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“Miracles, viruses, plane crashes and acts of terror perpetrated by a group of ‘Others’”. How far does ‘LOST’ reflect the changing attitudes of post 9/11 American Society?

Rekuss April 25, 2009 User blog:Rekuss

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Hey, just thought I'd share my A-level media studies coursework. We would told we could study anything we wished, as a LOST-geek I couldn't resist.

Just a heads up, I don't believe LOST is all about 9-11, just a running theme.

Your comments would be much appreciated...

ENJOY!

“Miracles, viruses, plane crashes and acts of terror perpetrated by a group of ‘Others’” (Wood)

How far does ‘LOST’ reflect the changing attitudes of post 9/11 American Society?

At the 2005 Hawaii International Film Festival, Jack Bender, the director of ‘LOST’, was questioned as to why ‘LOST’ had proved such a success. He retorted that it was simply ‘right on the pulse of people’s concerns and desires. It’s the right time in the world for this show’. Bender is not just simply attributing the show’s success to an effective advertising campaign or the fact that it has an attractive cast, he claims that the show speaks directly to its audience, psychodynamically. He believes the audience can truly relate to and understand the survivors’ current feelings. This is in part due to the strong narrative parallels ‘LOST’ has with the disastrous events of 9/11. ‘LOST’ first aired on ABC in September 2004 and since then it has been broadcast around the world to huge acclaim. Created by ‘Alias’ mastermind J.J. Abrams, self-confessed comic book fans Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the basic premise of the hit TV show is that a commercial aeroplane mysteriously crashes on what seems to be a deserted tropical island. Remarkably, there are very few fatalities, however, it is not long before they realise they are not going to be rescued and that there is something more sinister going on. Various enigmas such as the strange distress calls, the polar bears, the ‘monster’ and the unknown ‘Others’ thicken the plot. As the survivors not only try to adjust to their new life, they must also deal with the threat posed by the island and all its secrets; the programme has literally given science-fiction a new definition. With its unique blend of fiction and reality, this hybrid genre of science-fiction and drama appeals to audiences of varying demographics as everyone can immerse themselves into the ‘LOST’ universe.

To draw any sort of argument that ‘LOST’ represents post 9/11 America, one has to see how closely related the narrative is to our own 9/11 narrative. The plane crash on the island draws clear links to the terrorist acts on the World Trade Centres. In the very first episode (‘Pilot’), the first image the audience sees is an extreme close up of an eyelid which abruptly opens to see the pupil dilate. This can be seen as ‘sucking’ in the audience and holding their attention for the roller-coaster scene that follows. On zooming out we see it is a man lying, bewildered on the floor of what looks like a jungle, however the mise-en-scene of the jungle juxtaposes with what the man is wearing: funeral attire. Additionally, the camera disorients the viewer as there is a mixture of crane, canted and psychoanalytic shots. The camera becomes our eyes at one point, and the audience find themselves on the ground looking directly up at the trees. These ‘environmental juxtapositions’ and acts of camera ‘trickery’, literally make the audience feel ‘lost’ and uneasy, thus representing what the character is feeling. When the character, Jack, gets to his feet, the camera focuses the audience’s attention on him slipping his hand into his jacket to revealing a small bottle of vodka. The audience is curious as to why there has been so much emphasis on the bottle of alcohol. Is he drunk? Has he been drinking and collapsed through too much alcohol? The scene raises so many questions that the audience want answered. The audience will try and identify its genre instantly to alleviate their unease; however this is not so simple. Instead, the enigmas grab the audience’s attention within the first thirty seconds as the viewers are keen to find out what is going on. As Jack runs through the bamboo, non-diegetic eerie music starts to swell up which mirrors the a ‘climax point’; when he bursts through the bushes triumphantly and heroic. The medium shot enables the audience to recognise that this is the main character and that he is the alpha male. The smart suit coupled with the loose tie gives him a ‘Mr. Cool’ persona, and the shaven head connotes strength and dominance. One could argue that this is America’s representation to world; strong, cool, dominant. Another psychoanalytic-pan shot from the point of view of Jack, establishes the location to the audience; a beautiful beach with a deep blue sea. However as the camera pans round, the audience is further confused by Jack now being on the viewer’s right hand side, no longer the eyes of the audience. Furthermore, in conjunction with the pan, whirs of mechanical failure and screams of distress and gradually faded in. What then ensues is a fast sequence of falling debris, flaming engines and destruction. Total Hollywood style. The sensory overload of visuals and sound completely disorients the viewer. Enabling the viewer to get a sense of what the survivors are feeling but also invoking feelings from September 11th.

Much like the ‘LOST’ opening scenes, the events of 9/11 were what the American people were waking up to on the morning of 9/11. New York was its busy, but normal self, only to be matched with an act of violence that only an action film could match. The pain and suffering that the people who were trapped in the Twin Towers experienced is represented by the man whose leg was crushed by the wing of the plane: he looks directly at the camera with his arm out stretched begging the audience for help. Furthermore, the collectivist behaviour of everyone trying to help each other could be interpreted as representing the emergency services and ordinary citizens trying to save people in ‘wreckage’, as it were. Irrespective of the aforementioned interpretation, one could argue that the scene represents Marxist ideologies. It in its portrayal: it is Jack, the only man in a suit (representing capitalism and the bourgeoisie) commanding everyone else (the proletariat) to do things, such as when Hurley is instructed to look after pregnant Claire, he does not even question Jack. This could be interpreted as the writers of the show criticising the capitalist society of America and it’s culturally imperialist position in the global community. Perhaps it is urging its viewers to stand up and question the authority and not simply believe the passive hegemonic messages of the government. Additionally, the strong emphasis on Jack, helps the audience indentify who the ‘group leader’ and main character of the series is. Establishing the main characters early on in such a large series is vital.

In the same opening scene, Jack is seen stood still amongst total carnage and destruction. The camera, in a circular motion, features survivors from many different ethnic groups. This broad cross section comments on how acts of terror have affected cultures all around the world around and how America is right in the middle of it all. Cities such as London, Madrid, Moscow, Bali and more have all experienced acts of terror. Since 9/11, there have been over 110 acts of terror against the public. Bender said that ‘the island is the life they are living now, and that’s true for all of us’. Much like how the survivors have to adjust to their new lives on the island, the people of the world have to adjust to their new way of life of trying to deal with the threat of terrorist attacks. As they try to rebuild their lives on the island, they have to learn how to live and trust each other. However this is not all that easy, each character has a murky past, they all have something they are trying to hide. It doesn’t take long for the masses to turn to a leader for guidance as they are truly ‘lost’. This search for a hero is paralleled in reality. The citizens of America and the other counties that fell victim to terrorist attacks, were in desperate need for guidance and support. As Jack took charge of the group, he claimed “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone” (Episode 5-‘White Rabbit’). This could be interpreted as the show’s creators urging everyone to work together in this ‘dark time’ to combat the threat of terrorism. The further paranoia and lack of trust of the survivors towards each other adds to a ‘twinning’ theme that is very prominent in the early seasons.

‘Lost’ captivates it’s audience because it contains and gives shape to our “concerns and desires”. The survivors act as a stand for the audience, this allows the programme to tap into the fears that have arisen since 9/11 and tackle them, in a parallel context. This provides a much needed relief and gives hope to the audience that at some point this may all come to an end. Jacques Lucan’s psychoanalytic ‘Mirror Stage’ theory, provides an explanation as to why audiences can obtain/receive relief from watching programs such as ‘Lost’ in these dark times. Lucan’s theory suggests that at an early age we first learn our own sense of identity by viewing ourselves through a mirror, this enables us to make a distinction between reality and the imaginary. The TV ‘acts’ as the mirror, to which the audience are watching themselves (in the form of the survivors) on the screen dealing with daunting tasks in a time of unknown fear and terror. The show invokes fears such as paranoia, xenophobia and doubt in authority and each other through the characters. The infiltration of the mysterious ‘others’ exploits the fear of ‘home-grown terrorism’. For example, Richard Reid, the British born and raised ‘Shoe Bomber’ that attempted to detonate a bomb mid-air, on a commercial aeroplane was totally unexpected. No one thought a member of the perceived ‘in-group’ that would attempt to attack the west, in the name of an eastern religion.

The show is so ‘addictive’, as it seems to speak directly to the audience and addresses these fears and concerns. Not head-on like ‘24’, but more in the subtle, subliminal almost, way of the comedy ‘Laugh-In’ which provided similar relief to masses whilst the Vietnam war was at its height. The citizens of America are stuck in a state of unconscious distress because they do not have a clear ‘view’ on what they are actually supposed to be scared off. The words ‘terrorist’, ‘biological warfare’ and ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ instantly come to mind, but when asked to delve deeper into what these could materialise themselves in, we just simply do not know. In essence, it exploits one of the most primeval emotions: fear. ‘Lost’ provides a release by giving shape to these threats which helps the audience attempt to form some resolution towards these fears. One could also apply Noel Carroll’s Horror narrative theory to the hybrid genre that is ‘LOST’. Carroll states that the narrative revolves around proving, disclosing, discovering and confirming the existence of something this impossible. This can be applied to both the narrative that unfolds in the supernatural ‘LOST’ universe but also in our own reality. The citizens of America had never experienced terrorism at home on American soil before, they could not comprehend what had happened to them; it seemed impossible that they could be attacked. The American people had held the belief that they were ‘culturally superior’. In accordance to Lucan’s theory, ‘LOST’ mirrors what is happening in reality, but displaces the actual threats into science fiction enigmas.

One may also comment on how ‘Lost’ represents America’s once ‘cultural imperialist’ stance in the global community and it’s now threatened ‘impotence’ and grip on its influence upon the world. America is seen as the world’s protectors and peace keepers. They are the super-power that is supposedly impenetrable and undefeatable. However, the events of 9-11 made America a paranoid and insecure nation, and loosened their ‘grip’ on the world. This ‘cultural impotence’ is epitomised in the season 2 finale ‘Live together, Die alone’. The survivors are gagged and bound on a dock and surrounded by ‘others’ with rustic looking rifles. It is also vital to note that the ‘others’ are dressed in worn and primitive looking clothing. By the camera positioning the audience at eye-level with the restrained survivors on their knees, whilst being surrounded by the ‘others’, the audience can truly relate to the survivor’s feelings because the audience can identify with the situation the characters are in, as America did not know who their actual enemy was, this made it hard for them to organise an attack and a defence against the perpetrators. Moreover, one could argue that the scene symbolises how America were vulnerable to external and internal threats. The survivors, who represent America, are surrounded by these ‘terrorists’ who are in complete control. When Jack, Kate and Sawyer are dragged up on to their feet, they give each other a deep, submitting glance. Sharing a universal understanding that they must yield to the ‘others’ for the time being. This makes the audience feel uncomfortable because their moral values are being upheld by the ‘survivors’, but the ‘others’ are forcefully imposing their moral codes on to the ‘survivors’. Furthermore, this could also represent how the citizens of America for the possibly the first time felt out of control. Instead of America ‘calling the shots’, it is another foreign ideology that is being imposed onto the masses.

Stuart Hall’s ‘Reception Theory’ explains why the audience can connect so much the characters in this scene. Hall believed that we interpret the meanings of texts through our own cultural experiences, thus the producers build a relationship between the text and it’s audience. This explains why the aforementioned scene was featured in the season finale. The audience’s emotions were fully engaged and exploited, thus the fears and nervous expectations were all brought to consciousness psychodynamically, because as a viewer we already roughly knew what was going to happen next due to our own real life experiences. Additionally, the ‘Carnival Theory’ can be applied to this scene: it is no longer the survivors, with their ‘cultured’ background and experiences that are in control, instead it is a group of ‘hermits’, who have imprisoned these survivors (the fact that they are American is worth noting). This mirrors the situation of 9-11. The western civilisations could not simply answer the question; how did these people from developing countries gain the intelligence to carry out such a large attack and why are we now scared to carry on doing our usual day to day activities?

Also the only ‘other’ that is clearly identified as a leader is ‘Ben Linus’. When applying this analogy to 9-11, one can easily draw parallels with the ‘others’ and the stereotyped Islamic terrorists. Just like we seem to be certain the Ben is the ‘other’s’ leader, we can conclude that Osama Bin Laden is the leader of the terrorist group that is responsible for the attacks. The striking similarity in names is not a mere coincidence! Subliminal-like similarities that ‘pepper’ the TV show help elicit the emotions of the audience. The current zeitgeist also enables the audience to clearly identify who the ‘bad guy’ is. Furthermore, the stereotypical Islamic terrorist wears robes and sports thick beards. Unsurprisingly, the ‘others’ dress similarly. Again, in ‘Live together, Die alone’ we see the ‘others’ wearing clothing that looks as if it’s been made out of animal hair, with a few having extremely thick facial hair. With the current zeitgeist we are in, simple references and similarities to 9-11 and it’s perpetrators, brings out the audience’s emotions, prejudices and angst, forcing them to take a indirect approach into tackling these xenophobic fears. Additionally, just how the Islamic extremists believe that they are doing the morally right thing, and that these extreme acts of brutally are a must for the benefit of everyone. The ‘Others’ seem to be following a similar, mirrored ideology. Despite kidnapping children, hanging people and wreaking havoc, they still believe that they are ‘the good guys’ (Ben-“Live Together, Die Alone), just like the terrorist believe they are the righteous ones. It is all a matter of perspective in our in/out group placement. Allport’s (1954) psychological research into groups found that in-group love and out-group hate are reciprocally related, due to ethnocentrism and in group bias. He also noted that the familiar is always preferred as what we believe to be ‘alien’ is seen as being inferior. Perhaps this could explain the west versus east-survivors versus others conflict? One group cannot get into the mind frame and accept the schemas of the other group.

The theme of racism and prejudice, plays a vital role in the character’s development of their new ‘life’ on the island. In ‘The Brig’, a washed up slave ship called ‘The Black Rock’ is the primary focus in the episode. The character Sawyer, is led to the ship to kill the man who killed his parents, which coincidently happened to be Locke’s manipulative father. As the two characters travel through the hull of the ship, a flash light becomes the audience’s eyes, as it were. Metz called this the ‘Psychoanalytic theory’; this is when camera becomes our eyes thus positioning the audience ‘in’ the action. As the characters proceed through the hull, the flash light illuminates chained slavers hanging from shackles. Also, intercut shots of high and low angled frames depicting Sawyer and Locke behind iron bars. This symbiosis of 19th century slavery transcends into representing the moral and psychological enslavement of the characters due to their prejudices and fears towards 9-11. The shackles have dual-semiotics. They represent how the western civilisation is now constrained by the threat of terrorism and that our perceived ‘freedom’ is being further blurred due to anti-terror legislation. The shackles also symbolise the character’s internal struggles with their past and how it has shaped their present. Jason Mittel describes these as ‘storytelling spectacles’ that create dramatic tension as they manipulate and expose character’s physical, social and psychological ‘shackles’.

Levi-Strauss’ binary oppositions of black and white are prevalent throughout ‘LOST’. As early as ‘Pilot’, John Locke establishes this theme. He describes Backgammon as being comprised of ‘two players, two sides, one is light, one is dark’ and that the dice was originally ‘made of bone’. This theme clearly deals with ‘good versus evil’ ideology. However, the analogy of Backgammon connotes the current conflict between the east and the west. The two players, in this case east/west are at conflicting ideologies. However, both believe they are doing the ‘right’ thing and that they are ‘good guys’. This conflict between two groups is represented between the ‘others’ and the ‘survivors’. In the season premiere of season three, ‘Tale of Two Cities’, portrayed the ‘others’ keeping the a few members of the ‘survivors’ prisoners in cages and underwater prisons. The cages give symbioses for the hatred and conflict between two ideologies, but it gives the difference in two cultures a physical form. These differences include religions, values and ideologies between the two groups: east/west and ‘others’/’survivors’. Furthermore, the use of cages to imprison people makes clear references to the American detention centre-Guantanamo Bay. Porter and Lavery further explained these conflictions; they claimed that we are all living in a world where ‘dichotomies are deepening, dividing one religion against another, one country against another, one world view against another’. However, Locke’s initial statement proves to be illusionary as we see that good and evil, freedom and slavery all blur at some point in the ‘LOST' and the post 9-11 narrative.

The reason why ‘LOST’ connects to its viewers so well is down to its beautifully created characters. Each character has a rich and detailed past, all of which have something they were trying to escape and forget from life before the crash. Giving them somewhat of an agenda possibly? Sayid Jarrah, a former Iraqi Republican Guard from the first Gulf War, has this agenda. He wants to forget his gruesome past of torture and murder however is often manipulated by white Americans. In ‘One of Them’, Sayid is emotionally blackmailed by an American DIA agent into torturing Sayid’s own superior. More recently in the ‘LOST’ narrative, Ben ‘employs’ Sayid into being a hitman for him. However, after carrying out his ‘dirty work’, Sayid turns against Ben as he realises he has always been a slave to someone else.

Sayid directly challenge’s people stereotypes towards the east. On surface he seems a harsh, brutal killer, much like a stereotypical terrorist. But as the audience learns more about him, we see that he is a stable, forgiving man who only wants forgiveness and to be reunited with his lost love, Nadia. As earlier stated, the cast acts as a stand in for the actual audience. So when the plane first crashes, he is a victim of racism. Sawyer blames him for the crash and bluntly states that ‘you’re the terrorist’ and when Sayid attempts to repair communication equipment, Sawyer again stops him and accuses him of making a bomb. In ‘The Greater Good’ Sayid is again manipulated by the CIA to help catch his best friend who was about to carry out a terrorist attack. I believe that Sayid directly challenge’s the audience’s prejudices and forces them to see that everyone is human and that everyone is capable of good and bad, and that we shouldn’t act out of stereotypes that have fed to us by hegemonic-government (Gramsci). Additionally, Sayid is the only Asian character in American TV at this present moment that is not a terrorist or villain. Programmes such as ’24,’ exploits these stereotypes and uses them as villains. However, this is just a product of today’s Zeitgeist. The audience felt suspicious of Sayid at the start of the series, however, the audience have seen how he has helped, reconciled with his past and how he has become a ‘good man’. Not the ‘natural killer’ (Season 5, ‘He’s Our You’) as Ben fed him. Overall, ‘LOST’ has a habit of producing generic stereotypes, which the viewers feel comfortable with, only to break down them and show the viewers that everyone is different and human, and that it is dangerous to carry on judging people on prejudices and assumptions.

In conclusion, ‘LOST’ is a post-9-11 parable urging people to rethink their views of the world and towards other people. It is about uncertainty and indecision, right and wrong, black and white. It highlights that within good there is evil, and within evil there is good. The island may seem as paradise but in ‘reality’ is full of threats. Just like our own lives. ‘LOST’ is successful because it blends reality with fiction and fiction with reality. The performance and audience barriers collapse and the viewers soon see that they are in the same situation as the castaways. This enables them to emotionally immerse themselves with the situation to help create their own resolutions, much like how the characters are seeking their own resolve. As J. Wood stated; ‘the writers abstract the experience of the War on Terror and crystallize that experience in the show’s narrative’. Overall, I believe the writer’s are urging people to see others for who they really are, not stereotypes. It is asking us to question our own sense of right and wrong, not just because we are from a culturally imperialist country. As previously stated, it is down to perspective. The difficulty arises when trying to understand another’s perspective. Furthermore, despite ‘LOST’ exploiting the basic human emotion of fear, it also gives hope to its viewers. It draws parallels to how the citizen’s of America literally felt ‘lost’ with the Bush administration, however the new Obama administration has given renewed hope to it’s disenchanted citizens. In closing, everyone has their own needs and fears, everyone has their story and everyone wants resolve in these uncertain times. As Jack perfectly put it; ‘we need to live together, or die alone...’

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