In Defense of Long-Form Storytelling
Or: How the TV Show LOST Hurt Me & I Want to Grow Up to be Everything it Wasn't
I was a double-major in college. That meant I spent half my time making movies with film nerds, and the other half hob-knobbing over Luther and Calvin with Bible nerds. I found myself perpetually on the conservative side of arguments with my liberal film buddies. I recall having a conversation in which the argument being made was that new ideas/new stuff in art is always good, no matter what that content is. That pigtails nicely with the thesis of a book I once skimmed about Asian Horror. The idea was, and surely I'm recalling this incorrectly and thus butchering it, that Buddhist philosophy believes that all knowledge is valuable, no matter what it is knowledge of. It therefore stands to reason that the sickest, most perverted thing you can think up is universally good to conjure up onto celluloid. I once watched a film in this genre which culminated with the birth of a fully grown man, the birthing process shown in all its insipid, detailed glory. I don't feel better for having seen that. Then accordingly, on the flip side of my life, sitting in on a lecture in Pauline theology, I found myself often defending the virtues of movies like “Equus” which my fellow Bible bullies insisted was a part of the vast moral decay of our civilization.
Having had the opportunity to be juxtaposed between the two extremes of art appreciation, I came to a perhaps solemn conclusion. People intake fiction (be it movies, books, or podcasts) for one of two reasons. At their gooey center, they either:
- want to be entertained, or
- they desire understanding.
I fall pretty succinctly into the latter category. I want understanding.
But not general understanding. I can learn about the causes and consequences of the Armenian genocide by reading about it on wikipedia. I don't need to listen to every System of a Down album to comprehend it. That being said, if we use the events of the Armenian genocide by the Young Turks in the first decades of the 2oth century to look beyond the mere situation --- to look out over existence as a whole, then we're starting to get somewhere. Armenian genocide is re-jiggered as an analogy by which we can come to understand what life is.
All of it.
I'm operating daily and writing this essay with a presupposition that you may not carry.
That presupposition is as follows:
Existence is a mystery.
If we were to make a movie of history, how could it be anything but a mystery? I realize that while this seems self-evident to me, it may not to you.
The mystery begins here: Why is there something instead of nothing?
Something implies motive.
And where there's a motive, there's a mystery to be solved.
That's why, when LOST premiered in the fall season of 2004, I was enthralled. Up until its denouement six and a half years later, you'd find no grander apologist for the show than I. Time-travel, disappearing islands, magical rivers, resurrected bodies (but not identities), overly redundant father-issues --- I was willing to overlook it all, because LOST was daring to do something that none of you rats-in-a-cage ever dreamed about; it was trying to pass on understanding about the essence and mystery of LIFE.
Unfortunately, the creators of LOST ended up shrugging their shoulders and denying that this was what the show ultimately was about. They hid behind their supposedly sufficient character arcs and said,
“Fine is fine, we're done here.”
Here's why LOST had the opportunity to be transcendent, the best of artistic expressions: it made all of reality a mystery. You throw people on an island, make weird stuff happen on said island, and just like that – BANG! – you've a got a formula that rips the veil off our eyes.
We walk around, drive around, diddy around this world as if it all makes sense. No. Wrong. It doesn't. Life doesn't make sense. That's what makes it beautiful. And intoxicating. And heinous.
We fight wars, we die, we laugh: all because we're not too sure what to do. We convince ourselves (or are convinced, depending on your religious affiliation) that we have good reasons for doing the things we do. But without an answer to the biggest question, why is there something instead of nothing?, we're just taking our best guess in the dark as to where the light switch is.
That's why art is important... and good.
Enter long-form storytelling.
It is the greatest of artistic endeavors because its scope and berth is widest. The Armenian genocide might make a great analogy for coming to terms with the existence of evil, sure, but add to it 3-dimensional characters, money, power, and a thousand other elements worthy of analogy-zation, and you've now layered your art, created texture, so as to have a better chance at finding a means by which to grapple with, wrestle, actually throw punches and fight – the true mystery of the universe.
Listen, humans have been marching around trying to figure out life for thousands of years. Until the story's over, it ain't gonna happen. We're not going to solve it.
But we still have a duty to ourselves and each other to fight, to wrestle, to try a million different ways to solve the puzzle.
Details are only important if they inform us of the shape and function of the whole.
Details are only important if they help us understand the whole.
Details are only important if we want to know what the details are attached to (read: the whole).
All that being said, details are all we got. So we use them to try to see the whole.
We have to.
I hate LOST. But at least it tried. At least it did that much.
Let's keep trying.
Postscript note: I say we're grappling in the dark – theists will probably disagree with me on this point. I implore them, however, to admit that God's motives (for creation, for allowing sin/evil, for creating moral laws) remain a mystery. Without his motives understood, the game is still in play, the mystery still employed.