Sunday, July 21, 2013
J.J. Abrams On The Magic Of Mystery
(By J.J. Abrams, Wired Magazine, April 2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!! This essay ends with cheating. Specifically, my friend Greg and I, after playing a particular videogame for 11 hours straight, are stuck. We call a fellow gamer to learn what moves we need to make to get to the next level. With the new information in hand, we finally complete the game. OK, there ya go. No need to read the rest of this piece—seriously, there's an annoying rant up ahead anyway. Skip to the next article. You certainly could—you could skip the whole magazine. Of course, I hope you don't. Some painstaking work went into this incredibly cool issue. (There are things occurring within these pages that are not apparent at first or second glance. That's the only hint I will give you.) I urge you to dig. Give in to the unknown for a while and ponder the mystery. It's worth it. Which, I suppose, is the topic of this very essay. The one that I've already suggested you skip.
Mystery, obviously, is everywhere. Is there a God? Mystery. What about life after death? Mystery. Excuse me, what material is the ShamWow made of? Mystery. Stonehenge? Big Foot? Loch Ness? Mystery mystery mystery. McDonald's Special Sauce? I don't care how many bottles of Thousand Island Dressing you show me, it's Special Sauce. Mystery. And yet: For all that mystery, why does it feel like the world has been ripped open, all parts exposed? Why does so much seem absolutely and thoroughly demystified? These days we can leap, all of us, from a casual curiosity about anything to a sense of satisfying understanding. Instantly. Want to fold origami? There are more than 200,000 Google results on that subject available to you, now. Need to know the capital of Mauritania? A recipe for sticky buns? How to pick a bicycle lock? You could answer all these questions in less time than it will take you to finish reading this article (which, for a second time, I suggest you skip. Remember: You know how it ends, so why are you still here?). What I'm getting at is hardly news to anyone: We're smack dab in the middle of the Age of Immediacy.
True understanding (or skill or effort) has become bothersome—an unnecessary headache that impedes our ability to get on with our lives (and most likely skip to something else). Earning the endgame seems so yesterday, especially when we can know whatever we need to know whenever we need to know it. People often ask me how Lost is going to end. I usually tell them to ask Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who run that series. But I always wonder, do they really want to know? And what if I did tell them? They might have an aha moment, but without context. Especially since the final episode is a year away. That is to say, the experience—the setup for a joke's punch line, the buildup to a magic trick's big flourish—is as much of a thrill as the result. There's discovery to be made and wonder to be had on the journey that not only enrich the ending but in many ways define it.
Think back, for example, to how we used to buy music. You would have to leave your apartment or house and actually move your ass to another location. You'd get to the store, where music would be playing on the stereo. Music you may not have heard before. Perhaps you'd ask the clerk what it was and she'd send you to a bin—those wooden containers holding actual albums or CDs—and you'd look through it, seeing other album covers that might catch your eye. You'd have a chance to discover something. But wait, you say, iTunes gives you the chance to browse! To that I nod, concede the point, and say, "Bullshit." Those little icons you scroll past mean almost nothing to most of us. Why? Because we didn't get on the train, brave the weather, bump into strangers, and hear music we didn't choose. In other words, we didn't earn the right to casually scan those wooden bins. Lately I go to Amoeba Music in Hollywood just to watch people flip through albums. It's a lost art.
Sure, in the days before recorded music, you'd need a live performance to hear music at all. So isn't technology actually enriching our lives? Well, of course. This is not meant to be an antitechnology diatribe—some clichèd Luddite treatise (in an issue of Wired, no less). On the contrary, I'm a massive fan of most everything electronic. I use, appreciate, and drool over far too many high tech innovations. I'm an embarrassed whore for the stuff. But tech has made us thankless. Back in the day, it would've been unthinkable to go to the music store, actually purchase a record, and then get home and not listen to it. But today? How many of us have downloaded albums or songs that are still sitting, months or years later, unplayed in our iTunes library? My hand just slowly went up, too.
In my profession, this mentality is illustrated by the spoiler: that piece of information meant to be kept secret, like the end of a movie or TV show or novel. Spoilers give fans the answers they want, the resolution they crave. As an avid fan of movies and TV myself, I completely understand the desire to find out behind-the-scenes details in a nanosecond. Which, given technology, is often how long it takes—to the frustration of the storytellers. Efforts to gather this intel and the attempts to plug leaks create an ongoing battle between filmmakers and the very fans they are dying to entertain and impress. But the real damage isn't so much that the secret gets out. It's that the experience is destroyed. The illusion is diminished. Which may not matter to some. But then what's the point of actually seeing that movie or episode? How does knowing the twist before you walk into the theater—or what that island is really about before you watch the finale—make for a richer viewing experience? It's telling that the very term itself—spoiler—has become synonymous with "cool info you can get before the other guy." What no one remembers is that it literally means "to damage irreparably; to ruin." Spoilers make no bones about destroying the intended experience—and somehow that has become, for many, the preferred choice.
In some cases, spoilers don't just prevent the intended experience of something, they prevent the very existence of it. Case in point: I had spent close to two years working on a version of a Superman script for Warner Bros. Then an early draft was leaked, reviewed, and spectacularly decimated on a Web site that I still adore and read daily. It wasn't just that the review was bad. Which it was. I mean, like, kraptastically bad. And probably deserved (I'm the idiot who made Lex Luthor a Kryptonian). What was so depressing wasn't just that the thing being reviewed was an old version of a work in progress. What killed me was that the reviewer—and then readers of that reviewer—weren't just judging my writing. They were judging the movie. A movie that was barely in preproduction and many drafts away from final. A film that ultimately never got made—in small part because that review, and subsequent posts, made studio decisionmakers nervous. The fact is, that Superman film might have been awful. Or it could have been something else. We'll never know.
Recently my production company, Bad Robot, decided to be ultra-secretive about a movie called Cloverfield [guest ed. note: Apologies to anyone who got motion sick]. When the trailer hit the screens right before Transformers, people freaked out. Not necessarily because of the content of the trailer, but because it was a surprise—they knew nothing about it beforehand. That was the point: The intended effect was to make a teaser trailer that actually teased. It worked like gangbusters, all because we hadn't prepublicized the film on entertainment shows and in magazines. It was a small experiment that proved what most everyone knows: Having all the information isn't always better.
I guess the question is, who among us has the self-control to choose not to go for the easy answer? This time my hand stays down. In 1989, I was living with my best friend since kindergarten, Greg Grunberg. He's an actor—currently on NBC's Heroes. We had recently purchased a Nintendo videogame system and were playing Super Mario Bros. 2. Actually, playing is the wrong word. We were obsessed freaks. For us, getting to the end screen of that game was more important than anything in the history of time. And this particular game was lacking a certain feature I like to call The Ability To Fucking Save (or TATFS). This meant that playing Super Mario Bros. 2 was an all-or-nothing activity. Yeah, you could pause it, but then when you left your house the thing might catch fire and kill people. No, you had to play that damn thing in one hideous sitting.
Weeks into this pathetic example of two 23-year-old men not having a life, Greg and I decided to complete Super Mario Bros. 2. And because it lacked TATFS, this meant giving up any human activity until the job was done. So early one morning, we stockpiled some food and began playing. Around lunchtime, taking turns with the controller at every stage, we were at level 4-2. Which, for the uninitiated, is more than halfway through the game. We were feeling pretty cocky and had probably high-fived a few times.
Anyway, again for those not in the know, you start off with something like four Marios (meaning you can die three times and still play). But you can gain extra lives as you play. As it approached eight o'clock that night, the controller was in my hands, we were on level 7-1, and we had 22 Marios. That's right: 22. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves. 7-1 is so close to the end, you can almost smell having to get a life again. But to get past 7-1, you need to jump through a series of clouds—which sounds easy as hell but isn't: There was this one particular cloud I couldn't get past. Every time I tried, the little Mario would fall, spinning, to his demise. I can see it in my head now, and it still infuriates me. Our 22 Marios quickly dwindled to 15, and I was freaking out. When we were down to around a dozen Marios, I started getting pissed. "This is bullshit!" I yelled. "OK, OK," Greg said, picking up the phone. "I'm gonna call my cousin."
This was good news. As he dialed, I kept playing. And kept dying. Ten Marios left. I heard Greg on the phone, explaining our situation to his cousin. "Uh-huh. OK, thanks," Greg said and hung up. "Someone's gonna call us back." "Good," I said, having paused the game to take a deep breath, only to resume and subsequently die again. "Damn it!" A few minutes later, the phone rang. "Yeah, thanks for calling," Greg said in a grim voice, like there was a family emergency. He explained to the guy what was going on, and I heard Greg say, "Uh-huh. OK. OK, hold on." And then Greg told me, "Move to the right edge, then double-jump up and you should get to the next cloud."
"Double-jump?" I asked. Oh, good. This was information. This was new and helpful, and hope coursed through my veins. "Thanks—OK—" And I tried it. And died. "DAMN IT!!!" Greg told the guy on the phone that it didn't work. Then he told me, "Yeah, he knows exactly where you are. Go to the edge of the cloud, then double-jump. He swears it works." I tried it again and failed. Repeatedly. I now had five Marios left. FIVE MARIOS. "Greg," I said, my heart sinking. "We're gonna die here." "No," Greg insisted. "Try it again." I did. Three more times—WE WERE DOWN TO TWO MARIOS AND I WAS GOING INSANE. Greg reported this to the guy on the phone, then said to me, "Try it one more time." Sweating, shaking my head, I tried again and lost my penultimate Mario, and I couldn't take it anymore, and I yelled out, "WILL YOU TELL THAT GUY HE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK HE'S TALKING ABOUT?!" Greg quickly covered the mouthpiece and said to me, quietly, admonishingly, "Dude. He's 7."
And that was when I really felt it. Cheating is humiliating. No matter what form it takes. Skipping ahead—even without the help of someone in Underoos—lessens the experience. Diminishes the joy. Makes the accomplishment that much duller. Perhaps that's why mystery, now more than ever, has special meaning. Because it's the anomaly, the glaring affirmation that the Age of Immediacy has a meaningful downside. Mystery demands that you stop and consider—or, at the very least, slow down and discover. It's a challenge to get there yourself, on its terms, not yours. It turns out the 7-year-old was right. His tip finally worked, and Greg and I finished the game that day. But I'd traded any true satisfaction for a cheat. I can't even remember seeing that end screen. The point is, we should never underestimate process. The experience of the doing really is everything. The ending should be the end of that experience, not the experience itself. So, if you're still reading, I say please: Dig.
J.J., MAN OF MYSTERY
An Abrams production doesn't just mean a good story—it also means puzzles and Easter eggs. Here, we tap into our fave J.J. mysteries.
Meghan's Box in Felicity
In Abrams' college drama, there was one unanswered question that sustained throughout: What's in Meghan's wooden box?
The Number 47 in Alias
CIA agent Sydney Bristow's search for the elusive Milo Rambaldi's works frequently featured clues involving the number 47. They drove us mad.
The Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III
The plot focused on the struggle for the "rabbit's foot," but in the end even Ethan Hunt didn't find out what was really in that canister.
The "Observer" in Fringe
This enigmatic character writes in an unknown language, lacks eyebrows, and manages to be always around the corner. Stay tuned ...