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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (5/17/10) 9:38am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Hurt Locker, Pineapple Express
TV:  LOST [6x15] [spoilers]
Books:  It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken

The Hurt Locker
Okay, I've just written about two thousand words about the latest LOST episode, so the movies I saw this week are going to get short shrift.

This movie reminded me of a bit of advice I often give to screenwriters who are even more newbie-ish than I am:  "You *can* drop the ball on having a strong, overarching plot -- but that plot is the main way to hold the audience's interest.  So if you lose that, you'd better have something really amazing up your sleeve."

Wikipedia's plot summary for The Hurt Locker takes all of three paragraphs.  It's basically, "Sergeant James defuses a few bombs, tries going home, and returns to Iraq."  Done.

But then, the movie has so much going on up its sleeve that it really doesn't *matter* that the story has an episodic, this-happens-then-some-other-stuff-happens plot.[1]

First off, the individual scenes are gripping as hell.  Either Sergeant James defuses the bomb successfully, and he lives another day, or he ends up getting blown up to a thick red pulp, as the film helpfully demonstrates for us in its opening scenes.

Secondly, the film has a lot of interesting things to show us.  It's got a strong setting:  a lived-in, detailed view of occupied Baghdad.  It's got well-sketched secondary characters.  But mainly, this film feels like a character study.  It starts with the classic movie hero -- the brash, brave soldier who cuts corners and saves lives! -- and focuses so tightly on him that we ask the uncomfortable questions.  What makes a guy do that?  What is it that he's looking for out there?  What is *wrong* with this guy?

And of course, I'm not saying there's *no* overarching plot.  The character dynamics evolve over time.  The bomb scenes get more and more dangerous, and Sergeant James's actions get more and more risky.  But mostly you're not there for the plot.  You're there for the white-knuckle scenes where a guy has to do something very, very dangerous very, very carefully, or he'll wind up dead.  You're there to figure out why a guy does that, anyway.

Pineapple Express
Is there really much to say about a movie like Pineapple Express?  It's just a solid, three-star flick.  All the act breaks are where you expect them, the story zigs and zags the way you expect it to, and it's pretty much an off-the-shelf buddy action movie.  That simple plot is basically a clothesline to hang breezy comedic improvisation off of.  It is exactly the movie you'd expect it to be, and that's just fine.

I suppose I give this movie more goodwill than it deserves.  I loved that David Gordon Green, a pretty damn amazing film auteur best known for All the Real Girls and the mesmerizing George Washington, was putting aside his indie meditations to make a cheerfully-silly stoner action comedy.  Likewise, I loved that James Franco -- best known for a major role in the Spider-Man trilogy and some serious spinach-cinema acting since then -- was kicking back with his old Freaks and Geeks pals to put on something fun.  It looks like everybody's having a blast, and the fun is infectious.

Producer Judd Apatow has mentioned that there might be a sequel.  Sure.  Why not?

LOST [6x15] [spoilers]
What weirds me out about "Across the Sea" is how I really, really *should* have liked it, but I didn't like it.

In terms of the overall structure of the season, it's a brilliant move to step out from the main narrative(s) at this point and devote an episode to two-thousand-year-old backstory.  You set up this current-day Island scenario:  half of the Candidates are dead; the remaining Candidates are alone on the beach, beat to hell and sobbing; and the resident island demigod is about to "finish what he started".

You bet your ass the audience is wondering what will happen next.

Therefore, that is the *perfect* time to deny the audience what they want.  Instead of saying, "And *then* Locke...", you say, "Two thousand years ago, a pregnant lady washes ashore on the Island."  It varies the tone and content of the show.[2]  But more importantly, it puts the viewers off their guard.  It's the opposite of bridging (that is, slowly ooching towards an event the audience knows about) -- it's streaking off into unknown territory where the audience has no *clue* what will happen next.[3]

It's also a perfect way to leverage this momentum that they've built up.  By the time the sub sinks, we're basically willing to follow the show anywhere.  So they can spend some of that "attention capital" by doing something difficult; in this case, jumping back two thousand years and disregarding our entire central cast.

And indeed, once they do that, they just pile on the answers.  Jacob and Esau are indeed brothers.  Esau founded the first Otherton.  Jacob turned Esau into Smokey by tossing him in the Magic Glowy Cave (MGC).  The Others speak Latin because Jacob spoke Latin.  And as they say in the Latin:  et cetera, et cetera.

I should have been really happy with this, right?

So why was I disappointed?

Mainly, I felt indifferent to the answers this episode provided.  Now, Damon and Carlton are on record as saying that "Answers are always disappointing," but I don't think that's quite true.

I want to sidestep a moment into a discussion about improv.

As far as I can tell, human beings have a fairly easy time starting with a prompt -- say, "spatula" -- and coming up with stuff associated with that -- say, "plastic", "narrow", "kitchen", and so on.  It's easy to "explode" a concept out like that.  It's much harder for people to start with the list of associated stuff ("plastic", "narrow", "kitchen") and "converge" it all together to a central concept ("spatula") that connects to all of them.

Put another way, in Taboo, it's easier to come up with the clues than it is to guess the words.

There's a similar thing that's true of secrets in storytelling.  Start off with a secret -- "Dr. Crowe doesn't know he's dead" -- and you can list off a bunch of scenes based on that premise.  But you sit somebody down to watch The Sixth Sense, though, and they're unlikely to guess the ending.

So how do writers create those scenes where one simple secret elegantly explains a whole bunch of crazy goings-on?  Obviously, writers cheat.  They cheat by writing the story in reverse.  The writer comes up with a secret, does the 'explosion' bit of working out all the implications, sticks all those implications earlier in the story, and then at the end, when everything 'converges' together, the writer is actually just playing back that 'explosion' thought-process in reverse.

Performing that structure in an improv show is fairly difficult.  Barring some sophisticated show format, you can't pre-write that  'explosion' step, so you're basically stuck at the end of the story trying to 'converge' together a bunch of arbitrary story elements.  Again:  human beings bad at that.  So you end up with, at best, clumsy, cobbled together 'secrets' at the end of an improvised story.[4]

The funny thing is, a serialized show like LOST is both improvised and non-improvised, so you wind up with both kinds of secrets:  the clever, simple, and elegant "written" ones; and the cobbled-together "improvised" ones.  Individual episodes are pre-written, so you can have the brilliant reveals at the end of (say) "Walkabout" or "Through the Looking Glass".  But the overall series is improvised.  Even with the best-laid plans, you'll occasionally veer off from your original course, or you include some element because the plot needs it, or you face weird logistical problems.  So the answers to larger-scale questions tend to be clumsy and complicated.

So, basically, it would be really, really hard for the answers to these multi-season questions to be elegant and simple.

Okay, put that assertion aside for the moment.  Now let's talk about reveals.

A reveal can have an effect on the audience.

A reveal can, as in "Walkabout" or The Sixth Sense, force the audience to look at the earlier material in a brand-new context.  (I don't know why I as an audience member always love this, but I do.)  But a reveal that recontextualizes everything is usually a simple fact that flatly contradicts an 'obvious' audience assumption.  Locke is not a wild adventure man, he's a paraplegic.  Dr. Crowe is not alive, he's dead.

A cobbled-together 'improvised' reveal rarely works like this.  The improvised reveal is more about *explaining the known facts* than recontextualizing them.  It's some pile of "<x> is true and <y> is true and <z> is also true," with facts piled on and piled on until there are enough of them to explain the previous (random) events.  These explanations may disagree with the audience's assumptions, but there isn't that simple, shocking, flat contradiction.  If you assume "Adam and Eve are Rose and Bernard", but it turns out "Adam and Eve are Smokey and his Mom", that isn't the sort of "We have to go back!", pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you moment.  It's more like, "Huh.  Okay.  I was wrong about that one conclusion, but I wasn't 100% sure I was right about that in the first place.  I certainly don't have to go back and re-watch the show to see how this fabulous new fact fits in."

So these reveals don't really impact the audience that way.

A reveal can also have an effect on the characters.  In "The Candidate", when Jack discovers the C4 bomb in his backpack, that has an emotional effect on the characters, right?  But this is the capability of a reveal that you *lose* by going to an extended flashback of info-dumps.  Yes, Jacob and Smokey are brothers, and that's news to the audience, but it's by no means news to Jacob or Smokey.  So the reveals we saw in "Across the Sea" weren't going to have any effect on the characters in the story.

But the best thing a reveal can do -- and what it does 90% of the time in television -- is heighten the plot.  The new information can raise the stakes of whatever conflict is ongoing, or it can put the heroes in danger, or it can make the existing danger even more dangerous.  Think of the kiss from "Our Mrs. Reynolds".  Yes, you know something new about YoSafBridge -- but more importantly, you know that she's about to take over the ship.  (Aieee!)[5]

I think *this* is where "Across the Sea" *could* have really delivered.  At the end of "The Candidate", our heroes were beached, beaten, bloodied, and bombed.  They're collapsed and weeping, 'cos they've just frakkin' had *enough*.  They're tired, they're miserable, they're sick of seeing their friends die, and in anything like the real world, they'd have debilitating PTSD for the rest of their lives.  (And tinnitus, come to think of it.)

This is exactly the right time for the writers to make things even worse.  And the reveals in "Across the Sea" could have, theoretically, done that.  They could have made our heroes even more screwed.

There are two ways the reveals in "Across the Sea" could have done this.

First, they could have made the heroes' task seem more difficult.  "Oh, you thought the Smoke Monster was undefeatable before?  Well, you didn't know about <x>, <y>, and <z>!"  Or possibly, "You thought the Island was dangerous?  Well, nobody told you about the deadly <foo> and <bar>, did they?"  Suddenly, we jump back to our Candidates, and we now know something they don't:  they're not just 99% doomed, they're 100% doomed.

Secondly, they could have made the task seem more important.  Sure, characters have averred repeatedly:  "If Locke gets off the Island, the world is doomed."  But there are three problems with that:  (1) it's the "tell, don't show" school of storytelling; (2) it's vague; and (3) it comes from possibly-unreliable characters.  So we may know, intellectually, "Widmore said that the world will disappear if Locke gets free."  But do we believe him? do we even know what he means? and more importantly, do we *feel* it?

Reveals in the Jacob-and-Smokey show could have made that dread at the end of "Across the Sea" much more palpable.  So afterwards, we'd go back to our heroes on the beach, and we'd know that not only are they themselves going to lose, but the whole world is going to suffer for that failure.

By either method, you would wind up with a connection between the episode's story and the series' story -- and it's a connection you *feel* in terms of the heightening of the plot, instead of just intellectually appreciating it.  "Ah.  We have now identified the two corpses in the cave.  Excellent.  I shall tick the appropriate box on my 'answers checklist'."

There are a lot of fan complaints about this episode:  "Why are they spending time on new characters?"; "Why are they stepping away from the main narrative when it's barreling towards its conclusion?"; "Why are they doing such a vague, half-assed job of answering these long-standing questions?"  But I feel like all of these complaints mask the real one, which is:  why doesn't this story raise the stakes or the danger of the main plotline?

It's interesting to note that in an interview, Damon and Carlton talked about why they included the footage from season one's "House of the Rising Sun".  They said it wasn't foisted on them by the network, and it wasn't even intended as hand-holding for the audience ("See?  Remember the two corpses from season one?").  Instead, it was an attempt to make this episode *feel* connected to the main plot and its characters.

That, to me, feels like... it's like if you came home and said, "Hmm.  It smells like a gas leak in here.  Okay, let me put on a nose plug."  That is, you were observant enough notice a dangerous, fundamental problem, but for some reason have decided to apply a hopelessly ineffectual solution.  If your story has nothing to do with the main plotline, you've got issues that a flashback Band-Aid isn't going to fix.

It must sound like I hated this episode, and that's not true.  It was intellectually satisfying to answer backstory questions about Jakey and Smokey.  After six seasons, the show is rife with recurring elements, and it's great to see so many of them weaved into this episode:  a pregnant woman crashes on the island, delivers, and has her child(ren) abducted; a possibly-crazy mom; bewildering long cons; ancient board games; faith versus science; and so on.

Generally, though, I felt like this episode had a lot in common with "Exposé":  a clever little episode that was a missed opportunity, because it was so hermetically sealed-off from having any influence or commentary on the main plot.

It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth
This is Seth's 1996 graphic novel about his attempt to track down artwork and biographical information about an obscure single-panel gag cartoonist named "Kalo".

What I took away from this book is that there are two ways of looking at somebody's life.  In this book, we see Seth's life from the inside.  We catch his running commentary, with his thoughts usually caught in loops about how the world is getting worse and worse, and about the delight he takes in old, decaying kitsch.  We follow Seth's life moment-to-moment, in minute detail.

And then there's Kalo's life, which we see from the outside.  We only catch the broadest strokes:  he moved to New York; he struggled as a cartoonist; he gave up, returned to Canada, and started a family.  Nobody knew his opinions about much of anything.

Both ways of looking at somebody's life are accurate; it's weird to see such a big difference between them.

I was surprised to learn that Kalo was completely made-up.  And then I felt stupid, because I shouldn't have been surprised.  Fake history -- and specifically, fake countercultural history -- is pretty much like crack for hipsters and literati, so of *course* Kalo was made-up.  Of course he would have delighted in finding the fake 'photograph of Kalo', and in painstakingly constructing the portfolio false documents that comprises the 'only works that he's been able to track down'.

For next time:  more movies (now watching:  The Informant!; next up:  Up in the Air), and of course, the end of LOST.  Also reading another financial book.

[1] A real plot isn't built out of "then"s.  It's built out of "because"s.

[2] I'm sure that, for folks in the future who watch this show on DVD, both "Across the Sea" and "Ab Aeterno" will be a welcome change of pace from the usual Island/sideways episodes.  In fact, the more I see of season four, the more I think the showrunners are really making something for *that* audience.

[3] You could argue that, at the end of "Across the Sea", you already have no idea what will happen next -- but I'd argue that, in broad strokes, it's pretty clear:  Locke will track down the Candidates and try to kill them; the Candidates will try to find Desmond and fashion a counter-plan.

[4] Actually, my experience is that improv shows never end with elegant, explanatory reveals.  YMMV?

[5] Yes, add your own joke about "She can take over *my* ship any time."

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (5/17/10) 9:03am
Yeah, "Across the Sea" was an interesting episode but it just didn't connect with me, and your explanation sounds on target. I did like that at least there's more to the Jacob-Smokey feud than "one is good and one is evil" - I'd argue that Jacob's actions were barely more moral than Smokey's.

(hoping that financial book isn't Rich Dad Poor Dad :-) )
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (5/17/10) 9:22am
Yeah, "Across the Sea" was an interesting episode but it just didn't connect with me, and your explanation sounds on target. I did like that at least there's more to the Jacob-Smokey feud than "one is good and one is evil" - I'd argue that Jacob's actions were barely more moral than Smokey's.

True, there were lots of little details that enriched the story.  I, too, am glad they managed to humanize Jacob and Smokey beyond vague, allegorical demigods.

(hoping that financial book isn't Rich Dad Poor Dad :-) )

Nope, although I did read that one back in '02.  (I don't remember much about it.)
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Date:Monday (5/17/10) 10:24am
First, they could have made the heroes' task seem more difficult. "Oh, you thought the Smoke Monster was undefeatable before? Well, you didn't know about , , and !" Or possibly, "You thought the Island was dangerous? Well, nobody told you about the deadly and , did they?" Suddenly, we jump back to our Candidates, and we now know something they don't: they're not just 99% doomed, they're 100% doomed

Excellent point, Peter. I'm sure that's at the core of why I found Across the Sea unsatisfying. How sweet it would have been for a millennia-old back story to raise the stakes for the present-day castaways. Yes.

I could be very wrong on this, but I have a feeling I might enjoy Across the Sea better tomorrow night, as I'll be watching it without the high expectations of, "Wowzers, here comes the episode after teh awesome The Candidate!"
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Date:Monday (5/17/10) 11:43am
I could be very wrong on this, but I have a feeling I might enjoy "Across the Sea" better tomorrow night, as I'll be watching it without the high expectations of, "Wowzers, here comes the episode after teh awesome 'The Candidate'!"

Good point.  I had the same sort of take on "Ab Aeterno" -- I liked it better when I was appreciating it for what it was instead of dismissing it for what it wasn't.
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Date:Wednesday (5/19/10) 1:08pm
My suspicion proved accurate: I enjoyed Across the Sea considerably more on my second viewing. I still thought the episode was flawed in a few respects, but I appreciated how unassumingly the story gave examples of how the history of the Island is a history that repeats itself. There are always Others of some sort. Good and Evil are always difficult to distinguish from each other. There are always Parent Issues. Bloody vengeance ensues over and over again. Purges (exterminations of communities) happen. Questions always lead to more questions. Death itself is always open to interpretation. Babies are stolen. Metal behaves strangely.
So, I thought all of that was conveyed unassumingly. What was conveyed over-assumingly was the Adam and Eve scene. Oh, well-- Darlton were presented with a choice in writing that moment, and maybe they decided to play it safe by choosing absolute, brazen clarity over allowing their audience to figure it out for themselves.
Still, Across the Sea was well-acted by the adult actors, the pacing of the story was uniquely and pleasantly different from other recent episodes, and the sacrament scene provided a key context for the follow-up episode, What They Died For.
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Date:Thursday (5/20/10) 12:45pm
So, this suggestion is a little late for Lost, but I'd like to propose something for the next interesting TV show you decide to watch regularly. You should create a blog specifically for that show. Seriously, I read about 4 blogs about Lost which mostly say the same things only with slightly different emphasis, and most of them essentially reaffirm the things I already thought, or could have thought. Your posts are the only ones that get me to see things in a completely new light, and one in which I'm not even capable of coming up with by myself.

I suspect that the amount of time it already takes you to write what you do would make it prohibitive to put more into it and post it the same night/next day like the other blogs, and it likely would not be an especially good return on your time. That being said, I suspect you could develop a pretty decent following with the things you have to say if you formatted and marketed it a little differently.

Just a suggestion. :)

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Date:Thursday (5/20/10) 1:57pm
Your posts are the only ones that get me to see things in a completely new light, and one in which I'm not even capable of coming up with by myself.


I suspect that the amount of time it already takes you to write what you do would make it prohibitive to put more into it and post it the same night/next day like the other blogs, and it likely would not be an especially good return on your time.

Still, it's an interesting idea.  I'd have to find another show that's as much fun to write about, and I'd have to rejigger my schedule to make it work, but it would be cool if I could make it work.
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