It’s Finally Over

Goodbye... Until The Next Rewatch
Goodbye… Until The Next Rewatch

It is no secret that I am a Lost fan, and in spite of having watched all of the final Season live, as they were being broadcast, I can’t say I’ve been watching since the beginning. I picked up the show around the end of Season 3, and it wasn’t until part way into Season 5 that I started watching them as they were coming out. Even then, as I first sat down to watch Season 1, I wasn’t even sold on the show until Episode 11 – when they first find The Hatch – that I was really hooked. That alone probably explains quite a bit about meas a fan; rather than the characters, the actors, stuff like the DHARMA Initiative and the monster were much more interesting to me.

Anyway, I’ve been resisting the urge to write about the Series Finale until today. Part of me feels like I’m still unpacking things here and there, thus making an overall interpretation of the show incomplete, or at least, moot. Part of me also feels like I can’t really offer much more insight than the show does itself; sure, there are a few unsolved mysteries that were swept under the rug here and there, and I can certainly understand why so many people are suffering from a case of the WTFs, but to me, it works as an ending. I don’t feel cheated, and I don’t feel like it was bad in the least bit. I was definitely entertained.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

I also felt a little vindicated, when it turned out that I was onto something when, over two years ago, I wrote an essay about the use of sound in Season 1. (Here’s the link.) While I made no predictions about the future of the show (Why would I? How could I?), the overall thrust of my essay was that Hurley is important to the show, because he is our in-show proxy, that helps us understand the mysteries of the island because we’re more like him than anyone else on the show. This comment has particular significance now that it has been revealed that Hurley is the protector of the island. Not only was that very satisfying, personally, but makes total sense, meta-textually. Think of the writers as Jacob and Jack, and the fans as Hurley, and the analogy works. While the writers must move on, we as fans will protect the island through being emotionally invested fans of the show itself.

The circular nature of the show was also an inspired ending. The loop feels so complete, that the Pilot episode of Season 1 makes an excellent follow-up to the Season Finale. (Try watching them back to back. It really, really works.) I think this particular ending signals a number of things to us. First, this ending was planned from fairly early in the creative process. (How early is fairly irrelevant; the fact that they even TRY to answer as many questions as they did illustrates that the end was a consideration at a number a stages while the show was being made.) Second, all the imagined Prisoner connections I was seeing extend further into the show than I thought. And lastly, for a show that toyed with Time Travel as a narrative device (both literally and symbolically through narrative structures), it only makes sense to end where it begins. Flashbacks, -forwards, and -sideways seem particularly appropriate for a show that is going around in circles the whole time anyway. (Considering that there is strong evidence to support the notion that this is not the first time the island has had to gather forces to help destroy a Smoke Monster like this, again, helps suggest that this really is the only ending that makes sense, anyway.)

As with anything, there were some things that I did not like. But, as I’ve said before (and will say again), there are very few stories that I’ve read that are completely flawless anyway. I can’t think of many things that I’ve enjoyed 100% (with the possible exceptions of four albums), and it would be ridiculous to suggest that Lost should have been held to such a high standard, too. More than anything, I would say that the extreme emphasis on religion and religious themes really started to bog the show down at times. I am not religious, and find a lot of religious themes completely lost of me (no pun intended).

I was especially frustrated with the Sideways Universe acting as a sort of afterlife for the characters, which seemed very unnecessary. However, upon reflection, this notion of the afterlife does not fit (exactly) any of the religious concepts I’m familiar with, and in fact, seems to be an amalgam of a variety of notions. The Lost version of the afterlife doesn’t appear to suggest that any particular faith is the correct one, but rather, the relationships and friendships that we forge in the real world entirely determine what happens to us when we die. It isn’t quite enough to convince me to adopt religion (specific ones, or just a general sense thereof), but it does seem to suggest that even if religious faith is onto something, it is more motivated by what we do here and now, than by what happens to us before and afterward. It’s not a perfect fit for me, but it is certainly better than most television world views, that’s for sure.

Etc., etc. I could go on and on, and I’m still sorting through all the things I noticed / liked / observed / connected with throughout the entire Series. Let’s just say that I really, really liked it. But there were two details in particular from the final show that, for me, really exemplified what I loved about the show overall:

As Desmond (now immune to severe electromagnetic discharges) is lowered by Jack and Flocke into The Heart of The Island, he wanders past a few different human skeletal remains. Nevermind that The Heart of The Island is supposed to either turn you into a Smoke Monster, or kill you due to the extreme electromagnetic forces. Somehow, at some point in the past, a few people have gotten in. Who, and how? Clearly, that’s another show. It makes the cuneiform script found on the stone plug itself seem almost irrelevant.

Wait, cuneiform script? You mean there were people on the island BEFORE the Egyptians, who already pre-date Jacob, the Smoke Monster, and their mother? Really?

It just goes on and on like that. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier. I haven’t been hooked on a Network TV show since High School, and while I can’t say that my faith in Hollywood has been completely restored, I’m more than happy to know that someone, somewhere, can come this close to getting it right.

Well done.

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Please Hand Me That Piano

Firesign Theater
Firesign Theater

As a seasoned fan and purveyor of broadcast audio, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that you’ve heard it all before. A quick scanning of the dial reveals very few things that veer away from the mundane and into the realm of the worthwhile, or even manages to be compelling enough to stick with for more than a few minutes. More often than not, you’ll be much more entertained by merely tuning the knob for an hour. Or, at least, you won’t notice much of a difference between stations if you do.

Listening to recordings of The Firesign Theater has almost nothing to do with that kind of experience. Equal parts Dada, performance art, verbal psychedelia for the sake of psychedelia, and pitch-perfect satire, this radio ensemble manages to consistently perform incredible feats of radio-tastic tomfoolery in a way that no other American (with the possible exception of Don Joyce) has been able to do. In many ways they are the Monty Python of broadcast radio, except that The Goon Show already managed to fill that roll, and more to the point, there is a sort of Marx Brothers style anarchic mania to Firesign that seems far too rooted in North American style and culture.

And that is, of course, the point. Sounding more like a drugged out, stream of consciousness, border radio, theater of the mind version of NPR anyway, Firesign occupies that very special place in media were they are simultaneously satire and statement, comedy and commentary, absurd and art, all at once. Nonsensical parodies and impersonations transition to insightful observations about modern junk culture, filtered entirely through late ’60’s cynicism and the medium of broadcast radio. In a lot of ways, it is far too much to take in all at once. Cursory listeners might be shocked to hear an audio veneer that is far too similar to your average talk radio station. Dig a little deeper, and you’re shocked to realize that there’s well thought out, scripted, carefully observed satire at play, that is more and more rewarding with each repeated listen. (Just parsing all the cultural references, many buried in double and triple enendres, can be a full time job.)

I’ve only just discovered Firesign, which is fortunate for me because there are hours and hours (and hours) of their recordings, both released and fan traded, for future digestion. In a world where it is increasingly more and more difficult to distinguish the difference reality from representation, Firesign effectively blurs, points out, mangles, and comments upon the line that separates the two in one of the most unique ways I’ve every had the pleasure of hearing.

Plus: it’s perfect to cook dinner to.

The Worst Taste

Here is a deep dark secret: I have terrible taste in music. It is true, and there is no denying it. I must come clean. For anyone in doubt, this can be evidenced by the fact that today on the bus I heard a snippet of, “Journey of the Sorcerer,” – A fucking Eagles song, mind you! – and I almost started crying.

(Mind you, I could easily defend this by explaining that the song in question is the theme song to the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show, but does that excuse me in any way from liking the song anyway? Certainly not.)

I have always related to the song, “180 lbs.” by Atom & His Package (see below for the lyrics), because I have this obsession with music, but there seems almost no real way of objectively judging the quality of my “taste.” I recently made fun of a co-worker of mine for liking Oasis, not at all remembering the 500 records I own that are much, much worse than anything they’ve recorded. (Styx? Rush? King Crimson albums after “In The Court Of The Crimson King”? ELO? The Band!?! Need I say more?)

I like a lot of shitty music, but I think it is finally time to own up. Absolute, utter tripe, and I love it. (Ahem, Ke$ha.) We all do, and I think we would all be much better off if we stopped trying to one-up each other when it comes to records. I’ll admit that I am guilty of it constantly. But there is something more impressive about admitting bad taste, and I’d like to get to that point. This isn’t to say that I don’t like good music either, and you will find a healthy dose of Miles Davis, Dead Kennedys, Acid Mothers Temple, and most everything by Johnathan Richman. But they’re often filed next to terrible ’80’s compilations, ensemble recordings of musicals that not even gay men will listen to, and a selection of absolutely Earl-awful 45s by bands named “Chicano-Christ” and “Boba Fett Youth.” Someone has got to draw the line somewhere, right?

Or, perhaps not. Perhaps the point is to embrace these absurdities, and finally admit to myself that it’s only music, and move on. Yes, I know there are very few reasons to own any Springsteen album after the first three or four. But someday I would like to live in a world where I can, publicly, stand up and say, “I own the complete works of The Moody Blues, and I don’t care who knows about it,” and not feel like a complete and utter tit.

…and with that, I have now alienated 2/3s of my readers. Until next time…

180 Lbs :
I own the worst records, of all time.
I got ’em stored on a Ikea shelf of mine.
They make me laugh.
They make me cry.
For owning the Voice of the Voiceless,
I deserve to die.

Why do I own Fireparty?
The last Dag Nasty CD?
The 1st Snapcase 7″,
or anything by F.Y.P.?
I own S.N.F.U. and fucking Pennywise.
Oh my god, what is wrong with me?

I got a bad curse that follows me.
It makes me purchase the worst records produced in history.
I’ve sworn off buying records, after this one I’m done.
I buy 15 bad records to every good one.

Dante’s Explorers

Escapism As Plot
Escapism As Plot

Your average movie critic would categorize Joe Dante as a low-rent Steven Spielberg, and unfortunately, there is enough evidence in his films to support this badly-made assertion. Both Gremlins and InnerSpace have that Spielberg-ian flavor to their form and execution, and the fact that Spielberg took Dante under his wing early on only adds to that notion. But where Spielberg seems to be able to mine the Hollywood Mainstream for blockbusters and money makers, Dante seems only able to skirt the edges in ways that earn him little cash. A quick glance at their respective filmographys will instantly reveal who is the household name and who isn’t; as it stands, the closest thing to a blockbuster Dante had was his Spielberg-produced horror movie, Gremlins.

But Dante’s films tend to be more nuanced, and function on levels that most of Hollywood fare don’t (or can’t). While on the surface, Explorers seems to embody the Spielberg-ian notions of Wish Fulfillment Fantasy and Childhood Nostalgia, in a much more direct sense, Explorers is a film that explains how to navigate your High School years through the development of fantasy coping mechanisms.

The overall plot of the film is typical of youth-oriented adventure movies: a trio of friends build a spaceship in their backyard, using circuit designs dreamed by Ben (Ethan Hawk), constructed by Wolfgang (River Phoenix), and named by Darren (Jason Presson, the only one of the primary actors to not have a big Hollywood career afterward). When they iron out all the kinks in their ship, they realize that they’ve been called by a pair of aliens in deep space, whom they go to visit, where the real fun begins. Eventually they return from their heroes’ journey wiser, experienced, and having made it through the “underworld” relatively unscathed. Odysseus himself could not have planned the trip better.

The main character of the film, Ben, is immediately characterized as an outcast. The target of bullies and being raised by a single parent, his refuge is the world of Sci-Fi. Film, books, comics, anything otherworldly helps him cope with his everyday misery, while he secretly pines for a rich girl (Lori) that he can never obtain for obvious (class) reasons. In their own ways, Wolfgang and Darren are similarly outcast; Wolfgang is immersed in Science, to the point that he can think in no other terms, while Darren obsesses over his scooter and his Walkman, attempting to ignore the realities of his own drunken father at home. Using the resolve they gain from their media obsessions and interests, they manage to find a way to survive through the complex world of High School when it’s clear that they just don’t fit in.

However, once these three kids take the first step into their Odyssesian “underworld,” they find themselves crossing the threshold of the very media Ben is obsessed with in the first place. First, they create an energy sphere out of thin air, as if it has been called forth from the very media Ben idolizes. Once it has been created, it literally moves “through” the very books and Comics that Ben collects. (As if the idea of an energy sphere was trying to return to the world it came from.) Later, the sphere takes Wolfgang on a Journey Through The Center of The Earth by “accidentally” tunneling through a mountainside they happen to be experimenting upon. After they finally build their ship (a creation comprised of things they find in a disused junkyard, where the mainstream casts off things no longer important), they choose to make their first destination the local Drive-In (Darren: “Where’s all the action on a Friday Night?” Ben: “The Drive-In!”).

However, the film takes a decidedly strange turn once they get there. Not only do our young heroes start interacting with the Drive-In screen itself, the movie they watch starts to interact back. (Not only with them, but with us.) What’s playing on the screen is Starkiller, a fictional film within a film, and an obscure George Lucas reference, too. (Luke Skywalker’s original name, in the early drafts of the first Star Wars script, was Luke Starkiller.) The hero of this film, Starkiller (played expertly by Robert Picardo, in one of his two roles for Explorers), not only embodies everything that a Sci-Fi, B-Movie, Drive-In character should, but his reaction shots all revolve around things that are happening outside of his own film. Interacting with media, in the world of Explorers, works two ways: you get out of it what you put into it.

When the boys finally allow the craft they’ve built to take them to the stars, they encounter a pair of aliens who act as if they have stepped out of a Sci-Fi films themselves. (Robert Picardo plays Wak, effectively stepping out of Starkiller and into Explorers. It’s only fitting that he plays a hologram in Voyager, to further toy with this tension.) Both Wak and Neek learned English from our own movies and television, too. As Ben and his companions get to know Wak and Neek, they discover that the aliens are just as obsessed with media junk culture as they are.

After meeting Ben and his friends, Wak and Neek project, onto themselves, the boys, every available surface, and in the air all around them, screen after screen of TV shows, commercials, and old movies, all blending and mixing into a melange of cultural noise. Ben and his friends stare, transfixed, but Wak and Neek feel comfortable literally wandering through these images from which they have sprung. But where Ben is obsessed with the more obscure selections our culture offers, Wak and Neek soak up anything and everything they see. The more steeped in the mundane and everyday Wak and Neek become, the more and more they resemble your average American. (Ben: “They don’t make any sense.” Wolfgang: “That’s the way that they think we talk!”)

In the end, in a sort of cinematic sigh rather than a dramatic crescendo, Ben and his friends discover that there is almost no difference between themselves and the aliens they’ve met. Wak and Neek went into space to meet aliens too, inspired to do so by Earth media they’re obsessed with. Only, in their case, they get caught in the end by their own father. (Wak and Neek’s father manages to do an incredible Ralph Kramden impression in an all-alien dialect, pure Dante-nonsense at its finest.)

When the boys return to Earth, the occasion is even more anti-climactic; rather than the triumphant, heroic return of three space travelers who have touched the stars, met alien life, and made it home to tell the tale, they accidentally crash into a lake, to no welcome or fanfare, and have to escape from their home-made vehicle in much the same way that your work-a-day Astronauts might after a water landing. The crushing reality of their experience is so overwhelming that their craft is sucked instantly to the bottom of the lake, irretrievable.

Sort of.

As Dante is quick to point out, the ending that exists is not the one he wanted. Between budgetary constraints and studio pressure, the film was never properly “finished.” Further difficulties in distribution, promotion, and release made the movie even more obscure at the time it came out, disappointing Dante further. (Especially after the phenomenal success of his previous film, Gremlins.) But the ending that is tacked on, no matter how nostalgic and sentimental it might be on the surface, suggests in a subtle way that the “happily ever after” vision we see is actually anything but happy once run through a Dante-filter.

Ben, Wolfgang and Darren are able to do something no other human has been able to, but only by clinging to childhood obsessions and dreams in order to do so. Ben is smarter and more perceptive than those in the Mainstream because, unlike Wak and Neek, he only indulges in certain obscure elements. He has learned how to traverse the media landscape in a way that he enjoys, and enables him to accomplish that which no one else can. But at what cost? He can never tell anyone of his outer space adventures, and most likely, will not be able to recreate them, either. These dream achievements are incredible and fantastic, but become less and less fulfilling when you have to turn the movie off and return to real life.

This is most poignant through the love-interest subplot with a girl named Lori. Ben never manages to succeed with her during the film proper, in spite of several attempts to do so. (With hindsight, I’m actually surprised how much Lori reminds me of my first crush, but that’s another story.) Finally, in the closing minutes of the film, he is able to connect with Lori, not only emotionally, but physically. (They kiss during a flying dream-sequence.) This connection, though, only occurs in his dream; it happens shortly after Ben falls asleep, bored to death at school, a place he hates, and where he is characterized as being unsuccessful.

And this becomes the final “message” that comes through at the end of the film: only in the media that Ben consumes (manifest “dreams” themselves) can Ben achieve what he most desperately wants. In real life, he is alone, an outcast, with only his mostly absent (and out-of-touch) mother to watch out for him. The girl he wants is out of reach, in a literal and symbolic sense (she is always just beyond his physical reach in the film, either separated by actual space or by mirrors and energy fields), who he can only connect with through flights of fancy. (The most interaction he has with her in the real world is through a photograph, again a piece of media.) His friends may share his dreams with him to an extent, but their own interests are vastly different from his own; they can fly with him, but in the end, they fly alone, away from Ben and Lori as they cruise through Ben’s closing dream. The credits even start rolling before Ben’s dream can conclude, leaving this perfect childhood fantasy to never have to suffer from the teacher waking him up to ask another question he can’t answer. (The credits themselves start to intrude into the dream Ben is having, yet again muddying the barrier between reality and fantasy, and which is which.)

That is not to say that there is no joy in watching Explorers. The movie is a repository of cinematic references and childhood nostalgia that will really hit home for anyone obsessed with Warner Brothers cartoons, old Sci-Fi films, or someone who is looking for an adequate third to follow a Goonies / Stand By Me double feature. But don’t be surprised if the meta-content starts to contort your perspective on this particular feature, or that the sad realities of growing up come crashing down on you as you start to put together exactly what Mr. Dante was trying to tell us.

What delighted me as a child is an all-to-horrific reminder in the here and now, of how painful growing up really can be, and the things you have to leave behind in order to do it successfully. Cheery stuff, no?