Friday, February 23, 2007

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

A "clue" found by a Lost fan.

Those of you who follow my blog (and I am wondering how many of you are left after I have been woefully neglecting you all in recent months) probably know about my mild obsession with the show, Lost. I'm not as much of a fanatic as many out there are, but I do love to sit and discuss the possible meanings of certain elements on the show theorize about what's causing it all. In fact, I am obsessed enough to host a weekly show-viewing/discussion group. But lately it's starting to irk me how caught up people get in all of this extra-curricular Lost stuff. I'm starting to get jealous of fans like my mom who simply watch the show, take everything at face value, and leave it at that.

A typical Lost evening in our household goes like this:
1. Guests arrive about 30-60 mins before the show.
2. While last week's episode is airing, we sit and debate our various theories, some of us using laptops, notebooks, or even showing actual clips of Lost episodes to prove our points.
3. We watch the show, shouting out comments at various times and spewing more theories on commercial breaks.
4. Show ends and we sit for a further 30+ minutes theorizing with guests.
5. Everyone leaves and before our exiting guests have started their cars, Hubby has jumped on his laptop and become completely absorbed in all the latest buzz on Lost forums online, and there he stays until bedtime.

And it doesn't end there. There is an email discussion group that begins a new discussion every week after each episode airs. Some of the other members do even more research than we do, and listen to all the various podcasts. We used to listen to the podcasts, but have stopped that. Hubby, because he hates all the spoilers, me because I am sick of all this. It's all starting to feel like homework.

This is a fairly new phenomenon in TV/Film viewing. Once upon a time, what you saw, in the moment you saw it, was what you got. There were no second chances to view a scene unless you paid for another ticket to see the movie. And there were no chances at all for individual frame viewing. Then along came the VCR and it forever changed the way we look at movies. We can pause, rewind, fast forward. We can take a potty break, or decide we want to finish watching the movie next week. Since then, DVDs have afforded us even further interactivity and control over our own spectatorship. Now, we have chapter selection, better frame-by-frame viewing, and special features. We can hear the filmmaker's thoughts on almost any scene of any movie. We can view behind-the-scenes documentaries. In some cases we can even choose the camera angle for certain scenes. In some regards this is kind of a really cool thing. I mean, viewers are becoming more and more educated, and tastes are, in many cases, becoming more discerning. On the other hand, it's breeding a culture of people who are dissatisfied with the simple pleasure of passive viewing. We used to go to the movies to be told a story, now we're not content unless we can get inside the brain of the filmmaker, look up all the references on wikipedia, check out all the actors on imdb, and gather so much knowledge about a given story that we develop a kind of mastery over it. Aha! We say. I'm smarter, I know what there is to know. I will not simply sit back and be told this story, I will master it by understanding it in every way.

TV is going through a similar transformation now with DVR, on-demand viewing, and online viewing. Now, many TV fans review scenes from their favorite shows like referees reviewing sports plays over and over. I know that many of the Lost-o-philes rewatch an episode immediately after its initial viewing (whether it be on their own recordings or as the episode becomes available on or iTunes) to look for secret clues and 'easter eggs.' This concept of the 'easter egg' being a fairly new thing too. What used to be a fun little game played with Hitchcock cameos and set decorators' jokes, has now become a full-fledged hobby for the viewers. And every... little... speck of a thing could potentially be an easter egg with significance beyond the obvious.

You'd think I'd love this. And you know what? I did at first. But these new Easter Egg Hobbyists aren't educating themselves on film theory, they are jumping to all kind of ludicrous conclusions, and as Freud famously did or did not say, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." With the Easter-egg hunters, the obvious is questioned. Let's say, two lovers are sharing a seemingly post-coital moment (naked) in the sack. In the past we would have taken it for granted that that meant they had slept together whether or not we actually saw the act with our own eyes. Now, not so much. Now the show's producers have to put out a statement saying something along the lines of, "we don't understand where the confusion is, we meant to indicate that they had slept together." And tiny little production flaws are now potential clues. Guess what? Cinematographers do not design shots with frame-by-frame viewing in mind. If there is something spotted in a frame that cannot be seen at full speed, this is not even considered a flaw! It's considered negligible and undetectable so not worth the time, money, and effort to deal with. And even though we can interpret symbols and such to indicate the underlying themes of a piece as well as the ideology of the filmmaker, it doesn't mean that every tiny piece of minutia has secret meaning.

Thing is also, it's not like most of the Lost-o-philes are on a quest for meaning when they do this stuff. They are on a quest for clues to solve the show's mysteries. And a pebble here, an extra there, a glance, a grunt, the direction a twig is pointing in the background of a shot, can all be clues for solving the show's big questions: Why are they on the island? Why can't they leave? Who are 'The Others'? And why are there all kinds of freaky-deaky things going on?

To some extent, the show participates in all this madness. The producers shake their heads and wonder why we viewers attach extra significance to everything and doubt the obvious stuff, but they need to look a little to themselves when trying to figure out why we do it: they do drop clues for us! They hide significant numbers in the background of shots, they have characters casually walk by in the background of someone's flashback -- indicating possible character connections -- and furthermore, they ask more questions than they answer. They beg us to come up with some answers of our own while we salivate over what the next episodes might deliver us.

And I must admit that I, too, am guilty of active viewing. I was absolutely delighted when I, myself, recorded backwards-speech audio from an episode, reversed it on my mac, and discovered the real words as spoken by the actor. I was like a little film detective. But, you know, I am getting tired of it. I love a good debate, I love discussing what I think is going on versus what you think, but I am really starting to hate all the research. All the articles I have to read, all the screenshots I have to view (there is one website that simply exists to host a screenshot from every few seconds of every episode of Lost). And I am starting to just wish that we could see not only some cigars simply as cigars, but that perhaps all of them be taken only for what they are. Can't we just enjoy the ride of the adventure? Must we gain mastery over the mystery by declaring how much smarter we are because we can solve it and we can spot all of its clues? Ahhh... who am I kidding?

Our advancements in the interactivity of spectatorship have created monsters out of us, and this is where we are now. So where are we headed? Will people in the future reject any mode of storytelling unless they can interact with it and perhaps even determine its outcome? Or will there be some kind of backlash? My prediction is that we won't stop until the movie industry and the video-game industry become one and every story experience we have is a sort of virtual-reality-holodeck-meets-choose-your-own-adventure experience. Then we are the active creators and as well as the passive recipients of experience for every story; the subject and object of every sentence.

Back to the full blog...

1 comment:

Teddi said...

I guess I'd be disappointed if I could figure out everything (like on Heroes...I seem to be right about too much stuff for that show). I like that this show has me looking for clues, reading books, searching for connections with philosophers, etc. I don't want to watch a show just for mindless doesn't keep me interested for long.

I love the direction that this is taking us and I've always thought that a videogame-like movie would be really cool. How amazing would it be to have a movie that is less fate-driven and more free-will driven so that you and I could start watching the same movie, but see very different outcomes...or even the same outcome arrived by different means?


blogger templates 3 columns | Tech Blog