Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Series Gives Me the Creeps

Why is Lost Lost?

By John Taylor; 2010 July 15, Kalimat 02, 167 BE

It has been to hot for me to think or write lately. One thing I have been doing is watching the first season of the television series "Lost," produced by J.J. Abrams. His recent renovation of the Star Trek series impressed, so I thought I would check out his claim to fame. The situation in Lost is castaways on a desert island. This genre started way back with Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," one of the first novels in English. It was picked up on television by the likes of Gilligan's Island, except that Lost is a dramatic series.

Lost is very well written, as befits one of the most popular series of the past decade. Special effects are, as you expect now, very good. I have been carried along with the stories like anybody else. Unlike even cartoons these days, there is almost no swearing in Lost, or even sex. The first season DVD is almost over for me and only one couple in a large group of mostly young men and women has gone off and, well, coupled. The one married couple, two Koreans, actually are split up at this point. Yet the more I watch it, the more shocked and horrified I become. It took a long time for me to pinpoint what it was that upset me about Lost.

A few times that other classic desert island dystopia is mentioned by characters of Lost, William Golding's "Lord of the Flies." One man abducts another and threatens him with violent attack, "We have been pretty civilized so far, but now I am going to get all Lord of the Flies on your ass..."

That little literary reference tweaked my memory.

Lord of the Flies was pretty nightmarish, but in a way it was not nearly as bad as Lost. The group of boys stranded on a desert island in Lord of the Flies were tyrannical, but they had one mark of civilization that is completely, well, lost in Lost. They got together as a group. Sure, the group was brutal and reverted to vestigial tribalism, but at least the boys functioned as a political entity, however dysfunctional.

The grown men and women on Lost are totally apolitical. And I do not mean apolitical in a good sense of being neutral in the face of contentious issues. I mean totally incapable of functioning as a political entity. There are no issues at all, contentious or not, because they never come together as a group. These people make the Lord of the Flies, not the book but, you know, the devil floating around in a cloud of flies attracted to dead meat, they make even him look like a social creature.

One episode early on focuses on Jack, a tortured former surgeon who is the closest thing to a leader on the island. He has a crisis of conscience that finally persuades him to give a climactic speech at the end of the episode where he asserts his responsibility reluctantly as a leader. What does he tell his followers in his inspiring peroration? Try to help. You do not have to do what we are trying to do, but do something to help us survive here.

Except that he is not talking to a group, only a slightly less scattered scattering of separated individuals on the beach. Never do the cast actually come together as a group. Not even, as you might expect, around a campfire at night. There is a musician among them who is overjoyed to get his guitar back intact, and he plays it alone for a while. But his services are never called for as entertainment by the others. A group singsong is too social a function.

To me, this is a sign of corruption far more frightening than anything in Lord of the Flies. It does not even occur to these castaways that humans are social beings. So far they have been castaway for weeks and they did not even have the gumption to do the first thing that the characters in every castaway story that I have ever seen do first off, that is, go out and confirm whether the land they are on is an island or a part of a continent. The thought occurs to one character for a while, but he is distracted, then drawn back in.

Even satan, Lord of the Flies, is more social than them. Not just them, but us as well. So psychologized have our intellectuals become that we all habitually speak in psychological jargon -- mothers no longer have active kids, they have "hyper" kids. We do not feel sad, we are depressed. We are all sick. The obvious cure to isolation, to join a group, is not on the radar. Like our psychological gurus, we habitually deny the existence of the group. Our shrinks do not analyze or factor in the groups and institutions in our lives. They treat us all like islands unto ourselves, and we accept it, like sheep.

For people today, the social fact is a total fiction. Like the opinion of the world's peoples, it is shunted aside, ignored, denied. According to this way of thinking, we are all alone on a desert island anyway. Castaways just go on living their lives just like they normally do. Nor does the audience feel anything amiss when an entire airplane load of people are forced together on an island, and no group feeling emerges.

 One result of this isolated world view is that conflict resolution consists of shouting or fisticuffs between characters. At the drop of a hat, people are shouting, and a minute later they are beating one another up -- in reality, a small cut in a tropical land is enough to start an infection that often leads to death, especially without antibiotics. These regularly characters beat one another to death's door, and alway recover for the next reel. Cartoon like, since even with 9-11 medical aid, nobody recovers like that.

One of the signs of a poorly written screenplay, I have always found, is that the characters do nothing but shout at one another. The stridency dial is always turned up to high. The writers on Lost are very good, they do their best to avoid this trap, but they have no choice. There is no group to mediate in a crisis. As soon as tensions run high, the others step back and let the two fighters "work it out for themselves," as one character put it.

All this is probably why Lost gives me the creeps.


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