Sunday, May 30, 2010

IT WAS ALL JUST A DREAM

SPOILER ALERT: Skip this post if you don't want to know the ending of "Lost."

Three big series ended last week, but only one of them had a true finale. The decision to cancel "Law & Order" was made only recently, and so the series' final scene of people working at the office felt like the end of a chapter (or season) rather than the end of the book. Likewise, "24" didn't wrap with any finality, which now leaves open the possibility for a big-screen movie. Only "Lost" truly concluded, even if it left open some questions for viewers to ponder, rather than for producers to exploit in some other medium. 

The cheesiest possible way to end "Lost," with its plane crash survivors on a mysterious island, would have been for it to all have been a dream. Still, the "Lost" finale was not lacking in dreams of another sort (or in cheese, I might add). In the final season, the characters were living in two alternate realities -- one on the island after the plane crash, and one in Los Angeles after the plane lands safely at its destination -- perhaps each reality a dream of the other, seen through a glass darkly. Also, as the character of Jack learns from his dead father, the island was "the place that you all made together so you could find one another," which I take to mean some metaphysical plane of existence for inhabitants to resolve their central psychological conflicts, before moving on to the afterlife. That itself is not too far from a dream, in which the dreamer awakes from the terrestrial life into the afterlife, or heaven, or the great light, or wherever the "Lost" cast of characters goes as the series concludes. Taking it a step further (or further out), we might say that "Lost" itself -- or any other series -- is a dream in the minds of its creators, and one into which we as viewers enter. For more on the ending of the dreams that are TV series, check out this "Entertainment Weekly" slide show of the "20 Best TV Series Finales Ever." (On the list is the stellar ending of "Newhart," pictured above, in which the entire series was revealed to be a dream of the character of Bob Newhart in his previous TV series.)

Speaking of shared dreams, I once had a dream in which I saw my real-life friend Masha, and we both realized we were dreaming. So we devised a code-word or phrase -- I think it was something like "peanut butter sandwich" -- to say to each other in the morning when we woke up, to acknowledge our encounter on the floating bridge of dreams. I woke up, called Masha right away, and said, "Peanut butter sandwich!" or whatever the phrase was. Alas, she didn't have a clue what I was talking about.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

COULD THERE BE A LIBERAL "24" FOR THE OBAMA ERA?

Can I just tell you something? I love "24," the FOX-TV program which has Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) running around shooting people and speaking in a husky whisper and sustaining grievous bodily injury with nary a whimper -- all in the name of protecting the national interest, whatever that may be. I love the driving (if sometimes cheap) suspense, aided in no small part by Sean Callery's excellent music. I'm wild about all the soapy, broad-brush characters. The show toys with big issues, but the silly side dramas are the most fun -- the romances, the moles that infiltrate CTU, and Jack's daughter Kim getting threatened by cougars. 

I love the show, but loathe its politics, such as they are. I think that "24" has been more balanced in its politics than some say, and that, whatever else he may be, the character of Jack Bauer is deeply empathic; he gets inside the mind of the people he's fighting against and fighting alongside. But it's hard to get around the frequent use of torture. There's been a lot of discussion about whether "24" has made real-life torture more palatable to Americans. Maybe it has. Of course the show's torture is sanitized and stylized, and in almost every case the audience knows that Jack Bauer has the right guy, and it's just a matter of Jack's inflicting enough pain before the suspect gives up the information he needs to stop the slaughter of countless innocents. In real life, naturally, there's plenty of doubt about whether torture victims actually are who the government believes they are, whether they know anything of value, and whether torture will help extract that intelligence. Still, whether "24" has falsely portrayed torture as effective is less interesting to me than the appeal of seeing that and other violence on TV.

In "24" the stakes are always so high (imminent disaster by nuclear explosion, biological warfare, assassination) or so personal (spouse threatened, family in danger, life goals at risk of being shattered), and time is so tight (each season's plot unfolds over the course of 24 hours), that only drastic action can solve the problem. OF COURSE Jack has to shoot that person in the knee, the story requires it! If I were in Jack's shoes, and I knew for a fact that the verifiably malevolent person in front of me had intelligence that would help me prevent the imminent murder of my family and the destruction of my city, and the only way to get that information would be to put a cap in his shoulder, or dunk his head in a toilet -- would I do it? Gosh, I hope so. It's practically like asking, "Would you have killed Hitler?" Like any fiction, "24" requires that the audience suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it. The trouble here is that "24" not only gets you to suspend your disbelief, it also gets lefty viewers like me to suspend our beliefs. The action in "24" is framed in a way that is so unambiguous that I often find myself yelling at the screen, "Do it, shoot him!" It's the same impulse as yelling to the dimwits in horror movies who, of course, have no second thoughts about entering an unlit old cabin at midnight in the woods where any idiot would know a mass murderer is lurking.

So, could there be such a thing as a liberal version of "24"? Something that lefties would enjoy watching with the same fervor with which I watch "24," only that ennobles progressive political values, rather than requiring that we surrender them? None other than "The West Wing" springs to mind. There again -- high stakes, clash of titanic political forces, personal dramas and other factors came together to make a compelling political drama. (I was a fan of that show, too.) Still, "The West Wing" was a pure Clinton-era fantasy of noble people doing noble things in government, not quite the sort of thing you yell at the screen about. Whereas "24," which premiered shortly after 9/11 and was at times a conservative take-no-prisoners fantasy, prompted a more visceral reaction, in me at least. Isn't there anything more base about progressive viewers, anything that would prompt us to say "hell, yeah!" Something as powerful as the impulse to shoot someone's foot? Or something akin to the interest in running around on rooftops and picking off baddies with a rifle? "24" has all the appeal of a shoot-em-up video game, and for that reason I suspect drew a disproportionate share of teenage boys as viewers. 

Still, could the impulses that drive audiences to watch "24" be harnessed to better ends? "24" appeals to the viewer's desire for a fight, for purpose in life -- the stakes are high, and at times like these, you've got to fight, even if it's just a heated debate rather than a fist fight or a gun battle. Also, "24" was suspenseful in a way that "The West Wing" never was. Progressives would be well-served by tapping into the need for suspense -- high stakes, an uncertain outcome, and our participation making a difference in that outcome. Not that a TV show is going to change the world, but the appeal behind a show such as "24" has something to teach us about how to do politics. Still, I would like another compelling program to replace "24"!

Both "The West Wing" and "24" outlasted the presidential administrations in which they were born, and both tapped into the dreams and fears in the zeitgeist. What's the next "West Wing" or "24"? Can it combine the nobility of political dreams and the baser desires that animate those politics? Somewhere out there in TV land, I suspect Obama-era producer is thinking "Oh yes it can!"

(I recently read Stephen Duncombe's fantastic 2007 book "Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy," about how fantasy and spectacle can aid progressive politics. It informed this li'l blog post.) 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ADAM GOPNIK'S DISTURBINGLY EXCELLENT READING OF THE GOSPELS

Just about any time I read an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker magazine, I am struck with a question so all-consuming, it could only be described as religious: "God, why did you give such a hugely disproportionate share of critical faculties to Adam Gopnik, thereby depriving the rest of us of our due?" I'm sure that this question must appear in Job somewhere, encoded or hidden so cleverly that only the most penetrating exegesis could uncover it. Well, most recently in the magazine, Gopnik has posed another historical-religious question of his own in an article entitled, "What did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels." Following is a long-ish and typically incisive passage from that article about narrative. (The image at right was used in the article, it's Salvador Dalí's "Christ of St. John of the Cross.)

"As the Bacchae knew, we always tear our Gods to bits, and eat the bits we like. Still, a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what’s required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative. The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy. Anyone watching Hamlet will find his behavior completely understandable—O.K., I buy it; he’s toying with his uncle—though any critic thinking about it afterward will reflect that this behavior is a little nuts.

In Mark, Jesus’ divinity unfolds without quite making sense intellectually, and without ever needing to. It has the hypnotic flow of dramatic movement. The story is one of self-discovery: he doesn’t know who he is and then he begins to think he does and then he doubts and in pain and glory he dies and is known. The story works. But, as a proposition under scrutiny, it makes intolerable demands on logic. If Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn’t. But if he doesn’t suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

None of this is very troubling if one has a pagan idea of divinity: the Son of God might then be half human and half divine, suffering and triumphing and working out his heroic destiny in the half-mortal way of Hercules, for instance. But that’s ruled out by the full weight of the Jewish idea of divinity—omnipresent and omniscient, knowing all and seeing all. If God he was—not some Hindu-ish avatar or offspring of God, but actually one with God—then God once was born and had dirty diapers and took naps. The longer you think about it, the more astounding, or absurd, it becomes. To be really believed at all, it can only be told again.

So the long history of the early Church councils that tried to make the tales into a theology is, in a way, a history of coming out of the movie confused, and turning to someone else to ask what just happened."
     

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

THE "LOST" WRAP PARTY



The cast and crew of TV's "Lost" is a totally fun bunch. I was hanging out with the gang on Oahu not long ago, and Carlton Cuse -- one of the show's writer-producers, whose middle name I think should be "J' ac", so sometimes I call him Jack or Jacques -- anyway, Carlton had this idea and ran it by me. He said, "hey, Paul, for the wrap party, what do you say we serve wraps for food -- get it!?" I thought that was a great idea and told him so. So he went ahead with it, and on the final day of filming, there were wraps of all kinds. Carlton had the Thai peanut chicken wrap, which he raved about; I had this Hawaiian poi wrap, which was an interesting culinary experiment but ultimately a total failure; and then Naveen (the actor who plays Sayid, a real sweetheart whose smoldering good looks are even more evident in person) had this weird broccoli-cauliflower wrap, which led him to proclaim that cruciferous vegetables do not belong in anything but a salad; let's see, the real winner of the evening was Evangeline -- on the set sometimes we call her Eve or Evie -- she had this fantastic Asian-fusion wrap and, when she got a trophy for best wrap selection, well, she just laughed so hard the pineapple juice came out her nose. Then, of course, there was the actual filming, it was a day of laughter and tears, remembering all the great times we'd had together, and all the people we've lost to TV death over the course of the past 6 seasons. Like, for example, Mr. Eko. Nikki and Keile, whom a lot of viewers hated but, well, you gotta admit, their death was pretty satisfying. Anyway, they'll live on in our hearts forever. Then just the other night, when the finale aired, I stopped by the set of Jimmy Kimmel -- a bunch of the cast and crew were there -- to wish everyone good luck and go to the after-party. Jimmy had cooked up this funny idea of alternate endings for "Lost," and the cast all played along. I don't want to take ALL the credit, but after Jimmy had the basic idea, I pretty much ran with it and wrote the entire script. Hope you enjoy it, the clip is above.

Friday, May 14, 2010

SUSPENSE IS SOMETIMES OUT OF THE HANDS OF THE CREATORS OF "LOST"

Wow, do I ever love the TV show "Lost"! Sadly, it comes to a close this Sunday, May 23. Bummer. And yet, the show's long-planned ending has provided it with real direction in recent seasons. Instead of spinning off onto tangents, they shows producers are looking towards an end-point, and creating suspense because of it. The suspense of the show, however, is not always entirely in its producers' hands.

That's some of what I learned from a spoiler-free New York Times interview with show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. In that article, Times writer Lorne Manly poses the question that friends and readers most ask him (aside from that of the show's meaning): "How much did the writers and creators know going in about how things were going to end?" Curiously, they say that the very "last scene of the show was something that we concocted very early on in the first season of the show." However, that didn't necessarily mean they had mapped out the basic plot points that would bring them from the start to that imagined finish. Early in the show, they had to go season by season, and only once they had negotiated an end-date for the show could they more specifically map out what was going to happen. Still and all, throughout production, the contingencies of life and the process of discovery dictated certain changes.

For example, the writers hadn't originally imagined romantically pairing the characters of Sawyer and Juliet; but they experimented with coupling them in the script (and, I believe, in rehearsal), and found that it worked. You might say that the two characters fell in love of their own accord, organically and quite apart from the producers' expectations. Other times, it was the real-world conditions of the actors that changed the course of the show. Cuse and Lindelof say that they had "all these fantastic intentions" for the character of Mr. Eko, but the actor who played him "hated" being in Hawaii, where the show was shot, because he was 8,000 miles away from his beloved friends. So they had to kill off the character, which as it happens gave them room to open up another character, that of Ben Linus.

As it is in TV scripting, so it is in life: experiments and unexpected turns create suspense in the stories of our lives. That is, such events create suspense so long as we imagine our lives as stories: if life is instead experienced as a series of unrelated incidents, then there's no goal that is being impeded, no hero/heroine that is being challenged, no high-stakes game that is at risk of being lost. Same with the show: if it just presented a series of unconnected and therefore insignificant events, we wouldn't be invested in it in the slightest, and wouldn't care that Mr. Eko got killed off or whether Sawyer gets together with Juliet or Kate or, for that matter, the nearest tree or the island dog. Suspense occurs only because we care about the people involved in a TV show or a life story, and their well-being or their destinies are at stake. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 20: "THE SECRET CITY" WITH ALLEN HAHN

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR SUBSCRIBE IN iTUNES HERE.
 
The house I grew up in was about a hundred years old, and had layer upon layer of paint on the outside, and layer upon layer of wallpaper on the inside. The reason I knew this was that the paint and the paper cracked and peeled, and revealed -- in archaeological fashion -- what was underneath. I could only wonder who had occupied the house and what went on with them when the first or third or fifth layer was slapped on. I never investigated the history of the house at the local library or historical society, but hey, I was a kid! It was more fun to speculate. I say all this because, if we're attuned to it, there's a lot like that all around us -- the glue connecting things becomes undone and the surface of the world starts to peel up at the corners, hinting at some hidden life below.

Allen Hahn has tapped into this phenomenon in his interactive experiment in storytelling, "The Secret City," an inventive mix of theater, game, and urban exploration which has taken place several times now in a grand old library building in the dilapidated town of Braddock, Pennsylvania (the town's ups-and-downs were nicely chronicled in this New York Times story). Participants of "The Secret City" go through the library in small teams (and in different sequences), where they discover puzzles, send in their answers by text message to an automated system, and receive automated phone calls with the next portion of a story. Mystery suffuses the whole experience -- the building itself, the puzzles that participants must solve, and the story of the lost painting that their investigations uncover bit by bit. Allen is refining the experience with each iteration, and plans to expand the story to other sites in the area. Definitely check it out if you're in the Pittsburgh area when it's happening next. Keep your eyes peeled to the website for "The Secret City." And of course, please listen to my podcast interview with him on iTunes or clicking the link above.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

IS JOURNALISM DOOMED?


Spot.Us - Community Funded Reporting Intro from Digidave on Vimeo.

First off, a definitive answer to the question posted in the title: No, journalism is not doomed. I hope there will always be people who will risk going broke, getting injured, or just wasting their time pursuing important stories they feel the public must hear. Whether newspapers are doomed is another topic. 

Recently I posted about the one-shot "San Francisco Panorama," an experiment in the potential of newspapers. With so much free content on the web, newspapers are going broke, and so there are fewer news outlets that can afford to pay for the investigative reporting we need to maintain a robust, informed democracy. "Panorama" was issued on the theory that newspapers can still do stuff that websites can't, and induce people to buy newspapers which will then keep great reporting alive. Or that's the idea, as I understand it. 

Well, another San Francisco-based organization, this one called Spot.Us, is experimenting with the financial incentives of journalism. As the short Spot.Us video above says, the site "crowd-funds" stories that need to be told. Citizens can give tips on stories, reporters can pitch stories that site visitors can donate to, and news publishers can sponsor a story pitch to the tune of 50% and get first publishing rights. This way, reporters and donors big and small can collaborate to get coverage for stories that big newspapers might ignore, or that small papers don't have the resources to cover. Not bad, huh?

The cynic on my shoulder crows that the web hasn't really changed journalism that much. No doubt, the internet has enabled an explosion of citizen journalism and self-publishing. Sure, there are engrossing new forms to convey information, such as interactive maps or other charts. And yes, through such sites as Spot.Us, people can more easily support stories they want to see covered. But has the balance of power really changed much overall? Moneyed interests still control the flow of information, censorship still clouds many parts of the world, and entertainment still wins out over hard news much of the time. Just because an investigative report about a particular injustice gets funded by citizens and covered by a grassroots journalist -- it doesn't mean that proportionately more people are going to read that story or do anything about it than they would have before the internet era.

But then the angel on my other shoulder replies, okay, maybe this new platform for citizen journalism hasn't changed the balance of power one jot. But that doesn't make it any less vital. What's the alternative -- giving up? Ignoring these stories altogether? Certainly that's not an option. Projects like Spot.Us may not turn the world upside-down, but they might at least help right some wrongs. They may not always win, but the fight must go on.

(I was turned on to this site by my old friend Christopher Cook -- we were editors on our high school newspaper together, and he's a seasoned reporter now. His story is about a trial that pitted the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against one of its locals, and has implications for labor unions throughout California. Read the completed story here.)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

NEW NEWS -- "SAN FRANCISCO PANORAMA" EXPLORES THE POSSIBILITIES OF PAPER

The San Francisco Panorama is old news. The one-shot newspaper was published in paper format only by McSweeney's last December -- and that makes my writing about it now just a touch untimely! The Panorama is not just a newspaper, but also a paean to newspapers and an experiment in what newspapers can be. Press materials for the paper say, "We think that the best chance for newspapers' survival is to do what the internet can't: namely, use and explore the large-paper format as thoroughly as possible. To that end, we opted for a huge and luxurious broadsheet -- 15" x 22". Then we unleashed artists and designers to show exactly how much the format can do." 

The results are gorgeous, informative, and entertaining. There's a chart called "SF Sound" on various local music over the last 50 years, a story on the most excellent radio station KPOO (available streaming online), and a photo series on the killing and cooking of lamb. A full-page feature on "The Crisis in Congo" includes charts, maps, and a timeline about the various conflicts there. These big-picture features are great at placing any smaller story in context. As Ira Glass said in introducing the "This American Life" episode on the banking crisis (PDF), there are some "news stories that you're just going to kind of sit out." ("I sat out Kosovo," he says. "I'm not proud about that fact, but I did.") If you're like me, you need materials like this that set the stage so you can understand a bit more about the characters or events as they are introduced, in isolation, in any given news story.

In keeping with what I suspect was the editors' intent to provoke, I found myself arguing with the paper: "Sure, you can produce this fabulous print publication, but you had months to do a one-off -- can other newspapers really afford the luxury of time, and the resources you put into it to produce a daily paper of this quality?" Or, "Is there truly anything here that could not be conveyed effectively and handsomely online?" Then I tried answering my own questions. I'm still not convinced that paper can necessarily convey information that the internet cannot. However, San Francisco Panorama was pleasurable for me in a way that the internet (or, I suspect, an iPad) still isn't. I wanted to read it, pore over it. And that alone makes it a valuable contribution. Maybe the pleasure of reading such a publication will make people more likely to buy it and read it, as the editors indicate in the information pamphlet that accompanies the paper. "And until someone gets people to really pay for content online, the paper newspaper is still the most viable business model for getting journalists paid to do the reporting essential to a democracy."