X-Files (Non-)Retrospective

XFiles3.JPGWow, two months to the day. Honestly, I’m sorry for the long absence. I love this thing and never intend to be away for so long, but life pulls you in weird directions and blogging, alas, takes a back seat.

I’m still in Japan, but I just quit the awful English teaching gig I was doing. I’ve also given myself a hard deadline of April 15th to finish this dissertation draft. So I don’t have more free time now, exactly, but I have much more unstructured time. Which means, naturally, that I’m doing this instead of that other stuff I should be doing.

One recent fun (as opposed to chaotic) thing was our focused viewing of the original X-Files, which we started about two years ago, stopped for about a year and a half, and finally finished yesterday. Yesterday was an important X-Files milestone for us in another sense, in that we watched the final episode of season 9, then the 2008 movie (meh), and then the first two episodes of the new series. With all of this stuff fresh in our minds, unfortunately, the problems with the newer offerings were especially apparent, and I’m personally not super eager to watch the remainder of season 10 (though of course I will, because as we’ve established by now, I’m an idiot).

Importantly, I never really watched the X-Files during its original run. I caught the odd episode now and again, but I was eleven when it started airing and twenty when it stopped, and those years were too batshit insane (in my membrane) for me to focus on a (relatively) mature show like the X-Files to the extent it really requires. So viewing it now in its entirety for the first time, and as a (relatively) mature adult, I can appreciate the complexities that a younger me would have hated. In particular, I really like–in fact, prefer–the conspiracy stuff, which from casual conversation seems to be what most longtime fans of the show dislike the most. I hate the goofy, non-canon, joke episodes (like the one where Gary Shandling and Tea Leoni star as Mulder and Scully in a film version of the latter’s experiences. Why the shit, Chris Carter. Why the shit.).

What bugs me about the conspiracy stuff, though, is how the writers of the show themselves sometimes seem to forget the details. Several times in the series we get rehashings of the major storylines, which are always slightly different, and characters often act as if they haven’t experienced the things we know they have just so that they can keep up the pretense of skepticism (which I absolutely hate). But more on that in a minute.

A related thing that will probably piss off diehard fans is that my favorite seasons are 8 and 9, from which the hero Mulder is largely absent. If you don’t know/remember, at the end of season 7, Mulder is abducted by aliens. Most of season 8 is about the search for him, headed by agent John Doggett, played by Robert Patrick, whom the FBI assigns as Scully’s new partner. And let me just get this out of the way: Doggett is a much, much more compelling character than Mulder. Again, as a sort of recent fan of the show, I don’t know what the general opinion on this is and can’t be bothered to Google it, but I suspect that this opinion might border on treason among true X-Files believers. But Doggett’s the best. Season 9’s episode “Release,” where we finally learn what happened to Doggett’s dead son Luke, is crazy intense, dark and sad, and maybe my favorite episode of the whole show. (Notably, this episode feels more like Chris Carter’s other canceled series, Millennium, than typical X-Files fare.)

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Sorry, I couldn’t hear you because I was drowning in the fathomless blue depths of Robert Patrick’s eyes.

Anyway, they finally do find Mulder, but then in season 9 he goes into hiding and is mostly gone from the show again. During this period Scully slowly backs away from the X-Files, moving into a teaching role at Quantico, and it seems like Doggett and his new partner Monica Reyes are set to take up the paranormal investigation torch.

But the climactic two-part series finale, which answers all the questions about the alien invasion fairly definitively, is effectively retconned in the first episode of the 2016 reboot (restart?). In that episode an obnoxious conservative pundit convinces Mulder that the alien invasion stuff was all a scam, that the government is responsible for a horrible conspiracy and aliens are real, but the aliens… weren’t the ones doing… bad stuff… to people? Is that right? That’s what it seemed like to me, but… no? Because in the very next damned episode the alien stuff is front and center again, and even the Smoking Man, the original run’s major villain (who clearly died at the end of season 9) is back again.

This is the really annoying thing about Carter et al’s writing, which started to appear in the first run around the time of the 1998 movie and only worsened over time. The writers simply seem unable to keep the convoluted details of their own narrative straight, and instead of consistent storytelling they resort to abrupt retcons that add no depth to the story and serve only to confuse matters. It’s possible to retroactively insert story details in an organic way, and if they were able to do this I wouldn’t mind: but they aren’t. The Smoking Man died: in the last episode of season 9 we saw him take a missile to the face, and a shitty CGI skull actually burned up on-screen to make it super clear how dead he was. Maybe alien technology brought him back or something, but if so, why does he still have to smoke through his stoma? Inconsistent! More importantly, why the hell would they undermine the entire mythos of the original season with a half-baked plot gimmick in the first episode of the new show, only to apparently retcon that episode in the very next episode? Even the Lone Gunmen, the goofy but lovable computer hackers and longtime friends of Mulder and Scully who were killed off in season 9, are apparently not dead.

Changing important plot details robs the whole story of any sense of significance, you guys. There’s no reason to get invested in the narrative if any part of it could change at any moment. Favorite character died? No reason to have any emotional response whatsover, because s/he’ll probably be back again in two episodes. What’s the point?

Some of my questions will likely be answered when I watch the remainder of season 10, but it all points to larger problems with long-running shows like this and plots that grow artificially complex as a way of maintaining a certain tone. When characters randomly start forgetting their own alien abductions and impregnations–Scully had an alien baby inside her not once, but twice, but remains skeptical?!–things have gotten out of hand.

The device of skepticism itself is the very worst part of all of this (as I’ve ranted about several times before). Characters will witness something absolutely irrefutable in one episode, and then a little later adamantly deny the existence of any and all paranormal phenomena. Even Doggett, my favorite, fights a vampire, cuts a sentient parasite out of Scully’s neck, and has his dreams invaded by a vengeful mystic dream-killer a la Freddy Krueger (to name just a few cases), but insists again and again that he is a skeptic and that he doesn’t believe in mumbo-jumbo like aliens. Skepticism prides itself on rationality, but this use implies a misunderstanding of what rationality actually is. To be rational is to draw conclusions based on experience and logic: when you experience something directly, then close your eyes and cover your ears and scream about how it isn’t real, that is precisely the opposite of rational. In the X-Files this gets especially tiring when it’s used as justification for characters acting stupidly and essentially prolonging the conspiracy they’re supposedly trying to oust.

Anyway, I’m sure we’ll watch the rest of it soon. In the meantime, what do all of you think about the new X-Files? Have you watched it yet? If so, did you enjoy it? And come on, be honest: Doggett’s way better than Mulder, right? Riiiiiight?

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“The Awakening”

(Wikipedia)

I wanted to get off of the topic of belief for a bit, but the films I’ve been watching lately haven’t allowed it (understandable, to a certain extent). Seances, Spiritualism, parapsychology… these things are the name of the game these days. And honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

The Awakening was suggested by my pal Carlea, and I appreciate the recommendation and, for the most part, agree with her praise of the film. It’s an atmospheric and refreshingly British supernatural thriller that toys with the idea of memory as a kind of haunting (juxtaposed, of course, with literal haunting), lingers on the notion that only psychologically damaged people can see ghosts, and, at least at first, makes heavy use of the trappings of early 20th-century Spiritualism, which of course is fascinating both from a folkloric and a more general historical perspective (it was the rage for a while, and is still around today).

The film centers on Florence Cathcart (played by Rebecca Hall), a writer in 1920s England who makes her living by smugly debunking Spiritualist practices. It opens with her tearing apart a hoax seance. This is promptly followed by a pithy lesson in functionalism by one of the participants, an old lady who clocks Florence right good and notes that Florence has never had children–the implication being, I assume, that Florence couldn’t possibly understand the real value of the seance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hoax; it’s comforting to those left behind.

Shortly after this, Florence receives a visit from the dapper Mr. Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a macho-but-sensitive teacher at a boys’ school who comes to her for help with a ghost problem. It seems a recent death at the school has the boys all a-titter. The unfortunate student who passed away had apparently been terrorized by a ghostly encounter. Mallory and other school staff are worried that the students won’t return from their half-term break unless Florence can prove that it’s not really a ghost. 

Florence demurs at first, but of course she eventually gives in, or we wouldn’t have a movie. So off she goes with Mr. Mallory to the school in Cumbria, where she meets the creepy headmistress, Dolores Umbridge (actually Maud Hill, played by Imelda Staunton).

That’s the setup, and you can pretty well imagine how it all goes down after Florence’s arrival. Some creepy things happen, Florence attempts to capture proof of its hoaxiness. A few folks are revealed as bad guys. A love interest develops. More creepy things happen.

"So then I said, 'Don't worry, it's not contagious!' So then SHE said- Hey- ARE YOU LISTENING?!"

“So then I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not contagious!’ So then SHE said- Hey- ARE YOU LISTENING?!”

If I sound dismissive, it’s only partly deliberate. The unfortunate fact is, the story of The Awakening is nothing to write home about. It’s the same old tale of the disbeliever (who has a deeply personal reason for insisting on disbelief) who eventually comes to believe when confronted by actually scary ghost stuff that consciously flouts her hard-nosed scientistic approach to the supernatural. I could see this film and Red Lights taking place in the same universe (albeit ninety years apart). Even I have to draw the line somewhere, and this film definitely suffers from a predictable narrative arc, to put it politely.

Worst is the ending, which features an unbearably Shyamalanesque twist. [Possible spoiler ahead] I’m getting really tired of ghost stories that play off the concept of repressed memory. Seriously, guys, please. Enough with the psychoanalysis. Repressed memories have been done too many times. The jury’s out on whether that’s even a thing. So plunder another discipline for ideas.

*ahem*

Fortunately the movie is saved by excellent casting, a solid script, and some great performances–especially by the lead, Rebecca Hall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her act before, but I’m quite smitten. She breathes life (and convincing life) into what could have been a very stale role, and manages to be sympathetic in spite of the fact that it’s clear from the beginning that we SHOULD sympathize with her, because her bitchiness is clearly just a defense mechanism. Dominic West is also good, though his role doesn’t call for him to do much beyond being manly and wearing suspenders.

It also has a decent score and, for once, generally good sound editing. While there are a couple of jump scares/loud noises, they’re not as egregious as in a lot of recent horror. And god, the atmosphere. It drips with Earl Grey and treacle. In this regard The Awakening compares favorably to gothic greats like The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger

One other minor point: I felt as though there were about 20 minutes missing somewhere in the middle. There is a dramatic shift in tone and narrative direction at a certain stage, and I feel like more exposition was needed. In the interest of full disclosure, I did watch the film over two nights; but my sense of this weird gap happened in the first sitting, not the second.

Anyway, The Awakening is, overall, an enjoyable and reasonably fresh take on a bunch of old, old ideas. The cast is great and the cinematography is miles beyond a lot of genre crap. If you want something terrifying, this isn’t it. But if you want something smart and beautifully atmospheric, you could do a lot worse than The Awakening.

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