Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lost Speculations and Observations, January Edition

This will probably evolve into a monthly thing, at least through the end of Season 5, so my heartfelt apologies go out to those of you who couldn't care less about (the best show on) TV.

A double-feature premiere and the most mythologically intense episode since "The Constant" later, and Lost has already hit its stride for the penultimate season. We've come a long way from wondering how these people eat and stay warm; once-intense conflicts like Jin and Michael's now seem petty. We saw a lot of exposition in "Because You Left", and a lot of nice Hurley moments in "The Lie", but it was "Jughead" that really got the theorizing taking off.

It was a divisive episode, to be sure. I think any individual's response to "Jughead" shows exactly what that fan is interested in from the show. If you want Jack and Kate and romance and character drama, then "Jughead" certainly was not the episode for you. For those of us who love nothing more than to dig into a little Richard Alpert speculation, "Jughead" was phenomenal. What did we learn?

We know that the original inhabitants/Richard's people/the Hostiles/the Others (for simplicity's sake, "the Others") were established on the Island at least since the 1950s--and potentially much longer than that. That also means that the Others' claim to have been the Island's original inhabitants is true, at least relative to the Dharma Initiative.

We know that the Others use Latin as a sort of lingua franca (a "lingua alia"?) since the 1950's, and potentially much longer than that. There are plenty of interesting things about this. First, all the Others we've seen speak English seemingly as a first language, with the exception of the Rasputin-esque (and known Ben Linus recruit, rather than former Hostile) Mikhail Bakunin. So it seems that Latin was not a lingua franca after all, but a code language to hide their conversations. Presuming the Others have been isolated on the Island for a long time, why the need to hide conversations?

Second, Juliet specifically mentions Latin as the language of the Enlightenment. That's not significant in and of itself, but I can name at least four characters off the top of my head who were named after Enlightenment prominents--John Locke, Desmond Hume, Danielle Rousseau, and Anthony Cooper.

Third, and most interesting to me as someone who's studied a bit of Latin, is the form of the language they speak. They're speaking Classical Latin, the language spoken by the Romans during the Republic and Empire. That's as opposed to Ecclesiastical Latin, the language spoken by the Church during the Middle Ages. Most scholars agree that it was a vulgarization of the Classical form; it was later vulgarized even further into what was spoken by the scientific and philosophical elites of the Enlightenment.

While obviously neither language has had native speakers for centuries, the Ecclesiastical version at least still enjoys some official use from the Vatican and others. Classical hasn't had any purpose outside of high school foreign language classrooms for a millennium. Given that the Others speak arguably the more obscure form of the language--and certainly not the one spoken in the Enlightenment--we may have a clue as to how long the Others have really been there.

We know that good old Ricardus Alpert has been in an authority position (the Panchen Lama, if you will) in the Others, and that Jacob has been at the top of the Others' command structure, for at least fifty years, and again possibly a lot longer. Furthermore, we know that rank-and-file Others like Juliet either don't know how old Richard really is, or they have some idea but consider that knowledge such a liability that they're unwilling to share that knowledge with their friends.

We know the reason Alpert visited Locke during Locke's childhood was that Locke told him to visit. Furthermore, the reason Alpert expected Locke to recognize that the compass already belonged to him was that Alpert had already seen Locke, as an adult, with the compass.

And of course, we know that the reason Charles Widmore knows about the Island is that he used to be on it, as an Other. Talk about a jaw-dropper.

In other parts of the world, we know that "Faraday's mother" lives in Los Angeles, conveniently the same place that Ms. Hawking lives. And we know that Faraday was doing some downright sketchy research, funded by Widmore, and probably resulting in poor Theresa losing her mind.

Now, for the speculation. First, I don't believe Richard Alpert is a bad guy. True, he sees the Island as his own domain. But I believe he has a better claim to that then either Ben or Widmore. And true, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the Island, but I see that as more "what Richard sees as necessary" than "Richard likes to kill people."

It seems likely that Widmore and Ben met on the Island at some point probably near the time of the Purge. The two must have come into conflict, a conflict that resulted in Widmore's expulsion from the Island. To this day, Widmore 1) holds Ben personally responsible for the expulsion, explaining his hostility towards Ben and Ben's people, and 2) had expended countless resources trying to find the Island again. Obviously the Freighter was his most recent attempt, and it only succeeded because the electromagnetic anomaly at the Swan had been neutralized when Desmond turned the failsafe. More and more, I'm convinced that Libby's boat race around the world, the real Henry Gale's balloon, and possibly even Rousseau's "science expedition" were previous efforts of Widmore's to find the Island again.

What was the source of this expulsion? How's this for conspiracy theory: Widmore was forced, for some reason, to turn the Frozen Donkey Wheel?

A lot of people have speculated to whether Ben or Widmore is the real "bad guy" on the Island, and my answer is that both of them are. A theme of Lost, ever since the beginning, has been "good people" versus "bad people"--not "good versus evil" or "right versus wrong". That's important because "good" and "bad" are a lot more relative. To Widmore, Ben's people are the "bad" ones, and vice versa. Both Ben and Widmore are quite evil, wanting the Island for their own personal gain, and stopping at nothing, not even killing people, to get it.

The only thing different about them is the way they go about it. Widmore, in classic "supervillian" style, keeps expensive scotch by his bedside, had a windowed office in London, and has a seemingly endless supply of thugs and resources to get at the Island. He doesn't disguise the fact that he wants it for personal gain because he doesn't need to. Ben, on the other hand, is much more devious. He lies and manipulates people into thinking that he has the good of the Island in mind, but in truth all he wants is the Island for himself.

How about Faraday? It's intuitive at this point that Hawking is Faraday's mother, but what other possible relations are out there? I think cute little gun-toting Ellie is a good candidate for being the same person as Hawking/Faraday's mother--that's why Faraday thought she looked familiar. (We know from casting lists that Hawking's first name is Eloise, which is even stronger evidence.) And I think that Widmore might even be a good candidate for Faraday's father... but no word on why Ellie would be working against her former lover.

And what of Theresa? We know she was involved in Faraday's research somehow. My idea is that she was the natural next step from Eloise (the rat, not Faraday's likely mother), and that Faraday tried to send her mind back in time, with disastrous results. She had the same progression of symptoms that Charlotte is having now, explaining why Faraday is so concerned about Charlotte now. Faraday's attraction to Charlotte is probably tangled with his feelings for Theresa too.

Now all we need is a little Matthew Abaddon to really get the rumor mill turning.

Currently listening: "Slow Cheetah", Red Hot Chili Peppers (from Stadium Arcadium)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Reviews of EPs from Last Year, Part II

Review: Always the Bridesmaid EPs, the Decemberists

In this curious arrangement of three EPs of two songs each, we have the latest efforts from the Decemberists. Why the obtuse order of release? Tough to know; a single EP of six songs might be more conventional. But then, the Decemberists were never known for convention. Recall their first album, a six-song EP called 5 Songs. As if that makes any sense.

I mention 5 Songs specifically because in some strange way, Always the Bridesmaid hearkens back to the earlier EP. Personal, mostly heartfelt songs about relationships, mostly gone sour. Ill-gotten souvenirs. Raincoats that only make it rain more. Lapses from drinking. Something fouled up so badly that it recalls the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the first descriptions I heard of the Decemberists was something about their "over-the-top grandiloquence", and it seems to have returned--or at least changed form to look more like its old self--on this EP.

The worst song, by far, is "I'm Sticking With You". The Decemberists ought to have learned long ago that songs that repeat the same phrase over and over again for their entirety are not their best.

But it's made more than okay by "Valerie Plame", by far the best song on the EP. It's like "The Bagman's Gambit" from Picaresque recast from the Cold War to the War on Terror. This song has just about everything going for it. First, and most saliently for me, we all know the Decemberists have some expressed political leanings. Very, very rarely do I think that's an appropriate matter for music--leave it to the angry talking heads and op-ed writers. Despite writing a song about a current event that sparked a good deal of outrage and controversy, the Decemberists never make the song overtly political, mostly because it's only tangentially about the controversy anyway. I hope they realize that their song is that much stronger for it.

Of course, it also includes a catchy chorus. A horn line that, like the subject matter, reminds us of Picaresque. A much lighter mood than "The Bagman's Gambit", as if to poke fun at the guy in the song rather than build up drama around him.

All in all, this is a decent collection of songs. It works well for fans of the band who've had a two year drought of new music; even though you won't really feel like you've heard anything new, that's sort of okay. At the very least, maybe it'll remind you why you loved the Decemberists in the first place.

Currently listening: Day and Age, the Killers

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reviews of EPs from Last Year, Part I

Review: Stages EP, Vedera

Imagine if two of my favorite bands in the world, Eisley and Mae, got together and had a little music-baby. They named their progeny "Vedera", and she looked promising since the day she was born. Quickly, though, she entered her "angsty 14 year old" phase. She started hanging out with that slightly-off twenty-something down the street, Evanescence, and her friends. In her rebellion, she makes it clear that she wants to be called "Veda" now. And little baby Vedera/Veda, clearly not such a baby anymore, started throwing around phrases like The Weight of an Empty Room. It's not bad, not by a long shot, but everyone who's close to her can't help but wonder where she's going now that she's made her statement.

Never fear, Mommy Eisley and Daddy Mae. Vedera is back to listening to what you have to say. She's outgrown her rebellion and become a fine young lady. Now, she's more precocious than rebellious. She's more introspective than angry. She has a bit darker outlook than either of her parents; she's more fragile. But her melodies are as beautifully crafted as any of her mom's, and her dad would be proud of the way she uses tonal changes to create mood changes and integrates some theory and progression into her chords.

The result is a splendid, though short, EP. No collection of three songs has ever made me happier. Like lead singer Kristen May's voice might suggest, these songs weave together a tension between apprehension and resolve, between nostalgia for the past and trepidation about the future. Consciously or not, Vedera channels Death Cab ("you're the only song I hear") and Jimmy Eat World ("the middle") and even old Vedera (the chorus to "Satisfy").

You'll wish desperately that there were more than three songs here, that we could see a few more of Vedera's perspectives, that we could see if any of those contrasts ever resolve themselves. May's voice has come a long way in terms of range, and she's willing to put more vocal experiments on the line than Eisley ever was, but it seems that she still has a little growing up to do. Perhaps that's what we'll get on the next full-length album, and that's something to look forward to very much.

Currently listening: Always the Bridesmaid EPs, The Decemberists (review to follow)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008 in Superlatives

It's in vogue, of course, to bring in the New Year with superlatives of 2008. Most (whatever) Politician, the perennial favorite Most (whatever) Political Scandal, and new for 2008, the Most Historic Political (whatever). Politics are, of course, not the domain of Isoceleria, so I've come up with some some superlatives of my own that are more comfortable in the "marginal relevance" landscape.

Most Strike-Proof TV Show: Lost

The disastrous 2008 Writer's Strike left television as we know it in total disarray. Some of TV's best shows (eg, House) decided to push through it and run the episodes they'd planned on anyway. That left us anachronistically watching the Christmas episode in late January, and not really remembering who these roomful of fellowship candidates were in the first place. Some others (eg, Battlestar Galactica) just took a figurative cleaver to their seasons, with ten episodes now, ten later, and an implied Gallic shrug somewhere in the middle. Still others, like 24, washed their hands of 2008 completely, choosing instead to focus on the 2009 season. (It might have been odd to call it 11 for a season anyway.)

Not Lost, though. The show was coming into its fourth season with a renewed sense of purpose, with the mythical End Date only a few years off. Three seasons to introduce some more new wrinkles, kill off a few main characters, give the faithful plenty to speculate about, and finally wrap everything up. So Lost was already in a "cut the crap" mode, even before the strike hit. It was one of the few shows to make it out of the strike an even better show than before, mostly because the "streamline" mentality was already very much a part of the show's philosophy.

The V For Vendetta Memorial Award: The Dark Knight

The V for Vendetta Memorial Award is presented annually to the most over-rated film based on an existing comic book or graphic novel. Last year, it would have gone to 300, hands down. This year, none other than The Dark Knight takes home that prestigious award.

To reiterate, The Dark Knight was not a bad movie at all. The acting was mostly overdone, whatever attempts it had at philosophizing or "commenting on the human condition" were dime-store at best, and what should have been one of the most interesting character developments (Two-Face) felt rushed. But for those faults, this movie might have been able to live up to its hype, right?

Absolutely not. I'd heard so much about how wonderful this movie was--particularly Heath Ledger's performance in it--in the weeks and months leading up to my watching it that there was literally no way it could have been as good as everyone was saying. So this V for Vendetta Memorial Award is not so much for the low quality of the movie--because it wasn't a low quality movie--but more for the downright unrealistic expectations I had after two months of Dark Knight hysteria.

Best Three-Hour Board Game: Imperial

Imperial's not a new game, I don't think, but I played it for the first time this year. In the grand German tradition, here's a board game that takes no less than three hours to play, can only be played by three or more people (of course, six is preferred), and has absolutely no element of chance, just careful planning and reacting to what the rest of the players do. It's way more fun than it ought to be, and it's one of the best ways I know of to kill a sleety Sunday.

Best Wii Party Game With Innuendo Gestures: Mario Party 8

The Mario Party games are always a lot of fun for big gatherings; they succeed mostly in that you don't have to be good at Mario Party to enjoy Mario Party. There's no competitive cult that exists with most of the popular shooters, and let's face it--it's not nearly fun enough to play as a single player game that you might want to "practice".

As with any series of games, you're going to get some (unnecessarily) impassioned arguments about which game is the best. I've only played a few of them, so I'm a poor judge of that. I can say for certainty, though, that the eighth installment is clearly the most impressive when it comes to innuendo hand gestures, mostly because it involves the use of the Wiimote. Can anyone say "Shake it Up"?

Best Contribution to My Writing: Jacqueline Snedeker, Georgia Tech School of Chemical Engineering

If you read through earlier Isoceleria entries, you might notice a tendency of mine to start sentences with "this". I was swiftly and completely broken of this habit over the semester by Ms. Snedeker, who's the closest thing to an English teacher most Tech upperclassmen will ever have. "It's ambiguous," she assured me. "You don't know what the antecedent is." Too true, Ms. Snedeker. And I did it a lot, or used to, but I quickly got a lot better at not doing it. At one point, I even challenged her to find a sentence starting with "this" anywhere in my most recent lab report, to the tune of $20 if she could find one.

I kept my Jackson squarely in my wallet.

Best Place to Pretend to Be a Hipster: Starbucks in Tech Square

Though, I'm forced to admit, that Starbucks by Lake Lucerne and Starbucks in Athens and even Starbucks in Schererville, IN are close runners-up.

Currently listening: Metro Jazz Club, Live at the Aurora Theater