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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Media usually works on us in subtle, gradual ways. We hear a jingle so many times that it gets stuck in our head, and over time we become convinced that Oscar Mayer wieners are a superior brand. We watch 100 episodes of "Friends" and, after a while, start to actually believe that our lives should also be that easy and frivolous. Ultimately,  the things we see and hear on TV can affect how we feel about ourselves, our goals, our lives -but it happens so slowly and imperceptibly that we usually don't recognize it.

But, there are also those media moments that transform us instantly. Many people around my age talk about this happening when they saw Star Wars for the first time, as young children. The world, after they left the theater, somehow looked different, more exciting and more alive, and full of more potential, than when they had walked in.

And in the movie, Almost Famous, there's a terrific scene near the beginning of the film, just after young William's sister leaves home. She tells him to check for something she's left him under the bed, and he finds a satchel full of her vinyl record albums. He sits, awed and open-mouthed, running his fingers over Led Zeppelin II, Wheels of Fire, and Axis Bold as Love as if they are holy relics. She also leaves him a note scribbled on a slip of notebook paper: "Listen to 'Tommy' with a candle burning and you'll see your entire future." And there's no question that young William's life will never be the same.

My "Almost Famous" moment happened in 1983, courtesy of MTV - back when MTV actually used to play music! Now, I had, of course, heard of Bruce Springsteen before. I'd heard "Born to Run" and "Hungry Heart" on the radio, but at the time I kind of lumped Bruce into the same category as other radio-friendly bands, like the Cars and REO Speedwagon (as embarrassing as that is to admit). Anyhow, one afternoon Martha Quinn introduced a "new" (actually recorded in 1978, on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour) Bruce Springsteen video. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. The music, the performance, the audience frenzy, the girls mobbing Bruce onstage, were so over the top, so thrilling, that I couldn't  keep my mind on anything else. For weeks, I'd camp next to the television, waiting for the next time they'd play Rosalita.

Not only is Rosalita a fantastic song, but this performance also captures, absolutely, everything that makes Springsteen great. Springsteen is unabashedly melodramatic, beyond the point of corniness, yet at the same time completely cool. The only way he pulls this off is by being 100% committed to his music, his performance, and the spirit that inspired it. And in indulging so completely himself, it gives the rest of us permission to lose ourselves in the music, as well.

As an awkward 9th grader struggling with my image, this video suddenly opened my eyes to my own potential possibilities. Bruce Springsteen was cool and I wasn't, but listening to (and vicariously living) his music made me instantly feel more worldly, more adult, more hip. My friends had regular names like Mike, Ted, and Cathy. Springsteen's characters were much more colorful: Jack the Rabbit, Weak-kneed Willy, and Big Bones Billy. Even the people in his real-life band were larger than life - the Professor, the Mighty Max, and of course, the Big Man. I longed for the boldness and wit to have sidekicks with such monikers.

More specifically, this video set in motion the chain of events that led me to start playing the guitar. Socially, I was too awkward to express myself in words. Rock music and the guitar gave me a way to do so with much more confidence and assurance, and helped me to find my real personality as an adult. Over the years, I've taken one very important cue from Rosalita - to put every ounce of energy into every performance, to get lost in the music and the message, and to forget about how I was perceived. That's a tough lesson to learn, but Rosalita was a great teacher.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Fonz's Ravioli (AKA "15 Great Things About "Lost" - Thing #2")

When I was in elementary school, Happy Days was my favorite prime-time show. With its then-unusual teaming of "nerdy" characters like Ralph and Potsie with the "all-American" Richie and the almighty Fonz (as corny as his character may seem in retrospect, he was very edgy and cool at the time), the show in its early years offered plenty potential for brilliant comedic situations. When you tuned into the show, you expected to laugh, and to be entertained in a very lighthearted, easy manner.

But there's one classic Christmas episode that stands out as one of the greatest Happy Days moments of all because it unexpectedly breaks from its established tonal pattern. The show begins with the Cunninghams celebrating Christmas Eve by decorating the tree in their living room. Mr. C grumbles that he just wants to have a quiet holiday at home with his family and no outsiders. But when the mechanical Santa on their front lawn goes on the fritz, Richie and his dad drive out to Fonz's garage, and see the "greaser" sitting alone in the dark, eating cold ravioli from a can. Contrasting with the show's dominant comedic tone and the Fonz's ultra-cool demeanor, this scene immediately establishes itself as a classic - touching, poignant, and real.

So, what does this all have to do with "Lost"? In my last post, I discussed the importance of ambiguity in the series, and in art in general. If ambiguity is an element that appeals to us intellectually; a story's ability to shift quickly and abruptly between moods and tones is its emotional analogue. Happy Days pulled off a remarkable moment with "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas," but "Lost" regularly navigates similar emotional extremes with shocking abruptness.

One of my personal favorite episodes is season 5's "Some Like it Hoth,"  which combines so many things I love: time travel, the 1970's, Star Wars. While driving around in the Dharma van, Hurley presses Miles about his relationship with his father; Miles insists that his dad was no good - he didn't care about him, and basically abandoned his family. Hurley, who is in the process of "pre-writing" "The Empire Strikes Back" (with a few improvements), lightens the mood by joking about how Miles should take advantage of time travel to "experience changing his own diaper." Suddenly, against this backdrop of light banter and camaraderie, the show drops one of its emotional bombs: while walking through Dharmaville to deliver a "package," Miles peers through the window of the house where he was born, and witnesses his father joyfully reading a storybook to his infant incarnation. I remember the first time I watched this episode: the moment was so touching, so unexpected, and contrasted so startlingly with the previously established mood, that I felt emotionally exposed. Damn "Lost," I thought - they got me again.

And that wouldn't be the last time that the show would surprise me. The funeral of the actual John Locke was a heartbreaking moment - some even saw it as evidence that Locke's faith had amounted to nothing - and Ben's surprisingly honest confession added to the poignancy of the scene. I'll admit that I got choked up at this point - and seconds later laughing out loud at Lapidus' "This is the weirdest damn funeral I've ever been to" comment. And the moment after that, I paused the DVD to take a moment and appreciate just what an incredible show "Lost" is because of these emotional mousetraps it springs on the audience.

One thing is for sure about "Lost" - you never knew what you would experience next. I'm still waiting for the deleted scene where Jim La Fleur watches the Fonz eating ravioli on his Dharmaville TV set...