Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lost 1-06: House of the Rising Sun

There's something charmingly democratic about the ensemble structure of Lost.  There are fourteen credited series regulars for the first season, many of which fade into the background for most of the time, but are all in turn given a flashback storyline, a chunk of the episode designated purely to them.  Of course, this is neccesarily partial -- the fourteen main cast members make up only a fraction of the plane crash survivors, most of whom just hang around far from the cameras -- but it's still notable for popular entertainment, which usually implies that only the main characters -- the Jacks and Kates -- are worth caring about, to take some time and reveal that actually those Koreans that haven't been doing much actually have had some pretty interesting shit happen to them, and have a story all their own.  Ideally, this might even lead people to wonder if the Korean people in the background of their own life are worth considering as human beings -- kind of a TV version of David Foster Wallace "this is water" speech.

For the past five episodes (depending on how you count the pilot) the Koreans Sun and Jin have been thoroughly cast as the Other[1], mainly through their use of unsubtitled Korean.  Without any understanding of their meaning, these words sound harsh and alien to a Western audience, and the characters that speak them are just strange, untrustable bodies.  In "House of the Rising Sun" they are granted the power of language for the first time, along with their backstory that grants them (or is at least supposed to) humanity.  This takes the form of not only English subtitles, but the revelation that Sun has been able to speak English all along.  Language is then tied to humanity -- a worthwhile idea from the humanist tradition that motivates Lost, but it's worth noting that here it's specifically the English language.  Does Sun show she's more human by showing she's more Western?  This sets the stage for what's to come: Lost's inability to get out from under the hegemonic tendencies of its philosophical inspiration.

In the Sun-Jin flashback story, episode writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch seems to have set out not so much to tell a story about the Koreans as to tell a story about Korea.  Korean society is defined as one that is deeply based around divisions of class and gender.  At the beginning of their narrative Sun and Jin are a cross-class romance, and fear that their relationship will lead to ruin if discovered.  Later, once they are more complacently married, Jin takes a patriarchal view of Sun, at one point (in a scene the show felt important enough to show in this episode's "previously on") forcing her to button up her shirt so as not to show too much skin.

It's worth noting that, in both the flashbacks of the Western characters and the present storyline thus far, class and gender have been more or less avoided.  I think this is quite common: the West Others its own prejudices and contradictions, extrapolating patriarchy and social class as something that fundamentally happens Somewhere Else (see the tremendous concern over women's rights in the Middle East while such rights are being quietly scaled back here at home.)  The Koreans, with their seperate language and hostile temperament, are obstacles to the unity that Jack is trying to build within the castaways.  The separation between the normal and the Other are, as usual, blamed on the actions of the Other, as in this episode when Jin attacks Michael for his unknowing taking of a watch that belongs to him, instead of trying to communicate this to them.[2]

This broad community is split by other means by the end of the episode.  The island plots in "House of the Rising Sun" are thoroughly serialized, more about advancing numerous subplots -- Charlie's drug use, the mysteries of the island -- than providing a definitive story in themselves.  The main development, however, is the split of the castaways between those going with Jack up to the river, where living will be easier, and those living on the beach, still hoping for rescue.  The question here is really utopianism against pragmatism, a conflict we can see playing itself out right now, in countless debates on Occupied lands.  Do we do the best with what we have, or aim for a more perfect solution with the price of more present hardship?  The beach-dwellers can be seen as hopeless, almost religious devotees of a rescue that isn't coming.  On the other hand, there's no real future on the island -- a dessicated skeleton shows up in the caves where Jack wants to move to, raising the question of what the ultimate end of the strategy of survival is.

This also brings up the leadership of Jack, which is a tricky subject.  Lost has thus far had its cake and ate it too by making its all-American action hero Jack Shephard be a leader without him having to really do anything to seize or maintain power: his show of expertise seems to have been enough to make people turn to him, much to his own sometimes frustration.  However, if the castaways are to become a more permanent community, this situation is not really tenable -- Jack has to either give up his power or enforce it.  In the end, he does a little of both.  He decides to go to the caves himself unilaterally, and makes a lot of big speeches convincing others to follow him, but allows those who want to to remain behind.  Ultimately, this is a kind of anarchist model of leadership -- respecting others' right of free association and actions, but trying to influence them in the way he thinks is best.  Jack is still acting as the head of the castaways, but he is unable or unwilling to exercise the punishment and coercing arms of the state, and the result is a necessary fracture.

It's worth noting that there are no illusions of democracy -- there's never a vote as to whether they should stay or go, for instance, with the minority following the wishes of the majority.  Instead, people simply vote with their feet.  This seems fine here, but what happens when the next disagreement happens, and the one after that?  Social cohesion is ultimately untenable under an individualistic solution.

"House of the Rising Sun" is written by Javier Grillo-Marxauch and directed by Michael Zinberg, both veteran (especially Zinberg) TV B-listers who mostly follow the show's general style.  The main visual accomplishment of Lost is the simple visual splendour of its island location, a setting that is always shot with such flattering cinematography so as to make it look like a pretty nice place to be stranded after all.  The flashbacks are usually separated from this space by colour schemes: the island is mainly rendered in green, blue and white, all light, whereas the flashback sequences do something different, usually with darker colours.  Here, the Korea scenes are dominated by orange and black, with staid interiors that are reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's movies.  All of this is fairly basic, but it's a skilled, unobtrusive way to establish distinct screen spaces.

There are lots of elements to Lost -- the survival drama, the metaplot mystery, the character studies -- but the one that dominates most of this episode, and which I find most interesting, is the story about a fledgling, thrown-together human society.  For the most part Lost takes a classical Enlightenment view of man and the state, as one would expect of a show with a guy named John Locke running around.  In this episode, in addition to the division described above, the new anarchic society has to confront the problem of crime and justice.  Jin assaults Michael, and according to what the castaways have broadly been brought to believe, he must be punished for this -- but once again, there are none of the apparatuses that underly and enforce state power, such as prison or the police, so Jin just ends up handcuffed to some wreckage.

Of course, there already is a criminal on the island, which is Kate, but somehow this seems different -- Kate's vaguely-defined crimes took place before the crash, and with the death of her warden the island has been positioned as a fresh start.  But this kind of clean-slate forgiveness is not enough in Lost.  Jin was some kind of mobster back in Korea (what else do rich people in Korea do?), and that crime reoccurs on the island, even when he's taken out of the social environment of the mob.  The notion of forgiveness goes against the entire structural assumptions of the show, where understanding the characters' past is essential to understanding their present island self.  Forgiveness that simply represses the past is bound to fail, but ultimately it's the only thing they can do.  In addition to the lack of any kind of justice system, the castaways simply can't afford to lock up anyone that could be working.  So in the end Michael cuts the handcuffs off Jin -- not just forgiving him, but destroying any possibility for future confinement, not because it's the best solution but because it's all he can do.

Still, it says something to the show's humanism that this punishment-less society has only had to deal with some hoarding and scuffles a week in.  Under a negative, Hobbesian view of the world, we'd expect half the castaways to have descended into murderous orgies by now.  Instead, some people snap under pressure and others are surly to begin with, but everyone somehow manages to survive together.

And despite all the baggage that comes with Lost's liberal humanist tradition -- the racism mentioned above, the focus on authority and history -- this shows that there are also really positive things about it.  In a world full of crime shows, Lost is the one hit show that argues that somehow, despite everything, people will find a way to get along.

Next week: The art of weird Japanese haiku concentration.

[1]This is, of course, different from the group of characters I understand comes in later in the show and who are literally called the Others.

[2]I don't want to come across as pointing a finger at Lost for Being Racist.  As mentioned above, it humanizes these characters more than a lot of stories do.  The issue here is really a larger racial discourse, that Lost isn't able to escape from despite what are probably good intentions.

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