Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The 24 Types of Libertarian

Barry Deutsch at Ampersand has created a fantastic cartoon, "The 24 Types of Libertarian." Head over to read the whole thing. (Via.)


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kindness, the Social Contract and Gilliam

(Great Depression-era photo.)

The Republican Party has blocked an essential jobs bill, and as usual the media has struggled to report these events accurately. The aim of the G20 seems to be figuring out how to make average people pay for the screw-ups of the rich. Peter G. Peterson and his pals have spent over one billion dollars trying to destroy Social Security and any sort of social safety net. Alan Simpson and other Beltway insiders are pushing the same thing. There's been some pushback, but not enough. Paul Krugman has been sounding the alarm for months now about a dangerous conventional wisdom on economics that defies all logic and could stall any recovery - or even create a full-fledged depression. (Brad DeLong and Robert Reich have been making the case, too.) And closer to home, too many good people are getting screwed.

You'd have to be pretty cloistered at this point not to know someone who's been hit by economic insecurity or who's faced unemployment recently. I think in general, the liberal blogosphere knows it all too well, and is trying to do something about it. The teabaggers may feel the pinch too, but they're mainly interested in scapegoating, and are backing the very same people who both got us into this mess and are trying to exacerbate it. (In contrast, liberals may swear a lot, but most are working so that even the obnoxious opposition gets health care, a decent education and a fair wage. Hey, it comes with the territory.) I'm concerned that not only is America a plutocracy, but it's getting worse. I don't see any average folks looking for a handout – just a fair deal. Investing in basic prosperity and other public goods – jobs, education, training, public transportation, public libraries and parks, pure research, the arts – not only makes life much richer, it stimulates the economy. The feudal model being pushed by many members of our ruling class isn't just immoral and a major step backward, it's a bad way to run a country. (Some smarter scumbags and more competent Machiavellis, please.)

Things aren't hopeless, and there are always specific actions to take locally, to support good work. There's working for worthy candidates, calling one's congresscritters and pushing specific bills. There's writing an insightful or cathartic piece, or doing any small act of kindness for a fellow human being. Hard work and talent are important, but luck and support play a larger role in "success" than the Randians will ever acknowledge. Good programs can help close the gap and provide a baseline of opportunity and prosperity. Individual gestures can aid a great deal. Driftglass and Blue Gal's most recent podcast discussed the concept of the Social Contract nicely. (I've been working on some posts on the same theme, actually.) Call it enlightened self-interest or common sense or basic fairness, but the Social Contract is a great idea that's been under attack since at least Nixon and Reagan. Saying it's worth fighting for is an understatement. It's absolutely essential. To quote from a 2006 article I've cited before, "Live at Your Own Risk":

[Jacob] Hacker observes that “Social Security, Medicare, private health insurance, traditional guaranteed pensions—all sent the same reassuring message: someone is watching out for you, all of us are watching out for you, when things go bad. Today, the message is starkly different: You are on your own.”...

Two other new books hit on similar themes from different angles. In All Together Now, Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, offers a trenchant critique of the economic, political and moral shortcomings of conservative social and economic policy that he dubs YOYO, or “you’re on your own.” He wittily contrasts them a progressive strategy that recognizes that “we’re in this together,”: WITT.

These ideas aren't foreign to the Obama administration, either, since Bernstein now works there. But certainly not everyone there, or in Congress, feels the same way. And Peterson and others will eagerly spend billions more to push their reigning mantras: "You're on your own" and "Screw you, I've got mine." They're never going to stop, and they won't be defeated without serious, sustained pressure.

That fight remains crucial, but the arts often capture the madness the best, so let's finish with Gilliam. Here's Tom Waits' great - and timely - monologue from The Fisher King:

Of course, sometimes even those eager to pucker will get laid off. And it's not in the nature of some to pucker.

It's not a coincidence, either, that Gilliam follows that scene with this magical one:

Moving over to Brazil, some types view basic competence as dangerous, and meritocracy may still be the most revolutionary ethos the world has ever seen:

Karma is a funny thing:

Like the man said, We're all in it together.

(Billboard from the film Brazil.)


Driftglass Fundraiser

Driftglass is having a fundraiser, and just got laid off. If you haven't heard the weekly Driftglass-Blue Gal Podcasts yet, they're really good stuff. I know plenty of people are in tough situations themselves, but I'm sure any help or a kind word would be appreciated. Thanks.

(More on this general trend here.)


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Renewable Energy and Orthodoxy

"A Plan for a Sustainable Future" (PDF) by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi is an excellent overview on renewable energy and what's needed to make a 100% conversion. It was the cover story of the November 2009 issue of Scientific American. Jacobson also discussed the article with Financial Times this past May. While there are some practical problems, such as the scarcity of some key materials, overall the major obstacle is political will. Jacobson and Delucchi calculate that wind, water and sunlight (WWS for short) could provide all of our energy by 2030 (although they think that realistically, it will take longer due to political resistance). In any case, I found the article educational and encouraging.

Both these links come from Jonathan Schwarz' piece "Robert J. Samuelson: Why Is He So Incredibly Awful?" which is well worth a read on its own. Samuelson has often attacked Social Security, as well as health care and decent wages for the working class (follow the links in this long post for examples). Here's an excerpt from Schwarz' post:

I don't think Samuelson is literally in the pay of the oil and coal industries (at least not directly). Yet without addressing any of the many serious people who've studied this, he simply pronounces that significant change isn't possible. Why?

The reason, I'm certain, is he's just the kind of person who in every situation has a deep emotional attachment to the status quo. Everything is already the best it can be. If he'd been alive in 1870, he would have been writing about how we could never switch off of a whale blubber-powered economy. If we followed Mark Jacobson's recommendations, in 40 years Samuelson would be writing about how we could never switch from solar and wind power.

Samuelson's op-ed at least supports research and development, and gradual taxes on coal and oil, even if - predictably - he also urges "major spending cuts." But I agree that a great deal of conservatism, and establishment thinking in general, is fundamentally irrational. It's based on consensus views in a particular circle, emotional attachments and cognitive resistances. For months now, Paul Krugman has been detailing how world leaders' reactions to current global economic woes run against all logic. It's not hard to think of other examples where the Conventional Wisdom has been dead wrong (the Beltway crowd on Iraq). We'll continue to delve into this issue...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Comedy on The Oil Spill

The Daily Show is always good, but it's been superb on the oil spill:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Some of the Democrats are to the right of Nixon, and economically, the Blue Dogs are to the right of Reagan. That makes the GOP – which is far right - completely reckless or insane. I'd say Carter looks more and more prescient on the energy front, though. Next up:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Day 58 - The Strife Aquatic
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Let's take a dummy break, on the talking heads' bloviating about Obama's reaction:

Barton's apology to BP:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Day 59 - Judgment Day - The Strife Aquatic
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Tony Hayward attends a yacht race:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Day 62 - The Strife Aquatic
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Last up, from the Upright Citizens Brigade – BP spills some coffee:

(Some original blogging some time in the future...)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Traumatic Brain Injuries

NPR and ProPublica have produced a series on returning military personnel suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Sadly, these troopers often haven't been getting proper help, and these sort of injuries can become debilitating. While the military's medical system does a good job overall, hearing about TBI and PTSD not being treated adequately - if at all – is maddening. If the actual military budget amounts to close to one trillion dollars per year, there's no reason why troopers can't get decent pay and excellent medical care, especially when they received these injuries in combat.

Here's Part One and Part Two. Check out the "related links" for more. Meanwhile, Blue Girl and the rest of the crew at They Gave Us a Republic have been following stories on TBI, PTSD and veteran treatment diligently.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Karen Elson - "The Ghost Who Walks"

Eclectic Jukebox

The O'Neill Gets a Tony

Congratulations to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center for their well-deserved Regional Theater Tony Award! The Regional Theater award has always been one of the more interesting ones to me, because it acknowledges great theater outside of New York City, and as an O'Neill alum, I'm especially partial to this one. The O'Neill is an umbrella organization for several other programs, the most famous probably being the National Playwrights Conference, the National Theater Institute, and the National Music Theater Conference. If you've ever read Long Day's Journey Into Night, you can head over to O'Neill's summer boyhood home, the Monte Cristo Cottage, where the play is set. The Center itself is a magical place. (It really needs a better website, though.)

It was fitting for the O'Neill won this year, because a revival of August Wilson's Fences won a Tony, as did lead actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Fences was the first major success for Wilson, and it was developed at the O'Neill, as were several of his other plays. (It's also probably my favorite of his plays, although there are a few I still need to read.)

Preston Whiteway's acceptance speech for the O'Neill can be seen here (2010 Creative Arts Winners). I delayed this post, hoping video of Michael Douglas' segment on the O'Neill during the main ceremony would be put online, but alas, it hasn't been. (Meanwhile, Douglas' wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, also nabbed a Tony, for best actress in a musical.)

I was saddened to see that the great South African-born actor Zakes Mokae died (apparently back in September 2009). While he did extensive character roles in film and TV (his episode on The West Wing stands out), it's hard to think of him separate from his pioneering work with South African playwright Athol Fugard.

As for the rest of the Tonys, host Sean Hayes did an excellent, funny job, as did most of the presenters. I'm interested to read or see one of the other big winners, Red. Meanwhile, Angela Lansbury – who's 84! - received a special honor, and made some nice remarks about the importance of studying one's craft, training, and the generosity of scholarships. I hadn't known she fled London as a young woman with her family and came to New York City, all due to WWII. There, a special scholarship for Brits in her situation allowed her to continue her training. It's further testimony for the cause - Support the Arts! Good things will happen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Congratulations, Blackhawks

A belated congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks on the first Stanley Cup win since 1961!

All right, Washington Capitals and Chicago Cubs - you're next! Time to get those overdue championships!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Living Sisters - "Starman"

For more, check out "How Are You Doing?" - just an audio track, since it doesn't yet have a live or official video with good audio, alas.

Eclectic Jukebox

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Looking Back at Lost

(The Season 6 cast photo. Go here for a larger view. I'll be discussing more general issues first before I get into spoilers, but this post probably won't be that interesting for people who haven't see the show, anyway.)

Every question I answer will only lead to another question.
– Mother, "Across the Sea"

Going into the 6th and final season of Lost, my biggest concern was: Please don't pull a Matrix 3. The second Matrix film was uneven but had some fascinating and very promising elements. But then the third film - rather than delivering an epistemological mindfuck or existential depth or the emotional heft to elicit a full Keanu "whoa dude" - just trotted out the same ol' tired Christ imagery. I think the filmmakers just reached the limits of their intelligence or creativity or what-have-you. They wanted something cool, but just couldn't deliver.

After seeing the Lost finale (which re-aired the following Saturday), I think the showrunners avoided Matrix 3 territory. I still have some major questions about the series (more on that later), but the showrunners made the wise choice of aiming for emotional closure rather than solving all the puzzles. For the majority of devoted fans, this seems to have worked – even if they, too, have many questions remaining.

Whatever its flaws as a series, it's hard not to appreciate the ambition of Lost. It sought to be event television, and often succeeded at that. While the seasons and episodes were uneven in quality, the floor was pretty solid, and at its best Lost delivered some real gems of the medium. The Desmond-centered episode 4.5, "The Constant," is truly remarkable – a tight script, expert editing, a great key performance, the use of sci-fi to explore the human condition, and a strong, moving love story to bind it all together. Several other episodes have been tiny masterpieces of character study and clever plotting as well, including the Sawyer-focused episode 2.13 "The Long Con," and really most of season 1. Nearly every episode that featured Ben Linus heavily was great. And Hurley may be the best audience surrogate evah.

When the show started, I was wondering how long they could keep it going, since being stuck on an island is a pretty closed (if challenging) situation. However, the flashback format allowed the show to break things up and return to the mainland world, and the flashbacks were skillfully woven into current life on the island. Most season 1 episodes, whatever their immediate plot demands or suspenseful elements, also became fascinating character studies, as, say, trust issues or stubbornness or a drive for vengeance from the past also played out in front of us in the present. No one had escaped his or her demons, and the island forced characters to face those once again. The flashback episodes were pretty complicated structurally, but generally smoothly executed. With subsequent seasons, the writers became more daring (probably too daring at times) with structure and time. Lost also was that rare show that tried to be smart, pitching itself to a narrative-savvy audience who generally saw twists coming on more conventional shows. Yet the writers still managed to outwit, surprise and delight viewers. (There was plenty of frustration at times, too, especially during the weaker episodes, and the endless runarounds by the head writers about giving at least partial answers to key mysteries.) Plot-wise and timeline wise, I liked that there were/had been multiple groups on the island, often at cross-purposes, versus the straight good guys-bad guys dichotomy of many a series. Most of the key characters were multifaceted, flawed and intriguing. Lost at its best centered on strong characters, good performances and an emotional core, it featured complicated but skilled storytelling, and on top of all that it piled on a plethora of mythological, sci-fi, narrative and science geek references. When it was really rolling, it was hardcore geek bait, but accessible to a wider audience as well.

That level of quality and artistry simply isn't easy to achieve, especially in a commercial medium with the demands of commercial breaks and fairly strict running times. Show co-creator J.J. Abrams, notorious for losing interest in projects after he's started them, left near the end of season 1 with some general ideas discussed but many mysteries unsolved even by the head writers. There were times, especially during seasons 2 and 3, when they were pulling stuff out of their asses by necessity. And to a degree, this was always the case. As head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse said, they didn't know from one season to the next if the show would get renewed. Luckily for the show, ABC announced an end date with a commitment to three shortened seasons, which was the right move for material like this. But look at the Pilot, all of season 1, and many elements of the subsequent seasons. Serial television, especially of the mystery-puzzle genre, depends on creating cool, intriguing, suspenseful elements early on, and then playing with them. The writers won't necessarily know which ones they're going to exploit the most at first, and other strains may become more promising. Polar bears that let the castaways know the island is unusual might fade into the background, while the mysterious monster and its nature might change and grow. An actor slotted to be a regular might want off the show and have to be written out, and another actor scheduled for a few episodes might become a major character (both these actually happened). Television works on an extremely demanding, challenging schedule. As much as the writers might try to give an overall arc to a series, the reality is they have to deliver a new, good, self-sufficient show each week – and those shows are based on scripts and principal photography completed months before, with a mad post-production race at the end. (Composer Michael Giacchino's scrambles alone were extraordinary.) It's a bit like performing long form improv and spontaneous rants, albeit with much more discussion and planning beforehand. "Please be brilliant on cue, on demand! And do it every week!" Lindelof is rightly a huge fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen, but Alan Moore had the benefit of being able to plot out his entire 12-issue series with artist Dave Gibbons before it was published. In Watchmen, everything is intentional and meticulously crafted to a stunning level of detail. A few perfectionist directors, such as Kubrick and Hitchcock, have achieved the same or close to it in film. It's much harder in TV, except as a miniseries (Dennis Potter's best work qualifies). For the most part, Lost excelled at delivering suspense within a given episode, and ending each episode – and certainly each season - with a cliffhanger. But it's not surprising that some things were lost along the way. Whether one thinks the series pulled it all off in the end or not, at its worst, Lost delivered some phenomenal episodes.

Okay, now let's go into spoiler territory. A couple of years back, after the end date had been announced, I heard head writers/showrunners Lindelof and Cuse speak. After that there was a screening of the (very good) Charlie-centered episode, 3.21 "Greatest Hits." After that, episode writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz discussed it, as well as a few other episodes they had written. It amounted to 4+ hours of Lost discussion. (Honestly, it made me much intrigued in the show than I had been, since I had lost interest and confidence in the show at points, and had missed episodes due to that and because of some other projects. I also thought it was a bad sign that they kept on airing recap and "explanation" episodes – although their short recap videos were hilarious.)

It was really interesting to hear how their writing room worked, and how they "broke" a season and script. (Tim Kring, who also spoke that weekend, ran Heroes very differently, and I don't think as well.) The Lost writers also discussed specific challenges for particular scripts, and their solutions (which I'd say were generally good, and certainly better than the alternatives). At the time, Cuse and Lindelof claimed they knew what the last shot/image would be (which was/is entirely plausible). In their account, Abrams had left near the end of season 1 saying, 'There's a mysterious hatch, and there's something really cool in it, but I don't know what it is. Have fun! Goodbye!' Cuse had just come on to help run the show and help out the overwhelmed Lindelof, and it was up to them to work everything else out.

On the actor front, it's fairly well known that Mr. Eko was slotted for a larger ongoing role, but actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was homesick for London, so they killed Mr. Eko off (although they did it in a good episode). According to their accounts, they offered him a hefty sum to appear in the finale, but he wanted double or triple the amount, so they passed. Michael Emerson, who played Ben Linus and Henry Gale, was originally signed for a few episodes. The writers weren't sure yet whether Henry Gale would also be the leader of the Others, which was an option they were considering, but they wanted to see how Emerson did first. Emerson was phenomenal, of course, and so he got the gig, becoming one of the screen's great Machiavellian characters.

In general, I'd rate the acting as strong, occasionally exceptional. I'd peg Michael Emerson (Ben Linus) as the best actor overall, and I think he inspired the writers to new heights. That was probably true of much of the cast. Terry O'Quinn (Locke) was awfully fine too, doing some very subtle stuff that one might miss the first time around. Matthew Fox and Josh Holloway had some superb moments, as did most everyone in the cast. I was happy to see Ana Lucia and Michael exit, but more for their characters than their performances. Fionnula Flanagan (Eloise Hawking, older) was criticized by some for overacting, and I have to agree. She's superb in some other films, and her arch, stern tone was right for the character, but it needed to be dialed down a few notches in some scenes. Still, she was quite touching and sympathetic in the finale. One of the best things about Lost was that despite its huge cast, even the secondary characters often had good moments, or were even the focus of a whole episode. "Ab Aeterno" and the Faraday-centered episode "The Variable" (reminiscent of 12 Monkeys) were self-contained mini-epics or tragedies.

Now back to season 6, the finale, and the series as a whole. One of my questions during season 6 was how they were going to square the mythic tone of the Richard-centered episode "Ab Aeterno" with the more sci-fi world of the Desmond-centered episode "Happily Ever After." It's not that hard to give a sci-fi explanation for what seems to be magic, but artistically, the challenge is more one of tone. More importantly, how would both of those strains interact with the main characters from season 1, who at times felt lost and forgotten by the writers?

The writers threw in so many elements from mythology, sci-fi, and advanced physics that they really had the range of play to end the series however they wanted. (Maybe not coherently or completely regarding all their "mysteries," but...) They also had the unenviable task of living up to huge expectations, and essentially having to violate a central appeal of the show – mystery and suspense – while delivering a finale and "answers." On one level, it was a no-win situation. Still, I was concerned that the writers piled on more and more stuff on every season, with flash-backs, then flash-forwards, and finally "flash-sideways" in season 6. How much did we really need the Temple stuff and all those new characters at the beginning of the season? Has any character in power with secrets ever considered just telling the damn truth versus playing all these games? (Looking at you, Dogen. At least one episode was treading water, and if there's some big cosmic battle coming, it's pretty idiotic not to tell your allies critical information.) At its best, season 6 once again provided some stellar character moments. But the Jacob-Man in Black storyline in season 6 significantly upended the power dynamics for the series. Jack and Ben squaring off, or Jack and Dogen, didn't matter much when the smoke monster could easily kill almost everyone.

The final episode was somewhat emotionally satisfying, but left – and raised – many questions. Dramatically, the one scene I felt was really lacking was the faceoff between Jack and the Man in Black (as Locke). The fight was pretty good, but there should have been some line, some exchange, some recognition from the Man in Black about him waiting 2000-some years for this moment, to get free of the island. If the entire series (plot-wise, anyway) was really about this battle being waged in the background, and often through proxies, he should have had some recognition of that and acknowledged the stakes. He told Jack that Jack will have died for nothing – well, that was really Smokey's own fate.

I wouldn't have been surprised to see Ben Linus bite it, perhaps nobly, but it was sorta cool to see him paired with Hurley at the end – the most innocent, good character with the most Machiavellian. Ben often reminded me of one of my other favorite villains, Edmund in King Lear, who, sensing his own imminent demise, has a revelation and says, "Some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature." (5.3, 248-249) Michael Emerson has wonderful command of vocal inflection (his joke spots reading nursery rhymes as Ben are hilarious), and his performances were often brilliant and riveting. As dastardly as Ben often was, it was hard not to admire his style and skill. And just when we thought Ben might be good, he zig-zagged back. Despite his villainy, he becomes quite sympathetic in a couple of episodes, notably 5.12 "Dead is Dead" where he faces (what he believes to be) his dead adoptive daughter, Alex, and 6.7 "Dr. Linus." That's quite the feat. I could definitely imagine him dying, but as Samuel L. Jackson told George Lucas about Mace Windu, "Don't let him go out like a punk."

The "Source" of the island was a bit weird. I liked the idea of it being turned off or interfered with, and that making the MiB mortal, to his own surprise. But apparently, the island was a source of unusual energy because there was a plug in the drain, and this collected energy on the island? But the Swan station of season 2 released dangerous build-up of this energy? (Human personnel monitoring the Swan made sense, but there was never a good reason not to automate the damn valve instead of necessitating that a person press a button every 108 minutes. That pointed to psych experiment, as posited by some of the characters.) And would the entire world end, or just the island, by removing the plug? The plug seemed to be foreshadowed in "Ab Aeterno" with Jacob's metaphor of the cork in the wine jug holding in the evil. But that would make the "Source" the, uh, source of evil as well. If we're going with a Christian cosmology, that makes sense, and the Smoke Monster was born – or unleashed – when the Man in Black was tossed into the Source by his brother, Jacob. Did the Smoke Monster exist before? Or did the Source unleash the Man in Black's essence? (I'd go with the latter.) Mother never gave a good reason for the Man in Black not leaving the island, and I have to wonder if there was any harm in it – before he was transformed, that is. (MIB clearly believed, in the show finale, that messing with the Source would destroy the Island, but not the world, else he wouldn't have tried to escape.) And could Mother go all smokey herself before her death? She did murder and destroy an entire village.

The "heaven"-ish ending was somewhat earned by the existential theme of the entire series. In one of the final scenes, Christian Shepherd stands before a stained-glass window which shows the symbols of six major world religions, which was a conscious attempt to broaden the ending from a solely Christian cosmology. Matthew Fox gave an interesting, clear take here:

(The entire Kimmel special was quite good, and I hope it's thrown on as an extra for the season 6 discs. It also had three fake "alternative" endings, and a great montage of kisses and fights.)

Going by the lines in the actual show ("There is no now here," "Everything that's ever happened to you is real") everyone in the Sideways World was dead, but everything that occurred beforehand was real. That's further confirmed by Hurley and Ben in Sideways World talking about their island life ("You were a great number one, Hugo") and the now-aged sneaker hanging in the tree near where Jack dies.

I can't fully reconcile Sideways-World with the nuclear explosion, though. There are two major theories on time travel (at least in sci-fi lit), and they can be complimentary. Lost used, or flirted with, both of them. The first theory is that time is fixed, and cannot be changed (I was glad that Miles raised the obvious time travel point - maybe detonating the bomb caused "the incident"). The most common metaphor for time travel is a stream of water. Go back in time, change something tiny, and it's like dropping a small stone in the time stream – it's a ripple, some details might change, but the timeline remains the same. Go back in time and change something major, and it's like dropping a boulder in the time stream, which will then split into two. The future still exists as it did – but now the time travelers have created a new time stream, an alternative reality, and they're living in it. They haven't really changed "the" future, because that still exists, but they've changed "their" future. Some sci-fi further posits that changing the past too drastically or too often can lead to havoc and/or threaten existence itself, or that the two divergent streams will eventually merge and thus create chaos, and so on. Lost played with the havoc idea throughout the early part of season 5, when the island was skipping through time. (But it never made much sense that certain people had to "return" for it to settle, and I thought the "skipping" went on for too many episodes. Oh well.)

In any case, the start of season 6 showed us the Sideways World, and Dharmaville and Jacob's Egyptian Foot House under water. It was set up as an alternative reality, a change in the timeline – specifically, a diversion, since we now had the island characters in the island reality, and the sideways characters in the sideways reality (some of whom were dead in the island reality). Furthermore, characters from the island reality appeared in different roles in the Sideways World. The differences started out tiny, but multiplied. Jack had no children that we knew of, but in Sideways World, he had a son. Sideways World allowed Jack, Locke and Ben to come to important realizations and decisions – but for others, like Jin and Sun, there wasn't much there. If Sideways World, this afterlife, this purgatory was someplace they "all created together," then why would it necessarily start at the point of the now non-occurring plane crash? It makes some sense, I suppose, in that wondering "What If" for all the castaways and other characters would be strongest in terms of them never going to the island. For all of them, Sideways World would address some inevitable doubts and regrets. Still, the Sideways World, and presenting it as the writers did, seems mainly to have been a fake-out to the audience. Okay, it's sorta clever that it was purgatory of sorts, after all those theories and earlier denials, but... on one level, it still feels like a cheat. Maybe I'll feel differently watching it again. (I'll have to see how it plays, but I'm thinking that when Desmond bounced through time and met Eloise Hawking, he actually went into Sideways World, which is why she was fully aware of who he was and what would happen – and to her mind, what should happen.)

During season 1, I was guessing the island was purgatory or limbo, mostly because I've seen that's what hack writers generally fall back on, but the series turned in some stellar episodes. I was also musing about the "Shore Leave" angle, even if the Island wasn't as beneficent. Hell was also a possibility, but a bit less interesting since Hell tends to be more final than purgatory - not that one cosmology's specific afterlife had to be correct, let alone the answer. Plus, as the writers pointed out, they showed the outside world, including the Red Sox winning the World Series. The characters themselves often brought up viewer theories, including Hell and being dead (and the writers played "meta" games throughout). Late in season 5, especially during Ben's "judging" by Smokey, I found myself thinking of somewhat obscure Egyptian mythology (Ammit the Devourer). With the end of season 5 and Jacob's Obi-Wan death, and the beginning of season 6, I began thinking more of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman regarding the "candidates" and immortals seeking replacements. Most of all, for the series as a whole, I started thinking of Sartre's No Exit, not solely because of hell, but more because of the centrality of choice. In No Exit, the three main characters find themselves in an existential hell. It's intriguing if nothing else because, well, should Existentialism even have a Hell? In any case, the three characters first give each other a false story for why they're there. Later they give the real reasons – and those reasons are more shameful. But it's an existential hell, so the final question is – at the end of the play, why are they still there? In No Exit, it's because they haven't truly changed or repented, and they even forsake a chance to leave to stay and argue.

If one believed that the Lost castaways were always in purgatory, the series revolved on a similar big question. Why were they there - or still there? And in Sideways World in season 6, those actually became the key question and answer. Characters being "tested" is sorta the theme of every narrative. With Lost, that testing was perhaps more literal. The further question with Lost was whether greater powers were intentionally doing the testing. The answer seems to be, yes, but not as much as one might have guessed.

I don't blame anyone for feeling cheated by the finale of Lost. Nor do I fault anyone for feeling satisfied. Personally, I tend to like "interesting failures," because I find them more thought-provoking and captivating than more conventional fare. Sometimes even a crappy work can spur a great discussion. I wouldn’t put Lost in that category, and don't think it's fair to call it a failure, even though the latticework did have holes. Overall, I found the ride pretty entertaining, intriguing and thought-provoking. It tested the limits of the medium and made some original and daring choices. I'd like to further study the best episodes in terms of their construction, both as scripts and in editing. (I'd like to learn from what I consider to be the series' mistakes, too.) Lost also spurred some awfully fun conversations. So thanks to everyone involved in the show for all of that. I'll probably watch the whole thing again (re-runs air out here in L.A.), and maybe my assessment will change.

I missed some episodes along the way, and didn't hit up all the hardcore fan sites and discussion boards as the show aired. However, I did start checking out The Washington Post's dueling analyses and post-episode discussions, which were quite good. They started during season 3, and Jen Chaney and Liz Kelly also have some interesting interviews and other features posted, all collected at Lost Central. The site Lostpedia lists all the episodes, compiles details and outlines several competing theories about aspects of the show (it's the only reason I was able to name some of the older episodes in this post). For unanswered mysteries, I thought these posts - one, two and three - listed most of mine. Some of the DCeiver's (Jason Linkins) old episode recaps are damn funny. I'm wary of giving ABC too much money, but some of their Lost merchandise is sorta cool. (Proceed with caution.) Finally, here's a cute comic on life with Hurley and Ben on the island.

Until the next hardcore geek-bait - Namaste, dude.

Update: I'm sure I could perpetually update this piece, but Jill has posted video comparing the first and final scenes of the series. Meanwhile, sci-fi/fantasy site Tor has a few noteworthy posts on Lost. The funniest is The Gashlycrumb Losties. There are also three takes on the final episode - one, two and three. All are interesting, but I found Bridget McGovern's take (#2) best at capturing the meta-narrative games of the ending and the show overall.

Friday, June 04, 2010

God Loves My Country

This is the band Balthrop, Alabama with "God Loves My Country," passed on by an old buddy. There are some other great songs that use this theme and tact, but given some of the saber-rattling, rabid spittle and abject stupidity out there - most recently about the Gaza flotilla - it seems pretty timely. Perhaps treating human beings like human beings might be a good start.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Ring Festival in L.A.

Currently, the Los Angeles Opera is staging all four operas in Wagner's epic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Achim Freyer. There are some related events around town. The official site has dates, tickets, videos, and more information. Meanwhile, local NPR show The Politics of Culture did an excellent show with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon and other guests on this production, the operas, and Wagner's artistic brilliance and personal flaws.

I've seen the whole thing, and it is memorable. I was very impressed by an earlier Freyer production, a visually arresting version of Berlioz' La Damnation of Faust. (Samuel Ramey, Denyce Graves and Paul Groves didn't hurt.) This production of the Ring (costing 32 million), is likewise highly stylized. It's not a "traditional" Ring, which may leave some first-time viewers disoriented. Some choices Freyer makes don't work, and there are a few times where, if you didn't know what was taking place on-stage already, you wouldn't know what was going on. However, that's the exception. Freyer also makes some truly inspired choices, and has clearly put enormous thought and energy into devising a visual scheme for the Ring. Wagner's operas tend to be visually static, with most of the movement in the music, and sometimes a good half-hour or more of sung plot exposition. Freyer creates a palpable mood throughout, and gives some key moments a visual punch. Most importantly, there's some glorious music and very fine singing (of demanding roles). Wagner, and specifically the Ring, isn't for everybody, but even if you don't think you know the Ring, chances are you'll recognize some of the music (especially The Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried's Funeral March). It's sometimes said that Wagner "invented" movie music, and there's some truth to that. I've always had a soft spot for the shortest and most "action-packed" of the cycle, Das Rheingold (2 hours, 45 minutes), but Die Walküre has some extremely lovely, moving duets. I'd be very surprised if they weren't filming this version (in case you miss it), but this is event theater, and hearing classical music/opera live is something special.

Here's a brief taste:

You can see more, including interviews and short clips of each opera, on the LA Opera's YouTube channel. If you do attend any of the operas, it's well worth showing up for the lectures an hour before performance. (Meanwhile, I like Deryck Cooke's 2 CD guide to the Ring, as well as the complete Solti Ring set it samples.)

Personal notes: I only got into opera after college, a bit to my surprise, since I like plots, pacing, and performances, and opera (other than Mozart) can move very slowly and isn't always well-acted. I don't always like musicals, for similar reasons (plus many are awfully sappy). Nonetheless, a good production and/or great singer can sell the whole thing. For opera, I generally sit in the cheap seats, which alas, ain't that cheap (and I used to do standing room in D.C.). I normally like the cheap seat crowd. However, when I was seeing Die Walküre, I was surprised to hear cell phones go off and a couple talking throughout most of Act I, full voice, not whispering (no sotto). I'm guessing that one person was translating the surtitles for their friend. The thing is, most Wagner operas are long – about five hours – and the plots are generally fairly slight. You can read the plot synopsis in the program in 5-10 minutes. So why translate the surtitles? When the guy is singing to his sister that he loves her (and not in a fraternal way), he's still singing that he loves her 20 minutes later. It really does not require a line by line translation. (Eventually, the talkers were hushed by some justly irate patrons.) Oh, and did I mention that the guy singing, the one they were talking over, was Placido Domingo? Ya would think going to see bloody Wagner – plus Domingo - would self-select out such behavior, but apparently not. Anyway, that's my you-damn-kids-stay-out-of-my-opera-house story. (Meanwhile, after I went to see Götterdämarung – plus the lecture beforehand – I went to a reading of Henry V, giving me my biggest cultural overdose since college. Whew.)

Seriously, though, while I like to poke fun at Wagner occasionally, he wrote some truly beautiful music, and it can be sublime to hear, especially live. The LA Opera generally mounts good productions, and this is a memorable Ring. If you're in the general area and have the time and money to attend, consider checking it out.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Dennis Hopper's terminal cancer and marital woes had made the local news out here months ago, but while his death isn't a surprise, it is a great loss. He was a prolific man, superb actor and fine, innovative director. He had a talent for playing villains, psychos and oddballs, because he was simultaneously edgy and grounded – as bizarre or quirky as he might behave, he was completely believable. His character might be a madman, but he was clearly enjoying it – and that made him interesting, even riveting, to watch.

I grew up seeing Dennis Hopper mostly in those offbeat and psycho roles, so it was a bit of a shock to see his earlier work, particularly in Giant, where he was so clean-cut. He was, however, extremely good. His performances were always real, and focused. I caught several interviews with him talking about his training, his influences, his process, and his many demons. (The wildest non drug-related Hopper story I've heard is that, supposedly, he went so method for Apocalypse Now he didn't bathe for a month and the rest of the crew refused to ride on the same bus with him.) Like some other actors, including his close pal Jack Nicholson, Hopper could get typecast – nevertheless, he always played the "Dennis Hopper role" very well. If something was weak in a film, it wasn't going to be his performance.

It's hard to underestimate how influential his film Easy Rider was, either, a low budget, counterculture blockbuster. It was interesting seeing Colors and trying to reconcile that this guy with the burnout, crazy image had directed it. Besides Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, the roles I'll always remember him for are in Apocalypse Now, River's Edge, Blue Velvet, Red Rock West and Hoosiers - the last one a role that may have been closer to the real Hopper than many of the psychos he played. Just as the audience roots for his alcoholic character, Shooter, to turn it around, I think many fans were rooting for Hopper to keep it together and do well.

Dennis Hopper was a fine photographer as well, and quite the art aficionado. He was a friend of Andy Warhol's, and when L.A. did a major Warhol retrospective several years back, Hopper recorded the (very good) audio guide. An exhibition of Hopper's art is scheduled for July at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

The Wiki entry on Hopper isn't bad, and the Los Angeles Times has both an obituary and appreciation. The New York Times did a good appreciation earlier this year (including a brief video segment), and Roger Ebert has a good piece on him.

The best overview I've seen of Dennis Hopper's career is this lengthy compilation from The Museum of the Moving Image (it has a fair amount of profanity, if that's a concern):


Update: Fresh Air combined two interviews with Hopper for an excellent remembrance.