Posts tagged ‘morality’

the word is now a virus: Pontypool

Pontypool is in one way a simple satire with a single didactic message: English-speaking media is turning citizens into empty-headed and desperately violent zombies, and the only way to save yourself is to excise the language entirely. Metaphorical tumor and healthy flesh must be sacrificed together, and refuge is to be found in the less id-baiting vocabulary of Lacan’s French.

Why Lacan? The seemingly random words that punctured each person with this verbal infection made me think of his famous near-koan, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”

Horror is at its most effective, though, when it has some solid conceptual underpinnings, remains faithful to them, and – most importantly – allows the audience to ignore them completely. Fortunately, as the Spoony One pointed out (getting us interested enough to rent it), Pontypool has another showy concept up its sleeve: it’s practically a radio play, relying on audience imagination for the first two acts.

This leads to the film’s most common criticism, that it cheaps out on showing the horror that a viewer presumably expects to see based on the cover art. Unsurprisingly, I disagree. I love zombie flicks, but they’re samey in their special effects and “shocking” gore notes. They’re almost comforting that way, like a bedtime story you’ve heard read a hundred times…assuming your father was Jeffrey Dahmer. If a character on a crackly phone line describes an undead mob converging on a victim, I’ve got the mental image in place by the fourth word. If that mob is dog-piling on a family’s car while imitating windshield-wiper blades…I’ve got to work a little harder for it, and when the visual finally clicks…hoo boy. There’s no filmed scene that could ever match up.

Another benefit of this limitation is that it puts us inside the media body that in a typical horror flick would conveniently contextualise the mayhem with an explanation of the source, and provide an arrow toward the survivors’ solution if not the solution itself. Here, they desperately try to put together disparate reports into a coherent story to tell (because it has to be a story to be news, not just isolated facts), while debating whether they should be repeating any of it on air. Is it true, is it a prank, is it in fact life-and-death real and could get them fined for accidentally broadcasting the inappropriate reality of madness and death?

The virus, and the film, move on understanding. Currently unknown English words (although ones pertaining to love and hate, most beloved hot-buttons of infotainment, are early favorites) carry a new sort of virus, one that takes hold in the ephemeral moment when someone not just hears the word but understands it. (It’s reasonable to suspect that this will not be one of evolution’s fortunate mutations, as a successful word virus would be more like William S. Burrow’s conception of the written word as a symbiotic virus that made speech possible, not one that invariably led to its host eating all other potential hosts and then exploding.) What then? If Burroughs is right, we can’t halt our internal vocalisation, and that inevitably spills out verbally, possibly carrying the fatal virus and delivering that letter to anyone near you, or listening at home.

The film plays with the fuzzy dividing line between signal and noise. They broadcast a clear signal, but the words on it are difficult. The small town listening thrives on gossip and speculation, and fuelling this will only lead to the station’s censure, right or wrong. Give them only the boring but comprehensible signal, none of the primal and artistic noise. But the new dj, like all in his profession, thrives on attention, negative as much or more than positive. Words are not only his livelihood, they are his joy, leaping straight from his fluidly rhizoid brain to his lips, layering grains of exact truth with rhythm and melodrama. Facts and speculations fling themselves into the de-sanctified studio too quickly to be comprehended, let alone judge. As the dj states in the film’s opening monologue about a lost cat named “Honey”:

Well, Norman Mailer, he had an interesting theory that he used to explain the strange coincidences in the aftermath of the JFK assasination. In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details, they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other.

These details seemed related because the JFK assassination and its aftermath happened live on television. It was a seemingly direct experience, just filtered through media’s commercial imperatives. It became a story, and in a story, everything should connect, but where was the author?

A foreign doctor seemingly at the centre of the disturbances appears right on cue. They want him to explain what’s going on, he wants to explain what’s going on, they give him a microphone, and…they keep getting distracted. The speed of incoming fragments makes them feel urgent, even though they only give information we already know (something contagious is making people behave incomprehensibly), while the doctor is offering solid intel on how the affected act, and how to hide from them. But noise is news; noise gets priority.

The story of the happening has to be plucked from noise. Here’s where the writing and acting are particularly strong, with characters speaking in elliptical, semi-conscious prestidigitation, trying to verbally camouflage their own fears and secrets. Early on, the show’s producer defends specific townspeople who are precariously recovering alcoholics just trying to hold onto their jobs; later, she seeks refuge in the dj’s bottle of Glenfiddich and refers to being continually drunk at the end of her marriage. Ah…so her earlier words were partly about herself, and partly a feint away from “I’m an alcoholic and your jokes about drunks are painful.”

That, or anyone would hit the bottle during a painful divorce or “conversationalist” zombie siege, and it has nothing to do with her comment before. Is Honey the lost cat, and the dj’s broadcast about her, at the epicentre of the outbreak, or is it just a coincidence that the animal’s name is in the “love” circle of seemingly infected words? It appears to line up, strung together by adequate coincidences, to produce meaning, but are you convinced? What’s your criteria for being convinced; do you even know? Meanwhile, doom is close…so they tell you.

My impression: the dj and producer are carriers, Typhoid Marys, able to fight off the disease themselves but also infecting every poor soul who hears them. They are both depressed, both regularly self-medicating, and unable to meaningfully connect with others. They both want to – the dj’s handmade Valentine’s Day cards for his coworkers, the producer’s fatal phone calls to her distant children – but are only hearing others through a thick filter of helpless gloom, distorting their meaning. Their well-meaning attempts to warn listeners – not-so-incidentally skyrocketing their own profile in the process – are spreading the disease to everyone who tunes in from as far away as the UK via a BBC simulcast. Their dissociated thinking can save them, but trying to pass the trick on to others is impossible as even they don’t truly know

Where did the virus come from; did the mysterious doctor create it or just study its rapid development? It’s inconceivable in any case, right? Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who wants to put Grandpa in front of a death panel, and Dick Cheney personally orchestrated September 11 2001 to justify his imperialist war machine. Desecrating a holy text is a Christian act; that potential desecration justifies violent demonstrations against uninvolved parties. How have sections of societies been infected with these illogical ideas?

Frankly, the world would be better off with the conversationalist zombies.

Also: I have no idea what to make of the dadaist stinger after the credits, but if it were a movie I would buy the dvd and every scrap of related merchandise.

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

protest or forget: the Beast Below

Protest: The Beast Below

Protest: The Beast Below

Once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.

An often excellent episode, The Beast Below struggled to fit in some emotional bonding between this new Doctor and his companion (and the audience). Amy hasn’t had time to change out of her sleepwear before being thrown into an adventure of unimaginable horror – and nearly thrown out of her tenure as a companion after only a few minutes in the Tardis.

Part of the splendid set and character design, the Smilers had an image worthy of gracing a generation’s nightmares but didn’t really do much. They embody the police state the Doctor immediately sees – continuing the Sherlock Holmes-esque attention to detail that led him to a solution last week – but they are not the horror, and neither is the titular beast below who carries the remnants of the British, Welsh, and Northern Irish people on its back. The true monsters, as Rod Serling continually remonstrated, are us.

Except that’s not quite it. Every other country in the world, when the Earth was blasted by solar flares in the 29th century, was able to get it together to make colony ships and seek their new fortunes. Only England and its hangers-on – once the Scots abandoned them, bless their wise ginger heads – were left behind, listening to their children cry, and not building a fecking spaceship! Even though they were entirely capable of whipping up an airtight city/massive torture device, sans blueprints, once they’d “trapped” a beast capable of carrying one.

Perhaps they were waiting for Rupert Murdoch to do it for them, having voted against a 2% VAT raise that would have funded a publicly built ship?

No, the horror is specifically within “us” the British people, who cannot conceive of altruism. The Doctor (admiringly) describes the ship on first glance as an idea, as “Britain but metal.” They are searching for a new home, but bringing the worst of the old one with them, the paranoia and self-made horror that they give themselves the option not to face.

The episode not only captures a peculiarly self-loathing twist on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas but the UK’s pre-election gestalt, being presented with two choices that are not choices at all, but allow one to stop contemplating the self-made nightmare we live in and – more importantly – accept that this is how it must be rather than seeking the hard work of possible solutions. It was the designers of the city who chose to feed “protesters and citizens of limited value” – including children who tested poorly – to the Beast. That can’t be blamed on the panic that would drive a people to trap and torture a benevolent creature who intended to rescue them from the beginning (and continues to do so even after centuries of torment). This is heart of darkness territory.

It’s deliberately written into the text, providing one of my favorite Doctor Who characters of the last few years: Liz Ten, a middle-aged, confident, compassionate Action Queen who seeks to truly serve her people even if it gets her sent to the Tower – historically not a good end for a monarch.

Liz Ten: The Beast Below

Liz Ten: The Beast Below

Even Liz Ten, lionhearted, dutiful Liz Ten, chooses every ten years to continue this nightmare. She was, in fact, one of its architects. What hope is there that the rest of us wouldn’t slam down that ‘Forget’ button in a heartbeat, facing the same choice?

The Doctor proves to carry this within himself as well, even before he realises this is more than another fun adventure. He judges his new companion rather harshly, without thinking – “Oh lovely, you’re a cheery one!” – and presents her with his own unfair binary decision. When Amy hesitates about running off into an unknown police state, on her own, in her pyjamas, he replies shortly: “This or Leadworth. What will Amy Pond choose?” And he’s gleeful when she meekly accepts: “Ha ha, gotcha!” It seems that neither a pep talk – perhaps including his new Number One Rule of “you don’t ever decide what I need to know,” on pain of immediate abandonment – nor a quick detour into the Tardis to get a pair of pants on was a viable option.

And he’s awfully quick to snap out “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” after being able to at least face the horror, unlike everyone else, if not think through it. Fortunately, Amy out-Doctors the Doctor by seeing an obvious detail once his anti-human blinders were crazy-glued to his temples and saves both the poor beast and the vaguely intra-genocidal race on its back, and there’s hugging all round, and we can safely move on to the rest of the season without dissolving into blobs of self-loathing recrimination.

To sum up, pretty dark stuff for a children’s show. Pretty dark stuff for a post-watershed adult show, really. I like it, a lot, and I like that the hero-lead of an action show has the character depth to fuck up so badly and come back from it a little wiser.

…but is this Doctor Who?

childhood’s refugees: Goodbye Lenin!

Goodbye Lenin!

A hilariously touching coming-of-age story, Goodbye Lenin! not only places the protagonists at a contemporary transitional threshold of very late teens/early twenties but also defines modern adulthood as taking control of the lie you live.

Germany’s unification is shown as something driven by youth who first fear an empty adulthood perpetually waiting for poor-quality necessities but are then left adrift by a first surge of capitalism that offers no adulthood at all, only menial jobs that fund ephemeral childish entertainments. The focus is on one family who, since the father’s defection into the West (and the arms of a western mistress), have been defined by their mother’s passionate Socialist activism. Ariane, a young mother, is forced to give up studying for an economics degree and experience the business world directly as a fast-food worker. Her little brother finds a job mocking his youthful dreams of following the East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn into space, selling satellite tv door to door. The wonder of outer space has been replaced by the capitalist utilitarianism of bringing massive spectator sports events to the dull-eyed masses, each in their separate boxes.

The speed of this change is striking. Their mother, Christiane, lies in a coma for only eight months (caused by the heart attack she suffered, seeing her son arrested for striking against the state she’d devoted her life to), but her children struggle to comprehend, let alone recreate, that former world to protect her fragile health. “I can’t believe we used to wear this shit,” Ariane complains, already missing her gaudy new clothes. All the food brands their mother requests have disappeared from shelves, driving Alex to dumpster-dive for old jars to sterilise and re-use.

Despite being set a generation behind the present, this film captures a very contemporary feeling better than any film set recently: how do young people grow up when the world they’ve been prepared for is wiped away in – seemingly – moments? My own generation, awkwardly perched between X and Y, was pushed to embrace technological education (with all the debt that brings) and specialise in order to be valuable as part of a well-paid, globalised, free-moving world workforce, and when we are at the age of these siblings, that crumbled with the same finality as the Cold War Eastern Bloc.

Despite the frantic improvisation required to keep his mother (possibly) convinced her beloved state is still functional, Alex comes to see the tiny world he’s made as a quiet haven from the chaos of change outside – just as his mother is able to get out of bed and takes a stab at reclaiming her independence by going outside. There she finds a riot of advertising, consumer goods, and most bizarrely telling, a statue of Lenin being airlifted out of the city (presumably to the scrapyard), seeming to wave solemnly to her as it passes. Does she realise now what has happened, is that why she is able later to tell her children that their despised father did not run away with another woman but emigrate, expecting her to follow with his family? Deeply frightened by the police interrogation and the likelihood of losing her children if she applied for a visa, Christiane had created and wholeheartedly embraced a fantasy that made the feared communist state a beloved protector that required her constant support. This gave her a meaningful life as the go-to person in their area for help with every small problem, but deprived her children of even their father’s letters, let alone presence, and she does not know whether she truly made the right choice.

Passing this burden on to her offspring is – along with Ariane and her partner’s new attitude toward being a parents rather than reluctant babysitters – a first indication they’ve become real adults. Christiane is able to die somewhat contented, even accepting someone else’s comforting fantasy, because Alex proves he can carry it. In order to camouflage the markers of change he couldn’t hide, he’d enlisted first his cinema-mad work partner and eventually an entire circle of friends to create fake newscast videos. The first claimed Coca Cola had been discovered to be a socialist invention of the 1950s (hence why the building across the way suddenly sprouted the iconic red banner); the second explained the world Christiane had wandered into as populated by West German refugees, desperate to escape the miserable life suffered under capitalism; and his final pièce de résistance incorporated both his childhood hero (once cosmonaut, now a taxi driver) as the new East German leader and actual footage of the Berlin wall being torn down – as West Germans poured into the city to embrace the potentials of socialism while rejecting the soul-killing goals of mindless consumerism.

Christiane drifts away while fireworks and celebrations break out in the streets below, letting herself believe they celebrate a humanitarian socialist unification (not knowing that newly united Germany’s football team had just won the World Cup). Her children will not achieve their dreams of space travel, but they have synthesized from East and West their own compassionate meanings to guide them through the chaos of change. It left me feeling quite sad, actually, seeing this just after the historic US healthcare bill finally passed, among a flood of reflexive selfishness and fear-mongering. Unlike this family, my own generation seems to have claimed a much darker and short-sighted set of meanings as our guiding star.

I want to believe (in God)

The premier pic that says it all.

The premier pic that says it all.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe
2008

It’s 1995, and I’m watching X-Files with my parents, while my dad (who was one of the five people watching from the very first episode) explains the backstory. Three years later, it’s a half-dozen college students crowded around a 10-inch dorm room tv, and I’m the one explaining where Scully got her implant and why Mulder’s so funny about his father. In 2002, I’m watching the finale on mute while talking on the phone and looking up Buffy trivia online.

I re-lived all of this recently when we came to possess the entire X-Files run and blew through them in a month. The husband and I compared the memories it brought up, mine aging along with the show, his scattershot as they were caught in nonlinear UK airings. We agreed that if anything captured the gestalt of the mid- and late-90s, it was X-Files: the paranoia and suspicion that came with the communication explosion of the internet’s unattractive adolescent years, along with the righteous attitude that us ordinary people had the right, even responsibility, to investigate our power structures.

The show followed to arc of the times. First, the excitement and cost of venturing where unquestioning citizens feared to tread, all new information tempered by the loss of safety, health, and loved ones. Next, the winking postmodern self-parodies that deconstruct the patterns and the show’s intensely loyal audience, interspersed with straight episodes that expect to be taken as seriously as the first season’s. Finally, the disintegration of intellectual irony and recreational scepticism as religious terrorism took the nation’s focus, with the alien and government conspiracies all but replaced by po-faced explorations of evil and demonic possession. This last era was marked by a switch in characters, adding in the straightforward and unimaginative Doggett as the new sceptic (lacking even Scully’s religious faith) and the less individual, believer in woo-woo, Reyes. I quite like both characters, particularly compared to the tired, reluctant performances of the former leads, but the fact remains that neither had the same rigorous, researched imagination of Mulder or the intellectual background of Scully. It could have worked quite well, but as an honest spinoff: CSI: X-Files.

The second X-Files movie picks up where the series left Mulder and Scully: the grinding misery of conspiracy chewtoys, driven into a half-hearted relationship by inertia and a lack of other options. In an effort to be edgy and deep, these characters suffered the inevitable losses of all non-investigatory aspects of their lives, with even miracles introduced only to punish them by their removal. Both look old and tired (Duchovny now a dead ringer for Gary Shandling), and their interactions, even their pillow talk, betray only decades of bottled up resentment and disappointment in their present lives. When Scully threatens to end the relationship throughout the film, there’s no tension – why should we be pulling for this lifeless codependent slog to continue?

Mulder and Scully don’t want to be together and they don’t want to investigate for the FBI, only getting pulled in by the tug of a half-remembered youthful passion. As the director is not named Bergman, it’s painful to watch, almost guilt-inducing – as if the audience is forcing an elderly, arthritic showpony to limp through its old routine.

The plot is also reminiscent of later X-Files episodes, focusing on good v evil with only passing references to aliens or conspiracies, but also barely glancing across a potentially rich Dr Frankenstein-esque Monster Of The Week. There’s a lack of both set-ups and resolutions, while more time is spent on far-fetched and weak morality plays. Plays with little to ponder because, as far as any characters with extensive dialogue are concerned, God’s existence and activity in earthly matters are both a given.

Scully is possibly affronting God, or at least her be-collared bosses, by using stem cells to treat a deathly ill boy in a Catholic hospital? The dying, altar boy raping, defrocked priest is possibly having visions, possibly with one of his former victims as a conduit, because the victim (now dying of cancer himself) is gay-married to the Russian (always Russian in this show) kidnapper and organ harvester? And is it the organ harvesting, child raping, stem cell treatment, the use of Google, or gay marriage that is most affronting to God, possibly causing Him to send punitive visions? And Scully’s ending her relationship with Mulder because he’s pursuing the case she persuaded him to take on? But it’s all ok because they end up in a rowboat in the tropics?

And there’s a two-headed Frankenstein dog? And a late-arriving Skinner wraps up Mulder’s case in three minutes and has a wee cuddle with him in the snow, the most genuine emotional connection in this entire beast?

And the ultimate moral of the story: people should put some damn chains on their tires during a Vancouver West Virginia blizzard, which would make so much of this plot not happen.

…I miss Doggett and Reyes.

Who, if Chris Carter writes another movie, will be miserably married in Mexico and have had three kids, all of whom were abducted and brutally murdered, on sequential Christmases. So…let’s hope he doesn’t.