Pop-culture mysteries, and whether we want the answers
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was rereading the Sandman book The Kindly Ones, and Neil Gaiman discusses at the end how the book raises answerable questions that will remain unanswered, because, to paraphrase, it is the mystery that lingers, not the explanation. What pop-culture mystery have you spent the most time wondering about, or been the most curious about? What is your pet theory, if you have one? And if you could have the creator give you the definitive answer, would you want it? My personal example is one Gaiman himself raises, namely, who were Loki and Puck working for in The Kindly Ones when they kidnapped Daniel? Try as I might, I have no pet theory about that, and yes, I would love a detailed answer, mystery be damned. —Mike
I don’t think any pop-culture mysteries have stuck with me as long as the ones raised in Twin Peaks. The show deliberately left a great many threads hanging at the end because the creators hoped to force a third-season pickup, but it also threw out a number of mysterious incidents and images seemingly in the name of simple David Lynchian surrealism. Off the top of my head: What was up with the creamed-corn kid? Did the Log Lady really have her dead husband’s spirit in her log, or was she just crazy? Is that related to Josie seemingly dying (of fright? Really?) and having her spirit trapped in a bureau-drawer pull-knob? What exactly are the owls? How does the Red Room relate to the Black and White Lodges, and what happens there? And what happens to Agent Cooper at the end? There are plenty more unanswered questions, and generally, no, I don’t have theories, or even much faith that the creators had answers in mind for many of the questions they left open—dedicated Peaks fans have assembled a number of interview fragments from various places that indicate even the writers don’t agree on the answers to some of these questions, and creator David Lynch has said himself that he doesn’t know what the Red Room is, he was just operating on intuition and imagery. But yes, even at this point, I’d still be interested in explanations, even understanding that they’re far past the point of being trustworthy indicators of what the show’s creators were thinking at the time.
Well, here’s an excellent chance to talk about a movie that gets better every time I see it: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film was originally written off somewhat upon its release, for a number of boring reasons—the miscasting of Jack Nicholson as an everyday guy being driven insane, its apparent unfaithfulness to Stephen King’s source novel, and so on. But I’ll gladly give up a subplot about a faulty boiler—really? Who cares?—for what Kubrick offers. The Shining is one of the most wildly amorphous American films I can think of, one which draws much of its terror from the nagging questions and bogus “continuity errors” that Kubrick nestles into his mise-en-scene. Why do doorknobs appear to switch sides? Why do stickers disappear from Danny’s door? What’s with the ghosts? Or the guy in the dog costume giving a man in a tuxedo a blowjob? And the photo of Nicholson’s character at the end of the film, which suggests that he’s “always” been at the Overlook Hotel?
Fans have pored over these questions, and many others, since the film’s release. And all the heady theorizing has itself been profiled in the recent doc Room 237, in which obsessives suggest that the film is Kubrick’s roundabout Holocaust allegory, or that he’s using it to confess that he faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. While I find this stuff interesting, I’m more interested in how this sort of Shining fandom speaks to the film itself. All these unanswered questions only illustrate how wonderfully spongy and open-ended The Shining is, mysteries creeping around the film’s edges like ghosts. He leaves a lot of threads dangling, but in doing so, Kubrick created what may be the greatest testament to his gargantuan talent—he transmuted the work of a pulpy American author into something evoking the enigmatic splendor of Alain Resnais.
I swear, I’m not trying to piggyback on Tasha’s answer, but I too am an obsessive Twin Peaks fan, snatching up all the various merchandise and tie-ins that were foisted upon the fans (one of my many cheap thrills as an interviewer was having Jennifer Lynch tell me I ruled because I’d been a fan of hers since buying The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer), so naturally I was one of the few people who rushed to the theater when David Lynch released his prequel to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Generally, the more you watch Lynch’s films, the more you come to accept that just about every character he creates, no matter how small, seems designed to leave you wondering about both where the hell they came from and what happened to them after the events of the movie. But after leaving so many questions unanswered at the end of Twin Peaks, it seemed particularly perverse even for Lynch to offer up a prequel that opened by creating even more unanswered questions that were even less likely to be resolved. Where was Agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie) during his mysterious two-year absence, and why did he suddenly return? Or did he actually return? And if he did, where did he go when he abruptly vanished into thin air? Also, what happened to Agent Desmond (Chris Isaak), who also pulled a disappearing act after finding Theresa Banks’ emerald ring under the trailer? It’s an added touch of perversion that these questions are actually asked in the film by Lynch himself, in his role as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole. You know, if I didn’t love his work so much, I’d really hate that guy…
I have too often found that getting answers to these sorts of mysteries can only lead to disappointment. Finding out that Ridley Scott definitively considered Deckard to be a replicant in Blade Runner didn’t really ruin the movie, since pretty much everybody assumes he is. But having an answer definitely took away some of the fun of wondering and puzzling things out. I suspect I’d feel roughly similar if David Chase ever said specifically what was going on in the Sopranos finale. But I will admit to a burning desire to know what Amy Sherman-Palladino’s famous “last words” for Gilmore Girls were. She was removed from the show before its seventh and final season, and this was after she told many people she knew what the end of the show was going to be, right down to the final exchange of dialogue. To this date, she’s been mum about what those words would have been, clinging to her hope for a movie that will probably never arrive. Sherman-Palladino is often a terrific writer, and the men and women of Stars Hollow were her finest creations. Is it that wrong to want to know how the two Lorelais would have faded out in her vision of the show?
Many of my fellow A.V. Club writers have raised some serious questions about some serious topics. And that’s all well and good. But for me, one pop-culture mystery towers above them all. It’s one so profoundly opaque that its true answer may never be fully unveiled by humankind as we know it. That question? Exactly what way do Backstreet Boys want it? “I Want It That Way” is one of the most ubiquitous pop songs of the past 20 years, and yet its lyrics are so impenetrable that Bob Dylan himself might feel a twinge of envy. Musically inspired by Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” (it’s true!), its lyrics are seemingly straightforward until you actually try to grammatically diagram it. The lyrics keep speaking about the way the Backstreet Boys don’t want it, but never clue us into the alternate, more positive road toward eternal love. I understand that it ain’t nothing but a heartbreak, and it ain’t nothing but a mistake. That’s all well and good. But what the hell IS it, then? Staring at the lyrics for too long sends me down a rabbit hole of insanity, even while I’m unable to stop crooning the catchy melody. Maybe aliens in the future will descend and clue us in. For now, we’ll have to cede this particular mystery of life… to a boy band.
HBO’s Carnivale was full of mysteries, and given how abruptly the series ended, it’s no surprise that most of those mysteries were left unsolved. Sure, the season-two finale (which also became the series finale) did a pretty good job of wrapping up the story arc of the first two seasons, but it introduced more mysteries and cliffhangers than it solved. What happened to Sofie in that cabin to change her so completely overnight, from a frightened girl who seemed mostly good (albeit with a cruel streak) into a ruthless killer who eagerly embraces her dark heritage and guns down one of her oldest friends? If she’s meant to take Justin’s place as the avatar of darkness, who’s to take Ben’s place as the avatar of light? Is Ben becoming the de facto new “Management,” as seems implied by him taking up residence in the trailer, mangled from a wound in his side? Is Sofie resurrecting Brother Justin in that closing shot, or gaining some kind of “boon” from him? Then there are all the leftover earlier mysteries, like who the hell was that mask-maker, and what was his deal? What did the Templars have to do with all of this? How did Wilfred Talbot Smith—the creepy, greasy guy who instructed Brother Justin on how to receive his boon—know so much, and what was his connection to Scudder? And on and on… I wish HBO would bring it back, even as a movie or miniseries, to wrap up at least some of those loose ends.
Every time Field Of Dreams is on, forces I don’t completely understand compel me to sit down and watch the whole thing, even though I’ve seen it 20 times. Still, after all those viewings, I don’t know much about what is out in that corn. It seems like some sort of purgatory, since religious wisdom would dictate those dead people would be going up or down if they were heading toward judgment. Maybe it’s just a portal for dead baseball players, but then why are all of the players coming through the corn from the early 1900s? It’s probably best the film doesn’t go into it. But if Parks And Recreation can create a fake Twitter account months in advance of a tweet joke on an episode, would it be too much to ask for one of the Field Of Dreams writers to whip up a Terrence Mann recap of what he saw out in that corn? And then have James Earl Jones read it out loud?
I wouldn’t change a frame of Memento, and I know it’s stupid of me to ask for this, but I want to know what happens to Leonard, the poor guy suffering from anterograde amnesia, after he kills his apparent puppetmaster. I’ve always been of the camp that believes Teddy (played by Joe Pantoliano), when he tells Leonard (played by Guy Pearce) the story of his wife’s death. If you believe Teddy, then it’s scary to think of what Leonard will get up to without somebody pulling his strings and guiding him through his miserable, weird existence, hellbent on vengeance that has either already been served or was never needed. But really, I don’t want a Memento sequel, Christopher Nolan. You’re too busy anyway.
I know Drive has become a contentious topic around here. And that’s why it’s fun to keep picking away at it. The ending: Does Ryan Gosling live? Will he be found dead at some remote intersection, his beautiful corpse-forehead on the steering wheel, pressing one long horn blast until the battery dies? Does he realize, “Oh, shit. That money could come in handy,” and live just long enough to hand the blood-soaked duffle bag to Carey Mulligan and her now terribly scarred son? Does anyone care? Actually, I kinda do. After that elevator scene, where Gosling’s silent (natch) romantic gesture, sexy kiss, vicious killing, and anguished stare as the elevator door closes all combine to make one of the best movie scenes of late that I can think of, I’m rooting for him.
The thing is, I don’t think you really want to know the answer to most of these. We never saw Rosemary’s baby’s eyes, and that’s okay. Everybody remembers that line. Nobody remembers Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby. More people remember “Ode To Billie Joe“ than remember Ode To Billy Joe. Those dangling pieces can turn the prosaic poetic. And Twin Peaks is the best example of all. Lynch just isn’t in the answers business. I’m not sure he has the supply to meet the demand, even if he was. I don’t care what’s in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. I’m happy not to know. I love the endings of No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. Etc. All that being said… You know what? I’d planned to offer a counterexample here, but I can’t think of one. Viva loose ends and unresolved chords.
What will happen to Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross after the famously ambiguous happy ending of The Graduate? Will Ethan Hawke skip his flight at the end of Before Sunset? Are the torments that follow Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene real or imagined? These are fun questions to think about, but I don’t think I’ve ever wanted them answered. In fact, the very existence of Before Sunset alarmed me, because I didn’t care to know whether Hawke and Julie Delpy would ever meet again in Vienna six months after the end of Before Sunrise. (Then I saw the movie, and those misgivings vaporized.) I understand how these endings can frustrate audiences who like their conclusions conclusive: I vividly remember a theater full of people groaning and screaming after the cut to black that ended John Sayles’ Limbo. (C’mon people, it’s right there in the title!) To me, the question-mark endings I want explained are the ones that are supposed to be unambiguous, but don’t wrap things up as neatly as they’d like. I’m looking at you, Richard Kelly!
It's funny that Keith mentions A Serious Man, because I had the exact same response to the film. I love the hell out of A Serious Man, a brilliant character study and oddball moral fable defined by ambiguity and profound ambivalence. It's a film about a good but seemingly cursed man (Michael Stuhlbarg) looking for answers and moral certainty in an era (the late ’60s) where they’re in short supply, if not altogether nonexistent. True to form, the film ends on a fascinatingly enigmatic note. Is the soulful seeker of a protagonist terminally ill? Will his quest for answers end with a premature trip to the grave? We don't know, and though there is part of me that doesn't want to know, that wants to, in the words of the film, "embrace the mystery" of existence, part of me also wants a resolution, if only because I'd like to spend more time with the Coen brothers' unforgettable characters and fascinating protagonist.