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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Weekly Deprogramming Schedule — #3

Masters of Horror: John McNaughton — "Haeckel's Tale" (2006, John McNaughton)

Originally earmarked for direction by Roger Corman, passed at some point to George Romero, the MoH first season finale ended up in the hands of John McNaughton. While I greatly enjoy the maniacal Wild Things, no disrespect intended, but McNaughton is not Corman or Romero. When "Haeckel's Tale" was broadcast it had been twenty years since McNaughton directed his only nominal horror film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is my sneaky way of suggesting that some of the "Masters" of Horror are not masters, or maybe not even specialists in horror, which may account for the general lack of mastery on display. This is my kind way of saying that this promising premise resulted in a generally junky program.

Point in case, "Haeckel's Tale" is based on Clive Barker material, which ought to prime an audience for hideous transgressive visions, bizarre plot inventions or at least some weird gross-out shit. What transpires is an absurdly padded out buildup to a laugh-riot punchline that maybe is/probably isn't supposed to be funny, which is that a 19th century country lady has a sex orgy with zombies. Everything is wrong here: go-nowhere reference to historical figure Ernst Haeckel, telegraphed twists, pointless sidetracks exploring God's Domain vs. science vs. Frankensteins vs. necromancy, circular conversations repeated over and over, and poor Jon Polito wearing a long gray wig. The self-negating frame story, for instance, sees an old lady telling a cautionary tale about why not to raise the dead, when the twist reveals that she gets it on with revenants all the time. In one of those special moments where nails are struck squarely on the head, a zombie dog pops out of a trunk and wriggles around in sub-par special effect fashion but our skeptical protagonist scoffs "it's some kind of crude puppetry!"

On a more important note, "Haeckel's Tale" was scored by avant-garde music heroes The Residents, whose work was then rejected and replaced. This previously unreleased material is currently available for a pittance at the group's newly mounted download store. As the Rez say, Buy or Die!

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Masters of Horror: Tobe Hooper — "The Damned Thing" (2006, Tobe Hooper)

What this amiable mess seems to have borrowed from Ambrose Bierce is a title and the image of a man killed by an invisible creature. Basically the deal here is that an unseen horror of some kind stalks Cloverdale, Texas, but is mainly after poor Sheriff Reddle, whose family was wiped out in an attack 25 years prior. "The Damned Thing" tries out and swipes a dozen different ideas, and may be amusing or effective in the moment but the whole thing just doesn't track. It's got a small community devolving into a mob of crazies (like The Crazies, sure, or "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"), a small town in denial until its sins come to roost in supernatural form (like Stephen King in It, 'Salem's Lot, Cujo, etc.-forever mode), nuclear family meltdown as psycho dads hunt the wife and kids (an extended Shining swipe), a horror passed through generations of the same family (like, er, Jaws the Revenge, maybe), and a sub-Smog Monster not-quite-environmental-parable about tampering with the mysteries of nature (SPOILER it's a giant oil monster that wants to eat the Reddle family because they built an oil rig). Sometimes the monster is invisible, sometimes not, sometimes its presence drives people to aggressive violence, sometimes not, and the story sorta makes sense but really does not.

As an addition to the Hooper legacy "The Damned Thing" is obviously minor work, less ambitious but less botched than "Dance of the Dead", and not as much fun as The Mangler. The episode's most effective sequence in terms of plain, wincing horror and oh-goddamn! surprise is of a man attacking himself in the face with a claw hammer. Clearly this Tobe Hooper has a talent for horror about the misuse of hand-held woodworking tools, and that skill ought to be channelled into something of more consequence than "The Damned Thing".

* * * * *

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987, Rod Amateau)

Every time one sits through this treasure trove of appalling images, something new will bother the edges of the mind and haunt the viewer well into slumber. Perhaps it will be gutter punk fashionista Tangerine spreading her pantyhose'd crotch in order to entice 14-year-old Dodger into allowing her to exploit his home-sewn garments (don't worry, she's fifteen, herself... or maybe do worry). Perhaps it will be the never-again-referenced title sequence that may or may not imply the Garbage Pail Kids are extraterrestrial beings. If you haven't seen The GPK Movie — or, rather, Experienced it —, it is the dingiest-looking, most unpleasant children's movie ever made and is about how the a bunch of toddling dwarfs in walleyed rubber baby masks puke, snot, fart and piss all over and help a little boy try to score with a gang leader's girlfriend by using their magical sewing skills.

Like I said, something new every time. This go-round it was a little girl sneering "Go suck a rope!" at the men from the State Home for the Ugly who have caught her in a butterfly net. The image of the pummeled Dodger doused with raw sewage by bullies is enhanced when one remembers he is covered with open wounds. A newly discovered puzzling detail: a painting from fellow fucked-up family classic Troll (1986) is prominently featured on the stairs to the antique shop basement where the GPKs are held captive. The overlapping staff between productions does not seem to include the art directors or property masters, but the films do share the same special effects crew and Charles Band's favorite thespian, Mr. Phil Fondacaro. Perhaps the Troll painting resides in the Fondacaro archives, or maybe like the Garbage Pail Kids driving off into the night on ATVs, some mysteries are like the wind.

Credit also to the lady of the house for noticing that among the cluttered set dressing a nude Cabbage Patch doll hanging by its neck in a rusty bird cage.

* * * * *

The Informers (2009, Gregor Jordan)

The Informers is set:
a) in Los Angeles, 1983.
b) in a world of people who can afford to sit around watching MTV on Eames furniture in their underwear, with some sidetracks to a fanciful vision of how not-rich people live (selling abducted children to rich people).
c) deep inside Bret Easton Ellis' stalled-out brain.
d) who cares? It's over. It doesn't matter. Like... it doesn't matter.

The fourth screen adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis is apparently the writer's least favorite — he's even gotten soft on Less Than Zero — because it "doesn't work," as he told Movieline and more helpfully lodged the complaint that "it’s not supposed to be played like an Australian soap opera" and that his own vision for the project was funnier. Not being versed in Australian soap opera, I can only say that the tone is perfectly appropriate for an Ellis adaptation, that being suitably zoned out portraits of wastoids punctuated by hysterical potboiler speeches, fights and meltdowns, and shrill moralizing throughout. To be fair, Ellis can sometimes be actually funny — my favorite moments are Patrick Bateman hallucinating a television interview with a Cheerio in American Psycho, and a possessed Furby emerging from a dog's butt in the bonkers Lunar Park. He usually settles for Warholian jokes funnier to talk about than to experience, such as endless lists of characters' designer consumables, celebrity names, sex acts and drugs.

All four Ellis adaptations offer valid, committed takes on the material, all emphasize and capture different aspects, but all are sincerely Ellis-ian. The Informers specifically nails Ellis' cold, sheeny prose, affectless characters, leaden, portentous symbolism in every prop, backdrop and air-sucking line of choked dialogue. Gregor Jordan's film is mostly shot in that too-bright gray of overcast L.A. and his chilly liquid camera moves like it's been resting in an ice bath. Lots of shots of people staring off and thinking/not thinking.

The Informers retains the book's interconnected short story structure but cuts between story threads, in the tapestry narrative tradition of Nashville and Short Cuts, rather than the anthology tradition of Fantasia or Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Also unlike any of those movies, the hoard of characters are all creepy disaffected idiots and nothing particularly happens in any of their stories. For example the rock singer for the titular band, The Informers, sits around a hotel, ingests substances, cuts his hand, sexes underage groupies, doesn't sign a movie deal, makes a phone call and finally punches a groupie. While magnolia is built of a dozen small stories packed with incident, intricate overlap and convergence, and Crash (2004) has a certain thematic unity and its interwoven sprawl is part of its purpose, The Informers is glued together with persistent drone, its characters largely linked because everyone is passing around the HIV virus, and its theme that everyone is an amoral shitbag trapped in stasis. I'm gonna go ahead and say I think it is surprising and questionable that a gay man who lived through the era would write a satire about the early '80s in which one of the blackly comic jokes is that the whole cast is spreading AIDS to each other, then complain that he wanted the movie to be more "light-hearted." Or it would be surprising if the same guy hadn't written a book with a severed head on a boner, then complained that critics missed the satire.

The magnetic cast gives all kinds of alienated, glassy-eyed and ridiculous, and there are some killer scenes built around very fun performances. Mickey Rourke abducts a child in broad daylight by scooping the boy up and chucking him in a van, and it looks like documentary footage of what Mickey Rourke happened to be doing on his way to set. Billy Bob Thornton as a sociopathic movie studio head corners his mistress, Winona Ryder, in the Spago ladies room. She keeps trying to break up with him and he just smiles calmly and doesn't listen, and she bugs her eyes out, sputters and just can't fuckin' believe his gall. Another diverting Ryder scene sees the nicotine-fitting news anchor harassed by a sniggering rock band during lunch at Canter's deli; it's a sharp and specific confrontation as privileged L.A. square culture and snotty hipsterdom look each other up and down. Stealing the whole mess is Chris Isaak, looking very much like Kurt Russell and playing a terminally dorky dad trying to bond with his bratty, resentful son on a Hawaiian vacation. Again, nothing really happens in any of these stories and that's sort of the point, so in a way these amusing performances are working against the spirit of the material.

If you have read the novel, be warned that all the vampire parts have been removed which makes the film less silly and entertaining. If you have not read the novel, unlike the movie, it has vampires in it, which makes the book stupider but less vague about why kidnapping victims are being sold to Hollywood creepos. Jury is out on whether it is weirder to adapt a vampire book and cut out the vampires, or that vampires could be inserted or removed from a story with no appreciable damage.

* * * * *

Project Runway — "A Rough Day on the Runway" (Season 8, Episode 8; Lifetime)

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was many things, but "fashion risk taker" is not one of them. A style icon, sure, but in my humble, wearing Dior is not risky. And that's fine, because fashion inspirations from Audrey Hepburn to Tim Gunn may be timeless and memorable without any particular edge. But contestants, advisors and judges alike seem confused by exactly what Jackie's style consisted of, what it meant, and the idea of this week's nebulously-worded challenge. See, T-Gunn stands in front of a big collage of Jackie snapshots and tells the kids that he is "honored" to be in the presence of... 40 year old photographs? Yes. Then explains that Jackie is to be their muse for this challenge.

There are lots of ways to interpret this, but I would have/did assume it meant something like "draw inspiration from and update a classic Jackie look of your choice." The designers largely seem to think this means "what would Jackie wear in 2010?" But, er, no, because she'd be 81, people. She would have Casanova make her clothes. The real point of all this is that they want the designers to make American sportswear with some kind — any kind — of '60s inspiration. To reinforce this, January Jones of the Adventures of the Mad Men teleprogramme is in attendance as a charisma-free Stylish Actress guest judge. See, slight retro-styling and mid-century references are the rage right now due partly to that very AMC show, which is why there are posters about it in Banana Republic windows as we speak. ANYWAY, nobody picks up the hints except Mondo and Michael Drummond. In the end one is de vinna uf dis challench and one is gone, daddy, gone.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that Mondo Guerra knows his 20th Century fashion miscellanea rather well, as when asked why he is wearing eyeliner, suspenders with tiny shorts and knee socks he says his look was "inspired by The Cotton Club." Which, 1) holy shit, dude, and 2) oh, right on. Point is, young master Guerra's major reference points already seem to be '80s Trapper Keeper covers and '60s sportswear fashion, and he knows how Jackie Kennedy dressed. When the judges coo that he was somehow able maintain his own design identity in the winning ensemble, well, uh, no doy. He'd seen Jackie wear bold colored suits and houndstooth (presidential campaign, check the books!), and seen her casual and in striped tees post-Camelot, split the difference and tossed on Jackie O sunglasses like a goddamn maraschino cherry.

Every other designer just didn't listen or didn't get it or sucks, maybe? No hats, no bold, bright colors, no A-frame dresses, no long gloves, no immaculate styling. And maybe fine, there's not time to make a Kennedy-style suit, but there's time to properly sew an Onassis-style yachting outfit.

Gretchen is not called out on obsessively making the same camel colored Jedi robes that sank her team in the group challenge, but there are more important matters to attend to. Namely, Andy South not only doesn't listen to the "Jackie Kennedy Onassis" part but ignores the "sportswear" tip and disregards "properly tailoring any and every piece." Popular sport-making aside, these are not proper harem pants, but... eh, close enough that with the sorry little vest, Mr. South's model appeared to be costumed as Toad from Super Mario Bros. The judges laugh openly at this clothing which has been custom made for colorful derisive metaphor, but the most tragical, sad thing is that Andy was essentially dressing his model like himself.

Now, whatever else one wants to say about Michael Drummond's lazy-ass bag top and skirt consisting of nothing but pleats, it ought to be pointed out that he made a perfect little wool jacket that was the very picture of vintage Jackie Kennedy. He is made to be Out, possibly because of all the deep V neck T-shirt wearers, his are the deepest and, therefore, grossest. Goodbye, Mike D. You are still my second favorite Beastie Boy!

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.