Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Object of Curiosity: The Cult Greatness of The Lost Room

"Some people think that God...died...and that all these Objects? They're little pieces of his corpse. Some people say that's crap. They think that some part of the universe broke down and it's just physics gone haywire. And OTHER people think that God is alive, and this is some kind of test - and they're all out trying to collect all the Objects; like pilgrims looking for relics during the Middle Ages." –Wally Jabrowski, The Lost Room

In 2006 the Sci-Fi Channel released a shockingly good, expensive, and surprisingly intelligent original miniseries that you've likely never heard of: The Lost Room. [1]  

The Lost Room tells the story of Detective Joe Miller (Peter Krause; Six Feet Under), the very unusual motel room key he stumbles upon, and the various people and groups who are willing to do absolutely anything in order to take the key from him. That key is one of perhaps a hundred such “Objects” originating from “Room 10,” a motel room off Route 66 that was somehow removed from existence [2] on May 4, 1961.

Each of the Objects does something downright unusual. The key, for instance, grants instant access to Room 10 via any door with a lock. Once inside, the user can then exit the motel room and reappear anywhere in the world so long as there is another door in that location. Other Objects are similarly powerful (a comb that stops time! a nail file that induces sleep!) while others still are seemingly useless (a radio that makes you grow three inches taller! a watch that hard-boils eggs!). In back alleys and on back roads, in pawnshops, dry cleaners, and diners, a battle is being waged to possess the Objects. Some are motivated by religious fervor, some by intellectual obsession, some by greed and gain, some by trauma and loss. No one can agree on what the Objects “mean,” but all are forever changed by coming into contact with them. Joe Miller and his daughter are caught up in this quiet war, and when his daughter vanishes inside of Room 10 Miller sets out to rescue her – no matter the cost to himself. 

“I think what initially attracted me to the project is that it does work on many different levels. If you just want to watch the show and enjoy a very suspenseful page turner-type story, that's available to you. If you want to again look at the piece and look deeply, that was certainly one element that I think Chris and Laura were trying to explore. Our human interaction with the objects around us is really a fascinating Rorschach test whether it's in the story or in our own lives.” – Peter Krause [3]

The Lost Room began as a series of admirably geeky thought experiments. Co-creators Christopher Leone and Paul Workman were friends in college, and Workman would come to Leone with ideas like “what would be the most powerful superpower that I could have, with the least effect”? Years after those conversations, Leone and co-creator/co-writer Laura Harkom combined Workman’s ideas with a storyline they'd kicked around about a child caught up in a secret magical war in order to create The Lost Room[4] In doing so Leone and Harkom managed to summon up a television miniseries that’s simultaneously (1) an exciting and oddball magical realist adventure tale grounded by impressive character work from a murderer's row of recognizable actors and (2) a surprisingly substantive and subversive religious and philosophical allegory. That it also studiously avoids casting its characters in a reductive "good vs. evil" context only heightens the power of that allegory. There is no real "evil" of the classical, reductive variety in The Lost Room. There are simply people - usually broken people of one stripe or another - trying to make sense of their own lives. The Objects of Room 10 function essentially as religious icons, offering to bring some sort of purpose and meaning to those lives despite their enigmatic origins. 

"I am a prophet of the Objects."  
- Martin Ruber, The Lost Room

The Lost Room effectively cultivates a mood of weird religiosity around the Objects as they are warred over by self-proclaimed prophets and apostles. By story's end there's even a Christ-figure. A large part of its power emerges from this unusual quality. The Lost Room presents a group of men and women who have been, in one way or another, damaged by life. To these people the Objects seem to take the place of organized religion in giving them a sense of purpose/power and the possibility, however remote, of being healed. It's wonderfully bizarre to watch a room full of grown men and women gazing in hushed awe at a pair of seemingly ordinary reading glasses, and there's a great deal of inherent absurdity to the idea of/sight of everyday objects worshipped as holy relics. 

That's part of what's so interesting about The Lost Room: what's being worshipped is, on the surface, some of the most insanely mundane shit possible; a radio, a bus ticket, a pack of cigarettes. These are not what we think of when we think of holy relics. They're "Objects," but they're also just objects; meaningless ephemera from a motel room that's designed to hold people over between one place and another. The show doesn't run from that absurdity, instead embracing it wholeheartedly. Yet at the same time the miniseries also treats the Objects as serious business. To those who worship the Objects they are slivers of Divinity - no less worthy of worship than two pieces of wood in the shape of a "t," or a big black block of stone, or scrolls, or whathaveyou. [5] In the eyes of some of these characters, the Objects are evidence of God’s existence. And perhaps they are. After all, at the least, there's evidence to suggest some intelligence behind and/or in the Objects.Then again, there's also some strikingly strong evidence that points in the exact opposite direction. 

"Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts." - Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea
“I think that's what's wonderful about this piece. It shows us how we look at objects, and we frequently become miserable because of the objects around us.“ – Peter Krause [6]  

The Lost Room has really nifty philosophical undercurrents which, at the time this essay was first published, seemed to me to be at least partially intentional. In conversation with co-creator Christopher Leone after initial publication Leone stated to me that these undercurrents were not, in fact, intentional - that "there wasn't any explicit existentialism from [Leone's] POV but I think we arrived there anyway by avoiding the classic good vs evil paradigm. And it probably is closer to my own worldview anyway, although I can't claim to know all that much about it." [7] This is one of the beautiful and maddening things about art, and about authorial intent. You or I can see, clearly, intent where none exists. Despite Leone's lack of intent to highlight the sorts of philosophical concepts I talk about below those philosophical concepts are still there in the fabric of the show. More accurately, the construction of the show allows the viewer to see the application of philosophical concepts to The Lost Room. You don't need to see or think about any of these concepts in order to enjoy the miniseries, but consideration of the following may heighten your enjoyment of The Lost Room and will expose you to a sliver of philosophy - which is great, because philosophy is awesome! 

At one point in The Lost Room, a copy of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's book Being and Nothingness is prominently displayed and we're told that “the Weasel” (the Object-coveter played by Roger Bart) used to "teach that stuff." Whether he means Philosophy generally or Sartre's most lauded work isn't clear. What is clear: “HEY! LOOK AT THIS BOOK, GUYS!”

In a lot of interesting ways The Lost Room is a kind of dramatization of many of the ideas that originated with the 20th century philosophical movement known as “Existentialism.” That may sound horribly dry and uninteresting when baldly stated on the page, but those questions are, intentionally or not, rattling around inside of an exciting supernatural quest narrative.

It would take a much larger article than this one to (try to) explain Existentialism and to (try to) fully outline Sartre’s thoughts on the subject. If the topic interests you enough you would be well-served to explore it further. [8] Instead, let’s briefly, brazenly, and cavalierly examine just a few of the ways in which The Lost Room might be said to internalize/embody Existential concepts through its narrative and its characters. Your experience of The Lost Room – whether it’s a first watch or a rewatch – may be enriched just by having considered them. If you've never seen the miniseries and want to preserve a few of its surprises you may want to consider stopping here, watching it, and then returning to read the thoughts below. If you don't particularly care about being spoiled then please, proceed. 

In The Lost Room, any meaning behind the Objects, the motel room, and the “event” as they’re presented is ultimately arbitrary. There are theories and fanatical beliefs but no objective meaning, and it's suggested there may not be one. Objects like the pen, the clock, and the eye all have power but no purpose – other than the purpose ascribed to them by people who see through a glass darkly, if at all. In this way The Lost Room reflects “the Existentialist maxim that there are no theories that can make a claim to universality.” [9] That notion is reflected in the multitude of theories throughout the miniseries, none of them affirmed, about what the Objects are and "mean." Rather than possessing inherent meaning, the Objects, the motel room, and the event are given meaning by the people who observe them. That meaning is derived from those individuals’ experiences. The purposeless receive purpose, the wounded see weapons, the grieving see resurrection, the power-hungry see power: I think in a lot of ways it's about who has access to the room. I think it's about the person in charge. I think, in general, the room and all the objects in the show are kind of a Rorschach test.” [10]

This highlighting of the conflict between the characters’ attempts to give meaning to the Objects and the apparent lack of meaning inherent in the Objects echoes the philosophical school of thought known as Absurdism – a school of thought closely linked to Existentialism. Absurdism is an amusingly apt name in this context, given that the notion of assigning religious meaning to a bunch of mundane objects is literally absurd.

Beyond that, the vast majority of the characters in The Lost Room objectify one another, viewing each other as tools and/or obstacles in the pursuit of the Objects. In a real way, the characters view each other as objects. Per Sartre’s ideas: “in being perceived by another conscious being we are being objectified or essentialized by that being, who may appear to be regarding us only as type, appearance, or imagined essence. In turn, we may seek to regard others as definable, simple objects..." [11] Recall Wally Jabrowski’s comment to Joe Miller when he learns about the disappearance of Miller’s daughter: "Sorry. I mean...I'm sorry. You forget to be human sometimes."  With this in mind it becomes significant that Joe Miller's success in his quest is arguably made possible in large part because he treats other people as people, not just as objects. In a reversal from nearly every other character in the show Miller only cares about the Objects insofar as they help him rescue his daughter. While Miller is shown to have no issue using others in order to accomplish his goal, he’s more often shown extending small kindnesses to the people he meets, and those kindnesses inspire others to want to assist him.

Consider also the journey of Martin Ruber, who decides that the Objects don’t just allow people to “know the mind of God,” but to “be God.” Then reflect on this: "at the summation of Sartre’s polemic, an incredible sense of hopelessness dominates the discussion: I am a nothingness, a lack, dehumanized by the other and deceived even by myself. Yet, as Sartre continually emphasizes, I am free, I am transcendent, I am consciousness, and I make the world.” [12]

"I make the world." Arguably, that statement places humanity at the center of creation. Arguably, it makes Ruber’s assertion correct. Through the exercise of consciousness we make the world around us in our conscious image. Is that not, in a sense, a thoroughly god-like act? [13]

 Finally, note this observation on existence from an Existential perspective: "The human can never know being as it truly is, for to do that, one would have to be the thing itself. To know a rock, we have to be the rock."[14] Interestingly, this is precisely what happens to Joe Miller over the course of The Lost Room. To know the Objects - for the express purpose of saving his daughter - he becomes an Object. And it is through becoming an Object that Joe is able to effectuate the return of his daughter.

…Pretty neat, right? These brief paragraphs barely scratch the surface and all of this is, philosophically speaking, far more complicated than presented, but it’s clear that there are a host of connections to discover and discuss within what’s ostensibly a funky little sci-fi/fantasy miniseries.

Dude, if you want to theorize, I'm going to charge you another grand.” 
– Suzie Kang, The Lost Room

The Lost Room consists of just the first few chapters in a much larger intended story, and one can see the tantalizing outlines of the ongoing series that could have been within it; a show that could have used its supernatural trappings to explore philosophy, morality, the religious impulse, and much more. Each week could have focused on a new Object with Joe, now an Object himself, becoming a part of those stories more often than not. Martin Ruber would enter into those stories to build his followers and seek out Objects in order to “be God.” The series could jump back and forward in time, setting stories in the past and quite possibly in the future. Characters like Wally, the Weasel, and the Sood would pop up as needed to assist and/or menace people. And of course, the character of Kreutzfeld isn't dead, just...elsewhere/elsewhen. Surely he’d show up again as well.

None of that happened, obviously. [15] The Lost Room effectively ended in 2006 – and maybe that’s for the best.

"From the beginning of Being and Nothingness, Sartre displays his debt to Nietzsche through his rejection of the notion of any transcendent reality or being that humans can know which might lie behind or beneath the appearances that make up reality. That is, the experience of appearances is reality. Although this does imply an emptiness, Sartre does not see it as a negative truth. Freed of the search for some essential form being, we, as conscious beings are empowered in knowing that our personal, subjective experience of the world is all the truth there is." [16]

A large part of what's lingeringly compelling about The Lost Room is the stubborn inscrutability of its own mythology. Had the show gone to series it no doubt would have had to explain itself, even if only partially. Ending where it does allows viewers the pleasure of speculation and unbridled imaginative play. The viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions about the event, the motel room, and its inexplicable Objects; left to create meaning for them. This, understandably, irks some people. Those people want to know what this story “means,” and the lack of any real cause for what we’ve seen over the course of the miniseries denies them an explanation.

But given its heavy Existentialist underpinnings, the fact that The Lost Room leaves its largest mysteries completely unsolved might be one of the best things about it. Certainly it’s thematically appropriate. For the vast majority of its running time The Lost Room dramatizes a conflict between competing ideologies and ends exactly as it should in order to stand as an Existential contribution to pop culture. After all, as we’ve now seen, the story that's really being told here involves the ways in which people assign meaning to meaninglessness. No concrete resolution will satisfy following on the heels of such a conflict because, Existentially speaking, no such concrete resolution can exist.

       With a price tag of approximately $20 million [17] and a cast that included Krause, Kevin Pollack (The Usual Suspects), Juliana Margolis (ER), Roger Bart (The Producers), Ewen Bremmer (Trainspotting), Denis Christopher (Django Unchained), Peter Jacobson (House), and Elle Fanning (Super 8), The Lost Room was part of a larger move by the Sci-Fi Channel toward prestige-style genre television.

         ...It was also one of the channel's "lowest rated miniseries ever" [18].

        That's how a storyline conceived as the opening chapters of an ongoing series became a self-contained entity; an object of curiosity remembered by a cultish group of fans who constructed websites to venerate the show and its eerie/quirky mythology. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. You can throw a stone on the Internet and hit a website devoted to pretty much any sci-fi/fantasy show that's ever existed. What helps The Lost Room stand out from this maddening crowd is its considerable quality and intelligence. Years after its initial release The Lost Room remains as compelling, as clever, and as intriguingly obtuse as ever. It’s an under-the-radar gem, an ultra-rare example of magical realism on television done right, and a burgeoning cult classic, and you owe it to yourself to track it downIf you've ever loved a show like Twin PeaksLostFringeX-Files, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer [19]then you owe it to yourself to check out The Lost Room.

This essay was initially published in Two Clones Magazine and has been tweaked for its presentation here. I'm very grateful to Two Clones founder Josh Flynn for providing an opportunity to write about such a terrific and underrated television miniseries. Thanks, Josh. 

[1] Don't take my word for it. The first installment is freely available to watch via Youtube, and the entire miniseries is available to own via Amazon for $6.78

[2] Or maybe never existed in the first place? Or exists in every place? Kind of? It's complicated. 

[5] And really, what differentiates the Objects from any of object of worship, except institutional legitimacy?

[7] From a Twitter Direct Message interaction between Christopher Leone and myself, which is the sort of lovely artist-to-fan communication that social media makes possible. I'm grateful to Leone for sharing his thoughts and his time. 

[8] Some possible starting places for you. You just might find it fascinating - though it's more likely you'll feel compelled to find me and beat me with a bag of hammers

[12] See fn 7

[13] Sartre’s Nausea also comes to mind during the course of The Lost Room, as one important character tells Joe Miller that the presence of the Objects is torture for a conscious mind, which recalls Sartre’s assertion that the conscious mind’s realization that objects lack any inherent “essence” provokes a sickening, nauseous sensation.

[14] See fn 7

[15] In 2010 co-creators Christopher Leone and Laura Harkom announced the continuation of the story as a “Season Two” comic book. Fans waited eagerly for almost three years before the chosen publisher, Red 5, announced that the project had been put on hold indefinitely. There has been no indication that “Season 2” of The Lost Room will ever see the light of day.

[16] See fn 7

[19] If you’re reading this then you likely do, and always will, love at least one of those

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