Friday, March 30, 2007

Exposé

This week's episode of Lost, "Exposé," won't go down as one of its all-time best, but for what it was it was fun and wonderfully self-conscious.

In preping for the final papers in American Quality Television this week, one of my Brunel students asked me to explain better what Robert J. Thompson means by saying quality TV is self-conscious. A few days late "Exposé" gives me a fine example.

Ardent followers of the show have been well aware the addition of the Nikki (Kiele Sanchez) and Paolo (Rodrigo Santoro) characters this season did not sit well with fans. No one seemed impressed when the PR machine told us that Santoro was the "Tom Cruise of Brazil." Echoing people all over the world, my wife's response when they first stepped out of the crowd of nameless Lostaways on the beach (in "Further Instructions") was "Who are these people?" Lost's writers, especially Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who authored "Exposé," incorporated this lament into the show, putting it in Sawyer's mouth--his oft-repeated "Who the hell are you?"

In "Exposé," Brazil's Tom Cruise morphs into Brazil's Wolfgang Puck--Howard Zuckerman calls him this after tasting his food (in season "shaved truffles" are his secret), a wink-to-the-fans who knew about the failed introduction of Paolo/Santoro. But then again his food is poisonous, just like the character's presence on the show.

Other moments in the episode allow fans to revisit the narrative. The insertion of N and P into the original crash scene on the beach (from the Pilot) give another chance to see the aftermath from different angles: we see the man sucked into the engine again; we see Boone actually asking people for a pen so Jack can perform a tracheotomy on Rose. (As TWoP commented, we are reminded in the process how little we care that Boone, and Shannon, are gone.) Later, we hear Jack give his "live together, die alone" speech again. We see the Nigerian drug plane before Jack and Boone did (Paolo showing more sense than either of them in estimating the risk of climbing up to it). We dive into the same lake in which Kate had found the Marshal's gun case. We find out what Paolo was really doing in the Swan's bathroom. Dr. Arzt and Ethan Rom get a bit more screen time. And we are privy for the first time to Juliet and Ben alone together.

Darlton and company had a problem on their hands: they had made a mistake by introducing N and P (I suspect their inclusion was forced on them by the ABC suits, hoping it would increase the show's international appeal). How to get rid of them? "Exposé" did the deed and did it in a self-conscious, self-referential, oroboric (snake-biting-its-own-tail), self-congratulatory way. When the episode buries N and P alive at the end, the Poe-esque moment is yet another wink-wink, a metaphoric way of capturing what, extra-diegetically, the episode was really about.

On NPR's On Point this week, Damon Lindelof confesses that the beginning and the end of Lost have not been a problem; the problem is the middle. "Tap dancing," as Lindelof admits, is fun to watch, but not for long.

"Exposé" was narratological tap dancing. Self-conscious fun while it lasted. But then Lindelof also admitted that the episode might be the best Lost candidate yet for shark-jumping.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Fracking/Fragging

"Abso-fragging-lutley."
--Captain John Sheridan, "A Race Through Dark Places," Babylon 5 (2.8)

In an earlier blog, I spoke of Veronica Mars' use of Battlestar Galactica's signature faux profanity "frack."

Now I discover that, in a second season episode of the extraordinary Babylon 5 (yes, I am just now getting around to watching it), the space station's commander uses the clearly related pseudo-swear "fragging."

What the fuck? Is Battlestar, too, referencing an ur-text?

Discuss . . .

Working the Web

I thought I might say a few words here about my WWW work.

Though completely self-taught--I still know virtually nothing about html code and cannot claim to be much of a designer--I have created over the last decade and still maintain (not always diligently) a variety of websites and like to think they might have been of use/of interest to some over the years.

Over the years I have moved virtually all of my web work to my own website, http://davidlavery.net/.

I am perhaps most proud of The Owen Barfield World Wide Website, still the most comprehensive Internet resource on the unjustifiably ignored British philologist and student of the evolution of consciousness.

Evil Genius: An Experiment in Fantastic Philosophy is a hypertext metafiction about a 21st century phenomenological psychologist who travels back in time to assassinate René Descartes in order to stop an epidemic of PDD, Proprioception Deficit Disorder, a psychosomatic severance of mind and body, Cartesianism come to life, in the present.

I have done websites on the cultural historian and futurologist William Irwin Thompson, the science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. (Dr. Alice Sheldon), the film theorist (my own mentor) W. R. Robinson, the great American poet Wallace Stevens.

My career-long obsession with The Grotesque resulted in The Grotesque: A World Wide Website.

A commonplace book I kept in the 1980s has become the online commonplace book The Imaginative Thinker.

Last, and certainly not least, I am the founding co-editor and webmaster of Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, which will soon publish its 23rd issue.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Finale

Judging by Web buzz, last week's Season Three Battlestar Galactica finale, "Crossroads, Part II," was a failure. A poster on IMDB, for example, deemed it "a disappointing end to a season that started so well."

It is true Season Three went into a mid-season slump, but the finale, risky as it might have been, was one for the ages.

Look at what it got done: wrapped Baltar's trial (finding him not guilty thanks to Lee Adama's speech from the witness stand--even the Admiral voted not guilty); revealed the source of the reverberating music driving Colonel Tigh crazy (crazier?); shocked us with the OMG moment in which Tigh, the Chief, Anders, Tory discover they are toasters (singing Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" on their separate, circuitous paths to a clandestine meeting); put the Galactica in terrible peril after a fleet-wide power failure; brought Starbuck back to life--and back from Earth--ready to lead the way home.

Pay no attention to the doubters. This was an amazing, risk-taking season-ender. But please let next season be the last.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Esoteric/Exoteric

es·o·ter·ic [es-uh-ter-ik]
–adjective
1. understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest; recondite: poetry full of esoteric allusions.
2. belonging to the select few.
3. private; secret; confidential.
4. (of a philosophical doctrine or the like) intended to be revealed only to the initiates of a group: the esoteric doctrines of Pythagoras.

ex·o·ter·ic [ek-suh-ter-ik]
–adjective
1. suitable for or communicated to the general public.
2. not belonging, limited, or pertaining to the inner or select circle, as of disciples or intimates.
3. popular; simple; commonplace.




When Deny All Knowledge: Investigating The X-Files was published in 1996 by Syracuse University Press, I was horribly embarrassed to discover that, in a footnote, I had misused the meaning of the words esoteric and exoteric, in effect reversing the definitions as you see them above. A wholly unfavorable review of our book in Nota Bene, devoted to castigating silly academics studying a television series, was given even more reason to make fun of our kind by my inexcusable mistake.



I really have no idea how such a mistake happened, especially since I had previously used the terms in print correctly--in my first book, Late for the Sky (1992), for example. When I explained this to my dean, Dr. John McDaniel, he responded, with characteristic wit, "So you are telling me that you used to know the meanings of these words and now you don't?"

In Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, as the great absurdist's "hero" listens to the recorded ravings he has made over a lifetime, he sometimes must stop to look up a word he has used in the dictionary--a word whose meaning he once knew. Absurd. That could never happen.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mister Rogers

Willow: Mom, how would you know what I can do? I mean, the last time we had a conversation over three minutes, it was about the patriarchal bias of the Mr. Rogers Show.

Sheila: Well, (makes finger quotes) with King Friday lording it over all the lesser puppets...
--from "Gingerbread" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Three)


Seeing an image of the late Fred Rogers (1928-2003) on the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences website reminded me that I have meant to record here my two encounters with this gentle, wonderful man.

I was on a plane flight in the early eighties from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was surprised to find Fred Rogers sitting across the aisle from me, but it was not the first time our paths had crossed.

A decade before I was standing in a bookstore in downtown Pittsburgh (I grew up in Oil City, PA, about fifty miles north of the Steel City), drooling at the most comprehensive collection of books I had ever seen at the time, when behind me I heard an unmistakable voice asking the information desk if the store had "Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel." As luck would have it, I was standing in front of the medieval literature section, and I pulled the book off the shelf and handed it to Mister Rogers.

Years later, the sketch in Kentucky Fried Movie--at least I think that was the movie (1977)--in which the host of a children's television show pleads with the kids at home to get their parents out of the room so he can read them another chapter of Lady Chatterley's Lover made me remember the moment. Mister Rogers, of course, would never have actually read to visitors to his neighborhood the profane, grotesque masterpiece (written by a French priest) which I handed him that day many years ago. But it says everything about him that he had sought it out as his own essential reading. He was a man of great depth and humanity with the profound gift of seeming profoundly simple and transcendentally kind. Only a deranged academic like Willow's mom would think otherwise.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Local" Color: The League of Gentlemen

One of the delights of my time in London has been the opportunity to discover British television.

True, I have not loved all of it. I watched one season (series) of Blake's 7 and did not find enough of interest to keep me watching. Same for Red Dwarf, the first science fiction I have ever seen with a laugh track, though I may return for more at some point. Nor do I think I will ever become obsessed with the good Doctor Who.

But I have enjoyed the first two series of Little Britain very much, and Life on Mars, now only three episodes from the end, has absolutely captivated me (as I have written about on this blog here and here and here).

And then there's The League of Gentlemen. This BBC sketch comedy show, created and performed by League members Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, set in the North, in the imaginary (let us hope) town of Royston Vasey, is one of the most brilliantly grotesque works I have ever encountered (and I know grotesque!). Comedy well on its way to becoming horror, League is brilliantly sick. Well on my way to becoming a "local," I can't wait to see more.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sports Relativity

Cultural relativity, the notion that cultural practices and beliefs should always be judged/understood within the context of a particular culture, is now largely discredited. To pick a rather extreme example, we are no longer (were we ever?) prepared to accept female genital mutilation as acceptable in the cultures that practice it.

But surely we must allow for something like Sports Relativity. A particular culture's sports obsessions make perfect sense in country; to outsiders they can seem preposterous balderdash.

Many Americans think the UK is not even a sports nation. Hell, they can't even win their own famous tennis tournament and carry home precious few medals in the Olympics. (Perhaps their most famous sports film, Chariots of Fire [Hugh Hudson, 1981], is about the 1924 games!) But that impression is as off-base as the prevalent but wrong-headed American notion that the British are humorless. This land is absolutely obsessed with sports.

Which is not to say that I understand English sport. Like the majority of Americans (even in the era of the soccer mom) I don't get "football." When the tube line I ride all the time stops at Arsenal, I get no thrill from being so near the Holy of Holies of one of London's most famous clubs.

When I pass Wembley Stadium on the Metropolitan, visions of past great moments at a famous stadium do not flash before my eyes.

When, earlier this year, all the media were filled with stories of England's cricket humiliation by Australia in "The Ashes," I felt no humiliation, nor did I understand one whit of what they were talking about. What the hell is a "test" anyway? Why were they bowling in a cricket match? I knew (as a big baseball fan) what a "pitch" was, but did they? (Thanks to John Boorman's Hope and Glory, I at least knew what a "googly" was.)

And I have stared in disblief at the mock epic coverage of darts competitions on the telly here. Darts?!

Back home, of course, ESPN devotes an unhealthy amount of airtime to covering poker. Poker?! American football, seen by the ignorant, can seem terribly silly. (Remember the famous Andy Griffith routine ("What It Was, Was Football"), in which a country yokel describes a football game.) Golf, even in the hands of Tiger Woods, can seem like a "good walk spoiled" (Mark Twain). Even the national pastime of baseball, the sports love of my life, increasingly seems to many as looney (and boring) as cricket.

When a student of mine at Brunel University sat in my office recently and quoted, lovingly, statistics about a legendary cricket star from early in the 20th Century, it hit me: sports may well be the one still valid manifestation of Cultural Relativism. But then this same student went on to tell me of his love for baseball and American football. Is it possible that one day, after many years in the UK, I will avidly follow the "footies"? Watch darts on the telly? Obsess over sticky wickets?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Left

As in America, there may well be no vital political left left in the UK, where I now live. The "left" is, nevertheless, still alive here. Motorists drive on it in a spectacle that only now, after six months in London, has come to seem normal. My daughter, recently visiting England for the first time, cried out in alarm at hundreds of accidents waiting to happen on Wightman Road when watching the (for her) completely backwards traffic flow from my deck.

But my fellow Londoners do not walk on the left. I assumed they would. Americans (liberals even) tend to walk on the right, so doesn't it seem logical that Londoners would walk as they drive--on the left?

But logic be damned. Even in the tube, in those long passages between stations that are clearly marked "Keep Left," not every one follows orders. And on the high road's crowded thoroughfare absolute chaos reigns. Anarchy in the UK.

But anarchy is on the left, is it not?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Have a Think

Twice this past week British e-mail correspondents used this phrase (in response to my request that they contribute to an in-development book). "Let me have a think about this, and I will get back to you," I was told.

No American would use this wonderful phrasing. And Nietzsche knew why--at the end of the 19th Century: "The distinctive vice of the new world is already beginning to infect old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality like a blanket. Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market; one lives as if one always might 'miss out on something'" (from The Gay Science).