Note: I normally post these over at Medium, where the rest of my X-Files writeups are. But I’m feeling self-conscious about this site’s barrenness, so here you go.
Max Fenig returns.
In light of our present fallen condition, two bits of dialogue from ‘Tempus Fugit,’ one of the highlights of the strong but uneven fourth season. First, Mulder and Scully walk’n’talking while investigating a downed airplane which seems to’ve been the site of a (botched?) Grey abduction:
SCULLY: Mulder, why can’t you just accept the facts?
MULDER: Because there are no facts, Scully. What they’re telling you, what they’re going to report, they’re the opposite of the facts. A claim to ignorance of the facts. Claimed steadfastly, ignorance becomes as acceptable as the truth.
Second, the frightened Air Force air traffic controller and Scully talk in her apartment after he confesses to his role in downing a civilian airliner:
FRISH: You think I’ll be prosecuted?
SCULLY: For what?
FRISH: I gave the coordinates.
SCULL: You didn’t bring that plane down, Louis.
FRISH: I lied. I misled a federal investigator, I misled you. A hundred and thirty-four people, Sgt Gonzales…they’re all dead.
SCULLY: It wasn’t your fault.
FRISH: But I’ll have to live with it. I watched that plane fall out of the sky. It was just a dot on the screen, just a…set of numbers. The wreckage… I can’t get that out of my mind. How those people died — how easy it is to lie, just to say it was a dot on the screen…until you see it.
One of the strongest running themes of the show was the ongoing betrayal of America’s veterans, not by ungrateful citizens (one of several dangerous reactionary myths of Vietnam), but by the government. The ‘super soldiers’ storyline of later years is sometimes derided for coming out of nowhere, but haunted and betrayed vets were all over the show from the beginning — and of course federal employees Mulder and Scully are cast out and trod upon by the government.
This goes to a point that I’m sure I’ve made several times already: Spotnitz said ‘Every episode is a mythology episode,’ and critics do well to take that claim seriously. The show’s parade of scarred and damaged veterans (Deputy Director Skinner among them; ‘Tempus Fugit’ followed on the heels of the Vietnam fable ‘Unrequited’) is a metaphor for the same culture-wide alienation, the same pervasive dissatisfaction with received narratives, the same distrust of ‘rational’ authority, the same horror of demythologization which animates the show’s other narrative threads. I write this only days before Donald Trump is inaugurated as President. In this dangerously fallen era, the authentically subversive message of The X-Files — Trust no one but one another, and while we’re at it fuck the US government — feels like a strong tonic, a genuine curative. Maybe Chris Carter believes ‘alien abductions’ really do involve grey-skinned extraterrestrial dwarves, but his show argues something deeper and more upsetting: we’ll never know (much of anything) for certain, and the systems of authority which supposedly protect us are mechanisms of control and subversion…so the only authentic life left is a visionary journey to outer/inner space. And to take that journey, to assume the mantle of holy fool, of seeker, is to abjure ordinary living and become in a sense ‘uncivilized.’ It is to resist colonization (of mind and spirit, of social order) by avatars of control.
Perhaps this sounds silly. No: this definitely sounds silly. Even the parts that sound sensible sound silly.
Aliens almost certainly aren’t real, there’s almost certainly no such thing as the ‘astral plane,’ and only a proper epistemological humility keeps us from dismissing these somewhat silly possibilities out of hand. But as Uncle Joe (Campbell) tried over and over to remind us, the meaning of all myth is the journey from suffering and self-deception toward authentic being-in-the-world. The X-Files was explicitly mythological, not just in the ‘mythology==backstory’ sense of today’s fan/critics, but in the way it recurred endlessly to ancient narratives of visionary transformation. Visionary experience is real, the transformations it generates are real, even if the content of the vision is culturally contingent fantasy (fiction).
That was one of the undercurrents of Couliano’s generous, far-ranging Out of This World, a comparative study of ‘otherworldly journeys’ in myth, fiction, and firsthand testimony. Couliano correctly hedged his bets about the sources of mythic content, but he was clear on the continuity of visionary narratives from Gilgamesh to Dante. Visions come from the same place as gods: the eternal desire to escape the ‘human condition’ (need, struggle, death). They’re imaginative tools for social/emotional problem-solving, generated under more or less conscious control. The desire remains the same, and mythic figures and structures have proven remarkably effective at addressing that desire. The genetic algorithm which sorts and selects narratives over millennia has produced our assortment of distinct but thematically and typologically related mythoi. And The X-Files, from the very first episode, was a documentary rendition of the darkest American dreams, which is why it’s both silly and serious, political and wigged-out, superstitious and skeptical.
That said, it’s also a mess.
Much of the time, I don’t think The X-Files holds up as drama; in terms of scene construction, narrative interconnection, and ‘mytharc’ construction, it now feels primitive — even inferior successor shows like Lost (cripplingly indebted to The X-Files) assumed a level of audience sophistication which Chris Carter and his writers, in that time after the VCR transformed film editing but before the DVD permanently changed expectations about information density, couldn’t yet assume. ‘Tempus Fugit’ is, I think, a good strong draught of X-Files weirdness, but it’s a clunky hour of television. And of course Chris Carter’s dialogue is simply embarrassing. Look again at the quoted exchanges above: Mulder’s ‘claimed steadfastly’ line sounds like a bad machine translation. In terms of screen craft, The X-Files remains impressive compared to its contemporaries, but it does feel like a prototype rather than a finished thing.
Yet it still strikes me as one of the only mature visions of our hallucinatory premillennium culture ever presented onscreen in America. The content of its myth was balderdash, but you and I aren’t stupid enough to take mythic content literally, are we? Leave that to the critic-dilettantes, the cultural-politics bloggers, the quick-take thinkpiece club. Even Freud knew the difference between manifest and latent dreamstuff.
The latent content of the dream/vision/hallucination called The X-Files is: the secret history of 20th-century America, a crime story in which every citizen is the victim.
I think of the end of Whedon/Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods — the Virgin and the Fool refusing to propitiate the gods who demand their suffering, refusing to trade their tiny lives for Life in the unseen abstract, and incidentally sharing a well-deserved joint while the bad guys’ base burns down — and perceive a subtle continuity with the endless deferrals and digressions of The X-Files‘s evolving narrative…and with Chris Carter’s sweetly empathetic vision of a nationwide meshwork of loners and outcasts, scholars and kooks, dishevelled angels and prophets with honour. The hell with ending the story on their terms, right? Trust no happy ending. Trust no one but each other.
Not for nothing do Mulder and Scully look an awful lot like Men in Black.
Mulder’s moment with Max’s body in the hangar — that spasm of grief. I’m not convinced that Duchovny’s any sort of great actor, but that moment…
A lazy critic can find a way to say something about CSI. They shouldn’t — laziness is a mistake at best, keep it to yourself — but CSI demands nothing of you and gives nothing back, and the obvious criticisms, while insufficient, must nonetheless be delivered. It really is magical thinking in a box; it really does steal wisdom from its viewers. Calling out its emptiness is easy, but it’s a service.
We shouldn’t be lazy talking about The X-Files, I think. It’s up to something that can’t be understood without at least a little effort. Not a years-long project of Talmudic interpretation, no, and not the kind of fannish nitpicking that comes so easily to young poorly socialized obsessives. I’m just asking you to watch the show, if you’re watching, without recourse to the boring and banal and imagination-deadening interpretive frames which Cultural Critics deploy in order to score Experience Points in the Standard Discourse. Please consider the possibility that it wasn’t playing the usual game. Consider the possibility that entertainment isn’t the only goal of a TV show — even a monster-of-the-week anthology show about two crimefighting feds and their wacky ideas. I’m not saying it’s scripture, for God’s sake. I’m saying we can get more out of it by taking a long weird look inside.
The second half of a two-parter — keep your expectations low.
It’s good that Chris Carter runs shows and tells his great big scary stories, but he shouldn’t be allowed to write scripts. His monologues are embarrassing, and his infodump ‘dialogue’ is artless, tedious masturbation.
That said, it was nice to see Max again.
The Third Man speech barely touches me because I’ve long assumed that half of Washington thinks in exactly those terms, and that’s all I’ve got to say about this flaccid hour of TV.