Thursday, May 27, 2010

Categorizing Lost's 'mysteries'

This is a cute post from BuzzFeed mocking people who are frustrated that Lost didn't answer many of its questions. It has a point, of sorts - not all mysteries are worth solving, nor are all answers satisfying - but I think that it's worthwhile to separate out the legitimately frustrating questions from those that either don't require a solution or would simply be better off without one.

So here they are - split into 3 larger groups and 6 smaller categories, 2 categories of which are within each group:

GROUP ONE: Questions that don't need to be answered, and may not have answers anyway

1) Questions that shouldn't be answered because we might as well ask why bad things happen to good people:
* Where did The Island come from? What is The Light? Who created it?
* Where did the Island Guardian powers - like hiding the island or granting Richard immortality - come from? And why, if these powers are so wide-ranging, are they also limited - why couldn't Jacob raise the dead? And, for that matter, why and how was Man in Black able to resurrect Sayid when Jacob couldn't?
* Why is Desmond special?
* Why does the Island heal some things - like Rose's cancer and Locke's spine - and not others - like Ben's cancer?
* How does the donkey wheel work to move the island?
* Why do the sonic fences work against Smokey? How was the ash able to keep him at bay?

2) Questions that shouldn't be answered because it really doesn't matter, does it?:
* Did the bomb go off?
* Was it really Desmond's delay in entering the numbers that caused the plane to crash?
* Was the sideways-universe created by The Incident or the bomb?
* What's the origin of the Ben/Charles feud?
* Was Sayid really turned evil, or, as Hurley said, did he simply become what people expected of him?
* Did the psychic know that Claire had to get on the plane? How?

GROUP TWO: Questions that could use answers, and might have answers, but don't require them

3) Questions that don't need to be answered because the answer seems to already be implied:
* Why can't babies be born on the island, and why was there no such problem in the 70s?
* Was Christian always Christian? Was Smokey sometimes impersonating him? Was he always impersonating him?
* Why wasn't Sun transported back in time?
* Why did Juliet's husband die after she wished it?
* What's the deal with the four-toed, Egyptian statue?
* Was the Dharma Initiative a force of good or bad?

4) Questions that probably don't have a good answer, but whose answers probably aren't important, would be contradictory or needlessly confusing, or simply wouldn't be very illuminating:
* Who was shooting at Sawyer and company's boat when they were being chased across the water during all the time-flashes?
* How was Juliet's sister's cancer cured if Ben's cancer couldn't be?
* Was there really a box that granted wishes? And what is it, really?
* What is the Temple, where do its occupants sit in the Others' hierarchy, and what sort of magical powers does Dogen have that could repel Smokey?
* Why does Sayid, who killed dozens of people as a torturer and then as Ben's lackey, get to go into the Light when Michael, who killed two people - one out of desperation and one accidentally, and only to save his son - but also seemingly redeemed himself, get stuck on the Island?

GROUP THREE: Questions that should be answered (even if they can't be answered)

5) Questions that can't possibly have a good answer, and are probably just evidence of bad planning/writing:
* Why would Chang - or whoever else built The Swan - include Egyptian hieroglyphics in the timer, which are displayed only after it reaches zero?
* If Smokey can only appear as dead people, how did he appear to Locke and Shannon as Walt?
* Why was Richard surprised that Ben could see him when they first met? And why was Harper, who was bringing orders from Ben, able to sneak up on Juliet and disappear just as quickly? Were we meant to understand that the Others could become invisible or travel magically?
* Who was asking Locke to 'help me' in the cabin? And why wasn't he asking Ben, who admitted that no one - Jacob, or someone trying to pass himself off as Jacob - ever spoke to him?

6) Questions that have been dangling for so long or were made to seem so important that we deserved an answer, dammit!:
* Why did small animals die when Walt got angry, and what was so wrong with him that even The Others wanted to get rid of him?
* And relatedly - why are the kids so important? Why do we want to kidnap Walt and Aaron? Why did we kidnap those other children? (It can't just be that they can't procreate on the island, right? And it's not like they knew about Candidates at that point...)
* What's the deal with Eloise and her seeming omniscience, in both the living-day present and in the afterlife?
* What's the deal with the Hanso family, who were the financiers behind both The Black Rock and Dharma and were featured prominently in the Lost Alternate Reality Game?
* What's the Man in Black's name? And if he doesn't have one, why? (Because deliberately not mentioning it seemed significant, at first, and just annoying, later.)
* Do The Numbers refer to the Valenzetti Equation or the final six Candidates? Or both? And how are they related? Is it mere coincidence (?!) or fate that the final six Candidates are assigned the same numbers that appear in the Valenzetti Equation? And if it's the latter, how does that compromise Jacob's whole 'i want you to have a choice' speech, or diminish the centuries-long process of finding a suitable replacement and watching most of the Candidates die in the process?

There are probably other categories that we could invent, and some people can probably take issue with where I've slotted particular questions. Let me know.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Reflections on the Lost finale

It's been less than 12 hours since the show ended, so these will be a bit half-baked. I'll keep it to three general thoughts:

1) So the flashsideways is technically taking place after the mainstream timeline, insofar as it's an epilogue set in some limbo- or purgatory-like afterlife that the characters are sharing. I didn't really see that one coming. I'm wondering whether there's a bit of a joke hidden in there, since 'everyone is dead' was one of the theories first offered to explain the mysteries of the island. But the tone of the epilogue would seem to suggest that this isn't the case. (So my complaint that I had no idea what the stakes were ends up a bit off-the-mark, since there really were no stakes.) And it provided the happy ending that would have only been bittersweet otherwise. We know that Kate leaves, Jack dies, and Hurley takes Jack's place - and we don't know what happens to them afterward - but we're told that it basically doesn't matter.

2) Shockingly, and aside from the reveal of the flashsideways-as-afterlife, there were no twists in the finale. Everything we learned about the nature of the island, about the Man in Black and Jacob, turned out to be absolutely true and we really didn't learn anything new about the island. It was straightforward, epic-drama - the world would end if Locke escaped and if Jack couldn't restore the light. And I thought it was pretty effective stuff, too.

3) So whether the show was 'good' or not hinges, I think, on whether you buy the overtly religious ending. That the show moved in this direction wasn't a surprised - the science/reason v. fate/faith opposition that so strongly characterized the first couple seasons was indisputably won by religion/faith side this season, and was probably a foregone conclusion as soon as Jack started to believe he was fated to return there. (Which is to say that, unlike in Battlestar Galactica, it didn't come out of left field.) But the strength with which the epilogue pushed a very Christian - that multi-faith stained glass window aside - resolution to the series was a bit startling. (At least they had the sense to make a joke about it, when Kate comments on the ridiculousness of Christian Shepherd's name.)

I found myself liking how heartwarming the epilogue was, but after this much time I'm starting to feel a bit cheated. I was moved in the moment, but I think that the credit for that goes to the actors and my own substantial investment in the show - I could ignore or miss the larger spiritual politics because I found it so damned pleasant. (This kind of sleight-of-hand is the same complaint I had of the Sun and Jin death scene, in a way - a touching resolution to their story that is at once undermined by the realization that they're abandoning their daughter, and probably abandoning her to Sun's father. Once the emotion of the moment wears off, you realize that they're actually pretty selfish.) I don't know whether there was a way to offer viewers that happy ending without going in the direction of religion, but, as-is, it feels incongruent with the first five seasons of the show.

But the ending on the island, with Jack dying in the field where he first landed, Hurley and Ben panicked about what happens next, and Kate leaving someone behind, again? That seemed more apropos, more like the Lost that offers half answers and an unexpected new status quo. Maybe the pressure to offer an unequivocal ending was too much. Maybe Cuse and Lindelof thought the flashsideways was more subtle than it turned out to be. Maybe the show was so hopeless at points that we needed the finale to remind us that hope and love exist and that the characters really care for one another And maybe the whole afterlife thing was the only way to pull that off. I feel some satisfaction from the characters' happy ending and I'm simultaneously numbed by the particularly Christian-styling of the message. I'm not sure what else I can add.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quick update on Lost and the Theory of Everything (now at version 3.0)

Once again, I've re-revised my position on how the flashsideways relate to the main Lost U: I'm thinking, again, that the flashsideways follow, narrative-wise, after the resolution of the main story.

The short explanation: If Jacob's Mother was telling the truth when she said that it's bad for humans to capture/harness The Light - and it seems reasonable to suspect that this much, at least, is true - then it's probably also bad that Mother (and Jacob and Smokey) should have it, too. (In brief: Even if they're well-intentioned, there's no reason to think that they're somehow the only people in existence who can't be allowed to have it - that no one else should be allowed to find it or use it because bad things will happen, but these people are an exception. And given all their magical powers, they definitely have it.)

And this is why Jack is a particularly good target to be convinced to accept the mantle - he still wants to fix things, and replacing Jacob essentially makes him the most important fixer in the world. Like Jacob in this past episode, his benevolent intentions make him the ideal, and entirely self-deceiving, candidate.

Why self-deceiving? Because I suspect that The Light should be allowed to leave the island - that the ostensible source of what's good and life-giving probably shouldn't be confined to a cave on an island. So when Smokey-as-Locke finally escapes, it'll be like Pandora's Box, only in reverse, and this is why, for example, the universally bad parents of the main Lost universe will become good parents in the sideways universe, and so on.

And, having written this, I'm at least 95% sure that I'll be proven totally wrong.

Robinson Cano, baseball, and racism

It's been a rather recent development in baseball blogging to note the contrary ways that white and non-white players are generally talked about. I'm actually pretty surprised that sports bloggers would pick up on this, especially since it's relatively subtle stuff. (Or, at least, much more subtle than what typically passes for 'racism' in mainstream journalism.)

Take this bit by ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, in describing the New York Yankees' second baseman, the Dominican-born Robinson Cano:

"[Cano] learned an even more enduring lesson in September 2008, when [manager Joe] Girardi benched him for lollygagging after a ball in short right field against Tampa Bay. Cano, seven months removed from signing a $30 million contract extension, needed someone new to prod him after third-base coach Larry Bowa left the Yankees to join Torre in Los Angeles."

What exactly is Crasnick adding to the story with that second sentence? Why does a report on Cano's benching require that we be told Cano's new financial situation unless we're meant to understanding that getting rich has made him lazy and complacent? And what's his rationale for the claim that Cano requires someone else to keep him focused, as if an elite athlete needs this kind of babysitting?

Moshe Mandel at the baseball blog TYU notes how the subtly racialized characterizations of Cano are especially apparent when he's compared to his white counterpart on the Boston Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia:

The Bronx incumbent is smooth, super-cool and has a hitting DNA to die for. But Pedroia plays harder and has a greater emotional investment in the day-to-day outcome of his team. In other words, he cares more than Cano. From Fox Sports' Bob Klapisch:

"The Bronx incumbent [Cano] is smooth, super-cool and has a hitting DNA to die for. But Pedroia plays harder and has a greater emotional investment in the day-to-day outcome of his team. In other words, he cares more than Cano."

How do we know that Pedroia cares more? That Cano is "super-cool"? That Pedroia "plays harder"? Or that Cano has "hitting DNA"? Who knows? But what we do know is that these associations of success with hard-work and intelligence (Pedroia) or else biology and natural talent (Cano), and the privileging of the deliberateness and accomplishment involved in achieving the former - that is, the natural talent can backslide or grow complacent because he hasn't earned it, whereas the learned talent knows failure and is less likely to take success for granted - are undoubtedly racialized assumptions. (Obviously, I'm thinking about this because of my Lady Gaga post from a couple days ago.)

And this is especially true given that these assumptions rely on supposed 'information' about the players that would be virtually impossible to locate or verify - have the writers run Cano's blood through tests to quantify his ability, or are their assumptions about Pedroia based on the way that he gets down on hands and knees with a toothbrush to clean the kitchen floor? (Though I suppose that being able to 'evaluate' or 'assess' these players is what supposedly makes these writers experts in their fields. Supposedly.)

Mandel also supplies this quote from a baseball talent evaluator, assessing which of two young pitchers who've recently been signed to big contracts - the white Justin Verlander and the Hispanic Felix Hernandez - is a safer bet:

“Now we’ll see what the contracts do to both guys. It won’t faze Verlander, but I guess it’s possible Felix could get a little complacent. His makeup doesn’t suggest it, but you never know."

This quote requires a little less explanation, I think - if his 'makeup' doesn't suggest it, then what does? And why does the white guy get a free pass?

Baseball commentators on TV, I should add, are routinely terrible. (This is why the website FireJoeMorgan was created: because the former players who dominate the jobs, in particular, have a surprisingly poor understanding of how the game works - success rates, probabilities, likelihoods, percentages - outside being able to offer glimpses into player psychology.) That they should be terrible at their job and racist? Ugh.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost: stumbling to a conclusion

So I didn't like the last episode of Lost - "Across the Sea", the one that that was purportedly going to fill us in on where Jacob and the Man in Black came from. Two of my friends, though, liked it well enough, and supplied the following comments:
  • Alex "finds it incredibly amusing that Lost viewers get disappointed when 'nothing was made clear,' as if that was something that has *ever* happened. From where do they derive this expectation of clarity?"
  • Geoff writes that "It would not be Lost without the messy. If you have not come to enjoy the messiness, I am surprised you still watch the show."
These are fine points, but I don't think that either really addresses my problem with the episode. And simply, it was this - if this is the big mythology-information-dump leading up to the finale, it should have left me certain that I know what the stakes of the final showdown between Jack's group and the Man in Black are. And it didn't.

Sure, it told me that Jack and MiB are brothers, that the mysterious power source at the center of the island is a light, that MiB simply wants to leave for the sake of leaving... but these were hardly the burning questions that I wanted answered. What I felt that I needed to know was what would happen if MiB were to leave, and why he needed to be stopped. (If, in fact, that needed to happen.) And not only is the 'why' not clear to me, but MiB is made so sympathetic - and Jacob's mission is made so doubtful due to the unreliability of the character whose job he has taken - that I feel less certain that MiB has to be stopped at all.

I should add that Geoff uses gnosticism to provide a plausible answer to my most burning questions. This is what he writes:

the energy at the center of the island is the light of creation, or something like that. The Smoke is the opposite number, split off when the light was disturbed by someone corrupted by men — this is pure Gnostic mythology. Somehow the smoke is or has the light now and if it leaves the island everything goes out everywhere.

Okay, I can buy that. But even if Geoff is right, that particular thought never occurred to me until I read Geoff's review. I didn't even notice that the light went out in the cave, nor did I think, when it was first pointed out to me in an article elsewhere, that a) this would necessarily mean that MiB now has/is the light, and b) the world should end if he leaves with it. If this is true, it actually becomes the entire point of the show. And if I need someone's blog or a thorough understanding of gnosticism to point out something so fundamental to my understanding of the show, then it hasn't been made clear enough.*

* [What's especially annoying about this is that the connection made between 'Adam and Eve' from season one and the bodies of Mother and Brother was drawn in the most hamfisted and patronizing way - with horribly incorporated cut-scenes. Why be so painfully clear about such a minor detail, when you so badly explain something so much more important with the creation of the smoke monster and disappearance of the light?]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The transgressive(?) Lady Gaga

I've been meaning to write about Lady Gaga for weeks. Unfortunately, what I wanted to write grew to this mammoth range of topics that became too daunting to even start. (This is a common problem for me.) So I'm going to try to pick out one specific element.

So for this blog, anyway, it's the recent hubbub over Gaga's lack of self-consciousness regarding her race and the role that race plays in the kind of appropriation that is central to her various art practices.

So why does Gaga get all the love? How much of it is because, as a small young blonde woman she appears to be transgressive in a way that artists like M.I.A. or even Trina cannot be transgressive, because to begin with they are already seen as non-normative, simply because they aren’t white?

This is probably an apt point. By virtue of her whiteness, Gaga is not 'naturally' transgressive - she has to work at it, has to adorn her body and performance with the markings of transgression, and so she gets extra credit for having had to make deliberate, intelligent, and artistic decisions that require her to extend beyond her own bubble of normativity. M.I.A., on the other hand, is already 'naturally' an Other - born into the body of an Other, with links to an Otherized culture, her Britishness notwithstanding - and so we give her less credit for having achieved something, since she presumably had something more transgressive to begin with. M.I.A.'s 9-month pregnant body on the Grammys a couple years back, versus Gaga's varied prosthetics on this year's Grammys, draws this implicit difference out perfectly - the former has an excess of body and nature, the latter an excess of intellect and artifice.

Which is all well and good - and wholly accurate, in isolation - but ignores Gaga's indebtedness to (mostly) white performers like Madonna, Bjork, Abba, Christina Aguilera, and even Britney Spears. My sense is that Gaga is taking a race-blind approach and stealing and mixing from every/any source available. And while race-blind appropriation is definitely problematic, we need to account for these white sources, too, especially when they're arguably more central to Gaga's art.

Clearly Gaga is not oblivious to her own “normativity”; she actually uses it as a weapon, drawing in the viewer with the expectation that she will be blonde and submissive, and then upsetting those expectations by doing intentionally weird, gross things. But while she’s playing with her whiteness, she (& her critic fans) seem somewhat oblivious to her white privilege. And the attendant attention she gets, while women of colour’s contributions to redefining music and gender performance are marginalised.

I'm not quite on-board with this one. The authors recognize Gaga's reflexivity and self-awareness to her normativity, but castigate her for failing to acknowledge that it's her privilege that allows her to subvert normativity in the way that she does. Okay, I'm with them on that - subversion that's undertaken by people who can still pass as normal, as opposed to people whose bodies preclude the possibility that they can be considered normal and so become subversive almost by default, is a particularly safe kind of subversion, and we should account for it. But there's an element of blame, here, too, where Gaga is being faulted for contributing to the marginalization of women of colour in the same field. I have to wonder what else Gaga could do - if she can't help but embody white privilege even as she attempts to subvert or ironize it, what options are left to her?

M.I.A.’s comments seem particularly spot on: while the spectacle of Gaga is dazzling, ironically as a singer, her music is the least progressive thing about her. Especially when you contrast it with M.I.A’s bonkers rhymes and bold call-outs to volatile political conflicts.

Victoria was annoyed particularly by this last section of the blog post, and I feel the same way. There's an assumption, here, that Gaga's pop-proclivities should invalidate the rest of her body of work - that her work in fashion, for instance, is somehow devalued or delegitimated because Gaga writes chart-toppers instead of inscrutable music with politicized lyrics. And that's really not fair, for at least two reasons: for one, we probably wouldn't even be discussing Gaga if her audience was the same (demographically and with respect to size) as M.I.A.'s because her fame and ubiquity are key to her appeal, and two, it just isn't reasonable to expect that every artist is transgressive or obtuse in every aspect of their artistic practice. And Gaga is certainly more obtuse than any other pop-queen, so that's worth something, isn't it?