Lost in Translation: "Sundown," "Ab Aeterno" & "The Package"

Posted by Charles Reece, April 4, 2010 10:13pm | Post a Comment

A subjectivist would say that evil, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. However, cross-cultural psychology tells us that beauty preferences for bodily proportions remain pretty consistent across cultures -- e.g., the alignment of eyes to the nose or the ratio of hips to waist to bust might differ in our preference for how big or small the body parts, but percentage-wise, the preferred numbers are statistically close. Is the subjectivist also similarly wrong about evil?

In "The Package," the latest episode of Lost, having been captured by Whitmore's team, Jin turns on a brainwashing video in the cell where he's held. Along with the psychedelic montage are two inscriptions: "we are the causes of our own suffering" and "everything changes." Both respectively comment on two of the show's main themes, the nature of evil and determinism. Given that the narrative relies so heavily on fate and time travel, where the present has been determined by the actions of characters shifted into the past, we viewers should read irony into the Heraclitean message that you can never step into the same river twice. As is taking shape in the alternative timeline, the river might look different in the particulars, but it's always leading to the same place. Likewise, a grain of salt should be applied to the other message suggesting a subjectivist determination of evil. 

If memory serves, the video is the same one that was forced on Alex's boyfriend, Karl, by the Others (then led by Ben). Thus, it was either created by them, or they appropriated a DHARMA Initiative's video for their own purpose (since the room was definitely created by DHARMA). Either way, there was a good reason for the Others to use the video on a wayward member, to repress any suspicion that much suffering has been wrought by Jacob's will (and, of course, Ben's wish to punish the boy for dating his adopted daughter). Jacob pays a lot of lip service to free will, such as when he meets Richard for the first time in a flashback sequence of "Ab Aeterno." Just before offering a Richard a job as his liaison, he explains his purpose in bringing all the people to the island is to prove to the Nemesis that they can freely choose to do the right thing. However, the right thing isn't freely chosen by Jacob's candidates, but by the dictates of the island and/or Jacob. Thus, however justified the suffering of those who find themselves on the island might or might not be, one thing is certain, the evil effect isn't subjectively determined. What remains for the characters, as with the audience, is to determine the true nature of evil.

Since the last time I blogged about the show, I've been happy to discover that it hasn't gone the route of a dualistic struggle between good and evil. Sure, it continues to play with the iconography of a Star Wars metaphysics (black and white, two teams, etc.), but I think the writers have shown enough of their hand that the audience can be assured the moral outcome isn't going to be so simplistic. Take, for example, the parallel that's been drawn between the bargains proffered by Jacob and the Nemesis. As the personally chosen representative of Jacob and protector of the Temple, in "Sundown" Dogen offers the resurrected Sayid a chance to redeem himself and prove his goodness by killing UnLocke (the Nemesis) with a sacred dagger (sacred because it continues to get passed between the two island deities through the ages).

Using Jacob's typical rhetorical technique, Dogen only tells Sayid enough to get him to do the task at hand. It is hardly indicative of someone who respects the will of another, but rather the work of a satanic trickster. No mention is made of the likelihood that the dagger will have no effect on UnLocke -- and it doesn't. Furthermore, Dogen insists that Sayid must strike before UnLocke says anything, effectively robbing the opponent of any chance to prove his humanity to the contrary of his being characterized as "evil incarnate" (possibly another of Dogen's deceptions, since the Nemesis has been robbed of his body). On the other side, the Nemesis (as the Man in Black) gets Richard to go after Jacob with the dagger by tricking him into thinking the latter is the devil ("Ab Aeterna"). Richard is convinced he's in hell for killing a doctor, and due to the Nemesis' machinations, the only way to free himself and his wife is to kill Satan. Once again, the blow is to be dealt before the opponent has a chance to speak. Thus, the Nemesis has no more regard for a man's right of self-determination than Jacob. These methods suggest that the only good that will come out of following either Jacob or UnLocke is a utilitarian ratio where the final good outweighs all the evil means.

Having failed to kill UnLocke, Sayid makes a Faustian bargain to help the former infiltrate the Temple if he will bring the latter's dead wife back. Certainly, UnLocke makes a better argument for killing Dogen than the latter did in reverse. Would anyone else be convinced by "if you want to be good, kill this guy, no questions asked?" UnLocke gives a biblical choice to the Temple residents, either follow him or die. And a lot of them are murdered.

Jacob's temptation for Richard isn't all that different from Sayid's. He wants his wife back. No can do, says Jacob. Well, how about absolution? Nope. Alright, how about eternal life, so he'll never have to face eternal punishment? Jacob grants him that with a touch. In return, Richard helps line up candidates and followers for the next century and a half in whatever plan Jacob and the island have in place. As we've seen, and as Jacob explains, a lot of people have suffered and/or died for not having properly followed this agenda. Just like with UnLocke, either follow him or suffer the consequences. For their respective service, Sayid loses his emotional ties to his humanity and Richard loses any sense of purpose. The latter is brought back into Jacob's fold through Hurley communing with Isabella, Richard's dead wife. Keeping in mind that Jack once saw his dead father off the island where the Nemesis cannot be, it's posible that Jacob can impersonate dead people, too. Additionally, we never see "Isabella" actually telling Hurley to pass along the message to Richard that he must stop UnLocke from getting off the island. It might be that all of Hurley's ability as a medium is more of Jacob's shenanigans.

Jack has now found Locke's sense of purpose, but I'm betting on Sawyer's anarchic spirit. The latter has little concern for which side is correct or will win the game, and is more committed to playing them against each other for the sole purpose of getting himself and his friends off the island. Ultimately, the evil seems to be island bureaucracy. On the other hand, the possibility of freely choosing to go against the island's game has been severely undermined with all the deterministic courses everyone is on. Whatever, a Hollywood happy ending ain't likely. And I have no idea how the DHARMA Initiative fits into all of this (but it probably started with the owner of the Black Rock, Magnus Hanso -- was he on the ship?), or why Ben and Whitmore have to play by similar rules to those guiding Jacob and his Nemesis. 

Knowing is Half the Battle: Knowing (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, January 10, 2010 09:42am | Post a Comment

Having a blu-ray player finds me watching some stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise, because there's a limited amount of quality features available to the format (about 20 titles at last count). Alex ProyasKnowing is one such example of techno-fetishism overwhelming my aesthetic expectation. Roger Ebert really liked it, but he was about the only one. As The Crow and Dark City showed, Proyas has something of a singular vision -- although I'm not quite sure what it is, but it probably appeals to James O'Barr's decaying Goth fiefdom back in Detroit. Lots of confusion and brooding, this time with Nicholas Cage. He's an astrophysicist who discovers a code in a string of numbers that his son brings home from school. It was written by a little girl 50 years ago and buried in the elementary school's time capsule. As it turns out, the numbers predicted the time and place of every major and not so major catastrophe over the intervening years since its burial with only a few dates still pending.

Cage lost his wife in an accident and now believes there's no meaningful order to the world (scientists are never allowed to come to a viewpoint through reason, only by emotion in this type of film). As he explains during a lecture, everything's either deterministic or chaotic (ignoring the deterministic equations of Chaos Theory). That's not a very sophisticated metaphysics, but makes it easy to follow the intended message of the movie. According to Cage's physicist, a meaningful existence can only come from a preordained order, in which all events were determined at the outset of creation. He surmised after his wife's death that since it was for no purpose, everything must be random. Thus, discovering a code which predicts all these tragedies helps to restore his faith in the great plan and that there's a meaningful narrative to his life and her death.

spoilers ahead!

With the new agey, self help Christianity that tends to get promoted these days, I give the film credit for being unabashedly Calvinist and for making angels coldblooded enforcers of Divine Providence, but it's a screwy way to restore a man's faith in existential purpose. Knowing comes down to three doctrines of Calvinism: (1) total depravity -- the final prediction is that the whole world will burn, with everyone, both those we mortals might call good and evil, going up with it; (2) unconditional election -- a few children, including Cage's boy, are selected by the angels to be taken away in their spaceship, but not based on anything anyone's done; and (3) predestination -- as already mentioned, all of this had to happen, like the total of adding numbers on a calculator. What could make for a more arbitrary life than that? He's a variable in someone else's equation. Irrespective of what Cage might do or has done, he's going to be punished for simply being born into original sin. His son, but not him, is selected for salvation for no apparent reason, certainly not based on agency or some purpose -- all just because Divine Will has decided it so. This is order without any personal meaning. It's all been arbitrarily chosen by something else, which is exactly where Cage's despondency began. Only at the end, he's supposed to be feeling some sort of redemption. The "randomness" or "chaos" is still with him, but it's been displaced to the Divine Agency that's calling all the shots. Good thing the Earth is incinerated before he realizes it.