Home > Shifting literacies > Lost or Shakespeare?

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?

Shifting literacies , , ,

  1. Maya
    | #1

    “Have I completely missed the point?” Yes. You can’t possibly grasp the depth and meaning of Lost without watching (AND rewatching) all of the seasons. Actually it is because it’s so challenging (when you watch Lost you can’t be a passive television-viewer, you need to make your brain cells work; your memory, your personal knowledge of literature, mythology, history etc.., your analytic skills are all at work) that it’s not a very popular series in countries like France where they prefer more down-to-earth and one-dimensional shows.
    One of the reasons why Lost appeals so much to me is the fact that the characters are multi-dementional. The way all their lives are interconnected is so life-like. Lost is in fact a very realist series and does tell you a lot about life if you pay close attention and know how to read between the ‘lines’.
    If you find the ‘fantastic’ dimension of the show problematic (for example “the monster”, the ‘magic’ properties of the island, the extraordinary powers of Jacob etc…) think of them as being metaphors or simply place them in the context from which they have been inspired. eg: Jacob’s story, the statue, the heart of light: Egyptian mythology, Buddhism and other estorism. It will greatly help you understand the message of Lost. Shakespeare himself relied on ‘fantastic’ elements to convey certain ideas, like in The Tempest, which by the way greatly inspired Lost. I think you’d be interested by the parallels existing between that classic work of literature and the TV series.

    If you haven’t watched all of the episodes of Lost then you haven’t watched Lost at all. Therefore your analysis of the whole series, which is based on only one episode, is irrelevant. I strongly recommend that you watch the series with an open mind before rushing into conclusions.
    You may be surprised..

  2. | #2

    Below is a quote taken from Wikipedia. I thought it would be nice to point out the series successes.

    Critically acclaimed and a popular success, Lost garnered an average of 16 million viewers per episode on ABC during its first year. It has won numerous industry awards including the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2005, Best American Import at the British Academy Television Awards in 2005, the Golden Globe for Best Drama in 2006 and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama Series. Reflecting its devoted fan base, the series has become a part of American popular culture with references to the story and its elements appearing in other television series, commercials, comic books, webcomics, humor magazines, a video game and song lyrics. The show’s fictional universe has also been explored through tie-in novels, board and video games, and alternative reality games, The Lost Experience and Find 815.

  3. | #3

    Yes LOST is back on TV, so my Wednesdays are back in fashion. Wednesday is also Rubbish Day, so I see it as my due reward for putting the rubbish bags out.

  4. | #4

    I like the LOST talk too, Rachel. And I don’t exactly hate the show either!

    I like your metaphor for life as an endlessly interpretable unsolvable mystery, but to me LOST seems more about unsolvable riddles.

    Lumping LOST with Baywatch was bit harsh, sorry, (though both shows have a beach and regular shocks – just kidding!) I was trying to make a point about the nature of ‘success’ there.

    And Yes, definitely Shakespeare AND rather than OR. I’d prefer Shakespeare AND Simpsons personally (Fox didn’t approve a Simpsons resource, but that’s another story).

  5. | #5

    @schoolgov, @Jim, yes, thank goodness we are getting back into the LOST-talk again – season 6 is not too far off, and at least two of us (davidj and me – and it sounds like schoolgov too) are excited about its return! I’ve come to realise that when it comes to TV, some people love what other people hate, and vice versa, so I highly doubt we’ll ever convince Jim. But davidj and I have had some stunning LOST conversations in the NZCER kitchen in the past. What we like about it is the extremely high cognitive demand it places on us as we watch. LOST is filled with more open-ended mysteries, multi-layered threads, repeating themes, plot twists, time-twists, and recursive loops than any other show I’ve seen. I’ve said this repeatedly on shiftingthinking – what I think is cool about LOST is that it raises more questions than answers, and it not only offers, but DEMANDS that viewers fill in the gaps or connect the dots by coming up with their own theories, predictions, explanations, suppositions, etc. And there is endless possibility to do so, since nothing is ever fully explained or resolved in LOST (there’s always room for interpretation, in other words). Jim, that’s a pretty good metaphor for life don’t you think?

    Baywatch certainly never did that! (I kind of object to the two shows being lumped in the same category, yes they are both popular, but COME ON!. Shakespeare’s works, of course, as rich multilayered texts, also provide us with rich brainfood and the raw materials for us (the readers/viewers) to bring our own interpretations, or connect things up in our own ways.

    I think some time ago on this thread we decided not “Shakespeare OR LOST” but “Shakespeare AND LOST” – AND many many other forms of arts, literature, popular entertainment – can enrich our lives and worlds and open us up to new experiences and ways of thinking.

    I just don’t think we’ll ever convert Jim into our LOST fanclub :)

  6. | #6

    Hi Schoolgov,

    Thanks for reigniting the LOST conversation!

    Re. popular culture and LOST, I enjoyed this http://www.theonion.com/content/news/smoke_monster_from_lost_given_own

    I agree that successful entertainment stretches the boundary of your own experience, but I’m not sure that success in terms of contemporary popularity is particularly worthwhile or significant in its own right. Look at the most popular TV series ever, for example: Baywatch. Things may be getting stretched – but not the mind :)

    Your idea of the island as a metaphor for the bewildering nature of life is interesting, but from what I saw the metaphor seems a bit grim. Where’s the unexpected good stuff, the joy? Where is the love? That seems to be provided by the characters rather than the island, which makes the metaphor a bit unwieldy for me.

  7. schoolgov
    | #7

    What interesting comments!

    And what’s even more interesting to me is what nobody’s really dealt with substantively, altohough some have mentioned it in passing – that the thing it offers, in line with pretty much any successful programme be it comedy, fantasy, drama or sci-fi – is the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of your own experience.

    For me, the appeal of Lost! is in the conundrums and paradoxes that it presents. The characters provide an interesting set of prototype responses to the enigmas of the setting, but that is not the primary focus or appeal of the programme – at least not for me. The primary focus of Lost! is in the character of the Island itself, that great metaphor for life in all it’s bewildering, complex, contradictory unpredictability … with, of course, the assurance that if only you can grasp the key, all the answers will become clear.

    If I was preparing a unit I’d maybe look at asking questions about that, and the parallels with navigating the journey through childhood & adolescence.

    (P.S. while we’re at it, let’s not over-romanticise Shakespeare. He was certainly a great writer, but he wasn’t born on that pedestal we keep hom on now. In his own time he was just another populist entertainer with critics pointing out that whatever his merits, he wasn’t Ovid.)

    Ah! Popular culture! Don’t yu just love it!!!

  8. | #8

    Christopher, I like the idea of a touchstone applied to art, it has a nice pragmatic feel about it. I think that traditionally the definition of a touchstone in this sense has been The Canon, which is now evolving in the context of post-modernism and hard to pin down. I suppose the crux of the Shakespeare debate is whether he, as the greatest ball in the canon, is outdated, i.e. he no longer helps to illuminate human nature, nor has a bearing on contemporary art or culture. I believe that Shakespeare is still relevant, but I also think that we need new touchstones, new works to help us understand contemporary life and provide a common reference point, a way of putting things in context, as you say. The obvious place to look for such touchstones now is television rather than the theatre or even the printed word. How about ‘The Simpsons’ as a touchstone? As a very popular TV series that is discussed in the playground it has a kind of organic contextualising status amongst children that the canon has never had. The immediate questions are, Is it art? Is it worthy?

  9. Maurice
    | #9

    Hi David

    If you check out this youtube video about a concept phone using nanotechnologies, called the Nokia morph, you might see similarities to the thinking below, which is in response to what you said:
    … every person in life that we ever meet acts woodenly, especially the first time we meet them. It is not really until we become aware of the full extent of a persons character that we see the soul.

    We haven’t met yet – but I can assure you that when we meet I will not act woodenly! … ergo not “every” person does this.

    However, that’s just an aside really, because what I think is interesting is your view that: “on the outside, I think we all appear unnatural because if we always portrayed ourselves the way we are, then that would inevitable be too informal.
    Now this presupposes that there is one true self for each of us, yet I see myself being different according to the context – kind of like a chameleon if you like. When I have my classes there is a noticeable difference if somebody is away, or sits in a different place. They are changing the context. As an example, the other day I caused a bit of a double-take by some students who only know me in the context of being in my classes. Their view seemed to be that the ‘self’ they had projected onto me was the ‘real’ me. The story was that they were studying Hamlet in their English class, so their teacher asked me to give a demo of fencing. When this occurred I was a different ‘me’ in a sense, because in my fencing outfit with mask and foil in hand I was no longer the teacher they knew. The same thing happens sometimes in reverse when we see students out of uniform – they are in a different context.

    My point is that we are all shaped by context, by the words we use and don’t use, by the clothes we wear and don’t wear, by our reactions to others. We pick up cues from our context, as does the concept phone when it ‘smells‘ the ripeness, or ‘coordinates‘ to something to become a fashion accessory, or morphs to an EFTPOS card or a calculator.

    Can you spend a day thinking about people in this way instead? What then happens to your notion of yourself?


  10. | #10

    Testing a video response.

    S02E01 First 3 minutes.
    This scene typifies the 60s/70s feel of the show. The year is around 2004, but everything man made on the island comes from thirty or so years before. Even the computers are old IBM mainframes.

    The current series (five) is set in in 1974 and provides many answers for the first four series.

  11. | #11

    Hi Muzz,

    I haven’t seen Boston Legal (though a recent trailer in which the very versatile Willlliam Shatner asked James Spader to marry him looked interesting) but a more social realist type show like this rather than LOST is appealing to me as a resource writer because the episodes are (a quick office survey reveals) largely self contained.

    I suppose the burning question here is: what are students (I’m thinking year 8-10 for a trial resource) watching that they’d like to study?

    Are you in a position to do a quick survey Muzz, in the staffroom or classroom? Is there anyone out there with their finger on the TV watching habbits of year 8-10 students? I’d greatly appreciate hearing about them before beginning a resource.

  12. | #12

    I’m going to keep my comment short. This comment comes from a lover of contemporary television (David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” is still top ten in my personal canon). My thought is this: would any of us be here at all and having this conversation at all if it weren’t for our exposure to the literary forms like that of Shakespeare’s plays. In this fast changing world, we need to learn how to contextualise more than ever. Having a common touchstone is a real help there. I reckon.

  13. Muzz
    | #13

    “its not LOST as we know it, Jim!”

    Yeah, I just don’t get LOST, or Bill Shakespeare either for that matter

    So what would you make of Boston Legal then… its got the breadth of issues, from shallow and trivial, right through to the deeper issues that shake our times. If you can make it through one of Alan’s “closings” you can make it through anything!

    Would certainly provide rich fodder for students to study – b4 they know it they will be tackling fairly exhaustive research projects…

    A recent episode did it for me – and coupled with a reflection shared with me: “that most people lead lives of quiet frustration” – yet for Denny “this is best of times, this is it, right here, right now”…

  14. | #14

    Sure, I raise some of the points myself in order to frame my viewpoint.

    I also think a resource could be interesting. If that happens, then I recommend that you at least start from Series 5 episode 1. That way if you don’t like it, you can give up watching, but you will have enough to work with. If you do like it, then you will have a context for what follows. Even then, a lot will be lost on you as many explanations and links have been made in previous series, and as such, things may seem quite random and weird.

    The writers of LOST haven’t done many stand-alone episodes and instead have focussed on previously established story lines. The show was popular from the beginning and perhaps there was less need to use stand-alone episodes (which are useful for gaining new converts) at the expense of annoying the well established fan base.

  15. | #15

    How much of what we do is really original and lies outside of our normal roles and routines? Is what we call spontaneity usually a cliche? I think that these are very interesting questions, but wonder if it is you or LOST that is really raising them.

    Sorry, that was the last assertion I’ll make about the content of LOST until I watch more of it :-)

    I’m interested in making a resource out of the show to tap into student’s engagement with a contemporary TV series, but I’m worried that I’d have to watch the previous hundred or so episodes to do that. What do you think David?

  16. Jane
    | #16

    Great idea re making a resource! You could put early versions of it up on this website and ask for feedback – since there’s obviously interest! Should provoke a good discussion.

  17. | #17

    Hi Rachel,

    I’ll definitely watch Lost again – despite the danger to myself of geting hooked! But Reality TV is more dangerous for me in that regard because people are more openly and powerfully themselves, and as you say, we social animals imprint people we watch into our minds.

    I’m not claiming higher ground here, though it was nice to have it for a coule of blogs! I watched a lot of of the first few Survivor episodes. I even found the first series of Rock of Love fascinating, in a revolting way. It was kinf of like watching a python slowly swallowing a pig, or something, and i couldn’t tear muyself away.

    There is no doubt in my mind that these shows are genuinly compelling, and on a level which has no reationship to logic or rationality. My problem with Lost is less to do with ‘quality’ (I love the magnificent silliness of strange film festivals rather than merely mild silliness of Lost)than how entertaining it is as drama.

    As a show that has people in it, though, Lost will inevitably become engaging if I watch it long enough – it must, given the way we’re wired. But as drama, it’s not engaging for me.

    But I like the idea of students learning to study character and motifs and plot by analysing a show like Lost. Engagement is so crucial in education, I think. And it’s an old problem in literature as well. Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, said something along the lines of it being useless to preach to a sleeping audience.

    I don’t think that our educators should ignore our humanity, that we should say it’s ‘wrong’ to like junk tv, but I think we have to learn to be critical about what we’re watching.

    Rachel, I favour studying both Shakespeare and Lost. Perhaps start with easier stuff, which students are engaged with, to develop skills and tools, and then move on and apply those skills to the richer stuff? I wonder if we could make a resource which followed Lost as it came out, something that teachers could use to talk about things like character, symbol and motif, etc?

  18. | #18

    Nice critique of LOST and interesting to read a first-timers perspective. I also wonder how much of what you said I would agree with if I had never watched LOST and then watched one episode mid-way through.

    As a comeback of sort, I think you have overlooked some things which I think are important.

    The first one is that every person in life that we ever meet acts woodenly, especially the first time we meet them. It is not really until we become aware of the full extent of a persons character that we see the soul.

    If I walked into a pub, what would I see? I would see predictability. People ordering drinks, chatting about things of little importance, and people standing stiffly with unnatural poses as they hold their beverage in one hand and wave the other around in a way to give emphasis regarding what they are saying. But underlying that predictability are people with a life time of unique experiences that we know nothing about.

    My point is that on the outside, I think we all appear unnatural because if we always portrayed ourselves the way we are, then that would inevitable be too informal. But as we get to know people, they become more natural. Is this because they are more relaxed around you or is because you have a greater depth of understanding of them? I think it is both. People’s unnatural poses become natural just by knowing them at a deeper level. After a while you start to see a persons character and personality and then you start almost ignoring the outside of the person because the inside of a person is so much deeper and interesting.

    If this is true, then as you have said yourself, because you have no background for each character, I think you have no other option but to judge by the outward appearance. And because the story is so far along and you are in that respect, lost, you have another reason to pick the supposedly shallow characters apart.

    Over four or five seasons, LOST has spent probably a third to half of the viewing time on showing each character’s past experiences, so in time you become less offended by things you may not like about them because you see the reason why they act the way they act. Instead of offering you a linear view you are given an almost angelic view of the characters as you are shown what they have experienced at different points of their life. Sometimes you are fast-forwarded to the future, whizzed back to the present, and then taken back many years in the past.

    Of course this is only one aspect to this show that is different. Another even more compelling reason to watch LOST is the storyline itself. There are so many mysteries that you are left guessing and at times, and you wonder if the writers actually know what they are doing because they introduce things that seem impossible for them to explain later on. But explain them they do, and not only that, but they often explain it by showing you something that happened in the past and not in the future as you would expect.

    Of course LOST is not for everyone, I think it attracts people who like science-fiction, a good mystery, and who wouldn’t mind too much if they were shipwrecked on a deserted island.

    Oh, I also wouldn’t recommend that you watch the show part way through. You need to watch the previous hundred or so episodes to fully appreciate it. Good luck with that.

  19. | #19

    Hi Jim,
    So LOST is not your cup of tea. To tell the truth I dismissed this show in its first few seasons, only getting “hooked” around season 4. This leads me to wonder whether a) if you gave LOST a bit more of a chance, maybe you’d start to appreciate some of the “LOSTian” narrative complexity, or b) whether it just proves that I, and people like me, are simply poor judges of quality when it comes to different forms of text and literature :)

    After re-reading all our postings several times, I’ve realised (as perhaps you have) that we are looking at LOST from quite different positionings which I find very interesting. You’ve done a critical analysis of LOST in terms of its “quality” (or lack thereof) as a piece of literature, and come to the conclusion that LOST isn’t, for you, great literature, and therefore not worthy of serious study – though in the hands of a more skilled auteur you seem to think think perhaps something of quality could be produced in a LOSTian style?

    Fair enough (and correct me if I’ve got that wrong).

    At the end of your posting you put forward some theories about why people like me find these (apparently low-quality) texts engaging/compelling: because we watch them so much that we start to feel like we “know” the characters and hence their lives take on a relevance for us – (as “wooden” and “unemotionally engaging” as they may be!). This fascinates me because I’ve read brain science magazines that explain this as the same reason we are interested in celebrity gossip: Since we’re social beings, our brains have evolved in such a way that at a sub-conscious level our brain “thinks we know” these people because we are exposed to them so frequently through media. (In addition, the theory goes, our brains have also evolved to pay particular attention to individuals who are of “high status” – the leaders of our primate troupe – and in the modern world celebrities manage to sneak into this part of our brains too). Jim, your remark about Evangeline Lilly suggests even your brain isn’t immune to this tendency :)

    These are the kinds of ideas that I find compelling when I think about LOST as a unit of study. I’m quoting from memory here from Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good For You, which argues something like “the content of [popular culture] is less interesting than the cognitive work it elicits from your mind”.

    What kind of “work” is happening in fans’ minds (real fans, I mean) when they watch LOST, or contribute to the LOSTpedia?

    Is this mindwork of any learning value, or is it simply a gross misappropriation of our minds’ evolved potential to a vapid and pointless purpose?

    Returning to the overarching focus of this website on education (and the original threads on this blog about Shakespeare that morphed into this discussion), what are we as educators supposed to do as we seek ways to support learners to develop literacy, thinking skills, identities, and so on?

    For example, is it our job as educators to:
    a) filter out the “trash”, and select only the high quality texts (like Shakespeare) for students to study, because only these texts “can teach us something about life”
    b) Invite students to choose those texts that THEY find engaging, then help them to realise the gaps, absences, and flaws in these texts (such as by comparison to a high-quality text like Shakespeare)
    c) Something else altogether?

    Your thoughts on this question?

    (Personally I’ve got about 5 contradictory opinions of my own, and I find your thinking very covincing….if I keep writing I’m liable to start attacking/rejecting my previous assertions any minute…!)

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