Friday, January 05, 2007

Ambiguous obscurantism

Someone once said that “obscurity is the refuge of the incompetent” and the first time I read that sentence it was like a (energy efficient) light bulb going off in my head. Whilst ambiguity and mystery are indispensable parts of story telling, deliberately obscure or pointlessly convoluted phrases and plot lines are just a pain, and often a devise for the writer to make themselves feel intelligent (even if it makes them appear like a prat).

Was it actually *possible* to solve those riddles?For those of a certain age think the bizarre puzzles in 3-2-1 masquerading as poetry and prose. It's relatively simple to pose a riddle, it's another thing entirely to pose one that that both requires you to really grapple with it and whose solution has an elegant simplicity.

In 3-2-1 half the time you didn't even understand the answer when it was read out to you, and it always left a sour taste in the mouth, like the murder mysteries where the crime was committed by a character only introduced a couple of minutes before the end.

I'd never really taken to Lost because I've always got the impression that the complexity is there simply to string the series out - that the puzzle isn't actual *worth* solving, even if you could, which you can't. It's a one trick pony, that refuses to perform its trick.

When the series was extended due to high ratings the producers ended up adding characters and subplots to pad the whole thing out. The show became an exercise in masochism rather than enjoyable watching. The day I watch something that has had extra twists added just to drag it out is the day I've wasted an hour of my time.

On the other hand the excellent Carnivale had the opposite problem. The depth and flavour of the mystery was beautiful, but HBO decommissioned the show (despite protest) so the second half of series two suddenly starts jogging along in order to clear up all the various mysteries, a most unsatisfying way to end such a great, spooky show. Although it did leaving you wondering "what the hell was that all about" sometimes.

Lots of people don't like Mr Cage, but I think he's superOften the ambiguity is not that the viewer is unclear what's going on but the characters are. Take the Sopranos. The whole premise of an evil man beset by doubt was just lovely. The evil man then overcomes doubt and chooses the right course (ie that of evil) and the world is returned to its natural axis ... why then were there another three series of the thing allowed to potter about on our screens? Man.

The Sopranos reminded me of one of my favourite all time films, the little known Nicolas Cage film "Matchstick men". Cage plays a really nasty piece of work, a con man who is absolutely riven with neurosis, phobias and obsessions. The twists, mysteries and problems we're given are all solvable, but are by no means always easy. His doubts are resolved through renouncing his evil ways, but only after going through the most horrendous emotional wringer... either path, good or evil, works fine for me, as long as get there with aplomb.

Stories without ambiguity or surprise often results in utter tedium. The problem with "Tales of the unexpected" was always that the "un" was always rather unwarranted. It may have had the best theme music of all those seventies shows but it was also the most heavy handed. Quite unlike Sapphire and Steel where we never learn, even after six series, what fuck was going on - but they did it with class and that's what counts.

Best nostalgia TV... everI'm probably rambling now, but this post has been prompted mainly by the utter unsatisfactoriness of Torchwood. Whilst it was salvaged by two charismatic leads it was essentially a directionless and morbid teen in a long black leather coat. Vacuous, derivative, substituting cliche for style and moody looks and hints at a dark past of easily introduced traumatic events for character development. Hopefully Torchwood is never to return, touch wood.

Although there is plenty of ambiguity in Torchwood, I got the impression the creators didn't know, or at least hadn't decided, what it all meant and certainly it was still a kids show with some adult content thrown in rather than something designed and created for a more sophisticated palette.

Almost every episode (that I saw) was a direct plot rip of from something else and the mysterious nature of Torchwood simply acted as a mechanism to allow the cast to go where ever they pleased rather than as an unsaid secret hanging in the room. The bizarrely Biblical ending just topped it all off for me. Dire.

Let's get back to those shows that exhibited genuine viceral desire to give us the creeps, trick us without playing us for saps and, like an expert stripper, entice us as much with what they conceal as what they choose to reveal.


Disillusioned kid said...

I quite liked the conclusion of Torchwood, although the first-part (set in 1941) was much stronger. The Jack/Jack kiss was more powerful TV than the whole Abaddon thing.

I agree it's a show that doesn't seem to know where it wants to go and seems to try and compensate with swearing and sex. It's just that I felt it was sorting itself out towards the end (I missed about half the series, but saw the last four episodes).

If anything one of its weaknesses is that it isn't mysterious enough. I don't really buy that these people are part of some top-secret organisation. A mysterious hierarchy for them to knock against periodically (cf Skinner in the X-Files) would be nice. Given that Torchwood's s'posed to have been started by Queen Victoria, perhaps we could discover that Jack's boss is Price Philip?

It's already been commissioned for a second series. Hopefully they'll have irnoed out some of the problems bu then.

Jim Jay said...

I was probabvly a little strong here, and I agree it certainly did improve (two first episode was *terrible*) and also that's a very good point on the Jack/Jack kiss and i think it points to what's interesting in a story, ie the people, and effects come a very long way in second place (well, after plot,etc)

That's right - a top secret organisation with no boss, no discernable function, that the police are all aware of... um....

Thing is the second series wont have Jack in, so will anyone bother watching?

Disillusioned kid said...

Jack'll be back. He's the star of the show. The Doctor's just borrowed him for a few episodes (3 at the end of the series, apparently).

It's worth mentioning here that if Russell T. Davies and friends weren't the guys behind Doctor Who (my favourite TV programme at the moment) Torchwood probably wouldn't have been made and certainly wouldn't have survived into its second series. They're clearly talented people, however, so I'll be interested to see where they go next.

Jim Jay said...

Maybe, although I thought they'd actually announced that Jack wont be in series two...

anyway I've been rebuked for talking about TV so slapped wrists all round apparently!


a very public sociologist said...

I recommend Digital Spy, Jim for all your nerdy/celbrity gossipy needs.