Thursday, May 31, 2007

Screenings and Conversations

This has been a hectic day, being the first day of MEDIA: Overseas Conversations (IV): An International Conference on Media Literacy-Ecology-Studies-Education, which I've provided some assistance with. The Directors of this project are Jordi Torrent and Valenti Gomez i Oliver. Jordi is an independent film director and producer, as well as a media literacy advocate/practitioner, his production company is Duende Pictures, and they've done some pretty impressive work. Valenti is associated with the European Observatory of Children’s Television, and they have been working on a variety of different projects relating to children and media.

Here's the blurb on the conference:

This international conference provides and open forum for exploring media and youth culture. The conversations will accent the positive approach of providing young people with the tools they need to take ownership of the media – as creators and as consumers. Media as a determining factor in the well-being of youth worldwide will be a strong focus of the discussions. Several panels will address Media Literacy and Media Ecology as contributors to the development of critical thinking skills.

Selections of new youth-produced media will be presented by: Listen Up!, Reel Teens Festival, Machinima and OETI’s UNICEF Awards.

Panelists from Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Japan, Mozambique, Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Venezuela, and the USA will lead the conversations. Attendees will include media industry professionals, educators, students and the general public. Open conversations and discussion forums will explore: the extent to which internalized media images determine the perception of reality across cultures; the potential of media as socio-economic equalizer in education; comparing media literacy education resources in diverse cultures; new technologies and social networking; contemporary uses of comics and graphic novels; cross-cultural perceptions of the role of media in formal education; and, an international perspective on the role of government policies and youth media.

Today's events were held at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City (25 W 52nd St., just down the block from Black Rock (the headquarters of CBS).

We started at 10 AM with a screening of videos, and here's the general description:

UNICEF Awards – Curator: OETI
The Barcelona International Television Festival (FITB) annually awards the prestigious UNICEF Prize (from the United Nations Fund). This prize goes to audiovisual productions devoted to children and youth that highlight ethical values and the defense of human rights according to the Convention of the Rights of the Children. The Jury is presided over by UNICEF/Catalonia.

So, this first session was courtesy of the European Observatory of Children’s Television, and they have previews of some of these videos on one of their web pages. The short videos were professionally made by adults, with the intention of giving voice to children from various parts of the world, especially children facing difficult situations. It's kind of like oral history, although that's associated with the past, and typically involves interviews with older individuals. This is more like trying to see the world, especially parts of the world we are unfamiliar with, through the eyes and mind of a child. The videos were absolutely beautiful (how could they not be when the focus tends to be the faces and voices of children?), and touchingly poignant, and the aim, as Valenti explained, is to provide a kind of moral and ethical content for the video medium.

Here are descriptions of the individual videos from the program:

The Children of Nepal (32 min., 2002)
UNICEF Award FITB 2002
Country: Spain
Director: Joan Soler Foyer, Javier Berrocal
Producer: Centre d’Estudis Cinematografics de Catalunya (CECC)
The Daleki School was founded in Katmandu by the Catalan Vicki Sherpa and created for children of families without resources like Narbu or Sanjev who dream of a better future. Stories of children are portrayed: Vicky, a boy on the street, passes the time with his friends, looking for coins to survive and dreams on the cold floor of the temple that serves as his house. Dependra dreams about being like Tony, the man that brought them off the street, away from marijuana, to live in a house full of princesses. The permanent smile of these children is the only perennial thing in Nepal, where unfortunately dreams are so fragile.

Unexpected Blow: Jolieke (15 min., 2004)
UNICEF Award FITB 2005
Country: The Netherlands
Director: Suzanne Raes
Producer: Lemming Film
Jolieke is 12. She hasn’t had it easy so far. Her father died 8 years ago, and she also has a chronic immune system disease. This means she has to go to the hospital every two weeks for treatment, which often makes her tired. Her little sister has the same illness and together they share their pains and frustrations. Jolieke and her sister show us that sometimes sadness and bad luck are just a part of life and shouldn’t be determining factors of life.

Your Own Voice: Right to Culture (8 min., 2004)
UNICEF Award FITB 2004
Country: Bolivia
Director: Lilliana de la Quintanta
Producer: Nicobis Productions
Alfredo is a Quechua boy from Bolivia, from the Layme community of North Potosi, who stood out in the children’s parliament by fighting to preserve his culture, language and clothing. He fought for the different identities of indigenous children of Bolivia.

The Sky in Her Eyes (11 min., 2001)
UNICEF Award FITB 2003
Country: South Africa
Director: Ouita Smit and Madoda Ncayiyana
Producer: For the Future - Vuleka Productions
This moving short shows a small girl who has just lost her mother due to AIDS and fights to cope with her sorrow and confusion. When a boy puts a picture that she drew of her mother onto his kite, this act of friendship and the shared joy of flying the kite together, makes the girl smile again.

The second session, at 4 PM, was also a screening of videos, these produced entirely by teenagers (ages 13-19). The sponsor was Listen Up!, a fascinating and impressive organization that established a network in schools and community centers throughout the U.S. and internationally, through which teenagers can create and submit their own videos. We screened videos from Beyond Borders: Personal Stories From a Small Planet, which just won a Peabody Award (broadcasting's highest honor for serious work). The films were introduced by Sharese Bullock, who's in charge of their strategic partnerships and marketing, and I had a long conversation with her at a reception afterwards about possible collaborations (or to use that other term, strategic partnerships). Anyway, here's a general description of the organization:

Listen Up! is a youth media network that connects young video producers and their allies to resources, support and projects in order to develop the field and achieve an authentic youth voice in the mass media.

And here are the videos we screened:

Beyond Global: (Self) Portraitures in Youth Media

Sahar: Before the Sun (6 min., 2005)

Light House, Charlottesville, VA, USA
Featuring: Sahar Adish
Youth Filmmakers: Joe Babarsky, Sahar Adish, Luke Tilghman, Sanja Jovanovic
Adult Mentor: Shannon Worrell
After the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, Sahar Adish fled Afghanistan with her family to find safety in the United States. Sahar, at age 18, speaks powerfully to the courage and aspirations of her parents, her family's struggle for intellectual freedom and educational rights.

Alienated : Undocumented Immigrant Youth (8 min., 2005)

A Youth Organizers Television (YO-TV) Documentary, New York, USA
Educational Video Center/YO-TV Producers
YO-TV Directors: Adam Gutierrez, Lindsay Fauntleroy, Kyle Lorde, Steven Kranston Music Composition: Cesar Lazcano, Kyle Lorde, Rebecca Norton, Alina Ortiz
In Alienated, we meet Licia, a determined young woman from St. Vincent who
commutes from Brooklyn to New Jersey to work as a nanny for $4 an hour.
Meanwhile, anti-immigrant groups rally around lobbying efforts that seek to impose ever harsher policies and to "protect our borders." Through interviews with individuals on both sides of the immigration debate, Alienated examines what it means to be young, able and "illegal" in America.

Skin (1:34 min., 2005)

TRUCE (The Renaissance University for Community Education), New York, USA
Youth Producers: Kaderjra Holmes, Tyrone Broughton
Skin' is an experimental video piece that explores the issues of discrimination, racial identity and self-esteem. It follows two young African Americans who attempt to change the color of their skin and are haunted by the effects of their decision. Ultimately, they come to rediscover themselves, and the rich natural beauty of their own skin.

A Divided City (6 min., 2005)
Sawtona "Our Voice" Amman, Jordan and Phillips Community TV, Minneapolis, USA
Featuring: Ghayda Nawrus. Youth Filmmakers: Ghayda Nawrus, Aya Al Tal
Adult Mentors: Mustafa Tell, John Gwinn
Ghayda Nawrus is one of almost one billion Muslims worldwide who
adheres to her faith, traditions and family. But Ghayda, who lives in
Amman, Jordan, attends a Christian school and is also a product of
satellite television and the Internet. This bright, soft-spoken 16 year
old looks candidly at the issues causing her and her family the greatest
fear: the challenges and complexity of a modern society embedded in
traditional culture.

Out of Control Room (4:15 min., 2005)

Produced by Reel Girls, Washington, USA
Nicole Levy, Allison Rinard, Lena Takamori
A teenage girls finds herself feeling trapped in a world of double-standards and contradictions, guided only by her own conscience in the form of a video control room.

Rapping at Fear (7 min., 2005)
Polimorfo, Bogotá, Colombia
Camera: Mayuri Bolívar, Willy Villabón, Viviana Rivas, Andrés Tabares
Audio: Gina Yagüe, Andrea Reinoso, Carolina Yagüe
Animation: Carolina Yagüe, Manuel Reinoso. Editing: Manuel Reinoso, Juan Cortés
Script: Luisa Bustos, Marcela Palacios. Adult Mentors: Libia Tattay, Sayuri Matsuyama, Pablo Tattay, John de los Rios, Rodrigo Escobar
Whether in the Colombian countryside before the rebels forced his
family to leave, or the city slum where his family now lives, Andrés
Tabares has always had a way with words. In Andres' barrio where "social
cleansing" groups wage war, this 13 year-old writes and performs rap to
speak out against violence . . . and people are listening. He now hosts
his own Saturday morning variety show on Colombian national television.

Cultivate (3:03 min., 2005)
Perpich Center for Arts Education, Golden Valley, MN, USA
Youth producer: Yoko Okomura
An experimental video poem with the thematic over tone of re-birth and duality.

We Don't Want No War (6 min., 2005)

Featuring: Mohammed Sidibay
Youth Filmmakers: Edwin Daniel, Schwarbu Emile Kamara, Jane Peters,
Rashid Peters, Mohamed Sidibay.
Adult Mentors: Andrew Greene (Sierra Leone), Austin Haeberle (USA)
10 year-old Mohamed Sidibay is a bright, hard working 4th grader who likes to play soccer, work on computers and go to school. Yet, only two years earlier he was commanding rebel troops in the "bush" in Western Africa. This sensitive, thoughtful young man articulates in simple terms the devastation of war and growing up as child soldier in Sierra Leone.

Now, here's the good news: You can watch these and a multitude of other videos at the Listen Up! website (sorry, no embed codes provided, so I can't add them here like I can with YouTube videos). Like the OETI videos, these are gorgeous, moving works. And in case anyone's interested, the organization is open to setting up screenings and events. An added bonus was that they had a few of the young filmmakers present so we had a bit of a question-and-answer session with them.

This was followed by a panel discussion from 6-7:30, and here's the write-up on it:

International Perspectives on Government Policies and Youth Media

This panel will explore how government policies impact youth media around the world. Issues such as whether media regulations succeed in providing better access and enhanced content will be addressed.

Victoria Camps is a counselor of the Audiovisual Commission of Catalonia, Spain since 2002 and a member of the Commission of Information of Catalonia since its founding. She currently is a professor of political and moral philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Barcelona and has published numerous books.

Jean-Francois Furnemont has been the director of the Audio-Visual High Commission in Belgium since 2000. Previously he was administrator of RTBF – Belgium Public Service Broadcasting System from 1999-2000. He has a Journalism degree from the University of Brussels, Belgium and a Masters in International Relations from the University of Liege, Belgium. His published works include political biographies of Jean Gol, Francois Perin and Guy Spitaels.

Julieta Langa is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and head of the Linguistics Section, at Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique. She is also the president of the CSCS - High Council for Social Communication, Mozambique; acting chair of the African Communication Regulatory Authorities Network – ACRAN/RIARC as well as a member of the executive committee of the “Broadcasting Regulation and Cultural Diversity – BRCD”. She holds an M.A. in Linguistics at the Faculty of Arts from Eduardo Mondlane University.

Gloria Tristani is a former FCC commissioner (1997-2001) USA. She served for several years on the New Mexico State Corporation Commission and has been president of the Benton Foundation. Among her professional accomplishments, while heading the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication, she brought national attention to Univision’s failure to meet children’s educational television programming requirements. Currently she is the counsel at the Washington, DC - based law firm of Spiegel &McDiarmid. She is a frequent speaker on media issues, particularly on the media’s effect on children.

Moderator: Matteo Zacchetti has worked at the European Commission since 1995. He is responsible for the Media Literacy initiative and the Media Programme Pilot Projects within the DG Information Society and Media. He spent most of his professional life in the media or dealing with media related issues both in the private sector (Super Channel ltd.) and at the European Commission where has had been working for more than 10 years on different policy aspects of audio-visual media. He holds a degree in Economics from the University of Genoa

Now, I have to confess that policy talk is just not my thing. The introduction of new media and technologies have an enormous impact on all aspects of human life, and policymakers enter into the process after the fact generally, have difficulty recognizing the big picture or making significant changes if they do see the forest for the trees, and end up only tweaking things a little one way or another.

Julieta Langa from Mozambique was the most interesting, because her remarks were all about how they don't have the technology (such as TV, computers, internet), people don't have access, and they need to find ways to educate, modernize, and alleviate the scarcity. A perspective very different from the others coming from developed nations, which underscores the fact that we are unhappy when we don't have the technology and get all worked up about trying to get it, and once we have it, we get all upset about what it's doing to us and try to mitigate its effects as best we can. People are never happy it seems.

Gloria Tristani's remarks focused on the problem of violence in the media (the most researched topic in all of mass communication).

Victoria Camps made the interesting point that parents do regulate the TV watching of their children, but tend only to be concerned with the time (how much, how often), not the content. This reminds me of a key media ecology point about TV as a medium--we watch TV as a generalized activity, whereas we don't read book, we read a book, that is, a specific book. Victoria also talked about how children live within an audiovisual environment, and that there is a shared responsibility to evaluate television programming and determine whether it causes moral and mental damage.

Jean-François Furnemont spoke about the need for filters, such as a ratings system.

Oh, and when Jordi Torrent introduced the session, I was pleased to hear him quote Neil Postman about the need to study media in a moral and ethical context, and the need to have conversations about technology.

With the day's program over, some of us attended a reception at the offices of Listen Up!, which was where I had a great talk with our host, Sharese Bullock, and also had a good conversation with Gerard Jones, a former comic book writer and author of Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (click on the link to buy the book at a bargain price!). We talked about the comics industry, and also about movies and TV, kind of pretty much the stuff I write about on this blog.

And now, it is getting very late, and I have to get up early tomorrow because the conference moves to Fordham's Lincoln Center campus, and I need to be there early to make sure everything's all right. See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thus Spoke the Spectacle

So, this comes courtesy of blogist and media ecologist Peter Fallon, who contributes to a blog entitled In the Dark: Mass Ignorance in an "Age of Information" along with a couple of his friends. And in his latest entry, Peter writes:

This was sent to me by someone who has seen my YouTube page and liked the media ecology-related videos. It turns out he is a McLuhan/Postman fan (by interest, not by training). He has a pretty good idea of what is wrong with post-modern culture...
Peter also includes the following acknowledgment:

By the way, Eric Goodman is the creative genius behind The Spectacle, having written the music and lyrics, and editing this video.

And this YouTube video with the Neil Postman-derived title of "Now... This" is very impressive, so my thanks to Peter for his discovery, and to Eric Goodman for his artistic achievement. And so, without further ado, and "Now... This":

And, that's not all, but to see the rest you have to visit the Thus Spoke the Spectacle website for yourself. There are four other videos to view, a companion book by Eric Goodman that is listed as coming soon and is based on the work of Guy Debord, Friedrich Nietzche, Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Lewis Mumford, Henry David Thoreau, Daniel Boorstin, and Erich Fromm (quite an eclectic mix of media ecologists and critical theorists there). There is also a live show that has been performed by Goodman and Mike Stevens, and there are testimonials from several individuals, including some media ecology associates from NYU (Stacy Rosenberg, Nancy Silverman, and Bill Phillips).

The title, Thus Spoke the Spectacle, seems to be derived from the Ben Jonson quote that McLuhan was fond of, "Speak, that I may see thee." It also brings to mind the somewhat ironic title of an article by Walter Ong, “’I See What You Say’: Sense Analogues for Intellect.”

But the idea of spectacle, whether the reference is to the Roman circuses or our own image culture, has more in common with oral culture's concrete, imagistic thought processes than with the abstract visualism that McLuhan and Ong associate with literacy and print. The spectacle is all about noise, which the video amply illustrates, while the writer's voice as it exists between the covers of a book requires an inner ear. With the silence of the lamb's skin parchment and the paper made from linen or pulp, all that can be heard is the rustle of the pages as they turn, turn, turn. I mean, you can have your Zarathustra, I'll take my Koheleth. Do you see what I'm saying? If not, that's ok, just watch the video.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Lost and Found

I've devoted one previous post to the series Lost (Lost Legs), and made passing comments in several others, and for the most part have expressed my frustration with a series that started out strong and went off the rails during its second season. But after viewing the final few episodes, and especially the season finale this past Wednesday, it seems to me that the Lost may be back on track.

A series such as Lost that has a relatively linear story line that is something like a shark in that it needs to keep swimming forward to stay alive (jumping the shark being another matter altogether, as I discussed in a previous post, 24 or 6 to 5). For a while there it seemed like they had either stopped moving forward, or were doing so way too slowly for the typically impatient television viewer.

I even considered making a dumb comment comparing the plane crash survivors on Lost to our troops in Iraq, with all the calls to bring them back home, but this using the name Lost in conjunction with our military action and mentioning the topic of bringing the troops back home might leave me open to charges of being unpatriotic, comparing the situation our soldiers are in with a television show (even though most of us experience Iraq as a TV show as well) would leave me open to charges of being disrespectful of their genuine heroism and sacrifice, and comparing the protestations of members of the antiwar movement to irate fans of a TV series would leave me open to charges of mocking and belittling their sincere efforts. In other words, a lose-lose situation, and look what they did to Imus.

Bu the series moved forward with a vengeance in Wednesday's 2-hour episode, providing exactly the kind of excitement that was missing for so long. Now if only this isn't an aberration, and the creators of Lost have come to their senses and realize that the only significant elements in a linear narrative are the ones that move the story forward. Storytellers have understood this for as long as people have been telling stories.

In oral cultures, the singer of tales would perform for an audience without a script (no writing, no script), drawing on memory and improvising by stitching together various formulas and formulaic expressions. The audience would be heavily involved in the performance, perhaps even singing along at times, or taking part in call-and-response sequences. And if the audience was really responsive and into the song, the singer knew how to stretch it out, elaborate on the details, draw out the various sequences, add new plot elements, characters, etc. And if the audience seemed bored or distracted, the singer could shorten the song as well. The situation allowed for maximum feedback and flexibility.

The written text, in contrast, is more or less fixed (although subject to revision either through scribal copying/corruption or through editing). Moreover, the audience is almost never actually present (as Walter Ong put it, "the writer's audience is always a fiction," so the writer generally does not receive immediate feedback and cannot adjust the story in response to whatever feedback might make its way through (aside from publishing a new edition or writing a sequel).

What's true of writing and printing also applies to the mass media in general--feedback is indirect and delayed, that's what we teach in Mass Media 101. There is no audience present, although it is possible to try to get feedforward (a term that's been around for a long time, but has not been widely used) by using test audiences--standard operating procedure for advertising campaigns and major motion pictures, but not so easy to implement for ongoing series). And anyone who actually writes or calls a TV station or network about the programming is almost always in such a small minority that he or she is immediately written off as unrepresentative of the actual audience. So, in lieu of direct feedback, especially for television programming, there's the indirect sampling technique known as the ratings (see my previous post on Audience Abuse).

Of course, the internet opened things up a bit, so that there can be more direct communication between fans and creators, or at least the creators can monitor fan communication and get a better idea of what the fans are thinking. Mobilizing the fan base can be the key to keeping a series from getting canceled (this began with The Man from UNCLE series in the sixties, followed by the original Star Trek series which gained a third season through fan protests), and for contributing to the financial success of a film (I'm thinking of Peter Jackson's appeals to Lord of the Rings fans here). But fans are not a mass audience, and their support only goes so far. For example, last summer's much-hyped movie, Snakes on a Plane, had enormous buzz on the internet, so much so that the producers were convinced that they had a major smash on their hands, but all the posts on message boards and blogs did not translate into seats in the theaters, and the movie was a flop.

Even taking internet-derived feedback into account, the producers have to sit down and map out their season, have scripts in hand for at least the early episodes and in development for the later ones, be well into the season in production by the time the first episode of the season airs. So, it is very hard to adjust to feedback in mid-season, sometimes impossible.

It's easier, though, when it comes to a series that is episodic, such as a situation comedy. Adjustments are relatively easy, as you can add some new characters, eliminate or downplay characters that are not working out, change the scenario somewhat by adding a new situation (a workplace added to a domestic sitcom or vice versa, for example), etc. But when there is a linear narrative involved, it's tough to make major changes. Producers can, however, stretch the storyline when a series becomes popular, and accelerate it when the ratings go down (when a series is not renewed but there is sufficient notice, we often get a rushed and condensed wrap up to the series, such as occurred on the HBO series Rome, as I noted in a previous post, Rome If You Want To, Rome Around the World), but at least that's better than leaving behind an orphaned narrative, aka televisionus interruptus (again, something I discussed in Audience Abuse).

So, the problem with Lost is that they were spoiled by the success of their first season, and started to stretch the whole storyline until it lost its shape and texture. They actually introduced an entire second cast of characters, gave us their back stories, and then proceeded to kill off almost all of them, the only one remaining being an altogether minor character. Yes, devoted fans still pored over each episode searching for the little clues that generated so much internet buzz, and maybe the creators also started to write for that specialized audience and disregard the mass audience. And that's fine, as long as you're not trying to succeed on the massiest of the mass media, network television, where there's no room in the schedule for cult followings.

One of the creators of Lost, J. J. Abrams, also had the same trouble with a previous series, Alias, which in my opinion totally lost its focus after a strong first season, and never recovered. I wonder if this is a pattern for Abrams, or just a coincidence? I guess we'll see with his next series (assuming there is one), but at least in this instance it appears that all is not lost for Lost. That's assuming it hasn't already forfeited too much of its mass audience, because once the bleeding starts, the wound is very hard to heal. Simply put, it's hard to get new viewers to start watching a linear narrative so late in the game (although the availability of past seasons on DVD does help), but it is very easy to lose viewers who simply no longer care about the resolution to the story.

I give Lost credit for its ambitions. The series is a highly complex narrative in which each episode includes flashbacks for one of the characters, letting us in on their back stories bit by bit. At first, this seemed to just be a device to help us get to know them better and care about the characters, but over time it became clear that their back stories actually are part of the mystery, pieces of the puzzle at the heart of the program. The past also impacts the present in all sorts of different ways in the program, as it turns out that most of the survivors stranded on this island have crossed paths prior to their arrival, even if they don't remember it or didn't take note of it. The biggest revelation this season was that Locke's father, who abandoned him as a child, who turned out to be a con man, and whose reunion with Locke was just an elaborate con, was also the swindler who seduced James/Sawyer's mother, stole his parents life savings, leading to their deaths, the man that James/Sawyer had been longing to confront. And the past comes back to haunt (or maybe help) in that Locke's father (or a simulacrum) is found on the island, giving both men a chance for revenge.

There is a blurring of past and present, and now future, as in the season finale instead of flashbacks we get flashforwards (or is it feedforwards?), seeing that Jack, the physician and leader of the castaways, will self-destruct when they get back (and this of course suggests that they do get back), and will decide that it was a mistake to leave the island). These flashbacks coincide with major developments that suddenly bring them closer to leaving the island. But, unlike the past and present, which we assume to be real, there's some ambiguity about these days of future past that we are witness too. As Scrooge would ask, is it what will be, or what may be? Is time like the Rocky Mountains, or is it fluid and subject to change. Where does this peek into the future come from? With flashbacks, we can assume that somehow we're drawing on the characters' memories, but with flashforwards, might this be a premonition? The character of Desmond already has had numerous premonitions, a new ability gained after surviving the electromagnetic pulse that Locke initiated, and he has demonstrated that knowledge of the future allows you to change the future, at least a little bit, and to stave off fate, at least temporarily, as he was able to keep Charlie from dying until Charlie was in the right place and time to do some good when he sacrificed his life.

Moving back and forth between past, present, and future in this way may be a sign of the break down of a coherent sense of time--the postmodernists use the term temporal schizophrenia, which implies a break down of meaning as well as time, because for anything to mean anything, the signifier must link to the signified (i.e., the word to its meaning) and sign must link to sign (i.e., word follow word to make a statement) in chronological sequence. And maybe this is so, but a breakdown of time and meaning leaves us with a mystery without a resolution, and the sense of incoherence and illogic, and that the mystery is going nowhere, is part of what's been alienating viewers.

But I see a different view of time at work here, one that the great media ecology pioneer and linguistics scholar Benjamin Lee Whorf discovered was characteristic of Hopi and Navajo Native Americans: they only have two tenses in their languages, one for things that are manifest, that is, in existence, which encompasses both of our past and present tenses, and the other for things that will be, or things that could, would, or should be. This is a more mystical, sacred sense of time, which coincides with the sensibility of the island (a sacred space?). The survivors' pasts and their present are interconnected and the intersections move the plot forward (that key requirement again). Their future, and the resolution of the mystery at the heart of the program, remain an undiscovered country--and yes, the theme of death comes up repeatedly in the series. So does the theme of life, especially children and pregnancy, both obsessions of the threatening Others.

The brief title sequence that opens each episode resembles the movie titles from the old film noir films, and although Lost is not all that noirish in visual style, it does present a mystery than is more than a whodunnit, but rather an existential question of the meaning of it all, of whether all coherence is gone, and of how to find our way in a world gone mad. Like so many neo-noirs (in particular, the film Blade Runner comes to mind), the deeper mystery is one of identity. We, as viewers, learn about them bit by bit through the flashbacks over the weeks, and many of the characters seem to have more than one identity, a kind of alias, such as James/Sawyer, and Kate, and Eko, and Locke's conman father, but those characters don't seem to be confused about who they really are themselves, about the real person behind the false front. There's confusion about the island itself, its true nature, the reality of the environment they find themselves in. But the one thing the survivors have yet to question is their own identities, whether they are who they think they are. Now, maybe the series won't end up going in that direction, but it would be consistent with this genre for individual identity to be called into question, for the survivors to at least consider that they are wired to some virtual reality machine Matrix-style, or that they are artificial intelligences/robots/androids/replicants who only think they're real, or that they're clones who think they're the originals (given all the emphasis on pregnancy and birth, a biological angle seems the most likely possibility, and given the hint that the wreckage of their flight was found and there were no survivors, clones are a possible explanation for their waking up on the island, no to mention Locke's miraculous ability to walk again). If I had to put money on it, I'd say that by the end of the series, the question of identity/reality (the two are inseparable) will be called into question directly and significantly.

Like a game, the final score must remain uncertain, or else there is no game (in this sense, games are all about information in the sense that Claude Shannon used the term, whereas narratives are only about information in a very limited way). And Lost, in many ways, resembles a game. On the surface, it resembles that archetype of reality television, Survivor, and I imagine that it was pitched in those terms initially, although in the case of Lost the survivors want nothing more than to be voted off the island. To me, the series more closely resembles an adventure game, otherwise known as interaction fiction, such as the cinematic Myst that once was so popular (and also involved an island), but maybe even more so the old Infocom text adventures like Zork, based on the granddaddy of them all, the public domain mainframe game known as Adventure. These games all were about solving puzzles to move forward in the story (or what passed for one), trying to get to an ultimate goal that also includes trying to figure out the mystery behind the scenario (more so with the later games, especially Myst), while exploring, meandering, and mapping a strange environment, meeting other characters, picking up objects, etc. Those games could get frustrating too, when you get stymied and stalemated (especially in the days before readily available cheat codes on the web). But the player took an active role in trying to solve the puzzles, trying to figure out how to use an object, which object to use, etc., the trade off being an attenuated (at best) narrative.

While Lost resembles a game, and the postmodernists (following Wittgenstein) may look at everything as amounting to nothing more than language games, a TV series is not interactive fiction. Admittedly, all mysteries are games in the sense that they are puzzles, but they have more to do with working out plot lines than with game play involving uncertain outcomes (again, this has come up in previous posts such as The Plotz to Save Socrates and All Blogged Up!). And yes, a touch of the gamer sensibility has added some spice to the series, but the viewer is still unable to participate actively in the events that are unfolding. Yes, Lost fans have made the most of the DVR's enhanced capacity for slow motion and frame-by frame to search for clues, but this kind of active involvement still does not have any effect on the unfolding narrative, we make no decisions on behalf of the characters, no choices as to which path they will follow.

Lost may point the way to a future with increasingly more sophisticated interactive programming (in both the TV and computer sense of the word), but we will still be looking for that eloquent and tuneful singer of tales to sing us a song, to tell us a story, time and time again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


The other day I was shopping in our neighborhood Pathmark supermarket when I saw a display that caught my eye. It consisted of a bunch of unusual looking bags of chips. Now, I'm not very big on chips myself, but other members of my family go in for them, and it's not like I won't touch the stuff, I will (which is why I try to stay away from them), so I brought a bag home with me (after paying for it, of course).

Anyway, the bags are mostly in black, which is somewhat unusual for chips, with very large writing in white, some of which is outlined in red, giving it a very mysterious, if not dangerous look. At the very top is a kind of squiggle slanting slightly upwards as you move from left to right, going from a straight line to a series of sharp up and down marks, like the graphs drawn by a lie detector or some such device, and then trailing off into a straight line. Although horizontal, it also evokes a kind of lightning bolt effect, but mostly seems to signify some sort of electrical device used for testing. It appears in white against the black background, but outline in red.

Below this is the familiar Doritos logo, but in very large print, in white with a touch of gray to give a 3-D effect, outlined in red. Below it, in plain, white type as large as the logo is the mysterious designation "X-13D" which takes the place of any kind of description or name for this particular product. Below that is an image that looks like a paste-on label. The top half is white, and in black print it reads:

This is the X-13D Flavor Experiment.
Objective: Taste and name DORITOS® flavor X-13D.
Receive additional instructions at
or text 'X-13D' to 24477 ('CHIPS').

The bottom half is in gray, and lined like note paper, with just the words "Tasting notes:" followed by "ALL-AMERICAN CLASSIC" in what looks like handwritten felt tip pen. And here's what it looks like:

So, it's a mystery for the consumer to solve. The website,, provides an attractive view of an urban landscape, kind of reminds me a little of the SimCity videogame/simulation, with different areas to click on, including one devoted to X-13D. And that takes you to another site,, where you have the opportunity to "Name the Flavor," and also use the "Clue Generator" to play videogames and obtain clues about the mystery flavor, and also use an "Ad Generator" to actually create an advertisement for the new product.

This takes the notion of cool media that McLuhan discussed, where less information delivered by the source requires more participation on the part of the audience, to a new level, and it does the same for what McLuhan's associate, media and advertising practitioner Tony Schwartz, dubbed the soft sell. And it capitalizes on the open-source, do-it-yourself mentality fostered by the internet, web, and social networking sites such as Flickr, YouTube, and MySpace. It also adopts the media marketing strategy of films such as The Blair Witch Project and The Matrix trilogy, which rely on the audience to go to the internet to complete for themselves the entire narrative.

So, when you go to the X-13D site, text appears informing you that, "You are now part of the X-13D Flavor Experiment" and then cuts to, in large type:


It's all that and a bag of chips, but I'm sure there are people drawn in by the mock-serious tone and
the mystery of it all--chip noir. Hey, the winner gets a year's supply of snacks, so let the chips fall where they may.

But is this snack food any good, you may well ask. In the end, no amount of cool and groovy advertising will sell a bad product, at least not more than once.

Well, first of all, the taste seems somewhat familiar, but it's hard to put your finger on. My first reaction was tartar sauce, but that would hardly be an
"ALL-AMERICAN CLASSIC" now, would it? A second tasting made me think of pickles, a little better maybe, but I don't usually associate pickles with baseball and apple pie. And the chips sure don't taste like apple pie. In all honesty, neither I, nor my wife or son could figure it out.

That's the odd thing about a lot of our food, that it is, well, not exactly tasteless, but somewhat less than flavorful. I've heard the complaint about our tomatoes (and New Jersey is known for its tomatoes) repeated, in contrast to the tomatoes from (fill in the blank with your favorite old country), and I also heard, when I was a grad student in a class on propaganda taught by Terry Moran in the grand old media ecology program (now sadly eliminated) at New York University, that when people are blindfolded, they have a great deal of difficulty telling the difference between different flavors of soda. Apparently, it's the color, and the name of the drink that set up our expectations and tell us what we're supposed to be tasting. Talk about your cool media.

So, what do other people think about this mystery flavor. I did a quick google and found that on it says:

The chips looked brighter than normal Nacho Cheese Doritos, as they had the same underlying yellow tortilla chip shape and color, with some brighter orange powder. I thought I was wrong when I smelled pickles, but then I tasted them and there was a hint of pickle flavoring. I then saw on the bag that they have "Tasting notes: All-American classic," which made me think that they're going for either a cheeseburger taste or maybe a hot dog flavor, with pickles and onion. The ingredients included onion powder, tomato powder and cheddar cheese, but no pickle flavoring that I could identify. Definitely a bizarre taste. It should be interesting to see what other people think about this flavor. Not the best Doritos flavor I've tried, but certainly an unusual one — at least it didn't taste like Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch.

Aroma: They smell a bit like dill pickles, oddly enough.

And, on another blog, Kathunter's Personal Space, in an entry entitled Doritos: X-13D Campaign, I found the following:

I love a good advertising gimmick. I have spent too many hours in war rooms with slightly insane and terribly talented creatives to miss a mentionable effort. In case you bought a bag of Doritos at your corner store in the last couple days (which I do often - in love with the new BBQ flavor dipped in mexican cheese dip from the restaurant on my corner), you may have seen the generic black bag labeled "X-13D".

After a brief description of the bag, she goes on to relate:

Any agency who tries to pull a packaging or otherwise meaningless marketing stunt is an immediately absorbing opportunity, so I shell out the 99 cents...
-- eat some chips
-- tangy
-- eat more chips
-- strange this is not so mexican
-- omgwtflol i know exactly what this tastes like!

I had to respond via the super forward thinking method of short-code sms communication, and quickly found out the actual promotion does not begin until 05/13.
My attention span these days does not last that long, so for anyone who may Google this, the answer to Frito Lay Corp's question is the following:

McDonald's cheeseburger - specifically the bite with pickles and onion pieces.

I dare you to buy it and tell me I am wrong. Usually, I am wrong, however THIS time I am fracking positively beautifully correct.

Her post drew a lot of comments, with others suggesting that it might actually taste more like a Burger King Whopper, or McDonald's Big Mac. I suppose that sooner or later we will know for sure, if anyone still cares, but this also shows how, if you try to live by the internet, you may also die by the internet--no secret is entirely safe from this collaborative medium.

But the bottom line is that the chips just didn't taste very good, and I don't think that any one of us would buy them again, even knowing what they're supposed to be. Especially knowing what they're supposed to be.

But with advertising like this, who needs products in the first place? Just ride, captain, ride, upon your mystery chip.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Well, I'm not sure what to say, and I'm not sure whether I should say anything, or whether I should delay, but what the hey! As I wrote in my fourth post on this blog, The Unexamined Blog is Not Worth Blogging, this blogging thing of ours is an exercise in narcissism. So, being a dedicated blogist, well, in for a dime, in for a dollar, or all in as the Texas hold 'em types say.

I first introduced the question of what sort of content is blog-worthy in an early post on Blogism. But as a blog professional (professional not in the sense of getting paid for it, mind you, but in the sense that I profess to blog, I profess this blog, methinks that I profess too much), the determination of blog-worthiness is pretty much a matter of my own professional judgment. And that is all well and fine and good, no one gets hurt but me, it's a victimless crime.

Wikipedia is another matter altogether, it's a fabulous collaborative online resource, great and terrible, just full of beans and who can count how many. We all know it's not all that reliable, but we all turn to it just the same, and return to it more and more. My 13-year-old son knows about hundreds, maybe thousands of movies he's never seen (horror movies and violent action films in particular) from browsing through Wikipedia.

Well, it seems that I am now Wikipedia-worthy. Someone (I know what you're thinking, no, it wasn't me, I try to keep my narcissism confined to blogging) has added a Wikipedia entry on me! Woohoo! It's been up for the better part of a week now. I know the people who run Wikipedia will delete entries that they deem to be unworthy, but I'm told that this usually happens within a day or two, so I'm past that initial hurdle, although it takes a full month to be completely secure I hear. So it goes.

This is the second great honor I've received in a short period of time, having recently received The Thinking Blogger Award (see Thinking Blogger Award Goes Here ↓ to read all about it). So, having gained admittance to the Enchanted Wiki Room, well, I'm going to Disney World! I wish (upon a star).

My son was looking up movies on Wikipedia yesterday (I was in the office) and my wife told him to look me up, thinking he'd be impressed, proud, etc. So, he looked me up, and his reaction? He was angry that the entry didn't mention him!

And I am sure that all of you, my many readers, will now be looking at this blog with different eyes now that I can blind you with my Wikipedian aura. I would say that I am the man of the aura, but that would be an aurable pun, guv'ner.

What then can I say, except that I realize that being Wikipedia-worthy is a great honor and a great responsibility, one that I do not take lightly. I know that wherever I go and whatever I do, I will be judged accordingly, and will act as an ambassador of good will on behalf of Wikipedians everywhere.

And I will strive to make this blog worthy of a Wikipedia-worthy bloggist by giving you, my public, only the most blog-worthy blogging that I can blog.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

24 or 6 to 5

The 2-hour season finale of the Fox TV series 24, Day 6, brings to mind the 1970 hit song from Chicago, written by Robert Lamm, "25 or 6 to 4," so, here we go:
25 or 6 to 4

Waiting for the break of day
Searching for something to say
Flashing lights against the sky
Giving up I close my eyes
Sitting cross-legged on the floor
25 or 6 to 4

Staring blindly into space
Getting up to splash my face
Wanting just to stay awake
Wondering how much I can take
Should I try to do some more
25 or 6 to 4

Feeling like I ought to sleep
Spinning room is sinking deep
Searching for something to say
Waiting for the break of day
25 or 6 to 4
25 or 6 to 4
This would make for a perfect theme song for the series, don't you think? I know the numbers are off a bit, but then again I don't traffic in quantitative research. And anyway, if this was 24, Day 6, doesn't that make it 144?

But, who's counting?

And why not just call it The Jack Bauer Power Hour, a 24-part series featuring the trials and ordeals of everyone's favorite counter-terrorist? Or I know, maybe The Passion of Jack (I made a similar point about The Sopranos in an earlier post,The Passion of Christopher, but hey, given the success of that Mel Gibson film, shouldn't we expect Hollywood to jump on the bandwagon in some way?).

But it seems to me that the problem with the direction that 24's been heading in is, in fact, that each season it becomes more and more about our hero Jack, man of the hour(s). This season 24 jumped the shark in having the main villain turn out to be Jack's father, assisted by Jack's brother, revealing that Jack's sister-in-law is also Jack's ex-girlfriend, and placing Jack's teenage nephew in danger repeatedly--that's my opinion, but in doing research for this post, I see that it's the opinion of many others as well.

The premise, and you might say the gimmick of 24 is that it happens in real time. Each episode in the 24-part season is an hour long, and represents an hour of a single day or 24-hour period (since different seasons have begun at different times of the day). Of course, there is the curious fact that every so often, all of the action subsides for a few minutes, for example, during the 23rd hour, the action died down at 04:15:04 AM (according to the digital time display on the screen) and resumed at 04:19:25. What was going on during those 4 minutes and 21 seconds? It was a commercial break, I know, but what were the characters doing during that time? Presumably the same as me, going to the bathroom or getting a bite to eat.

But 24 is all about real time in relation to television time, its predecessor being a short-lived (1995-1997) but interesting program called Murder One, where the premise was that each season would follow one single trial from beginning to end. But real time is tough, given the need at times to slow things down in relation to real time for dramatic effect--think about how many one minute countdowns in movies and TV shows actually take five or ten minutes--and to speed things up, condense time, and skip over periods of time when nothing significant happens (typically indicated by a caption or announcer saying, "the next morning..." or in the language of film/video, by a dissolve or fade out and in).

So, the premise of 24 is that we are viewing one unique day in which the action and events are essentially relentless. When things move at a slower pace in relation to real time, we can have an entirely linear narrative where we move from one scene to another, one character to another, moving across space from place to place (perhaps indicated by a caption or announcer saying, "Meanwhile..." or by a new establishing shot or just a plain old cut to a different scene). Because so much activity is packed into a short period of time, 24 moves from scene to scene by way of a transition using split screen and multiple images, showing that in this program's spacetime, events are occurring simultaneously. We don't linger on the split screen, because that would be too difficult to follow for the mass audience the program tries to appeal to (but take a look at the film Time Code for a full exploration of such possibilities, the name of the film being a metaphor taken from video editing). It would also be too difficult to watch unless you had a large screen.

It is fun to try to guess which of the three or four scenes that are shown during the transition will be the focus of the next segment. And this format seems to anticipate what's coming next in interactive media, which will be a series along the same lines, where the viewer gets to choose which scene to follow.

Apart from the format, 24 lives and dies by the shocking and unexpected turn of events. When the series premiered, I was surprised over and over again during that first season. The series excelled at misdirection and slight of hand, it had a magician's ability to get viewers to focus our attention in the wrong direction, and thereby trick and amaze us. I was not only surprised, I was surprised at being surprised (from Korzybski's general semantics, the principle of self-reflexiveness). Unfortunately, this sort of thing is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The second season, I was still surprised by each turn of events, but I was expecting to be surprised, no longer surprised by my surprise. And with each new season, while there are still surprises, I've learned that many sympathetic and innocent characters will die, that characters who seem good will turn out to be bad guys and vice versa, that when things move in one direction there will be a sudden reversal coming up.

So, okay, popular culture elements that start out as inventions eventually turn into conventions, that's just the way of the world. And maybe it's a sign of the declining novelty of the program that this year, 24 was parodied by both South Park (the subject of an earlier post entitled SOUTH P24K) and just this past Sunday, by The Simpsons (did they go easy on 24 because they're on the same network, Fox, or is it just that South Park is the funnier show? either way, I probably would have liked The Simpsons parody better if I had seen it before the South Park version).

And it's true that we're seeing repetition of story elements now, such as CTU headquarters coming under attack, the President becoming incapacitated and an incapable Vice-President taking over during a crisis. But I don't mind that so much as I'm tired of Jack Bauer's interrogation technique, which is to first ask a question in a soft voice, and then repeat the question in a loud and threatening voice. Yes, shouting at people, that's the ticket! I know folks on the left have been upset with the program's validation of torture and its whole premise about combating terrorism, but while the tactics are militaristic, the policies and politics of the program favor the liberals, the obviously Democratic Palmer brothers as opposed to the seemingly Republican former president Logan and Vice-President Daniels (no actual references to political parties are made, and coupling a Democratic President with a Republican Vice-President is at best unlikely in reality, but makes for good dramatic contrast and conflict). This season, with its validation of a repentant Arab terrorist, a patriotic Arab-American civil rights leader, and an Arab-American CTU officer, and with the revelation that the real villain is one of our own, Jack's father, working with the Chinese, strikes me as a reflection of the growing discontent with our involvement in Iraq, and with Bush and Cheney, and perhaps an attempt to reinforce the antiwar meme. My point here is not to make a political argument one way or another, but rather to note the politics underlying the show, which ultimately are confused because they attempt to have it both ways so as to attract viewers from every part of the political spectrum.

Part of what frees 24 to present political positions is the fact that the world in which these events take place is an alternate reality that is diverging more and more from our own. In the first season, we were moving in real time in what was, essentially, the real world. In a morbid coincidence, the program premiered after 9/11, and opened with a terrorist agent setting off a bomb destroying a plane in flight, but this seemed to match the new post 9/11 world that we found ourselves in. The only oddity was the lack of reference to the attacks on NYC and DC. The first season included an African-American presidential candidate, Senator Palmer, a fictional character but plausible given the popularity of Colin Powell.

The world of 24 became progressively less real, not only because Palmer was elected president, foolowed by a succession of other leaders. More importantly, in the world of 24 there have been a series of terrorist attacks on the United States, including nukes going off twice, and other radiological and biological attacks. Their world is much less secure than our own. But for a program whose premise is real time, this evolving alternate history makes the series increasingly less credible and relevant, less realistic.

But the even bigger problem with the program is that Jack is becoming tired. After a year of torture as a prisoner of the Chinese, which is how the season starts, the character literally is tired, and seeing him snap back into secret agent mode, even after showing some reluctance, is a bit of a leap (of the proverbial shark?). But it's more than that. Jack is too much with us. This season, with all the emphasis on Jack's family, and particularly with the confrontation and conflict between Jack and his father, we moved away from realism and into the mythic. Jack, I am your father--it's no longer Jack Bauer, it's Jack Skywalker.

Yes, Jack should be at the center of events, and this season also suffered because Bauer was kept out of the action for prolonged periods. But he should be in the eye of the hurricane and not the storm itself, thrust into the midst of things, in medias res, and neither he nor his family (an extension of the character) should be the cause of the events. He is best as a relatively blank slate, leaving room for the viewer to identify with him. He is a man of action, a doer, not someone whose psychological complexities we need to explore. He is our entry into the swirl of events going on in the series, which is what the show is all about, and he is the only person who can do what must be done. Again, it's about deeds, not words, he is the guy who does what must be done, no matter the cost. Kiefer Sutherland has a very limited range as an actor playing an action hero (as opposed to playing a bad guy), but action heroes are typically type characters, flat rather than well rounded. What counts is the plot, not the characterization, and 24 is all about the plot--no plot and the audience can plotz (as I noted in a previous post, The Plotz to Save Socrates: "Plotz: To burst, to explode, I can't laugh anymore or I'll plotz! To be aggravated beyond bearing." (Definition courtesy of the Yiddish Phrases website).

I began this post with the lyrics to one Chicago song, so for the sake of fearsome symmetry I will end with the lyrics to another one, "Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?" which was also written by Robert Lamm, this time from 1969:

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to cry

And I was walking down the street one day
A pretty lady looked at me and said her diamond watch had stopped cold dead
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to cry

And I was walking down the street one day
Being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock, oh, no I just don't know
I don't know
And I said, yes I said

People runnin' everywhere
Don't know where to go
Don't know where I am
Can't see past the next step
Don't have time to think past the last mile
Have no time to look around
Just run around, run around and think why

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to die
Perfect for running the end credits to 24, don't you think?

The Oder of Youth

Groucho Marx put it very nicely: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." In both cases, the hidden ground or invisible environment is an olfactory one--our sense of smell receives messages and information about what to approach and what to avoid, influencing what and whom we are attracted to and repulsed by.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man Marshall McLuhan wrote the following in his chapter entitled "Clocks: The Scent of Time":

The most integral and involving time sense imaginable is that expressed in the Chinese and Japanese cultures. Until the coming of the missionaries in the seventeenth century, and the introduction of mechanical clocks, the Chinese and Japanese had for thousands of years measured time by graduations of incense. Not only the hours and days, but the seasons and zodiacal signs were simultaneously indicated by a succession of carefully ordered scents. The sense of smell, long considered the root of memory and the unifying basis of individuality, has come to the fore again in the experiments of Wilder Penfield. During brain surgery, electric probing of brain tissue revived many memories of the patients. These evocations were dominated and unified by unique scents and odors that structured these past experiences. The sense of smell is not only the most subtle and delicate of the human senses; it is, also, the most iconic in that it involves the entire human sensorium more fully than any other sense. It is not surprising, therefore, that highly literate societies take steps to reduce or eliminate odors from the environment. B.O., the unique signature and declaration of human individuality, is a bad word in literate societies. It is far too involving for our habits of detachment and specialist attention. Societies that measured time scents would tend to be so cohesive and so profoundly unified as to resist every kind of change. (p. 200 of the critical edition)

McLuhan referred to media as "extensions of man," and perfume originally was an extension of body odor, especially necessary for those poor unfortunates who had none. No odor means no common scents. It also means no identity--I stink therefore I am--and McLuhan in his later work noted that violence is a response to loss of identity. In the present olfactory context, this point is imaginatively illustrated by the Patrick Suskind novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (the movie adaptation having been released this past January).

In traditional cultures, certain scents were associated with the sacred, and were only used in sacred spaces and on sacred occasions. Likewise, certain scents were reserved for priests or kings, just as the color purple was reserved for royalty at one time. In ancient Israel, when the people clamored for a king, Samuel bestowed this royal status on Saul by anointing him with a special oil, and later he did the same for David--the chosen one becomes the anointed one. The Hebrew word for anointed one is meshiach, from which we get messiah, which was translated into Greek as christos, which also means anointed, from which we get via Latin the word christ, the title Jesus Christ meaning Jesus the Christ meaning Jesus the Anointed, not to mention the act of christening, where water is substituted for oil.

In other words, in Judeo-Christian tradition, we are saved by the smell! It's no laughing matter, as our efforts to produce an odorless society through ventilation/air conditioning systems and deodorant/antiperspirants turns out to be just another facet of secular humanism and the technological society. Post-colognialism? Such non-scents!

The Anointed One is supposed to deliver eternal life, either up in heaven (Christ) or here or Earth through the resurrection of the dead (Meshiach). While technology cannot accomplish this, we apparently have taken a step in that direction with a product called Timeless View™. Developed by a physician (a member of what amount to the contemporary priesthood that we turn to in times of trouble) named Alan R. Hirsch, an expert in "The Science of Smell," and the founder and director of The Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, Timeless View™ is referred to as a "Youth Perception Spray" for women only.

So, it's not quite the fountain of youth, just a spritz. According to the copy on the webpage, "During a preliminary clinical study, this patent-pending body spray made women seem an average of six (6) years younger than their actual age." I suppose that the unusual number of years, 6, makes the claim seem more legitimate than it would otherwise be (but say it three times fast and see what slouches your way). Anyway, the ad goes on to list the reasons why women want and need to look younger than they actually are, and all the things they do to achieve this goal:

Why You Need It

Have you ever tried to look younger than you actually are?

Of course you have. Every woman has tried to alter her appearance to affect the perception of her age.

And why not? Looking younger gives you advantages in life. Men find younger women more attractive. Younger women tend to be taken more seriously at work. You can probably think of a dozen ways in which appearing younger would help you to get what you want out of life.

Society places a high value on youth, which is why you may have tried:

• Young, “hip” clothes
• Hair coloring
• Dieting to lose weight
• Botox injections
• Other “youthening” techniques • Teeth whitening
• Anti-wrinkle creams
• Anti-aging vitamins
• Cosmetic surgery
However, did you notice something similar between all of those options? They are all supposed to affect how young you look.

But there’s more to age than just what you see.
Actually, this is an excellent insight, and McLuhan would certainly approve of this effort to break free from western culture's profound visualism. In this vein, the ad goes on to say:

Can You Smell Younger?

For years, Dr. Hirsch has studied the effects that the other four senses have on human perception and behavior. Specifically, he has found that specific smells can alter learning speed, memory recall, perception of body weight, gambling behavior and even sexual arousal.

Recently, he discovered a unique combination of scents that also can affect the perception of age.

During a clinical study, Dr. Hirsch found that men perceived women who wore certain scents to be an average of six (6) years younger than their actual age.

Curiously, these specific scents did not alter age perceptions in women viewing men or women viewing other women. Currently, Dr. Hirsch is conducting follow-up research to fully explore this age-perception spray for all conditions.

Even better, this unique blend of scents has been concentrated into an easy-to-use body spray called Timeless View.

So there you have it, not quite heaven, but maybe nirvana--I wonder if it smells like teen spirit? Anything to recapture that youthful odor, to be adored, no matter how arduous.

So, Tony Soprano is the "chosen one" of the Cosa Nose-tra. And using the scent of time to predict the future was the province on the prophet Nosey-stradamus. Victory through nasal power! Are you becoming incensed with me?

All right then, I'll end by mentioning that my first scholarly publication, which I produced a long, long, time ago although it smells like just yesterday, was "Media and the Sense of Smell," a book chapter that was included in the anthology Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World (2nd ed.), edited by Gary Gumpert and Robert Cathcart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 400-411). And when it was reprinted in the third edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 428-438), I had my second scholarly publication.

And I know of at least one media ecologist, Steve Reagles, who has investigated this topic in great depth in his doctoral dissertation.

As for the future, who nose? Smell ya later!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Kudos to Heroes

Kudos to Heroes, the NBC series where a group of super powered individuals save the world, while the series itself has pretty much saved the network from a complete ratings catastrophe (here's their official site). What is the secret of their success?

Well, it's not that Heroes is part of the same trend toward quality, complexity, and mystery that characterize shows such as 24, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica. It's not that this trend is a bad thing, but it's no guarantee of ratings success, a fact that I bemoaned in a recent post entitled Audience Abuse. Even taking into consideration the fact that these shows tend to do best in their first season, being more likely to lose viewers than to pick them up in the subsequent seasons, anyone monitoring the video field for the past nine months would find it littered with the bodies of dead, canceled programs--the dreaded televisionus interruptus!

Neither is the success of the show due to the fact that it is part of the superhero genre, a genre I have some familiarity with, as I mentioned in a recent post about Spider-Man 3. Sure, filmmakers have had some success in adapting comic book superheroes to the silver screen in recent years, but the same can't be said of television, and what's more, this is not an adaptation, but an original made-for-TV super-scenario.

Original, but still derivative, in that it takes its premise pretty much from Marvel's popular X-Men series. The X-Men debuted in 1963, about half a year after DC Comics (then called National) introduced the Doom Patrol, a group of misfits whose powers were in some way linked to accidents resulting in a kind of disability (although they didn't use that language back then)--there was a Robotman, a human brain with an entirely prosthetic body, Negative Man, a pilot all wrapped in bandages who could become catatonic and release for a brief time a negative energy being, and Elasti-Girl, who was able to grow to gigantic proportions or shrink to tiny size, and was viewed as a freak. The Doom Patrol was lead by Dr. Niles Caulder, otherwise known as, The Chief, a genius but also a paraplegic in a wheelchair--the growing awareness that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected to five terms and saw us almost entirely through the Great Depression and the Second World War gave rise to a new icon of the wheelchair as a symbol of leadership and intelligence.

And so we find that the leader of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, was also a genius in a wheelchair, with superpowers to boot, suitably all in the mental realm, as the world's most powerful telepath. Xavier gathers a group of young mutants, teenagers born with powers derived from alterations to their DNA, one with wings (Angel), one shooting force blasts from his eyes (Cyclops), one with the strength and agility of an ape (Beast), one able to generate ice (Iceman), and the lone girl with telekinetic powers (Marvel Girl). It may be that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby saw the Doom Patrol comic and decided to create their own variation, or that DC somehow got wind of what Stan and Jack was doing and beat them to the punch with their own version, or maybe it was just a coincidence, a case of parallel development. In the end, it doesn't really matter, as both books have their merits.

The important point is that Heroes clearly owes much to both comic books, beginning with the fact that the series features a leader type of character trying to gather people with amazing/freakish powers together. In this case, rather than being confined to a wheelchair, the genius Dr. Chandra Suresh has been murdered. His son, Mohinder Suresh, has followed in his father's footsteps in becoming a geneticist, but whether he too is a genius remains to be seen. The fact that his father was viewed as a crackpot for insisting on his radical theories concerning genetic mutation and human evolution has lead to friction and conflict between father and son, a typical motif for American popular culture, significantly less so for that of India, the home of these two characters. Making them Indian, however, gives them a suitably exotic flavor and adds to the overall diversity of the program, as well as suggesting the mystical and cosmic bent that we associate with India and its religious traditions--superpowers as superkarma! While attending to his father's affairs, Mohinder reluctantly finds himself taking over his father's work, and role.

In the comics, the initial motif of the gathering is dealt with quickly, the point being to get the team together already and get right into their adventures. As I mentioned in that recent post about Spider-Man 3, origin stories for individual superheroes tend to be the least interesting part of their ongoing adventures, and traditionally the creators try to dispose of the origin as quickly as possible--in recent years, there have been attempts to turn origin stories into mysteries that unfold over time, but the bottom line is that there is no easy way to explain how someone can fly, or be impervious to bullets, or run 200 MPH, or lift 500 times his or her own bodyweight, etc. There are no rational explanations, we're in the world of fantasy, but superhero stories, while sometimes incorporating supernatural elements, largely rely on science fiction scenarios, and such powers and abilities defy rational analysis or scientific explanation. So, the trick is to dispose of the explanation as quickly as possible, hope no one pays too much attention, and then move on to the adventures, which was the whole point in the first place.

In movies, however, where there's an impetus to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, there's a tendency to make the origin a substantial part of the film--this is why the sequel, at least the first sequel, is usually better than the original movie. One exception is Batman Begins, but Batman isn't really a superhero, so there is more of a story to tell there, and anyway that was a prequel, following four earlier Batman movies. With Heroes, creator Tim Kring splits the difference. He drops us in medias res-into the midst of things--in one sense, as many of the super powered individuals have already used their powers (and as we learn, they are not the first generation of genetic anomalies), and Chandra Suresh has already discovered the presence of mutants and been murdered. But the main characters are mostly isolated from one another, and the story that unfolds over this first season follows the motif of a gathering of heroes--they don't all come together in the same place until the very end.

Of course, this gathering of champions is a kind of origin story, as is the gathering of reluctant heroes (and some combination of the two is also possible). These kinds of stories can be very effective, as at least part of the question is, how will these already existing heroes act when they first meet, how will they get along, will they be able to work together, and how will they do it? Heroes has drawn on exactly this kind of appeal in its first season, as some of the characters form friendships, some find themselves in conflict with one another, some change sides and therefore alliances, and one character discovers she's related to some of the others.

Whether the gathering motif in Heroes will result in some kind of continuing affiliation remains to be seen. Mohinder Suresh has an interest in connecting to them all, but this is not like the mainstream superhero comics where the superpowered individuals come together and agree to form a team to combat crime, fight evil, and the like. Instead, this is an exercise in trying to create a more realistic story about what would happen if regular people suddenly acquired powers. Some feel a sense of responsibility, some withdraw, some use them selfishly, some turn to evil, some try to manipulate and control others, some simply don't know what to do. Comics have experimented with this type of approach here and there, Marvel added a touch of it to their original superheroes, and more so with their failed New Universe project from the eighties, it was developed more fully with the collaborative science fiction literature series, Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin, and experiments have continued over the years.

As an origin tale, the gathering is much more interesting than the origin story where the team members all gain their powers at the same time and in the same way--the Fantastic Four pioneered this latter approach, which was fine for the quick telling found in the original comic, but made for a dismal first film (made even worse by unnecessary changes to the story). As for the X-Men, they also had a similar origin, all were mutants discovered by Professor Xavier and enrolled at his special school "for gifted youngsters." Actually, hardly any individual origin story was necessary, as the designation mutant was considered sufficient to launch the adventures. No need to explain how the powers work, how they came to be, it was just the mutation that made it happen, the power of positive DNA. How convenient! When the series began, the X-Men had almost no origin story to speak of, and just went straight into the action.

The X-Men series was not the most popular of the comic books put out by Marvel, and during the early seventies was only published as reprints. All that changed in 1975 when a set of new characters were introduced in Giant Size X-Men #1, and new stories featuring the new team began to appear shortly thereafter, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne. By the eighties, the series had become the most popular in the comics industry, and Marvel was looking to capitalize on its success by launching spin-offs such as The New Mutants, X-Factor, and a solo series for the most popular X-Man, Wolverine. Along with further proliferation of X-comics, Marvel also caught mutant-mania, and started to play the mutant card wherever possible, not only for its popularity, but because it provided a quick and easy explanation for any character's powers.

DC followed suit with the idea of a metagene, a special bit of DNA that some individuals have that gives them the potential to gain superpowers (often some additional event like a lightning bolt is needed to trigger the gene). And outside of the DC and Marvel Universes, in various new superhero universes being created over the past few decades, the tendency has been to provide a single explanation for all superpowers. In Marvel's New Universe, it was the "white event," energy of an extraterrestrial origin bestowing powers on a limited number of individuals. In the Wild Cards books, it was an alien virus. In Heroes, its evolution via mutation.

The appeal of these unified field theories of superpower acquisition is their rationality and consistency. It is easy to attribute a series of impossible events to a single source than it is to multiple sources. But what's lost is the pastiche or mosaic quality of the traditional superhero universe. Both DC and Marvel universes evolved organically, as ecologies involving different editors, writers, artists, characters and stories. The result is that some characters have superpowers because they come from other planets, some gain them by taking a serum or pill, or being exposed to a ray or radiation (or bitten by a radioactive spider), some are basically human but undergo special training or have special skills, some use some kind of technology such as a gun, jet pack, suit of armor, etc., some us a magical object instead, some are magicians, some have powers given to them by magic beings (Shazam!), some gain them from supernatural beings or are supernatural beings themselves, such as the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, or Norse gods, some even get them from God Himself, and some are born with them as mutants (and combinations of these different elements are possible). The fun is that these different elements co-exist in the comicbook universe, so that the scientific superhero has to fight the magical villain, or one hero who depends on technological gadgetry must team up with another who is a god out of mythology. This is what is lost in order to gain a coherent universe. Not that there's anything wrong with coherence, and a single television series such as Heroes would have trouble managing the complexity that emerges out of a multitude of separate series such as can be found in the DC and Marvel universes.

So, Heroes does well with a universe that is pretty much like our own, with the single addition of genetic mutation making possible all sorts of different powers and abilities. Again, this allows us to get right into the middle of things, where the action is. And with an ensemble cast and a series of parallel story lines that eventually start to intersect and finally all come together, what's needed are established character types that are immediately recognizable, and can get the plot moving without the need to establish much about personality or mindset. We have in Mohinder Suresh a scientist type, and the estranged son trying to come to terms with his father's work. There's Claire Bennet, the perky, popular blonde high school cheerleader, shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is all but indestructible having the power to heal from just about any injury. Her father, Noah Bennett, appears to be a nerd with his defining look as the man with the horn-rimmed glasses, but secretly is a sinister company man in conflict with his role as a family man, the latter winning out.

There's the good cop Matt Parkman, who's not too bright and pretty much of a shlamazel (Yiddish for someone who has no luck), but has the power to read minds (and played by Greg Gunberg who played Eric Weiss on Alias). There's Isaac Mendez, the tortured artist, a heroin addict with the ability to paint the future. There's Niki Sanders (played by Ali Larter from the delightful Legally Blonde movie), a hooker with a heart of gold type, in this case doing internet porn to support her young son while her estranged husband is in prison, and with a split personality/evil twin that unleashes her superstrength. Her husband, D. L. Hawkins, a secondary character, can become a phantom and phase through solid objects, and her son Micah, has the ability to control technologies to some extent.

Another major character is Nathan Petrelli, a candidate for a New York Congressional seat, a stereotypical politician who has a nice family, although his wife is in a wheelchair, and he has affairs and has an illegitimate child, is ambitious and compromises his principles to get ahead, but is a good person deep down, and oh yes, he can fly. His mother, a minor character named Angela Petrelli, is a dominating mother and a kind of female Joseph Kennedy. His brother, Peter Petrelli, is a sensitive, caring individual who is a bit of a slacker, but turns out to be arguably the most important of these heroes, with the power to absorb the powers of others he comes into contact with (although not necessarily able to control those powers).

The character find of the century is Hiro Nakamura of Japan, innocent and enthusiastic, and often quite amusing, a comics and science fiction fan himself--since the late seventies, science fiction filmmakers have realized that to be realistic they have to take into account the fact that people know science fiction, so for example, in E.T. Eliot shows the alien his Star Wars toys, and they run into a kid dressed as Yoda on Halloween, and later another kid asks why E.T. can't just beam up, and Eliot answers, "this is reality, stupid." So, Hiro has this postmodern, self-reflexive characteristic, and is constantly being self-conscious, talking about what a hero would do. Adding to the fun, it turns out that his father is played by George Takei, who we all recognized as Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek series. Being Japanese, he adds an element of diversity, but much of the audience is also quite familiar with the massive Japanese contribution to comics and science fiction in the form of manga and anime, and Hiro embarking on his quest with much to learn is no doubt more than a little reminiscent of Ash, the hero from Pokemon. The motif of the hero having a helper who is of lower status and/or ordinary ability, the knight's squire, is included here with Hiro's co-worker, Ando Masahashi. Ando is the doubting Thomas, and lack Hiro's faith in and knowledge of the hero's quest, but he is a good friend and supporting character, and there is a sense in which he is Sancho Panza to Hiro's Don Quixote. Hiro has the power to manipulate the space-time continuum, which I would imagine would make him the most powerful hero of them all, but he has difficulty controlling his power. But it is his name that says it all: he is the Hiro of Heroes.

Both Hiro's power, and in a more limited way Isaac Mendez's power to paint the future, make time travel a part of the story. Hiro travels to the future to witness New York City devastated by a nuclear explosion--why do they keep picking on my hometown?!--and the goal is established to stop this from occurring. After 3 episodes establishing the scenario, the 4th ends with a future version of Hiro encountering Peter Petrelli, and telling him, "save the cheerleader, save the world." This simple formula drives the series, with the first arc being about saving Claire Bennet, and the second about preventing the destruction of New York. Good, serious, concrete goals resolved within a season, not dragging a mystery on forever like Lost. The pacing of the story arcs in this series has simply been excellent. Each episode moves the story forward, not going off on a tangent for unnecessary back story or character development, no padding.

The multiple story lines that the series begins with are not so convoluted as to make them hard to follow, they are complex but marked by clarity, they parallel each other effectively, and intersect at dramatic points in ways that make sense. The 20th episode of the season, 4th from the finale, "Five Years Gone," gave us a glimpse of the future if our heroes do not save New York City, as Hiro travels into the future. His future self has created a model of the intersecting chain of events that led to the disaster to help guide him in his attempts to travel back in time and change what happened. While idiosyncratic in appearance, it is a web of string with notes and pictures hanging, a networked depiction of time (the internet gives us a new metaphor for time, time is like the web, we click from one page to another, until the computer freezes? dies? becomes obsolete and is replaced by a newer model?). And it demonstrates in a visual and concrete way the coherence of the series' plot line, and the fact that this is a plot about plots, actually a plot about plots about plots--I made a similar point in a previous post about Paul Levinson entitled The Plotz to Save Socrates. Paul himself, having written some time travel stories, had this to say about Heroes on his blog:

Heroes Five Years Gone: Triumph of Time-Travel - May 1, 2007

For some reason, people who are supposed to know about fiction and narrative and what makes good storytelling have trouble taking comic books seriously. As recently as 1999, when I was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, comic book writing was not deemed a satisfactory qualification for membership. That's still the case. I never understood the problem - do pictures along with text somehow render the text invalid?

NBC's Heroes comes from the comic book tradition. In fact, a comic book, based on the visions of a character who can paint the future, animates the series. Monday night's episode - "Five Years Gone" - is about as fine a time-travel story as I've ever seen on television. Well, ok, maybe it's not quite as good as Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever" in the original Star Trek series, or "Yesterday's Enterprise" from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it's pretty close, and unlike those standalone episodes, it wove in elements of Heroes we have been seeing almost from the beginning of the series this past Fall.

Time travel's no easy cookie. If you do it right - if you respect the paradoxes of time travel as really happening - you're asking your readers or audience almost immediately to enter a realm in which headaches come along with the thrills, as people in your story meet their future selves, and your audience must struggle to understand how the future self isn't changed by the very meeting with the past self... (My time travel novel, The Plot to Save Socrates, took me three times as long to write as any of my other novels.)

And threading paradoxes through the eye of a needle is just the beginning - especially for Heroes, which not only has a time-travelling Hiro, but Heroes with all kinds of other fantastic powers, like adopting the looks of others, reading minds, and, the most powerful of all, adopting all the powers of the other super heroes.

"Five Years Gone" dished out then dealt with these problems with style and logic, positing a world gone wrong, and all-too-humanly flawed heroes struggling against all odds to pull time and the world inside-out and perhaps back on track again.

If there were one or two tin notes - like a thread of this story a little too close to X-Men - that's ok, because the overall effect, and so many characters and plot twists, were so good.

And Heroes made good on some of its crucial implications from earlier in the year. That's not only good television, and all too rare in a TV world in which series sometimes spin irredeemably out of control, but good time-travel telling - in books, short stories, movies, comic books, or any realm.

Well said, Paul. I can understand how science fiction purists would not want to classify Heroes as true science fiction, as there is no real scientific basis for genetic mutation bestowing superpowers on individuals--by the same criteria, Star Wars is not really science fiction, by the way, and purists see it as more like a fairytale. Heroes owes much to the world of myth, including the archetype of the hero's journey that Hiro repeatedly invokes, and many have said that superhero comicbooks come across as a modern mythology.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn't note the importance of a good villain. In this case, it's been Sylar, not a classic supervillain type, but rather a serial killer who gains the powers of those he kills. As played by Zachary Quinto, I find the character vaguely reminiscent of the Anthony Perkins character, Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho--not surprisingly, Sylar at one point goes home to mother, and ends up killing her. The fact that he is also a watchmaker is perhaps a reference to the debate between those who deny evolution in favor of intelligent design, arguing that life, the universe, and everything is like a fine watch (the clockwork metaphor for the universe was associated with physicist and occultist Sir Isaac Newton actually), as opposed to the scientific point of view which sees nothing more than the work of a blind watchmaker (to use the famous biologist and advocate for atheism, Richard Dawkins' favored phrase), that is, the result of natural physical laws and self-organizing systems. So, as the watchmaker, he is from the start opposed to the evolutionists, but also abandons that occupation, and therefore faith and morality, in favor of forcing a survival of the fittest Darwinian conflict. Additionally, my guess is that the watchmaker element is also a reference to The Watchmen graphic novel, written by Alan Moore, generally considered the best work ever done in the superhero genre, in any medium.

Sylar is not the only bad guy in the series, and Heroes gives us one of the all-time best in this sort of role, Malcom McDowell as the powerful and manipulative mobster, Mr. Linderman. Even though I have seen him play the villain over and over again, I just never get tired of him, although I will always associate him with the wild youth Alex from the brilliant Kubrick film, Clockwork Orange.

The season concluded with a final battle that some found disappointing, but the series is not about brawls and duels, it's about journeys. As such, the last scene is the first scene of the next season, the beginning of an entirely new story. We have a satisfying conclusion, but mysteries remain. Sylar was killed, it seemed, but there is no body, he appears to have crawled down into the sewers (where he belongs), and in good comicbook fashion we can expect that he'll be back. There was mention of a villain even more frightening then him, who we no doubt will see next season. There's a shadowy organization, the one that Noah Bennet used to work for, that's still after these extraordinary individuals. Matt Parkman appears to be in critical condition, but will no doubt recover and rejoin the others. Angela Petrelli is still around, and will be angry about the loss of her sons, and may seek revenge. But Peter Petrelli should have survived the blast up in the sky, and for all we know Nathan may have somehow made it as well. Mr. Linderman might also be back, since he has healing abilities as well, but I think it much less likely that Isaac Mendez or D. L. Hawkins will return.

And Mohinder Suresh will continue to find new mutants to bring into the fold. There is clear potential here for keeping the series fresh and exciting for many years to come, but for now its kudos to Heroes for a journey well begun.