Tuesday, June 13, 2006

FOUND: Ideal site for prime-time human experiment. Only emotionally stable individuals need apply.

I don't watch much television -- apart from those miracles of info-tainment (or should that be edu-comedy?) The Daily Show and now The Colbert Report; America's finest TV news sources, to my mind, and proof positive that stateside, there is indeed a sense of irony to be found. (Like the gallows humour that flourished in Stalinist Russia, United Statesians seem to be cultivating a certain bite in their humour, presumably a kind of coping mechanism as they endure the tragicomic denouement of the great American political experiment.) Anyway, that aside, there's nothing I make a point of trying to catch regularly on TV on the United States. This is partly a comment on my perception of the average quality of the viewing fare on offer, but it's also a reflection of the fact that I generally prefer to spend my time otherwise. Consequently, even phenomenally popular programs can pass me by entirely. And when I do have the misfortune to catch inadvertently a few moments of American Idol (no link here -- for your own good) or whatever the mind numbing flavour of the month may be, after the initial shock wears off I remember how lucky I am not to be exposed to too much of it. However, now that DVDs give TV programs a previously undreamed of afterlife, it's possible not simply to catch up on missed viewing, but to develop and indulge televisual yearnings to an extent unimaginable in the VHS age. In other words, addictions to and binge viewing of particular programs can blossom as never before. And now I have to confess: I'm hooked on Lost.

Chances are you've seen it, or at least heard about it. It's a drama series about the survivors of a plane that crashes en route from Sydney to Los Angeles, on a remote and apparently uninhabited tropical island. The unlikely cast of characters, which between them have an inordinate number of causes for personal angst, secrecy and dishonesty bubbling away in their respective ugly pasts, are thrown together in the most trying of circumstances, and have to learn to live with and trust each other in facing the manifold perils of their new surroundings.

Part of the appeal of this show for me lies in the fact that I live on O'ahu, the Hawaiian island where all the episodes are shot, so many of the vistas seem familiar. Since most flashback scenes unfold in Sydney, as both a sometime filmmaker and an Australian, it's also entertaining for me to see how they've managed to make Honolulu locations look like Sydney ones, with varying degrees of success, and to spot, with a note of triumph, when they actually use an Australian actor with an authentic accent, rather than some American character actor producing what sounds like a monstrous hybrid of Irish and South African, or worse yet, a New Zealander emitting some monstrous, er, New Zealand accent. (Incidentally, Helena Bonham-Carter in Till Human Voices Wake Us is the only plausible Australian accent I think I've ever heard from a non-Australian actor.)

But I digress. I've seen up to the end of the first series of Lost, so can't comment on what's happened since. The point is, I haven't been hooked like this on a TV drama since season one of The Sopranos . Lost is just a damn good show. But why? Yes, it boasts stunning locations and rich cinematography, a good mix of drama and action (and occasionally comedy) buttressed by a melodramatic score -- production values adding up to a genuinely atmospheric, highly cinematic portrayal of "ordinary people in an extraordinary situation". Its structure recalls what has long been one of my favourite films, Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Both make use of closed settings which provide the containment necessary to generate and highlight continual interpersonal conflicts (on Lost it's the island; in RD the warehouse). Both periodically use flashback sequences that relieve stories that would otherwise become monotonous; filling in character and motivation, provides background, and returning to the present moment each time with a richer sense of dramatic tensions between the players. And as a storytelling device it generates a potentially endless stream of MacGuffins on which to hang new plotlines.

But neither technical execution nor structural formula is the key to the show's intrigue. Its premise is intrinsically interesting. In the two-part pilot episode, one of the characters remarks to the effect that when the plane crashed, they all "died". From that angle, here is a free pass, a second chance at life; an opportunity to begin again. Psychologically, a similar idea drives the superb film Fearless (01996, dir. Peter Weir, starring Jeff Bridges). In that film, the central character survives a plane crash and returns to his urban life, but can't function as before. Having flouted death, he's been given a new lease of life, but with complexities in the fine print that find him unable to reconnect with his past relationships. He's now an outsider to his own life, and reinvents himself for want of continuity with the old patterns, the way things were before the disaster. In Lost, by contrast, the stranded characters are preoccupied with their struggle to return to civilization, and for the most part, rather than feeling they've been transformed or given an opportunity, they are haunted by desires, missed chances, regrets and other connections in memory. In other words, some of them are more successfully "dead" than others. Inextricably caught to a greater or lesser extent in the traps of their own histories, each struggles to disconnect with the failures and demons of the past, and to reinvent themselves to meet their new reality on its own terms; to imagine and create a future which isn't solely predicated on passively awaiting a rescue crew which may never materialise.

With so much of the world straining to achieve economic prosperity and independence, which translates to (a largely unnoticed) technological and systemic interdependence at the same time as interpersonal, emotional alienation, this is a challenging TV series because it asks you to wonder how you'd step up to the threats and opportunities of an environment that is at once so hostile and so idyllic. It's a way that the developed world's jetsetting elite, the audience these characters represent, can explore some of its great vulnerabilities, through the vehicle of the island that is at once both a best- and worst-case scenario: ultimate constraint and ultimate freedom. Unlike Lord of the Flies, the book and film which Lost clearly resembles and borrows from in some ways, this is not a dystopian tale of descent into unbridled savagery: it's a delicate and always unstable balance between civilisation and chaos, and their dynamic interplay is the source of most of the drama.

If Lost isn't particularly realistic, who cares? Most of the time, if you pay too much attention, it's utterly absurd (and I'm not just talking about those Australian accents). This is a 21st century fantasy story; it's unapologetically escapist. Realism isn't the point. Think Cube. Think Sphere. Actually, think of any enclosed space containing a small number of people that don't like each other, and limited resources, and you'll find similar dramatic potential. What put them there doesn't matter so much as what you can learn from the human drama that plays out as a result.

There's another aspect here. What an appropriate fable of our times; this unlikely melange of folk from different walks of life forced to cooperate when their assumptions of continuity literally collapse around them. Facing issues ranging from the practical and logistical to the philosophical and even theological, the island's unwilling new residents meet yet more life-threatening challenges and perplexing mysteries on a daily basis. And each individual must fall back on her own resources and ingenuity, or more accurately, be prepared to reach out and expose her own weaknesses, bonding with others in order to survive. The plot may be contrived, but the unconventional mix of characters, dealing with the confines of their predicament, make it compelling viewing.

Now, I've been thinking about my recent experience in Tucson, Arizona. The main reason for visiting that very interesting town was to make a pilgrimage to Biosphere 2. Remember the media hoopla in the early 90s about a group of eight people voluntarily sealing themselves inside a self-contained ecosystem for two years? That was Biosphere 2 -- a grand, expensive, quixotic, noble, misguided, ingenious $150 million-dollar experiment. It's a three-acre glass terrarium, containing five ecosystems, including a .75 million-gallon ocean, located 20 miles north of Tucson in the Sonoran desert. Why "Biosphere 2"? Well, the planet Earth is the original Biosphere. Yeah, this project was that ambitious.

Today, some 20 years after its construction, even though it's open to visitors, Biosphere 2 is not as accessible as it could be. There's no public transport or shuttle service to take you there. It costs US $20 for adult admission, which is totally worthwhile from my point of view, but was apparently too pricey to entice any of my fellow hostellers to join in. After arrangements to share a rental car with two of them fell through, I decided to take a bus to the Tucson city limits, and try to hitch-hike the rest of the way, desert sun be damned. I was motivated in this endeavour by a breakfast meeting I'd had that morning, with one of the Biospherians -- one of the first eight residents of the facility. Jane Poynter, an ecologist who was 29 years old when she was sealed in, with the eyes of the world looking on, is now married to one of her fellow inmates. Over fruit and granola at the delightfully retro-and-loving-it Hotel Congress, we had a fascinating conversation about the past, present and future of Biosphere 2.

One thing Jane mentioned that made an impression on me was that the expectations for this experiment, which hoped to establish the viability of self-contained settlements on other planets, in retrospect seem incredibly utopian because -- it's so obvious in hindsight -- everyone "brought all their shit in there with them". What began as an amicable group of eight ended up dividing into two camps of four, as relations broke down. Now, interesting as the technical challenges of the Biosphere project may have been, to my mind the psychological and micropolitical human aspects of the story are far more interesting. What happens when you put eight people into a confined space to take responsibility for their own survival for a period of two years? In her forthcoming book, The Human Experiment, she tells this part of the story. (To date, the most prominent source I know of that discusses the two-year Biosphere 2 experiment is a Chapter 9 in Kevin Kelly's Out of Control.) I'm looking forward to reading her account.

Meanwhile, though, there's cause for concern over the fate of the facility itself. After its initial, high profile experimental phase in the early 90s, Columbia University used it as a campus and research facility from 01996-02003. Then, in early 02005 it was announced that the site was up for sale, and earlier this year, that it had been sold to a housing developer. For the time being, Biosphere 2 remains open to visitors, but it has the air of a place winding down: a threadbare gift shop; the deserted student residences along the walkway leading to the facility; signage cracked and peeling; exhibits broken and outdated. (If Tombstone was a ghost town turned theme park, Biosphere 2 felt like a theme park on its way to being a ghost town.) Our congenial but absent minded tour guide professed not to know anything about what was going to happen to Biosphere, although the lady at the front counter told me that they were currently engaged in a (presumably lengthy) due diligence process on the property, and would probably still be open to tourists through the year's end. Jane had also mentioned efforts to resurrect a university research program there, and I have to say it would be a monumental shame for Biosphere 2 not to remain open and indeed, to be upgraded and improved with a view to providing further scientific -- and social -- experimental insight as time goes on.

So what do the compelling histrionics of Lost have to do with Biosphere 2? Well, the show has prompted me to share an idea about how to rescue the facility. Why not run another two-year bionaut experiment, this time with cameras everywhere inside, broadcasting 24/7? I'm no friend of "reality TV" -- of course that show is anything but reality TV in any case -- but I'm convinced that if we want to save Biosphere 2, this could be a way to make a virtue of the human complexities associated with high-pressure life in a confined space. There's no need to select clearly dysfunctional individuals, or self-destructive groups consisting of incompatible personalities, in order to generate interest (unlike the apparent strategy of so many reality TV shows). There's scope here really to try, in all sincerity, to make it work as a self-contained small scale colony and ecosphere, the way they tried the first time around. Open up a worldwide competition to a diverse group of the most qualified individuals, eager to prove that they can make the experiment work. Hey, make the prize money go to the group rather than the "last man standing". In short, give it the best possible chance to succeed. If it does pan out; great, it'll be a valuable sociological model for making it work in space. On the other hand, if and to the extent that human conflict does get in the way of these aims, at least it will be informative and entertaining, and -- let's get down to brass tacks here -- revenue generating. Who wouldn't want to watch as highly trained people deal with the emotional challenges of living inside a bubble? Call it voyeurism if you like, but you could also call it insurance against the failure of the human experiment in that remarkable facility out in the Arizona desert, which in my opinion should certainly not be torn down without one more try to make it work on full scale.

Big Brother: Biosphere edition, anyone? TV producers, let's talk.

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