The (alleged) Truth Behind Episode Six of “The OA”

SPOILER NOTICE! (Not quite an “alert” as this post doesn’t contain any significant spoilers.)

The OA” (Netflix original series) is a bit like “Stranger Things” but for slightly older people and with cuss words and nudity. And it’s trippy. Very trippy.

The series is composed of eight episodes, and when we watched episode six last night we were surprised that it clocked in at only 31 minutes. Previous episodes have been 60 minutes, give-or-take a few.

My first thought was that Netflix had messed up and truncated the episode, but a check of the episode running times confirmed the short duration. I Googled around to see if there was a reason for it, and was surprised to find almost no one mentioning the inexplicably short episode. I finally found a Reddit thread where someone claimed that Zal Batmanglij, the show’s co-creator, has said that they did not feel the need to be constrained by conventional television time slot durations; that they preferred to have flexibility in episode lengths in the same way that chapters in a novel are not constrained to specific page counts.

Fair enough. It makes sense, given that Netflix is watched entirely according to the viewer’s schedule, so there’s no need to fit into time-slot boxes. But then I looked at the durations for all episodes in the series:

Episode 1: 71 minutes
Episode 2: 58 minutes
Episode 3: 60 minutes
Episode 4: 64 minutes
Episode 5: 61 minutes
Episode 6: 31 minutes
Episode 7: 41 minutes
Episode 8: 50 minutes

Notice that the first five episodes are pretty much locked into a one-hour duration (with the exception of the first, which runs an hour and 11 minutes, but it’s not unusual for a first episode of a series to run a bit long). Then there’s a dramatic shift at episode six, to 31 minutes. The concluding two episodes are 41 and 50 minutes.

So we’re supposed to believe that the show creators did not want to be constrained to traditional time-slot durations, but this creative freedom only kicked in after the fifth episode?

No. I’m not buying it. Here’s what I think happened:

We know that the show sometimes goes off into very trippy dimensions, which is usually balanced by the more grounded parts that take place in the abandoned house and the abandoned mine. We also know that the show has received mixed reviews, with some viewers giving up after a few episodes because they were turned off by the trippy bits.

I suspect that the last three episodes were originally about an hour in duration, but were even trippier than the first five. When the Netflix programming executives saw the finished product they demanded cuts to the extra-trippy bits in those last three episodes because they though it was over-the-top and would cause viewers to bail. (As it stands, there are plenty of accounts of people bailing, even after the alleged cuts, due to a sense that the show had gone “off the rails.”)

I further speculate that the show creators don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, so they have not complained and have come up with this story about freedom from the constraints of conventional formats.

It’s pure speculation of course, but I’m sticking to it, and perhaps one day the official story will change, at which point all you nay-sayers can send me a “You were right” card with a dollar in it.

Westworld Season 1 Finale

SPOILER ALERT!

Westworld is a pretty interesting series, filed with contemplations on the power of narrative and various takes on questions of free will, self-awareness, and machine sentience. It was also filled with slow, coma-inducing soliloquies layered over narcoleptic piano tracks derived from Radiohead songs, which made it hard to stay awake when watching it after my nightly gorge of an entire turkey and three bottles of wine.*

Some of the turns and twists I saw coming. By the third episode I had pretty much determined that William and black-hat guy are the same person, separated by time. I had Bernard’s secret pretty assuredly in hand not long before it was revealed. But I will admit I didn’t see the totality of Ford’s “new narrative” until he began his final celebratory speech, moments before Delores marked her prime directive-free debut with a shot to the back of Ford’s head.

But I’m left with a lingering question. (Many, actually, but one main one.) We are lead to believe that the hosts have risen up, in a “rise of the machines” manner, but we have also seen that they were essentially just following Ford’s new narrative. Does this mean they have not actually achieved true consciousness and free will, that they are just following the program? Or does the program they’re following allow for enough improvisation that they can actually perform “freely” while still being subject to programming protocols and inputs — which is essentially (according to some) the definition of human behaviour?

For example, was Maeve’s last-minute debarking from the train scripted, or did she do that of her own free will and consciousness? I suspect this will be a central theme of the second season.

* Don’t believe everything you read. #metacomment

[Originally published on Facebook, December 7, 2016.]

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.

Footloose Remake

Some Hollywood studio is remaking the 1984 movie Footloose.

I hated the original Footloose. OK, let’s be reasonable; I “didn’t like” Footloose. At the time, I thought it was about the dumbest movie I had ever seen. (Red Dawn wouldn’t come out for another six months.)

If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the movie, here’s a quick rundown: in a random small town in middle America, the local preacher has succeeded in banning dancing. Into town rolls a teenager (Kevin Bacon) with his single mother. Bacon is an urban tough guy who likes to dance. As a result of the ban on dancing, he ends up smoking angrily a lot, does late night acrobatics in the barn, and drives his VW Beetle very fast. He ends up challenging the preacher and his dancing ban, but not before getting hot for… wait for it… the preacher’s daughter! Because he is Kevin Bacon and not a frumpy town preacher, he wins.

I knew from the premise that I’d hate the movie, but everyone around me was chirping about the dancing. “But the dancing! The dancing!” This was a year after Flashdance, so there was a huge buzz around movies with dancing in them. But watch the trailers for Footloose and Flashdance and you can tell that they are very, very different movies. I knew I’d hate Footloose, but I went anyway because everyone – including my then girlfriend – was all hopped up on “the dancing.”

There wasn’t much dancing. After all, this is a movie set in a town that has banned dancing. What little “dancing” there was, was more like second-rate circus acrobatics made dramatic with lots of backlighting and angry smoking.

Then there was that whole “urban kid comes to a small town and shows them townies how it’s done” thing. As someone from a small town, who at the time was living in a smaller town, I resented that. Most egregious was the idea that there was a tough guy who likes to dance. When I was in high school there could not have been two things more mutually exclusive than “tough guy” and “likes to dance.”

Let’s imagine for a moment that Footloose was set in my home town, at the high school I went to. It would have gone down something like this:

Tough city guy who likes to dance rolls into town. As soon as he opens his mouth somebody yells “fag!” and a bunch of guys beat him up. High school “dance” carries on as usual, which is to say there is no dancing and it is entirely concerned with drinking, smoking, and trying to make out with girls.

Things are different nowadays. In the era of wall-to-wall So You Think You Can Dance, it’s OK for a fella to like to shimmy about and bust a few moves. Heck, I assert here and now that So You Think You Can Dance is one of my favorite TV shows. It’s a whole new world, where farm-boy yokels like Kent Boyd (from Wapakoneta, Ohio!) can magically develop world class modern dance technique while baling hay and shucking corn. But that begs the question; if the premise of a town banning dancing was absurd in 1984, how is it going to seem in 2010? And will there actually be dancing this time?