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Lost or Shakespeare?

April 15th, 2009

Lost or Shakespeare, that is the question. I watched my first episode on Wednesday 8th April and it started well. A bald and sweaty man, looking a fair bit like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, was lowered down a well. Aha, I thought, as he descended into the gloom, an allusion: into the heart of darkness. A light flared and the well closed up. A bit of grief resulted, then headaches stopped and noses stopped bleeding. The well re-appeared but was full of dirt.

A kind of wicker man was briefly seen. Mr Kurtz had apparently successfully turned a wheel underground to stop the headaches. Above ground, by the well, a man named Jim seemed to be suffering the most volubly, in a terse kind of way, staking a strong early claim as the main character.

Half an hour later we’d been back and forth in time by three years twice, two men had been shot, a woman had given birth, someone had got drunk and blown up some dynamite. There were sore heads again.

Jim was the central character in this episode. Talking in two sentence bursts, he is hairy, sweaty and disgruntled. His character is further characterised by using quaint words like, doozy, boss and chief. Jim and a blonde named Juliet watch each others’ backs. She’s a good shot, kills two men from 30 metres with a rifle, two men who put a hood over a struggling woman.

The best scene for me: the woman in the hood, who was saved by Jim’s yelling and the Juliet’s good shooting, leads her saviours through a sonic fence. They fall about with sore heads again and she blithely removes ear plugs. Is she a criminal? That might explain the hood. Some ambiguity and mystery, then, but it was hard for me to care if anyone got up from their sore heads this time. Still, it takes a while to be drawn into anything.

After the ads came a section which lost me, which seemed uniquely Lostian and a point of difference from other shows, the part of it which makes it worthy of study. There were puzzling references to earlier episodes. A long haired man in grey overalls talked about a fence. A dark haired man in blue overalls called Richard wanted the two dead bodies dug up for some reason. A cymbal bonged. The name John Locke was said ominously, as was The Dharma Initiative. There must be justice for the dead men. There was tension music. Time was mentioned. News came that a sub was leaving the island. French horns, strings.

Juliet told Jim (she calls him James) that she will leave in two weeks on the sub (after three years on the island). No more bloody noses. But who will keep Jim’s back? He needs two more weeks! Piano, strings, moonlight on the water. She granted his request.

Three years later: sun, fresh shirts, fresh veggies, combed hair, Jim walking into domestic bliss. Strings strengthened. The blonde and he embraced, complimented each other tersely as they held a sunflower. “I love you.” “I love you, too.”

Jim sat by the bed of the man in grey overalls who was letting off dynamite previously. What was Jim reading? The man woke up and Jim told him he’s a daddy! Strings. He explained the reason why he got drunk. Something about a dead man (I missed this bit because the phone rang). Jim spoke (to string accompaniment) about regret, about a girl. Memories, he said, meaningfully, they fade.

Jim and Juliet were in bed, spooning rigidly, when the phone rang. Jim answered and was disconcerted. He drove a blue jeep to a peninsula and met a blue combi driven by blue clothed people. Strings. Jim’s hair wafted. He removed spectacles he had not worn once until this scene. Evangeline Lily (I know my Woman’s Day), wearing a singlet, looked meaningfully at him. Credits.

If you’re still reading this blog, you will know that I found Lost pretty silly, from the characterisation down to the over lush soundtrack which sounded portentous and pretentious to me because the two-dimensional characters don’t elicit empathy. The banks of violins were like a canned laugh track in an unfunny comedy, drawing attention to exactly what was missing: in this case emotional drama.

I think that the reason characters like these become engaging is because we watch them unselfconsciously so much − more than we watch the people we know in real life. Over the years we come to know these characters physically in quite an intimate way. Their mannerisms, the way they move and the way they speak are wired into our bodies. In this way their appeal basically works on the same level as people on reality TV (except people on reality TV are more animated and interact in a more fluid way).

Lost is not reality TV. Inexplicable and impossible things happen and people act woodenly. And it’s been running for five years. The result of all the esoteric knowledge abut Lost on the internet seems to be largely a result of the show’s long run and the natural accruement of events which can be recalled. The knowledge being generated here says things about Lost rather than life. This is the difference between Shakespeare (or any other classic literature) and Lost. Great literature says something about life (as well as having special qualities in itself which make it literature), but Lost is just saying things about itself.

Lost may be groundbreaking in its self reflexivity, or intratextuality, but I seriously question the coherence or significance of what it says about itself. The pieces of the jigsaw (though fun) often seem arbitrary and essentially trivial. It is of interest in what it is rather than what it says.

I’m making a lot of claims after watching one episode, but I think that if Lost is to be studied it should be from a cultural/technological angle. The TV series is notable as the generator of a new kind of interactive cyber puzzling community. But could someone do it better than this, harness this new internet interaction? What’s David Lynch doing? A sudden thought! Have I completely missed the point? Is the corniness in Lost intentional and celebrated by its fans, like at a strange movie festival?

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Shakespeare or LOST?

April 2nd, 2009

An interesting question, Rachel! I’ve haven’t yet watched LOST so I’ll have to deal in generalisations here until I do watch it.

Perhaps I could compare and contrast The Tempest to a series of LOST (both feature shipwrecks on a magical island, romance, nastiness)? At first glance it seems like comparing apples and oranges, though.

We can apply criticism to anything, of course, and the act of criticism has to be good for your mind in that it entails complicated mental processes including the articulation of ideas not consciously realised. But is studying LOST as rewarding for you as studying Shakespeare? It all depends on the quality of LOST, I think. Is it worthy of close examination? Is it complicated, nuanced, intelligent, dramatic (and so on) enough? To be brief, is LOST of very high quality?

Looking at the link you provided, Rachel, http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/This_Place_is_Death I have some doubts. I’ve quoted from the site below.

Recurring Themes

Ben drives a van with the name ‘Canton-Rainier.’ This is an anagram for ‘reincarnation.’ (Life and Death) (Rebirth)

Ben previously told Jack the last time he saw Locke was three years ago on the Island; he has however seen him since then. (Deceptions and cons)

Danielle tells Jin that her team departed for their expedition on 15 November 1988. (The Numbers)

Montand’s arm is ripped off. Later, Jin sees it somewhat decayed after a flash. (Missing body parts)

And my favourite theme (yes, it’s time to throw out the classics!) :

Sawyer refers to Charlotte as ‘Red.’ (Nicknames)

A couple of these might be motifs, at best. Anyway, at first glance I’m worried about the nature of the analysis going on here.

I think the best answer to your question is that we study both Shakespeare and LOST (or any high quality contemporary TV series). We’d be missing something if we studied only one at the expense of the other. Maybe start with LOST then graduate to Shakespeare? Or vice versa?!  I’ll watch the next episode!

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Shakespeare for my birthday

February 25th, 2009

I’ve just been given the Complete Works of Shakespeare for my 40th birthday (along with a bottle of whiskey, a magnificent stainless steel coffee plunger, a second-hand TV and DVD player, and I won’t go on…) which has got me thinking (again, in the light of recent media headlines) about the Bard of Avon, this long dead bourgeois Englishman whose oeuvre has become a secular bible in the West (and to a certain extent an instrument of oppression and cultural demolition – though that’s not his fault!). And I’ve begun thinking about my twenty-five year relationship to his plays and poems.

Where did this relationship begin? If you believe the (popularly) critically acclaimed study by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the inventor of the human, Shakespeare’s texts had a key role in constructing my personality before I was born. I was born into the world Shakespeare had a large part in creating. Bloom claims that Shakespeare constructed through his characters, most notably Falstaff and Hamlet, the blueprint for the human personality, that Shakespeare expanded and defined the possibilities of personality and character, and drew attention to all the facets and shades of personality we value as a society. In other words, he showed us how to be – whether or not each one us has experienced one of the plays directly. It’s a bold claim and theoretically unfashionable in its claims of universals which include the placement of Shakespeare at the top of a canon – and not only of Western literature but of world literature.

Perhaps a good place to start (though still problematic) is with the question: what’s so good about Shakespeare? Bloom, like others before him, points to the ‘unparalleled range’ of Shakespeare’s characters and the ‘incomparable vitality’ of his writing. People have objections to making comparisons and some people object to Shakespeare (Tolstoy being a famous example), but if you’re prepared to address the question of who has the greatest range of characterisation in literature, there aren’t many convincing arguments against him. Is characterisation important, or the most important aspect of literature? Again, it’s hard to argue (if you’re prepared to) against such an assertion (in the ‘realist’ tradition). It seems to be fairly widely accepted these days in creative writing classes, for example, that character is the engine of literature. Another aspect of Shakespeare that seems unsurpassable is the variety of interpretations that can be brought to his plays. When I first studied English Lit at Victoria University, The Taming of the Shrew was banned for being offensive to women; however, Bloom reads the play as proof of the superiority of women over men in the ‘battle of the sexes’. He insists that Katherina genuinely loves Petruchio; she learns how to control him by simply pretending to agree with him, and her famous submissive speech at the end of the play is obviously ironical and comical. Bloom says (paraphrasing Auden) that our interpretations show how Shakespeare reads us.

Where do I, a contemporary reader, come into this? (other than being born into it…) I first held a play by Shakespeare in my hand at Newlands College, in English class in year 10 or 11. I had seen or heard only fragments of his plays at that time, enough to know that the language was hard to follow. However, in English class, with the text in my hand, I knew I could go slowly and concentrate and engage with this mythical figure.

This introduction to Shakespeare is one of three lonely memories of class work from school which I still carry with me to this day. I remember the room and where I was sitting with unusual clarity (at the back left). Our teacher, a black woman from Guyana, had a cardboard box from which she produced small, light blue books, hard covered, durable and old.  I took the tough little book and opened it with a rare feeling of significance. It was almost momentous: my first one-on-one meeting with the greatest writer ever (which seemed to spill into ‘greatest human’, somehow) – which was how everyone had described him on TV and radio and in books and in conversation for as long as I could remember. People and the media talked about other people as well, of course, but Shakespeare was unique in the unanimous reverence he attracted. He occupied a special place in the culture. So, I opened the blue book Mrs Williams gave me and found… people talking – oddly. They spoke gracefully, powerfully, intelligently, incomprehensibly. No light illuminated my mind. The class didn’t stir from its usual apathy. Memory over.

You may be wondering if I was I happy to get The Complete Works for my birthday, whether I threw it out the window with a cry of rage; whether I immediately put it on a prominent place in the bookshelf, next to the bible, where it will remain unopened but noticed; or if I opened the book at random, found someone talking in Romeo and Juliet  – and my jaw dropped open in surprise.

A person begins engaging with the world Shakespeare helped create long before they get into year 11 or 12 – on a day when a certain tension creeps into their teacher’s voice… Whether or not ‘axing’ Shakespeare is only a media beat-up, I find myself worried about the creation of special schools which are selectively excluded from looking at such a pervasive and unique cultural figure. The students will know they’ve been marginalised. They’ll know they’ve been picked out, identified as being unable or unwilling to engage with the highest (or thereabouts) level of Western art. To paraphrase Bloom, they’ll be told they’re not worthy of being read by Shakespeare.

Is Bloom overstating Shakespeare’s influence here? (Plato comes to mind as another secular figure to whom similar seminal cultural influence is attributed.) I’d love to hear about young peoples’ attitudes to this cultural behemoth we call Shakespeare – before and after they study him.

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