And now, without further commercial interruption and without resorting to any sort of weakly New Age version of Purgatory, please join us for the exciting conclusion of this email discussion about the ending of Lost and endings (the first part is here), responsibility, Internet culture, molecular gastronomy, taking hallucinogens in college, and storytelling in general between myself and Tweet God Netw3rk.
Netw3rk: First, I feel like I need to acknowledge that not much more can be said about Lynch that hasn’t already been said by David Foster Wallace. Second, I kinda-sorta disagree. Not with your assessment of Lynch but with the idea that Lynch’s work is instructive to discussions about narrative because of the reasons listed in your last missive: abstraction, surrealism, and strangeness. I consider Blue Velvet a masterpiece and I have NO IDEA why it works when Wild at Heart doesn’t. Terrence Malick, whose work is similarly ethereal in regards to narrative, at least makes films that are consistently beautiful to look at. I can watch a scene from a Malick movie and say to myself, “Self, this scene works because it is shot perfectly and Malick is a technical virtuoso.” Why does the scene in Blue Velvet with the frozen man in Dorothy’s apartment work? I couldn’t tell you and I don’t think Lynch could either. Lynch’s work is as close to pure visual and narrative expression as it gets in film. Yes, his films have themes—alienation; the malleability of identity; the thin veneer of human civilization that barely conceals dark, sexually violent urges—and every scene is a near stream-of-consciousness variation on those themes. Like the film version of modal jazz.
I’m glad you brought Lynch up because it gives me the excuse to share my first exposure to the man himself outside of watching Twin Peaks. It was an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Ostensibly there to plug Fire Walk With Me, a cheerful, benignly whacka-doo Lynch discusses his home photography project involving a small head made of clay stuffed with meat and cheese and mounted on a bent coat hanger to the growing unease of the show’s anvil-chinned host:
“I love when oil and water mix together.” This, I think, sums up Lynch as well anything we could say. This is a man who not only doesn’t give a fuck, he’s unaware that fucks are a thing. This is a man who will appear on our nation’s greatest embodiment of middle-brow, lowest common denominator, unthreatening, white-middle-American entertainment, and befuddle the star-map-clutching tourists that make up its studio audience with a slide of ants devouring the meat brains out of a clay head and then follow that up with a clip from his equally weird movie. This is a man who is profoundly strange and his work is a pure and unabashed expression of that strangeness. I am incredibly grateful that David Lynch’s career exists but I can’t explain how that happened and I don’t know what I can learn from it.
(Kind of an aside: I’ve always been jealous of high-functioning weirdos like Lynch. I think this explains my college hallucinogen phase.)
Now let me double back to Donnie Darko for a second, because I think that film is illustrative of of the way ambiguity can color our perceptions of a story. The first time I saw it, I also found it creepy, mysterious, and—because it wasn’t too long after 9/11—very evocative. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that I was blown away by Donnie Darko. Then I bought the DVD and watched the movie with the director’s commentary … and, yeah no. It’s basically a convoluted sci-fi time travel movie involving multiple tangent universes and, whatever, just read this.
This isn’t the Lynch-ian expression of true weirdness and ambiguity; this is weirdness and ambiguity as an affectation. And when the logical underpinnings of that ambiguity are explained, the narrative loses its punch. This, I think, is what Lindelof meant when he talked about over-explaining.
Steve: I wouldn’t say that Lynch’s work is instructive in terms of narrative, but more in how to abandon narrative. To again circle back to Lost, I think what they think they did is subvert or sidestep questions about all the whats and whys of the island by wrapping it up the way they did. As Lindelof said, he felt it was always about the characters and how they found each other, and I can see how an ending that resolves what they meant to each other is the one he felt was important to the show. But in making that decision, they necessarily forewent resolving many of the enduring mysteries of the island—in effect, they tossed out those narratives as if they meant nothing. But it didn’t end up feeling like Lynch—where the mysteries are genuinely mysteries to Lynch himself—but rather felt like they just made up some pseudo-paranormal shorthand because it was handy and then threw it on the ash heap when it didn’t help them. There is, after all, a difference between not knowing the answers and there not being any answers.
Which all sort of circles back to your point about magic tricks. The delicious part of believing in magic (or in a Lynch film or any horror film or Lost) is when there’s not even wholesale belief, I think, but when you’re half-believing and half-skeptical. This past Christmas, my wife’s family had a guy dressed up as Santa Claus come on and deliver presents to the kids. You could see my 3-year-old niece sort of knew he wasn’t Santa Claus, but wasn’t ready to give up believing, just in case this actually was Santa. And so it went with Lost: as they piled on more tricks and threads of plots and questions, I found myself half-thinking that they’ll never be able to pull it all together but also half-hoping they would. But while it’s disappointing to see behind a card trick, to see the strings of the puppeteer, Lost didn’t even give us that. They just threw the cards and the puppet away and hoped we wouldn’t notice.
But on a completely different note: “He’s unaware that fucks are a thing.” That’s maybe the best way I’ve heard to describe Lynch and why he’s successful at what he does where so many others fail. It perfectly illustrates what went wrong with Twin Peaks as a show. Other directors came in and were “doing David Lynch,” which meant delivering their version of Lynchian weirdness with a wink and a nod, hoping the audience got how “kooky” it was. But the reason that stuff fell flat was because they knew that fucks were a thing and they gave them. Lynch is genuinely curious about what the audience’s reaction will be because he’s not seeking to achieve some end in advance. It’s a testament to the richness of his vocabulary that some of the creepiest stuff he’s done becomes riotously funny on repeat viewing (Robert Blake’s ultra-disturbing “I’m at your house right now” scene in Lost Highway; the cowboy from Mullholland Drive).
I think you’re spot on about Donnie Darko: Once the scales are off your eyes, it loses a lot, although I think it’s still enjoyable based on the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and, weirdly, Patrick Swayze and, importantly, Mary McDonnell, who kicks ass in everything. But that’s another place where Lost screwed the pooch, as Teddy Duchamp would say. Unless your story is about time travel (as in Donnie Darko), as soon as you unmoor your characters from their time, you really begin to lose touch with them. Characters are defined by how they deal with their circumstances, so once you cut them loose into some alternate timeline (as when people went flying willy-nilly back and forth to the sixties or whatever in Lost), their problems cease to be theirs because the world isn’t theirs.
It’s like if someone promises you a home-cooked meal, and begins by serving you some appetizers that are on the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy, promising that this is just a taste of what’s to come. The flavors are amazing and interact in mind-blowing ways, and you can’t wait to see what comes next. And then the next thing is equally complex but the flavors aren’t working quite so well together—even if they’re unbelievably rich and nearly overwhelming—but you hope for the best. And the meal comes out and it’s chicken breast and a salad and your host tells you that what’s really important in the meal is how simply and well food can be prepared. And the shitty thing is he’s actually right, but you’ve been yanked this way and that by the appetizer courses so you can’t taste anything in the simple chicken. Lost overwhelmed us with mysteries and then tried to sell us on these characters who got misplaced in all the convoluted timelines and mysteries, and it just didn’t work.
Netw3rk: The ending of Lost plain didn’t work for those who took the time engage the mystery, that’s the shame of it. Audiences shouldn’t feel punished for paying as much attention to the story as I did. Lost aired for one hour a week, but I—and many like me—spent much more time engaging with the story than that single hour. My contention is that this kind of engagement was impossible before the Internet era made the entire globe our own personal water-cooler. Stories have been engrossing before; they’ve suspended our disbelief before; they’ve had mind-blowing twists before; and anticlimactic denouements before. But audiences have never before been able to feel that they are taking part in the story-making process. This is new. We’ve talked about Lost and why it disappointed, but I think the next evolutionary step in narrative immersion—and in fan disappointment in an ending—is Mass Effect 3.
Here again we can use our magic trick analogy but now the audience really is the magician. OK, not really, right? They don’t build the world and write the code, but they do determine the appearance of the main character; pick that character’s responses in conversation; pick which other character their protagonist would fall in love with; pick which characters would live and die; and generally made dozens of in-game decisions that made an impact on the series’ narrative. You asked before if an audience should be able to affect the creator’s vision for a story’s ending. This question becomes much more complex when the story creates the illusion that the audience is in control.
Let me backtrack a bit: Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 comprise a series of video games in which player-initiated character development is the engine of the narrative. Decisions made in Mass Effect 1—allowing a character to die, for instance—carry over into the sequels. Mass Effect 2 allowed the player to experience a variety of endings—from flawless victory to catastrophic defeat—depending on the player’s engagement and willingness to replay the game. Your favorite support character dies during the final mission? Let’s play the game again and get everyone home alive. Some players wept at the culmination of a storyline, at the redemption of an alien species, or at the death of a character. Mass Effect 3 represented the end of the story for the main protagonist, Captain Shepard, and it profoundly disappointed a large number of the game’s fans.
A story capable of immersing its audience so as to move people to tears is surely art, but it’s also made possible by commerce—by the support of the people who buy the game.
I believe that a creator’s vision is sacrosanct. But we cannot pretend that all stories, in all mediums, are created equal. I would never ask David Lynch to change the ending of one of his films, but, on the other hand, he’s not trying to get me to see Lost Highway 2. He has created a career that allows him some narrative freedom, but this isn’t total freedom—he isn’t trying to make $200 million dollar films. I contend that he’s somewhat fortunate to have created Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me in the pre-internet era for the reasons we’ve discussed.
Lost‘s creators didn’t have anything like Lynch’s kind of freedom. People need to be back on their couches in front of their televisions Tuesday night at nine, week after week. Want to make an interesting, convoluted story about time travel and dead people with an ambiguous, nonsensical ending? Go for it, but people better tune in. Whatever the contract Lindelof signed looked like—X amount of dollars for X amount of episodes of Lost—I guarantee you nothing in it said that those episodes actually had to be good or make sense. But they had to make money.
Mass Effect‘s creators have even less freedom—commercial freedom, I should specify—than either of those two. Lynch isn’t creating episodic narratives. Lost was creating episodic narratives but didn’t crush their fans’ hopes until the end and with no more story to sell to an audience. But Mass Effect‘s creators hope to continue to sell games based within the Mass Effect universe. In this way, audience reaction for the makers of Mass Effect carries more weight than it did for Lost or anything Lynch does.
The Internet is a new development for storytellers. Those who use it to reach out to their fans, and whose fans use it to connect with each other, haven’t yet grasped what a double-edged sword this medium is. On the one hand, it provides an audience with more ways to connect with a story, to be a part of a story. On the other hand, an audience needs to feel that level of interest meaningful. I’m not talking about happy endings or unambiguous endings or closure. But fans of a show or game who fall for a story, who believe in its magic, will want to feel like the more they engage with a story, the richer the story becomes. An audience shouldn’t feel cheated for simply paying attention to the minutiae. Lost, despite the best intentions of its creators, failed in this, and this is why people are disappointed.
Steve: I can’t help but notice that we’ve looped from Jack Shephard all the way out to Commander Shepard and back. Can we at least agree it’s time to stop naming our sacrificing heroes in reference to Jesus?
But I digress. (Is that even possible with this?) Maybe—in an age where the audience is so much more engaged with entertainment—it’s less a question of strict fidelity to the art of storytelling and more a question of balancing between the demands of story and the myriad other demands exerted on the storyteller, whether by economic or community (or message board) pressures. It’s telling that so many series that are now considered stone classics for their attention in minute detail to character or storytelling or for being adventurous are generally commercial failures (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Community—even Mad Men, that buzzworthy darling, has mediocre at best ratings). But it’s nevertheless encouraging that they’re managing to find homes—no matter how tenuous—on cable or on DVD. In some ways, it seems it’s even possible that we’re returning in small measure to the time of a show like The Prisoner, where the stakes were lower overall and storytellers were a little freer to get freaky.
Lost was very possibly a victim of its own success. Forced to end the show after a couple of seasons (or maybe three), the whole thing might have felt less forced or maybe—to your point—the audience’s engagement might have been more retroactive, less proactive, and thus the stakes for ending it would have been lower, both for the viewers and the creators. It also seem like its failures might be more interesting than how it might have succeeded, given that it’s provided this much material for discussion. And I still have all these unanswered questions.
But about Game of Thrones …