Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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May 27, 2010

I once was LOST, but now am found

So, predictably enough, ‘The End’ of LOST didn’t answer any questions (it probably raised more) and wasn’t really interested in providing any sort of actual coherent conclusion to the rambling nonsense that had preceded it.

Interestingly it seemed a mea culpa by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as the reunion of all the most beloved cast members in Ultimate Los Angeles (which it was really – like Marvel’s Ultimate universe all the same characters appeared, slightly different, but still connected) was dependent for its emotional impact on flashbacks from the days when LOST was concerned with characters not plot mechanics and quantum mechanics. The moment when Ultimate Juliet and Sawyer remembered their life together and its horrific end had me in tears, but this season of LOST had little of that character development. The death of my favourite character Juliet was almost a summary of everything that went wrong. Characters were sacrificed to a material, (time-travel, Jakob, Desmond) that was never as interesting as Lindelof & Cuse found it, and evermore characters were introduced and killed rather than grappling with the show’s enduring and original problem of having too many characters.

When we talk abstractedly of ‘the writers’ it’s worth noting that no show could have sustained continuity over 6 seasons given the shocking revolving door of writers that the escalating absurdity of the show’s mythology just seemed to burn through – and this is a brain-drain of very talented writers like Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, David Fury, Drew Goddard and Brian K Vaughan. The last season of LOST introduced new and uninteresting characters and then killed them off within weeks and got lost in creating at the last minute a ‘mythology’ that was meant to have been central to the show… The sure sign that a show is losing its way (24) is when the writing room starts to resemble this:

DIGGORY: I’m not sure this episode is working, it seems a bit boring.

LINDELOF: How many characters have you killed off?

DIGGORY: Just the one.

LINDELOF: Well no wonder it’s boring! Kill off at least three people! It’s not like we’re short of characters, and we can always bring the actors back in flashback, or in parallel universes, or as ghosts.

CUSE: Or as ghosts in flashback within a parallel universe.

LINDELOF: Would you stop being silly?

CUSE: Sorry. I, uh, noticed that your script is a bit short on dramatic conflict too.

DIGGORY: Yeah, sorry. No conflict seemed to grow organically from the characters-

LINDELOF: Grow organically?! What are we? A communist eco-friendly farming co-op? Just get Sayid to torture someone for God’s sake! Instant dramatic conflict!

DIGGORY: We don’t have Naveen around for this episode, he’s shooting a film in-

LINDELOF: Then just get someone else to torture someone for some reason! Sheesh, do I have to write every little thing around here?!

The ‘resolution’ of the mythology on the island was merely a means to an end – the fearful symmetry of a dying Jack lying down in the exact place where he first woke up, so that the show’s first image, Jack’s eye opening, was mirrored in its final image, Jack’s eye closing. It was a clever-clever ending but what preceded it on the island answered few questions. As for the Ultimate ending… I wrote in a 2005 piece on the first season that one of the most popular theories was “All the survivors are dead and The Island is Purgatory”, which was strenuously denied by Lindelof & Cuse, and rightly so. The Island it turns out was a complete irrelevance, which led the characters to Ultimate LA, which was Purgatory… Before the finale aired I listened to Coldplay’s Parachutes, especially ‘Everything’s Not Lost’, which I bought around the time LOST premiered in 2005. Thinking back I realised how I experienced LOST was by increasingly making fun of various absurdities as the show progressed and discussing the season finales, especially the third season’s which seemed to dominate conversation at a friend’s 21st. All those conversations were pointless it now transpires as apparently the point of the show was the moment when Christian Shepherd revealed to Jack that all the Ultimate characters were dead. This reunion of beloved characters was the spur for them to move on to heaven as he opened the church doors to an enveloping white light. As moments go it was quite beautiful, if not as powerful as Charlie blessing himself before dying peacefully, and the situating of this event in a Unitarian church with a stained-glass window depicting symbols from all the major world religions showed Lindelof & Cuse trying to make this a warm group-hug.

As a philosophical thought it was a nice interpretation of Purgatory – learning to take all that was best from your life and leaving behind all that was worst – but it had nothing to do with the violent mayhem it ‘resolved’. In the final analysis LOST occasionally hit sustained patches of greatness in spite of the mythology rather than because of it, and the mythology will sink its long-term reputation.

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