Damon Lindelof – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 “They Repackaged It”: Technofuturism in Tomorrowland http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/06/01/they-repackaged-it-technofuturism-in-tomorrowland/ Mon, 01 Jun 2015 13:27:28 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26784 tomorrowland-movie1

Post by Li Cornfeld, McGill University

In an early action sequence of Tomorrowland, the new fantasy film from Disney, quirky proprietors of a Texas junk shop called Blast From the Past open fire with technologies of the future. The shopkeepers Ursula Gernsback (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo Gernsback (Keegan-Michael Key) wield glowing guns whose candy colored sparks rip through the ceiling; defeated, their bodies spontaneously combust. The murderous merchants were “AA units,” or “audio-animatronics,” explains a mysterious young girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy), moments after rescuing their intended victim (Britt Robertson) from the blast. Then she twists a screwdriver into a blue port on her own shoulder; Athena, too, is a robot. Futuristic technology might destroy the world, warns Tomorrowland, but it can also save it. In a return to Disney’s mid-century technofuturism, the movie implores audiences to choose optimism.

Tomorrowland’s resident optimist, a variant of Dorothy in Oz, is neither a good robot nor a bad robot; she’s Casey Newton, from Florida. With the help of Athena, and Athena’s old pal Frank, a jaded recluse played by George Clooney, Casey (Robertson) journeys to the otherworldly Tomorrowland, an alternate dimension colonized by an elite group of humans during the last century to foster accelerated advances in science and technology. Decades ago, for example, Tomorrowland discovered particles that permit a voyeuristic form of time travel; Hugh Laurie’s villainous Governor Nix sneers that on Earth, “physicists are still arguing over whether or not they exist.” A chance to glimpse technology of an immanent future, of course, was the promise of the original Tomorrowland, Disneyland’s futurist region from which the movie takes its name.


When the first Tomorrowland opened in 1955, its signature attraction, the TWA Moonliner, promoted the future by inviting tourists to participate in an imagined moon landing. (The Tomorrowland movie signals its investment in this midcentury vision of the future when it frames the dismantling of a NASA launching pad as the end of futurity.) A decade later, Tomorrowland acquired The General Electric Carousel of Progress, a 1964 World’s Fair attraction that took audiences on a tour of domestic life throughout the 20th century, culminating in a future of ease and leisure afforded by technological development. The Tomorrowland movie, whose earliest scenes take place at the 1964 World’s Fair, sets the atmosphere with the Carousel of Progress theme song, There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman, in a lovingly compiled memoir, recall that they wrote the song about Walt Disney himself, whom they describe as “an optimistic futurist,” dedicated to building a future that was “great, big, and beautiful.”

Tomorrowland bemoans the loss of that vision. Director Brad Bird, who co-wrote the script with Damon Lindelof, avoids self-conscious corporate references, and so while the mythologized spirit of Walt Disney pervades the movie, the man himself goes unmentioned. (“Audio-animatronics,” a Disney coinage, is perhaps oblique enough a reference to warrant inclusion.) When Frank speaks wistfully of his 1960’s childhood, before the future became “scary,” and when Nix charges that the people of earth “didn’t fear their demise—they repackaged it,” Bird surely intends to level the critique at what he perceives as a global culture of fear and resignation. Still, bracketing dubious nostalgia for the Cold War as an era without a politics of fear, we might consider how Disney’s own corporate history indexes a departure from space age optimism.


Disney expanded its investment in fantasy futuristic landscapes with the launch of EPCOT, a theme park adjacent to Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, in 1982. Modeled on the industrial futurism of a world’s fair, and centered around a domed “Spaceship Earth” that showcases communications technology “from the stone age to the information age,” EPCOT celebrated the same technofuturism that girded the development of the original Tomorrowland. Yet this second Orlando theme park also crystalized Disney’s abandonment of its earlier, ambitious vision: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was originally conceived as an industrial-residential community that would revolutionize America. (The futurist settlement of the Tomorrowland movie, with its gleaming central tower and elevated transportation systems, takes its design cues from the original EPCOT plans.) Opening EPCOT as a theme park, Disney committed itself to the creation of fantasy futures rather than to their realization. (“It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up,” laments Tomorrowland.)

By the mid-1990’s, Disney reversed its orientation to the future altogether: it reinvented Tomorrowland as “the future that never was,” a retro-futurist celebration of historical visions of “tomorrow” that failed to emerge. In an editorial that deemed the change “profound for a company whose founder was one of postwar America’s great popularizers of technology,” the New York Times worried that “as technology has entered lives, it has departed from many imaginations.” Curiously, the Tomorrowland movie likewise fails to fully imagine its own technofuturism. For all its exhortations to picture a better future, the movie never reveals much of what’s behind Tomorrowland’s shiny façade. Its most developed conception of Tomorrowland’s technological capabilities – also its most playful – are the audio-animatronic robots who make their way to Earth.

Audio-animatronics, too, have a long Disney history. Disney engineers began experimenting with lifelike robots in the mid-1940s, and by 1955, audio-animatronic animals populated Disneyland. Humanoid audio-animatronics made their debut at the 1964 World’s Fair, where Disney assured fairgoers “a final result so lifelike that you might find it hard to believe.” Even Disney detractor Richard Schickel would remark on the “astonishing fidelity” of the Fair’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Today, Disney promotional copy touts its remaining World’s Fair audio-animatronics as employing “Disney’s latest animation technology of the time,” an indication that, following the company’s midcentury robotic enthusiasm, audio-animatronics garnered little further attention—at least, until this summer’s release of Tomorrowland. When the movie pins its optimism on the development of fresh units of AA’s who will revitalize Tomorrowland, Disney casts its newest vision of the future in the mold of its own past.


The Personal Stakes of Social Media: Showrunners [Off] Twitter V http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/10/16/the-personal-stakes-of-social-media-showrunners-off-twitter-v/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/10/16/the-personal-stakes-of-social-media-showrunners-off-twitter-v/#comments Wed, 16 Oct 2013 20:09:44 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=22313 LindelofTwitterIn considering Showrunners on Twitter over the past three years, my focus has been primarily on Twitter feeds as a space for professional identity and fan engagement. However, it is also important to acknowledge how Twitter feeds function as a liminal space in which creative industries workers not only define themselves as workers but also exercise their creativity. We can consider showrunners like Dan Harmon or Kurt Sutter not simply as showrunners who use Twitter as a form of engagement, but also individuals who use Twitter as an outlet for personal opinions and personal expression.

The deletion of Damon Lindelof’s Twitter account is similar to yet distinct from Sutter’s—ultimately temporary—hiatus from Twitter back in 2011. Both left Twitter after feeling their presence was becoming a drain on them both personally and professionally, but the difference is where that drain was coming from. While Sutter was largely dealing with the media reporting on his tweets as provocations and amplifying their inherent antagonism (often without proper context), Lindelof faced consistent and intensive criticism on Twitter for his role in divisive projects like Lost and Prometheus.

Rightfully, media reports on Lindelof’s departure foreground his engagement with his critics; Lindelof himself wrote a highly personal piece in The Hollywood Reporter about his experience responding to a new wave of criticism regarding Lost’s ending in the wake of Breaking Bad’s more linear—and some argued more satisfying—conclusion. In the piece, he frames himself as an addict, suggesting “alcoholics are smart enough to not walk into a bar. My bar is Twitter.” He used the piece to strike a deal with the “haters”: he will stop discussing the end of Lost, and they will stop badgering him about it. He acknowledges “there’s no way everyone is going to read, let alone agree with this deal,” while nonetheless promising to hold up his end of the bargain.

Sutter’s Twitter experience revealed how showrunners face a distinct level of scrutiny when sharing opinions on social media, but Sutter has rarely faced intense, highly public criticism from viewers of Sons of Anarchy or other series he has worked on like The Shield. Lindelof’s Twitter account, by comparison, became a lightning rod for spurned Lost fans or jilted Prometheus viewers who saw the service as a relatively anonymous—or at least consequence-free—space in which to air their frustrations directly to the creator. What he said on social media was on some level beside the point; what drove him off Twitter—at least based on the evidence available—was not a response to what he said, but rather a response to his Twitter feed existing as a rallying point for his critics.

Considered in terms of professional identity, Lindelof’s departure from Twitter removes a space where he could frame his professional identity and engage with fans, which may have been useful when expanding to his first post-Lost television project The Leftovers on HBO next year. In an age where a Twitter presence is expected, and where the value of Twitter has been capitalized on by showrunners like Scandal’s Shonda Rhimes, Lindelof’s choice is contrary to dominant industry logics.

However, I want to rearticulate showrunner Twitter accounts away from their professional use and toward their personal utility. Showrunners are often on Twitter for professional reasons, but these are more often than not combined with a personal interest in social media as a form of creative expression. Although all tweets function as a form of labor, which remains tied to and thus contributes to a professional identity, much of that labor is also understood as pleasure. When a showrunner chooses to remove themselves from Twitter, they are removing themselves from not only professional opportunity but also a space for self-expression.

d1772786e588dafb97c19b1f3b298e36Damon Lindelof was an active Twitter user in contexts beyond tweeting about his labor. In one of his most infamous runs in February of this year, he became obsessed with a studded yellow baseball hat worn by Justin Bieber. In a day-long riff, Lindelof told joke after joke, enraging fans in the middle of the “Lindelof-Bieber” venn diagram and drawing major media coverage; he even changed his Twitter profile photo to an image of him wearing the hat in question. Lindelof also sarcastically retweeted the official Twitter account for cat food brand Fancy Feast, obsessed with the idea someone was being paid to tweet about cat food, and livetweeted Syfy’s Sharknado.

Lindelof’s Twitter identity was that of the benevolent troll, a cultural commentator as much as a professional television writer; commenting on popular culture and issues pertaining to social media, Lindelof’s tweets were neither about nor tied to his labor directly, and instead offered a different form of expression than that offered through his day-to-day employment. Shawn Ryan, who like Lindelof is currently a showrunner without a show on the air, uses his Twitter account to engage with his sports fandom, even organizing a fantasy football league for followers with prizes from his shows. These uses of social media marry the professional with the personal, offering a space for not only the performance or management of distinctly professional identities but also the negotiation of those identities within a more casual, personalized space.

It remains possible that Lindelof—like Sutter—will return to social media, perhaps around the time when The Leftovers debuts on HBO and the channel pressures him to leverage his following to help launch the series. However, Lindelof’s case offers a distinct blending of the professional and personal, where his Twitter account became both a space of personal expression valuable to Lindelof and as a space in which audience frustration with his professional output could latch itself onto a specific person. In leaving Twitter, Lindelof sacrifices the—messy, perhaps unhealthy—personal value of Twitter in order to remove the personal from the criticism swirling outside of his control online, a sacrifice more meaningful to his identity as a showrunner than the inability to remind people Lost is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix.


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Tweets of Anarchy: Showrunners on Twitter http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/09/17/tweets-of-anarchy-showrunners-on-twitter/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/09/17/tweets-of-anarchy-showrunners-on-twitter/#comments Fri, 17 Sep 2010 12:29:38 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=5979 While there have always been strong personalities behind-the-scenes in television, including recent examples such as David Milch and Aaron Sorkin, until recently there were very few outlets in which the general public could directly bear witness to the character of television showrunners; stories were written about their personalities and how they influenced the creative process of their respective series, but it was predominantly second hand information. Outside of award show acceptance speeches, occasional interviews, DVD commentaries, or (in Sorkin’s case) run-ins with the law, the television showrunner was a largely private figure during the day-to-day airing of their series.

However, showrunners are now becoming active participants in conversations surrounding their shows, both formally (Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s Lost podcasts) and informally (Louis C.K.’s decision to wade into comment threads of Louie reviews); combined with their more prominent role in DVD bonus features and the proliferation of television journalism online, showrunners are becoming veritable celebrities among viewers of television. This is perhaps no more apparent than on Twitter, where showrunners (including Lindelof, Cuse, ,C.K., and numerous others) gain tens of thousands of followers who desire to know more about who is behind their favourite series.

In many ways, Twitter is a fantastic opportunity for showrunners. The Big Bang Theory’s Bill Prady has been using his Twitter feed to remind viewers that the show is moving to Thursday night, while Community’s Dan Harmon has been using his Twitter feed to help bolster the show’s viewers against the insurrection of Prady’s series to their timeslot (the two even collaborated on matching avatars, each featuring “THU 8/7c,” to build hype for their impending battle). With this sort of behaviour, often done in conjunction with answering fan questions or offering insights into the production of the series, showrunners directly facilitate fan community.

However, as most showrunners have discovered, Twitter can be a double-edged sword. While BonesHart Hanson is an active participant on Twitter in promoting his series, he also bears the brunt of the attack when fans become frustrated with the series (in particular the drawn out romantic tension between its leads). And while Lindelof and Cuse were showered with praise when Lost hit its high notes, they were inundated with frustration following the divisive series finale.

By putting their reputations on the line – and online – showrunners open the door to potential rewards (viewer loyalty, new viewers, professional transparency), but as they also face definite risk. There is perhaps no better example of this risk/reward principle than Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter, who one would likely classify as television’s renegade showrunner. Giving voice to every showrunner’s id, Sutter uses Twitter and his personal blog to criticize the television industry and his critics through a mix of cogent analysis and four-letter words; where other showrunners avoid calling out the Emmy Awards when their show is ignored, or resist responding to critics who write negative reviews, Sutter has made a conscious decision to present his own perspective without any sort of filter.

The question, at this point, is whether or not his “larger than life” personality has become larger than the show itself. While his notoriety has been a source of promotion for the series, which has only grown in popularity since he began blogging and tweeting in earnest, there is a risk that his actions could overpower the series’ narrative; the Los Angeles Times, for example, chose to profile Sutter rather than his series ahead of its third season premiere.

Some would argue this is actually valuable: the brash masculinity of Sutter’s online persona is heavily echoed within the series itself, meaning that the association could be seen as an effective (and novel) way to market the series. However, if Sutter’s extra-curricular activity becomes a primary association for potential viewers – which is happening more as his Twitter feed and blog posts are extending beyond social media to a more general audience (as the L.A. Times profile and mainstream coverage of his criticism suggest) – it is possible that the series’ subtleties, which include strong female characters, could be obfuscated. What fans could read as refreshing honesty could be read as outright arrogance by others, and while Sutter would likely argue that those put off would be unlikely to watch the show in the first place there remains the potential for lines to blur between the series and its creator.

For the most part, of course, these kinds of issues will largely remain confined within a small subsection of the viewing public – Sutter has 12,000 followers on Twitter, compared to Sons of Anarchy’s 4.1 Million viewers. However, the active participation made possible by Twitter and other forms of social media has changed the dynamics of audience/showrunner relationships, and as showrunners like Sutter test the boundaries of this new dialogue we learn more about where this relationship may be headed in the future.

Editors’ Note: a reminder that we like to keep comments civil and constructive here at Antenna. Those comments that seek to insult or vent, or that don’t materially contribute to the discussion, will be withheld.


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Lost Wednesdays: A Very Special Episode http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/05/12/lost-wednesdays-a-very-special-episode/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/05/12/lost-wednesdays-a-very-special-episode/#comments Wed, 12 May 2010 13:39:49 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=3860 I knew this episode was coming for a couple of months, with rumors of a deep Jacob backstory in the works, with anticipation that it would deviate from Lost‘s storytelling norms and feature a notable guest star. But it’s worth pausing to recognize how bold and unconventional this episode was, especially coming in the final hours of a six-season series. It features no regular characters, aside from a brief flashback to a five-year-old episode. It takes place in an unspecified time, probably around the time of ancient Egypt Rome.* It focuses on three characters, only one of whom has a name (at least until the end), and one who has never been seen before. And it is one of only two episodes of the series that tells its story in chronological order (along with season 2’s “The Other 48 Days“) – conventional for other shows, but radical for Lost.

* UPDATE: Per Sean’s comment and blog link below, I buy that the shipwreck was Roman era. But that leaves the island’s Egyptian symbolism unclear, suggesting a previous habitation yet unseen.

Thus it’s not a surprise that the immediate reaction, at least on The Twitter, was highly divisive. Some celebrated the revelations, while many decried the lack of answers; while many saw it as a distraction from the main story, others enjoyed its mythic sweep. For me, the episode worked very well – not an all-time classic (yet), but an impressive attempt to fill-in vast swaths of backstory without getting too expositional. What stood out was how it truly embraced its mythological tone – we frequently refer to the longform backstory of serialized television as “mythology” (I believe this stems from X-Files fandom), but this episode was literally mythological. Littered with symbols and drawing upon a range of religious and mythic sources – twins! games of fate! murderous mothers! – “Across the Sea” paints the background for the island setting where we’ve spent so much time, but never knew how to find the glowing core. While the answers it provides may not be fully revelatory, they frame the show decisively as a modern myth, much like the sources that the producers frequently cite as role models: Star Wars and The Stand.

The idea that Jacob and Adam (the only name given to him in the episode) are brothers isn’t a huge shock, although I doubt many people anticipated that they would be twins raised by a murderous island protector looking for an heir. For a show steeped in tales of Bad Daddies, the origin story being centered around a Murderous Mommy (now Eve) was a shift. Though the show’s recent treatment of women has been problematic, a point made eloquently by Mo Ryan on her podcast two weeks ago,** making the island’s previous protector a woman makes me more convinced that Kate will end up in a similar role by the end of the series and that Locke’s willingness to dismiss her candidacy (and Claire’s usefulness) stems from centuries of stewing in his Mommy issues. As it often is with serial narrative, it’s hard to judge a show’s politics (and aesthetics) without the full arc in place.

** UPDATE: Mo continued her gender analysis in reviewing this week’s ep – but avoid the comments unless you want to get infuriated.

Much of the episode’s mythological chatter would read horribly on the page, but Lost‘s frequent ace-in-the-hole has been the quality of its actors being able to make hokum sound sincere. Even though Jacob and Adam are infrequent guest stars, and this is Allison Janney’s sole appearance, all three of them completely sell the stakes of their conversations, making me buy it despite the silliness of glowing streams, enchanted wine, and obscure rules. The tone of the episode was purposely broad, framing the mythic narrative as a pre-modern tale of archetypes and supernatural forces preceding science. I was on board with that tone, but it’s certainly not everyone’s taste – and for the viewers who are primarily invested in the arcs of the main characters, this was surely an annoyance and distraction from the show they thought they were watching.

But what about viewers who claim to want “answers”? I’m guessing for many, this episode was frustrating on that front as well. Rather than the style of explicit answers that annoyed me regarding the whispers, the deep mythology created a sense of understanding rather than explication. I have a much better sense of what the island is, why Jacob is tasked with its protection, and what the smoke monster represents – but I really can’t explain it in any way that would make any sense. Many fans want things more explicitly answered, but if that’s your goal, I think Lostpedia is a better site for rattling off answers – the show’s sense of mythic storytelling is more about grounding the narrative in a consistent world rather than filling in every gap.

Of course some answers were given. The origin of the donkey wheel was alluded to – I assume that Smokey worked with future inhabitants to install the wheel, only to discover that it didn’t allow him to escape, but rather moved the island in time and space. And Adam and Eve were clearly identified in a true surprise – not castaways travelled back in time, but truly the original figures of our story. I found that revelation quite satisfying (although I could have done without the replays from season 1), and the more I’ve thought about it, I think tying island’s the mythic sweep to one of the show’s first mysteries is pretty impressive – I have no illusions that the producers knew all this back in 2004 when we first discovered Adam and Eve, but they planted an open-ended seed that could yield a satisfying narrative payoff in the long-run.

The risk that doesn’t payoff was choosing to place “Across the Sea” as Lost‘s antepenultimate episode (sorry, but I had to slip that in…). It break-ups the narrative momentum from last week’s bloodbath, and risks pissing off viewers leading into the finale. Is there a reason why we couldn’t have known the backstory of Jacob and Smokey prior to now? As the only true stand-alone episode in the series history, it seems better suited to midway through the final season to deepen our understanding of the complex relationship and motivation between the dueling brothers. As is, it seems like Cuse & Lindelof wanted to keep it up their sleeve for a grand reveal, but I doubt it functioned quite as they’d hoped. But I still quite like the episode, grading on a curve for its audacity and degree of difficulty, and finding myself enjoying it even more as I think and write about it. And let’s hope that next week provides a more typical Lost experience to get the haters back on board.

Random favorite fanboy moment: “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” Thanks for giving me an epigraph to use in my book!


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