The X-Files, the beloved sci-fi seres incarnated in seven seasons on television, two spinoffs, and two feature films, reached its 20th anniversary in 2013. The milestone was observed perhaps most accordingly in a discussion between the show's two leads, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovney, at The Paley Center for Media in New York in October, and more mildly by yours truly, who watched it for the first time after many years' worth of disinterest.
Any formal appraisal of a program comparable in length to The X-Files pronounces a certain bias, for to consume such an extent of media - over 150 hours' worth of content - one must entertain a preference for the material. In the case of this show, this preference tends towards conspiratorial secrets, corrupt government, and the more straightforward business of tried-and-true monsters who lurk about in sewers, closets, ventilation systems, and trailer parks. It's, in short, the business of lending serious credence to the tabloid headlines that propagandize a grocery checkout aisle.
Episodes of The X-Files are delineated into roughly two types: the mythology ones, which detail agents Mulder and Scully's strife with their superiors and their gradual comprehension of a larger governmental conspiracy to which their work on X-files is a threat; and the "Monsters of the Week," which employ the same narrative shorthand as The Twilight Zone. The best episodes aren't so neatly delineated into one of these types, however, and forward a meta-commentary on on the show's inherent tension: that the monsters, or the government's suppression of their existence, is less defensible than the indefatigable belief people can harbor for such improbability. Agent Mulder is the exemplar of this idea, and the show is at its best whenever he is close to the truth, and at its most punishing when he finds it is infinitesimally out of reach.
I watched only a fraction of the show in total and none of its franchise offspring, and admittedly this write-up would confide greater authority a year from now. Nevertheless, as with any media that reaches anything near this bulk, there is much to recommend in a cursory attempt to isolate the grain apart from the chaff. I'll conclude with what is - by my own standard (and others) - one of The X-Files most ingenious hours: "Jose Chung's From Outer Space", Season 3, Episode 20. It begins with a teaser in which two promiscuous teens are abducted by a pair of aliens, an action interrupted by a third, much larger and menacing being. All three aliens regard each other questioningly, and then the title credits begin.
What ensues is remarkably less the straightforward procedural that describes most other episodes than a fairy tale-like rendition of the investigation from someone's exploitative memory--that is, the titular Jose Chung, a mass-market paperback fiction author reportedly based on Whitley Strieber (whose specious nonfiction alien abduction tale, Communion, was a bestseller in 1987). Chung, no doubt eager for another bestseller, is listening to Scully's recollection of the investigation, and reenactments are staged from his imagination. As he collates and expresses Scully's description, the episode is rendered a sort of seriocomic reenactment in which the account of the abduction becomes increasingly unreliable.
At its end, we're only marginally closer to comprehending whether or not an abduction took place, or if the government is manipulating the facts in order to obscure certain and potentially revelatory facts. "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" posits a rather sobering thought: that truth is unknowable. Yet the desire to believe is sometimes fanatically entertaining.
“I loved this movie as much as I loved the romance of watching it, of laughing and losing myself and turning around to be astonished anew by Parajanov’s visionary cinematography. I haven’t stopped smiling since.” Continue reading →
“As far away as is possible from the immersive, sympathetic humanism of Puiu’s earlier The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Aurora refuses any easy access. For three hours we follow the mundane preparations for a series of murders, but with the precise motivation and the nature of the protagonist’s relationships kept consistently unclear (although it is all resolved in retrospect at the end—perhaps too much so).” Continue reading →
“The screen can barely contain the glimmers of elaborate costumes and sets. Such sparkle could be punctuated by a comic book sound effect – zing! – and Demy likely wouldn’t want to present this weird fairy tale any other way.” Continue reading →
“The film is alluring, as it posits a diegetic world based pretty much entirely on orgasms, but with its uncomfortable insistence on imperialism and aggressive male-female sexual dynamics, it raises a number of questions in the modern feminist viewer: whose fantasy is this, exactly?” Continue reading →
“That this loony conspiracy film about telekinesis, secret government agencies, and Kirk Douglas’s massive chest even exists is mind-boggling.” Continue reading →
“This is the classic Quixotic tale, now almost wholly tragic; and though Tom and Daisy are supposedly the ‘careless people,’ smashing up things and creatures, Gatsby’s wilful commitment to plot over people puts his own creative talents somewhere on the Mr. Ripley spectrum” Continue reading →
“But with its lushly colorful visuals and incisive and soulful wit, it is the kind of art that one can take refuge in, if only for one hundred minutes.” Continue reading →
“Libera me is composed as a series of tableaux, each an achingly precise image: a slab of meat tied up with string; makeshift coffins numbered with black paint; a handkerchief; a bundle of bedding; a head doused with blood. No words are spoken, but the soundtrack is rich with the faint sounds of bodies breathing, moving, writhing, touching. Its low-key lighting and palette of dim blues and greys and browns give it an eerily outdated look that is virtually impossible to associate with the early 1990s.” Continue reading →
“Eventually, Tonto’s small figure disappears into a blanket of shade, lost in the golden mise-en-scene overwhelmed by darkness. He is walking away from history and toward a greater transcendence.” Continue reading →
“Forget the standard film-buff complaint that the sixties films were better: no, the stream of astounding work since the ‘return to cinema’ marked by Sauve qui peut (la vie) – work that marks Godard as (at 83!) the greatest working director today – has clear links with the best of his films of the sixties (e.g. 2 or 3 Things…) while developing on them in new directions, above all in the positioning of his cinema as part of a centuries-old European cultural context and in an attention to an increasingly lyrical depiction of the natural world.” Continue reading →
“When chaos does reign, D.C. explodes into a massive shooting gallery with multiple fronts, culminating in the decapitation of the Washington Monument and a gruesome gun battle on the North Lawn. It’s a bloody chess match that engulfs the entire capital in mayhem.” Continue reading →
“Imamura delivers over half an hour of classical ethnographic exploration into the daily routines of these simple fisherfolk, who make enough money to purchase necessities by pulling squid out of the sea but limit their worldly possessions lest the pirates come to plunder.” Continue reading →
“The film runs a nimble 73 minutes, and in that time it’s made clear that Gracie and Ginny (as their parents called them) would most likely have developed normally had their parents not been under the false impression that there was something wrong with them. In believing their daughters to be handicapped – and, more importantly, treating them like a lost cause – they effectively ensured that the girls would be.” Continue reading →
“A bevy of beefy sailors; shiny surfaces; the oppressive artificiality of the red and yellow lighting of a never-setting sun; the constantly shifting planes of desire and revulsion characters feel for one another amidst their awakening (homo)sexuality, the desire to fuck and to kill merging into one.” Continue reading →
“Brooks-onscreen is likely too full of himself to recognize the comedy of the moment, but Brooks-the-director certainly isn’t, and neither are we.” Continue reading →
“Sapphire & Steel’s air of supernatural paranoia and otherworldly angst has a deeply chilly existentialism about it: the spirits of those killed unnecessarily in war, souls trapped in photographs, the vengeful gestalt of organic matter that has been dead for millennia.” Continue reading →
“I had (at least) three kinds of angels to help me in my confusion of curdled love: a couple of amazing friends, the poetry of Anne Carson, and Harmony Korine’s depraved ode to America’s armchair metaphysics of halted time and pleasured oblivion.” Continue reading →
“Eggleston’s photos are only datable for the objects and fashion they contain, for technically they are indistinguishable from contemporary work. Stranded in Canton is a stark contrast, and the most unbecomingly old work Eggleston has made.” Continue reading →
“Collisions, such as these, between the person and the fiction allow the film to resonate as a dark, complicated landmark in the life and career of its star.” Continue reading →
“Coolly controlled, with a wry wit that never fully resolves its ambiguous mysteries, Tragedy is a fascinating pointer to a road-not-taken, where Bertolucci might, to the advantage of his art, have continued chronicling his own nation in a career more like that of Marco Bellocchio.” Continue reading →
“Within these 125 minutes of road, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and good and bad witches, Lynch manages to tear apart, reinvent, and sew together a staggering amalgamation of genres—romance, road movie, comedy, crime, noir, and horror” Continue reading →
“‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ posits a rather sobering thought: that truth is unknowable. Yet the desire to believe is sometimes fanatically entertaining.” Continue reading →
“While I’m loath to make the sort of predictions that are weighed down with a sense of finality and will haunt me in the coming years as not only incorrect but downright foolhardy, it seems as though 2013 was the first year in which documentaries surpassed narrative film in their significance not just to the changing face of cinema but also to social conversation.” Continue reading →