numbers story suggests that this comic was only ever intended for the new readers and kids that FCBD is actually targeting, making Slott’s remarks seem confusing or confused at best and an outright lie at worst. Whatever. It’s a cute enough story, I suppose, but only if you can still count your age on your fingers. For the rest of us, it’s a god-awful mess.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spider-man 3: The good, the bad, the very ugly

What more is there to say about Spider-man 3? I've avoided reading anything, so - for me, at least - there's still a lot to say. I'll be brief, but I feel required to include something quotable: it's a C-script with an A-budget. And while there are scenes that I could watch again and again - nearly anything with Sandman effects, but especially his first attempts to reconstitute himself, which is stunning not for its technical proficiency so much as its tenderness and subtlety - there are at least as many that I could do without ever seeing again.

First, the good. Eddie Brock is a great foil, keeping the masks off so the characters could emote even when it didn't seem necessary was a great idea, Willem Defoe's appearance is perfect, and the fight where Peter loses the ring makes for some great drama.

And now the bad. There are two main problems with this film. The first is one of genre: Spider-man's story should be a comedy, or at least a tragicomedy, but Raimi gives us a tragedy. While a lot of the structures of the classical or Shakespearean comedy and tragedy that I'm thinking of when I use these terms are superficially similar - the flawed hero, the struggle against the world, the difficulty with family, the fight for a seemingly impossible love - their tone, vocabulary, and aims differ mightily. The tragedy moves inexorably toward doom, though at the end it offers some cathartic consolation that hints at a fresh start. In a seemingly opposite movement, the comedy tends to be light-hearted and fun, as it's oriented toward the certain resolution of impossible circumstances in the service of love. (Well, it's hardly that simply, but that's hardly relevant.)

If you've seen the film, you know which sort of film Spider-man 3 provides us: Peter Parker is the flawed hero who supplies the personification of hubris, an over-confidence that we know is headed somewhere awful bad. The first two films also portrayed Spider-man as a tragic figure - which, now that I recognize it, perhaps explains why I never liked them as much as it seemed I was supposed to - but Raimi's love of Spider-man has turned into a masochistic obsession with his Spider-pain in this third installment. A simple rule of film - tragic or not - is that things will quickly turn bad if they start out too good: the better they start, the badder they get. Peter and Mary Jane have far too much going for them and, knowing that this is a Venom film, there's little doubt that we're in for a mighty bad fall. Where's the levity? Where's the heart that makes Spider-man so endearing? (A comedy, I might add, would likely employ more or less the reverse plot - they'd start out in trouble and end happy.)

Harry's death is our cathartic moment, I suppose, but it offers little of the consolation that it should. Why not? For the second of my two main problems. See, Spider-man 3 isn't even a particularly good tragedy. A tragedy works because the hero is sympathetic and/or likeable, even if he's a fiend too - think Othello or Charles Foster Kane. Peter Parker is simply a self-obsessed jerk, and Mary Jane and Harry are hardly any better. Peter hunts down the Sandman not because he's an escaped criminal but because he killed Ben Parker (An aside: Say what? Why was that necessary?); Mary Jane breaks up with Peter to run away from her own insecurities as much as she does to save him from Harry; and Harry saves Peter and Mary Jane not because he realizes that he cares about them despite how they've treated him, but because the butler told him they had nothing to do with his father's death. It's hard to like characters whose heroism is steeped in such self-absorption and selfishness. How many movies will we have to sit through before Aunt May finally gets it into Peter's head that Ben Parker wouldn't have wanted him to be irresponsible/isolated/vengeful/so dense?

The humor that we do get is effective when the tone is lighter but becomes more pained and painful as the film progresses. Bruce Campbell is hilarious as the maitre d', but the later jazz club scene is as bizarre and discomforting for the audience as it is for Mary Jane and Gwen. When Peter and Mary Jane share a brief moment at the film's end, I wonder why they even bother. Not just because they're both unwilling to put their care for the other's well-being on par with their own - much less ahead of their own, as Aunt May demands - and not just because Mary Jane's jealous of Spider-man's fame. And not because Peter was an incredible jerk and hit Mary Jane while he was under the thrall of the symbiote. (Another aside: What a cop-out! "It wasn't me, it was the alien suit that fell out of the sky!") Actually, it's all those reasons and more. They just don't seem to work as a couple. And they just don't seem to be terribly nice people. Catharsis should offer some small hope that things will get better, but I don't see why they - or we - could ever be under that impression.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

How Whedon got his groove back

At this point in Whedon’s run, I’m willing to just give in and have some fun. Granted, he’s making it easier for me: it seems, at first, like some of structural similarities of the first three arcs - as I laid them out in this review many months ago - are no longer in play. But then, many of the elements of my cute little morphology are still haunting Astonishing X-Men. Looking at the story’s bare bones, not much has changed: something far more difficult to describe is happening in this latest arc, and this issue is a particularly wonderful example.

So what is Whedon doing differently here? He’s always been incredibly honest in laying out his ancestor texts for the reader in easy-to-read allusions: shades of early Claremont and especially the Dark Phoenix have been littered throughout, as well as Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already notice yourself, though – or anything that I hadn’t noted here before. But there’s a new element in the mix with these last few issues. Take the Beast’s bitter snarking at Agent Brand as their vehicles are disabled by a tactical “snowstrike” and they scurry for shelter: “You’re amoral, you’re abrasive, and right now you’re looking at me like I’m a taun-taun.” The reference - which you either understood immediately or eventually Googled out of sheer curiosity – is to the creature that Luke Skywalker slices open and crawls inside for warmth when he’s trapped on the ice-planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a tiny reference, (though certainly not a throwaway) but it opens the field immensely. I also think that we’d be right to suspect that the visuals of the Breakworld are meant to recall Dune, though I’m not familiar enough with the series to know if it goes beyond that. Regardless, Whedon isn’t just playing with just the X-Men sandbox anymore.

Though it’s much subtler, the Empire Strikes Back connection can also be read into the situation of the captive black SWORD agent that Overlord Kruun is torturing for information. We learn in this issue that he’s made a deal with one of the Breakworlders to give them Colossus in return for saving the Earth. And that this deal is no spur of the moment thing – it has, in fact, been in the works all along. (Though Agent Brand’s complicity is unclear. We don’t know if she planned it.) Sure, reimagining the scene in terms of Lando Calrissian betraying the Rebel Alliance doesn’t add anything to your experience as far as the plot’s concerned, but it makes the process of reading it a whole lot more fun.

Whedon extends his palette of literary references far deeper in time, too. The rebel Breakworlders explain to Colossus that they believe the prophecy – the one that says Colossus will destroy their world – might mean that he’ll destroy the order of the world, a sort of restructuring from which something better will emerge. Their interpretation recalls the Biblical origins of ‘apocalypse’, where ‘the end’ is only ever the end of life-as-we-know-it and not life, period. I’m probably wrong to also read this as a gentle chiding of typical comic book doomsday-prophecizing, where the apocalypse is always the end of everything in existence, but it certainly stands in stark contrast to the usual the-end-is-nigh super-hero stories where the fate of all existence hangs in the balance. Despite the chaos and death that necessarily accompanies it, apocalyptic literature has historically admitted that what follows a day of judgment is eventually better than what preceded it. It’s nice to see Whedon recall that.

Whedon isn’t doing anything particularly new - the clever appropriation of ideas and deepening of subtext through allusion is as old as writing itself – but he is getting more creative with where and from whom he steals those ideas. I’m reminded here of what Geoff Klock says about Matt Fraction’s Casanova: “Before anyone objects that Casanova is hardly new, drawing in everything in its gravity, Casanova FEELS new, which is all I am really asking for.” Whedon is still writing a love letter to Claremont and Morrison, but it no longer feels like that’s all he’s doing, or that it’s even the main thrust of Astonishing X-Men any longer.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The funny thing about mediocre issues...

I’ve delayed writing about All-Star Superman #7. Not because it’s a masterpiece that defies description, and not because it’s an unmitigated disaster that I could spend a dozen paragraphs unpacking. No, it poses a much subtler difficulty: it’s just sort of mediocre. Granted, a mediocre issue of All-Star Superman is still much better than a mediocre issue of nearly anything else, and even very good by another book’s standards. So where does it go wrong?

Two things catch my attention, one relating to Morrison’s half of the storytelling (if we can ever so conveniently separate a story into ‘halves’ like that) and the other to Quitely’s. As far as the writing goes, this issue stands out as a curious sort of failure for the same reason as issue 3. That is, Morrison forgets that what makes Superman interesting – and what’s made the rest of the run so great – isn’t Superman himself, but rather the way that his supporting cast provide us with all sorts of wonderful paths into and through an otherwise clichéd archetype. In issue 2, we feel Lois’ paranoia and her doubts; in number 4, Jimmy’s desperation to preserve Superman’s quasi-mystical aura is tragic and sweet, especially since it serves to reminds us just how human and fallible Superman really is. This sort of absence of any humanizing frame is ‘Thing No. 1.’ Instead, we get a fun but fairly mindless battle that depends even more than usual on Quitely’s ability to sell the story. And while Quitely is almost always more than up to the task, he stumbles on this issue.

This is ‘Thing No. 2’, and at least three scenes caught my attention immediately and for all the wrong reasons. I can’t, for the life of me, tell determine just what the hell is happening on the first page. I don’t know what or why a contorted body is floating in space and I don’t know what Quintum is crashing into. This isn’t all Quitely’s fault, of course, but it doesn’t get any better on the second page, where Superman is releasing his adolescent Sun-Eater into space. We don’t really know this until he explains it later in the issue, though, and so we’re all on our own in determining exactly what’s happening in 5 dialogue-free panels where Superman may or may not be fighting with the octopus-like creature, since it has no face, there's no dialogue, and so there's no conventional way to express what's occurring to the reader. Retrospectively, it seems like this should be almost akin to a foster-parent saying goodbye to a child, but I shouldn’t have to complete the entire issue in order for the scene to work. While theoretically a given moment could be purposefully vague or difficult, there's no reason that it should simply be left incomplete. But the final error is the most egregious: Steve Lombard throws a bizarro-mutated Allie out a window but the dialogue clearly indicates that it should have been the bizarro-clone that took the faceplant on to the street below. That’s not a lapse into poor storytelling, as it was in the first two instances – that’s just sloppy.

Funny enough, these failings actually help to call attention to the near-flawless execution of the first story arc. (Especially since I bought the hardcover collection on the same day.) It’s easy to harp on about the bad stuff while missing the good simply because you expect or demand it. Little steps backward like this issue remind you that you can’t take great comics for granted.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Lost in the Land of Women

'In the Land of Women' has all the naive enthusiasm of early 'Dawson's Creek', but it wants to be a remake of 'Garden State'. Rather than starring an aspiring teen director, this story is about a 20-something screenwriter that's had to compromise and is writing for soft-core porn; rather than New Jersey, we're given another butt-of-all-jokes sort of state, that being Michigan. And it's too self-conscious, too eager to let us in on these ambitions and jokes. This is a problem, and not simply because the cute meta moments are so sweet that they're practically candy-coated - the problem is also that it's just not a very good joke.

The film's final scene says it all. Carter, the writer who had traveled to Michigan to take care of his grandma and find himself in the process, is sitting in a diner, trying to finish writing the story of her life. (Let me guess - that story was turned into this screenplay, right? Blech.) A waitress wanders over and tries to help, but mostly just exchanges some adorably flirtatious banter with him. And so a discussion about how to end the film, in a scene that has basically nothing to do with the rest of the movie, becomes itself the end of the film. It's painful not just in that sugar-rot-in-your-teeth sort of way, but for its complete disregard for the intelligence of its audience.

Another significant problem is revealed in this scene, too. Carter is writing about his grandma when he should be writing about himself. Throughout the film, grandma has only ever been a pale imitation of Sophia Petrillo; the story is Carter's, after all, and she's interesting only insofar as she provides some comic relief for his quarter-life crisis. (Likewise, Kevin Williamson lost sight of the fact that Dawson,his title character, was the emotional center as the series went on - joining Joey and Pacey in the end seemed aimed at surprising his audience rather than satisfying them.)

But then the film isn't quite sure of whose story it's telling from the 30-minute-mark on. Carter dominates the entire first act, but as soon as the mother and daughter from across the street appear, the film re-focuses variously through any one of the now three protagonists. That metafictional element where Carter is writing the very film that he stars in - an already too nice and too obvious trick - isn't even structurally coherent, as it demands that Carter tell stories that he didn't know about characters that he didn't really understand. (Well, the latter is certainly true of Sarah, the mother, if not her daughter.)

To what end, then? In order to broaden its market appeal, I suppose.