When I started blogging “regularly” a couple months ago, it was my intention to write at least a paragraph or two about every book I read. But you’ll notice my book-related output has fallen off dramatically. It’s not that I’ve stopped reading – it’s that for over a month I’ve been diligently plowing my way through Jacques Barzun’s 800-page social history, From Dawn To Decadence. I’m still only up to the mid-19th century. I did take a couple breaks to read The Catcher In The Rye and Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal; my thoughts on the latter will be incorporated, maybe, into a long-postponed essay on the Roth canon.
Meanwhile I go to the movies – not necessarily to “serious” ones. My thoughts below are organised according to no principle except that I happened to see all these flicks in the last few weeks.
The X-Files: I Want To Believe.
At the drugstore downstairs where I rent DVDs for 99 cents a pop, the woman behind the counter made a face when she saw the new X-Files movie in my hands. “I paid full price for that in the theatre,” she said. “Just be glad you’re only paying ninety-nine cents.”
I’d seen the snarky reviews and I didn’t have high hopes for this, but I was curious to see it anyway. I loved the show in its heyday, though I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention during the final season, when Scully had Mulder’s baby, Mulder went on the lam, and I can’t even remember what the hell happened to those substitute agents played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish. I never saw the final episode.
I thought it was a good sign when they announced that the new movie would be a self-contained adventure, detached from the alien colonisation conspiracy. I never cared much for the conspiracy episodes anyway. All that clunkily portentous dialogue delivered by interchangeable bad guys in rooms with the blinds closed. And the more you found out about the conspiracy, the more ridiculous it seemed. How many different types of aliens and alien-human hybrids were there anyway?
By the last few seasons I was tuning in mainly for the standalone episodes. Remember when Mulder and Scully were absorbed by a giant, hallucinogenic, subterranean fungus? How about the Groundhog Day episode where Mulder kept dying in the same bank-robbery-gone-awry? Or the episode where Robert Patrick’s character got eaten and regurgitated by a disease-curing backwoods mutant? Or the one where Annabeth Gish found herself trapped in a hospital floating in a featureless void? These were straight-up Twilight Zone concepts, and they were great – surprising, creepy, often funny, and mercifully free of ambiguously sinister conversations among men in grey suits.
The first half-hour of I Want To Believe is pretty promising. Billy Connolly as a psychic priest is leading a police search team across a frozen field. He drops to his knees and starts digging in the snow. And up comes a severed arm. This all somehow has to do with the abduction of a female FBI agent by creepy Russians. Mulder and Scully, private citizens now, are called in by the FBI to lend their expertise. There’s a foxy agent played by Amanda Peet who seems to take a shine to Mulder, despite the fact that he’s got a scruffy beard and looks like a bunker-dwelling conspiracy nut. Which, it appears, he now is.
This is all done pretty well. And if the solution to the severed arm mystery winds up being a little silly, well, the solutions to these mysteries usually are. The problem is – this isn’t a spoiler, I don’t think – Mulder and Scully are a couple now. They’re living together out in the boonies somewhere. She’s a doctor in a Catholic hospital and he’s, like I said, a bearded nut. We see them in bed together. He rolls over and nuzzles her cheek and she says, “Ooh, scratchy beard.” It all just feels wrong. Maybe if I’d paid more attention during that final season, this would seem like more of a natural development. But at the end of the movie, when our heroes share a loving kiss, it sort of made me wince, like I was watching Sherlock Holmes make out with Dr. Watson. What I mean is that this new relationship doesn’t fit with my idea of who the characters are. I always thought of the agents as loving each other but never actually, you know, loving each other.
Is it narrow-minded of me to wish that things could go back to the way they were in 1998 or so? At the end of the day, after escaping from the psychedelic fungus, our heroes should return to their separate apartments, climb into their beds alone, and prepare for the next day’s adventure. Maybe I prefer character stasis to growth for the same reason that I preferred the standalone episodes to the slowly-unfolding conspiracy. I can’t explain it.
Anyway, the snarky reviews are about right. I Want To Believe is a moderately good X-Files episode unaccountably stretched out to feature length. Seems like it would have been easier to just put in on TV as A Very Special X-Files Reunion.
When I popped in the I Want To Believe DVD, I was faced with a dilemma: did I want to watch the theatrical cut, or the extended cut with deleted scenes? This is more choice than I want to deal with, when watching what I fully expect to be a mediocre movie. I’d have no difficulty choosing the director’s cut over the theatrical version of, say, Gangs of New York, but when I’m settling down to watch something like this, or Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, there’s really no reason to assume that the longer version will be any better. Just the contrary, actually. And yet, when given the choice, I always go with the extended cut. I’d hate to think I was missing anything.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, again.
Without getting too deep into the details of the plot, the 1951 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still is about an alien visitor, Klaatu, who comes to earth to warn us to get rid of our nuclear weapons. In the 2008 version, Klaatu is here to chastise us about global warming. In both versions, we’re meant to sympathise with the alien and his mission, but instead I find myself wishing to see him, and the Galactic Overlords whom he represents, get taken down a peg.
In the original film, while Klaatu learned about humanity during the course of his visit, his outlook didn’t change; he was the same omniscient Jesus at the beginning as he was at the end. The new Klaatu has a bit more of a dramatic arc. Actually, he’s kind of pissy. He arrives in New York (rather than Washington, as in the original) because he wants to meet with the world’s leaders at the United Nations. We never find out what he was going to tell them, though, because before he can take five steps out of his glowing energy-ball spaceship he gets shot by a trigger-happy soldier. Whatever he was going to say in his big UN speech, I guess he decides to skip it, because he proceeds immediately to Plan B: wipe out all life on the planet to save it from our carbon-spewing ways.
Seems a bit excessive, right? Klaatu’s explanation makes a certain amount of sense: there are only a handful of worlds, it seems, that have the precise conditions that allow for life to develop. The Galactic Overlords can’t allow us to fuck up the planet permanently, so they’ve decided to scrub us out and let evolution start again from scratch. You’d think if they’d been watching over us all the while, they could’ve dropped by a little earlier to say, “Hey, guys, enough with the carbon, or we’ll have to kill you all.” But if Klaatu is Jesus, his Overlords are Yahweh-like in their heavy-handedness. They swing abruptly from benign neglect to crushing judgement.
The filmmakers are conscious of the Biblical overtones. Klaatu, like Jesus, has the power to heal the sick and raise the dead; and the instrument with which humanity will be destroyed is a plague of minuscule, voracious metal locusts. But the book of prophecy that The Day The Earth Stood Still most resembles is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – the early chapters, where the earth is scheduled for destruction on a bureaucratic whim. Klaatu responds to Jennifer Connelly’s pleas to save the human race with the classic evasions of a mid-level functionary: It’s out of my hands, the decision has already been made, the process has already begun. I’m not sure of the precise timeline, but it seems like Klaatu’s only here for, like, two days. Really, Overlords? This is the only opportunity we get to present our case? Whether we live or die depends on the whim of this one alien? What if instead of having that attractive Jennifer Connelly and her plucky adopted kid to show him around and introduce him to human emotions, Klaatu had wound up in the company of some racist redneck, or worse yet some misanthropic environmentalist who kept whining about how the world would be better off if humans would give up breeding and voluntarily go extinct?
I guess this is a sign of my under-evolved human intellect, but if Klaatu ever did drop by to pass judgement on humanity, I’d be strongly tempted to tell him and his Galactic Overlords to go take a flying leap. (Not coincidentally, I feel much the same way about Jesus and Yahweh.)
Stuart Gordon’s Stuck.
Someday maybe I’ll write an essay on the career of Stuart Gordon. For almost thirty years he’s been grinding out movies – mostly horror and sci-fi – that are just a little too cheap and grisly for wide theatrical release, but too well-crafted to be dismissed with all the other direct-to-video crap on the shelves. In the last couple years Gordon has made a cheap and grisly (but highly effective) version of the forgotten David Mamet play Edmond, elevated by the presence of Mamet regulars William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon; and now the cheap and grisly Stuck, with Stephen Rea.
Rea is a homeless guy who, pushing his shopping cart across the street one night, gets hit by a car. His legs shattered by the impact, Rea flies up into the windshield and winds up stuck headfirst in the shattered glass, pinned in place by the arm of the windshield wiper piercing his guts. The driver, just returned from a night of pills and boozing at a nearby nightclub, is a young nurse played by Mena Suvari. In a panic, the only-slightly-too-stupid-to-believe Suvari drives home, with Rea’s bloody face dripping onto her passenger seat and his legs waving helplessly above the hood. She parks the car in her garage, tells the semi-conscious Rea “I’m going to get help,” and heads inside to obliterate the memory with more pills, more booze, and a long screwing by her drug-dealer boyfriend. The next day, Suvari takes a cab to work, leaving Rea still stuck in the windshield, fully awake now, and with her cellphone tantalisingly just out of reach…
Gordon is never subtle – not in his blood-n-guts, not in his tits-n-ass, and not in his sociology. Suvari, with her unflattering cornrows and broad acne-spotted forehead, her pills and booze, and her desperate concern not to rock the boat at her hellish job, is the personification of lumpenproletariat vulgarity and self-absorption. Rea, meanwhile, is the Good Poor, condescended to by social workers, moved along by a cop when he tries to nap on a park bench, friendless except for a fellow bum who loans him his shopping cart. Actually, Rea is the first Stuart Gordon protagonist I can think of who is almost entirely sympathetic. Even so, when he momentarily gets the upper hand on Suvari, his cruelty flashes out.
I have no doubt that left-wing reviewers of this film will choose to interpret it as an allegory of how capitalism pits the poor against the poor. Maybe that’s what it is. But in my view, Gordon’s outlook is deeply conservative. It’s not the System that oppresses his protagonists, it’s other humans: awful, awful humans. The Gordon universe is one of unhappy people, screwed by other unhappy people, screwing back reflexively. You don’t walk out of one of his films wishing to save the world. You come out wishing that, like Klaatu, you could unleash a plague of tiny metal locusts to wipe us out and start fresh.