Pazar, Kasım 09, 2008

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (France, 1973) * *
D: Fernando Arrabal

I earlier reviewed Fernando Arrabal's Viva La Muerte (1971), a film which I defined as "angry." Here is another film by anger (to borrow the byline used by Kenneth Anger). Arrabal, a founder of the Panic movement, seems determined to outdo fellow Panic artist Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) with a raging, nightmarish film on a similar theme. Like El Topo, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse focuses on the calamity that unfolds when a holy man from out of the desert comes face to face with corrupt civilization. In this case, the holy man is a dwarf, Marvel (Hachemi Marzouk), who is discovered by a fugitive, Aden Rey (George Shannon), wanted for the murder of his mother - as is explained in an amusing opening newsreel interpreted into sign language for those "deaf-mutes" in the audience. Our hero actually had an excruciatingly Oedipal relationship with his mother, which has left him an epileptic, as well as a basketcase tortured by grotesque daydream/reveries of his childhood. As in a Jodorowsky story, he is unable to escape the shadow of a parent, leaving him in a state of arrested development, a sharply-dressed man of society who secretly longs to dress in his mother's underwear and relive the traumas of his youth. (Those traumas, always revisited to the sound of galloping hooves, include witnessing his mother at the receiving end of a graphic cumshot during an S&M session with a lover.) Having fled the authorities into the desert, he finds Marvel eating sand and goatshit delicacies, a complete innocent who can float into the air and perform other minor miracles. Marvel also grows out one toenail, clipping it only once a year, to store it with his others in a sack. At one point, Aden sorts through the sack to count the toenails, as one might count the rings of a tree, only to find them far too numerous. (Marvel has also lost count, and suggests he might be 10,000 years old.) Determined to introduce his new best friend to civilization, he takes the dwarf and his pet goat to the city, where they rent an apartment together. Disconcerted that there is no soil indoors, Marvel has Aden assist him in transporting bags of dirt inside to construct a garden. Absurdist misadventures follow, as Aden introduces his friend to the modern world (and the authorities continue to pursue, always one step behind). He tries to bring Marvel a lover, introduces him to eating meat in restaurants (which repulses the dwarf), and takes him to church--where Marvel performs a genuine miracle of stigmata that gets him promptly kicked out. All the while themes of incest, repressed homosexuality, and social and religious satire emerge, leading to a climax about as bloody and as memorably repellant as the one which ended Viva La Muerte. Much more so than Jodorowsky, Arrabal seems hellbent on providing a cathartic transcendence through rolling about in the grand guignol.

Taboo imagery is Arrabal's cinematic language. An erect penis is lit like a candle - which is the least of the phallic violations on display. Aden and Marvel are depicted shitting (for real) in silhouette against a desert sunset. A flower's stem is stuck into a woman's ass, to emerge coated in shit and devoured (not for real). When two nude lovers in gas masks copulate, it seems almost like a refreshing reprieve - the kind of garden-variety surrealistic symbolism which Arrabal usually tries to stampede past on the way to more aggressive imagery. While the Panic movement was partly established as an anarchic response to the commercialized state of Surrealism (thanks, Dali), I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse reminds one that Surrealism was originally intended as a weapon. This film is a weapon, perhaps more than it is a work of art, but as savage as it is, the film also feels less innovative and original than what was concurrently being created by artists such as Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini - even the stylish exploitations of Jesus Franco. Perhaps it is because many of the shocks seem pointless. Perhaps it is because the plot feels unoriginal, an imitation of El Topo or Simon of the Desert, but given a psychosexual twist.

Yet it is still undeniably a "film by anger," an exorcism of Arrabal's private demons. It is a product of a unique decade in which extreme transgression became, if briefly, not just a valid cinematic tool but also fashionable. I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse still provokes outrage, which is certainly one of Arrabal's chief objectives. That it also provokes weariness, exhaustion, and even cynicism from this viewer is, perhaps, one of the unfortunate effects of witnessing an artist set on taking every concept to its extreme - and bloody, and scatalogical, and repulsive - ends. I liked Viva La Muerte. But perhaps I've now had my fill of this kind of exploration, and hunger for real poetry now, not just belabored gestures at symbolism from the mud and grime.

Pazartesi, Ekim 06, 2008

Don't Touch the Axe

Don't Touch the Axe (France, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Jacques Rivette

There was, for a little while circa 2006, a bit of a Jacques Rivette revival. Rivette has always been one of the most underrated of the French New Wave directors, perhaps because his films were always more self-consciously theatrical than overtly cinematic. A touring program helped to reestablish his presence in the consciousness of film buffs internationally, screening prints of films such as Celine and Julie Go Boating (to date, his best-known and most highly-regarded film), Duelle, Noroît, Love on the Ground, and the sprawling Out 1. (Alas, when the festival came to my local UW-Cinematheque, they did not screen this last one, at 773 minutes his most legendary.) Oddly, the revival seems to have dimmed, and I'm still waiting on an announcement of some Rivette films on Region 1 DVD (ahem, Criterion?). Still, his latest film, released in the U.S. as The Duchess of Langeais, at least was released stateside, and to favorable attention, at that.

Anyone who has taken the time to come to know Rivette through his films will eventually come to Honoré de Balzac and Rivette's great affection for the author; and so it should come as no surprise that in 2006 he adapted "The Duchess of Langeais," a novella included in Balzac's collection The History of the Thirteen. Originally, Balzac intended to call the story "Don't Touch the Axe," after a pivotal line of dialogue. Significantly, Rivette restored the title to his adaptation, although, for reasons I can't quite understand, it was changed to The Duchess of Langeais for festivals and limited release in the U.S. Don't Touch the Axe is a rather savage title, which adds a bit of teeth to what will be, by necessity, a story told mostly through dialogue--a chamber drama of unrequited love, set almost entirely in the Duchess' boudoir. Guillaume Depardieu* plays Montriveau, a decorated general of the Napoleonic wars, visiting Paris with a gruff demeanor, like a seaman who hasn't gotten his land-legs; fittingly, he plays the part with a staggering gait, to imply a war wound, though he seems to move like Frankenstien's monster, and is just as out of place.** At a ball he meets Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), the wife of the wealthy, and perpetually absent, Duc de Langeais. Finding this fish-out-of-water entertaining, she decides to play with his affections for her own amusement. She invites him to her home, wearing only a flimsy nightgown and acting the engaged audience to his life story. As she intends, he falls intensely in love, declaring that she is the first woman who has ever stolen his heart. She is, of course, being the perfect coquette, building his expectations in perpetuity without ever intending to satisfy his desires. This echoes, ironically, the tale he tells her (in the film, stretched over several nights): of being taken through the African desert by a guide who promises him that the journey will be only a few miles more, a few miles more--until they have gone too far to go back. Montriveau is also being led on, so to speak, but when he reaches that "point of no return," he decides to turn the tables.

And here is the only departure from the novella, a minor one: in the film the implication is that Montriveau decides to have his revenge upon the duchess of his own will; in Balzac's story, it is at the instigation of his friend Ronquerolles. Ronquerolles does play a role in Rivette's adaptation, but it's a late and minor part; the result is that Montriveau becomes a more dynamic character here, and more responsible for the tragedy which unfolds. Yet this is a Rivette film, arid, sometimes clinical. We are removed from Montriveau's thoughts and feelings, so that he's somewhat more mysterious than he is the novella. Balzac presents a messy character, emotionally fragile, and given to a rage when he finds that he's been so emotionally exposed by the coquette's wiles. Guillaume Depardieu, to his credit, is effective and sympathetic, but Rivette seems to hold him back. Rivette, like Godard, has always been a little reluctant for the viewers to lose themselves completely in the story--he wants to emphasize the boundary between the viewer and the characters. In the novella, there is a distinct dividing line when the point of view switches from Montriveau to the Duchess. But since we are never entirely within Montriveau's head in Rivette's film, that narrative switch is never really applied. The dividing line of interest for Rivette is the emotional gap between the two characters. Montriveau falls in love with the Duchess, and then she falls in love with him; but they never seem to meet one another. In one of the final images of the film--a rare departure from the narrative, though a minor one--we see a cinematic illustration of this divide, although to avoid spoilers I won't describe it here. Really, this is an anti-love story, and Rivette's emotionally aloof approach seems strangely fitting, even if it was not Balzac's method.

Since this is not an experimental film by any means, or at least far less so than Rivette's early works, the result is a fascinating tension between artificiality and authenticity. The dim candles of the salons, the creaking of the floorboards, the dank corridors of the abbey and the clutter of Montriveau's apartment all lend a convincing verisimilitude. But Rivette keeps the emotions in check. He makes little effort to draw the viewer into sympathy with the characters. It is up to the audience to understand the dramatic stakes. Rivette's only cinematic trick is one he's used in the past: using interstitial title cards ("The next day--" "But, the next evening--" etc.), including some with extended quotations from Balzac's prose. He's always been among the most literary of directors; what is amusing is how Rivette, in his autumn years, seems to be pushing cinema toward the form of the novel. One could say that Out 1, which takes as long to see as a novel takes to read, was an early attempt to do just this; but an evening spent with any film of Rivette's is as intimate and as oddly comforting and involving as reading a book. That Don't Touch the Axe is a wonderful film is almost besides the point; it is another wonderful Jacques Rivette film, which is more than enough.

* Guillaume Depardieu tragically died of pneumonia just a short while after I wrote this review.
** Not entirely an artistic choice: Depardieu famously had to have his leg amputated following a motorcycle accident.

Cumartesi, Eylül 13, 2008

Lost in America

Lost in America (U.S., 1985) * * * 1/2
D: Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks is something of a lone albatross in American comedy for the past three decades; his films are razor-sharp, almost black comedies, but with a heart (and so appear, at first, to be less cynical than they really are). He's more populist than Woody Allen, but not a recognizable commercial name. Even when, in the first year of Saturday Night Live, he produced some brilliant, sardonic short films, he was booted off the show because he didn't fit into the SNL clique (shipping his shorts to NY from LA). Still, he's managed to--every few years--produce some very fine comedies, a handful of which approach masterpieces, and so his chief following is among film critics and film buffs. Lost in America is one of those near-masterpieces, perhaps his finest hour; and since I just found it for $2.99 in the discount bin at Pick 'N' Save, I'm writing about it here.

Brooks anticipated the Big Brother-style reality TV show craze with his satire Real Life (1979), in which he played "Albert Brooks" (much as in his shorts and in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, an arrogant send-up of himself), but in 1981 made his first great film, Modern Romance, in which his character cannot find happiness because he distrusts anything resembling contentment, and thus pathologically self-sabotages his relationships; somehow, the film comes across as more brutally self-analytical than Annie Hall, as Brooks dissects his protagonist's narcissism and pities anyone who would have the misfortune to fall for him. (I should mention it's also very funny.) Lost in America could be seen as taking this self-sabotaging character, here called David, into his 40's, having finally settled into a lifestyle, with a loving wife and a lucrative advertising career for which he's invested eight years. Anticipating a promotion, he buys a new home and toys with the idea of purchasing a luxury car; but when he's offered the "Ford account" in New York, and told that a younger, less experienced employee will be taking the promotion, he has an epic meltdown before his boss (a subtle shot suddenly reveals that his boss has been gripping a stress-ball through the entire conversation):

"I used to make fun of my friends in college who went out to 'find' themselves. I took the business route. So I end up here. I can't believe it. So what do I get? I get a transfer. After all these years, I get a transfer. I can get that at a bus stop, right now, I don't need any qualifications. Oh, by the way, our hairpiece secret is off."

After getting fired, he marches directly to his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), at work, channeling all of his frustration and crushing disappointment into a frenzy of euphoric inspiration: they're going to leave their jobs behind, sell everything, buy a motor home, and travel across America "just like 'Easy Rider.'" Never mind that this never happened in Easy Rider. Soon they're on the road in their motor home (a leather-clad man on a motorcycle pointedly flips the bird), and make a fateful stop in Vegas to get remarried. The chapel is closed, so they go to the Desert Inn and settle for the "junior honeymoon suite," which, impractically, has two small heart-shaped beds. While David sleeps--the beds pushed awkwardly together--Linda sneaks down to the casino for an all-night gambling spree. At 6 AM he stumbled into the casino in a bathrobe, only to find Linda playing roulette with the look of a strung-out heroin addict, perpetually putting chips on "twenty-two, twenty-two."

"The man says you're not on a lucky streak."
"I was down earlier, but come on, I mean--"
"And you're up now?"
"No, I'm still down, but I'm gonna hit now--"
"How down are you?"
"David, you're going to bring me bad luck, now stop it."
"But he's saying you've got bad luck..."
"Come on, come on, twenty-two, twenty-two...yes! Yes!"
"Wow! All right! I'm sorry, I'm sorry! All right! How much?"
"Thirty-five dollars."
"We're up! We're up!"
"We're still down."
"Down? How bad?"
"Down. Down. Twenty-two, down! Come on...twenty-two!"
"Down? How much have we lost?"
"Everything. Everything."
"Everything...on twenty-two and make it happen for me!"

All of their life savings are gone, including the precious "nest egg." David goes to speak to the manager of the casino (Garry Marshall), who sympathetically offers to comp the room and breakfast. David has a better idea. Still wearing his bathrobe, he proceeds to make the biggest advertising pitch of his life.

"I'm going to tell you this idea now, and please, be secretive, because if another hotel hears about this, they'll take it. This is my business. As the boldest experiment in advertising history, you give us our money back... Think of the publicity. The Hilton hotel has these billboards all over Los Angeles with the winners of these slot machine jackpots; their faces are all over L.A., and I know that works. I've seen people in corners look up and say, 'Maybe I'll go to the Hilton.' Well, you give us our money back. I--I don't even know now, 'cause I'm just coming off the top of my head, but a visual where, if we have a billboard and the Desert Inn just handed us our money back. This gives the Desert Inn, really--Vegas is not associated with feeling."

The extended scene is the centerpiece of the film, and as David continues to pitch, and the manager continues to politely, but firmly, refuse him, the desperation seems to sweat out of the screen, until at last David is describing a Santa Claus/Vegas advertising campaign, and the manager replies, "We're finished talking." If ever Brooks touched greatness, this scene is probably it.

From there, events become slightly more predictible, and slightly less funny, although the performances of Brooks and Hagerty continue to shine, as they milk each moment for all its potential. The climax is a climax as only Brooks would stage it--understated and purely conceptual, and the natural endpoint of the satire: David, returning from his first day as a crossing guard, listens while Linda enthusiastically describes her day working as the assistant manager of a Wienerschnitzel, and then introduces her boss, a teenager. A more hopeful coda is then applied, but tempered by Brooks' cynicism: they return to the lives they had, having been permanently warned off the pursuit of happiness.

One imagines that if Brooks had been able to make a series with these characters, and Hollywood had that to offer in the 80's rather than Chevy Chase vehicles, the world at large might be a better place. Still, most recently he produced Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), surely one of that year's most underrated (and underseen) comedies, whose plot suggests that even post-9/11, societies of all persuasions can unite under a solitary cause (in the case of that film, the cause is not liking the comedy of Albert Brooks). Yet who could dislike Lost in America, or any film which features this exchange:

"Phil Shabano, the unqualified son of a bitch! Why? I'll tell you why, because life isn't fair. But you know what'll happen? It'll balance out. He'll buy that boat I've had to look at in that stupid catalog for three years and he'll crash in Catalina and die and seals will eat him."

"Oh, now--you like fish."

"So what? I'm just telling what might be. Fine, he won't die, and he won't be eaten, but he'll never find his way back to the mainland."

Cumartesi, Ağustos 30, 2008

The Skull

The Skull (U.K., 1965) * * * 1/2
D: Freddie Francis

What a curious, wonderful find this film is, now finally available in a definitive presentation from Legend Films, which has given us the recent (unfortunately) colorized restorations of Ray Harryhausen's early films, but here has nothing to colorize, and so offers up the simple, perfect pleasure of a widescreen transfer of an oft-neglected, overlooked horror classic. Though it features many stock players of Hammer horror franchises (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Michael Gough, in particular), and is directed by Freddie Francis, veteran of many Hammer horrors, The Skull is actually a product of Hammer's chief competitor, Amicus, which is best known for producing anthology horror films like Torture Garden (1967) and Tales from the Crypt (1972). When I was in college, and watching Hammer movies voraciously--wondering why it had taken this horror fan so long to discover them--I would rent the Amicus films as a last resort (i.e. I couldn't find any Draculas or Frankensteins at the video store), and would derive modest pleasures from them. They often seemed like pale imitations of Hammer, featuring many of the players and directors, but with results that are choppy, garish, and considerably less handsome. (Although it should be noted that in Hammer's waning years, there wasn't much discernible difference between the studios.) The Skull is different. It's based on a short story by Robert Bloch, built upon the premise that the Marquis de Sade was possessed by an evil spirit, and that his skull still contains that spirit trapped within. Cushing plays a collector of occult items, who uses them in his research for books on demonology. Lee is his friendly rival. In the first proper scene in the story (after a pre-titles sequence in which we learn how the skull was first stolen from de Sade's corpse), the two Hammer superstars engage in a strangely obsessive bidding war over three Satanic statuettes, presided over by judge Michael Gough. This sequence alone should make the film a treasure for Hammer fans, and indeed is probably the best Hammer sequence never made by the studio; it also, being an auction of ancient and occult memorabilia, seems like an inspiration for an early scene in Guillermo del Toro's homage-laden Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Lee outbids his rival and wins the statues, though he's hard-pressed to explain to Cushing just why he wanted them so badly. Not a good sign. Later, Cushing is visited by Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, The Witchfinder General), who has two items which he thinks Cushing will want to buy--the first being a rare book on de Sade, the second being the man's very skull, for which he wants a thousand pounds. Of course, he can't very well prove it to be de Sade's skull, and he hopes that his own reputation will persuade Cushing; nevertheless, Cushing, though intrigued, refuses an immediate decision. Later, we learn that Wymark stole the skull from Lee, though Lee is only happy to be rid of it: he believes it was the skull which urged him to purchase the Satanic figures (for reasons unknown, but certainly sinister), and will now exert its unholy influence upon Cushing if he decides to take it. Of course, now that Cushing has been urged to stay away from the skull, his curiosity is piqued, and so begins an obsessive spiral which is one of the most peculiar and unique in the genre of British horror. Cushing, so often playing the most heroic of Hammer archetypes, here gets to sink his teeth (so to speak) into a more unsavory role. As his fascination with de Sade's skull grows, and his actions become more irrational and dangerous, he takes the viewer step-by-step through the man's unraveling--much more gradually and believably than, say, Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The film's long final stretch, almost set in real-time, is hypnotic, overpowering, almost claustrophobic, and beautifully illogical in the way nightmares are, in the way that the best Poe and Lovecraft stories are. Freddie Francis, always stylish but not always consistently good, here relishes the dreamlike quality of the story, and particularly indulges in the film's one actual dream sequence, which Tim Lucas rightly compares to Kafka's The Trial, but which also--in one drawn-out game of Russian Roulette--provides the kind of intense, sickening dread for which the horror genre is best suited. In Francis' most stylish and distinctive touch, several shots are taken from the point of view of the skull itself, as we gaze out of the skull's hollow sockets and the actors hit their marks so that they are perfectly framed--as though, somehow, the skull were arranging them like pieces on its chessboard. In several delirious moments, we are trapped in this POV as the skull actually pivots to follow them. All of this is most effective in a film in which so many of the Hammer horror clichés have been surgically removed, the plot stripped to its most archetypal players with all comic relief and other rote frivolities cast aside. The Skull gets straight to the heart of the matter, the heart of horror, but with the same stride as a sleepwalker grasping a knife in his sweaty fist.

Cumartesi, Temmuz 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Chris Carter

What if, in the middle of a summer of expensive, special effects-driven superhero blockbusters, they released a modest, intelligent, adult thriller based on the cult TV series The X-Files? What if it had almost no special effects, no extraterrestrials, no "government conspiracy"--and went in the exact opposite direction of its previous big-screen outing of ten years before (1998's The X-Files, aka The X-Files: Fight the Future)? What if, instead of delivering on what fans and non-fans would expect, they actually answered the criticisms leveled at the first film (and at the series' later, less-valued years)? The answer, I'm afraid, might be the death of the whole enterprise. And it's a shame, because in doing all these things they've actually delivered a very good film.

As every X-Phile knows, there are two kinds of X-Files episodes: one from the formidable "mythology" arc--involving UFOs, alien abductions, and government cover-ups--and the more common "stand-alone" hour, which might be either a "monster of the week" installment or a thriller on a variety of paranormal topics. Contrary to what an outsider might think, most fans prefer the latter, and indeed, the best episodes of the series have been stand-alone episodes with nothing to do with "black oil" or Alex Krycek or little spikes to be jabbed in the back of the alien bounty hunter's neck. Early in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, an FBI agent tips off the viewer by referencing a handful of the stronger X-Files episodes ("Beyond the Sea," "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"), all of them having to do with psychic phenomena. And that's exactly what you're getting here: a stronger stand-alone episode, stretched out to just under two hours. Expect anything else and you'll be greatly disappointed. Many of you will be.

It's a FBI-procedural mystery first and foremost, the kind you'd expect to see in a thriller starring Morgan Freeman and/or Ashley Judd. As the movie begins, FBI agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is employing a psychic, Father Joe (Billy Connolly), to help track down a missing agent. Instead he finds a severed arm buried in the snow. She then brings in former agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), late of the X-Files and now a practicing doctor, in hopes that she can contact paranormal expert Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who has been in hiding for years (the 2002 series finale left Mulder and Scully on the run from the shadow government lurking within the FBI). Mulder is now living in exile, having grown an Al Gore beard and working out of a cramped room layered with newspaper cutouts and the familiar "I Want to Believe" UFO poster, dozens of pencils stuck in the ceiling. It's pretty much how you'd expect the obsessive, eternally driven Mulder to be getting on. Distrusting the FBI, he thinks this is just a trap to bring him into the open; nevertheless, as another agent's life is at stake, he's persuaded to meet with Agent Whitney and the psychic Father Joe, who, we quickly learn, is a convicted pedophile, now castrated, and living in squalor while nursing an addiction to cigarettes. The man's visions are beyond his control, and very often lead nowhere. Scully is disgusted by his crimes and convinced he's a fraud, although when he tells her, apropos of nothing, "Don't give up," she can't help but wonder if it's a message from God, as she's locked in an ongoing battle to save the life of a young child afflicted with a terminal illness. She wants to put the child through an experimental and grueling stem cell therapy treatment, but another priest (Adam Godley), the "good" priest to Joe's "bad" priest, counsels the parents to have the boy taken out of the hospital, where he can die in peace. It's a completely unrelated subplot that regardless brings an emotional and philosophical weight to the film. Meanwhile, Mulder puts all his faith in the increasingly discredited Father Joe, and just as the investigation seems to be drying up, a sinister conspiracy of an altogether different sort begins to reveal itself. No, aliens are not involved. Stop thinking that.

While it's jarring to see how much Anderson and Duchovny have aged over the intervening years (a familiar face makes a cameo late in the film, and he looks uncannily, almost comfortingly the same), they slip so naturally into their old and best roles that it becomes easy to accept this as the latest chapter in their continuing relationship. Viewers unfamiliar with the last two seasons of the series (and, let's face it, that's 90% of the audience) will find it jarring to see the two agents romantically involved, the sexual tension of the first film long since dissolved as they hop into bed with each other early into this sequel. The more obvious path would have been to treat the agents like ex-lovers, with a frosty reception before finally rekindling their affection for one another--an overly-familiar arc that, I think, anyone else would have taken. But writer/director/series creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz have chosen a braver path with this film, more respectful of the fans who want to see Mulder & Scully grow, but also respectful of adults who want a mystery-thriller that treats them like adults. The plot goes in genuinely unexpected directions. The moral dilemma each agent faces has a severe and real-world weightiness--particularly Scully's. Father Joe is a fascinating character, alternately creepy and sympathetic, sometimes at the same moment, and a concrete symbol of the moral gray areas with which the plot concerns itself. The film's biggest flaw is that the climax feels too muted--and when Mulder wields a wrench and groggily shouts, "Does anyone here speak English?", it's easily the most embarrassing scene in the film. The movie is also slow and talky, which is poison in the middle of the popcorn season. But I will also admit that when someone complains to me that a movie was "boring" and "nothing happened," I consider that an endorsement. (Would you rather Michael Bay direct this?) What you actually have here is not a "boring" movie, but one that will, I suspect, look a lot better when viewed outside of the bigger-is-better frenzy of The Dark Knight (which is great, but an altogether different beast), Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc. It will seem considerably more appealing when viewed on DVD in the fall. It will also age well, as it doesn't tie itself up in knots trying to connect itself to the series' convoluted plotline.

But in making all these risky choices, Carter and Spotnitz may very well have killed off the franchise. Good grief, I thought as I left the theater: who knew that they would make such a modest movie? And release it in July? What were they thinking? But if you sit through the credits you'll get a clue that they knew the risk they were taking, in a cute, unexpected farewell shot of Mulder and Scully which might be--they know very well--the last time we glimpse the two characters. It's a sweet, whimsical wave goodbye. I would rather hope that they get to make at least one more.

Pazartesi, Temmuz 14, 2008

The Best of the X-Files

On July 25th we will finally have a second X-Files feature film (the first was released ten years ago). The original FOX Network series ran from 1993-2002, and most X-Philes would agree that it went on a bit too long, leaving many fans feeling a bit disillusioned with the series. But it is without a doubt one of the most popular science fiction series of all time, and Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, FBI investigators of the paranormal, have became iconic figures on a level few TV characters achieve. We should be reminded that there was a time, around the third season, when the show went from being a cult hit to a mainstream smash, and Mulder & Scully made the cover of Rolling Stone (naked and in bed together, of course), and a soundtrack was released featuring R.E.M., William S. Burroughs, Nick Cave, and the Foo Fighters. The X-Files, for a while, was hip. Long before Alias, Lost, or Heroes, viewers obsessed over the details of the tangled "mythology" plotline, trying to guess which secondary character would get killed next. The feature film marked both the height of the series' popularity as well as its demise; like those viewers who hoped to find out who killed Laura Palmer at the end of the first season of Twin Peaks, those expecting to get "all the answers" in the X-Files: Fight the Future walked away disappointed (though the reviews weren't bad). The seasons that followed were greeted with increasing indifference from the public; the ratings were enough to justify Fox's insistence that it stay on the schedule, but the phenomenon was over. Eventually David Duchovny was replaced by Robert Patrick (Agent John Doggett), and Gillian Anderson was slowly edged out of the series by Annabeth Gish (Agent Monica Reyes). Fans weren't enthusiastic about the changes, and while the ninth season began as a relaunch, halfway through the creators changed focus and began to wrap up the storylines, sometimes hastily.

I became a fan of the series from the first episode (attractively entitled "Pilot"), watching it only because it debuted right after The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., the show which Fox was really putting its money and marketing behind. Brisco disappeared quickly, but the X-Files got rave reviews and slowly attracted a rabid cult following, who took possession of this new thing called the "internet" to use as their own virtual water cooler to discuss the show. Having been there from the beginning, I felt a certain ownership of the show; while I was never a part of the fan communities, I made it a point to learn who all the writers and directors were, so I could figure out who was behind the best episodes and the worst. I bought the trading cards and the fan magazines. I was first in line when the movie opened, and obsessively taped the show off television, in those days before "complete season" box sets. But around the sixth season I began to lose interest, and I was dismayed enough by the Doggett/Reyes thing that I tuned out of the ninth season entirely. (Although this was just as much because The Sopranos was airing in the same time slot--a show whose quality I was more excited about.) A while back I took advantage of a sale at a certain brick & mortar store and picked up the first few seasons of the series, to revisit the show that I hadn't watched in years. I figured that even if I disliked what the show became, it was such a part of my life between about 1993 and 1999 that it deserved some special space on my shelf. Watching the episodes, the "comfort food" factor kicked in, and I quickly became a fan again. While the worst episodes are still the worst, the best of the series has stood the test of time. And taking a break of a few months between Netflixing the seventh and eighth seasons, I could even gain a newfound appreciation for the Doggett/Reyes years, as I gained a much greater respect for Robert Patrick's nuanced performance. (Let's face it, he can emote with more skill than Duchovny.) Now, following another sale at that brick & mortar store, I've got all the seasons but the ninth. It's just a matter of time before I break down and buy that one too.

In anticipation of the new X-Files film, which will either revive or permanently bury the franchise, here's a guide to the best of the X-Files. If you want to revisit the series with a bit more caution that I, these are the episodes worth watching.

Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) inside an abandoned truck in E.B.E.

Season One (1993-1994)

While Duchovny and Anderson are still getting a handle on their characters in Pilot (1x79), creator Chris Carter fully understands them, and the classic formula is already in place: Mulder and Scully uncovering a conspiracy--here involving alien abductions--in a small town and in the deep woods, poking around with flashlights while Scully rolls her eyes at Mulder's every theory. Deep Throat (1x01) is even better, making plain the show's All the President's Men inspiration (exploited to its full in the feature film), and with a plot the "conspiracy" episodes would mimic countless times: Mulder attempts to infiltrate a military base to learn the truth about the government's involvement in UFO activity. (A young Seth Green seems to be working out his persona as Dr. Evil's son in the Austin Powers movie that was just a few years away.) Squeeze (1x02) is the first "stand-alone" episode, and one of the most fondly remembered: Eugene Tooms (Doug Hutchison) is a serial killer who can contort his body to fit into very small spaces; he also hibernates without aging, and eats human livers. It's written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, who were to become the first celebrities of the series' writing staff; they became known for writing crackerjack goosebump thrillers, before using their success on the series to launch a movie career (to this day, they're best known for creating the Final Destination franchise). Ice (1x07) is heavily derivative of "Who Goes There?", the classic John W. Campbell science fiction story remade--twice--as The Thing. Once again characters are trapped in an arctic environment, paranoid about who they can trust and who has been infected by a monster; in this case, it's a parasite which makes people hyper-aggressive. Despite its lack of inspiration, the episode is so tense and effective that it justifiably became a fan favorite of the early seasons. Yet Eve (1x10) has aged more gracefully. Possibly the most exquisitely crafted episode of the first season, this begins as a supernatural thriller (doppelgangers? ghosts?) before becoming a human cloning horror story featuring two murderous little girls and a climax worthy of Hitchcock. It would have been nice to have seen this story thread tied into the wider conspiracy plotline that later developed, and in retrospect it seems curious that it wasn't. Beyond the Sea (1x12) is another winner, this time taking Silence of the Lambs as an inspiration (Chris Carter was inspired by Jodie Foster's performance in that film to create Dana Scully). Brad Dourif, best known as Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and as the sickly town doctor of Deadwood, here gives another unbearably intense performance as death-row inmate Luther Lee Boggs, who claims to have psychic insights into a killer pursued by the FBI. Mulder this time becomes the skeptic, while Scully is disturbed by Boggs' seeming ability to communicate with her recently-deceased father. This is probably Morgan & Wong's finest script, and the director, David Nutter, would become known as the go-to suspense director for the series, earned in part by the skills on display here. But the episode also packs an emotional punch rare for the show's first season. E.B.E. (1x16 - pictured above) is a great romp, as Mulder and Scully chase a UFO cross-country; along the way we meet The Lone Gunmen, publishers of a conspiracy-theory newspaper, and a backhanded homage to the growing X-Phile community. The killer from Squeeze returns in Tooms (1x20), which has the unusual distinction of bringing back a popular character within the same season (though story continuity necessitates it). Morgan & Wong here begin to establish the black humor which be one of the series' strongest traits. In the season finale, The Erlenmeyer Flask (1x23), the "mythology" finally gets going, as Scully sees her first "evidence" of alien life, and a cold-blooded assassination occurs when the two agents get a little too close to the truth.

Peering at the Flukeman with fascination and disgust in The Host.

Season Two (1994-1995)

A bigger budget and the glow of good reviews led to a more confident and stylish second season. This is also the season that made the show famous, with a richly-developing conspiracy plotline and stand-alone episodes that made for perfect Friday night chills. (The show would later move to Sunday nights in search of higher ratings, to the disapproval of many fans.) Little Green Men (2x01) shows off the bigger budget as Mulder heads to the jungles of Puerto Rico for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, on a tip from the sympathetic Senator Matheson (named after Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson). In the Chris Carter-scripted The Host (2x02 - pictured), AKA the notorious "Flukeman" episode, a monster in New Jersey's sewage system is growing at an alarming rate, and killing in alarming ways. The Flukeman was played by Glen Morgan's brother Darin, who would later become the series' most acclaimed writer. Duane Barry/Ascension (2x05/06) is a two-parter prompted by Anderson's real-life pregnancy; working around her maternity leave, the writers concocted a plotline which would have ramifications for the rest of the series: Scully's kidnapping by a deranged UFO abductee (Steve Railsback), who hands her over for sinister experiments by forces which are either alien or--worse?--part of a shadow government. Later in the season is Die Hand Die Verletzt (2x14), a witty black satire and a Morgan & Wong tour de force, with the agents facing off against the Satan-worshiping faculty of a high school (the pre-title sequence, featuring a typical faculty meeting, is one of the greatest in the series' history). Colony/End Game (2x16/17) ties the biggest life-altering event in Mulder's past--the abduction of his sister when he was an adolescent--and ties it into the mythology, with surprising results. Humbug (2x20) is Darin Morgan's first script, and possesses his distinctive stamp: irreverent humor that pokes fun at the X-Files clichés (already well established, although at the time it seemed that only Morgan had noticed). Sideshow performers are being murdered by a tiny, crawling mutant--but every aberration of nature has someone who loves him. F. Emasculata (2x22) is the X-Files take on the virus/outbreak thrillers that were then popular in bestsellers and in film, and works better than most of them. Our Town (2x24), written by Frank Spotnitz, effectively demonstrates that even cannibalism can bring a community closer together. But don't watch it while eating KFC.

Peter Boyle guest stars in the series' high watermark, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose.

Season Three (1995-1996)

Here is the show at its zenith, when the creative staff was firing at all cylinders (Darin Morgan in particular), and the ratings began to reciprocate as the show became a genuine phenomenon. The opening two-parter, The Blessing Way/Paper Clip (3x01/02) is riveting stuff, even if it also marks the first overuse of a technique that would quickly become tiresome: the pre-credits extended, pretentious monologe spoken in voice-over to accompany a montage. It was first used in Little Green Men, and apparently deemed successful enough to warrant its overextension for the rest of the series. Here, one can tolerate the voice-overs to get to the really good stuff, namely Mulder & Scully discovering miles of mysterious filing cabinets in an underground facility, where there also lurks an alien spacecraft. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (3x04) is, however, utterly flawless, and arguably the best hour the series ever produced. A showcase for the talents of writer Darin Morgan and guest actor Peter Boyle, it concerns an insurance salesman whose psychic gift is also a curse--he can only see how people will die. (He suggests that Mulder will die of autoerotic asphyxiation.) It's about fate and destiny, and whether life is a gift or a long, weary, miserable crawl toward death; but it's also existentialism by way of Woody Allen (the name "Clyde Bruckman" is taken from the famous director of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd silent comedies). The ending is both tragic and moving. His War of the Coprophages (3x12) is less emotionally serious--the plot is about killer cockroaches, after all--but just as serious philosophically. While the parody is even more outrageous than in his effort for Season Two, Humbug, the intelligent sensibility is quite present. His final script for the series, Jose Chung's From Outer Space (3x20), pushed these seemingly conflicting impulses--the silly and the thoughtful--to extremes. An instant fan favorite, it shrinks not from goofy cameos (Jesse Ventura, Alex Trebek), or girly screams (from Agent Mulder), yet when it's all over, ask yourself: why does the episode feel so bittersweet? How did he do that? Apart from writing beautiful scripts, Morgan was also establishing wider parameters for the series to explore. Now the X-Files could be touching and funny. And when it was funny, it could also be delirious and bizarre. Some X-Files scribes would imitate him poorly, and others would pick up the baton for some really inspiring work--namely Vince Gilligan. Gilligan, who most recently co-wrote this summer's Hancock, produced efficient, lean scripts that also made room for whimsical ideas. His second outing, Pusher (3x17), is actually one of his few "straight" episodes, proving that he could create the ideal X-Files mystery thriller, that was the show's bread and butter. Of that mode, the episode is one of the series' best. Mulder and Scully are put up against one of their most formidable villains in Robert Modell (Robert Wisden), a man who can psychically "push" other people into doing his will, or seeing what he wants them to see. As with all of Gilligan's scripts, the premise is fully and satisfyingly explored, with a memorable stand-off in the climax, Mulder's will pitted against Modell's. Quagmire (3x22), written by Kim Newton, is marked most heavily by Morgan (it even acts as a sequel to two of them, since Clyde Bruckman's dog, Queequeg, plays a central role here, and the stoners from War of the Coprophages make an appearance). Mulder and Scully investigate murders attributed to a lake monster, but their investigation hits one snag after another, and their culprit is not what they expect. The season's mythology arc, meanwhile, gets more interesting--and more tangled--with Piper Maru/Apocrypha (3x15/16), which introduces the "black oil" alien that can hop from one body to another, the payoff ultimately reserved for the feature film.

A member of the inbred Peacock family guards his territory in the savage Home.

Season Four (1996-1997)

A strategic move to Sunday nights was accompanied by the slick, satisfying season premiere Herrenvolk (4x01). But it was the second aired episode, Home (4x03), which gained the most attention--or notoriety. Preceded by a parental advisory, the Morgan & Wong-scripted hour proved, if nothing else, that the X-Files could still be scary on a Sunday night. Some have called it the scariest hour ever produced for television. It's actually wittily done, with Mulder's spoken nostalgia for small-town America undermined thoroughly as we're introduced to the Peacock family, inbred mutants who, in the pre-titles sequence, bury a squealing infant in the yard minutes after it's been born. The agents' investigation into infant murders leads to a final, violent battle for the Peacock home. This was the comeback for Morgan & Wong, who had left the show for a season; it would also be their last season with the series before they left for good. Home is their standout script of the season, and a calling card for Kim Manners, who, from here on out, replaced David Nutter as the show's unsurpassed "thriller" director. Vince Gilligan's Unruhe (4x02) is one of many episodes in which Scully is taken hostage, but one of the most unnerving, with a killer who can take psychic photographs, and uses them as justification to perform amateur lobotomies on his unwilling patients. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (4x07) concentrates on the central villain of the mythology arc, filling in his history generously (tying him to the assassinations of JFK and MLK), with the qualifier that none of this might actually be true. It's a mythology episode that pokes fun at the idea of government conspiracies, but humanizes the CSM regardless. Leonard Betts (4x14) and Memento Mori (4x15), on the other hand, take the X-Files mythology completely seriously, and go to a greater extent to humanize those effected by the government conspiracy. Leonard Betts in particular benefits by sneaking in a key mythology plot element into what seems like a stand-alone episode, leading to a shocker of a denouement. The season's lightest note is struck by an extended Darin Morgan homage, Gilligan's Small Potatoes (4x20), which even casts Morgan himself as the main character, a schlub with the remarkable ability to take anyone's face--even Luke Skywalker's--which may explain why there have been a number of spontaneous pregnancies in town.

The Lone Gunmen meet a real cyberpunk in William Gibson & Tom Maddox's Kill Switch.

Season Five (1997-1998)

With the X-Files: Fight the Future in production, Season Five became a build-up to the main event, which would open about a month after the season finale aired. So while the mythology episodes lay the groundwork for the film (with an eye, it seems, toward the possibility that this might be the last season of the show), it's the stand-alone episodes which really shine, introducing the idea of the guest star writer, as Stephen King and science fiction writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox each take a crack at adapting their distinctive styles to suit the show. To that end, King's Chinga (5x10, co-written by Chris Carter), about a demonic doll, is most interesting as a meeting of the two fictional universes, as Scully seems to wander into King's New England hell. It is, however, not as effective as Gibson & Maddox's script for Kill Switch (5x11), which smoothly incorporates Mulder and Scully (and, naturally, the Lone Gunmen) into the cyberpunk genre that Gibson helped invent. A novel's worth of action and twists are packed neatly into the show's forty-five minutes. A crossover of a different kind occurs in Vince Gilligan's Unusual Suspects (5x01), which brings in Richard Belzer's Detective Munsch from NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, investigating an incident involving the Lone Gunmen. With Duchovny and Anderson off filming the movie, this episode acts as a placeholder until they returned, though it doesn't feel like filler, thanks to Gilligan's extremely entertaining script--good enough, in fact, to inspire a short-lived spin-off series called The Lone Gunmen not long after. Frank Spotnitz's Detour (5x04) sees the agents return to battle chameleon-like monsters in the Everglades; despite a far-fetched explanation (even by X-Files standards), the episode features one of the season's most memorable scenes, as, stranded in the forest in the middle of the night, Scully sings Three Dog Night to a sleeping Mulder. The Post-Modern Prometheus (5x06), though it borrows from the plot to last season's Small Potatoes, is nevertheless one of the oddest episodes in the series' history. Written and directed by Chris Carter, it's an extended, black-and-white Frankenstein homage which also involves possible sexual assaults and plenty of Cher music. It works, somehow. Bad Blood (5x12) is Gilligan's best-known episode, and most popular; a Rashomon-style tale (the same approach taken by Darin Morgan with Jose Chung's From Outer Space) that sends up vampire lore. It's the series' second shot at vampires, after the second season's unsuccessful, Gothy "3." Travelers (5x15), written by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz, finally brings X-Files inspiration Kolchak the Night Stalker into the series--Darren McGavin, here playing Agent Arthur Dales, who recounts an X-File from decades prior. Tim Minear's Mind's Eye (5x16) showcases the acting chops of guest star Lili Taylor, playing a blind woman who can only see out the eyes of a killer. Finally, the season's penultimate episode, Folie a Deux (5x19), has a call center employee driven mad by visions of his boss as a man-eating insect, a madness which is passed on to Mulder.

Scully, marked for death in Tithonus.

Season Six (1998-1999)

It's unusual for a TV show to continue in the wake of its big screen spinoff; usually feature film adaptations come only after the show has left the air, such as this summer's Sex and the City. But The X-Files returned, and many fans would say that it was the show's mistake, or the moment when it "jumped the shark" (a notion parodied in the Ninth Season episode of the same name). Certainly the mythology episodes began to repeat themselves and grow a bit tedious (with some exceptions), and the series began to rely a bit too heavily on comic relief episodes, at least in this season and the next. But Vince Gilligan's scripts continued to provide bright spots, and Chris Carter wrote and directed the satisfying and ambitious stylistic experiment Triangle (6x03), which sees Mulder wandering into the Bermuda Triangle and onto a 1939 luxury liner taken hostage by Nazi spies. Here he encounters doppelgängers of Scully and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, while the real Scully tries to finagle his rescue within the bureaucracy of the FBI. Every scene is an extended tracking shot, with minimal edits, a la Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Drive (6x02) , by Gilligan, is a premise inspired by Speed with elements of Vanishing Point: a man is infected with something that will make him explode unless he drives as fast as he can westward. It's a good opportunity to show off the series' recent relocation from Vancouver to Los Angeles, utilizing striking desert locales that are in contrast to the series' familiar dark, damp forests and overcast suburbs. Gilligan's script to Tithonus (6x09) ranks among his best work. A world-weary newspaper photographer takes photos of people just before they die; his secret, and what he's attempting to accomplish, take Scully by surprise. His script to Monday (6x15), co-written with John Shiban, does the Groundhog Day thing--one woman keeps reliving the same day over and over--but with urgency as well as palpable despair. She's part of a bank heist that ends tragically, and must somehow find a way to convince Mulder and Scully that the best way to stop the heist is to not interfere; or, more impossibly, convince them that they've lived through this again and again. Arcadia (6x13), smartly conceived by writer Daniel Arkin, sends Mulder and Scully undercover into a gated community, investigating a murder while posing as the perfect married couple. They quickly bump up against the strict community guidelines, which inspires Mulder to become something of a suburban terrorist, sticking pink flamingos in his front lawn and a basketball hoop on his driveway. In The Unnatural (6x20), written and directed by Duchovny, we again return to the archives of the X-Files courtesy Agent Arthur Dales--or, rather, his brother (when McGavin bowed out)--in a tale of a shapeshifting alien who infiltrates the Negro baseball leagues, just because he wants to play baseball. During the series Duchovny would return a couple more times to the director's chair, but this is his best effort by far. Field Trip (6x21) involves some strange phenomena occurring after the discovery by Scully and Mulder of two skeletons buried in a tunnel in the woods. To give away the ending would be a crime, but suffice it to say that the key revelation is a lot of fun. As for the mythology episodes, the series from here on out seemed to want to answer the criticism that the conspiracy plotline was too complicated to follow, so the elements were simplified and the plot was frequently spelled out and underlined by the dialogue. What you finally get is something of a satisfying payoff in the two-parter Two Fathers/One Son (6x11/6x12), which brings the saga of the "Syndicate"--the Mafia-like shadow government--to a resolution that feels like a series finale (although it comes in the middle of the season). Yes, for once something actually happens.

In Brand X, Assistant Director Skinner discovers just how evil the tobacco industry can be.

Season Seven (1999-2000)

The last full season with David Duchovny, Season Seven had its share of highlights, but a certain weariness seemed to be setting in, in particular infecting the mythology episodes--with a key exception. Sein Und Zeit and Closure (7x10/7x11) wraps up the subplot involving Mulder's abducted sister in a manner both unexpected and incredibly moving. It's also the most subdued two-parter of the mythology storyline, more in line with the Season One episode "Conduit" (which also explored the effect of Samantha Mulder's abduction upon Fox) which was a wise decision. As for the stand-alones, The Goldberg Variation (7x02), written by Jeffrey Bell, is a lot of fun; Goldberg is for Rube Goldberg, whose ghost seems to haunt this episode--the story of a man with unusually good luck, who's marked for murder by an increasingly frustrated Mafia. The Amazing Maleeni (7x08) stars David Mamet's favorite magician, Ricky Jay, who in the opening sequence appears to be murdered by a rival magician. The fact that Ricky Jay is in the episode at all should give you a clue that nothing is going to be what it seems. X-Cops (7x12) presents an X-File as an episode of the long-running FOX series Cops, as Mulder and Scully are chased through Los Angeles by a camera crew, while working with the LAPD to catch a monster that can take on the form of whatever its victim most fears. In En Ami (7x15), the Cigarette-Smoking Man promises Scully a cure to her cancer if she travels with him to an unknown destination. Written by Cancer Man himself, William B. Davis, it's an interesting presentation of how the actor perceives his most famous character. Brand X (7x19) has exactly the sort of premise that would have made it a classic if it had aired a few years earlier, when the show was making a name for itself: smoking a new, experimental brand of cigarette leads to a grisly demise. The explanation has the quality of a convincing urban legend, and surely must have convinced at least a few viewers to quit smoking. It's admirably straight-faced too; a relief in a season with too much over-the-top comedy. Though I admired the humor in Je Souhaite (7x21), a thoroughly unnecessary X-Files take on the djinni legend (and "three wishes") that is nonetheless hilariously perceptive: one man asks to become invisible, and is immediately struck by a car.

Agent Doggett is annoyed by number-one X-Files fan Leyla Harrison in Alone.
Season Eight (2000-2001)

Season Eight finds the series in transition between the Mulder & Scully years and what Chris Carter apparently hoped to be a long-running stretch with Agents John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish). To ease the pain for fans, Anderson is still present, though Duchovny, on his way out, appears in only a handful of episodes late in the season. I despised this season when it first aired, and gave up on the show; revisiting it this last year, I was surprised to see that it had many pluses: it shunned the jokey/parodic episodes to return to a more serious tone in line with the show's first season; Doggett is well-developed and sympathetic, and superbly played by Patrick; and there's a sense of excitement when Mulder does, belatedly, return, leading to a two-part season finale that delivers--and should have been, alas, the very final episode. So let's count the positives: there's Roadrunners (8x05), about a strange cult in the deserts of Utah who want Scully to host an alien creature whom they worship; I also liked Invocation (8x06), by David Amann, with a simple but involving mystery plot--a boy returns years after his disappearance, having not aged a day--that also humanizes Doggett (whose own son was kidnapped and murdered). Redrum (8x03), written by Steven Maeda, is one of the season's very best, and only tangentially involves Doggett and Scully: a lawyer (Joe Morton) finds himself on death row for the murder of his wife--and then finds himself slipping backward in time, inexorably moving toward that critical event. After Mulder's return (involving a literal rebirth), the almost nostalgic Three Words (8x18) sees him again infiltrating a top-secret installation with the aid of the Lone Gunmen. (The three words, by the way? "Fight the Future," unfortunately.) Vienen (8x16) is another old-school romp, this time with Mulder and Doggett aboard an oil rig that's become infected with the alien black oil (it also, once more, has shades of The Thing). Frank Spotnitz's Alone (8x19) teams Doggett with FBI agent Leyla Harrison (Jolie Jenkins), a real X-Phile who has memorized all the past cases, much to Doggett's annoyance. (When she finds a mysterious slimy substance, she immediately assumes it to be bile, referencing a moment in "Squeeze.") The villain actually seems to be the Lizard from the Spider-Man comics, though no one seems to catch that (unintentional) reference. Finally, the season draws to a satisfying close with Essence/Existence (8x20/21), with exciting action scenes, the death of a major character, and a long-awaited emotional resolution for two others. Unfortunately, there was one more season still left.

Scully performs a kitchen autopsy on a cat in the late-series standout Scary Monsters.

Season Nine (2001-2002)

What turned out to be the final season of The X-Files was clearly intended to be the first of The X-Files 2.0. For the first time, the opening title sequence was completely revamped (not just subtly altered, as it had been in past seasons). It was flashier, more up-to-date, and even included Mitch Pileggi's name and face--deservedly so. But it also misguidedly assumed that Doggett and Reyes would be an adequate substitute for Mulder and Scully, who were always the heart of the series. While Robert Patrick was engaging as Doggett, Annabeth Gish never quite comes to own the role of Agent Reyes; it doesn't help that her character is so weakly conceived (she's New Agey, and she's trying to quit smoking). Luckily Anderson stuck around in Duchovny's absence, but it's quite clear that she wasn't going to stick around long. Late in the season, there's a dramatic shift in approach, and rather than launching new story threads (as begun unimpressively in the two-part season premiere), the writers begin to wrap them up; clearly, Chris Carter had decided that this was it. In the meantime, you had few stellar episodes. But Lord of the Flies (9x06) has a clever idea even though it doesn't quite come together the way it ought to: an awkward adolescent, addicted to the music of outcast icon (and schizophrenic) Syd Barrett, finds himself undergoing biological changes when his hormones begin raging--he begins to transform into an insect. Which makes it difficult when he wants to impress a girl. Improbable (9x14), written and directed by Chris Carter, is even more eccentric and bizarre than Season Five's "The Post-Modern Prometheus." Burt Reynolds guest stars as a man with some kind of connection to a serial killer who, in turn, commits murders that adhere to a strict numerology which only Agent Reyes notices. Imagine Darren Aronofsky's Pi reimagined as a jolly Italian musical, and you might approach what is happening here. Scary Monsters (9x12), written by Thomas Schnauz, is easily the best episodes of the season, and is the real discovery of the neglected "Doggett years." It also has one of the best openings of the entire series: a little boy, terrified of monsters under the bed, cries out for his father. The father looks under the bed and sees something scurrying in the darkness, and deliberately ignores it; then he closes the door and holds it shut while his son screams helplessly, besieged by the monsters of his nightmares. While Scully stays behind to autopsy a cat on her kitchen table, Doggett, Reyes, and Leyla Harrison (from last season's "Alone") travel to the secluded home to find out if the boy's allegations about his father are correct. Just about as perfect as an X-Files episode gets; or, at least, one without Mulder. But now the loose ends were beginning to get tied up. Jump the Shark (9x15) is an affectionate goodbye to the Lone Gunmen, also providing closure for their prematurely canceled spinoff series. Release (9x16) ties up the mystery regarding Agent Doggett's son--rather devastatingly. It's an excellent script by David Amann and John Shiban. Finally, Sunshine Days (9x18), a Vince Gilligan script, involves the Brady Bunch, bodies launching through rooftops, and telekenesis, and yet it's ultimately sweet-natured and smart. As for the series finale, well: it's there. "The Truth" is two hours that feel like a marathon runner crawling with anguish across the finish line. The first hour is a laborious summary of the mythology arc, attempting to draw the threads together; the second hour is all over-the-top action. One wishes the two halves had been better coordinated. Still, when all is said and done, the X-Files legacy was preserved, however tattered around the edges. The episodes highlighted above rank as some of the finest hours network television has ever produced, and certainly are in the pinnacle of science fiction TV, right there next to classics from The Twilight Zone. The series has become iconic, and the next feature film has an intimidating legacy to live up to. Though I truly wonder if the series was ever meant for the big screen. My fondest memories of watching the shows: when it aired on Friday nights, with none of the fanfare (and little of the budget), just the excitement that this week there was a new episode from one of television's best-kept secrets. One of the great things about DVD is that the X-Files can become a Friday-night spook-show staple once again.

Pazar, Haziran 22, 2008

Morvern Callar

Morvern Callar (U.K., 2002) * * * 1/2
D: Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar is, above all else, valuable for being an experiential film, a film of sensations. The plot is quite beside the point--which will be trying for some. But it seeks to place you in the shoes of its title protagonist (the always-great Samantha Morton), who witnesses the world through headphones--drowning out the world around her--and even when she removes them, she seems to still be listening, waiting for the world to transform into something other than ordinary.

As the film opens, to a strobe effect which will be echoed several times in the film--here created by flickering Christmas tree lights in a dark room--we see a half-naked man sprawled upon the floor, and then Morvern, stroking his arm, and stroking the blood at his wrist. This is how she's found her boyfriend, but he's left her presents, including a mixtape (shades of Radio On) and a novel he's just completed, which he asks to be sent to a publisher. The man sounds insufferable, but luckily for us it is not his movie. Morvern does not call the cops, but lets the body sit for days while she contemplates what to do; she hits the town with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) in what is, for them, a typically decadent night, dancing, tripping, making out. They're Scottish; they work in a supermarket; their idea of ambition is to travel to Spain to hang out at a hotel for spring break debauchery, picking up guys and taking shots. But an idea has struck Morvern, and she decides to take her dead boyfriend's suicide letter literally--he has written "For Morvern"--so she changes the byline to her own name before submitting it to a publisher. To her surprise, the publisher shows interest, and now she has to meet up with them so they can make their offer. In Spain, she wanders the hotel, at one point hooking up for anonymous sex, but for her own reasons: to comfort a grieving man. (The parallel scene occurs near the beginning of the film, when she picks up a ringing payphone at the train station and offers open comfort to the distraught somebody on the other end.) She urges Lanna away from the parties of the pool resort to see the real Spain, which goes better for Morvern than it does for Lanna.

Morvern remains fascinating throughout, because while she is not the artist that her boyfriend was--and therefore has a difficult time fooling the overeager publishers--she yearns to express herself in some fashion, if only she had the means. Woody Allen once nailed the idea in his Bergmanesque drama Interiors: "What happens to those of us who can't create?" All poor Morvern can do is wander with her headphones, feeling something in the mixtape that makes her yearn for more than she has. But her inspirations are morbid: taking credit for the manuscript, disposing of her boyfriend's body (she buries the pieces on a hill using a garden spade), ditching her friend in the Spanish wilderness. You don't exactly root for Morvern; you wonder at her. She carries the movie with her unpredictability. And yet she is not the typical, boring surrogate for the sensitive screenwriter: she is a party girl, prone to fits of giggling at inappropriate moments, restlessly immature, and really unable to understand that pull she feels toward expanding her life into something other than working by day and partying by night. What is most refreshing about Morvern Callar is that I'm not sure I've seen this character in a film before.

It's based on a novel by Alan Warner, but the film is directed by Ramsey, a woman (who also made another cult film, Ratcatcher), and written by Ramsey and Liana Dognini. It has a woman's eye, a woman's gaze; the female nudity (abundant) is not eroticized but feels raw and natural. It is voyeuristic only in the sense that one feels, as one does throughout the film, a sense of discomfort, of prying into someone else's life. The film seems remarkably real, in much the way of another recent (and raw) Scottish film, Red Road. But it also has a lightness, matched by the disorienting soundtrack selections (often at a sharp angle from what is happening on-screen); a dreamlike quality, and a sense that anything can happen because the standard rules don't seem to be applying.

Frequently the soundtrack songs drop out, essentially moving from what Morvern hears (enveloping beats and melodies that push out all ambient sounds) to what someone else would hear--tinny, muted noises. It's the most critical contrast Ramsey provides for the world that Morvern sees and a starkly different "reality." But when you're caught in that misguided swoon of Morvern's, the film is strangely transporting, like jumping off a building--the thrill of feeling the wind against your skin just before the inevitable crash.

Pazartesi, Haziran 16, 2008

The Desert of the Tartars

The Desert of the Tartars (Italy, 1976) * * *
D: Valerio Zurlini

The young, handsome Drogo (Jacques Perrin), having just enlisted in the military, is assigned as a lieutenant at the distant outpost of Bastiani, which lies between a vast, empty desert and high, snow-capped mountains. This ancient fort's purpose is to mark a territorial border, but the enemy, the "North Kingdom," is almost forgotten, so quiet has this war become. As time passes and he gains stature within the ranks of the garrison, he learns of the subtle frictions between the officers, as well as the suicidal despair of the soldiers who serve under them, waiting constantly for a conflict that never happens. Yet there does seem to be something brewing out upon the desert horizon: Captain Hortiz (Max Von Sydow) claims to have once seen figures riding white horses--Tartar horses--though he is reluctant to speak of it now; soon Drogo and his companions sight a white, riderless horse trotting just beyond the border, and heated discussion arises as to whether or not they should go over the border (forbidden) to seize the horse, and whether or not it actually belongs to the enemy at all. If that enemy even exists.

Time passes, Drogo grows older, and his discreet attempts to find another station somewhere else are denied. The bureaucracy of the garrison leads to stupid, sometimes disastrous decisions: when one soldier doesn't know the password to gain re-admittance to the fort, he is shot down--as though he might be the enemy even though they can easily recognize that he isn't. Rumors of a possible Tartar invasion increase, as evidence mounts that the enemy is on the move; yet, somehow, it is justified to reduce the population of the fort and weaken it. The absurdities might sound like something out of Catch-22, but Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars, based on the novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English as The Tartar Steppe), is more somber, with a premise, bordering on the allegorical, that calls to mind Kafka. As in Kafka's stories and novels, all actions lead to futility and frustration, with utter catastrophe constantly on the horizon.

Zurlini's film--his last--is beautifully photographed, with fine (if deliberately muted) acting, and an austere, slightly removed quality that calls to mind Visconti (in particular The Leopard and Senso) and Bertolucci (in particular The Conformist). It is austere, however, to a fault. While Zurlini might be serving the novel with the greatest respect, and certainly gets across the erosion of time (the film is 140 minutes) as well as the unidentifiable dread of the story's premise, the film could only be helped by a little auteurist kick in the pants. Imagine what Bunuel could have done with the material (never find the fetishes he would have imposed). Or Herzog (who probably would have hypnotized his cast). The problem with the film is that it hasn't the guts to push the film into the territory of real greatness--to lull the audience into the trance that the story requires and then really show them something, take them someplace. A little humor wouldn't hurt, either.

Yet the journey is worthwhile, and there are a few moments within the film that are stunningly imagined. When Drogo first arrives at Bastiani, riding alone on horseback, the camera pans slowly across the deserted, ancient fortress, which appears to be abandoned. He finds bayonets stuck into the ground, but no soldiers, all while the tower of the fortress looks magnificently, ominously down upon him from the background. Much is made of what can be seen from the tower through binoculars--the strange evidence of the unseen enemy--and Zurlini effectively puts across the idea that to look through them is to confront one's fears and paranoias. When Drogo, late in the film, collapses in a faint when he attempts to look through his pair, it is perhaps the most strange and shocking moment in the picture.

If the film were a bit more strange, a bit more shocking, it may have been better remembered, these three decades later. As it is, The Desert of the Tartars is an interesting, literary, and occasionally fascinating film; it has a peerless, professional sheen. Perhaps a little smudge here and there could have made it a masterpiece. Sometimes a director needs to get his hands dirty.

Salı, Haziran 10, 2008

The White Hell of Pitz Palu

The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Germany, 1929) * * *
D: Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst

Long before she directed Triumph of the Will and became the most notorious propagandist director of all time, Leni Riefenstahl was an athletic, daredevil actress, who starred in a string of "mountain" pictures which took advantage of the natural beauty of remote alpine locations, as well as Leni's own statuesque glamor. Many of these were directed by Arnold Fanck (G.W. Pabst, director of Pandora's Box, co-directs), who had an eye for the spectacular, almost alien landscapes of high climes. He also knew his way around an action scene. Early in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Dr. Krafft (Gustav Diessl, also in Fritz Lang's wondrous Testament of Dr. Mabuse) is accompanying his wife and their friend on a trek across the cliffs of the sinister Piz Palü glacier; his wife, alas, plummets down a dark crevasse, too deep for a rescue. Now she is frozen for eternity within its hellish depths, as Dr. Krafft later forlornly tells engaged couple Maria (Riefenstahl) and Hans (Ernst Petersen), who are vacationing off the glacier. Time for another trek, of course, which leads to another, greater catastrophe: a group of young students are swept by an avalanche en masse down steep cliffs and into hidden crevasses and caves, and Krafft, Maria, and Hans become stranded, exposed to the elements, unable to scale their way to safety. The plot--of disasters, search parties, and rescue attempts--is nothing more than an excuse for Fanck's delirious stunt sequences and powerful editing. The action scenes are almost abstract, carefully plotted and edited swiftly, just like Psycho's shower scene. I highly recommend renting Kino's DVD and keeping your finger on the pause button, deconstructing frame by frame how Fanck constructs each shot (i.e. man's coat is splashed with snow, shocked heads with wide mouths whirl as the camera spins upside-down, a dummy is shoved over a ravine, etc.), and then play it back at standard speed to see how the images become almost impressionistic, forming the idea of the event rather than a coherent depiction of what has just happened. For 1929, it's astonishingly innovative, and one can almost imagine that Fanck has laid the groundwork for later blockbuster action films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with their carefully storyboarded action setpieces. Fanck also deserves applause for simply having the gall to film on the locations he's chosen; in a 20's silent film, particularly one of German vintage, one might expect lots of expressionistic sets and makeup. Fanck is the antidote to that approach: he strives for realism, filming on location and in deep ice caverns with cascading layers of cannot-be-faked stalactites, perching his actors (and actress) on the edges of the slopes with mountain vistas behind them. This is not to say that some sets are used, and plenty of special effects applied, but a veracity is achieved--what Werner Herzog calls the "voodoo of location"--which transports the viewer inside the cinematic space. Yet these secret mountain caverns can look just as otherworldly as anything in a film by Murnau or Lang, and Fanck knows it. In the most memorable scene, when dozens of members of a rescue team penetrate a labyrinthine ice cave, each holding a flare with an eerie glow, all scattered throughout the frame to fill it completely, the fires illuminating the many frozen bodies of the dead students, Fanck indulges in superimposing a title-card: "Inferno!" It's the one moment when Fanck is willing to cop to the visual poetry he's achieved.

Pazar, Haziran 08, 2008

Red Desert

Red Desert (Italy, 1965) * * * *
D: Michelangelo Antonioni

If there is fault to be found in Antonioni's 1965 Red Desert, it is not within the borders of the film's frames: Antonioni is, at this stage of his career, such an impeccable artist that there is not a single moment of the film which could not provoke a healthy paper from a thoughtful film student. Red Desert is a magnificent meditation on human alienation, thoroughly schematized, yet open to enigmatic possibilities as Antonioni lets his camera wander across these bizarre industrial landscapes (visually, it is almost a science fiction film). The only fair criticism might be that Antonioni had already done this many times before, and that the reason he's so good at it by 1965 is that he's just very well practiced on the subject matter. And yet, you wouldn't criticize Hitchcock for making a "wrong man" film--you'd pop one in the DVD player when you're in the mood to watch the best of wrong man films. If you're hankering for a slowly-paced, gorgeously-shot, meditative film about upper-class existential angst, may I recommend L'Eclisse, La Notte, L'Avventura, or Il Deserto Rosso, all representing the cream of the crop, and all by Antonioni?

Monica Vitti again stars, here cast as the wife to the manager of a factory, whose plant is suffering under the impact of a worker's strike. She has just been involved in a terrible car accident, and although she's physically recovered, she is, as her husband complains, not quite right. In fact, she's crippled by neuroses, almost schizophrenic, as she literally cringes and recoils at the oppressive, rusting, decayed, and polluted world around her, which Antonioni frames so that it visually presses in on her from all sides. In his films, empty space carries as much weight as heavy concrete. She ponders opening a ceramics shop, and explains to an only slightly less disaffected engineer (Richard Harris) that she must choose just the right color for the shop--something "neutral," she says, as she shows him the paint samples she's splashed on the wall. Of course, her world is filled with neutral colors--browns and grays, primarily--and so whenever Antonioni introduces a splash of bright red, or a delirious purple, a flag should be raised in the viewer's mind. But the reddest room, low-ceilinged, hidden in the back of a shack sitting on a foggy pier, is gaudy and almost shameful, and it's where Vitti, her husband, and their friends gather for a debauched party that sits temptingly on the verge of an all-out orgy. This kind of debauchery has been chronicled in Italian 60's cinema before, most notably in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but the way Antonioni treats it is telling. The couples find the encounter rife with sexy possibilities, but Antonioni doesn't: he's noticing how gaudily the paint is splashed on these rotting old planks, how Vitti and Harris have a slightly distant, haunted look about them, how the biggest lech in the room is almost reptilian in his movements, and that the cold, bottomless ocean is only just below them; most of all he points out how truly awkward and desperate they seem. When another couple arrives to peer down into the room, the partygoers--either middle-aged or approaching middle-age, and lying on their sides and backs like children in a cramped playroom--seem briefly self-aware, before they try to lure that visiting couple into their lustful self-delusion.

It's delusion in which Antonioni is most interested: his central characters, often played by Vitti, seem to have broken that spell, suddenly facing a universe which is cruel and meaningless, and which no one else can see. That--and the fact that we're all in it alone. The most powerful, almost supernatural image in the film is a vision Vitti has while standing in the foggy harbor with her friends, all of them having just fled the proximity of an arriving ship that's being quarantined: Vitti sees each of her companions slowly absorbed by the mist, one at a time, while they stand, frozen, staring at her. It's one of many iconic images in Antonioni's filmography, but perhaps the closest he comes to actually visualizing that nothingness which is assaulting his characters. But the cruelty can also come from other people. She tries to explain it to Harris: "If you pinch me, only I suffer..." Even her son can be cruel, though indirectly, when he leads his mother to believing, for a day, that he's become paralyzed by polio. When she discovers him standing, perfectly healthy, on top of his bed, she's relieved, overwhelmed with gratitude; and then struck by horror--not just that a trick was played on her, but that her own child could so carelessly thrust her into such an awful alternate reality. It's just another one of her epiphanies, as the film chronicles Vitti's deterioration on the path to a grim "enlightenment."

Antonioni would subsequently challenge himself by taking his approach to different cultures: first to swinging London with Blow-Up, then to American campus radicalism with Zabriskie Point. Red Desert feels like the last film in a series, mastering his themes, or, perhaps, just finally expressing something he'd been trying to get at for the past several films. You might prefer any of those other films (me, I'll take La Notte), but one thing that strikes me about Red Desert is the feeling that the director has finally scratched that itch. He's gotten out what he's been wanting to say, and now he can move on--if only a little bit.

Cumartesi, Haziran 07, 2008

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (France, 1966) * * *
D: William Klein

The ninth box set from the Criterion Collection's Eclipse imprint collects three rare films from the little-known, American-born satirist William Klein: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), Mr. Freedom (1969), and The Model Couple (1977). A renowned New York fashion photographer who became an expatriate, Klein's first feature-length film is French, and wholly absorbs swinging 60's Paris; it's a biting but playful critique of the fashion industry and pop culture in general. I couldn't help but be reminded of Richard Lester's imaginative satires, including Help! and How I Won the War. And, like those films, it's impossible to imagine it being produced in any decade but the 60's.

Polly Maggoo (Dorothy MacGowan) is a Parisian cover girl adored worldwide. She is also something of a blank slate, upon which the various characters of the film--including a TV documentarian, a wealthy prince, bumbling secret agents, and haughty fashion designers--project all their ideals, lusts, and fantasies. On top of this threadbare plot (which can be summarized as: "Polly is pursued"), Klein layers witty dialogue, pointed satire, surreal dreams, endless digressions, TV commercials, sloganeering, even cut-out animation, all to demonstrate how Polly the person disappears beneath Polly the idol, a papier-mâché construct whom all the peripheral characters have built in their private fantasies.

At 101 minutes, it's all a little too much, and becomes slightly exhausting after a while. But the film picks up in its final stretch--even as the narrative becomes even more disjointed--with an odd and unexpected finale, followed by one of the funniest ending credit sequences I've seen (with drawings by famed cartoonist Roland Topor). What's most impressive about the film is that it demonstrates Klein to be an instant natural as a filmmaker. With restlessly creative techniques--super-fast editing, crowded and dizzying compositions--he reinvents his film every few minutes. The effect is like reading a glossy pop-art magazine: a little Vogue, a little Mad Magazine, a little New Yorker, with plenty of eye-popping ads.

Most of all, as a freewheeling, madcap 60's satire, Polly Maggoo is endearing for actually being clever and fun--something many of its larger-budgeted rivals (What's New, Pussycat?, Casino Royale) only dreamed of being. But this would make a brilliant double-feature with Godard's equally stylish Masculin-Féminin, a yé-yé girl critique of a (slightly) more serious tone. Have at it.