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Q&A: Transmedia guru Henry Jenkins on 'Lost,' negative capability and that 'Sopranos' ending

March 25, 2010 |  7:30 am
Jenkins Furious crosstown rivals USC and UCLA made peace for a day last week to jointly present a symposium entitled "Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story," co-hosted by USC Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts Henry Jenkins and Denise Mann, an associate professor in UCLA's Producers Program.

Too simply put, "transmedia" means telling a story across different platforms, each element of which may or may not stand on its own but contributes to an enriched, dynamic, more participatory and "lifelike" experience. The sense I got from the three packed panels I attended, which featured an array of academics, game designers, content creators and brand managers, is that the term itself, which is gaining industrial currency, can mean a lot of things at the moment, from creating a clever website to sell your movie to the sprawling media empire/alternate universe that is "Star Wars."

Increasing Internet bandwidth -- and the cultural (and economic) validation of science-fiction, still the genre most likely to play in this sandbox -- has lately pushed these concepts to the fore. But they are nothing new, as even Jenkins, the learned voice most  associated with the term transmedia, is quick to point out. ("Batman," for example, lived in comic books, on radio, in Big Little Books, as a movie serial and a TV show before Tim Burton got a hold of Frank Miller's graphic-novel remake -- and that was only another beginning.)

As the program's title indicated, much of what currently might be described as transmedia is driven by commerce, designed to build a brand, multiply revenue streams, or drive eyes toward a central moneymaking mothership. But now and again, as with, say, "The Lost Experience," or the matrix built around "The Matrix," it does approach Jenkins' vision of a new kind of integrated, multi-pronged storytelling.

I spoke with Jenkins over lunch between panels. The author of the books "Convergence Culture Where Old and New Media Collide" and "The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture" and the director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program before he moved west, he's no ivory-tower observer of pop culture, but an avid consumer -- the academic as total fanboy.

Henry Jenkins: I studied film at Iowa and Wisconsin and by the time I graduated Wisconsin I was doing cinema and TV; my dissertation was on vaudeville and film, and I was already getting interested in fan studies, which was starting to pull me into 'zines and other kinds of grassroots media production. But it was when I got to MIT that I got interested in games and the internet and that whole side of things. I ended up in the literature department, which further pushed this outward. I've added more media on a regular basis to my work, but always part of what I bring to the field, as someone who's slightly older, is a historical perspective -- it's not always about the newness of it. I usually do try to look for the antecedents in earlier forms; so having studied vaudeville, for example, worked out to be really helpful in thinking about YouTube, where you have short segments of diverse content which often depend on spectacular presentation; so often my way into thinking about some of these other [forms] is thinking about serials: If we think of serials as chunky bits of a story that are dispersed over installments, then we have a way of thinking about some of the forms that may be dispersed across media and which you add together to create a new experience.

RL: You seem to make no prejudicial distinctions between art and entertainment.

HJ: Often, in my own work, I use art to understand how we can talk about the aesthetics of pop culture or low culture. But I don't start with an intrinsic cultural hierarchy which says that something called "art" is better than something called "entertainment." I'm looking at human expression, and human expression ideally produces pleasure and produces meaning; it's not really compelling to me unless there's a balance of meaning and pleasure, and a balance of convention and innovation. Good entertainment, I think, also starts to become good art. The problem for me is that art becomes reified so quickly; it becomes about what it excludes rather than what it includes. I'm interested in helping see what's aesthetically valuable in the broadest range of human expression rather than trying to carve out an elite canon of stuff that goes on a pedestal, separate from everything else.

RL: So, when you sit down to watch TV, do you watch as a scholar or as a fan?

HJ: Always as a fan first. If I watch a TV show, I watch every episode. I mean, I'll try some new shows at the beginning of every season; but I'm not someone who dips in randomly and watches TV, I'm not a channel surfer. When I watch a TV show, I watch it as a large-form narrative experience. and my tastes go from reality TV -- I've never missed an episode of "Survivor" -- to the large-scale serials: "Lost," "Heroes," "The Shield," "The Wire," niche-science fiction -- "Caprica," "Torchwood," "Survivors," "Demons," "Doctor Who." I'm watching more sitcoms now than I've watched in a long time because I've picked up "Big Bang Theory" and "Modern Family" and "30 Rock." But whatever it is, I watch from beginning to end. I love buying box sets of DVDs and just marathoning for that exhaustive experience. And that comes out of being a fan, even if I'm applying it to works that are not traditionally fannish -- that sense of wanting to hold the whole in my mind.

RL: Do you personally follow the shows you like to their websites?

HJ: Often. I have less time for that than I'd like. There's a tension between my desire to study all of that and engage with it as a fan and the realities of a high-level academic position which pulls me all over the world. But my impulse is to do it when I'm able to. I find it rewarding to varying degrees, because some of it is not well done yet. But some of it does explore new dimensions of what a story can be. If we think about a television show as a long-form mode of fiction that can extend longer than a novel or a film series is ever going to, this side stuff has a potential to further enrich that experience, and it can do it in at least three ways. It can take a secondary character and flesh out their point of view and make them more central to the story than they would be otherwise. It can take the timeline and extend it forward and backward, so that you can write beyond the ending, go before the beginning. And third, it can flesh out the world of the story. There's also promotion, of course, but I'm talking just within the artistic realm that shape our experience of the narrative.

RL: What about canonicity, the idea that some parts of the story are more authentic than others?

HJ: This is an area that advanced media theory is really struggling with right now. One version is to ask whether it's authorized -- has it been declared part of the canon by the producers? So when Joss Whedon said the comic books were the eighth season of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," one takes him at his word. Another is that the that fans are often better policers of a long-form drama than the writers are, because writers come and go and fans are there from the beginning. For example, I've written about "Beauty and the Beast" -- the fans, the female fans, really hated the last season, which they felt committed a lot of character rape, damaged the story; many will say it doesn't have a fourth season, and even though the official episodes are there, for the fans that's not canon. The third dimension is what I call multiplicity, which is is the possibility that the secondary materials might give us new ways of thinking about these characters precisely because they're not canonical. This is what fan fiction does very well; there's not just a single version of "Harry Potter" for each "Harry Potter" fan-writer; many fan-writers write multiple versions, because they're interested in exploring different ways that story could play itself out, different versions of the characters. Think about the "Star Trek" movie -- they spent the whole re-launch just to say something very simple, that this is still "Star Trek" but there are different actors playing Kirk and Spock; and because they were locked into continuity they had to bend and warp time and space to prepare us for that acceptance. Whereas if they simply said, "This is an alternative version," fans of fan fiction would get it. There are lots of models right now for thinking about this question of continuity, and the relation of canon and fanon -- fanon being what fans create -- is a complex space.

RL: Sort of on that subject, watching "Lost" the last couple seasons, it seems to me they're working hard to account for things they invented in earlier seasons without much thought of what they actually might mean or where they might lead.

HJ: They say not. I've got to see the final form before I can even have much of a judgment about that. On that point, I was intrigued when I read some stuff about Dickens as a publisher of serials. There was a lot of discourse in the 19th century about "Is Dickens making this up as he goes along?" And, in fact, he did sometimes radically rewrite his vision of the characters from the opening of those books to the later chapters: There are characters that disappear, and plot twists that he forgets about and then remembers. Dickens' works are now seen as really well-structured novels because we read them in a bounded form, but it's really hard in the middle to know. Now, from a fan point of view, the middle is the most productive space, because fans generate alternative versions of the narrative as they theorize about what's going on, versions which are very generative, very rich and interesting. And the minute you clamp it down and resolve it, that stuff starts to seem peripheral. I'm very eager to see what happens when we get to the final episode of "Lost," but it's interesting that as we get more answers I'm seeing even more complaints from people feeling confused or overwhelmed by the sheer scope of it -- this season in particular, with the flash sideways. It's sort of exploring that notion of multiplicity I was talking about: We now have an alternative timeline, an alternative version of these characters, and that excites me a great deal. But a lot of audience members are going, "Well, is that real? Did that really happen? What's the status of these scenes?" rather than exploring them as alternatives. There's a need to rationalize them into the continuity.

RL: People do seem to want something solid from a narrative. With Dickens, for instance, he would almost always end a novel by projecting his characters into their far futures, to wrap things up where a modern novel might end on a small moment of change, leaving the future a blank.

HJ: I suspect in the end, "Lost" will be rationalized in some way, although it would be more interesting to me if they never actually explained the connections and just said, "Well, that's what could have happened to these characters if they didn't crash on the island." But even that doesn't work, because there's a lot of things that we've rewritten [that took place] before the crash. So that's got to be a parallel universe.

RL: What did you think of the end of "The Sopranos"?

HJ: It was as good an ending as you were going to get, which is to say those characters' lives are going to go on, saying, "We're just going to choose a moment in time and we're going to stop." And to me that's an invitation to the audience to take those characters up and tell their story wherever they want to go with it. As opposed to, say, my frustration with J.K. Rowling at the end of the last "Harry Potter," sort of spraying her territory -- more like Dickens -- with a superficial treatment of "These two came up together and they got this job" and "These two characters came together and had these children," rather than leaving the mythology to the audience to say, "Well, I think Harry might have become headmaster at Hogwarts." There are all kinds of possible futures in the heads of the viewers.

RL: But as to "The Sopranos," some viewers were upset precisely because they weren't told one way or the other. It would have been one thing to be angry with a particular definite conclusion, but they were even angrier not to get one.

HJ: Yeah, it's a very controversial ending because people want answers, Or at least a segment of the viewership wants answers -- I think that fans don't always want answers, but they're the advance guard of a particular way of relating to television content. It may or may not ever become the dominant strand, but they're trying a different thing. And they want openings, they want negative capability that allows them to fill in the holes themselves and speculate and explore and take it in their own directions. The guy who sits in the armchair and watches casually probably wants greater resolution than someone who's more dedicated, but in a subculture that encourages creative elaboration.

-- Robert Lloyd (Twitter@LATimesTVLloyd)

Photo: Henry Jenkins introducing "Transmedia, Hollywood." Credit: Juan Tallo.

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