Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fox and Sam at the End of the Road: THE X-FILES and "Closure"

It is something of a joke, irony or, perhaps, stunt, to call an X-Files episode "Closure". Firstly, it shares the title with an episode of Millennium, part of a series of crossover and bounce-back between titles of the semi-shared Ten Thirteen Productions universe. Secondly, obviously The X-Files doesn't do closure. Certainly not in the narrative or business senses of the word, where the plot is an endless hanging garden of dangling story threads. The program's picture-making form is driven by denying visual closure. Beasts and bodies are concealed in partial shadow, angels and aliens blaze with intolerable light, and the signature images are two flashlight beams searching about in darkness and a cigarette cherry flaring in the murk. Nor does the show traffic in the sort of psychological "closure" (foothold in our pop psych lexicon gained during X-Files broadcast years) that the episode purports to deliver.

At its foundations The X-Files lacks epistemic closure, every moment is forever open-ceilinged, shifting and frustrated. Paradoxically, it is a closed loop and always was, relates back, receives information, and speaks meaning only to itself. But if you want my opinion, The Truth is both: The X-Files is deeply, deeply anxious, and obscurationist at heart.

Now then, the matter at hand is the ultimate fate of one Samantha Mulder, disappeared from her family home at age 8 in 1973, and the resultant impact on the mental state of her brother, Fox. Because The X-Files is an elegantly constructed machine, one thing leading to another and all, the curious circumstances of the abduction witnessed by the elder Mulder sibling provide meaty story materials and internal character psychology, both. Plainly, when we meet Agent Fox Mulder in 1993, he has come to believe Samantha to have been swiped by marauding aliens. The knight's quest to locate the absent sister fuels much X-Files narrative, and as it is, in short order, folded into the larger series-long mechanics of the Syndicate conspiracy and the antics of various space peoples, a story element of central, driving concern. What Happened to Samantha? is not just juicy Mulder backstory, but frontstory. Forward-story.

Even when not directly inquiring into Samantha's whereabouts, whether tackling concerns larger (global Martian invasion) or unrelated (vampires, mutants, chupacabras), she looms large in Mulder's headspace. Sam is riding on Fox's shoulder and just over the horizon as he chases every Jersey Devil down every blind alley. The memory of witnessing the abduction and the pain of loss catalyze a perfect chain-reaction leading to the Mulder we know: a propensity to regard the paranormal with credulity, a paranoiac bent, empathy for victims, a martyr complex, and so on. Perfect, that is, but for the absent center. Mulder's psychology and belief systems whirl around a cavernous gap and he might collapse in on himself at any moment. He is a man built on shaky premises. Two vital supports that (usually) prevent implosion, though they tend to contradict one another: Scully's devotion to keeping him in check, and repeated evidence that tells Mulder he is right. The kind of closed-loop logic that runs Mulder — no one believes me-> I will make them believe by solving X-Files-> no one believes me because I investigate X-Files — runs all the way down on the basement level of the character and the series. This simple hook with convoluted barbs is summed up by that despairing/hopeful kōan: "I Want to Believe."

So then, the true tale of Samantha's fate and the passion of Fox Mulder: these are the entwined snakes to which episode 11 of season 7, "Closure", intends to bring closure. At the end we will hear an explanation, and Mulder will mutter, "I'm fine... I'm free." But maybe the explanation is not an explanation, and maybe Mulder is neither fine nor free, and just maybe there will be no closure. Then again...

Mulder looks up...

I Saw the Sein

Besides a loathing of plot summaries, a guided walkthrough of the episode is perhaps not the cleanest path through these muddy waters. On first pass, "Closure" seems meandering, its conclusions confusing and confused, to say nothing of dissatisfying and, well, inconclusive. These things may be true, as there seems to be something wrong at every turn, but on the other hand something is wrong at every turn. After much gallivanting around Sacramento suburbs, a women's prison, an abandoned military base, and a fictionalized version of the Skyforest, CA Santa's Village park, a solution to the Samantha Problem. "Closure" says: Samantha T./A. Mulder was stolen from her home, then raised along with Jeffrey Spender at April Air Force Base by the Cigarette Smoking Man. She was likely brainwashed and made subject to medical testing until she escaped and was brought to an emergency room. Before Cigarette Smoking Man could retrieve her from the hospital, Samantha was (fortitude, people...) rescued by benevolent spirits made of starlight, known as Walk-Ins. The means by which the Walk-Ins save the souls of innocents about to suffer brutal, unjust deaths, is to (150 episodes and a feature film leading to this moment) kill them and make their bodies disappear without a trace.

To this information any reaction is acceptable, but popular candidates include "lame," "that sucks," and "holy shit." Sure, sure and sure, but only in flatly stated summary, because "mercy killed by star-souls" is less than half the story; it answers the What and When but not the Why and How. One troubling thing about "Closure" is that it sees the agents chasing down a lot of information that they have already discovered, as if reiterating the plot thus far for newcomers. So Scully reviews videos of Mulder's regression hypnosis from 1989, Mulder finds evidence that Samantha had been relocated to the Spender household, and the possibility is floated that the girl was victim of an entirely unrelated serial killer. None of this is news to the characters, none of it is entirely new plot material, but it forces all involved to sift through most of the open-ended possibilities yet again. Mulder pays multiple visits to the same abandoned house on April Air Force Base with reshuffled agendas, hours of videotape are pored over, mountains of hospital paperwork shoveled through, moldering secret diaries scrutinized, obscure witnesses tracked down and dozens of graves laid open. The treadmill churns, and, feet pounding the same few inches over and over, Mulder never lets up.

The X-Files has an ambivalent, relativistic relationship with the concept of truth. To say that "The Truth is Out There" implies a lot of things, including that one is therefore not in possession of that truth, that if it is perpetually "out there," that one cannot know it fully, but perhaps, too, that there is such a thing and a search may not be in vain. For central example, the truth of immediate concern and contention in any given episode tends to be whether or not some kind of supernatural jive is going down. There generally is, of course, paranormal activity afoot, and the audience is nearly always given some kind of "objective" — that is, not filtered through a character's subjective point of view — evidence of such. As such, it might seem that Mulder is nearly always right, while Scully is beating her head against a wall of irrelevant skepticism. It may further seem that The X-Files plays fast and loose — or "cheats," if you prefer — with this phenomenon, implying that there may be some other interpretation, forgetting what it has shown us, or, specifically, regularly allowing Scully to witness the paranormal but not to overhaul her worldview accordingly. A common complaint, that, but it comes a) from viewers outside the narrative, and b) as occasional gripes by Mulder.

The issue laid out before the characters — and the audience — is less about whether the world is swarming with ghosts and UFOs than it is about what one does with the information before one's eyes. When faced with evidence of Possessed Serial Killer #258, or even supernatural phenomenon that might comfortably fit into her belief system, as when visited by a cherub in "All Souls", Scully neither shuts her eyes and forgets it away, nor jumps to conclusions. She tries to assimilate that data with extant scientific knowledge, and when unable to do so, will admit she does not know what to make of the event. Mulder occasionally doesn't know either, but more often, faced with the same evidence, simply confirms a conclusion that he has already reached. Mulder and Scully are not symbolic stand-ins for larger concepts — e.g. Scully is not Science or Skepticism or Rationality — but characters with varied, contradictory and complex attitudes and qualities. The series' core subjects are the nature of truth and power, faith, religion, of science, belief, spirituality, the shaky narratives of history, nation and identity, so on, so forth — life and death stuff, as it were. The X-Files does not preach or lecture on these matters. It investigates.

"Closure" is the second half of a two-parter, following "Sein und Zeit", which is named, in the German, for Heidegger's Being and Time. The titles give a clue on how to read the episodes, "closure" in its multiple senses stands in contradiction to — but gaining reinforcement in its ironic inverse — reference to Heidegger's study of hermeneutical phenomenology. Now, pardon my butchering of an unsummarizable difficult work, but the relevant concepts in Heidegger would seem to be that a being's inquiry into the nature of being is perilous, cyclical and likely unending. A self-conscious being, by asking such questions, is in nature the thing about which it is inquiring. Absent external frame of reference, interfacing only with beings in the same situation, and wrestling with language that has a different being from that which it describes, a being can only gain understanding through systematic interpretation. The being is defined by past experiences, and while aimed at the future, that future, too, is shaped and framed by the perceiving being in terms of past experience.

This is more than enough to chew on as regards Fox and Samantha Mulder. Having already explored the ways in which Samantha's abduction in the past determines Mulder's present, is sure to define his future path, in its way is rather synonymous with his person, the remaining key concept seems to be the cyclical, incremental progress of understanding. The two-ep arc is about nothing if not dogged reexamination of evidence, paths in circles, arcs retraced until one being reaches some knowledge of himself, and therefore another being, and therefore Being. Halfway through "Closure", after weeping over a reading of his sister's newly discovered secret diary (it ends inconclusively), Mulder stands in a late night diner's parking lot. He sees...

... The void, penetrated by glittering pinpricks of light, which leads to this speechifying:

MULDER: You know, I never stop to think that the light is billions of years old by the time we see it. From the beginning of time, right past us, into the future. Nothing is ancient in the universe. But maybe they are souls, Scully. Traveling through time as starlight, looking for homes.

History, then, coalescing in a brief Now that is soon to be past, a history that was once future, a future always in the present. Time spacialized, existence as never ending search. A universe both lonely and sparkling in harmony, a dark space and a light on an unfulfillable quest. This from cold facts made into the sort of New Agey sentiment that stokes Mulder's fire and brings him a peculiar comfort.

"Don't look for it, Taylor!"

Earlier in "Closure", a portent. A certain ape gives advice to a certain spaceman in Planet of the Apes, playing on a motel television, "don't look for it, Taylor! You may not like what you find." Its function, 1) as a hint: this is about time, about looping back to where you began, about the grieving process, and 2) as a warning: perhaps not to Mulder, but to the dedicated, difficult-to-please audience. We are going out on that beach, an answer will be found, and, well, no guarantees after that.

To spend any time in the presence of diehard fantasy audiences — "fans" if you prefer, "geeks" if you absolutely must — is to find that they tend to possess memories for minutia like steel traps, a literalist streak and a contradictory apologist streak. Since we may not like what we find and The X-Files seems to know this, we ought to figure out why we may not like it. So, starting at the end and meandering around again, the Samantha File closes with the Walk-Ins. The Walk-Ins are problematic because they have never been referenced before, will never be heard from again. Their participation in the Samantha mystery has not previously been seeded and they yield to no rules of the fictive universe, and scoot in at an oblique angle to the established narrative facts; that is, amidst the warring government conspiracy, alien factions, serial killers and Feds, angelic star-ghosts can kind of do anything they want.

Perhaps, if these irritants can be weighted, the Walk-Ins' greatest offense is to introduce supernatural element to the central Mytharc storyline. Though The X-Files participates in and/or grabs elements and inspiration from dozens (hundreds?) of speculative fiction subgenres, the Mytharc has always been strictly science-fiction espionage thriller. A fine line, perhaps, but one consistently drawn: no magic in the Mytharc.

Finally, we may reject the Walk-Ins because they are brazenly sentimental in concept and execution. Color desaturated, double-exposed, and bathed in a shimmery glow, moving in uber-serious slow-mo, the little star-ghost-angels frolic as Moby's choir-and-strings piece "My Weakness" plays, and inspire much earnest Mulder monologuing. In their presence, a lot of discussion of the inherent innocence of children, the sort of Problem of Evil discussions that assume the presence of a watchful God and end up framing the spirits as holy agents. The specific language in the voice over is pure Mulder in sentiment, but uncharacteristic in that it speaks at length about "God," and along with the "My Weakness" sequence is highly problematic as it implies that it is a lovely thing that the purity of murdered children has been preserved in amber for eternity. The Walk-Ins, then, seem something of a cop-out, and a sappy cop-out at that.

The potential complaints about the Walk-Ins are, however, the very reasons they possess a bit of an edge and nuance that makes them harder to dismiss. "Believe to Understand" — "Crede, ut intelligas," as Scully could likely explain — urges the title card over that gloomy mountainscape where the banner usually reads "The Truth is Out There." There is that Augustinian inscription on how to read "Closure", and as it unfolds, Mulder is repeatedly warned off his search by the three people with whom his life is most closely intertwined. Scully, his mother, and Cigarette Smoking Man in a private Dr. Zaius chorus tell Mulder not to continue pushing for answers. But why?

The Infinite Samantha

Mulder has, as those paying attention know, been reunited with his sister several times, or, more accurately, been confronted with her physical presence in increasingly disconcerting form. Each iteration of Samantha branches out into new possibilities at least as much as it sheds light on the situation. This begins in "Colony" (season 2, episode 16) where Samantha returns to the family, only to multiply exponentially in the episode's continuation, "End Game", where she is revealed as one of several clones, and an alien hybrid. This effectively solidifies the link, in literal terms, between Samantha and alien activity, and in a more nagging, unscratchable way indicates to Mulder that if he solves one, can solve the other; naturally, having gotten this close, the slate is wiped: though no real "Samantha" is found or erased, the clones are all destroyed, yet Samantha-possibilities have proliferated before Mulder's eyes.

Next contact is made in "Paper Clip" (3.2), when the agents uncover a subterranean cache of abductee information, including Samantha's file (once marked for Fox) replete with "recent tissue sample." So there but for the grace of a 3M stick-on label goes Fox Mulder, reinforcing his survivor's guilt, doubt about his parents, and the caprices of circumstance: it could have been, almost was, eventually will be him. He has located a scrap of Samantha's body in her tissue sample, the smallest confirmation that she is alive, or was recently. Closer by inches.

The season 4 premiere, "Herrenvolk" (4.1) leads to an apiary tended by an army of eight-year-old Samanthas. But clearly they are clones — drones, even, barely able to communicate — stalled at the age of abduction. A reminder, here, that for those who swiped the girl, she was a tool with a function, and that for Mulder, the lost sister is irretrievable; he is chasing the idea of Samantha, and even if she is recovered, she will not be in the same condition as when she last played Stratego.

Apparently tangential, but straight in line with these replicating hypothetical Samanthas, is the season 4 episode "Paper Hearts" (4.8). The story explores the possibility that Samantha was a victim of child-killer John Lee Roche, and not taken by aliens, not with the involvement of the Syndicate, not with the forced hand of his father. The "Paper Hearts" concept will be floated again in "Closure". Both rounds, it turns up zilch. Roche even gives a full confession, which stands as the only complete, first-hand account of Samantha's fate... except that it is bunk. The source that appears to be yielding the most information is giving up the least. Again, odd (or discontinuitous) for Mulder to even consider this version of events after gathering (well, witnessing) so much counter-evidence. But he is open to possibility, willing to explore, and interested in dicey information, but not beholden to it, if it does not gel to his standards.

Finally, in the amazingly-titled "Redux/Redux II" (season 5, episodes 1/2), one more grown-up Samantha visits her brother. This time she is proffered as bait to lure Mulder from government work to shadow-government work, and believes the Cigarette Smoking Man is her father. With that, the final living Samantha disappears from the narrative. Fan speculation tends to agree that this was yet another clone, but all that is certain is that Samantha appears, spends an evening at home, Mulder does not take the Smoking Man's bait, and she is whisked away once more. Possibly the closest she's ever been, maybe he's almost got her back, and could be nothing happened at all.

As hinted, the crux of frustration and the masterstroke is that the "Sein und Zeit"/"Closure" diptych does not rewrite, overwrite or reconfigure exactly what happened to Samantha. The Truth of this matter, in hard, cold factual terms, is unaltered, and has been fairly firmly in place in most relevant details since, say, the fifth season. Mulder has known this for years, or more importantly, it is the version he believes, and the one we, the audience, also see with the most clarity.

Samantha was removed from Martha's Vineyard, as collateral in the Syndicate's dealing with aliens. On her return, she was placed in the home of the Cigarette Smoking Man, experimented on, and cloned several times over. This stands, Walk-Ins or no Walk-Ins. To these events, and while stressing the long-term project of the Infinite Samantha, all "Closure" adds to the known facts is: "She died."

The Smoke-Wreathed Heart

To Mulder's Zaiuses (Zaii?), then. All those concerned for Mulder's well-being take a turn instructing him not to pursue the Samantha matter during the "Closure" arc. Scully, most of all, has to deal intimately with her exhausted and tortured partner, and is attuned as to when to indulge, assist or put her foot down. She and AD Skinner have added motivation to keep Mulder in check, as he is chasing down Samantha via/at the expense of properly solving the child abduction case that spurred the latest tail-chase in the first place. They are right to worry, as by the end, the case is never properly solved.

More mysterious than the cares of Mulder's colleagues is the Cigarette Smoking Man's visit to Scully with a request: "I want you to stop looking." She will deliver a message, which Mulder dismisses with an accurate "Oh well, he's a liar." Sure is, and keep that in mind, but remember that when so inclined, the Smoking Man tells the truth like few others — a particularly cutting version of the truth because he understands relativism, that subjectivity, and agenda apply to all beings, himself included, and is up front about it. For that, Smoking Man scenes are always dense, and this one's a brief doozy. What the Smoking Man says is: "No one's going to find her... Because I believe she's dead. No reason to believe otherwise." Knowing the ending, and knowing that this is about "belief," note that CSM does not say that Samantha is dead or that he knows she is dead. While wrapped up in the suspense of first viewing, these comments are ripe with insinuation, and continue to spawn possibilities as the plot unfolds. Could be he killed her. Could be he had her killed. Could be he knows that she died due to "testing" — by the Syndicate or by aliens. Could be he suspects that, like his ex-wife, Cassandra Spender, the girl was abducted/returned/reabducted. Could be that he knows only what he saw, which is that Samantha disappeared from a locked hospital room just before he arrived. And now he has come to believe she is dead.

But this belief is not what CSM asks Scully to tell Mulder. When she criticizes his having withheld, er, whatever it is he knows for all this time, the Smoking Man explains, as he has before, as he will again: "Out of kindness, Agent Scully. Allow him his ignorance. It's what gives him hope."

Scully thinks about it. Scully doesn't seem to agree. Scully tells Mulder what Cigarette Smoking Man said. He is a liar, after all. "Mulder, why would he lie now?," Scully counters, and CSM had argued the same; that in previous years he was motivated to lead Mulder on to protect the Syndicate's secret work which was effectively destroyed during the season 6 "Two Fathers"/"One Son" arc. Why lie now? Well folks, somebody is lying:

"End Game" — BOUNTY HUNTER: She's alive. Can you die now?

"The Blessing Way" — (somewhere on the astral plane or something)
MULDER: My sister? Is she here?

"Two Fathers" — SCULLY: Agent Mulder told me he believed he saw his sister. Last year.
CASSANDRA SPENDER: That wasn't her, Agent Mulder.
MULDER: Then where is she?
CASSANDRA SPENDER: Out there, with them. The aliens.

So from abductees to apparitions to aliens, the weirdoes of the universe seem to believe Samantha Mulder lives and breathes.

Speaking of misleading information, Mulder's mother, Teena, in typically enigmatic form, shows up a handful of times during this chapter. She has always been more withholding than even Cigarette Smoking Man, and her tendency to occlude information hangs like a pall over the episode. She first appears while Mulder is away in California on a case. Alone at home, Teena burns a photo of Fox and Samantha, leaves a voice mail for her son, asking that he call back so she may discuss things "that I've left unsaid for reasons I hope one day you'll understand," and commits suicide by gas inhalation.

A hint, here, that Teena Mulder knows something... about something. Scully will discover that Teena was dying from "Paget's carcinoma," which, interestingly may be something of a misnomer, or a confusion of several possibilities. Mulder insists that his mother's undelivered message was about his sister, and that she was silenced by the Syndicate. And indeed, both agents have lost family to these particular murderers, and Teena had withheld crucial information before. Without getting too ahead of the game, let us say that Mrs. Mulder's message is never revealed, and Scully would seem to be correct. But why, then, does she burn the photo of her children?

Certainly she has left things unsaid, and if Mulder tends to categorize the Smoking Man as "a liar," Teena has a pattern of lying as well. The backstory unspoken in the "Closure" arc is that, at minimum, Teena was aware that Samantha's abduction was directly related to Bill Mulder's secret government work: in "Paper Clip", she revealed that Bill had asked her to choose which of the children would be taken, and she was unable to do so. As per "Talitha Cumi", she knew that an alien neck-stabbing weapon (a "plam," to those in the in-joke know) was secreted in a lamp in the family home. As she was stroke-striken at the time, and her son, bizarrely, never questioned her on the topic afterwards, none can say if she knew what the space-icepick was, or its purpose. The list of Things Teena Didn't Tell Fox goes on and on, but the extent to which she understood Syndicate/Colonist business is an unknown variable.

An appearance by Mom's ghost in Mulder's motel room gains no ground either. Mulder is unable to hear or see the apparition, but she appears to police psychic Harold Piller, and meanwhile her son gets a clue via automatic writing: "APRIL BASE." Given these events, all we arrive at are — surprise! — uncertainties and possibilities. The Scully Version is: "Mulder, she was trying to tell you to stop. To stop looking for your sister. She was just trying to take away your pain." Unspoken by both agents is the real possibility that Teena harbored a lifetime of regrets regarding her role in the fates of both her children — Fox's parentage, Samantha's abduction —, hence the burning of the family photo. What Mulder will ultimately conclude is that "I've been looking for my sister in the wrong place. That's what my mother was trying to tell me." This interpretation, predictably, has multiple potential meanings. Possibly Ghost Mom is pointing Mulder to April Base, communicating through the automatically-written note in ALL CAPS, as she once wrote PALM. Indeed, at the abandoned home where Samantha's hands are imprinted in the cement, and her voice is inscribed in a diary hidden in a cupboard, Mulder locates a necessary lead — specifically, that she ran away on the date the diary ended.

Another Truth is that Mulder doesn't find Samantha at April Air Force Base any more than he found her in the "Paper Clip" file. He already knows, or knows the possibility that she was raised in the Spender household. She told him this in "Redux", and if she was a clone or a hybrid or a not-Samantha of some kind, the handprints in the cement could still belong to that same clone. At the top of "Closure", Mulder combs through videotapes found at the Santa's North Pole Village theme park, where a serial killer Santa had buried the bodies of twenty-four children over forty years. Samantha is not depicted on the tapes, not found in the ground. Mulder confesses to Scully that "You don't know how badly I wanted her to be in one of those graves," as it would at least end the search. But Samantha couldn't be there. It would not make sense. Besides flying in the face of the Syndicate plot that the agents have agonizingly pieced together for seven years, Mulder would have some memory of a family trip to California. Should Mulder have found a cold body at North Pole Village, it would not be wrapped with a bow.

There are two poetical-cum-literal dimensions to the message from Mulder's mother that will unlock the business of "Closure". There are geographical coordinates provided, but as they lead only to information that is inconclusive unto itself (handprints, partial diaries, shaggy dog hospital reports), what the note really points to is a series of absences. A body, dead/alive or cloned would not be enough and Mulder has literally searched from the South Pole to North Pole Village, from exhumed graves to the astral plane, and Samantha is not Out There. He is looking in the wrong place.

Secondly, Teena's message is passed to Mulder through automatic writing. That is to say, of course, that it comes from himself.

Sky-Walker, Star-Killer

In real world New Age contexts, Walk-Ins are beings from elsewhere who have taken up in human hosts, replacing the previous consciousness. "Closure" calls its spirits "Walk-Ins," though this application of the term is unique to these episodes. A walking encyclopedia of the paranormal, Mulder would know what a traditional "Walk-In" is, and demonstrated such in the convoluted episode "Red Museum" (2.10). The creative staff is therefore making a choice to associate the "Closure" beings with run-of-the-mill Walk-Ins. So what is going on here?

The behavior and motives of the Walk-Ins are complicated and ultimately inexplicable. The cold open of "Sein Und Zeit" establishes the base pattern and "rules," such as they are, and kindly kook psychic Harold Piller names and explains near the beginning of "Closure"; this is the major loop of phenomenon and interpretation in the investigation of the actual X-File motivating the episodes. To the file cabinet, then.

Six-year-old-ish Amber Lynn LaPierre disappears from her bedroom in Sacramento while her parents are in the house. The name and circumstances echo aspects of the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, a crime already difficult to comprehend that in the ensuing decade increasingly resembled these no-answers riddles. Mulder horns in on the LaPierre investigation for its superficial links to Samantha's abduction, but besides a child missing with no trace, the incidents bear an important non-resemblance: no bright lights, no levitating girl, no family link to a government cover-up of an interplanetary invasion plot. Scully addresses the transparent psychology at work, and tells Mulder that if sympathy for missing children has drawn him to the LaPierres, he is also stretching to connect the apparently unrelated cases.

Amber Lynn's disappearance is accompanied by three unusual events. While tucking her in, Mr. LaPierre has a vision of his daughter as a corpse. Immediately before the girl goes missing, Mrs. LaPierre pens a ransom note addressed to herself and her husband, and making reference to Santa. Some time later, Mrs. LaPierre witnesses an apparition of Amber Lynn attempting to speak to her.

Recalling a similar confounding note in an apparently solved X-File, Mulder visits the jail cell of confessed murderess Kathy Lee Tencate. She does not quite say the words, but allows Mulder to conclude that given the confusing, inconclusive evidence (more automatic writing, another vision, another spirit visit), Tencate has made a false confession in hopes of appeasing the parole board. After some soul-searching and another visit from her ghost son, Tencate suggests to Mulder that Teena Mulder's message was that she, too, had seen the Walk-Ins.

Here, "Closure" enters that undefined space where metaphor and story events merge, swap out, and wear masks. It is remotely possible that Teena had visions of a dead Samantha, but when? Before Samantha disappeared from home? Years later, before she disappeared from the hospital? In the closing scenes, a retired emergency room nurse who was on duty the night Samantha was taken by Walk-Ins claims that she had the visions. A pile-up, again. The would-be Tencate and LaPierre murderer is given an inconsistent name by the episode closed captioning — "Ed Scruloff" in "Sein und Zeit" and "Ed Truelove" in "Closure" — which is indicative of this open-ended is/is-not pattern. While Scruloff/Truelove nabs victims from all over the country, their bodies are all buried at North Pole Village. The only two of his victims that are named are children he did not manage to kill at all, but likely intended to kill. Whether he ever left a ransom note (or why) is not established, nor is it clear if/how/why the Walk-Ins are leaving such notes. Just as Scully and Skinner indicate, Mulder gets so far off-track with the case's Samantha associations that he fails to notice that none of the evidence is adding up.

The role of psychic Harold Piller, who guides Mulder through "Closure" is partially expository, laying out the few rules of the Walk-Ins that he understands: the awful visions given to the parents are of the fates their children were about to suffer, and, the masterstroke, that "they will come to you if you're ready to see." But he is not there to circumvent the questions begged by the Walk-Ins, either as metaphor or physical event. When standing amidst the North Pole Village graves, Piller asks a question that plunges straight to the heart of the murk: "My God, why? Why must some suffer and not others?"

There is a lot of suffering to go around. As it happens, Scully discovers that Harold has previously been institutionalized, diagnosed as schizophrenic, and is under current investigation regarding his own missing son. These things are, of course, not damning, but they complicate things, they throw doubt, they open possibilities.

Though his own boy disappeared under identical circumstances, Harold does not see his double-exposure spirit, the final confirmation of Walk-In involvement and a tranquil death. But it is Harold's son that guides Mulder to Samantha's diary and escorts him to meet her spirit in the clearing at the end of a dark road. Mulder sees the boy only because he's "ready to see," which means as much and as little as that he Wants to Believe. Piller believes in the Walk-Ins in general, but cannot accept that his son is dead, will not listen to Mulder's advice that "we both have to let go." In his final scene, Harold runs off into the darkness on an endless snipe hunt. The road he takes is the one Mulder has been traveling since 1973.

The memory of Samantha leads Mulder to Amber Lynn leads to the Tencate case leads to the twenty-four children behind the Village lead to Harold's son leads back to Samantha. A series of infinitely nested X-Files, all bearing Fox's name, pasted over with Samantha's. Mulder is the Walk-In, here, the little girl is lost, but she lives on through her brother.

While Mulder is off chasing starlight still looking in the Wrong Place, Scully reviews arcane evidence from what will prove to be the Right Place. She watches videotape of Mulder's hypnotic regression sessions from 1989, where he first remembered the events of November 27, 1973. This is, in effect, where we came in. The memories unearthed in these sessions were the first intimate information that Mulder shared with Scully. It is the formation Fox Mulder, Investigator of the Paranormal. At the closing of the loop, the last evidence meets the very first evidence. The FBI psychologist reviewing the tape with Scully evaluates "this is just garden-variety compensatory abduction fantasy." This was always a possibility. The reason for a reminder at this point is to parallel the solution with the inception. In a rather audacious scene of the season 7 finale, "Requiem", an FBI accountant will ask: whether the Bureau believes it or not, if the whereabouts of Samantha are resolved, and the Syndicate is dismantled, what, exactly, is left to investigate?

The Walk-Ins may rescue some from painful injustices, but leave plenty of pain in their wake. The LaPierres will likely be convicted, Kathy Lee Tencate remains imprisoned, Harold Piller grieves forever, and billions of souls will not be rescued from earthly death. Why must some suffer and not others? In the final moments of "Closure", Mulder gazes at the stars once more. Faced with that field of graves, the lost child's empty bedroom, the sky of Infinite Samanthas, Mulder does what we all must do, and reconciles a mountain of ambiguity with an explanation that makes sense to him. His heart comes to rest on the stars, and not the blackness around them. He is finally looking in the right place.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hey Look, It's Ringo and Frankie!

Under consideration, this universally beloved shot from Stagecoach, the one that moves from this:

... to this:

First things first and sliding immediately off topic, there are plenty of images capturing this moment all over the Internet and I might have swiped them for illustration. Unless making a point with incongruous stolen pictures, I try to create my own screencaps whenever possible, because, like Quaker Oatmeal and recycling beer bottles, it's the Right Thing to Do, and because there's a certain art to screencapping, one for which I sorta like to think I have a flair. David Bordwell would surely have a lecture for me about the inadequacies of the practice, but it's all I got. In this case, an even worse sin, I can't make frame enlargements and can't take frame grabs of Blu-ray discs. For all Blu-ray's myriad pleasures (including the fun of typing the gimmicky e-less "Blu"), the inability to screencap is an ever-increasing hindrance to the important work we do here. Sadly, the only other option is to, uh, take pictures of my TV screen, which is a hideous solution, and photography is an art for which I do not have a flair.

Anywhich, back to the shot in question. It is the first shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, a gasping, audacious hero shot that stops the stagecoach in its tracks, dollying up on Ringo as he twirls his rifle, yells "HOLD IT!" and has a sudden, barely perceptible change of expression. Wayne has struck an elegant pose even though he's toting a rifle in one hand and a saddle in the other, the strain of this ridiculous feat betrayed not by his casual posture but the sweat streaks on his face that aren't apparent until the shot moves in. Basically it is an unforgettable, electric-buzzed moment and every element is perfect, even those that are not. Specifically, 1) the movement is just slightly faster than expected or is comfortable, and 2) this famously causes the shot to pop out of focus as it repositions into 3) the whoa-just-slightly-too-close close up of Ringo. There is a vast amount Stuff Going On in this shot which does not last more than three seconds, from the aureola crowning Ringo to its importance in Wayne's career, but I don't think it is fully unpackable because part of its power is of disruption; the thrill is in the way it feels subtly off, arhythmic and just-out-of-control.

That said, it is cemented into the film and a piece of a scene, and some of this impact comes from 1) the whinnying horses immediately before the shot. The eye-catching movement in the preceding shot is the horses pulling back in reaction, effect being that the dolly-in is pushing off of the backward momentum of the horses.

2) a goofy two-shot reaction of Curley (George Bancroft) and Buck (Andy Devine), immediately after, where Devine chirps "Hey look, it's Ringo!" in that inimitable Andy Devine way. On the front end, the picture-story is that the stagecoach crosses a ford in the river and comes toward camera, the effect being that the coach is pulling up on Ringo and drives straight into a huge view of his face.

So it's all in reaction and juxtaposition, and I'm going to say that Andy Devine is quite responsible for making this one of cinema's greatest entrances.

Speaking of which, we all have our favorites, and my shortlist would include Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed!, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest — elaborate setpieces climaxing with thrilling reveals and introductions that we won't go into right now, but top Orson Welles in The Third Man — keep some popular favorites (Karloff in Frankenstein) and dump others (Darth Vader in that movie about Darth Vader). This scene in Stagecoach, however, always puts me in mind of another great movie entrance, Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (yes, yes, he is visible as another character earlier in the film).

The reason the entrances of the cowboy and the transvestite alien reverberate off one another — though come to think of it both are fugitives from justice, questing for freedom and non-judgmental of the sexuality of others — is simply a jarring push in from this:

... to this:

But of course, while prepping these screencaps, it became clear that the moments are very different. The effect as a memorable, keyed-up introduction to a character is similar but John Ford does it with effortless 3-second economy, while RHPS director Jim Sharman is simply up to something else. Ringo appears during a lull when we aren't really expecting it, while Frank-N-Furter's entrance is a mini-climax to which a whole sequence is building. The first close up of Frank is, indeed, a privileged shot, but it is punctuation on a scene.

Frank's entrance in Picture Show has been moved from its place in the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show. In plot terms, this merely swaps the positions of the numbers "Sweet Transvestite" (first in original stage productions) and "The Time Warp" (first in the film). The reasons, one supposes, are that "Time Warp" is the sort of "hit single" of the musical, a live showstopper to which the play builds up, in a loose-knit plot that is an excuse for the songs. The film is more dramatically developed, and thanks to lessons learned from the stage show, has a better grip on pace and payoff. Once Tim Curry appears, the beast is basically loosed and one wants to get on up to the lab and see what's on the slab, rather than dally downstairs for, as Brad Majors puts it, "more folk dancing."

The scene bridging the two numbers then is not just an introduction. By repositioning "Time Warp", there is a gap left where there used to be an exchange concerning the whereabouts of delivery boy Eddie. In place of this missing exposition, the film adds: nothing. That is, the film's transition adds no additional narrative information, but creates a musical bridge, uniting a pair of songs. Frank descends to the first floor in an elevator behind Brad and Janet, and this little scene is scored with sound effects (and percussion) that build off the discordant piano banging at the end of "Time Warp" and ramp up to the fanfare at the top of "Sweet Transvestite". The instruments in play are a base tone laid down by the lowering elevator, a chorus of the chortling Transylvanians, the rhythm section stomp of Frank's platform heel, and the mounting chant of Brad and Janet's dialogue in metered back-and-forth ("I'm COLD, I'm WET and I'm just plain SCARED!"). This audio piece terminates with Janet screaming as the zoom into Frank's close up comes to rest.

The above awkward screencap of Brad and Janet in front of the elevator comes straight off the top of the shot in question, after Janet has already noticed the figure in the cage. The sort of platonic ideal of the composition is in a pair of earlier shots, like so:

Besides the aural component, the gag being staged in this scene is that the square couple is backing out of the ballroom, away from the Transylvanian weirdoes but into Frank in the foyer. So there are cutaways for reactions (Transylvanians rising from the floor as they see the elevator descending, Transylvanians assembling around red carpet, Janet goggling at Frank's back) and clarifying information (two close ups of the stomping shoe), all building anticipation for the reveal of Frank.

The screenplay's newly invented bit of business is well-motivated, with Brad dismissing Janet's rising hysteria by condescending and trying to minimize her concerns (Frank will later diagnose Brad: "Such a perfect specimen of manhood. So dominant."), and the rousing of the "Time Warp" spent Transylvanians providing reason for the couple to keep their eyes on the ballroom. Immediately after the money shot, before the gate slides open and "Sweet Transvestite" proper begins, Curry's close up is disrupted by a reaction shot of Janet, who becomes over-stimulated and, in running gag, faints. This puts a button on the scene, separates the elevator shoe-stomp as its own mini-song (audience participators traditionally stomp and clap along), and Janet's response cues the audience on how to react to Frank-N-Furter — that is, somewhere between Beatlemania-style abandon and what-the-fuck gaping. In short, Susan Sarandon provides the Andy Devine effect here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Freleng Studies — The Deadly Numbers of SATAN'S WAITIN'

"Satan's Waitin'" (1954) is a cartoon about death and is structured a bit like a classic Ten Little, Er, Indians style pick 'em off, of, if you prefer, a Bay of Blood style slasher picture. The twist is that we're watching the same victim bite it in colorful ways over and over, as Sylvester runs through his proverbial nine lives in seven minutes. The slasher in this case is the Devil in the form of a crimson bulldog, which is a metaphor for Sylvester's worst, obsessive, Tweety-hunting impulses, natch.

So here we have a couple of Freleng's own fixations on display, i.e. the neuroses and psychological torture of Sylvester (Tweety is barely in the cartoon except to motive the story and provide an ass joke when his tail feathers are yanked) and a certain philosophical morbidity that crept into his '50s shorts that is perhaps noirish or Hitchcockian or about the comic possibilities of Order and Chaos pressing and pulling at the weak soul of the cartoon animal Everyman. Whatever the conclusion I note a vague sense of postwar malaise in Freleng's work of this era, if not one totally distinct from other brands of malaise. This isn't a truism across the board, but when the quality is there, it is there in force, and not to be found with his peers. There is a terrible geometric order to "Satan's Waitin", to graphical wit, the pussycat and the canary on precarious chase across a sky carved by intersecting phone lines:

The most restrained, buttoned-down of Warner's major cartoon directors, Freleng's world is not populated with the flailing, screaming humanity of Bob Clampett's, his characters do not explore the complex, broad swath of human personality as Chuck Jones', his stories do not balloon out to the extreme proportions of Tex Avery's. And etc., not to tromp over a well-worn favorite stomping field of animation pundits; point is, speaking of formal issues of character animation, Freleng's cartoons don't squash as much, don't stretch as much, they don't antic as big, don't do takes that distort anatomical forms into graphical abstractions. Now all of this is of variable Trueness, depending on the staff for a particular short and who was actually animating a particular sequence, but certainly Freleng did not ask his animators to hit bigger, crazier poses, infuse acting with more personality and presence, or pick up the pace for the joy of speed. And on one hand, that is not as funny, and perhaps Freleng is puzzlingly lacking that cartoonist's gene that loves a funny drawing. On a different, more contemplative hand, stillness, stiffness, intellectual detachment and a cool demeanor can, indeed, provide a much different sort of comedy, on the Charles Schulz, Chris Ware sort of end of the comic spectrum.

Why was Freleng obsessed with Sylvester? It's not Tweety that the director is interested in — he defanged Clampett's sadistic-widdle-kid character and in design, function and performance drained the bird of a distinct personality rooted in human traits. Certainly every other director artist drew a funnier Sylvester, where Freleng pulled back on the character's previous stupidity and thuggishness. In place of the older Sylveter, here is one sweat-drenched and helpless in the face of his own compulsion.

Anyway, "Satan's Waitin'" is a study of graphic contrasts, spatial orientation, shapes and visual rhymes, and above, the hunter and prey locked in cycle scramble up a fire escape. The only reason to head to the rooftops in a cartoon like this is because someone is going down, and as it happens, Sylvester's journey up the fire escape ends in a pit of flame.

The abyss awaits! Hover. Hold. Beat. One of you is getting out of this alive.

So there's a cause/effect elegance to the cartoon's up/down see-sawing, doubled here as Sylvester's tail is his last erect extremity, then the tail flops down, then his soul springs up out of his butt in its place. A pair of brick and sidewalk square grids reinforce the visual order, but chaotic cracks in the cement emerge from under the cat's corpse, hinting at something else.

There is no tally provided of Sylvester's sins. He has simply Been a Bad Pussycat, and must take the red escalator every time, no matter, as we will eventually see, how he tries or what he does. The vagaries of moral rectitude flit around the fringes of "Satan's Waitin'", and the cat's only crime seems to be the attempted fulfillment of his natural predatory instinct, not that acting on instinct ever got anyone on the golden escalator. Though plenty of cartoons want to get in gags with wings and halos, I would naturally assume that all Looney Tunes characters are going to Hell.

Background painting people, do glance at the complimentary red and green buildings splitting the space between escalators.

Yawning chasm, fanged rock formations, spiraling conveyer belt to damnation.


The story here is that Sylvester's numbered lives must tarry in Hell's waiting room until all nine of their fellows have arrived. The structure is a countdown as the cat loses lives during the course of one long chase scene, with pit stops for exposition.

Life #2 arrives after a tangle with a steamroller. Again, scrambling life-drives are pinned and pressed into two dimensions and squeezed straight through the ceiling of Hell.

"Scare Your Girl," indeed. There are a handful of fine signage gags in this cartoon, another Freleng trademark, if not an exclusive one. Dig also this abandoned urban space, in the middle of an unpopulated city stands an empty carnival about to become a literal carnival of souls, lending an amplified quietude and desolation. There are production, budgetary and technical reasons for the minimal cast and lack of extras in animation, of course, and changing tastes in art and design have a lot to do with the modernist look of '50s and '60s WB cartoons. On the latter front, however, Freleng and Jones were usually ahead of the curve.

More nice muted primaries here; look how this says "carnival" and is all red, green and yellow but isn't just an out-of-tube eyeball cacophony. There's also a clue in the middle to a motif of Sylvester's being plagued by demons, and a big yellow paw that will pay off in a few scenes.

Nice dynamic staging. Noir-y, Third Many shadows that also popped up on Sylvester's first descent to Hell. There is a lot of movement along the z-axis in this cartoon.

Satan is everywhere.

Point demonstrated, I hope, about Freleng's comic reaction takes. Even the moment where Sylvester is so terrified that he dies is not much bigger than this.

Sylvester loses lives four through seven in rapid order on this shooting range. Though it is not different from any other cartoon shooting range, because of its place in this farce of certain destruction, this one seems a particularly apt, fatalistic metaphor: lined up, on track, ready to be blown apart. Also, more signage, more vague, useless moral instruction: "Shoot straight." Yes, good luck with that.

So, the way Freleng stages the gag here is to cut back to Satan's waiting room, as we hear gunfire, victory bells, and bang bang bang bang, dead cats are deposited in a row. There was probably a moment early in the film when we expected nine cat mangling vignettes. Confounding expectation, Freleng burns off four of Sylvester's lives in seconds.

Here begins the speediest sequence in the cartoon, and speaking of movement from back to fore, this roller coaster train slowly climbs the distant hill before rocketing downward — which is rather how we began this story. Then it charges at the viewer's damn face, which is a good deal more alarming than Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, and then zooms over the screen. What's happening here, and in another directly-overhead shot of the train charging down a drop that I haven't pictured, is a) complicated staging with difficult angles, beautifully animated with mathematical precision...

b) more open space netted by intersecting lines, c) the visual rhyme and gag setup that is the reason the escalator to Hell was designed as a long, red, twisty track.

Point A above kind of makes up for the subdued character animation and mild gags. No doubt any other unit was up to the task of pulling off the scene, and if, say, it had been a Clampett, the scene would likely have the visceral impact of riding a roller coaster. Jones would have blessed it with his — how do put it? — peculiarly sardonic sense of physics, and both others would have done it all faster. But faster, gutsier and (ahem, funnier) bloodier is not the point, the point is the go-nowhere trip along a one-way track.

Relish the spare, allegorical quality of this particular pose, and the clever, don't-blink touch of marking the car #9. Because it's the little things.

I note for anyone without art inclinations that drawing this angle totally sucks.

This is the important part of this shot. Were this a Jones Roadrunner cartoon, the timing, the drawing, the sound effect would make the moment of impact the joke, maybe with a microbeat of I-fucked-up Coyote recognition before the carnage. Here it is the belated behavioral instruction that is impossible to follow, and doom rushing at one's head.

Payoff. Probably the funniest cut in the cartoon is between the coaster massacre and the above match, Life #8 blank-eyed, silent, no reason to fight this anymore.

Meanwhile, topside, Sylv takes the "Time Enough at Last" approach and seals himself up in a bank vault. Not trusting his unrestrainable urges, and trying to minimize the universe's chaotic x-factor input, he goes on defense. We'll note yet again that this designy vault is all grids, quads and circles, and fair enough, Everything is Shapes, but '50s design only emphasizes this fact (and my roundabout point is that the cartoon is kind of in dialog with that idea).

Naturally, Satan being Everywhere, two bungling robbers try to dynamite open the vault and kill everyone in the process. And on that front:

-The last manifestation of "Satan's Waitin'"'s thematic/visual theme of agents of explosive chaos and confining order sort of luring then breeching one another. Also crime does not pay, but neither does not doing crimes.
-A mild send-up of atomic age bomb shelter mentality.
-Another cut-to-result staging of a violence gag. Freleng doesn't show the explosive, the explosion or the corpses, just:

Everything goes to Hell anyway.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Plan Will You Follow Now, Cyclops?

The Goal: Locate a suitable planet for colonization, colonize it, enjoy life in the new colony, and so on.

The Plan: 1. Have a bitchin' flying saucer that also goes underwater.

2. Use it to visit hundreds of worlds apparently at random, until stumbling upon Earth. Observe, evaluate for habitability and resistance capabilities of native population, etc.

3. Periodically recharge magnetic power at the North Pole, because the saucer runs on magnet power.

Supplementary Tasks: Kidnap Earth people as specimens to take back to home planet. Their body structures will be studied for potentially useful adaptations to immediately copy via genetic engineering, like evolutionary CliffsNotes.

Contingency Plan: Blow up any and every submarine that tries to get near the North Pole. If anyone manages to invade the ship, melt them with rays. Failing rays, chop them in half with automatic doors. [NOTE FOR FUTURE EXPEDITIONS: Do not allow an Earth man with a flare gun anywhere near the saucer captain's massive, undefended gelatinous eyeball. Though it can regenerate, this hurts like a bastard.]

Is the Plan Sound?: Not too shabby, but not particularly colorful. A big speech about how specimens are being collected seems at direct odds with the primary observed behavior of destroying everything in the saucer's path.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

What Plan Will You Follow Now, Davanna?

The Goal: Locate a viable source of blood for the dying race of Davannans, whose bodies are ravaged by radiation bombardment from ongoing nuclear war.

The Plan: Several phases outlined in detail, but it boils down to:
1. Dispatch a representative from Davanna to Earth. Disguise him as a rich weirdo called Paul Johnson, and cover his milky white eyes with sunglasses 24/7. Employ juvenile delinquent manservant for menial tasks like operation of Earth vehicles and guarding the corpse-burning oven.

2. Force Earth doctors to provide blood transfusions without explaining why. Employ live-in nurse for daily home transfusions.

2a. If Earthling blood proves a compatible replacement, enslave the planet and steal all the human blood. Skip to #3.

2b. If Mr. Johnson dies, destroy the planet.

3. When the blood is used up, destroy the planet.

Supplementary Tasks: Procure extra blood samples from winos and vacuum cleaner salesman Dick Miller by means of a blood-sucking briefcase. Probably these are for study, but store them in the fridge. Also, accidentally smush a hapless Asian-American fellow to death in the interstellar matter transporter while attempting to mail him home as a "sub-human specimen."

Contingency Plan: Mind-control, telepathic linking ability and eye-contact-activated ocular death ray should cover most emergency situations. Should worst come to worst, dispatch flying bat-octopus-umbrella minion that can eat peoples' heads. [NOTE: When not in use, Vampire Umbrella Bat should be wadded up to look like a celery and stored in cellophane.]

Is the Plan Sound?: The blood procuring scam is okay for a last ditch effort. "Species facing extinction" angle adds sympathy, but that is mooted by overt racism and intent to destroy the planet without motivation.

This is the way the world ends.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Are You a Righteous Man, Agent Mulder?

In the lifelong project of staring too hard at arbitrary scenes from The X-Files, here's an installment of a thing. The episode "Signs and Wonders" (7ABX09) was likely built around a moment exploiting the universal observation that staple removers look like little snake heads. So mid-episode there is a creepy-comic match cut to that effect, later undone in the same scene as the office supply transforms into a dodgy CGI serpent. The topic de MOTW jour is the X-Files favorite of Weird Religious Cults, specifically Pentecostal snake handling. If you are of a mindset that finds it offensive to refer to such rituals as cult activity, I gently steer you away from "Signs and Wonders".

The snake handling element, of course, also provides the thrum of primal fear underlying all good X-Files, and not a few lesser X-Files. Namely it gives an excuse to have a bunch of snakes all over the damn place, including a showstopper in which a squirmy knot of rattlers issues forth from a pregnant girl's uterus. Enough people are reflexively afraid of snakes that they often top lists of common phobias, but I confess that I must belong to the target audience for Richard Avedon's Nastassja Kinski poster, because the Serpentes don't ick me out at all.

Right then, to the heart of the matter. The episode is a battle for souls between The Church of God with Signs and Wonders (the snake handlers), run by Rev. Enoch O'Connor, and the Blessing Community Church, tended by Rev. Samuel Mackey (denomination not specified, but non-snake-handling). A fine springboard for Topicals and Discussions, because, as always, when an X-File is opened on religion, trouble comes running. In what I note as a sequence of some Excellence in Network Snake-Thriller Television, the ideological and worship practices of the two churches are compared and contrasted as the clergymen each give their congregations a load of Revelation 3:16. "Signs and Wonders" is, indeed, a little more nuanced than snake handlers vs. no snakes.

We join O'Connor mid-preach, and yes, there are snakes, and yes, speaking in tongues, hollering and flailing. An elegant pan right, and a cut concealed by an out-of-focus bald head in the foreground aaaand... we join Mackey at in a Bible study discussion group. O'Connor's congregation is being preached at, whipped up to a fine froth, made "hot," in O'Connor's terms. Mackey sits in a chair, in a circle with his congregation, and works with them on a textual and historical analysis of the passage. Here's what these fellows have to tell you:

O'Connor: Revelations [sic] 3, the sixteenth verse. "Tis better to be hot or cold than lukewarm." God says if you're lukewarm, He will vomit you outta his mouth! Yes, did you hear what I said? God hates the lukewarm!

Mackey: "So, because you are lukewarm I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Now, that could sound pretty harsh, couldn't it? I mean, depending on how one reads it. But if we put this verse in a historical context I think we'll see [and here the dialogue fades to the sonic background] that John was specifically addressing the problems of the Church at Laodicea.

Mackey reads straight from his Bible, which sounds like a close-enough-for-FOX edit of NIV/NRSV language (he drops the appositive "neither hot nor cold"). O'Connor is holding an open book and points to the page, but is orating from memory and improvising. To be up-front about this, I know little about the scriptural interpretations and religious philosophy of real life snake handlers. My understanding is that these folks would probably be King James Version devotees, and there the key word in the passage is "spew" (well "spue"). Since I only keep an NRSV and KJV in the house, I'll trust to the reliable ol' Online Parallel Bible, which assures me that lots of weirdo translations have Christ threatening to vomit. I'm unable to locate any translation that formulates the passage in the quoted manner, as instruction rather than explanation. In an interesting detail, O'Connor's book is open to a page about a third of the way in. Revelation, being the twist ending, is usually at the back of the Good Book. Among the possibilities are that O'Connor is performing, and the book is a prop more than a prompt, or that he is using some volume of eschatological literature that happens to have Revelation in the first third. This esoterica is not the point of the sequence. The point is in the style of the lectures and the language, key words still being vomit vs. spit, hot vs. lukewarm. O'Connor is preaching judgment and wrath. Both men are engaged in the act of interpretation. Though the word sets fundamentalist teeth on edge, to engage any text is to interpret it. Everyone being good postmodernists around here, I trust the concept goes down easy. Mackey's interpretation begins from a place that acknowledges human reluctance and fear, tries to assuage doubt, and aid his congregation in accepting the message. To ease into the confrontational passage he begins outlining the "historical context" of the statement to the Laodiceans (which it is). O'Connor's interpretation is that the passage is a challenge to contemporary Christians of any era (which it also is) and a blow not to be softened. True to their own slightly revised takes on the verse, Mackey explains, O'Connor instructs.

All this sets an audience up to side with Mackey, who gives community to the lost, speaks and practices non-judgement, and to mistrust O'Connor, all pop-eyes and spittle (and snakes!). The stinger, of course, is that it turns out Rev. Mackey is the Devil.

After that revelation, the parallel church services are even more interesting. Consider Mr. Mulder's late-game description of the Devil as "some kindly man that tells you what you want to hear." One of the preachers in the town of Blessing is decidedly hot, spewing barf and brimstone, while the other is easing into a lukewarm bath. But uh-oh, is "Signs and Wonders" really taking a conservative Christian point of view?

Well, yes, no and maybe.

Figuring The X-Files's internal logic as regards theological matters is thorny, and evaluating the show's attitude toward the same is even harder. We've got several Troubles here. The X-Files sends the Agents chasing after weirdness of all conceivable stripe: folktales, urban legends, creature feature monsters, Fortean weather phenomena, and, yes, any number of world religious traditions, some extinct, many very much alive. Because it is a sf/horror/fantasy story, it tends to confirm the reality of every supernatural event, talent, entity, dimension. I regurgitate the premise of the program only to reinforce that within the rules of the 1013 'Verse, not only are there confirmed space aliens and leech-men, but a half-dozen warring species of space aliens, and a few breeds of leech-men. Various episodes confirm not only that X-Files World has a God, but several entire cultures' pantheons, and the Gods and adversaries of multiple, distinct Christian denominations. Point being, it is difficult to reconcile, say, "Kaddish" with "Revelations" with "Miracle Man", to pick three early explicitly Judeo-Christian deity themed episodes.

To which I say whew!, though I hardly wish to get into sorting out all that here. Possibilities for reconciliation of data:

(1) (boring!) The X-Files is a flawed text, built piecemeal episode by episode. I have mentioned this before, but the show has a respect for continuity only when it is necessary for the current story, and otherwise jettisons information as fast as it accumulates. By way of example, "Signs and Wonders" may be a Snake of the Week episode, but two episodes ago, in "Orison", Scully shot a man (possible demon and long-time Scully adversary Donnie Pfaster) to death, lied about the circumstances, and Mulder aided in covering up the transgression. At the time, this seems to shake Scully to her foundations. Next episode she's emotionally unscathed and investigating a wacky magician bank heist. Likewise, it means that no one ever sat down and charted the X-Files Index of Deities or discussed what episodes that confirm fringe Christian theology — snake handling, for example — "mean" vis-à-vis the Navajo spirituality or personifications of Death in other episodes. This does not have to undermine any critical analysis, but it might be kept in mind while forming a reading. Rather than work on supposition, we have to stick to what is on screen.

(2) The X-Files is radically pantheistic. Perhaps not as careful at that task as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Neil Gaiman or Marvel comics, though, so I prefer explanation...

(3) The X-Files is radically agnostic. Individual episode seem to verify many belief systems, but once the rhetorical force of a given story has passed, the possibility is left open for other interpretations. e.g.— Scully may encounter a "Seraph" (actually a Cherub) in "All Souls", but all we can certify later is that... something happened. Scully thought it was an angel, and the episode seems to confirm, but certainly Something Happened.

That example brings us around to the heart of the matter, the Agents. The X-Files does so love to allow characters to discuss and monologue at length on life's meatiest topics — Faith, Truth, Society, Purpose and Et Cetera. Always pitched in grandiose Carter-ese, such dialogues are generally inconclusive, full of circular arguments, bullheaded perspectives and vagueness. The writing staff has a knack for characters with strong points of view talking past one another. The gold standard for this type of thing is Cigarette Smoking Man's conversation with Jeremiah Smith in "Talitha Cumi", an interrogation of the alien resistance fighter that reverses onto the captor. Anyhow, the soul under judgement in "Signs and Wonders" is Fox Mulder's.

For all the weight put to bear on the faith of Dana Scully, we actually know very little about her specific beliefs. She is theoretically a frequently-lapsed Catholic, and while investigating O'Connor's church, claims not to understand such extremism. But her private faith is of a fair weather variety, easily shaken when anything traumatic happens, and usually renewed by witnessing miracles and divine intervention — the sort of thing in which O'Connor specializes. Scully's spiritual flapability is a major topic from "Beyond the Sea" in the first season through I Want to Believe. She ought to understand the power of O'Connor's brand of religion, but does not. Mulder, however, gets it, and explains: "Clear-cut right and wrong, black and white, no shades of gray. You know, in a society where hard and fast rules are harder and harder to come by, I think some people would appreciate that. [...][S]omebody offering you all the answers could be a very powerful thing." That looks a little condescending in print, but there is none in Duchovny's delivery (though when trying to demystify the snake handling aspect, Mulder compares it to belief in transubstantiation, clearly to get Scully's goat). Mulder has a strong background in psychology, after all. This argument is the dark flip side to that slogan associated with Mulder's fringe science mania: I Want to Believe, indeed.

However foggy Scully's spiritual beliefs, we have some basic information. She believes in a God fairly aligned with Catholic theology and doctrine. Compared to that, we've got nothing on Mr. Mulder. Mulder's attitude toward organized religion varies from derisive to respectful, depending on the issue, and his personal relationship with the gods is an X factor. Most of the time it seems that Mulder is a foil to Scully's faith, either stubbornly agnostic or a wavering atheist, and mistrusts organized religion. So, well... what's up with that? I mean, doesn't this guy believe in everything, including skunk apes and vampires?

On the writer's room level, at the foundation of these characters, down where drama is hammered together, the concept goes that Mulder is the Believer, Scully the Skeptic. After some shading, this plays out in practice as something closer to: Mulder is obsessed and operates on intuition, and Scully is cautious and tries to uphold the scientific ideal. Up at street level, where characters walk around and breathe, these two aren't simple opposites, but compliment one another — he keeps her open-minded, she keeps him honest —, and have much in common — depleted personal lives, and mutual respect and eventual love, for starters. That Scully is a scientist and a Catholic is not a contradiction, but the kind of interesting tension that makes real people tick. Mulder believes in virtually everything supernatural except God for similar reasons. His ambivalence toward monotheism is partly because it might limit the scope of his other beliefs and provide explanations he finds too pat, but more importantly he rejects organized religion because a major part of his self-identity narrative is a romantic vision of the outcast crusader. His social circle consists of Scully, the Lone Gunmen, and a porn collection. An outcast in the FBI community, he integrates his bad reputation into his persona and first introduces himself as "The FBI's Least Wanted." Even UFO nuts have clubs and conventions, and Mulder may be an important figure to MUFON members, but he doesn't socialize with them. A loner to a fault, Mulder is as determinedly nonconformist as a G-man who wears a suit and tie every day can be. Lone wolves don't attend church picnics, end of story.

The idea of snake handling in "Signs and Wonders" and real life is, roughly, to demonstrate that the handler does not fear the Devil, and that God won't allow the destruction of the righteous by a rattlesnake. This test is involuntarily put to Agents Mulder and Scully. Mulder's test is administered by Mackey, who asks the million dollar question "are you a righteous man, Agent Mulder?" When faced with a host of phantasmagorial snakes, Mulder ends up fang-bitten, swollen and hospitalized. Now, maybe Mulder fails to pass muster because his moral rectitude is frequently questionable. Maybe because as pertains to the episode he's spent this investigation being fooled by Satan's subtle tongue and persecuting the true warrior of God (to be fair, O'Connor does break some serious laws, such as shoving Scully's face into a box of snakes). Maybe because, by New Testament Rules of Righteousness, he hasn't accepted Jesus. Maybe the test means nothing, since Mackey is the Devil. Maybe there weren't even any snakes in the room. But all we can say for sure is that Something Happened.

Nobody ever mentions it, and it happens in a flash, but when O'Connor holds Scully's head against the reptile cage, the snake does not lunge.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Satoshi Kon's Eternal Dream Parade

Satoshi Kon
1963 — 2010

When artists pass from this world, it speaks to the power of their work and demonstrates that they have infiltrated hearts and minds, if the audience hearing that sorrowful news reflexively filters it through the mental lens of that art. Which is to say:

This scene from Kon's OVA Perfect Blue (1998) was the first thought to flash through my head upon hearing of the August 24th death of the animator, director, and cartoonist. This is partly because of the literal content of the scene, in which tarnished pop star turned terrorized actress Mima has just discovered the demise of her entire aquarium of fish. But it is also because this has always struck me as a well-animated crying scene, and crying is notoriously difficult to animate. And all this because among Kon's four features as director, his first, Perfect Blue, remains my favorite. At first pass the unconventional psychothriller meditation on female identity and celebrity culture seemed joltingly Argento-esque, pro-critics tended to invoke Hitchcock and... don't forget we're talking about cartoons here. As soon as Millennium Actress (2001) appeared it was clear that what Perfect Blue is simply a Satoshi Kon film.

If there is one painful, unpronounceable word above, it is "four." Four features, one TV series, assorted animation tasks. Kon's death at 46 (nearly the same age as Whisper of the Heart director Yoshifumi Kondō) leaves us with a frustratingly small body of work. Frustrating not because it is inadequate, but because it is remarkable enough that one cannot help but want more. Every one of Kon's films is an increasingly ambitious technical and storytelling challenge. Satoshi Kon made films expansive of imagination and personal of preoccupation, pushed the boundaries of his medium and tried to break, dodge, and stand out from certain clichés, prejudices and lazy habits of the Japanese animation industry. It is that ambition to blow an audience's mind with sights they have not seen and will not forget that separates Kon's work, and, one hopes, will be the inspirational legacy of his films.

As I always feel lacking during such moments, I direct interested persons to this appreciation and 2003 interview by Brian Camp. The discussion mainly concerns Tokyo Godfathers, but manages to cover several key and under-examined aspects of Kon's films, such as the realer-than-truth documentary qualities possible in animation, and his dedication to visual depiction of Japanese characters that look Japanese.

Further reading at Midnight Eye, a pair of interviews regarding Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress and Paprika.

And so, still feeling lacking, I must allow the artist final say in these matters:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Never Knows Best

The elusive slogan glows in the dark blue night of the first episode of FLCL.

What does it mean? Or what does it mean to Mamimi who has presumably scrawled "NEVER KNOWS BEST" along the length of her cigarette, and burns the message down as she takes it into her chest? Does Never Knows Best even mean anything, in a series where the title itself is invented nonsense and the cast openly questions its definition?

Never Knows Best isn't even a proper sentence, is it?

It is instead, beyond meaning, perfect as the crowning contribution to the perfect moment. That moment is about being a disaffected 17-year-old standing in the middle of a bridge in the middle of the night, stalled halfway between noplace and notgoinganywhere. She pines for her never-seen, long gone baseball-playing ex, tries to replace the absent boyfriend with his 12-year-old brother, stray cats and strange new robot gods, and in this moment is just utterly convinced that she is lost and broken. The tobacco embers connect with and forecast Mamimi's eventual pyromania, and eventually, eventually maybe (maybe) she'll get over all this and be okay.

But in this moment there is one perfect, cryptic, bleak-sounding, moody adolescent thing to write on a rumpled cigarette.

It burns all the way down,
fire to air to water,
never knows best.

Ah! Sweet mystery of life!

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Let Them Talk! Let Them Scream!: THE PRIME TIME

Were one to construct a Sarris-on-42nd-Street style pantheon of exploitation filmmakers, it would be topped by those who created masterworks that live in museums and are protected by government agencies as national treasures, and laypeople who don't have the Sinister Cinema catalog delivered aren't aware that the movies ever played in proper fleapits and ozoners. So that's Romero, Hooper, Carpenter, Ulmer, Argento, Corman, Meyer. There would be a tier below that for geniusy craftsmen that play by the rules but slip in a lot of intentional art agenda, or deliver more goods than necessary, entertain above and beyond the call of duty, generally make something far more special than the poster art. That's your Fulci, Castle, Bartel, Sarno, Jack Hill, Larry Cohen, Rollin, Corbucci. These directors don't so much transcend the ghetto as create its definitive touchstones, exemplary examples. Then there might be Fascinating Weirdoes, and there most of us would list Milligan, Esper, Wishman, Findlays types. Can't live with 'em, can't believe what you're seeing. The bulk of the rest of the sea of candidates would be those with an identifiable style, thematic preoccupations, stable of collaborators — anything, really, that makes the filmmaker distinguishable from the house style of their producer, studio, or any anonymous journeyman or semi-competent. So: Adamson, Steckler, Mattei, Cimber, Castellari, Mikels, Bert I. Gordon, etc. forever.

Feel free to shuffle/add/remove names around until satisfied/bored/confused. This will surely become a popular party game on the order of bobbing for apples and Seven Minutes in Heaven, and lead to fistfights about what counts as an exploitation film, what nationalities should be included, and where to place Jess Franco. Now in such an imagined framework, certain of filmmakers, producers, and individual works are going to be singled out as Important Innovators. Beyond that acknowledgement the subject may or may not be examined or appreciated any further as film art. No guarantees. This happens in the above-ground world of major studio product as well, so for consideration: The Jazz Singer is something like a household name, and there is not a BFI Film Classics volume about The Jazz Singer.

Point being: Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Occasionally in this scum-glitz twilight realm, one bumps into a filmmaker who self identifies as an artist. They are rare among the carny types, jolly, cynical or both. By the accounts of their intrepid biographers, Andy Milligan and Edward Wood, Jr. are among that small number. Though they may have had few illusions about the nature and reputation of their work, these filmmakers at the bottom of the industry caste system, whatever else they may have been, understood that every picture-maker and story-teller is an artist.

Lewis has sometimes joked that his films are obviously well-made because the camera is always in focus.

Lewis' camera, of course, is not always in focus.

The hell?

Because Lewis and frequent producing partner David F. Friedman are world class showbiz raconteurs, and their landmark string of gore movies so pioneering, the films themselves are always overshadowed by their taboo-breaking legacy. The ten horror films account for less than one third of Lewis’ output (37 features), even when taking lost films into account (four known titles, supposedly upwards of dozens of shorts, loops and features). Among his horror pictures, approximately half of the very goriest titles dominate discussion of Lewis’ work. Which leaves us with an intriguing question: what is going on in the rest of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ movies?

The bulk of Lewis films are nudie cuties, a genre at which Friedman excelled. The balance of the filmography is filled out with hillbilly comedies, a biker movie, juvenile delinquent pictures, and oddball children's movies. All of these possess potential peculiar charms, but it is time to go hunting for the authorial stamp that marks them as H.G. Lewis films after the credits have vanished from the screen. Thankfully, all of Lewis' surviving work is available on home video, making it possible to evaluate his filmography beyond outstanding innovations in pulling out women's tongues.

Let’s take it from the top. Herschell Gordon Lewis' film career begins in 1959 with The Prime Time.

"Some kids grow up real slow. Me, I explode!"

Not content to hang around with her peers at Luigi's Italian Stereotype Restaurant, wild child Jean (Jo Ann LeCompte) screams at her mother, kisses Daddy goodbye and heads out into the day-for-night with clean-cut neighbor boy Tony (James Brooks). "Seventeen! I look at least twenty-two and I feel thirty!," kvetches the girl, burning with whattaya-got? rebellion (Friedman later quipped unkindly that "she was twenty-nine, and, on screen, looked forty-nine." To be fair, she's quite pretty and looks twenty-nine). The hot to trot gal is just toying with Tony's emotions for access to his wheels, and demands to borrow his convertible.

Meanwhile, Jean's nasty cop boyfriend Mack McKeen (Frank Roche) and his partner harass a pint-sized beatnik painter/ sex pervert known as "The Beard" (Ray Gronwold), who has been accused of molesting his underage models. Before leaving to make time with his own jailbait love interest, Mack extorts use of The Beard's studio as convenient location for his own romantic rendezvous. Alas, 'tis a date not to be kept. The Beard shows up to inform Jean that Mack has been called away on Police Business. Jean berates the hepcat's manhood, then commands that he paint her in the nude.

Poor Tony is bummed out about Jean's bad behavior, and mopes around Luigi's while his wacky pals spray bottles of Coke on each other. Even a late night underwear swimming party at the quarry can't cheer up Tony. His lovesick good girl friend Gloria tries to console him, but the situation worsens when Jean doesn't show up to return the car. Back at Chez Beard, the artist has gone berserk, tied up Jean, and painted her in a non-explicit pose unrelated to the way she's sitting. The wheels in motion, The Prime Time becomes a three-ring kidnapping drama as Tony and friends play teen detectives, Mack tries to throw the kids off the scent, and The Beard torments the captive Jean.

Two relationship triangles fuel the plot. The first is the questing knight/detective Tony torn between potential girlfriends, as light woman Gloria assists him in locating dark woman Jean. The second is free-spirit Jean turned object of desire and caught in the machinations of corrupt cop Mack and the crazed Beard. These figures of the Establishment and Counterculture respectively are both rotten abusers acting on self-interest, and it is great fun to watch the two creeps bicker.

The Prime of Jean: Sin, Suffer, Never Repent

Furious at the world, impatient at all times, and perpetually spitting venom, Jean is introduced posing in front of a mirror during the opening titles, and plays her first scene before another mirror. Jean is only interested in Jean, cannot see past herself, and sees others only in terms of what they can do for her or as objects of ridicule. Restless and dissatisfied, the self-absorbed girl desires constant movement and stimulation and nothing can scratch that unscratchable itch. Jean's quintessential scene may be as she waits for Mack at The Beard's studio, killing time by pacing incessantly, smoking and fuming. When she learns that her beau cannot keep the date, she is not upset because she cares about Mack, only indignant that she could be stood up, and in favor of the police chief no less! Doesn't the police force know who they're dealing with?

Sadly, the film's most compelling character is waylaid early in the story. Though we're stuck with the hopelessly square Tony for the second half, there are fun interludes with the sweaty Beard and his bitchy captive, and the trail to Jean is peppered with colorful exploitation elements. Tony's wiseass buddy Shorty beats up the owner of The Golden Goose bar where The Beard does live painting. A jumpin' rock combo plays "Teenage Tiger" (lyrics by Lewis, performed by "The Dodos"). A disreputable lady photographer tells an anecdote in flashback, in which Jean meets Mack during a dress-ripping, hair-pulling catfight. Finally, The Beard slips Jean a mickey and is about to stage her suicide and skip town, but blows himself up in a freak accident, slipping on a dropped match in his gas-filled apartment.

Beyond the rock n' roll, beatnik angle and semi-skinny dipping this is all fairly standard JD picture stuff (disregard any of several sources claiming it is any sort of nudie picture, cute or rough), but The Prime Time puts a plot development, trashy idea or weird, entertaining touch in every scene, and thus moves at a zippy pace. It may or may not be implied that The Beard sexually assaults Jean, and the film is a little more sexually charged than its contemporary cousins, but nowhere near as outrageous and seedy as Ed Wood, Jr.'s porn racket exposé The Sinister Urge of the following year, or crazy as his girl gang saga, The Violent Years (1956). Whether their morals are faux or no, wherever the finger is ultimately pointed, JD pictures are about the dangers facing a generation desperate to grow up too fast, but woefully ill-equipped to deal with their wild-for-kicks impulses. Some sophisticated entries in the cycle make social tragedies of this theme, as in Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle (both 1955), some, like the above examples from Wood, just gawk in fascination. The Prime Time is of the Wayward Girl subgenus, that is, it particularly focuses on the perils of adolescent female sexuality. Prurient and moralizing as it is, the film does not quite depict outgoing female sexuality as a destructive sin in and of itself, does not name VD, unwanted pregnancy, or ruined reputation as pitfalls, nor imply threat sexual activity is a gateway to drugs or violent crime. The danger in The Prime Time is that Jean's wonton behavior makes her bait for a society of wolves, and she is beset by controlling men who would possess and destroy her, and squares who would rescue, cleanse and change her. Jean cannot win, for the world cannot abide her as she is, nor she abide the world, and her ending has the fated feel of Lulu and Jack the Ripper's date with destiny at the end of Pandora's Box. Though Friedman recalls the movie having an "up-beat ending," it does not.

Cop vs. Beatnik: The Eternal Struggle

Directorial duties on The Prime Time were handled by Gordon Weisenborn, though the Internet Movie Database and various print sources erroneously credit Lewis as directing "as Gordon Weisenborn" (Lewis himself makes no such claim). Lewis would adopt transparent pseudonyms on future productions and coincidentally has a "Gordon" in common with the director, so it is unsurprising that direction is frequently ascribed to Lewis. The principle account of the making of The Prime Time is in David Friedman's autobiography A Youth in Babylon, which contains at least a few minor gaffes, but certainly establishes that Weisenborn was a real person. Conceding that Weisenborn was "a competent craftsman and a nice enough guy," Friedman pokes fun at Weisenborn's artistic ambition — "he thought he was making a film of great social significance" —, and rhetorically ponders why Lewis recruited Weisenborn instead of directing the picture himself. Friedman does offer the lead that Weisenborn's resumé consisted of work created under the Film Board of Canada. The National Film Board of Canada website lists two Weisenborn shorts in its archive: "When Asia Speaks" (1944, 19 m.) and "Tomorrow's Citizens" (1947, 11 m.), the first of which may be ordered on DVD.

The Academic Film Archive of North America website indicates that in the early 1950s Weisenborn worked frequently with Academy Award nominee John Barnes on projects like "Safety on the Playground", a railroad safety documentary called "Impact" and story films to accompany Dick and Jane reading primers. According to his AFANC autobio, Barnes was from Chicago, though he spent periods living and working in London, Rome and elsewhere. As Lewis was based in Chicago and The Prime Time was eventually shot in the area, it seems likely that Weisenborn had relocated to Illinois sometime after the war. The most intriguing Weisenborn/Barnes collaboration, "People Along the Mississippi" (1952, 21:39 m), is an educational short made for Encyclopedia Britannica films, and is readily viewable at A sweet and historically interesting parable of racial integration in America, "Mississippi" is more poetic and stylish than the average '50s classroom film. Weisenborn is named as a Chicago filmmaker by the Chicago Film Archives, which houses ten of his prints and an interneg (titles not listed online).

It is likely that Lewis had a strong hand in creative decisions, and Friedman owns up to having shot some pickups of the quarry swimming scene, which are frankly the worst looking, sloppiest section of the film. Comparison between the filmmakers is inevitable, but both Weisenborn and Lewis have their strengths.

This is thorny territory normally bypassed in this journal. Lewis has given enough talks and interviews to establish his preferred position on the topic of his artistry. Plainly, he presents himself as a savvy businessman, sometimes as a jovial, witty huckster, and no more; the stance being that he provides product of ample running time and audiences are sufficiently entertained so as not to request refunds. Point certainly taken, and the rough edges and semi-competence are thus chalked up to indifference and irrelevance. But that lack of attention to technique accumulates into a recognizable, peculiar style, integral to Lewis' appeal, and that is the partial cause and purpose of this exercise.

The Girl, the Bottle, and the Phone

Based on The Prime Time and his available short subjects, Weisenborn has a better grasp of traditional cinematic basics than evinced by his producers in their own directorial work, or at least more interest in and dedication to classic form. He has a strong compositional sense, frames shots and moves the camera to accommodate movement with greater accuracy. The Prime Time is not exactly dripping with style, but Weisenborn sometimes stages action on multiple planes and foregrounds important props a few times. As Jean contemplates answering a ringing phone, it looms in the fore, as do a pair of carnival prize wicker monkeys in her bedroom as Tony reminisces about the missing girl. There is not enough available work to determine what constitutes the Weisenbornian touch, but the tone throughout has a intensity of conviction that Lewis' work does not. That may not be to The Prime Time's benefit as memorable entertainment, but it makes it less weird than many pictures on its family tree.

The Beard: Adam Sorg, Take One

Weisenborn may be a more technically competent director than Lewis — even after thirty feature films — but the fingerprints of the producers are all over The Prime Time anyway. Like John Carpenter, Clint Eastwood, and Charlie Chaplin, Lewis sometimes scores his own work, and here he provides lyrics for the two slightly alien musical numbers. The plot only produces a pair of corpses, but they are created by an elaborate, unusual accident and murder, then posed in interesting tableau. The Beard is the first in Lewis' lineage of obsessed, murderous artists, which will carry through Adam Sorg of Color Me Blood Red (1965) and climax with the unforgettable Montag the Magnificent, The Wizard of Gore (1970). Delinquent behavior, the rock n' roll scene, sexually active teen girls, and the men who would exploit them are topics that Lewis would revisit in various combinations in Scum of the Earth (1963), Sin, Suffer and Repent (1965), The Girl, the Body, and the Pill (1967), Blast-Off Girls (1967), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), Alley Tramp (1968), and Just for the Hell of It (1968).

With all its historic firsts, The Prime Time has another claim to fame as Karen Black's screen debut. Indeed, in the finished product, the future Trilogy of Terror star can be glimpsed dancing at Luigi's and posing for The Beard at The Golden Goose. Friedman relates an anecdote that midway through shooting Black signed a manager and the company was paid $2,500 to destroy the nude footage of her appearance in the swimming scene. A far-fetched tale, perhaps, but the point is clear: Lewis and Friedman found a way to make money off their picture before it was even completed.