Monday, May 24, 2010

The Impact Of Resolution

I understand that Lost has finally ended. It's a non-event to me since I think I've seen a total of one half of one episode ever. But a lot of people have watched over the past six years and were anxiously awaiting a finale that answers all sorts of questions. I have no idea what those questions may have been, but my Twitter stream suggests that not everyone was entirely happy with the ending. I've seen the claim, too, that some people are justifying the quality of the resolution because the alternative would be to admit that they've wasted six years of watching the show.

As I said, I haven't seen the show so I can't comment on the finale, much less whether or not it was "worth it." But I do find it curious that some of the people making these arguments are comic book readers. Because, in the most common form of comic books available, there is no ending. It's the "never-ending battle for truth and justice." How many characters have outright died, only to have their comic book continue on while they're dead? Or depowered? Or split-up? I distinctly recall coming to grips with the marketing hyperbole Marvel (and comics in general) used when I picked up Fantastic Four #191, which was all about the dissolution of the team. See, I had picked the book up as a back issue and knew that they'd return to the old status quo inside of ten issues. There was no "ending" per se; it was all about getting the characters to run in perpetual circles. Fighting the same three or four battles over and over again.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking Marvel here or the superhero genre or anything. I continued on as a devout follower of Fantastic Four and many other Marvel titles for around two decades after I came to that conclusion. But I knew that, for all the hype, Superman wasn't going to stay dead. Peter Parker wasn't going to remain out of the Spider-Man costume. Batman was going to fully recover from a broken spine. Bruce Banner would always be attached to/burdened by the Hulk, regardless of what color he might be. Stuff happens, there's conflict, and you reset to where you were before the stuff happened. That's how "mainstream" comics work.

I used to use this as a point of distinction between myself and my ex-wife. Whereas I grew up reading comics, she grew up reading fantasy prose. Similarly, I looked at life as a series of ongoing struggles that will keep coming in perpetuity while she thought that there should be a "happily ever after." Which, of course, there never is. Because, even if you do get comfortable and settled and have your house with the picket fence and your 2.5 kids or whatever, shit happens that is completely outside your control. Some of it is just annoying (somebody breaks your tail light in the parking lot) and some of it is devastating (a tornado rips through your house). But there will be drama of some sort because that's what life is!

Alfred Hitchcock: "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."

So, if comic fans, then are so used to this never-ending battle, why would there be even the slightest hint of disappointment if Lost doesn't solve everything. One of the most honest TV show finales I've ever seen was that of Cheers which ended with a very deliberate "We'll all always be here" message to the audience. Which they are! A new show hasn't been made in almost twenty years, but you can still find the show in syndication or pick up a copy of one of the DVDs. You can tune in to any episode and essentially pick up right where you left off: just another day in the bar.

Now, admittedly, Lost, with one long cohesive story, had a very different structure than Cheers, a series of short stories that were largely interchangeable. But my point is this: the story is NEVER over. It's NEVER tied up with a handy bow with every plot twist and character aberration explained in full. And comic fans should be used to that.

Even in the case of someone's favorite C-list title that's canceled before it's found it's audience, the story will go on. Either formally -- with other creators picking up on character and plot points years down the road (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8) -- or informally -- with fans creating their own fanfic or continuing to expound on theories through message boards or whatever (see: any of a zillion Star Wars fan pieces).

So regardless of the resolution(s) in Lost, the issue of whether or not the finale was "worth it" is really a moot point. Because it's not over. it's just another one of those never-ending stories that are part and parcel for storytelling in the 21st century. TV, movies, comics, video games, fanfic... it all blurs together into a collective world built by a wide range of creators.

Including the audience itself!

Which means that a story's resolution -- not necessarily the finale, but the resolution -- is up to the audience. Think of Scott McCloud's contention of closure within comics. The audience is going to take what they see in the parting shots (whether we're talking comics or TV or whatever) and interpret them as it makes the most sense to them! Which is why Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is a radically different story than Jack Kirby's 2001. Kirby got something out of the movie that many (most?) people did not. That's not necessarily good or bad, but that's just how it is. (Think back to your Psych 101 class and recall David Berlo.)

Where does that leave us? That leaves us with the question we should ask of any story: is it worth reading? And for all the work a creator puts into it, and for however well-reviewed the final product is, it boils down to this: you can get out of it what you put into it. I've taken to heart some great messages out of really lousy stories and I've hated others that garner widespread popular acclaim. If somebody asks me, "Is it worth it?" I'll reply what I think about it, but then turn the question back on them: "But what do YOU think?"

1 comment:

Matt K said...

Hm, I think there's probably a worthwhile difference to be noted between surprise at a limited resolution in Lost's ending, and criticism of it.

Surprise, yes that seems rather dubious. Never mind comic fans, most people who watched Lost but have never picked up a comic should still have expected a disappointing ending, from the perspective of wrapping things up. There are probably various other examples, but The X-Files alone should have made it clear what to expect.

A series that runs over years and drapes itself in layer after layer of mystery is highly unlikely to have any real, complete answer behind it. The odds of resolution, in that sense, are probably actually better in comics than in TV because you might have a smaller number of people writing a comic series over a several year period than a TV series.

With so many people involved, and no certainty of how long the show will last, they're making it up as they go along. After a few years of that it's effectively impossible to satisfactory resolve the mysteries.

But I do think that the idea of resolution isn't as invalid as you suggest; there are degrees here.

Robinson's Starman series, for example, had a resolution. It didn't explicitly spell out an explanation for anything anyone might have ever had a question about. But the major mysteries and plot threads were all pretty much taken care of. Characters went on, the story may not have been "over" in the sense that you suggest is impossible, but there was a genuine, honest "ending."

Now, I've never seen Lost, but as noted I'm willing to bet that those who did should have realized that they weren't going to get an "ending" like that. But I think it's fair, at the least, for critics to note that stories can be ended with significantly more resolution than Lost, from what I can tell, offered.