Monday, May 24, 2010

The End

I briefly come out of retirement to discuss the finale of "Lost"...

Like "The Sopranos" before it, "Lost" ended after six seasons without answering many of its fans' most burning questions. I was among the minority that loved the ending of the "The Sopranos" and I'm also in the camp -- larger, I think -- that believes the ending of "Lost" wrapped up the show perfectly, or at least as well as we could hope for.

"Lost" had one advantage over "The Sopranos" in that the latter simply couldn't offer any kind of emotional uplift. "The Sopranos" featured a protaganist who was essentially a sociopath; Tony Soprano often knew what was right and chose wrong anyway. We rooted for him only to the extent that he was more likable than his equally amoral enemies.

"Lost", on the other hand, was populated by deeply flawed men and women struggling with their demons to do what was right. People, in other words, like us. The narrative at the heart of the show was in many ways the narrative of human history. Evolution has hard-wired us to put our own preservation above all else. And yet humans are social animals, and our own survival is dependent on our ability to cooperate with others. One of the show's early seminal moments was when Jack -- the show's hero -- urged his fellow castaways to live together or they would surely die alone. At that point they became a community, and the fate of one was tied to the fate of all.

But for a community to survive, its individual members must sacrifice -- sometimes their very lives. Self-sacrifice was a motiff that ran through the show up until the very end: Charlie drowning so that Desmond could be reunited with Penny; Sayid running to the other end of the submarine with the bomb to spare his fellow "candidates"; Jack giving his life to restore the light at the heart of the island which, apparently, saved the world as well as his fellow Losties.

On "Lost", sacrifice was the path to personal redemption, an idea at the heart of many religious traditions -- not the least of which being Christianity, whose themes were particularly prominent during the last few episodes of the series. Jacob's reluctance to take the drink from his mother brought to mind Jesus's exhortation to God to "take this cup from my lips." Jack opens his father's casket to find it empty, reminescent of the empty tomb that Christians celebrate on Easter. (Jack even asks his father -- named Christian, of course -- "Are you real?" much like the disciples who encounter the risen Lord after visiting his tomb.) And of course Jack makes a Christ-like sacrifice, not only to save his friends but, he believes, all of humankind.

There's plenty of Old Testament as well, like the allusions to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau in the story of Jacob and his twin, the Man in Black, and the hints of the Book of Job in their debate over the goodness of the other people on the island. But the show also relied heavily on Eastern religions, which teach that we strive toward spiritual unity with the universe, dying and being reborn until we reach a state of nirvanna. Time travel -- which I believe really happened to the characters on "Lost" -- is thus a metaphor not only for the castaways' attempt to escape their troubled past, but to make peace with their lives. The Man in Black tells Jacob "It always ends the same" to which Jacob replies "It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Jacob was the island's protector -- its god, if you will -- and we can see in his successors a progression similar to the narrative that runs through Christianity. Jacob, who lorded over the island with inscrutable rules and indifference to the suffering of the people he used, yielded control to Jack and then Hurley -- the most caring and trustworthy of the castaways. Similarly, the mercurial and vengeful god of the Old Testament is transformed into a god of love and hope through the sacrifice of Jesus.

But it's worth noting that even in the Old Testament, the god of Israel is capable of great love and compassion, not only for his chosen people but also for the nations with whom they must reckon. In his persuasive book "The Evolution of God," Robert Wright explains that Yahweh's take on nonbelievers fluctuated depending on the political situation in Israel. When Israel was at the mercy of her enemies, or needed to form alliances, Yahweh grew tolerant of those other nations, more universal in his concern for humanity.

Wright sees the same pattern in other major religions, including Christianity and Islam, which accounts for the contradictions, for example, in how the Koran tells Muslims to treat nonbelievers. Sometimes Jews and Christians are fellow "people of the book"; other times they are infidels to be slaughtered. It's why the apostle Paul, trying to launch a new religion in a multi-ethnic empire, preached universal love and brotherhood, even though the historic Jesus likely did not espouse such a message.

Is this a case of religion influencing politics, or vice versa? Wright argues that it's a probably a little of each. The bottom line is that when human societies recognize the need to cooperate with neighbors with whom their religious beliefs conflict, then their religious beliefs become more accomodating -- bending to what Wright calls "the facts on the ground."

Wright sees in the sweep of human history soceities moving, in bloody fits and starts, toward increasing interdependence and mutual cooperation. It suggests that there is indeed a moral order to existence. And since it is our biological surival instincts, honed by natural selection, that push us toward cooperation, then this means the physical universe is part of this moral structure.

For Wright, this is a way to resolve the conflict between science and religion, faith and reason -- the debate at the heart of "Lost," between Jack and Locke, who was proven correct in his conviction that the island had a purpose for the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. Bear in mind that Wright's formulation does not favor any particular diety or creed. People of science, like Jack, don't have to give up much ground. It doesn't challenge anything that we know or think we know about the physical world.

But it does not, however, allow us to believe in chaos. You can reject the designer, but you must reckon with the design. Jack understands this, finally, and it is all the more poignant that he can never tell Locke that he was right -- at least not in the land of the living. "Because you have seen me, you have believed," Jesus tells his disciple Thomas. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

That was John Locke. And because of that, he, too, is the hero of "Lost."

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Good night and good luck

This is the 827th post on this blog, which I started four years ago. I've decided that it's going to go on hiatus for a while, simply because there are too many other demands on my time. That doesn't mean I'll no longer be wasting time on the Internet, and I may even post something occassionally on my other blog, Dead Tree Blog, which is dedicated to books. In fact, reading is one of the things I'd like to do more of, and when I started that blog, it was with the intention that I would drop this one.

I'm sure I'll check back in every once in a while, if only to offer my thoughts on the latest film I've seen, or one of my favorite TV shows. Otherwise, so long and thanks for indulging me.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wasn't there a hobbit in that one?

Michael Machosky writes a paean in Sunday's Trib to a particular genre of '80s movie he dubs "Goonie Movies" in honor of "The Goonies." Few of the films Machosky mention stand the test of time, but that's hot his point: They were good popcorn films, with broader appeal than today's focus-group driven blockbusters.

While we may not see another "Goonies" anytime soon (which I don't think is a bad thing), we have witnessed the rebirth of a film genre that reached full flower back in the '80s: The R-rated comedy. I'm not the first person to herald the return of this species, which lately includes "Wedding Crashers", "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Examples from the '80s that come to mind: "Caddyshack" and "Trading Places."

Now, the '90s gave us "American Pie" and "Road Trip", (the latter technically came out in 2000), both very funny, but those films largely were aimed at the same demographic they portrayed -- high school and college students. Today, even an ostensible high school comedy like "Superbad" seems made for people who have let a few years lapse since their last keg stand.

Of course, even some of the most memorable films from the 1980s bear the cheesy hallmarks of the era, like the montage -- "Wall Street" and "Tootsie", two very different films, each featured a split-screen montage -- and the original song that sounded like it came straight out of AM radio. (Not to mention the synthesizer-driven score.) It was indeed a memorable decade -- though not necessarily for the right reasons.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sorry, Wall Street Journal

It turns out the estate tax isn't quite the villian it's made out to be in the Steelers' ownership dispute:

On the surface, the estate tax seems daunting -- 45 percent on all estates above $2 million in value. With the Rooneys' 80 percent share of the franchise being valued at $800 million or more on the open market, that would seem to make the family liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax liabilities.

In reality, though, few estates pay the full estate tax rate, and there is almost no evidence that any family-owned enterprises have had to dissolve or sell out because of the federal tax, said Ben Harris, a senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a joint operation of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute.

The tax center estimates that 17,500 estates will pay about $23 billion in federal estate taxes this year, for an average payment of just $1.3 million. Even the wealthiest estates -- those worth more than $20 million -- will pay an average tax rate of about 22 percent, less than half the official rate, the center estimates.

"The destruction of family businesses is often used as a motivation for repealing the estate tax, but there is very little proof that many family businesses are devastated by the tax," said Samuel Donaldson, a law professor at the University of Washington and a nationally known expert on estate tax matters.

"There are very few ways to get around the tax entirely," he added, "but there are any number of ways to reduce the tax." (link)

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Will the last person out of the suburbs please turn out the lights

I'm not laughing. Really, I'm not:

Since real-estate tanked, many new planned communities across the country are half-empty, with for-sale signs outnumbering residents by a large margin.

Some of the projects abandoned by bankrupt developers are in places that were hotbeds of new housing construction: Southern California, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix. As of July, the percentage of vacant housing stock available for sale or rent stood at 4.8% nationally, the highest figure in at least 33 years, according to Zelman & Associates, a real-estate research firm.

Daily life in these developments seems a bit post-cataclysmic. Children play on elaborate but empty playgrounds. They walk their dogs past rows of shiny houses that have never been lived in. Voices echo up and down the block. Unfinished houses and vacant lots strewn with construction debris clutter the horizon. (link)


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A modest proposal...

...that we all stop frothing at the mouth over the cover of the latest The New Yorker. I'm with Jack Shafer on this one:

Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker's detractors desire. I don't know whether to be crushed by that realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture for himself.

Yes, I understand why some people are taking offense, and as an Obama supporter I certainly understand the danger the cartoon poses. Satire can be easily misinterpreted or taken at face value. My grandmother, I'm sorry to say, was one of the most bigoted people I've ever known (rest her soul), yet she loved "All in the Family." And I'm sure she wasn't the only one. That doesn't mean that Norman Lear or Carol O'Connor should have been pilloried for lampooning racism.

What I find depressing about this episode is that it reinforces the stereotype that liberals are humorless, politically correct scolds. Some have even gone as far as to call The New Yorker "gutless" for failing, on its cover, to criticize John McCain for benefitting from the ugly rumors being floated about Obama.

Come on. Few mainstream media outlets have been as aggressive in covering the Bush administration as The New Yorker. They don't have to prove their chops to anyone. Besides, the Internet echo chamber aside, if Obama needs to rely on a magazine whose readers probably already support him, then he's got problems.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Wait -- which football team plays here?"

John McCain told Jon Delano that the Pittsburgh Steelers helped him endure torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors:

"When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the physical pressures that were on me, I named the starting lineup -- defensive line -- of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron-mates!"

There's just one problem with that story:

...the Steelers aren't the team whose defensive line McCain named for his Vietnamese tormentors. The Green Bay Packers are. At least according to every previous time McCain has told this story. And the McCain campaign just told ABC News that the senator made a mistake -- it was, indeed, the Packers.

In McCain's best-selling 1999 memoir “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain writes:

“Once my condition had stabilized, my interrogators resumed their work. Demands for military information were accompanied by threats to terminate my medical treatment if I did not cooperate. Eventually, I gave them my ship’s name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant. Pressed for more useful information, I gave the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line, and said they were members of my squadron. When asked to identify future targets, I simply recited the names of a number of North Vietnamese cities that had already been bombed.”

In 2005, A&E ran a movie version of "Faith of My Fathers."

And McCain discussed that precise clip on CNN.

The actor playing McCain, asked to name the men in his squadron, says: "Starr; Greg; McGee; Davis; Adderly; Brown; Ringo; Wood."

Cut back to real life. The CNN anchor asks McCain: "For those who don't know the story, were those NFL football players?"

"That was the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers, the first Super Bowl champions, yes," McCain responded. But it's -- it was the best I could think of at the time."

The movie actually shows this act of defiance twice.

INTERROGATOR: The names of your squadron...
MCCAIN: Starr, Gregg...McGee, Davis...Adderley, Brown, Ringo, Wood.

INTERROGATOR: Ten points, McCain.
Ray Nitschke, our C.O.

The Packers anecdote is not only a key part of the McCain biography, it's part of his argument against torture.

Explaining why he thinks torture can result in erroneous information, McCain wrote in Newsweek in 2005, "In my experience, abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear--whether it is true or false--if he believes it will relieve his suffering. I was once physically coerced to provide my enemies with the names of the members of my flight squadron, information that had little if any value to my enemies as actionable intelligence. But I did not refuse, or repeat my insistence that I was required under the Geneva Conventions to provide my captors only with my name, rank and serial number. Instead, I gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse."

McCain's valor as a P.O.W. is beyond admirable, but this business of substituting the Steelers for the Packers is odd, though as I said, the McCain campaign says this was an honest mistake.

Yes, a mistake he just happened to make while he was in Pittsburgh, a town with a singular devotion to its football team and the second largest city in a critical swing state.

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